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Super Villain Dating Tips - Or How Steve Won Over Tony Through The Art of Kidnapping

Chapter Text

The Future really hadn’t really lived up to Steve’s vague expectations since the World’s Fair back before… before everything really. In fact it had started out as a nightmare which had rapidly became worse. Some things were cool and mind-blowing, but the overreaching isolation and underlying fear of each day tainted any wonder he could feel over the technical and social advancements. Video phones, handheld computers and the amazing size and scope of the internet, what use was any of that to a lost, grieving soldier?

From the moment he’d woken up, he’d known that something was wrong. With a faint chill in his bones he’d rolled into consciousness slowly, inch by inch. His ears had picked up low voices, getting louder as his brain caught up and by the time his eyes were ready to open, he’d realised that the voices were actually shouting, panic and shock ringing out around him. His whole body had felt stiff and cold, limbs heavy and, he’d realised with a faraway sense of panic, tied down. For a long time after, he’d wished that he’d just stayed asleep. Quickly the scientists had uncuffed him and propped him up, more equipment being wheeled in and out as one man with round glasses and a greying beard had addressed him, attempting to keep him calm amongst all of the activity and tension in the air. He’d been disorientated and terrified, mind screaming at him to escape that he was in danger, but his muscles were so weak, his senses sluggish and his brain unable to properly process anything beyond the blinding lights and loud, panicked voices around him. It took what seemed like years but must have been just hours, but finally the world realigned.

Over the course of the day, the scientists and agents had excitedly explained their vision. They wanted to further Dr Erskine’s great work; they saw a brilliant future of peace and prosperity for their great country and the world. They were overjoyed to have found him and were honoured to have his help with decoding the secret to the serum. Maybe Steve would have been more agreeable if he hadn’t woken up to find that they hadn’t waited to see if he would regain consciousness, hadn’t waited for permission; he’d woken up to needles and tubes and god knows what sticking into him, siphoning away blood and other samples to be studied and tested and replicated. They’d tied him down, meaning that they’d entertained the possibility that he’d wake; it wasn’t possible to claim otherwise, not that he ever asked them. Feeling numb, the reality of his situation, of the world he’d woken up in couldn’t sink in and it was only apathetically that he’d considered his new status as a priceless resource and walking blood bank.

Weeks passed and he spent the majority of his time being escorted between Medical, the gym and his room. The tests they’d performed seemed straight forward, mostly gauging the extent of the serum’s capabilities. As Steve had slowly overcome the shock, his brain had started analysing his situation and eventually his emotions started creeping back: at first it was mostly a kind of feeling of claustrophobia. He was trapped in cement boxes and steel corridors, penned in by white-coated and black uniformed jailers who diplomatically evaded his questions with empty promises and echoing platitudes. I’ll find out for you. Get started on this and I’ll get back to you. I’m not sure sir, drink this and I’ll see what I can do. I’m afraid that information is classified. I’m sorry, that’s not my area. We’ll look into that when we can. Sorry, apologies, concentrate on this, sorry, hold still, thiswon’thurtsirsirsirdon’tdothatanswermeANSWERME!

Anger to near rage followed but he fought hard to keep it hidden. He was surrounded by enemies, outnumbered and outgunned; they knew the situation outside of the underground bunker, they were well connected and heavily funded. It was him against a powerful organisation that, even though he was sure was American, certainly wasn’t anything he remembered before going under. Steve, though equipped with super strength, agility and speed and also years of combat experience and basic espionage experience, was near helpless in the face of this unknown opponent. He needed to be smart, he needed to be calm. Even if he did grow to trust them and believe them to be justified, he couldn’t afford to give them any more firepower against him. Although he’d always been good-natured and reasonable, he’d had a fiery temper when riled, injustice and bullies usually the cause. It had been through the War that he’d learned techniques for remaining calm and cool-headed whilst witnessing or even thinking about the terrible atrocities they’d witnessed. As a commander responsible for the safety and lives of his men, self-control had been paramount and through advice from Colonel Phillips and some of his men, he’d managed to be the best Captain he could have been. Now he couldn’t glance at the expressions of the Commandos to gauge how they were coping to help him calm his own anger, he couldn’t find Bucky and put a hand on his shoulder to see the warmth in those eyes, reassuring him that he had back-up and a million reasons to carry on. Now, he was completely alone in a sea of poorly hidden threats and he only had painful memories and the vague hope of freedom to pull him through.

Looking back on those torturous weeks, he often wondered how he had managed to keep sane with all his fear and sorrow and caged anger packed tightly away under his skin. The bland, tasteless food he was given to eat alone, the hard mattress in his grey room, the blank faces of the guards and almost manic glee in those of the scientists, they all pressed down on him, compressing his chest and ribs; he dreamt of his asthma attacks returning and the scientists nodding in interest, peeling apart his skin to examine his lungs directly and make notes. No matter where he went, he’d always felt eyes examining and evaluating him like a specimen in a jar. Thinking about it, it wasn’t so bizarre, as he supposed that he technically was a scientific experiment, the only successful product of the Super Soldier Serum; at the time he hadn’t thought to ask about the implied failures but they probably wouldn’t have told him anyway, he had had to find out on his own. The more his assigned psychiatrist had told him to remain calm and trust the team with his best interests, the more he’d become suspicious of everything and everyone around him. He knew they were watching, analysing and diagnosing him, trying to see best how to manipulate him into…who was he kidding? They didn’t even care about being subtle at all, they were just taking. He knew they saw him as nothing more than a tool to be weaponised, something which he couldn’t allow to happen, no matter the century. But then again, maybe that was the right thing, after all everyone had to play a role in society for it to function and he didn’t know a lot about this world, how could he properly judge their attitude towards him if he didn’t know how things worked now? Maybe this was the best way to utilise, well, him. His blood, his body… Maybe this was all that he amounted to anymore. Even without knowing much about who was still alive from his time, it had been 70 years, anyone still left would hardly be in a position to fight for him. Even if it wasn’t really as far into the future as they’d claimed, even if that had been a cruel lie, he couldn’t deny that he was alone in this. It was his decision in the end. Late at night thoughts of Dr Erskine flashed in his head against his will and he realised that this was as far from the scientist’s vision as possible. How could he choose this?

It had been a hard, lonely decision until he’d met General Ross. Afterwards, he couldn’t think why anyone had thought that would be a good idea but then again, in his opinion the whole lot of them were insane. Steve hadn’t been a stranger to men who abused their position for personal gain and glory or, in the General’s case obsession, but as soon as the General had explained the ‘Hulk situation’, though perhaps ‘explain’ is too generous a term, the Captain had known instantly that he couldn’t allow this man anywhere near his blood. No way. It had been difficult to bite his tongue during the ‘conversation’, the urge to wring the man’s neck for the atrocious things he was saying about another human being had been strong and only the knowledge that the General wouldn’t hesitate to implicate the same inhumane tactics to reign him in if he showed his disgust and reluctance kept him in line. Thank God for the USO shows and his perfect fake grin. Back in his tiny room, lying down on his stiff bed, he’d made up his mind. He’d take his chances in the outside world, he’d find the answers he needed on his own and for perhaps the first time in his life, fight for himself.

The question in his head then had been how to do it. He’d noticed that they hadn’t let him keep any sharp objects – he had been given those funny little disposable razors and spectacularly blunt knives with his meals – and he didn’t have to be told what those black objects with blinking red lights in the corner of the ceilings were. He’d spent a few hours late one night worrying that they could somehow read his mind but then in the light of day – the artificial light of day, there were no windows on the base – he’d realised that it was logical to be cautious of the emotional state of someone in his position. He wouldn’t do it anyway, not yet, only as a last resort; no matter how much his heart felt like it was pumping pieces of glass or how heavy and sluggish his whole body became, he refused to waste this gift – however unwanted. He had a second chance at life and even though a lot of the time it felt like a nightmare, he could at least acknowledge his survival for the

miracle it was. He’d spent a lot of time thinking over his options, planning, trying to push away memories of his past lifetime to address the immediate situation, intending to mourn properly at a later date.

He’d begun to surreptitiously map out the base in his head, thanking the high heavens for his photographic memory and the amount of time spent walking between the three places he was allowed in. According to Bucky and the Howling Commandos Steve couldn’t lie or be stealthy for anything, but just because the majority of their missions had ended in explosions didn’t mean he couldn’t be subtle or sneaky, especially after observing the masters at work. He memorised door codes by seeing them from the corner of his eye, used his enhanced hearing to work out the guard rotations and overhear important information muttered from the other side of a door. After biding his time, weighing up the realistic chances of each plan he came up with and rejecting or adapting them accordingly, he asked for a few books to keep him entertained during his free time, pickpocketed a lighter from one of the guards, waited for his opportunity and escaped into a whole new world.

Before Steve had escaped the military base they’d stashed him in, he’d gathered as much data as he could from carelessly left open files and overheard conversations and stolen one of those flat computer things on his way out with which he’d managed to access a number of files before they’d remotely disabled it. On the run in a world he hardly recognised, his learning curve had been near vertical, the amount of encounters he’d escaped from was high, his luck astounding even for him. His theories as to his continued freedom ranged from his limited espionage training and experience being better than he remembered to the general incompetence of his pursuers and having committed the Hulk files to memory, the latter conclusion made the most sense. Finally, after months of honing his skills and firming up his proficiency at navigating this new world undetected, he felt safe enough to pursue for his original goal. Sitting staring at the walls of his cell he’d concentrated the majority of his plans on escaping with little idea of what he’d do if he gained his freedom. But there had been one clear idea in his head: to find and help Dr Banner. Steve hadn’t known how to feel about the man, the failed experiment in the military’s eyes, but he had recognised a need to confront Banner, partly to hear the other side to the story but also he felt a strange affinity to the man – they’d both been judged and quantified by the military as to their worth as products, as living incubators for their precious serum. Plus, if Steve could find one ally in all this, Bruce Banner is the only name he had that wasn’t trying to pin him down in a lab like a butterfly so he figured that would be the person to start with.  

He’d memorised the stats on Banner and his last known position, analysing his movements and previous encounters with the mutual enemy, he made a rough estimation of where the doctor could be hiding now. After a lot of long months adapting to the familiar yet alien cities he passed through, he developed a new understanding of the scientist’s movements and behaviour, the paranoia and primal fear of discovery twisting every face on the street into a pursuer and every shadow a threat. If possible, he felt even more alone and depressed than he had at the lab, every interaction he was forced to make with another human being felt dangerous and he hated how his status as a fugitive made him think about other people. He was certain that it was in fact America he was in, home but different. In some ways he didn’t want to think about the place he was hiding in as his home, every daydream he’d had during the war of settling back down in his beloved country now seemed tainted and wrong when put next to this Hell. In a grungy motel somewhere in Guerrero, Mexico, he gathered all his data on Dr Banner on the bed to come to a decision about where he thought he’d find the doctor and even if he should go looking in the first place.

The question of the Hulk… Steve had watched a quick clip of the Hulk in action and in his honest opinion, it had resembled a furious toddler or threatened animal more than anything. Steve’s dislike of bullies seemed to be well-documented as General Ross had mentioned the Hulk being something akin to a serious threat to the general public, a monster to be taken down. Steve had only met a few monsters in his time but enough to know the difference. Bullies were usually venting their insecurities, fear and anger out on those weaker than themselves for a misplaced sense of entitlement and power, often as scared as their victims but monsters, they spread hatred and caused pain for their own fulfilment, gain and pleasure, often crazed and removed from reality. The Hulk wasn’t a monster and Dr Banner definitely didn’t seem to be a bully; the doctor’s past decisions aside, Steve knew both sides of the alter ego to be victims of the same cold, calculating thinking he’d suffered under. Also, Steve really needed some allies, even if they weren’t perhaps the most reliable or…stable, he knew he wouldn’t last long without at least one friend in this alien world.

You won’t be alone.

Pushing that fragment of a voice he’d barely heard over the rushing air and creaking metal around him to the back of his mind again, he breathed in deeply. He’d never truly been alone, not really, Bucky a near constant and even without him he’d had friends and allies in the neighbourhood he grew up in as well as his unit and the SSR. Now with no one to watch his six or even anyone to talk to, he was getting dangerously depressed. If not for the growing hatred for General Ross, sympathy for the man he was seeking and survival instinct constantly telling him to keep moving, he probably would have fallen into a paralysing despair. The outcome of such a condition he couldn’t afford to linger on. Now, he just had to do this.

It took him four months, but finally after scrounging for contacts, gathering favours and keeping one eye open at all times, he’d found the lead he needed.

It was late at night, a few hours after midnight in a cluttered district of Trujillo, a large seaside town in Peru, heart pounding, Steve crept and flipped his way onto the roof of an apartment building. Double-checking no one was around, he lowered himself onto the windowsill of what he was almost certain was Dr Banner’s room and slowly pried open the old wooden shutters, slipping through the open window. He landed lightly in the darkened room a crouch and an object hurled through the air at his head, he caught it – an empty beer bottle – and started urgently.  

“Wait, wait! I’m not here to hurt you guys I promise.” The shadowed figure stilled but didn’t relax a muscle, piercing eyes locked on his frame, the tension in the room a palpable force pressing against their skin. Wishing for some light in the room so he could gauge the scientist’s expression, Steve went on, voice firm and steady.  “I’m not with them, you know that this isn’t their style.” He didn’t dare move closer though he really wanted to, eyes fixed on the man across the room. He also wanted to point out that – if his theory was correct – the doctor could sense other people’s presences, either through smell or sound so he could tell that there was no troop of soldiers closing in; but then again he didn’t want the fellow fugitive to focus on the thought of reinforces so simply said. “It’s just me here, and I’m unarmed.” That, he had spent a long time considering, whilst he felt unforgivably vulnerable without a weapon, even a non-lethal one, he knew rationally that he couldn’t even consider defending himself against the Hulk with anything so it was worth going without to try gaining Banner’s trust. He knew vaguely that he may be killed, hell, if the doctor doesn’t calm down soon he will be killed, but then, what did he have to lose? In the end, this was one chance to find meaning here, maybe there’d be another way but, well, anyway… Suddenly a dim light was flicked on with a moment’s adjustment Steve could see Dr Banner clearly.

He looked tired. Tired and worn down, like Steve was sure he looked. The doctor was on the other side of the sparse apartment, hand poised over the handle of the front door; he was dressed in functional if shabby clothes, face gaunt and sleep-denied, eyes sharp and searching the intruder’s form, evaluating the threat, finding the truth or lie in Steve’s words. Steve was wearing a cap low over his face in case he’d encountered any cameras on his journey to the apartment, he definitely didn’t want to bring the military down on a man he was trying to befriend and also wanted a flimsy defence against- against what he wasn’t exactly sure but after another long moment, he could tell that he wasn’t convincing either of them so he forced down a sigh. “I suppose you’re good at keeping secrets.” It wasn’t quite a firm statement but the benefit of earning the tense scientist’s trust outweighed the risk of recapture. As slowly and non-threateningly as he could, Steve slipped off his cap, looked the man straight in the eye and waited for a reaction. There wasn’t instant recognition and Steve wasn’t sure whether to be a little affronted or massively relieved. Keen eyes analysed him but after a while it was clear that no concrete conclusion was being drawn so, in for a penny…

“My name is Captain Steve Rogers of the SSR and Howling Commandos, Codename Captain America-” A small sound – disbelief or something else? – from the scientist made him hesitate but without a coherent reply he went on steadily, “I served during the War and was recently…re-introduced into the world.” There was a long stretch of silence through which Steve could almost hear the cogs whirring in the scientist’s head. Or maybe it wasn’t cogs anymore, maybe it was the electronic-y stuff you get in computers. The tension between them didn’t relent exactly, but rather morphed into something different, definite curiosity was fighting through the paranoia. After an excruciatingly long pause Banner finally spoke.

“So they sent the original after me? Is that what you want me to believe?” His voice was different to how Steve had expected, not in a way the ex-soldier could describe but, perhaps tougher? He supposed that being on the run for so long had hardened the mild-mannered doctor he’d pictured from descriptions in the files. He shrugged, his heart racing with adrenaline and fear but his mind too numb to listen to the hind brain’s screams.

“There is no ‘they’. At least, no ‘they’ that I answer to.” He’d tried to keep his voice steady and calm but some bitterness had crept in making it hard, his mouth twisting involuntarily for a moment. Gulping he re-focused on the current situation and heard the unasked question, answering truthfully. “I’m alone in this world Dr Banner, I can’t trust anyone.” A cold smirk answered him.

“Come now, you don’t expect to be able to trust me of all people would you?” Trying to reach out without moving, the weary Captain replied.

“The honest answer is I don’t know. I know hardly anything about this place Dr Banner, only how to hide in it.” That caught the Doctor’s attention, Steve could see a gleam of recognition in those hard eyes. It hadn’t been calculated, but thinking on it he realised that his fellow experiment must feel lonely and hunted too, working to survive and remain hidden. He pressed on cautiously. “I was hoping for some…help, actually.” For the record, Steve Rogers was terrible at admitting defeat or asking for help, it felt like a weakness even if it meant his survival; over the years of the War he’d become better on relying on other people and delegating but as a young boy if he hadn’t had his mother and then Bucky, his stubbornness and misplaced pride may have killed him. Ironically, once he’d received the Serum and become more than capable of succeeding on his own, he’d learnt to share his burdens – well, some of them anyway. There was a shorter pause this time before the Doctor enquired – not fully relaxed or trusting but his curiosity gaining ground.

“So, why now? I mean, it’s been what, seventy years since the War? Why break free now and track me down, how can I help you Captain? If it is indeed not another mission for them.” Well, the Captain couldn’t say that he hadn’t been expecting this question. Allowing himself to relax – it seemed like question time would allow him temporary reprieve from being ripped to pieces – he ran a hand through his unwashed hair and said simply.

“There was ice involved, and suspended animation…laboratories,” he blew out a frustrated breath and added darkly, “General Ross.” Feeling the familiar bile associated with those memories bubble in his stomach, he concluded quickly. “Basically, I went to sleep in 1945 and woke up 10 months ago in a military research facility in Arizona.” It was obvious that he hadn’t been believed, even though he didn’t think Dr Banner felt threatened at the moment, he definitely didn’t look like he was going to take Steve seriously but the doctor surprised him, snorting softly.

“Well I suppose stranger things have happened.” No matter how he’d hoped, Steve knew that realistically there was no way he’d make any more headway that night.

“You got paper and a pen?” Dr Banner frowned, still poised to escape through the front door and opened his mouth to respond before the Captain interrupted him. “No, wait, I do, I remember now.” Reaching into his pant pocket, he pulled out a flyer for a gymnastics class he’d used to jot down the doctor’s address and found the pen he’d used, quickly writing down the number of the cell he’d been given in Arizona in return for…a favour. “Call me if you need, I don’t know, help or something.” Holding it out in front of him for the doctor to take, he made sure to get and hold eye contact, one set of exhausted eyes to another. When it became obvious that Dr Banner wouldn’t come over and take it, he left it on the small desk and turned to leave the way he’d come.

“You guys.” The doctor said suddenly, making Steve pause, his hand on the window frame. “Earlier, you said ‘you guys’. What did you mean?” Turning fully, he answered a little sheepishly.

“I’m not sure how,” he made a vague hand gesture at Banner, “works,” the wary pair of eyes narrowed slightly but the rest of the face stayed neutral, “but I know you’re not the only one I needed to convince.” He would have stopped making a fool of himself there but felt like the doctor was still interested and as long as he could hold his attention without damaging his chances for an alliance, he figured that was a good thing. “There are two sides to every coin, perhaps yours is just more obvious.”

“You’re saying the H-…the Other Guy is just, a manifestation of my subconscious?” The Captain shrugged before his eyes went unfocused, reaching into his memories, memories he’d tried to suppress in this century.

“Before-” he swallowed against a sudden lump in his throat, “the night before Operation Rebirth Dr Erskine told me how he understood the main effects of the serum.” Throat tight, Steve viciously pushed down the companying emotions to the story, focusing on making himself understood, of relaying the hopes and wishes of one of the only people who’d believed in Steve Rogers, not just Captain America. “He said it amplifies what’s already there, both in terms of the body but also the mind. For Schmidt, it turned his greed and lust for power into madness; bad became worse. For me,” oh God how his chest ached, “he hoped it would enable me to protect those who needed it, hoped I’d never forget the value of strength.” It was strange, Steve suddenly realised, this dangerous stranger was the first person he’d shared his mentor’s wise words with. There was more silence but again Steve sensed that he wasn’t being dismissed, he was eventually rewarded for his patience.

“That’s all well and good Captain, but what does that,” Dr Banner struggled for the word, “philosophy mean for me?”

“I’m probably not the best person to ask, but I think the serum enhanced a…divide within you?” No offense flickered in those razor sharp eyes so he blundered on. “A split between your rational, intellectual mind and…” A sardonic smile and bitter glint of eyes answered him.

“If you say ‘inner child’ I won’t save you!” Ignoring his now elevated heartbeat, Steve didn’t even try to gauge the seriousness of that threat and went on.

“Your instinct maybe? Fears? I don’t know, you tell me!” For a long, long moment they held each other’s gaze, a small breeze barely penetrating the room through the open window. The night was quiet around them and all too surely Steve felt his many days and nights of restless wondering and running and worrying catch up with him. He needed to wrap this up before he collapsed on the doctor’s floor. “Look, the real reason I came to you was to judge for myself.”

“Judge what?”

“You know what. General Ross paid me a visit on the base, tried explaining why they needed my help in perfecting the serum, how it’s gone wrong in the past but all I could hear was a madman obsessed with, well, with the Hulk. He thinks the serum created a monster in the Hulk – whilst somehow being convinced that it could be made to work – but I’ve seen what the real evil it creates, and I can tell you now Dr Banner, the Hulk is not the new Red Skull. From the footage I’ve seen…he just looks scared and angry. Not malicious and scheming.” An ugly expression twisted on the pale face in front of him.

“He’s killed people. I’ve-” The Captain’s voice was strong and certain as he interrupted.

“So have I Dr Banner. The only difference is I killed the people I was ordered to, it’s still murder, ‘greater good or no’.” Head cocked, the doctor seemed to push down his earlier self-hatred to re-evaluate the intruder.

“You really don’t seem like I imagined.” Did that mean he was coming round to accepting Steve’s story? At this point, with the room beginning to swim, the old Captain went for flippancy.

“More apple pies and talk about the American Way?”

“Well, yeah, if I’m honest.” Steve embraced the slight awkwardness that followed, it was far better than the threat of total annihilation and he didn’t have the energy spare to mind that much.

“Look, I have to go, but,” he looked up, straight into Dr Banner’s eyes, throwing as much sincerity his way as he could manage, “you have my number.” Lips twitching, the doctor responded, suddenly amused.

“Apparently I do.” Satisfied that there was some hope in an allegiance, Steve turned back to the window, calling softly over his shoulder.

“Goodnight Dr Banner.” The reply was immediate.

“Goodnight Captain.” Steve dropped out of the window and into the night, leaving behind a bemused, tense and very confused doctor behind him.

Chapter Text

Having never attempted to live as a fugitive back in the 1930s, Steve couldn’t say whether it had been easier to do it then; but it did seem that with the invention of the Internet and digitalized record-keeping, staying anonymous and unseen was harder. It wasn’t impossible, however, something for which Steve was ever thankful. You just had to learn the tricks: which spots were likely to be unmonitored, whose palms you could grease and how to get by without papers or an ID. There had been a number of close calls; the hairs on the back of his neck standing up forcing him to collect what he could and flee. Sometimes it was the sound of heavy boots pounding the sidewalk, sometimes it was a solitary man or woman in a suit in a crowded street that forced Steve to calm his breathing and surreptitiously scan for escape routes. Other times there was no conscious reason Steve could attribute to the screaming instinctual urge to flee, he’d just pack and run, trying to steady his hands and his heart. After the first few months, even a war-hardened Steve had occasionally glanced up heavenward and raised an eyebrow. He knew that miracles did happen, but rarely ever to someone he knew and certainly never to him. He’d often thought bitterly that the rare good things in his life had ultimately turned sour or painful. Bucky, the Serum, serving his country, Peggy, Bucky, BuckyBuck.

Then he’d force himself to stop thinking for a while. Struggling to survive each day as it came turned out to be good for something at least.

After almost two years on the run, barely scraping by in terms of basic necessities like food and shelter and the will to go on, Steve had managed to set himself up back in New York. It wasn’t the same city he’d grown up in, but some streets and buildings were familiar enough to hold him there, the crush of busy people garnered a feeling of something like safety – even if Steve wasn’t naïve enough to actually believe he was ever completely safe. But enough time had passed since he’d felt any kind of tail on him that he decided to disappear somewhere permanently. Whilst on the run he’d gotten a feel for what the country was like now, but he needed to stop and rest in order to properly sort out his long-term goals and how to achieve them. Maybe he could even find time to mourn. Thanks to some dodgy deals he wished he didn’t have to have made, he re-acquired a legal identity: Dirk Solomon, Derek to his American friends, a 29 year old third-generation German immigrant from Queens and self-employed artist. It was being about as contrary to what Ross thought he knew about him without changing much of his appearance, just tidying up his beard for the picture. Settling down in a battered but relatively clean apartment, finally, he could let it out. Everything he’d been tightly suppressing under the constant fear of discovery and hunger and hopelessness came rushing out of him in painful gasps and sobs. He couldn’t stop it if he’d wanted to, just managing to lock all the windows and doors before crumpling to the floor under the weight of his despair and pain. It consumed him totally.

Looking back, he wasn’t sure how many hours or possibly days he had lost through the grief. All he remembered was waking up to sunlight piercing the thin shades, ravenously hungry and feeling weak and dizzy. Wolfing down some stale bread and gulping warm water, he’d known that he hadn’t exorcised all of the tangled emotions still swirling deep inside him. But maybe he had eased the pressure somewhat.

Then, turning to the one thing that he had left of himself, Steve started drawing again. At first they were just small sketches here and there on bits of scrap paper in between the odd jobs he could rustle up. But then after seeing an ad for an art studio looking for contributions for an upcoming amateur show, Steve had scraped together his pitiful funds to buy some supplies and create a few dark, intense pieces that were immensely cathartic. It had admittedly been a risk entering his new identity into any kind of spotlight – but he reasoned that for one, the Military was hardly going to be monitoring the contributors to small New York art studio’s and that for another, if he didn’t do something relatively normal and comforting he was going to lose his mind. So when his pieces – sent through the mail – had been accepted, he’d reluctantly met with the curator, donning some small, round glasses that reminded him of Dr Erskine’s and trimming his beard so it was less ‘hobo’ and more ‘starving artist’. As he’d learnt from a fast-talking grafter under a bus shelter in Philadelphia, the more people remember something about you that you can ditch in a hurry, the less they remember about the things more difficult to change. For example: wearing an American flag on your chest means people remember the costume and the values it represents, whereas the man under the cowl is less easy to recall. The glasses, a cane he’d fished from a dumpster and a cap on his head made most people walking past him on the street mistake him for a man twice his age…or maybe exactly his age, whether you include the Ice Years. Of course for longer encounters disguises become harder to maintain without raising suspicion, so he’d settled on just the glasses and hunching a little to make himself look shy and less confident if not less physically imposing.

The curator was a nice, nearing-the-end-of-middle-age woman, very passionate and knowledgeable about Art, but also what his mother would have described as ‘away with the fairies’, which was perfect for Steve’s purposes. She gushed over his works, spouting a lot of technical language that Steve had half-forgotten in the long years since his time in art school, but she didn’t seem to be overly suspicious of his affected awkwardness and lack of recent cultural knowledge. On finishing her analysis and praise of his work, she insisted that he employ an agent to help promote him.

“I have just the woman for the job, dear. She’ll change your professional life forever, I practically guarantee it!” The Agent she recommended was Harriet Chapman, a no-nonsense businesswoman, fiercely intelligent and infinitely more shrewd and discerning than the hapless curator. Steve had been worried about keeping up the charade with her, but deciding the risk would be worth a steady income he haltingly explained about his ‘anxiety disorder’, hoping she wasn’t more knowledgeable about psychology than Wikipedia was.  Thankfully Harriet took him at face value, or perhaps was willing to deal with a little extra challenge due to his talent, Steve could hope anyway, and they came to an arrangement for almost entirely digital contact. They agreed to correspond through emails and texts only, as well as keeping his identity a secret from buyers. Harriet was the only way to reliably contact him and so she vetted all buyers and offers to present his work as well as all invitations to other artist’s showings, which he always declined. Eventually, they decided on the pseudonym ‘Brooklyn’. At Harriet’s recommendation he specialised in retro landscapes, particularly of New York City. This was fine with Steve as he found drawing people harder with the ghosts of his old friends still circling in the back of his mind. However, revisiting old places he used to know was less painful and even cathartic in a way, sketching and painting his old life before all of the recent insanity was soothing, like painting an old familiar dream. It was slow going at first, but Harriet worked her magic and was as life-changing as the curator had described. Within weeks of signing the contract, Steve had received multiple offers for his works in the amateur show and it only took less than a year for a noticeable and steady income to generate. It wasn’t quite how he’d imagined breaking into the Art world, but then again he’d never really spent much time imagining what he’d previously thought of as a pipe dream, so, he couldn’t complain.

When he was comfortable financially, Steve’s thoughts turned to his long term plans. It would take time to properly map and build a strong move against General Ross and his division, as protected as they were. Steve needed time and resources, he needed to research and gather information on their facilities, their personnel and their activities. It wouldn’t be easy and it might take years to bring to fruition but it was what he had to do.  

It was a long time since their meeting when Dr Banner finally contacted him but contact him he did and they arranged passwords and phrases for secure future communication. Although the doctor didn’t share any details about his current whereabouts or activities, he did give him possible links to Ross’ division to investigate, basically doing the leg-work that he couldn’t from out of the country. Steve didn’t blame him for being reluctant to re-enter the country, seeing as the military and secret organisations were actively hunting him. They hadn’t released any details to the public, but neither Steve nor Dr Banner would rule that out as a possible future tactic. As incompetent as Steve estimated Ross and his team, he seriously doubted even they would try and start a public manhunt for a man who looked suspiciously like Captain America, even if not everyone would instantly make the connection, someone would eventually. Steve agreed to use Dr Banner’s moniker ‘Mr Green’ and had decided on his own codename: Nomad. It seemed fitting as he was so far from home, feeling lost and rudderless even with his bolthole and purpose. The two didn’t have much to share with each other in the beginning, but Steve was confident that together they would stand a better chance at taking Ross down.

In the meantime, he needed to get out of his studio and feel useful. After slowing down and establishing a home and job, he had time to take in the world around him and begin to appreciate both the similarities and differences to his own time. Technology and economic growth had greatly improved the quality of life for many people, his old neighbourhood had been mostly gentrified, the eclectic mix of cultures sadly absent. But he found if he moved around the city he could find pieces of old New York everywhere, sometimes hard to see, at others right there in flashing lights. The people too, they had changed. Now everyone was so busy, being busy with work was nothing new, but social interactions had changed. At first, Steve had thought that no one talked anymore, quieter streets and apartment hallways no longer seeing people stop to chat, everyone too buried in their portable technology to even notice familiar faces. But then after he had bought a second hand laptop and worked out how to use it, the internet opened his eyes to the human interaction no longer present on the streets, at least present in the same way. Here was where friends caught up and shared news, thoughts and feelings – sometimes a little too much in Steve’s opinion.

Despite their new fancy technologies, Steve could tell that fundamentally, people themselves hadn’t changed. Sure the language and dress codes were strange, but there was still the mix of the helpful and the selfish, the law-abiding and the criminals. Having grown up in Brooklyn near to the docks, Steve was no stranger to the desperate crimes Poverty necessitated or the cruelness of human nature that drove people to hurt each other. He decided that he couldn’t just stand by and let innocent people get hurt no matter the century and he spent a long time considering whether to assume the identity Captain America or not. On the one hand, it would be reassuring to slip into the familiar colours, they were something he could strongly identify with and was comfortable commanding. On the other, it’d make the whole point of hiding redundant as even General Ross wouldn’t stupid enough to write it off as a coincidence. So another alter ego was needed. He didn’t waste any time contemplating his image or persona; he didn’t want to be a symbol of anything anymore, still lost in a cold, confusing world. In essence, all he needed was a disguise. He dressed in the most battle-worthy black clothes he could find, covered his face and reluctantly decided not to use a kind of shield. His own was still kept hostage somewhere and even if he could have found a usable replacement, it wouldn’t have been the same. In the end, it was the press that ended up naming him.

 

 Phantom Cat burglar nabs priceless heirloom

 

The Phantom strikes again!

 

For the record, that heirloom had been stolen from the original owners, Steve’s employers had proof and everything. After he had hunted down some bank robbers and returned the stolen money and jewellery to the bank, his clients had contacted him by passing word through the streets that they required a professional burglar. Somehow almost without him realising it, Steve had gone from stopping petty crimes to retrieving stolen artefacts. It was all the same to him essentially, he didn’t like bullies, whether they were criminals on the street intimidating others or rich corporations exerting control over the working class. Though it was typical of the press to misread his actions and label him a criminal, Steve would sometimes smile slyly at a damning heading; after the copious amounts of Captain America propaganda it was certainly refreshing. Steve wasn’t exactly sure when he’d branched out from taking down the military installation which had imprisoned him and hunted him still, to retrieve stolen items, but somehow it had happened. He was in this century for the long haul and he still needed to be able to sleep at night. Bringing down Ross could be described as an act of justice and public protection, but a not too small part of Steve called it revenge. The Steve Rogers of the 1940s wouldn’t have allowed his negative emotions to impact on his strategy but that Steve Rogers had a crack team of war-hardened soldiers, good men who respected him enough to point out when he was wrong, as well as a no-nonsense best friend, with him through thick and thin. That Steve Rogers died 70 years ago. The friendless, desperate and raging man who had clawed his way out of a secure research facility and into a strange and unforgiving land, that was what remained of Captain Rogers: Captain America. Try as he might to recreate the passion and love for his country and her beliefs, it felt false when on the run from the Military he had served gladly, and it felt hopeless without those brilliant people who left aching holes in his soul with their absence. So he struggled on, fighting and planning and trying to help people as much as he could and still remain hidden, and if he found himself feverishly carving charcoal figures into canvas in the middle of the night as the echoes of nightmares rang in his ears, well, that was just his life now.

 …

Stalking down the corridors at the SHIELD HQ in New York, Agent Natasha Romanov tried to get her thoughts in order. Only 15 hours into her downtime after returning from a mission she had received a summons from Fury and as she had already gone through her debrief, there was only one topic he would want to discuss with her. But why he would need to escaped her.

She had been undercover in General Ross’ questionable Research Division when the discovery had been made and her mission objective changed. Previously, she had been tasked with merely monitoring the Division’s actions and possible future plans. Having learnt from past mistakes, the Division weren’t taking any chances so they were only testing the serum on a theoretical level, not even experimenting with animals. They were mostly trying to reverse engineer Banner’s version of the serum and work out how it was different from Erskine’s. She knew that General Ross was petitioning to be given access to the remaining Captain America DNA material in SHIELD’s possession and failing on all fronts. Ever suspicious and untrusting, Fury had sent her in to monitor the Division’s progress and be on watch for a possible attempt to steal the DNA. With the introduction of Subject Alpha, however, Widow immediately contacted her handler with the update, querying her next move. Agent Sitwell had responded to continue as normal, staying clear from the subject to avoid rousing suspicion but to gather as much information about him and his origin as possible. Even with her catalogue of soft skills and the general incompetency of Ross’ division, it was a challenge. Although news of the test subject was rife throughout the test facility, only a core group of scientists were cleared to interact with him, some 7 scientists out of the resident 40. Widow gathered intel on the group and the guards stationed to guard the subject, learning which was the most likely to unknowingly leak information on their new project as well as surreptitiously hacking into the database for unprotected data. Before approaching any of the marks directly, she eavesdropped on hushed or careless conversations between the guards. With the help from a security camera scrambler and her silent speed, she exploited the monotonous nature of their job making most of them incurable gossipers. From the bits and pieces she managed to gather, she could confirm with confidence that the subject had been transported to the facility from the Port of Houston, he possessed a successful version of Erskine’s serum and was at the facility unwillingly. Romanov had been poised to initiate the second phase of her information gathering when the subject had pulled the rug from under everyone’s feet with his escape – which had left the Black Widow annoyed but begrudgingly impressed.

After she had extracted herself from the Division and debriefed with Sitwell and Fury, that had seemingly been the end of it. She hadn’t been tasked with following up the Subject’s escape but instead had been assigned to a completely unrelated mission after downtime. So unless Fury wanted to discuss something unknown with her… As she entered the Director’s office, she took in the man himself looking through files, the ever present frown on his face a little deeper than usual. He glanced up as she came in.

“Romanov, take a seat.” She nodded in greeting and sat down, looking at the files he handed over. She was familiar with all of them apart from one: Captain Rogers, Designation: Captain America, Status: MIA. Dampening the urge to raise an eyebrow, she scanned the document quickly. Whilst she had become familiar with the Captain America legend throughout her acclimatisation period after being recruited by SHIELD, Natasha had never connected the picture of Subject Alpha which she had downloaded from encrypted files to the image of the Captain, obvious as she looked at the black-and-white photograph. Even with plausible evidence in front of her, it still seemed highly improbable. Letting her eyebrow express her incredulation, Fury huffed.

“Sitwell tracked the shipment back to Northwestern Passages of Canada, not far from the probable crash site.” He paused, probably biting back a sigh. “In this business I’ve learnt to consider every possibility no matter how implausible.” Aware that SHIELD dealt with weirder things than she usually encountered on her missions, Natasha deferred to Fury’s assessment of the situation.

“Identity aside, thanks to the bugs you left at Ross’ division, we know that they have not been successful in retrieving the subject.” He handed her another file, this time that of Dr Bruce Banner. She had been briefed about him when assisting the observation team re-track him after they had lost him in a skirmish. “While we don’t know for sure, it’s likely that he and Dr Banner met about 10 months ago. The surveillance team on Dr Banner didn’t report any unusual activity but the facial recognition technology picked up his presence about a mile away from Banner’s bolt-hole.” Widow glanced at the photo and raised her eyebrow as Fury huffed. “Yeah, I didn’t think so either. If they are in contact, we have to assume that they are cooperating at least. It doesn’t matter that we haven’t a firm location on the Subject if we have a way of contacting him.” The Subject’s file had a possible location in New York City so Natasha assumed Fury had a team on him as well. “If I can play it right, I think I can gain the cooperation of one of the scientists in the Division.” She assumed he would pretend to assist on them tracking him down, whilst having no intention of handing him over if they did actually manage it.

“Who else is on this case?” A sharp, intelligent eye lingered on her for a moment before replying.

“Just you and me. Though Sitwell knows some of it, obviously.” Natasha was a little surprised at that, no monitoring team? Also Clint had informed her of his handler’s near-obsession with Captain America, and besides that he was a strong, competent strategist, always knowing how to reach out to people. Though she hid her surprise Fury’s eye narrowed anyway, as if sensing it. The moment passed and he went on. “We’ll approach the Subject when the time is right.”

Coulson’s going to go crazy when he finds out-

“And before you get started about bringing Coulson on board with this-” Fury interrupted the Agent’s inner monologue with a practised ease and steel tone, “he’s a bit busy now in New Mexico, I need him there.” Natasha did not mention that in his capacity of head of mutant and superhuman monitoring that he would probably come across the possible Captain America’s file and put two and two together, but by Fury’s expression and usual MO, she suspected that he had likely factored that in to his plans. Or maybe Sitwell would crack and tell him. “In the meantime, this is strictly need to know. I’ll keep you up to date if anything changes.” Nodding at the implied dismissal, the Agent stood up and left the room. Musing over the case and the Director’s choice to give her data without a set mission, Natasha started the route to her SHIELD approved apartment. Her opinion on the validity of the Subject’s possible identity was not particularly valuable as she did not have the expertise to determine the likelihood unlike Coulson did – her experience in the Red Room notwithstanding. However, she did possess a fair amount of knowledge about how Fury ran his organisation, especially in terms of imparting information. Her relation to the case had been cursory and by chance until the meeting, when he had seemingly given her sensitive information for no apparent advantage. Whilst her clearance level was high, that did not mean all Agents of a certain clearance level were automatically told everything they were trusted to know.

No, Fury had told her for a purpose. He mentioned approaching the Subject, possibly referring to the Avengers programme she officially didn’t know about – Coulson should really stop trusting Clint to keep things from her. She knew that her analysis of Stark had struck his name off the call sheet and Clint had mentioned that Banner might be on the recruitment list. If this Subject did turn out to be the fabled American hero, then Fury would definitely be interested in recruiting him for the project. Eventually she concluded that Fury intended to send her in to try and convince him and that the meeting had been his way of advising her to start scheming to entice him in – in his own, paranoid Fury way, not even trusting the integrity of his own office. Bringing back Captain America’s file in her mind’s eye, she considered multiple angles: understanding and sympathetic? The temptress and seductress? Or simply the possessor of information he sorely needed? As she pulled into her building’s car park, she smiled a little, hoping that she could see the look on Coulson’s face when he found out.

Chapter Text

MrGreen: I have a potential job for you.

Nomad20: All ears.

MrGreen: Meet at the usual place.

Nomad20: Give me three days.

                 The ‘job’ as it were, was a standard snatch-and-grab. Bruce’s contacts had shown him information that a small-time criminal gang had acquired some of Bruce’s original notes leading up to The Experiment, probably stolen from one of Ross’ labs. Although no one knew what the exact plans for such information were, probably to sell them on, he knew that he had to steal it back. The more of that stuff in immoral hands, the higher the likelihood was that someone would successfully replicate the serum, or that it would be purposefully unsuccessful. Taking down a small gang on his own, even with the Hulk, would have been incredibly risky but luckily for them both they had a new friend. Sort of. Bruce still wasn’t quite sure what to make of his newest contact and ally. Since that tense night in Peru, he had received regular updates on new information about Ross’ operations. Despite being incredibly wary of this suspiciously undemanding fellow fugitive – if he even was what he claimed – Bruce couldn’t help but feel more hopeful and positive after their every exchange. Someone was helping him unconditionally, albeit for a common goal, but it was still a novel feeling. Even before The Experiment, help like that had been rare if not unheard of. But here was this man, this delusional or deceitful man, trying to help him. Familiar with offers that were too good to be true, Bruce should have immediately rejected ‘Steve’, with his crazy story and dangerous grace. But…there was something inherently trustworthy about him. Bruce had felt it as an undercurrent during that tense encounter. It was hard to put into words, it had been almost a smell, a warm, solid smell that had emanated from that man. Since he’d been on the run, the scientist had learned to trust his instincts: gut feelings had saved him from capture many a time. Maybe it was his ‘Other Side’ coming through as ‘Steve’ had hypothesised, or maybe he’d become distrustful of his own intellect. His past arrogance and pride had cost him dearly. It also helped that his new ally was always up-beat in the face of their mutual frustration with the seeming impossibility that was derailing Ross’ projects. It was why he took the second risk of asking ‘Steve’ – as the man consistently insisted he call him – to help him with this job.

Steve surprised himself with how happy he felt at Dr Banner’s invitation. He didn’t usually get a response from the scientist, usually a few terse words here and there to indicate that he’d received Steve’s information. But here he was approaching a previously agreed rendezvous point – that had taken many months of wheedling on his part – where Dr Banner would actively ask for his help. Well, perhaps it wasn’t such a surprise that Steve was happy at receiving a little human contact. Though he did interact with people from time to time, it was never as himself. He was always on guard to remember his cover story and respond differently to how he would normally, it was exhausting to pretend to understand modern references and not reference things before his perceived age bracket. The average 21st Century man in his late twenties would not know about Mae West's films. But his interactions with Dr Banner, even as untrusting as the scientist was, it was refreshingly straightforward and even comfortable.

Cautiously entering the abandoned warehouse, quickly checking the exits and scanning for threats, Steve immediately spotted the doctor sitting at a rusty table but continued with his visual sweep before approaching. Although he made himself more vulnerable to the other fugitive, Steve wasn’t foolish and was always hyper aware of letting his guard down too much. Dr Banner didn’t rise to greet him or offer a hand to shake so Steve let niceties go and nodded for him to begin explaining the job. As the scientist talked, he did a quick assessment: the tiredness was still etched into the doctor’s features but he was definitely less tense than last time they’d met in person. The very fact that he’d been contacted suggested that he had a seed of trust from the good doctor and Steve was determined to keep it, grow it if he could. Dr Banner indicated to some floor plans on the table which Steve looked over. Once the situation had been explained to him, he turned his tactical mind to the challenge, occasionally asking for more detailed information before coming up with a rough plan of how he’d infiltrate and retrieve the USB. Bruce looked up and stated firmly.

“No, I’m going with you,” he smirked a little, the expression suited his face more than exhaustion, “or more accurately you’re coming with me.”

“I don’t think...” Steve trailed off, hesitating before ignoring the doctor’s growing frown and continuing unhaltingly. “You shouldn’t come, I should go alone.”

“Why? And don’t say ‘you’d slow me down’ or ‘give us away’, because I have been doing this a lot longer than you have.” A flash of amusement played in Steve’s eyes but his expression remained neutral and absolute.

“I don’t doubt your skills Dr Banner, it’s just that there’s no sense in both of us being at risk of– ” Bruce narrowed his eyes and interrupted bitingly.

“If anything I should be the one going alone, I actually know what I’m looking for!” Crossing his arms and raising an eyebrow his companion huffed.

“If you’d just describe it in a way I’d understand…”

“We’re both going and that’s final!” This time Steve did laugh a little, making his way to his weapons stash. It helped to keep secreted weapons in each location he frequented as he usually had to travel light.

“Can’t argue with Doctor’s orders can I?”

The next evening found the pair crouched down, hidden in undergrowth, watching a low-level security compound in the Mexican side of the Chihuahuan desert. As Bruce had managed to ascertain, the gang had hired the space under a legitimate company’s name. They usually dealt in unusual weaponry but Bruce supposed that in the right hands, the information on the USB definitely counted as a weapon. It was roughly five minutes from sunset, just before the change of the casual watch which consisted of two guards, one at the front gate and one along the back fence. The group had practically stumbled on the data drive which, judging from their lax security, apparently meant they’d assumed that no one would realise that they had it. Either that or they were very arrogant, or very stupid. Bruce felt Steve tap on his shoulder and knew that it was time to move. They crept closer to the one of the unobserved sides of the fence, obsessively scanning the mostly deserted courtyard for any movement. His contacts had estimated the gang’s manpower at about a dozen but even one set of eyes could make the job incredibly difficult from the get go. Their whole plan relied on stealth as Bruce wasn’t exactly great at combat, at least not at combat which left buildings intact.

Steve cut through the fence quickly and efficiently as Bruce covered him before stepping into the compound and ran silently up to a side door. Listening and peering in, he signalled for Bruce to follow. Taking one deep breath in, Bruce leapt up and, trying to will his heartbeat steady, drew up beside Steve. They slipped into the building.  

In the end it was their exit which got them in hot water. After successfully navigating the dimly lit corridors and snatching the drive from a sub-par safe, a youngish man coming out of the restroom had spotted them as they’d been creeping back out of the side door. Though Steve had swiftly taken him down, he couldn’t stop the wild gunshot as the gang member had tried to shoot them which drew every member to their position. Fleeing through the gap in the fence and into the bushes whilst dodging bullets, Steve and Bruce had raced to where they’d left Steve’s bike. They’d hidden it off the dirt track leading to the compound but as they sped to the main road some of the gang members caught their trail and followed in their SUV. Immensely thankful for Steve’s excellent evasion tactics and the sparseness of gunfire aiming at them, Bruce clung on tightly. They made it to the nearest town and then Steve started swerving even more sharply into side roads and through short cuts. He had thoroughly investigated the town before in case of this eventuality, another point in his favour on Bruce’s mental pro and con list.

All through the chase Brue had been struggling to keep calm but when they had a near-miss collision with a civilian’s car he felt a familiar roar inside him and struggled as it rose up his throat, trying to force its way free. Half-choking Bruce pushed it down desperately, trusting Steve unconditionally in that moment, knowing without a doubt that he would lead them to safety. Hearts pounding and breaths short they drove on, ears straining to keep track of their pursuers over the bike’s roar. Sensing that their tail had finally passed them, Steve pulled into an alley and turned to Bruce, breath catching as he realised how panicked his friend was. Oh, God.

“Bruce, calm, calm down,” trying to control his own wavering voice Steve pushed on “listen to me. Concentrate on what I’m saying. You’re safe now.” It wasn’t working, he could tell not so much from sight but from a pulsing in the air, rage rolling off those quaking shoulders in waves. He turned off the bike, standing it up and dismounting, Bruce stumbling off it as well, his expression agonised. Desperate now, Steve cried out. “Hulk! It’s okay, you’re both safe now. I promise.” The pair looked up at that, glowing green eyes angry but questioning, breath still rapid. Resisting the urge to place a hand on a heaving shoulder, Steve repeated soothingly. “You’re safe, you’re both safe now.” There was a long, tense pause. Finally, his companion nodded jerkily. Sighing with relief, Steve knew that it wasn’t just Bruce who’d understood. They crouched in the alleyway for a long time, the sounds of the city creeping into their hearing as they both calmed. Still breathing heavily, Bruce leant off his knees and tried to smile.

“Wow, the power of friendship, huh?”

“I wasn’t kidding when I said I was alone in this world, Bruce.” The use of his first name instead of the honorific made Bruce’s stomach twist strangely. Gulping he nodded, managing a small twitch of lips and feeling better when his attempt was returning in full, a tired but warm smile from his…well, his friend. “Besides,” Steve continued, “Hulk isn’t so unreasonable, he's like a protective brother.” Bruce huffed a laugh.

“Careful, I just might start to believe you.” They shared another few moments of humour before Steve got up to double checking the coast was clear and Bruce retrieved his rucksack from the bike. He secured the USB in an inner pocket and refused a lift to the bus station. He’d be fine. Though the offer was nice. Shaking hands, the pair exchanged a knowing nod and disappeared into their opposite directions.

Some days, Steve couldn’t work out who was more insane, General Ross or the people who didn’t immediately dishonourably discharge him when they heard his ‘brilliant’ ideas. Every snatch of news he could gather from his contacts just added to the bizarre surreality of the situation. It made Steve even more ashamed of the US military than he’d been when he’d discovered the ‘new form of war’ that was happening now-a-days. Although in recent years the General was more involved in secret branches of the Military and other governmental departments so at least he was kept away from affecting important conflicts – for now. Steve felt sick at the thought of any of his twisted experiments being considered worthwhile to unleash on a large scale. Either way, it was probably time he stop being bitter about the whole thing. He was working slowly but surely on his plan to take the General down, though even on his good days he sometimes doubted its effectiveness, whilst also keeping an eye on his activity in case he needed to step in suddenly to do some damage control. His chances of success had dramatically increased after gaining Dr Banner’s trust and help, but still, there was a long way to go. The ‘plan’ mainly consisted of data gathering, collecting evidence of Ross’ crimes against humanity, anything that would – if delivered to the right hands – result in the dissolving of the General’s Unit and his suspension from the Military. It was slow going to say the least.  

To stay off the military’s radar Steve had had to avoid official channels, taking jobs that didn’t ask for ID – shadier than he’d like but not too testing on his morals – mainly protecting shady characters from even worse people and retrieving items from high security locations. Though he’d never steal weapons of any kind, just valuable things from people who had probably stolen them from others in the first place. He had tried to keep as neutral and unmemorable as possible in the criminal underworld; having lived in the same neighbourhood as mafias back in his own time, he knew how to remain alive and off their radar. Though of course it was slightly different now that he was deemed ‘useful’ and ‘potentially dangerous’ as opposed to ‘useless’ and therefore ‘beyond notice’. Once his painting had become lucrative enough, he’d been able to drop the immoral jobs – something which lifted a huge weight from his chest – and so the only interaction he had with criminals was fending them off innocent civilians.

Although he had been able to stop stealing for criminals, he’d discovered some of the original owners of the artefacts and jewellery he’d taken and when he could find the time he’d stolen the things back and returned them to the rightful owners. It felt like penance for his earlier crimes. He was very careful about not being seen by person or security camera. The frequency he decided to take a job on wasn’t very high, he researched every offer and most of them were plain theft jobs, things he could now afford not to be interested in. Even with his painting and catburglaring, he found he still had a lot of free time. Although he devoted a big portion of it to coming up with plans to bring Ross and his rotten Division down with him, there was still time for another extracurricular activity. He patrolled in the worst areas near where he lived, taking down lone petty criminals – vandals, muggers, rapists – but he was careful to keep his identity concealed. Rather than wear his ‘Phantom’ get-up on these jaunts, he changed his wardrobe, wore dark beanie hats to cover up his hair and generally remained as unremarkable as possible. On a typical night, he’d wonder out from his apartment, change jackets in an alley and patrol the streets as stealthily as he could. If he encountered a crime being committed, he evaluated the urgency, usually only interfering if someone was in immediate danger, before arranging his entrance to appear as if he’d innocently walked onto the scene. Then, depending on the situation, he’d either lead the perpetrators away from the scene and take them out one by one, or simply proceed to take them all down at once, minding any cameras or witnesses as he did it. When they were all subdued he or the victim called the Police and whilst checking on them, Steve always made sure to remain as detached as possible, slipping away before the cops showed – he couldn’t, after all, provide a statement and go on record. There wasn’t much he could do to keep the victim from relaying the story and describing him but when there wasn’t a civilian involved, he relied on the shame of the criminals being beaten by one man to keep from the story being retold.

He made a lot of effort to stay unseen, perhaps more so here than with his illegal activities – emerging as a criminal was one thing, but being seen doing ‘heroic’ deeds would feel too much like tempting Fate, just asking for Ross’ lackeys to piece it together and come for him. It was ironic he supposed, but it wouldn’t do to linger. Best just keep on moving – like Bruce. That method had seemed to have work for him so far. So the Phantom occasionally made headlines, but the civilian vigilante in Brooklyn and Queens never did – he was only a rumour, a fear lingering among the petty criminals and a whisper of hope that rustled through the vulnerable. Though he had to grit his teeth and leave the drug runners and gangsters alone. Steve had grown up during and after the Prohibition, he knew all about gang warfare and how intricate but explosive those relationships were. If he interfered, even with good intentions, he could spark a gang war and many people, members and civilians, could die. He did, however, make anonymous calls to the police station with tips, hoping that they knew more about the situation and had a better idea of how to deal with it. But it still grated, knowing there was so little he could do about the suffering and poverty all around him. Well, maybe not as Phantom or a random do-gooding stranger… An anonymous artist on the other hand, could, if he became well-known and respected enough, make some significant donations to the corresponding charities.

Once he had a comfortable amount of money, Steve invested in a second apartment. He’d been garnering more interest as his artist alter-ego and needed a place for contracts and things to be sent. It was in a nice, but not particularly rich part of the city, not too far from his first apartment to be annoying to get to but still far enough to avoid the two locations from being linked together. Hopefully. Though not actively happy, Steve found himself feeling relatively safe and content, trying to enjoy the little things like painting, real coffee and protecting people as much as he could.

At times he almost laughed at himself, aware of the mundane way in which he met his salvation: there were no ‘signs’ or angel song. In the end, it was a text from Bruce with a photograph, time and place that changed everything.

Chapter Text

“Oh you’re awake! Here, you look famished!” Well, there were worse ways to wake up. Way worse. Tony groaned and blinked again, trying to understand what was happening. He was laying down on a lumpy couch looking at someone’s pants, the pants had a nice voice, deep but not hard; he sat up carefully and then he was staring down at a tray full of what seemed to be a cooked breakfast, being placed on his lap by…oh yeah! The bastard who’d kidnapped him. He didn’t speak, just stared between the tray and the super villain who’d…cooked him breakfast? Were those pancakes? “It’s not poisoned.” The masked man spoke again, the slightest bit of hurt creeping into his tone.

“Er, well excuse me, I haven’t had the best experience with kidnappers.” His ‘kidnapper’ visibly winced at the term, which was impressive since he was still wearing his face mask, though he’d changed into more casual clothes (still all black, just sweats and a T-shirt instead of his previous ninja get up). He had really nice biceps, Tony noticed randomly. Okay, not randomly.

“Yeah, sorry about that. Had to get away from all the…” He formed guns with his fingers before waving his hand in a ‘you know’ gesture, his stance hunched in a little, giving off major awkward vibes. Still groggy from being knocked out and completely thrown off by the apology from the villain that had clocked him one in the first place, Tony blinked several times and as his kidnapper fumbled for words, he quickly scanned his surroundings. It looked like a normal apartment more than a…dungeon or cave or something. Open plan kitchen and living room, brightly painted walls, some paintings hanging up, nice furnishings, no crazy torture devices or larger shark tanks. It was almost disappointing. All the hysterical and fatalistic speculation in the press about this guy, The Phantom they’d named him, was woefully off the mark. Snarky comments about the ‘lair’ bubbled up to his tongue but he pushed them down for now, more important things to get out of the way first.

“Ok, but that doesn’t explain why you just didn’t dump me in a ditch or river or something when you’d gotten away instead of…this!” Sometimes Tony completely understood why Pepper would get frustrated at his complete lack of self-preservation instinct, not a lot, but sometimes. Also, he was totally going to agree with Pepper the next time she insisted on micro-chipping him. The Phantom froze, he appeared taken aback.

“I wouldn’t do that!” His voice suddenly sounded a lot younger than previously, he seemed to have been shocked into his real identity, even underneath his mask. “Besides, you looked underfed so I thought I’d…I mean didn’t mean to hit you so hard, I jus-” He cut himself off, obviously more than a little embarrassed and how is this Tony’s life that he gets snatched by a villain who decides he wants to look after him so cooks him an apology breakfast?

“Right…” He stretched out the word, looking down again at the tray, warm against his knees. Now that food was right in front of him, he was very hungry, so who was he to turn his nose up? Seemingly satisfied that he was eating, the Phantom relaxed a little and scurried off a little way away to the kitchen, cleaning up. Tony ate ravenously, finishing everything, even the little pieces of fruit on the side of the plate. It wasn’t until he’d lent back on the couch, full and a bit drowsy that he realised that he wasn’t restrained in anyway. Looking around again, he saw multiple exits, even an open window for goodness sake, and the blinds weren’t even drawn! Didn’t this guy know anything about hostage situations? He’d even given Tony a relatively sharp knife to cut his pancakes with! He was obviously a beginner. Tony was half-tempted to give him some tips but stopped himself just in time. Maybe aside from being as fast and untrackable as a ghost, he had the ability to get people to bow to his will, hypnotised by his disarming charm… or maybe he was just a secret dork? Tony automatically reached for his phone but found it missing. Frowning, he checked every pocket and looked around the surfaces of the apartment, well, maybe this guy wasn’t a total amateur, just really confident? Anyway, it didn’t matter because JARVIS was tracking his position as he sat there-

Then he remembered that he’d dropped it in the shootout. Damn! Managing to keep his cursing internal, he looked around some more, keeping an eye on the position of his kidnapper as he scanned the room more thorough. One of the paintings caught his eye. He hadn’t seen this particular one before, but he recognised the style. Pepper had bought one from the same artist recently, going on about the soft lines, warmth and love poured into every stroke of the landscape which included Stark Tower in the distance. This painting was of a view of the Empire State Building and it gave Tony the same feeling of warmth.

“Ok, so you can’t be all that evil if you have a Brooklyn.” He commented as the Phantom came over; he stopped as if startled by his comment. He glanced at the painting that Tony had pointed at distractedly before turning back, sounding mildly interested as he asked.

“Oh, you know him?” Tony nodded, wondering if this would become useful, possibly life-saving information; every super villain has their soft spots… Well…some anyway.

“Yeah Pep got one for the collection. Er, I think it was called: ‘Sunset on Saint Catherine’s’?”

“Saint Claire’s,” his kidnapper corrected him in a way that implied that it was automatic, “you have a big collection?”

“Eh, dunno, maybe? Pepper handles that kind of stuff, I just pay for it. Well not really, she just bills them to…” Tony suddenly became aware of his expensive suit and flashy watch as well as his missing wallet – not that there was actual money in it, just his cards and some scribblings on napkins or scraps of paper – and suddenly realised the real reason he had been kept hold of. Almost disappointed at this predictability, he bit out.

“Stark Industries does not negotiate with terrorists, kidnappers or ghosts who make excellent pancakes.” The mask didn’t allow for a lot of expression, but the confusion was infused in the villain’s body.

“Sorry?” Wow, this guys was really clueless…hey! Correlating all the data he’d collected on this guy so far and running it with his reaction, Tony felt his mouth fall open a little.

“Woah, wait a second. You don’t know who I am?” There was a small pause.

“No, sorry, should I?” Tony didn’t answer immediately, genuinely stunned that this so-called villain didn’t…didn’t even know who he was!  He grappled with the concept for a full two minutes before the ‘super villain’ went on hesitantly. “I mean, when I saw you…I…it’s just that you reminded me of…never mind.” Ignoring the little near-revelation, Tony couldn’t contain his disbelief.

“You literally accidentally kidnapped me and decided to feed me?” The Phantom nodded and Tony tried not to burst out laughing, he didn’t want to look crazy. Swallowing his mirth down, he softened his shoulders, quirked his eyebrows and changed tack. “So…if you’re not ransoming me, what is it that you’re looking for stud?”

“N-nothing! I-I don’t w- don’t want anything, I was just…concerned.” Half amused, half worried that this guy would go all ‘Misery’ on him, Tony decided that he was going to listen to the tiny Pepper voice yelling at him in his head and get out of there. Putting the tray on the coach he stood up carefully, trying not to startle the black-clad wanna-be ninja.

“So as nice as this is, I should-” He motioned to the door and for a tense few seconds the Phantom didn’t respond, just looking at him. Maybe, the mask hid his eyes so it was hard to tell exactly where he was looking. Then he just started as if startled and nodded.

“Right. Erm. Wait a minute. I just…” He trailed off as he shuffled over to the kitchen table and retrieved something. Weighing up staying to see what his parting gift would be and making a break for it, Tony shifted on his feet. But his kidnapper just held up a blindfold, apologetic as he explained. “So you can’t lead anyone to me.” Cautious but knowing he has no real choice, he put on a brave face and a made a quip.

“Well sugar if I knew you were into this stuff…” It seemed that the villain was learning, however, because instead of becoming flustered he just snorted and pushed the silk – nice! – material into the billionaire’s hands. Hesitantly, Tony took it and put it on, throat dry. Enveloped in darkness, his other senses heightened; the firm hands on his face adjusting the blindfold, the puff of air on his forehead from the other man and the heat. Was he imagining that heat coming off the other body in front of his?  He held back a shiver, of all the inappropriate responses to a situation like this, getting aroused is definitely up there. A hand took his, he could feel callouses on the fingers…hadn’t he been wearing gloves? Tony couldn’t remember, his head feeling a little muddled as he was being lead gently. He was silent for a few minutes as they went down some stairs, wasn’t it bright daylight? Wouldn’t anyone see them? They kept on going, not glacially slowly but not at a pace that worried him. Loosing track of the time spent blinded and forgetting to make quips, all Tony had in his consciousness was the weight and pull of that hand, warm skin against his as the sounds of life grew around them. He could hear good old New York traffic now, where exactly was this place? They walked a bit further, the hand in his squeezed once and then suddenly there was light. Blinking stupidly trying to adjust, he turned around, trying to see his kidnapper but he was completely alone, blindfold and all. After a few more moments of scanning the street for a ghost, now he fully appreciated the choice of name, he recognised where he was and reluctantly began walking to the Tower, resolving that the first order of business when he got back was to do some research.

Tony Stark. Tony- Tony Stark. Anthony Edward Stark.

Steve stood stock still on the pavement, mouth hanging open slightly as he stared stupidly at the name under the picture in the paper again and again. Several thoughts flashed through his mind but the loudest and most crazed was probably: well, he did seem familiar! Oh, oh wow! What the hell? His mind stuttered under the weight of the realisation. People began jostling past him in the mid-morning bustle so he forced himself to continue hobbling along back to his apartment – hobbling: because it amused him to disguise himself as a 90 year old man when in public. He couldn’t exactly walk around like normal with the General’s division still looking for him and after a lot of consideration he’d been darkly amused with changing his appearance to match his true age. Even stooping he couldn’t reduce his height by much and he didn’t have the money or patience to use detailed prosthetics so he used a bowler hat, scarf and gloves to cover his face and hands. Coupled with a long trench coat, walking stick and shuffling gait, these elements were all he needed to pass by unnoticed on the streets. It was New York, no one ever had the time to notice the faults in disguises of passers-by. He hoped anyway, he sometimes would get pinpricks on the back of his neck, sure he was being watched, but those feelings had never come to anything. Yet.

He reached his apartment building, heart racing and body struggling to keep up his imitation of a nearly dead man as wild thoughts battered each other in his head, vying for his attention. Entering his apartment, he closed and locked the door, resisting the urge to slump against it and slide sightlessly to the floor. Thankfully he’d taken his hostage – Tony Stark! – to his back-up apartment and he’d already decided to avoid it for a while after leaving the poor man untied and un-blind-folded in it. He knew there was a chance it would be discovered, high chance now that he’d found out that a genius worth a lot of money had been exposed to it, but he’d made sure to leave nothing incriminating in it and he’d only ever entered it through the fire escape, the landlord and residents lead to believe whatever they could think of to explain the lack of appearance. Heck, whatever wild theories they could spin to any inquiries would be a plus, right? Breathing in deeply he immediately sank into one of the kitchen chairs, still clutching the paper in one tight fist. He laid it out on the table, his hands smoothing over the creases restlessly.

Tony Stark.

Howard’s son.

Howard’s son.

Wow. Just. Oh.

For several minutes he stared sightlessly into space, memories flooding in: huge, big goggles, a devilish grin, fiery brown eyes and that bark of a laugh, rarer as the War dragged on but still sharp and amused. Howard had a kid? No wait, Howard got married?! It was a lot to process. Admittedly Steve should have done more thorough research on his old friends, but when he’d first been able to settle down without fear of discovery, he’d only confirmed what he already knew in his gut, they were all dead. Slowly, ever so slowly he managed to uncurl his fist and spread the paper out on the table. Leaning back in his chair, he went over it in his head. Tony Stark: Billionaire Inventor, Ladies Man and Reformed Weapons Manufacturer. How had he missed this?

When he’d escaped the security guards only to find his hostage still unconscious, he’d been unable to deposit him somewhere safe to be discovered and more than that, unwilling. There had been something about that face that he couldn’t turn away from. Noticing that he was quite light for a man of his height and build, Steve had decided to try to make up for the ordeal with breakfast and some TLC. He carefully deposited his charge on the couch, quickly changed, making sure to hide the flash drive and anything else incriminating in the shoulder bag he planned on taking with him when they left, couldn’t take any chances the apartment wouldn’t be searched. Grimacing as he glanced at the unconscious man, he wondered how a simple snatch and grab of a flash drive from a scientist could have landed him with an underfed hostage who reminded him a lot of- No. Stop it. Remember your mission. Just feed the guy, let him go and get the drive to Bruce. He briefly cursed that he didn’t have any painkillers – drugs of any kind had little to no effect on him – and didn’t want to risk going out to get some and leave the man behind. So he’d settled for propping up the cushions on the couch and making sure he was comfortable before busying himself with breakfast. His heart was still pumping hard, even though he should have recovered from the escape immediately after the cops were out of sight. The exchange between the two when the man had woken had only done more to stir up lost memories and it’d been with reluctance and relief that he’d safely deposited the blindfolded man on the street and slipped away. He’d ridden the rest of the day and through the night to drop off the package with one of his associates who’d take it to Bruce – Steve didn’t blame the doctor for staying out of the US altogether. When Steve had returned to his apartment in the early hours of the morning, he’d slept for a bit, mind still occupied with that intriguing man.                        Snapping up from his chair, Steve quickly removed all of his ‘disguise’ and dug out his beat up laptop: he needed to know more. Very soon his mind was flooded with information: genius inventor as a child, graduated from MIT ridiculously young, lost his parents not soon after inheriting a powerful international company manufacturing weapons until- Oh God. Steve gulped, guilt welling up in him as he read about Tony’s kidnapping in the Middle East. Oh God, was that what Stark had meant when he’d said ‘bad experiences with kidnappers’? Useless, whilst the media did offer some facts, he didn’t know how many were accurate and he sensed something suspect about the recent death of Obadiah Stane. More, he needed to know more.

He needed to see Tony again. Twisting his lip, Steve leant back in his chair, considering. There was no way he could approach the man as himself or indeed in a ‘disguise’, he didn’t have the talent for that kind of espionage nor the patience to build up the persona needed to get some time alone with a billionaire genius. Staring at the photograph of the enigma on the computer screen, Steve felt an incredulous smile slowly spreading across his face. Was he really considering…? Could he even…? Full-on grinning he gave a little laugh. Yes, he was. He actually was.

The Phantom was going to kidnap Tony Stark again.

“Stark!” No sooner than he’d hopped off the helicopter on the Helicarrier than he’d heard the dulcet tones of one Nick Fury Director of SHIELD and Chief of Making-Tony’s-Life-That-Little-Bit-More-Challenging. He was flanked by everybody’s favourite Agent complete with a tie that looked like it had been ironed to a swift death and obnoxious sunglasses. God, he knew he should have ignored the call to come to the SHIELD base but he didn’t want SHIELDs help with the Obadiah situation to hang over him, plus he wanted to find out as much of their data on his kidnapper as possible – being on site would be a lot easier to hack their servers. It was too noisy outside with the helicopter, planes and buzzing Agents so Tony waited until they got inside to inquire cheekily.

“Yes darling?” Tony didn’t know how much willpower it took Fury to ignore the pet name and barrel on with the interroga- briefing, because the man was such a mystery, but he was guessing it took a lot. Well, maybe he was just hoping it was a lot; he did like to ruffle some feathers wherever he went. Although he doubted Fury had any metaphorical feathers, maybe bat wings though… Almost able to see the tension radiating under the black-leathered coat, the billionaire just smirked as the Director prompted with an inaudible sigh.

“Just, start from the beginning.” JARVIS already busy with the wireless infiltration, Tony mock-sighed and began, knowing he’d need to stretch his time there longer than he’d like.

“So as you know I was at the Maria Stark Foundation Annual Party, socializing, networking, all that,” he said sideways to Agent in a confessional way, “had to, Pepper made me, I’d already gone to the last of these stiff parties but no, it’s my mother’s name on the-” A sharp one-eyed glare forced him on. “Anyway, so we’re all in the Peninsula when suddenly the lights go out and everyone panics, shouting, screaming, yadda, yadda the usual,” Agent is nodding along, probably having seen the video surveillance footage of the room. “Then the lights come back on and the security guards shouting for everyone to get down,” he’d been trying to escape a particularly grabby blonde at the time and was only slightly ashamed of shaking her off in the darkness and retreating in the confusion, he had meant to get to the suit too so it wasn’t that bad a move, “then out of nowhere  that crazy ninja guy flips over a table and grabs me-” He was rudely interrupted by the poker-faced Agent.

“Why didn’t you go for the suit?” Glad for an excuse to lengthen the whole tale and an opportunity to snipe at his favourite government suit, Tony snapped at him indignantly.

“Would you let me finish Agent? I’m about to explain!” He shook his head in what he hoped was a disappointed look but he hadn’t had many chances to practise that in his life, so often on the receiving end of one, maybe he’d ask Pepper for lessons – she had mastered them. “The suit was outside with Happy and I didn’t think it would be a great idea to break cover and put it on in front of witnesses, do you?” The Agent remained unrepentant despite the genius’ glare so he continued. “Anyway, he grabbed me, shouted to the rent-a-cops a bit then-Bam! Darkness…” His dramatic pause would have been longer had it not have been for that one, angry eye boring into his skull. He continued hastily. “And when I woke up–” Tony hesitated, catching himself by surprise as he suddenly realised that he didn’t want to give them anything on his kidnapper. His pancake-making-worry-wort kidnapper to be exact. Luckily his mouth was often ahead of his brain as he heard himself continuing smoothly. “I was way down on 5th Street. Tucked in an alleyway.” Fury stared at him with hard, doubtful eyes, but then again that was a normal look for him so Tony couldn’t quite tell whether he’d been believed or not. The moment passed without a challenge to his story so he didn’t know what to think, best not come to any conclusions just yet. Agent asked him more questions, mostly about what he thought the villain’s motives might have been, whether it’d been money or technology he had been after. Tony thanked the high heavens for his fantastic poker face or otherwise he probably would have laughed out loud and snorted something about pancakes.

“So you’re saying he didn’t steal anything from you?”

“Yep. My phone was recovered from the venue and he’d left my wallet on me, cards and everything,” he leant over and stage-whispered, “my virtue too.” As usual his quips were ignored.

“Why would he take you all the way from Upper Manhattan to Lower? You both vanished off-camera within minutes of leaving the building.” Tony shrugged unhelpfully and Fury cut in after a thoughtful pause.

“We’re working on tracking this mask down, although unfortunately he’s been aptly named, always disappearing into camera blind spots and never resurfacing until his next heist. Luckily we have a few ghosts of our own.” Considering but then rejecting to make a joke about Casper’s evil and disgusting brothers, Tony deigned instead to concentrate on subtly checking JARVIS’s progress on his phone. He was snapped back into listening properly by Fury’s order.

“Stark, send us over your-”

“Woah, wait a minute, I’m doing what now?”

“Helping us track down the cat burglar who kidnapped you.” Tony didn’t like the way he’d said ‘cat burglar’, was that an insult? He supposed to Iron Man it kinda was, but he’d been playing the civilian billionaire at the time, there hadn’t been time to get the suit he’d already explained this! Tony hated that he wasn’t quite sure how much SHIELD knew about Iron Man, especially whether they suspected that he was the hero himself; he’d find out one of these days, those slippery spies couldn’t evade his hacking forever. Damn Fury with his knowing-everything-judgy-ness! “Wouldn’t you like to know his motivation for carting you around town? We’ve got a common goal here, wouldn’t you say?” A series of images went through Tony’s head, most of them containing him waiting around to hear from the shadowy Agency whilst they evade his enquiries and shamelessly used his tech.

“Yeah I’m gonna pass, I can do my own thing and you guys can,” he waved his hands around vaguely, “do whatever creepy things you do.”

“Stark-” Really not feeling that stern tone Tony bent his head slightly and imitated it.

“Fury.” The two Agents shared a lightning fast glance before Fury gave an almost imperceptible nod and Agent explained.

“Stark, this isn’t your everyday thief-”

“Oh, the SWAG men, but I love those!” Agent ignored his interjection.

“If the Phantom didn’t steal from you then that means we have no motive for his appearance at all.” Tony frowned. His mental question was answered swiftly. “Nothing went missing from the Hall and no one reported anything missing, not even their wallets or purses.” Fury took over smoothly.

“Leaving us to consider what he was really after,” his one eye focusing in on Tony’s soul, “and whether he got it or not.” Mentally reviewing his entire encounter with the Phantom, Tony couldn’t think of a single reason why he’d crash the party and not steal anything, he was a secretive guy despite being strangely nonchalant about allowing Tony to see his home and eat his food. From the little Tony had picked up from the new stories about him, he only struck empty buildings in the dead of night, either eluding or knocking out any security. The only reason anyone knew it was the same guy was a few blurry pictures of a black-clad figure escaping and the notes. A polite note left at the site of each theft explaining what he’d taken and why – often he claimed to be re-stealing the item and returning it to the rightful owners but Tony wasn’t sure if there was any actual proof of that. His phone beeped: JARVIS was done. Luckily the Director seemed to be done with him so he exited swiftly, his parting jibes stared at emotionlessly, well maybe there’d been a twitch of annoyance but that was the best Tony could manage to hope for. He had another side to this delicious mystery and he couldn’t wait to get started in solving it.

Chapter Text

At the next kidnapping Tony had a bit more warning; not much, but a little. It was the week after the ‘Snatch and Feed’ incident which Tony had named in his head, and was being driven back to Stark Tower from the airport in the early evening. Happy was his usual self, laughing and joking, updating Tony on what’d been happening since he’d been working in Malibu. They’d stopped at a red light in a quiet part of town when it happened. The warning came in the form of fireworks in the distance. At first Tony didn’t notice but Happy, a little confused at the display, telling his boss that they seemed to be coming from the direction of Stark Tower. Craning to look Tony was interrupted from his questioning by a polite knock on his window. Startling, Tony looked at it with surprise and caution; the window was tinted so he could make out a figure standing very close to the door making the ‘wind your window down’ motion but Happy was in control of the door locks and the window itself was bulletproof so he wasn’t that worried about anyone getting into the car. If it’d been a cop he’d be able to see flashing blue lights and the officer would have gone to the driver’s side first, he reasoned, reaching inside his jacket pocket for the device which called the suit. To deflect further suspicions that he and Iron Man were the same person, he'd programmed a simple programme in the armour that JARVIS could control, basically the suit could follow a signal and carry the package - most likely to be Tony himself - to a safe location. Vaguely he heard Happy asking what was going on but before he could answer or press the button he heard a noise of air decompressing and jumped back as he sensed more than smelt a gas seeping through the cracks in between the window and the car door. Yelling at Happy to get out, he launched himself to the other car door, hand working the handle uselessly as the locks were still non-functioning.

“Happy! The locks!” Covering his mouth with his sleeve, Tony’s heart dropped as he realised that Happy wasn’t moving. Hurriedly reaching over and shaking Happy’s shoulder as he searched for the lock controls, Tony tried not to breathe in, feeling the gas push in all around him. No! He was not going out like this! Finally he pushed the right button and heard the click of the doors but before he could move the door behind him was wrenched open and hands were pulling him away from Happy. Startled he forgot not to breathe and took in a huge lungful of the sickly gas, his internal cursing fading as he fell into darkness.

Groaning, Tony blinked, feeling disorientated as he realised that he was draped over something and flying through the air at the same time. Blinking, he called over the wind.

“Er, hi?” The shoulder that was navigating the roof tops with a wriggling billionaire over it replied happily.

“Hi!” Ok, no criminal Iron Man had faced could sound that dorky whilst practising parkour in the middle of the night. Now Tony was in no doubt about who the suspect was, he relaxed slightly as his mind whirred, considering the question of ‘why’. He had in fact eaten that day. Well, coffee counts as food right? Not being able to see much of the route they were taking, Tony tried to relax his body and enjoy the highly unusual ride. He would be a fool not to be a little apprehensive, this was a criminal after all, kidnapping him without any clear reason as of yet. Plus, you know, he did gas him in his own ca- Happy!

“Hey! What did you do to Happy?” They stopped suddenly, Tony’s legs and arms flapping in an undignified manner as he did not make any noises that prompted the Phantom to laugh at him.

“Sorry, what was that?” Craning his head, Tony could just make out some old looking masonry before they went through an old rotten door and down a spiral staircase, Tony keeping his limbs as close to his captor as possible, not wanting them to bang on the walls as they went down.

“Happy, my driver, he’s okay right?”

“Oh that guy, yeah I pulled him out of the car and checked he was okay, it was only a mild sedative so he should be awake by now. I left him your phone to call for help.” Tony huffed, the sound echoing softly, so much for being tracked by JARVIS, he seriously needed an under the skin tracker…and this was one long staircase! How many stairs were there in this place? And where the hell were they? A cathedral?! Did New York even have one of those? The hand supporting him on the shoulder patted him on the back when finally they reached the bottom and walked out into a dusty…church? The Phantom gently set him down on the ground and Tony gulped, trying to settle his stomach and clear his dizzy head. Blinking, Tony could make out a few pews and the altar with help of the moonlight streaming through what must have been stain glass windows. Looking over to his earnest kidnapper, he found him lighting a few multi-tiered candlesticks, behind him a decrepit organ; for a wild moment, Tony imagined the black-clad cat burglar would break into a rendition of ‘Music of the Night’. The moment passed and he quipped.

“Hey! This isn’t your place!” Phantom snorted, amused.

“You think I took you to my apartment last time?”

“Well, I won’t lie, I did think you were kind of an amateur, I mean: leaving me untied, un-blindfolded in a room with windows and cutlery, didn’t strike me as a seasoned professional.” Thankfully, the vigilante didn’t seem to take offense at that observation but started explaining.

“It’s an abandoned church,” duh, “used to be the only catholic church in the district, everyone used to come here…” He trailed off and Tony frowned at the hard-to-read pause, he quickly scanned the body posture, upright but not overly tense, he was turned towards Tony but he could tell that he wasn’t looking right at him. Abruptly the Phantom turned and finished. “Shut down a while ago.” Tony hummed, not sure how to respond, he wondered down the aisle a little before becoming bored with looking at cobwebs and just ended up staring expectantly at the masked head until it looked up and asked, confused.

“What?” Tony snorted, half in humour and half in giddy disbelief. Was this really his life now?

“You’re seriously asking me that? I don’t know, why would I possibly be staring at the guy who’s kidnapped me? Again!” Shoulders raising a little, the Phantom sounded sheepish of all things.

“Oh, right.” He made a little motion to signal to sit on some relatively clean chairs he’d found before continuing.

“I just wanted to check that you were alright.” Tony opened his mouth then closed it again, sinking into a chair and realizing he had no idea how to respond to that statement. Damn, this guy kept on blindsiding him with the simplest of sentiments, not that he knew what he was claiming was true. He thought back to SHIELD’s interrogation, the million dollar question: what was the Phantom after? Recalling the panic and fear he’d felt in those last few seconds in the car, Tony’s temper flared and he crossed his arms, snarling.

“I was perfectly fine until I was gassed and kidnapped, again!” The Phantom was obviously taken back by the venom of Tony’s reply.

“I’m sorry-” But the billionaire wasn’t having any of it.

“I mean seriously, you want to ‘check I’m alright’ how about a phone call? Or a note or something? Full-blown kidnapping-” They began talking over each other, Tony starting to pace in short strides as the Phantom raised his hands beseechingly.

“I wanted to apologise for the first time, I-”

“-is just ridiculous, who the hell do you think you are? Scaring me like that-”

“Listen!” The Phantom ordered in an authoritative tone. Tony broke off, listening begrudgingly. “After I let you go I read about what happened in Afghanistan and I felt terrible and I just wanted to apologise and-” he sighed heavily, his tone full of genuine regret. “I’m sorry, okay, please forgive me for putting you through that again.” Tony twisted his lip, still standing a little way away.

“You do realise that they attacked me whilst I was in a jeep right?” Again, through the mask Tony could still see the wince. The Phantom ran a hand down his covered face with a heavy sigh.

“You’re right, I am new to all this. Sorry.” Sniffing archly, Tony looked away for a long moment, deciding it best to move on he went and sat down again.

“Why here? This some kind of Christian metaphor for forgiveness or something? Was there a kidnapper who was forgiven in the Bible…? Was Jesus kidna-?”

“No.” A hint of humour coloured the tone of the reply before the Phantom sobered a little. “No, it’s out of the way and quiet and I guess I feel an affinity to the place.” Tony snorted, looking around.

“What? Old, abandoned, falling apar-” He froze as his gaze wondered round to his kidnapper, taking in the awkward posture. Suddenly he realised just how little he knew about this man, quickly calling on all the details he did know, he formed a picture in his head: a fit and athletic thirty-something, who is technically a criminal but one with his own moral code and a man with mother-henning tendencies and a soft spot for traumatised billionaires. In Tony’s experience, villains and crooks were often loners or if not, then couldn’t truly trust their associates. Maybe what the Phantom really wanted to say was that he was lonely and needed a friend. But then again, maybe he was just a psycho who liked to befriend his victims. Either one was likely. At that moment, his kidnapper was resting his fingers on his hips, positioned in a way that suggested he wanted to put them into his non-existent pockets. Tony sighed, he was a daredevil after all. “So you see the game last night?” There was a bemused silence he steadfastly ignored, staring at his captor, before the Phantom laughed and replied.

“No, I was out. You?” Avoiding Pepper in his Malibu lab, drinking too much… Yeah, best misdirect that one.

“Out? Another Robin Hood gig?” At the cocked head at his inquiry, Tony went on, “Hey I read up on you too, you ‘reclaim’ stuff, only stealing from the Man, right?”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean…who’s the ‘Man’?” Tony gave a startled laugh, imaging the look of honest confusion under the mask and bringing his hands up in a calming gesture.

“Woah, ok, don’t tell me you’re actually as old as this-” His sarcasm was interrupted by a sudden exclamation from his friendly ghost.

“Oh, hey I almost forgot!” He jumped up and went behind the altar, rummaging around, making Tony slightly nervous until he returned with a tray covered with a tea cloth. “I made these especially.” He pulled the cloth off and Tony leaned in to look. Was that what he thought…?

“Cupcakes?”

“Yeah, I wanted to something extra to apologize,” he seemed more sheepish as he explained further, “I didn’t know what flavours you’d like so I did a selection.” In Tony’s stunned silence – though why was he surprised? Really? – the Phantom went on. “There’s a cinnamon one, a banana one, a mixed berry, chocolate surprise, that one’s better hot but I think it’s still okay-” Suddenly desperately hungry, Tony snatched the chocolate, grinning. Again, he couldn’t tell for sure but he thought the burglar was smiling with him. Biting into it, Tony groaned to an almost embarrassing volume. He tried to communicate how great it was through several more bites which made the baker laugh.

“Didn’t anyone ever teach you to eat with your mouth closed?” Laughing too, he finished his mouth-full before continuing the banter. With every minute he found himself relaxing, just enjoying the food and company, even if the venue left a little to be desired. As they talked, he saw that his ghost was loosening up as well and his curiosity about the guy was spiking. He cursed his tiredness as all his attempts to glean any information about who he was were being neatly sidestepped and counteracted. Luckily the Phantom didn’t seem offended or threatened by these little pokes into his identity but Tony vowed that next time he’d be ready for a proper verbal sparring. His mind whispered, next time?, but he ignored it in favour of keeping up with his kidnapper’s quips.

Suddenly the Phantom snapped his head up, intensely focused on a spot over Tony’s shoulder. Instantly concerned, Tony spun round to look, squinting in the half-darkness for a long moment.

“What is it?” He asked, still trying to see whatever it was that changed the atmosphere from relaxed to charged with tension. Giving up, he turned back around to find himself alone. Damn ghost! “Casper?” He called, fear rising up in him again, he really didn’t do well alone in dark and spooky places.

“Huh, he’s good.” A new voice just behind Tony made him shout wordlessly, whirling around and throwing his arms to defend himself. He saw a man around his own height dressed in black but with his face visible and hair spiked up with, with a bow strapped to his back? Maybe he was here to contest the Phantom’s rep as a modern Robin Hood. Noticing Tony’s reaction with disinterest, he drawled. “Relax Stark, I’m with your friendly SHIELD agency.” He wondered over to a door that was slightly ajar, peering around it as Tony gathered his wits with a little effort.

“So SHIELD’s keeping tabs on me now, is that it?” Or thinking about organising an archery competition to… Actually, when he’d thought of it, it didn’t seem such a crazy idea, to organise an event to tempt the Phantom into the open, thought it’d more likely be an artefact in need of returning to its rightful owners than a good old fashioned competition. Hmmm, Tony would need to find a way to keep his own tabs on the shady organisation and to warn his ghost if he did find any suspicious plans in the works… Okay, suspicious plans to do with the cat burglar, there’s always something fishy going on round there. The Lord of the Rings wannabe interrupted his train of thought.

“I was going to call it a rescue till I saw you getting all cosy with…Casper, was it?” So this is one of Fury’s’ ghosts’… Refusing to react to the not-so-subtle implications of that dig, Tony crossed his arms over his chest trying to sound on the right side of offended.

“As much as it warms the cockles of my heart to have dear SHIELD ‘watching my back’, I was doing perfectly alright on my own and hey! Those are mine!” He exclaimed as the rude interrupter reached down and snagged a remaining cupcake. The SHIELD goon examined it, sniffing it suspiciously before glancing back at Tony.

“You actually want me to believe that Tony Stark baked cupcakes for a wanted criminal for a date in an old church?” Walking up and snatching it from the goon, Tony scoffed.

“No, I didn’t bake it, he made them for m-” He cut himself off, oh that didn’t sound good. The agent laughed.

“Wow, did not expect this when I answered Fury’s urgent call to save the great Tony Stark, where is Iron Man anyway?” Keeping his usual cool despite the emotional whiplash he’d suffered on top of a few days without sleep, Tony waved a hand dismissively.

“He’s got other stuff to do.” Oh no, Tony did not like the musing sound the agent made. Damn spies! Time to re-direct the conversation. “I’m much more interested to know what a SHIELD goon is doing with a 16th century weapon. They run out of water pistols or something?”

“Goon? I prefer the term ‘bruiser’ myself…” the agent bantered good-naturedly, looking around seemingly casually but with sharp eyes.

“Ooh, obscure!” Tony interjected before the ‘bruiser’ went on.

“…and if you must know,” he pulled out his bow, showing it off proudly “me and this old girl have been winning comps up and down the Eastern seaboard-” He broke off to mock-frown at Tony’s snorting laughter, rolling his eyes and putting it away again. “So do you want a lift or not? Seeing as that’s what my job’s been reduced to?”

“It’s not horse and carriage is it? Cos I have allergies…” Tony teased but quickly added. “Just gimme your phone real quick, I got my own ride.” Rolling his eyes again and muttering something about ‘not being a babysitter’, the agent handed over his standard SHIELD brick. Deciding to keep his snotty insults to himself, Tony quickly called Happy, checked he was fit to drive and with help from the agent rattled off the address. St Claire’s…why did that sound familiar? He tossed the blast from the past back to his sitter and shuffled towards the exit, trying to be casual as he ventured.

“Say, when you make your report…?” He trailed off, sighing as he took in the agent’s expression. “You’ve already told the pirate somehow haven’t you? What is it?” He leaned in, mock-searching the bruiser’s eyes. “Contact lens cameras?” The archer snorted and began in a sing-song voice.

“There once was a bank in Stockholm-”

“Shut up Legolas!” Smirking, the jerk followed him outside and after an indulgent pause, said simply.

“It’s Barton.” Tony quirked an eyebrow. “Agent Barton.” The billionaire toyed with the idea of using another archery related nickname but that would require thinking and he was really running on empty. They stood side-by-side on the sidewalk mostly in silence but even through Tony’s fatigue he could feel the Agent fizzing beside him, itching to get some action. He wondered if he’d try and follow the Phantom’s tracks, whether he’d actually find him. Finally, Happy arrived and giving a sloppy salute to the archer, Tony climbed in.

“Hey Happy: take 2.” As they pulled away he sighed heavily, closing his eyes and already planning to set JARVIS on hacking SHIELD again. Babysitter his ass!

 ...

Agent Coulson held back a sigh. Even though he was alone in his office – which he regularly swept for bugs, Fury is an overprotective and paranoid boss – he still didn’t allow himself to show the strain of managing two highly important projects at once. Yes he was used to high pressure situations and long, continuous important projects where he couldn’t let up his concentration for a second but these two were especially crucial: the Phase 2 project and signing off on updates to all mutant/super-natural vigilante/supervillain lists. The former was work with an alarmingly unpredictable and unstable element which he wasn’t completely certain about what it actually was and the latter a very long list of incredibly powerful people with usually criminal intentions. Despite wanting to keep his composure, he did rub his forehead slightly, not wanting to think about the kind of behaviour Barton would start exhibiting after being assigned to sit and watch the Tesseract being prodded, ‘a dull mission’ in other words. His imagination was bad enough. The biggest concern, besides the glowing Blue Box of Certain Doom finally exploding on their enthusiastic scientists, was the Phantom. Ever since the Stark Incident, Coulson had long given up naming or even numbering so-called ‘Stark Incidents’, there were too many for even him to remember, ever since that day Coulson and his team had been trying to reason the shady character’s motives. The lack of clear motivation was perhaps the most concerning thing about the seemingly supernatural criminal. He currently had the file out in front of him as Agent Sitwell had requested that he specifically re-read the file since it had recently been updated with interesting and disturbing developments.

An FBI report about the kidnapping of Sophie West, the daughter of business tycoon and self-made billionaire Paul West had included references to the Phantom which had automatically appeared on the monitoring system. When Agent Sitwell had investigated further, the puzzle-that-was-the-troublesome-ghost had taken on another, even more confusing twist. Before, the Phantom had been listed under ‘Mercenary – possibility of metahuman abilities’ but with the eyewitness account of an undercover FBI agent in the gang which kidnapped the girl and a statement from Paul West, his listing had changed to: ‘Mercenary/Vigilante – metahuman.’ As Coulson read the report, he felt the strangest sense of déjà vu.

The FBI agent had been in deep cover in the New York gang for a few months, hoping to gain the higher-uppers’ trust before the big arms deal that was rumoured to go down. Due to a fuck-up, however, the gang had lost a lot of money and although they’d managed to recover some of it, there was nowhere near enough to purchase the huge shipment arriving in a few days’ time. Luckily for them, unluckily for the West’s, one of the lieutenants had previously worked for Paul West as a driver and knew his daughter’s schedule – in the report the agent theorized that the former driver, Dean Brannigan, may have had a grudge against the West’s and had been looking for an opportunity to get revenge but that was speculation for another file. As the agent hadn’t progressed enough up the hierarchy to be informed of the plan, the kidnapping team had been successful and it was all he could do to find out where they were keeping her and alert his superiors. At first, the physical danger to the girl was minimal as none of the other gang-members had any reason to harm her, but then the lieutenant had removed her blindfold and begun trying to scare the eight-year old with his revenge speech and the gang – though mostly uncomfortable with it – knew they couldn’t let her live. The undercover agent reported this to his handler and was told to stand-by, ready to help the extraction team or jump in himself if the gang showed any signs of executing her early.

From here Paul West’s account picks up: after a distraught evening searching for his daughter, he received a photograph of Sophie holding the day’s newspaper with a note explaining the amount and the details of the exchange in 48 hours. Although he was perfectly willing to raise and hand-over the money, his best friend and ex-cop turned lawyer, Mark Jameson, had reluctantly pointed out that the little girl had been without a blindfold in the picture which meant there was a good chance they’d go back on their word and kill her anyway. Ever the intelligent, well-connected man, Jameson happened to have a way to contact someone who could potentially rescue West’s daughter, a man who’d helped return a priceless necklace to a former client of Jameson’s from a highly guarded town house on the Upper East Side. So Jameson had rung his contact and within the hour they’d received a message to expect the Phantom shortly. Three hours later, there’d been a knock on the front door and standing there alone, slightly cold from a lack of coat, had been little Sophie, quiet but completely unhurt.

Back to the agent’s report: he’d been keeping close to the girl and preparing for the planned extraction when the Phantom had struck and although he’d only caught a glimpse of the man in action, it was enough to convince him that he was not a normal human being. Coulson had his doubts, he was Barton’s handler after all, but he tried to never draw conclusions until he knew all the facts. The report claimed that the Phantom snuck past all the armed gang members, including the agent, released the girl, set off an explosion at the other end of the compound and would have escaped unnoticed if it hadn’t been for a gang member running in the opposite direction to the blast. He’d turned a corner and seen the black-clad man carrying the kid, shouting into his radio before being knocked out by a boomerang. The FBI agent had redirected from the blast area and hurtled round a corner, witnessing the Phantom take out two gunmen with his back turned to them via a perfectly timed boomerang throw before turning and shielding the little girl clutched to his chest by elbowing a third gang member in the face. This had happened in barely a few seconds so the agent barely had time to dodge a throwing stick thrown at his head by the large man retreating down the hall. Without drawing his gun, the agent pursued, unable to catch up until they reached the roof. Pushing through the swinging roof door, the agent spotted the Phantom running up to the edge and couldn’t help shouting as he heard the little girl scream and the pair flew off the roof. He ran to the edge and felt relief flood him as he saw them land safely on a roof a storey lower across the street, the girl safe in the vigilante’s arms. There was a side note that mentioned that the world record for the long jump was 9m and the distance between the buildings was 10.5m, perhaps not physically impossible but incredibly unlikely to have been made by a non-enhanced human.

Then the Phantom had turned, eyes fixed on the agent for a moment before he, and this was the strangest thing, saluted the agent before disappearing. As if he’d known that he wasn’t really a gang member but a federal agent. Coulson’s mouth twitched, a lot of people in espionage were surprisingly superstitious, but then again, in his line of work, literally anything was possible. In any case, the girl was returned without a scratch and relatively calm considering her ordeal, there wasn’t an official statement from her but the agents that had done follow-up interviews briefly questioned her and through her responses drew up a brief account of her rescuer’s demeanour in between grabbing her and delivering her to her home.

She couldn’t tell them how he’d entered the room where they’d been holding her; just that he appeared from the shadows ‘like the bogeyman’. But when untying her, the masked man had been gentle, assuring her that he’d been asked by her daddy to come get her and take her home and that everything would be okay as long as they stayed really quiet and unseen. She’d suggested the similarity to a game of Hide and Seek and he’d agreed, saying with confidence that they were going to win. He wrapped her in what the agents made of her description to be a bullet-proof jacket and carried her curled up against his chest to the door. She described him listening at the door before a loud boom sounded in the distance and they slipped out and down the corridor. But then the Phantom stopped and moved quickly, Sophie’s view had been obscured by the broad chest she was clutched to and the jacket she was wrapped in, so all she knew was that they were running and ducking, loud bangs scaring her before they made it into the open air and were travelling up and up and up. Shaking, she’d heard the Phantom murmuring assurances above her through the ringing in her ears. As they’d jumped away over the roofs, Sophie had tried to apologize for being scared but the Phantom corrected her, telling her she’d been very brave and had nothing to be ashamed of. Sophie mentioned continuing to lament that she couldn’t take care of herself when he clearly could, informing him that he was ‘awesome’ but the mercenary had gone a little quiet before replying that everyone needed friends and people to look out for them; that had prompted her to ask who his friends were but they’d arrived at the house and he’d avoided her question. He’d set her down, taken the jacket back and gotten a hi-five from her before patting her on the head and melting into the darkness.

Coulson leaned back as he re-read the conclusion of the Paul West account. After the commotion of receiving Sophie back had eventually died down, West had retreated to the study, ready to write Jameson an impressive check and get hammered when he’d seen a shadow move and the Phantom appear out of the darkness. They’d had a brief conversation about security measures and how brave his daughter had been before the ghost had disappeared again. When asked how much he’d paid for the cat burglar’s services, West admitted that the ghost had refused monetary payment, merely commenting that whilst he had no children, many of West’s workers did, and ‘a lot of them were going hungry’.  Agent Sitwell had added a footnote next to this part of the report, mentioning that in the weeks after the safe return of his daughter, West had launched a free meal programme for his workers’ families and also increased his donations to his previous and to new charities. But that wasn’t really relevant to the case, except…

Phil looked up, his eyes unseeing as he searched his memories. The seeming selflessness, the abilities and expert knowledge, just how good and honourably he acted… It couldn’t be. He’d been awake too many hours and his mind was playing tricks on him. Quickly, he went through everything that they knew for definite about the man: he was well-built, strong and knew how to handle himself in the fight, showing signs of training in espionage and infiltration so he had to be either military or from a spy agency, the possibility of him possessing superhuman powers a strong one – note the lightning fast reactions and world record breaking jump – so they also couldn’t rule out him coming from an underground mutant group. Coulson would list one or two based on abilities alone but the demeanour contradicted a lot of their ideologies. Next there was the analysis of how he used his talents to consider: although on the wrong side of the law, the Phantom seemed to operate with his own code, namely using non-lethal weapons and only subduing instead of killing any opponents – Phil knew how hard it was to only knock unconscious someone who genuinely wanted to kill you and had the skill to do it, so the vigilante’s zero-kill count definitely wasn’t an accident. There was also a strange politeness mixed with a little smugness in the notes he left after his robberies – the paper was always clean of fingerprints and ripped from cheap pads with no distinctive markings. Although they’d had the handwriting analysed by a specialist, all they could really tell them was that it was an old-fashioned style written by someone who liked to be precise and ordered, not that Coulson put much stock in that kind of analysis. Staring at a photograph of one of the notes, he followed the line of the pen with his eyes as he’d done a thousand times over the handwriting of an old hero of his – there’d been photographs of a letter between Captain Rogers and Lieutenant Barnes in one of the Captain’s biographies and the resemblance between the writing in front of him and the one he’d studied for hours as a kid… No, he couldn’t get distracted; mentally slapping himself Coulson forced his rational mind on.

As for possible identities to the Phantom: there were a few ex- or missing-presumed-dead special agents who fit the bill in terms of the build and training, but the persona was different story… It wasn’t unheard of for criminals to have personal honour codes or to be polite but what kind of mercenary would refuse payment for any job? Let alone a hard one like the retrieval? He kept on turning it over in his mind, setting his famed analytical reasoning to the problem, coming at it from every angle. The only possible explanation he could find that made any kind of sense was just, incredibly illogical and idealistic – he wasn’t seven anymore! His phone rang and forcing himself calm he answered coolly.

“You won’t believe what I’m about to tell you.” It was Fury. Holding back a flippant response that it was his job to believe anything the Director said, Coulson merely prompted.

“Boss?” Fury’s tone was hard to place – normally he was a pretty unreadable but Coulson could usually make it out after years of practice. This unfamiliarity unsettled him.

“I’ve got a man here who claims to have found Captain America.” Now coincidence was one thing but Coulson had been the game too long to brush off a huge one like this. Keeping it together enough to listen to the Director’s explanation and orders, he rang off and allowed himself ten seconds in which to freak out in his head.

Wow. Well, what do you know? Maybe he could learn from his seven-year old self. Allowing himself a half-smile, he got to work.

“What are we looking at?” Dr Banner startled and almost dropped the papers he was reading, then sighed heavily as he instantly recognised the presence at his shoulder. It was perhaps a bit unnatural the way he could tell who it was by just the feel of his fellow secret-military-project-refugee’s presence. Or maybe Steve was the only one who’d managed to sneak up on him since…well, the ‘incident’. Oh, how weird and complicated his life was now! He aimed for a stern tone but couldn’t quite convince himself he’d managed it.

“You really should stop doing that, He might not take so kindly to being startled as I do.” Nonchalantly peering over the scientist’s shoulder at the papers, the vigilante half-shrugged.

“Oh, He knew I was there, maybe just thought it was funny to…” He trailed off as he glanced at Bruce’s incredulous expression. “What? He has better senses than I do, unless,” he suddenly looked uncertain in that quasi-charming way he had going on, “it doesn’t count when he’s in you? Does it?” Needing time to process another one of Steve’s casual assumptions on his ‘condition’, especially since he had the annoyed feeling that Steve was never far off the mark, Bruce changed the subject – this problem needed to be solved first anyway. He handed Steve the papers, explaining as the super-soldier scanned them.

“So I managed to hack into that flash drive you got off Dr Rosario and,” he swallowed a sigh, deliberately not looking at his companion, “it’s bad. Worse than we thought.” Steve gulped through reading the description. Before he’d ever set eyes on Tony or Dr Rosario Bruce had received intel that General Ross’ division had petitioned for access to another top secret government project, specifically for the use of an undisclosed element, obviously intended to add or enhance the serum. As he was steadily losing credibility within the military, the two hadn’t been worried about him being granted access to this mysterious substance but Bruce had insisted that he find out what the project was, hoping to glean something useful out the data himself. Together they’d tracked down one of the scientists working on the project and Steve had arranged and pulled off the theft. He shook his head as he read the file: powerful, unpredictable and potentially unstable, all terms that roiled Steve’s gut, but it wasn’t until he looked at the picture that he froze, his whole body ice.

“I- I know this…I thought, I thought it got lost when I did.” He faltered, eyes unseeing, lost in memories. “They’re using it again, that horrible…” Bruce frowned, deliberately holding back his flippant and disbelieving response. Despite coming to trust the man to some extent and accepting he’d been involved in one of Ross’ little projects, the scientist just couldn’t believe that he really was who he said, or indeed thought, he was. At best he was delusional from whatever Ross had done to him and at worst, well, Bruce tried his best to avoid thinking worst case scenarios in general. But hey, every decision he made now in his life had inherent risks and whoever Steve really was, he was in danger too, so in that way they were very much alike. They needed each other to keep sane from isolation and bitterness.

“The Tesseract.” Steve croaked, body tense, probably the most stressed Bruce had ever seen him – and they’d had some exceedingly testing times together.

“Whatever it is, it’s powerful, the readings are…” he took off his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose, “I can’t think of a quantifier incredible enough. Insane, they’re insane readings.” His fellow fugitive murmured something, somewhere in Bruce’s head supplied that’s one word for it, but that might have come from his imagination. “If they can really harness this energy source, it won’t be just the serum we’ll have to worry about.” Bruce knew exactly what Steve would decide to do: faced with this kind of potential threat on innocents, he’d want to wade right in and do his damnedest to help – he knew enough of the man to figure that out. It was noble, stupid as well but that’s who this unbelievably self-less man was and Bruce guessed with a strong degree of certainty that the ‘Captain’ had only rebelled against his captors because he’d disagreed with their intentions rather than because of any harm they were doing to him. Looking at the tense, square jaw and narrowed eyes, Bruce found himself giving his more animalistic side a point – this man was one of the good ones. The doctor felt a little guilty that he’d be long gone in the morning, but only a little bit.

Steve shivered, Oh God, even saying the very name of the damned thing had caused his muscles to shudder. Harsh memories clamoured to get to the front of his mind, bright blue flashes played in front of his eyes, torn off screams echoing all around him. Get a grip soldier! Now is not the time! Breathing in deeply, he forced himself to focus on the present. He knew what he needed to do, it would be his riskiest and most thankless job yet: he needed to reclaim the Tesseract and return it to its rightful owners. The only question now was how.

“We need to return it. Return it to the original owners.”

“Steve, that’s, that’s like- I can’t believe I’m saying this- the Tesseract is a magical artefact, where ever it came from, it wasn’t Earth, or this reality.” Calm. Calm down Banner. Everything will be explained, you’ll work it out. Stay in control. Steve’s voice helped anchor the doctor’s runaway anxiety.

“I know that. Intel told us that Scmidt had an obsession with the occult, Owens though that it was probably from outer space or Norse Gods…” He trailed off, suddenly reminded of a crazy rumour he’d heard from a contact near New Mexico but shook that thought away as Bruce sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead.

“There’s something else, I’m leaving tonight.” Not a moment too soon. Steve glanced around the shabby room, even sparser than his friend’s usual haunts with a battered suitcase propped up next to the door, he raised an eyebrow before his face creased with worry. Bruce smiled tightly. “Nothing’s happened yet but…” He felt genuine warmth as he ventured. “You know how the Other Guy’s super senses are.” Receiving a slight smile in return, Bruce thanked the heavens for someone who if didn’t fully understand him, was at least willing to try; someone with whom he felt completely safe. Goodness knows it had taken a long time of wariness but deep down, in another, greener part of his mind there had always been that trust. Maybe Steve just smelt right. In any case, there was something making his bigger half grow increasingly uneasy and itch to bound far away. Nodding in understanding, Steve didn’t look like he begrudged him the feeling.

“You do what you have to Bruce,” he handed him a scrap of paper with a cell number on it. “There’s my new number, call me when you’re settled and I’ll let you know anything I’ve managed to find.” He paused, taking a mental step back from the sick churning inside him to say warmly. “Safe journey.” He didn’t ask where the doctor was heading, not needing to know, just said a quiet goodbye and left. Back on the road home, Steve sorted through his whirling thoughts. He couldn’t believe it, his past was threatening to haunt him as if the spectres in the night weren’t torment enough – he’d died so this weapon would be kept away from innocents and now it was being poked at right here by stupid fuc-

He had to steal it back and return it. Do the seemingly impossible. Luckily, he had a genius on his side and also renewed purpose. Not only would getting the Tesseract off Earth be beneficial for keeping Humankind safe from itself as well as the Right Thing to do, it would also piss one certain insane Army General right off.

Steve grinned a little. He was more than okay with that.

Chapter Text

Tony woke up in a darkened room. He had a slight headache but not the worst hangover he’d ever had, groaning he leant forward before realising that he’d already been sitting up. Shifting around and blinking, he realised that he was sitting in an empty movie theatre. What the hell? When had been the last time he’d been to a theatre? Had he even…? Yeah, of course he had, one of the nannies must have taken him when he was a kid, or had that been the entertainment room at the Mansion? It was hard to tell now. He rubbed his face with one hand, reaching the other into his jacket pocket to ring someone to ask what the hell was going on when a bright light turned on behind him. Startling, he realised that it was the projector and on the screen was the certificate for ‘Casablanca’. This must be a dream. Pinching himself, when had been the last time he’d had to do that?, he confirmed that he was in fact awake. Huh. He heard footsteps behind him and turned around just to see a black blur as the seats creaked and suddenly the Phantom was sitting next to him. Tony could barely restrain the yelp which the sudden appearance had caused so had no chance to stifle the surprised laugh a second later as he realised what his kidnapper was holding. Popcorn. A large drink and some popcorn. For a long moment, Tony Stark was dumbfounded. But then again, why was he not more surprised? As he was being passed the popcorn, he recovered and hid a smirk, snarking.

“You know if you’d wanted a date, you could have just asked for my phone number like a normal person.” He kept the same expression but suddenly realised that he could feel the weight of his phone in his inner jacket pocket. Either his ghostly friend was getting sloppy or that meant something. The Phantom shifted back in his seat, putting the drink into the holder between their seats before replying casually.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I’m not the most normal person in the world.” He turned his head slightly so Tony could see that this time he wore only a light black gauze over his eyes as opposed to the usual lenses; Tony could only just make out sparkling light eyes before his abductor went on. “Nor are you for that matter.” The billionaire didn’t hide his grin, he liked this bold side to his frenemy; not that he didn’t adore the goofy, bashful side but this was newer and exciting, a new dimension to the enigma. He began to reply but was quickly shushed as the opening music played. Wanting to talk more but quelled by the intensity with which his unlikely movie companion was watching, Tony settled back and decided to play this wierdo’s game. He was still thinking over the presence of his phone and whether he should try to activate the homing signal in it before realising.

He last remembered stumbling around another damn party, running on fumes after days in the lab hacking and tracking and building and he’d been vaguely aware of a pressing need to pee – coffee was usually his friend but it did come with annoying consequences. So he’d gone to the bathroom and… For the first time in years, Tony blushed. He hadn’t fallen asleep mid-pee? Right? No, he side-eyed the Phantom quickly before looking away again, trying desperately to remember. No, he’d definitely done his business and he’d just leant against the wall on the way to the sink when… Ah, he subtly checked what he was wearing and gave a small sniff, thankful that he couldn’t detect any embarrassing scents under the smell of popcorn and aftershave – thank goodness Pepper had literally thrown him into the shower beforehand.

Oh God. Well, Casper didn’t look like he was going to comment, all his attention seemingly glued to the screen. Tony forced himself to not be embarrassed and theorized that if he had indeed been snatched unconscious from the toilets of a well-to-do, heavily guarded house then someone would know about it. After his previous, hmmm, disappearances, JARVIS – and Pepper, Happy had betrayed him! – had insisted on, if not a body tracker implanted under the skin – because, no! just no! – then have a tracker installed in one of his many fancy watches. He could feel he was still wearing it and surreptitiously checking it was still working, he confirmed that it was. It was almost disappointing, knowing that he’d be soon ‘rescued’ from the vigilante’s beautifully set-up, erm, date? So in the meantime, he decided to settle down and enjoy the movie. To his immense surprise, he found himself enjoying himself. Not that he was a reverse snob and thought black and white movies were automatically boring or anything, just that he didn’t really like films without robots and explosions in them. Relaxing further, he offered the Phantom the popcorn box but the cat-burglar shook his head, smiling at him briefly before returning his attention to the screen.

“So, it’s been a while.” Pulling his attention away from the screen for a moment, his companion murmured in agreement but didn’t elaborate on any reasoning as to why that was. Tony pressed. “Didn’t like the competition?”

“Huh?”

“The archery guy at the church, thought maybe his bow skills threatened your rep as the true Robin Hood in town.” The Phantom stared for another moment before snorting.

“You’re weird.” Grinning at the playful tone, Tony snapped back.

You’re weird.” This earned him another small laugh that kept his stomach warm as they silently settled back down to watch. As the Germans entered the bar on screen, strangely Tony was reminded of the mysterious ‘Council’ referenced in the data he’d hacked from SHIELD. He’d gone through the info he’d hacked when he’d been questioned after the first kidnapping but it all had been mostly useless drivel he could have guessed the organisation was doing. However, irritatingly but also worringly, JARVIS had highlighted a lot of references to a ‘Phase 2’ project within recorded conversations between Fury and this ‘Council’ but there’d been no actual file or explanation anywhere of what it was. Both inventor and AI had been suspicious with a project name like that as well as the lack of concrete outlines, reasoning that the main files were being kept on a separate, more secure server. Bad feeling about it did Tony have. He had, however, come across the Phantom’s file. SHIELD had listed him as a mercenary with the possibility of mutant powers and was unsure of almost everything else about the ghost, making Tony feel less stupid for feeling the same way. On the one hand, it was idiotic to trust anyone in a mask – Iron Man was a suit of armour employed by a genius billionaire so he didn’t count – and whilst the Phantom hadn’t purposefully injured or exploited Tony – that he knew of – it could still all be just a ploy, an attempt to gain leverage for some shady goal. But Tony could list all the logical and rational reasons for distrusting the guy and trying to bring him in and it still wouldn’t change the weird, fuzzy-twisty-stomachey feeling he got whenever around the ninja-wanna-be – there are good reasons why Tony discounted Psychology as a science. Like right then, sitting in that dark theatre for example, even without speaking or looking around, he was unaccountably aware of the vigilante’s presence next to him; well, maybe not ‘unaccountably’, it wasn’t exactly hard to work out why, not creating a new element hard anyhow. Self-analysing, something which Tony usually avoided doing, he concluded that it was the voice and the words and the warmth emanating from the masked man. Truthfully, not many people had managed to make that much of a lasting impression on Tony over the years, especially without accompanying visuals.

Speaking of visuals, the futurist briefly pondered the movie choice. A classic, yes, no denying that, this vigilante had taste and judging by the rapt attention from his companion during certain scenes, he’d seen it before and thought highly of it. Surprisingly Tony found himself content to watch it with minimal interruptions, every so often making a small joke or remark which pulled the Phantom’s attention to him for a blessed moment. He supposed that it could be considered a date movie… His thoughts trailed off as the pair stopped, reciting those famous lines with the plane in the background. He was almost startled that’d he’d sat through all the movie without getting bored, perhaps it’d been the warm presence beside him that had held him in his seat. The credits started rolling and the Phantom turned to Tony, the billionaire expecting a quip or cheesy line or anything really except-

“When I was little my mom used to sing me this lullaby from the Home Country,” the one thing about the ghost that Tony was certain of was his supernatural ability to blindside a genius with complete non sequiturs and comments that came right the hell out of nowhere.

“Okay…?” Tony ventured. Brain quickly analysing the surprising sentence: the Phantom was an immigrant?, probably second generation considering the flawless American accent, which group of immigrants most uses the phrase ‘Home Country’? Irish perhaps? It was still a weird and archaic way of speaking so intrigued, Tony held his tongue and listened on.

“It was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard and I loved it, it was like she was sharing a part of herself with me, a part of our history.” There was a sadness pooling underneath the even tone, making Tony feel uneasy, not sure where it was going. The Phantom paused. “I sang it once to,” he hesitated and edited what he’d been bout to say, “well, I haven’t met anyone who’d ever heard of it. And when they asked what it meant… I had no idea. I couldn’t remember and, she wasn’t there to ask,” he leant forward minutely, “it was just one of the things I wished I’d asked her, wish I’d remembered.” They sat there in the quiet for a long moment, Tony beginning to understand the point of the out-of-the-blue anecdote. Feeling a compulsion he didn’t think he’d ever feel, Tony replied quietly.

“I don’t…I don’t have many memories of my mom.” Vague memories of her face surfaced momentarily, Tony found himself feeling sad and nostalgic, a rare combination, so he paused, for once thinking about the words before letting them out and to his immense relief his ninja-friend waited patiently. “But I remember she always made an effort to be around more for the holidays. This one time, I must have been seven or eight, it was a few days before Christmas and I was skating on the lake on our grounds. It was just me and Jarvis, I was skating and he was watching,” he smiled, “he was holding this umbrella as it was still snowing, just standing there all prim and proper in the snow, telling me to not skate too far from the edges.” The memory surprised him with its vividness, he hadn’t  dwelled on his childhood in a long time, shaking his head minutely he went on, “anyway I ignored his warnings and fell in,” he heard a soft snort from next to him and grinned, “so J got me out and bundled me up back at the house and then my mom came down and she just scooped me up in her arms and sat me down by the fire and,” his throat clicked as he swallowed, going on determinedly, “she told me stories from her childhood and just talked and talked and, yeah…” As he trailed off, Tony became painfully aware of the all-encompassing quiet of the theatre broken only by the faintest breaths from the seat next to him and his own beating heart. “It’s one of the better ones.” He swallowed as his listener murmured.

“Thanks.” Blinking fiercely, he was startled into looking at the Phantom.

“For what? You’re the one who did all, this, stuff.” He gestured around the empty theatre, brows furrowing slightly and whilst there was a breathy chuckle from beside him, he could detect a weird tone in the Phantom’s next words.

“No, just… It’s been nice, to do this, I liked it.” Tony frowned even harder, about to ask for an explanation but was interrupted by the Phantom tensing up suddenly, body jacknifed like a startled deer. Tony instinctively tensed to, his mind supplying him with warning signals though he couldn’t consciously find anything wrong. The Phantom stood up and quickly retreated up the aisle, Tony twisting in his seat protesting as his kidnapper left behind an echoing. “I’ll see you around, Tony.” Left alone in a movie theatre, his hands sticky and mouth open, Tony resisted the urge to rub his face vigorously. He got up slowly, bristling a little at the swift and dismissive departure, wiping his hands on his rumpled suit and reaching for his phone, noting that it was turned off. He still had a bad feeling in his gut, but it had lessened slightly with the Phantom’s disappearance and he wouldn’t have been left alone if he was in danger, would he? Now that he was alone, he wondered two things: why no one had swept in to ‘rescue’ him since he still had his watch and doubted that the Phantom could have tampered with it – unless the guy was seriously holding out on him on the tech front – and also why on realising that he still had his phone, he hadn’t tried to use it before he was left alone? Ok, so the answer to the second question wasn’t that hard, again, not as hard as creating new element yadda yadda, he had this weird trust bond thing going on with the masked vigilante, no brainer. The startled way the Phantom had left reminded him of how their last, erm, encounter had ended, with Legolas showing up, growling at the thought he stumbled out into the lobby and looking around guessed that the theatre had been closed down years, if not decades ago. Dust clung what was left of the décor, the carpet was moth-ridden and the walls faded but Tony was suddenly on high alert as he heard the sound of people, lots of people, heavy boots and low voices all around him. He looked down at his now working phone to see several texts and missed calls, the latest of which was from a withheld number and said simply.

 

Hang tight Maid Marian

 

Tony’s brain instantly supplied: Maid Marian, Robin Hood’s girl, Robin Hood, Arrows, annoying SHIELD agent. Great. Just great. As predicted, a dozen or so SHIELD idiots blundered through the ancient doors, guns raised and shining their flashlights in Tony’s face. Sighing, he raised his hands in surrender and drawled.

“You guys are so late I want my tax dollars back.” Losing interest in Tony, and he in them, the agents split up to sweep the building and the inventor couldn’t be bothered to tell them that it was a useless endeavour. Someone came up to him and started talking in rapid fire but tired, still a little hung-over and with a strange twisting feeling in his gut, Tony mostly ignored him. Vaguely he wondered where Mr Hood was in amongst all the whirlwind of activity, but his mind was nagging him about something else. There’d seemed to be a strange tone underlying the Phantom’s words before his sudden departure- Tony froze, realising.

It had been a goodbye.

Well, this made everything a lot more difficult and awkward, Steve thought half-amused to himself as he ducked and dodged his way through the lines of SHIELD agents. He’d hoped to have a longer goodbye to his second favourite person in the future, no, the present, this is your life now, but he supposed philosophically that he’d spent enough time wasting time with the billionaire that he should have been dedicating to taking down the morally bankrupt division which had held him captive for so long.

It had to be that way. Steve thought miserably as he swung away, his tactical mind showing him the best routes of escape as the sun began peaking above the horizon and stealing his best hiding places. It had to end now. With a plan finally in motion to take down Ross and return the Tesseract, he couldn’t let himself be distracted or get Tony in trouble by association. The SHIELD agents were a sign from the universe to get on with things. In fact, thinking about it, he probably should have just sent the billionaire a note after the first time, it would have been so much easier. Frowning and being stern with himself, Steve thought, no, I don’t regret the time we shared together. A few more twists and turns and he’d lost them, well, the normal agents anyway. The director’s assassins would be a lot harder to evade but for now he didn’t feel any warning pinpricks on the back of his neck so he knew they weren’t in direct pursuit at the moment. Still, he made a note to keep moving, working much harder to lose the tail before he headed to where he’d left his equipment.

For a crazy moment he considered ditching the whole plan and kidnapping Tony permanently; he could get a nice basement flat or house in the country, would Tony really mind if he gave him space to invent, looked after him properly making him food and drinks and warming his bed? He had to be stern with himself to avoid stumbling off a roof due to being distracted by the things he was imagining. Ever honest with himself, Steve had been unable to ignore his growing attraction to the inventor. Starting few and far between, those wistful moments spent indulging in gazing at the posed press pictures of the billionaire with the excuse of research or replaying snippets of their conversations again and again in his head soon became far too frequent to shrug off. Only minutes before when he’d been making the man laugh with his quiet asides Steve’s stomach had been fluttering, a warmth spreading inside his chest. The urge to tell him about his mom had been spontaneous and had overruled his usual caution with displaying too much of himself to who was essentially his victim, in a way. Not that Tony Stark had ever acted like a victim of anything, even though Steve knew his painful history, no, the inventor was quick-witted and charming, his eyes sparkled darkly and some of the things he said gave Steve hot flushes. He’d had to force himself to remember the extremely important plan to possibly save a lot of people to motivate himself to leave, when all he’d wanted to do was to lean over, hold that softly grinning face and kiss him hard, then soft, then hard and urgent and desperately- No, stop dreaming Rogers. Get your head out of the clouds. Twisting round a sharp corner, he grunted and pushed those desires deep down. He had a job to do and at the moment, that was all that mattered.

“Stark, this is Dr Winston. He’s got a few questions for you.” Tony glanced at the be-speckled lab coat before returning his gaze to Fury and holding back a sigh. Another day, another stupid grilling at SHIELD; what a crappy way to end such a nice kidnapping/date with his favourite vigilante! Seriously, how hadn’t Pepper got him out of this? Oh right yeah, maybe it was because of the rage and worry from his most recent kidnapping, especially since it had only been an hour or two since SHIELD had burst in and ruined everything. Travelling in the back of one of SHIELD’s boring helicopters he’d been ripped several new ones from the other side of a very short phone call, making even the stony-faced agents wince at the shouting coming from his irate ex-PA. Shoes, so many shoes would be needed to even hope to reconcile after this. When she’d abruptly hung up, Tony had slumped, allowing himself a moment of vulnerability before he’d have to face the Ominous Eye Patch of Jugdey Spyness – a more awake part of his brained noted to copyright that. He was tired to the bone, not really physically tired, but weary from the stress of being accosted by so many jerks in uniform but also from worrying about how his vigilante friend was faring versus Fury’s own ‘ghosts’. And, he realised with a start, that even if the Phantom hadn’t given him a coded goodbye, it was high-time to stop messing around and come up with fool-proof anti-kidnapping protocols. As Pepper had so rationally and shoutingly put it: “How can a so-called genius be kidnapped every time I turn around?!” Called back into the present by Fury’s intense one-eyed stare, Tony mustered all the snark he had left.

“Fury, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a billionaire genius, a lot of people have questions for me a lot of the time-”

“Excuse me Mr Stark,” the scientist interrupted, quietly but with authority, “my questions concern your encounter with the one they call: the Phantom. It is of the utmost importance we locate him and we believe you can help us.” Sparing the lab coat another glance, he noted the intense eyes behind the round glasses, the fidgety hands on the clipboard and the almost lip-licking glee etched on his pinched face. Yeah, this guy was definitely on the genuinely insane side of ‘mad scientist’.

“And why would that be? I hardly know the guy-” Fury, damn him, cut in with his usual awkward and perceptive bluntness.

“But he seems to have taken an interest in you. And judging by your reactions to these various ‘encounters’, how do we know you’re not in contact with him and arranging to-?” Truly taken aback by Fury’s implication, Tony interjected.

“That’s crazy! Why would I arrange to be kidnapped?”

“To be honest I don’t know why you do anything Stark,” Fury interrupted, glaring even harder as he steamrolled over Tony’s attempt at replying, “the only thing I do know is that the only link we have to this untraceable perp is you! So just answer the man’s damn questions!” Oh wow, had that vein always been that well pronounced? Refusing to be intimidated, Tony wondered how far on Fury’s Rage Scale that outburst had been and could he push him even further?

“This is the problem with your organisation Fury, always demanding instead of asking!” As Tony bated his breath for the explosion, the creepy doctor piped up helpfully.

“Oh, I don’t work for SHIELD!” Tony glared but refrained from dignifying that inane comment with a response before his attention was belatedly caught by the words. Not SHIELD? SHIELD was outsourcing? No, they wouldn’t bring someone in on an operation like this without smothering them in Non-Disclosure Agreements and vetting them within an inch of their lives. This was someone with either invaluable skills or knowledge… Pulling a terrifying fake-grin, Tony turned to the scientist and exclaimed.

“Oh well in that case! Fire away!” Seemingly unaware of the artifice of this sudden agreement, the scientist brightened and straightened his clipboard. Fury didn’t say anything but fumed silently in the background as the scientist began his questioning.

“Could you describe the Phantom? Physically first, and then his state of mind.” Huh, not his personality, did the doctor not believe the vigilante have one? Why did he specify 'state of mind', do they think he's insane? Carefully keeping his voice casual whilst vetting everything that made it out of his mouth, Tony paid close attention to both the questions and the scientist’s reaction to his answers. Finding out who this guy was and what his interest in the vigilante would be invaluable to his quest to find out everything there was to know about the man himself.

 “Did you notice a spike in radiation during your encounters?” Almost slipping up on his incredulity at such a bizarre question, Tony spared a lightening quick glance at the hovering Spymaster in the corner, before replying sarcastically.

“Funny you should ask! My portable radiation sensor was going off the chart!”

“Really?” Not energised enough to continue his joke, Tony admitted in a deadpan voice.

“No.” Those beady eyes narrowed.

“Mr Stark, please do not attempt to undermine the data with,” he sniffed, “attempts at humour.” The genius held his hands up innocently before gesturing the man to continue, which he did after an unimpressed pause. “Did he seem enhanced in any way?” Mind flicking back to SHIELD’s file on the Phantom, Tony guessed they were still trying to figure out any superhuman abilities.

“What do you mean by that?” The scientist shifted his glasses, seemingly an excited gesture.

“Anything which appeared…superhuman.” Now that was a loaded question.

“No, not that I could tell.” Dr Creepy twisted his face, imploring Tony with exasperation and a hint of desperation.

“Please Mr Stark, you must tell any information we can use to bring him in. We must re-attain him!” And didn’t that send a cold shard of ice down Tony’s spine. His voice was surprisingly steady when he enquired.

“Who’s we?”

“Alright, that’s enough questions.” Fury cut in again, his tone not wary exactly, but Tony understood exactly what he was doing anyway. “As Mr Stark is so keen to constantly remind us, he is indeed a very busy man.”

“Actually, it means a great deal to me to-” unfortunately, Fury insisted.

“Yes, very busy…” And Tony found himself being marched away, too tired to make a fuss and too disturbed to find an opportunity to plant a bug for JARVIS to hack from.

Now Tony was definitely not keeping count of the number of kidnappings there have been, no sir! He’s not some weird teenage girl whose idea of romance is being snatched away from a mundane life by a borderline psychopath, so he definitely hasn’t recorded each encounter with a summary of what happened and notes with ideas of who the Phantom could be and what his potential motives were. Because that would be lame and Tony Stark is awesome; what he will admit to, however, is keeping a file on the encounters, just for records to, easily, analyse all the data and eventually er, track the guy who, keeps on… who he keeps on encountering. Yeah. That. Anyway, he had a legitimate reason to keep tabs on the vigilante now he’d garnered some information on his potential origin, a hard feeling in his stomach settling whenever he thought about it. So when he was, well, sort of kidnapped in their fourth encounter, Tony was going to call it ‘Kidnapping 3.5’, of course Tony kept a record of what happened on file.

If you were to twist Tony’s arm for an audible account, it might go something like this:

Well that was the last time he was just popping out for a coffee. Get out in the fresh air Pepper said, get out of that horrible greasy lab she said, do you good she said. Groaning, Tony slowly got to his feet, dazedly scanning the rubble around him. A low buzzing played in his ears with faint screams and car horns underlying it. Head fuzzy, he was suddenly yanked to the side, stumbling, mouth open to call out for help or indignation he hadn’t quite decided when a black gloved hand smothered him for a moment. Clarity fighting through the haze, he protested mutely, hands grabbing at the arms tugging him into an alleyway until his eyes focused and he realised that it was the Phantom. Or at least a Phantom-like blur.

“It’s ok, calm down it’s just me.” Yep, it was him. Relaxing, he dropped his arms and his black-clad… kidnapper? Bodyguard? - Seriously, what was he doing here?  - looked back towards the street, as if listening out for something. Stomach turning over in rebellion at the abuse its owner recently went through, Tony grumbled and slide down the no doubt filthy wall. No matter, no use worrying about that after surviving…a bomb blast? Ow, hurt to think.

“That all you?” He blurted, slurring slightly and his voice quite in his own ears. The Phantom sharply looked round from surveying the street, without words showing the offense he took at the implication. He didn’t answer, just looked back, walking a few paces to get a better view. Tony could hear the sirens now, vaguely. Gulping down the bile threatening to splatter on his now-ruined-anyway-so-why-stop-now?-Armani suit, he brought a hand up to his face before noticing how red it looked. Staring at it, he suddenly felt the throbbing of an open wound oozing blood across his palm. God, how was he going to finish the updates to the armour now? He tested it, clenching his hand and forced down a gasp at the sting, all the way across his palm. Fuck! The Phantom approached him again, was that tutting Tony could hear?, and knelt down and pressed a red handkerchief he’d pulled out from somewhere – surely he must have had some training at Magic school? – against the long cut on Tony’s palm. Tony, very rarely subdued, kept on babbling like normal. “So you aren’t gonna knock me out?” At the grunt which he took for a negative, he beamed. “Yay! I feel like my clearance has been upgraded!” Was that amusement he could detect in the huff behind the mask? “Or am I being too presumptuous?” That black-clad head turned firmly away, shoulders shifting up slightly, his voice was scratchy when he finally said.

“Just hold still.” Tony grinned, gotcha!

“Not presumptuous enough! I like it!” The Phantom didn’t reply, simply checking that the bleeding had stopped and tying the handkerchief around the wound as a pseudo-bandage. “Hey, is that paisley?” It was. The Phantom, described by the press as a ruthless shadow that doggedly stalks the well-to-do people of New York, was tying a red paisley handkerchief around a billionaire’s injured hand. “I haven’t seen this since…” He was rudely interrupted by a low mutter from his self-appointed nurse who was still crouched down, eyeing the wound worriedly.

“You should get this checked out, might get infected.”

“By this paper cut? Hardly, I’m pretty sure this is the mildest injury I’ve ever sustained, I like to live dangerously.” He winked cheesily but didn’t get a response for a long moment, before a seemingly casual question.

“Where do billionaire’s go to get patched up?”

“Eh, I’ve got stuff at home, money you know,” the Phantom answered his look with a shrug, “or if I got really bad I supposed I could let those goons at SHhhh-” He mentally slapped himself to get a grip, “Shore Road Hospital help me out.” Oh no, that wasn’t a convinced silence, that was a doubting silence. Nice one Tony! He was doubly in trouble now that he’d remembered that the only hospital beginning with ‘Sh’ in New York had closed down…Maybe he could convince the guy that it was a cover for rich, entitled people to be treated with privacy? Oh who was he kidding? The place was in Brooklyn! But the Phantom shifted a little before asking nonchalantly.

“Huh, is that where Dr Rosario works?” Tony was immediately interested, Phantom was ignoring – or hopefully truly ignorant of – his mistake and was mentioning he knew a third party, a possible person to interro- ask nicely about him.

“Dr who now?” The Phantom hesitated for second before continuing.

“Dr Rosario, a young lady, red hair, around your height…kinda scary?” Now Tony was on alert: that was a description that sounded like the Phantom wanted Tony to know something, maybe suspected Tony did know of this doctor. His stomach dropped, his whole body suddenly cold. The memory of being questioned by that creepy Dr Winston guy and sympathy for whoever he was looking for rose up in his mind. What if the Phantom had been part of some dodgy government experiment and had bailed for whatever reason. Escaped? Or did he just steal some of their research? Despite his injury, disorientation and growing suspicion, Tony replied equally nonchalantly.

“Doesn’t ring a bell. Why, she patch you up? Wouldn’t that be weird if we got seen to by the same doctor? Small world, huh?” Seemingly disinterested in the conversation after that response, the Phantom made a show of checking the make-shift bandage’s knot, as if reluctant to move.  Tony was filled with doubt, surely someone on the run wouldn’t be stupid enough to attract attention, even if it was to an alter ego. Yeah, the Phantom seemed like a clever guy, he’s probably just an ambitious thief. Eventually, giving up the pretence the thief in question dropped the handkerchief and stared at Tony for a moment. Already woozy and confused, Tony asked a little irritably.

“What?”

 “Nothing, just… stay safe.” Purposefully ignoring the unusual amount of concern in the Phantom’s comment and the additional hint that he may soon be left alone by the ghost, Tony just chuckled.

“’Fraid no can do with my lifestyle, what with the car chases, stalkers, kidnappers…” He grinned but he could tell that his vigilante wasn’t smiling with him. There was some renewed screaming from the street behind them and the Phantom looked back, body half-turned as if to protect Tony from whatever was out there. Almost reluctantly, Tony used the Phantom’s momentary distraction to reach into his inside jacket pocket with his good hand to activate the beaconing device. He felt a small, single vibration against his chest signalling the suit’s imminent arrival. His kidnapper was half-raised now, cautiously approaching the entrance to the alley but still keeping some attention on Tony’s whereabouts. Tony clamped down on the urge to demand he stay, but couldn’t keep from calling out a bit pathetically.

 “You stickin’ around?” Deciding that they were safe enough for the moment, the Phantom jogged back to Tony, seeming to ignore the double meaning to the question, sounding stiff as he forced a small, unhappy laugh.

“Sorry, no kidnapping scheduled for today.” Tony opened his mouth but his reply was interrupted by the arrival of the armour. He was extremely annoyed by the interruption but to his delight, the Phantom all but glared at the metal bodyguard. For a second Tony half-expected the vigilante to dish out a stern dressing down to the machine, but then his stance shifted and he vaulted onto the fire escape, climbing nimbly up it and onto the roof. Tony craned his neck, contemplating jumping into the suit and chasing after him but decided against it. Even if the Phantom’s hints that he’d stop trying to kidnap him were true, it seemed like they wouldn’t stop bumping into each other. Anyway, he thought grumbling as the suit picked him up bridal style, couldn’t risk the Phantom or someone else seeing him getting into the armour. As JARVIS flew home, he informed him that the first official reports coming in cited the explosion as a gas leak, but there was scepticism in the delivery. Tony frowned, instructing JARVIS to go as fast as he could. There was some more investigating to do.

Chapter Text

“Where’s Mr Stark?” The shout took Iron Man by surprise, cutting cleanly over the robotic beeps and screeches of the Doom bots that were flooding Times Square. Luckily the metallic robots were cheap and clumsy, crashing into buildings and each other rather than attacking civilians although Tony was perplexed as to where they were coming from. The sewers, it must be, damn that  Doom! The shittiest villain ever and he knew it, he must be taunting Iron Man with how terrible he was and yet somehow managing to slip away unpunished for his crimes against robotics let alone anything else! Half-annoyed at being interrupted in his heroing and half-concerned that someone had managed to slip past JARVIS’ sensors, Tony quickly pinpointed the source of the interruption. Phantom was almost right on top of him and he half-dodged out of the way before realising the masked vigilante was moving to kick away another ill-constructed monstrosity behind him. Tony took a half-second to register both the presence and the question, watching the villain kick the bot’s head off whilst intelligently stuttering.

“Wha…?”

“Is he safe?” The Phantom insisted tersely as he took out another bot with a powerful punch. Yep. Definitely not human. Iron Man shook himself internally and re-joined the fight, repulsor blasting as he got back on track.

“Well hello to you too! Yeah, safe as houses. What’s it to you Cat Woman?” Disapproval was heavy in the following chastisement. Chastisement! From a villain!

“You should be guarding him. Go back to him and do your damn job!” Wow, so he could swear. Tony had begun to think that this really was the embodiment of the Friendly Ghost. Turns out not so much! Well, then again, Casper hadn’t been a muscle-bound anti-hero who occasionally kidnapped millionaires to chat with and feed. Tony could tell the difference between breaking the law for personal gain and acting outside of it for others; this guy was not a money-grabbing scumbag, he had a self-less goal in mind of that Tony was sure. Well, as far as he’d seen. Even taking that into account, he was still one weird vigilante. He was about to retort that a cat-burglar hadn’t any right to tell an armour-wearing superhero off for battling Doom Bots until Phantom, leaping off the falling body of the bot he’d knocked down, climbing onto another and swiping its head off with the expandable baton he’d pulled from nowhere, then carried on their conversation not even out of breath. “I’ll take care of them, go!” Now not doubting the vigilante’s prowess, Tony scrambled for another come-back.

“Hey, I don’t take orders from you Casper!” He snapped, blasting off to keep an eye on the formation of the swarm from above – luckily Doom hadn’t figured out how to make them airborne, yet. Picking off a few that had been approaching his unwanted help from behind, he scanned the emergency and SHIELD lines for any new information but it seemed that the flow of bots was finally ebbing. At the start of the attack Agent had tried to get Iron Man coordinated with SHIELD’s efforts but Tony had ignored him and leapt into the thickest group of bots, dodging their slow flailing arms easily. From his height of about one storey, he could see that there were only really stragglers left, crashing over the remains of the bots he’d already taken down and generally just being a nuisance. All things considering, the property damage wasn’t that bad and he’d been hearing updates from the emergency services that most casualties were light injuries, the evacuation had been fast at least. As he coasted down, taking a few bots out with more repulsor blasts, his not-so-little helper continued chewing his ear off.

“But you take them from Stark and he’s not here!” Although still annoyed at being ordered around by the ninja-obsessed burglar, Tony was glad for the opportunity to question him in his alter ego as he was genuinely curious.

“What is your obsession with my boss anyway? How many times have you kidnapped him, twenty times now?” It had actually been three and a half times, not that Tony had been counting or anything, he just knew for…reasons. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the part-time kidnapper didn’t answer, instead dispatching another two bots with what must have been reinforced boomerangs which flew through their flimsy armour exposing their circuits and shouting over the din.

“Get out of here Iron Man!” Gritting his teeth against the growing irritation and other emotion he didn’t care to identify, Tony ignored the order and helped take down a rogue one that was spasming violently. Panting, as he turned to observe the now calm stretch of bot parts on the street, Tony snarked to Agent that the situation was under control and looked up at the sound of helicopters moving in.

“Hey, I’d thank you for your help today but I didn’t-” Tony cut himself off as he turned back to empty air. That crazy ghost! Frowning, Tony asked.

 “JARVIS, where’d he go?” The reply was a mixture of perplexed and impressed.

“My sensors indicate that Phantom has cleared the area, all scans are negative and there are eight possible routes the Phantom took considering his enhanced abilities and knowledge of the city-” Tony interrupted him.

“That son of a-! How’d he do that?” He’d been so sure that his potential frenemy had been completely human, stealthy and highly trained but still… Tony cursed. “Damn magic and/or mutant-ness…!” He took off, still scanning despite knowing it unlikely he’d pick up anything. “JARVIS, we need to figure out a way to track this guy.”

“Indeed sir.” Tony frowned, about to ask his AI what that meant, but then bit his tongue. Oh, right. Snarky AI, thinks he knows everything. Shutting off the line of the annoying Agent, Tony flew back to the tower, perhaps Mr Stark should hold a press conference praising the efforts of his noble bodyguard Iron Man so everyone knew the score.

Yes, an excellent plan!

“Gah!” Well, this wasn’t exactly how he’d pictured his big reveal. Iron Man dodged the throwing stick sent his way by the black-clad vigilante whom he’d thought he’d been sneaking up on. Perhaps the heavy suit of armour had been the give-away. But seriously, throwing sticks? Who was this guy’s supplier? Tony could make better weapons with spoons and some scotch tape! “Woah, woah calm down! I’m just here to talk.” He didn’t receive a reply from the now crouching Phantom but then maybe he’d spent all his talking quota on their last encounter. It had taken Tony quite a while to track the ghost down after their last encounter with the doom bots; a lot of dodging important meetings to obsess over sightings, hiding his additional kidnappings from Pep and the authorities and resisting SHIELDs attempts to interview Iron Man about his encounter with the Phantom – the sneaky shits, how had they known? Finally two weeks later he’d gotten lucky with the programme he’d set up on all public cameras – and maybe some private ones too – to pick up ninja-figures or suspicious-looking shadows. Now, here on a rooftop across from the Met, he’d found the vigilante seemingly preparing to launch a zipwire down and perform his latest heist. Quickly taking in the tense figure and the black sports bag beside it, Tony began explaining on his fastest setting. “Look, I’m not here to bust you on whatever this is, though I do advise you against it if you want to avoid the wrath of a not-so-jolly pirate, I just have a message from Mr Stark.” Again, silence, but it seemed like the more open-to-conversation kind. His sensors indicated the Phantom’s heart rate was descending again from the spike his appearance had caused so he considered that permission to continue.

“You didn’t give me a chance last time. Here, he wanted to give you this back.” Reaching into a little retractable pocket he’d built into the suit, he pulled out the red handkerchief and stepped forward to offer it to Phantom but the burglar stepped back, shaking his head minutely.

“No.” Tony frowned, his expression hidden behind the gold plate but his confusion audible in his reply.

“Seriously, take it, he’s rich, he’s got loads.” But the vigilante stepped back again, hand on his bag though his attention never strayed from the cloth in Iron Man’s gauntlet. “Come on, he dry-cleaned it and everything.” Still no reaction, beginning to get a little unnerved and then agitated, Tony insisted. “It was obviously important to you so- Oh! Is it like a…?” His pause was long and mysterious enough to draw out an enquiry from the tight-lipped vigilante.

“What?” Wracking his brains, Tony tried to explain.

“You know…like those ladies in jolly old England who’d give their hankies to their guys, you know for duels and stuff.” Still reluctant but almost compelled to reply, the Phantom supplied.

“…Favours?”

“Is that what they were called? I don’t know, is it that? You wooing me, Casper?” Now if Tony had had to guess how the masked man would react to such a question, he would have said that there would be spluttering and a blush so hot he could feel from under the mask and a few feet away. But he was surprised when the vigilante just stared at him silently before grabbing his bag and jumping over the edge. Alarmed, Iron Man stumbled forward, burst of static erupting through his speakers as he gasped, running to the edge and scanning the area.

“JARVIS?!”

“Heat signature scaling down the North side of the building, two floors down, but sir-”

“What the…?” Iron Man launched up and followed, determined to finish their conversation.

“Sir, I would not recommend pursuit.”

“What do you mean?” The heat vision flickered and went out and as the normal camera struggled to pick up light Tony completely lost the Phantom’s position. When it rebooted three seconds later, the Phantom had completely vanished. Cursing, he knew he was never going to find the guy again that night. “Dammit! Lost him again. I was just trying to do something nice!” He hovered moodily, still confused as to the Phantom’s reaction; he’d pegged the vigilante as a bashful, worrier-warrior for good and love and shit. Every time he’d spoken with the guy he’d always managed to get him to blush at least once but this time, no dice. It was a little unsettling and very disappointing. “And what was up with you Jarv?”

“Sir, I believe the Phantom does not trust your Iron Man persona as much as he does yourself as Mr Stark, pursuing would be fruitless even if you did manage to capture him,” Tony considered, when put like that, maybe it was best to let the guy go, till next time… “however, there is always the option of analysing the throwing stick.” It took a few seconds but then Tony remembered and headed back to the roof; landing down he used one of his helmet lights to find the black stick in the dark. He picked it up and examined it briefly. Lightweight metal, probably a kind of aluminium, no distinguishing features or company logos… He could do more detailed analysis at the lab.

Smiling, he tucked it under his arm and blasted off.

Tony stared at the data, pen in his mouth and ears mostly blocking out the loud rock music. He’d just changed out of the suit, anxious to start analysing that darned throwing stick. There was nothing noteworthy about it so far, it could have been purchased from any online weapon store but Tony was still buzzing from the adrenaline of the encounter and shaking his head, seriously!? A throwing stick? He just managed to refrain from gesticulating wildly like a madman when JARVIS lowered the volume of the music and interjected.

“Sir, after cataloguing and saving the latest video and audio data from your recent encounter with the Phantom, I believe I have uncovered a problem.” Frowning, Tony took the pen out of his mouth.

“What is it J?”

“It appears that you may have inadvertently revealed your secret identity.” Tony’s blood froze and he choked.

“What?! How?” That wasn’t possible, that just wasn’t possible.

“Playing the audio clip now, sir… You wooing me, Casper?...” For a moment, Tony couldn’t think of anything revealing about the fragment, until it hit him. He’d been talking as Tony Stark whilst wearing the Iron Man armour. You wooing me, ‘me’ as in Tony, whom the Phantom had leant the handkerchief to… Dread flooded him. Checking over the data again, Tony saw a spike in the Phantom’s heartbeat as he’d heard Tony accidentally out himself and felt his stomach drop. Oh God, he knows! No wonder he’d fled without a word instead of blushing. Oh God, worse! Tony had no idea how he’d take it, whether he’d keep it to himself, whether he’d sell the information… Maybe that’s what he’d been after all along, Iron Man’s identity and Tony had just handed it to him on a silver platter! His own heart rate increasing rapidly, he vaguely heard his AI continue talking but couldn’t make out the words. Calm, calm… Hey, he could just pretend like sometimes Tony Stark borrows the suit, or, well, he does own it after all, he could say… Shit!

“What am I gonna do J?”

“Your options do appear limited, sir.”

“Limited?! I’m screwed J!”

“Not necessarily, sir.” Swallowing his panic, he couldn’t quite hold back his fierce sarcasm from spewing forth.

“Oh really, and how did you figure that?”

“Well sir, if you’d permit me a moment to explain my reasoning without interruption?” Tony grumbled but let him continue. “Very well sir, for the Phantom to blackmail you there would need to be an imbalance in knowledge and whilst he may think he knows your identity, you also have pertinent information on him.” Tony blinked.

“I do?”

“Indeed sir, my analysis of the ‘throwing stick’ is complete and whilst mostly anonymous there are partial fingerprints left on the handle.” Eagerly, Tony scanned the data as JARVIS continued explaining. “The fingerprints do not match any police records sir,” starting, Tony glanced up at that, so either Phantom had been a regular law-abiding citizen till his cat burglaring days, never been caught or- “There is a link to Dr Winston sir.” Tony frowned, thinking back to his meeting with that creep at SHIELD and stomach churning at the implications.

“How JARVIS?”

“Running through the data hacked from SHIELD databases, these exact fingerprints feature in a file given to SHIELD by Dr Winston detailing how to identify ‘Subject Alpha’.” Tony’s insides curdled unpleasantly.

“So we’re thinking that Phantom is this, ‘Subject Alpha’?”

“It would appear so, although the file does not contain any photographs, the Phantom would most certainly fit into the broad descriptions.” The genius turned the information over in his mind. Why wasn’t there a picture? Surely that would be the most useful tool in order to identify someone? Something was definitely wrong about this whole thing. What was Subject Alpha anyway? If the vibes he’d gotten off Dr Winston were anything to go by, it’d all been a shady military experi-

“Banner.”

Turns out Tony hadn’t needed to be worried about any blackmail or messy confrontations as after that the Phantom promptly disappeared. Maybe for good. No thefts, no sightings, not even reports of any poltergeisting! For weeks Tony scanned the news, blogs following heroes and villains, even police radios for reports, but all in vain. He really didn’t want to try and hack SHIELD again, wanting to avoid them figuring it out and having to upgrade his tech to beat theirs so he’d done his own investigation into the mysterious project years ago that had been the precursor to Dr Banner’s disappearance. Not that he thought that the doctor was Phantom, even though he’d never met the man reports hardly suggested that he was either athletic or community-spirited enough to become a vigilante. No, Tony’s working hypothesis was that the doctor was involved somehow. Dr Winston had asked whether he’d registered any spikes in radiation and that was Dr Banner’s speciality. But to his frustration, none of his contacts were useful and digging didn’t unearth anything connected to the fabled experiments. On top of that, there was still no sign of his part-time kidnapper anywhere. Despite the uncertainty of the vigilante’s true goals, Tony still found himself feeling more and more dejected with his continual absence, alongside a kind of hurt. Yes, the Phantom had said a kind of goodbye to him after a previous kidnapping but… Tony tried to be stern with himself, channel his inner Pepper and not take any of his bullshit. Speaking of Pepper…

“What are you up to?” Tony spun round, spanner in hand and goggles lop-sided on his forehead. She looked as gorgeous as ever, some folders under her arm and a heavenly-looking cup of coffee in her hand. Handing it over, she raised her eyebrow at his dramatic response.

“Me? Up to something? Why my dear Pepper-!”

“Spare me the theatrics, I know you, this isn’t you. You’ve practically dropped off the radar, if I didn’t bully JARVIS, I’d never see you!” Does this woman have a sixth sense or something? He refrained from expressing this thought by trying to deflect. It never worked with her but he always tried it anyway.

“I’ve been incommunicado before.”

“No, you’ve retreated into the Magical Science Land of Tony before-”

“Aren’t magic and science contradictory?”

“-but this is different,” she eyed him closely, “you’re different...” She trailed off, never a good sign. He attempted a happy-go-lucky grin, knowing he wouldn’t convince her but what the hell? Sensing he wasn’t tired enough to let slip anything, she dropped the subject and sighed, patting him on the head before detailing his schedule for the upcoming week whilst he listened half-heartedly, still thinking about the infuriating puzzle.

In thanks for Iron Man saving some citizens in the metro from a collapsed tunnel the other week, the Mayor wanted to award him a Bravery Award. Flattered and unable to resist, Tony went as Iron Man, collecting the little medal in front of a crowd gathered outside Town Hall. The Mayor made a few nice comments about him – Tony had always liked that guy – and handed over the medal proudly. It was a magnet so clinked onto his chest and a small part of Tony was touched by the forethought and detail. He really did love this city and was glad he could protect it. Tony had debated whether or not to make a speech but still with the possible threat of blackmail over his head, settled for bowing and waving at the crowd, smiling at the posters and Iron Man themed T-shirts. Ignoring the shouted questions, he took off from the platform and flew away. He smirked a little at thinking of the reporters left in the dust and was about to talk to JARVIS when his AI spoke urgently, an ominous beeping blaring out.

“Sir there’s a-” Suddenly the screen went black and Tony felt the entire suit shut down. Panic struck him for the first time in a while, claustrophobia forcing bile to crawl up his throat and his lungs to burn, he could feel himself falling, the heavy suit dragging him down until- He jerked, certain he’d hit the ground and would surely feel excruciating pain…any second now? There was something pulling him – sideways? He was being carried like a rag doll, suspended somehow- Tony squeezed his eyes shut, gulping madly and trying to calm down.

“JARVIS what’s happening?” Only static answered him. “JARVIS?!” The sound of his own, rasping breaths filled his helmet, calm, calm… Brain kicking in again, he worked out that he was on side, being pulled along; he flailed a little, unable to move the heavy metal arms much, but although he registered that he’d managed to knock against things, he couldn’t see – either himself or through his cameras – what was going on. Sound was muffled through the helmet, the speakers still off-line and combined with the strange rocking-pulling motion, Tony managed to gain control of his mounting fear. Just. Suddenly, the motion stopped and…he was being sat down? The reinforced glass of the eyeholes didn’t give a great view, the limited field of vision blurred by the technique to strengthen them, but some light did filter through. Vaguely, he could make out a dull room and a black shape moving around in front of him. Kinda looked like the Grim Reaper, oh God no please! Not yet! Tony swallowed and tried to pull himself from the near hysteria he’d been reaching when he heard a muffled sound through the helmet. Then what might have been words. Calm down, big guy, come on, it’s just a ninja-guy who probably wants something to… No, it couldn’t be! A strange wash of emotions flooded him as he sensed something near his helmet before a burst of static filled his suddenly partially working systems.

“Iron Man, can you hear me?”

SON OF A BITCH! IT WAS HIM!

Torn between wanting to scream in anger and laugh hysterically, Tony’s body settled on wheezing, his heart rate picking up again.

“You sneaky little shit! How…?” Although his sound system was up and running, he couldn’t do much else, weapons, visuals and motor systems were still down; he could only sit there in a heavy metal suit and rant at the asshole who’d done that to him.

“Well if I told you, you’d only come up with a way to stop me from doing it again.” Damn him, where is this sass coming from all of a sudden? Still half-hyperventilating and with a strange ache in his heart, Tony unleashed his fury.

“Again? You’ll be lucky if you ever walk again, you jumped up-!”

“Don’t worry, no one saw.” Well, there was that at least. As if sensing his impatience the familiar voice went on soothingly. “Look, I have my suspicions and you probably have ideas about who I really am,” hmm, now this didn’t sound like blackmail, “but there are reasons we both hide who we are and I respect your reasons as much as I expect you to respect mine.” Now that was a loaded statement. OK, Tony could do that.

“So what you’re saying is, you won’t tell if I don’t?” There was a minute pause.

“Essentially.” Still unbelieving that the kidnapper extraordinaire had actually dared to attempt to kidnap Iron Man, and had succeeded too!, Tony opted for some more light-hearted banter.

“Again, you couldn’t write this in an email?” A snort answered him.

“As I told Mr Stark, I’m not a normal kind of guy.” Tony remembered that conversation as well but he didn’t let himself get caught up in the memory. “And there was another reason I brought you here, I have an offer for you.”

“Is it one I can’t refuse?”

“Not, erm… Well, you’re allowed to-” Allowing himself a grin for unbalancing the so-far serious ghost, Tony stifled a laugh as the Phantom coughed and continued. “Thing is, we need your help, or rather, Mr Stark’s help.” There was so much in that sentence that Tony could have expanded on, he settled for .

“We?” Another voice joined in.

“Yeah…hi.” Tony tensed but the voice quickly tried to put him at ease. “Er, I’m Dr Banner, gamma specialist and fugitive, that’s, part of why we, well, I-” He’d been right! Wow, bulls eye!

“Banner, huh… Bruce Banner?”

“Yeah. You’ve heard of m-?” Blackmail and kidnapping aside for the moment, there was no stopping Tony from his babbling now.

“Heard of you? You’re only the leading researcher in gamma radiation who mysteriously went missing years ago whilst working on a top secret military base! What’s the story there by the way? You’re like an underground hero, all the coolest nerds speculate about what happened! Was it robot dinosaurs?” There was a huff, of amusement or embarrassment.

“That’s good to know, your boss a fan by any chance?” Brain in overdrive, Tony figured it out lightening quick.

“This is you coming out of hiding? Need a place to crash?” There was a tell-tale pause, Tony wishing he could make out more detail through his eye holes. He heard a familiar whirring sound and JARVIS’ voice sounding small and faraway.

“Attempting system reboot, sir.” Unsure of whether the pair would hear his response, Tony didn’t reply, listening hard.

“The deal is, you and Mr Stark agree to house Dr Banner without revealing his presence to anyone, taking care of his safety from the military and I promise to never kidnap your employer again.” Never again? He should want that… right? The moment stretched on. Come on Tony, focus.

“That sounds reasonable, except that Mr Stark had the idea that you’d gotten back on the ‘no kidnapping’ wagon for good. I’m gonna need something else from you.” His additional demands seemed to have been anticipated as the Phantom continued smoothly.

“I’ll let you know how I managed to kidnap you, with a promise to never do that again either.” There was a tense pause before he added softly. “I keep my promises.” Dr Banner made a noise that sounded affirmative and Tony swallowed, confused emotions bubbling up inside him. He just didn’t know what to think. His display began flickering on so he nodded, even if he’d grown used to being kidnapped as Tony Stark, when it happened as Iron Man it was simply terrifying.

“Well, it was pretty simple actually, I used an EMP to shut down your systems and then, well, you’re a bit heavy so I used a handheld magnet to help carry you here.” Huh. Well, how about that? Tony didn’t need to ask where, JARVIS was now almost fully online, his display showing him his vitals, the vitals of the two other men and their location. Huh, abandoned warehouse, now this was more villainy than a nice apartment, cinema or a church – eh, maybe if the baddie was a religious extremist that would work? With his cameras working again, he looked at Dr Banner: scruffy, tired, expression wary. Oh yeah, Tony was gonna show this legend a good time. Turning his attention to the ghost, the ache in Tony’s heart intensified a little. He was exactly the same as the first time Tony’d seen him but now there was a chance it’d be the last time they’d meet. Standing, he asked casually.

“You coming with? My employer still has a lot to say to you and I’m sure he’s got a room somewhere.” There was an infinitesimal pause and an awkward shuffle before the Phantom replied.

“I’m flattered, but I’m afraid I can’t accept.” He turned to Banner. “Keep in contact.” The doctor murmured agreement and they shook hands before the Phantom nodded at Iron Man. “Congratulations by the way,” he said before melting into the shadows. Consciously resisting the urge to awkwardly call out or try and track him, Tony pushed down the disappointment in his stomach and turned to Banner.

“You’re going to have to give Mr Stark his phone number you know.” The doctor smiled shyly.

“Oh yeah?” Tony grinned back behind his helmet.

“Oh yeah. Come on, I can guarantee Mr Stark will be very pleased to meet you.”

Chapter Text

Tony couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this giddy with delight. There had certainly been some totally awesome times but this really trumped everything else. After he’d deposited the missing scientist in JARVIS’ care, he’d changed quickly and greeted his new guest in a similar way that Iron Man had earlier. He could tell that even with his excellent hosting skills that his guest was still anxious about being there and before long, he’d even been told in nervous tones that there might be the possibility of property damage if Bruce got, well, angry. Tony wasn’t worried, he'd suit-proofed the Tower so an average strength scientist shouldn't be a problem. Within a few days he’d managed to get Bruce to call him ‘Tony’ as opposed to ‘Mr Stark’ and the amount of science they were getting done was phenomenal, certainly more than Tony usually got down even in his very productive moods. Of course whilst Bruce proved quite stubborn on the Phantom front, Tony really didn’t have any legit complaints about his new lab partner; not with JARVIS subtly watching for signs of contact. Anyway, Bruce as a person was quiet, yes, but once you warmed him up a bit he showed off a sharp mind and witty tongue. And his science! Wow, if making love to someone’s scientific mind was possible Tony would be all there embarrassing himself with chocolates and hearts and sappy poems, trying to woo Dr Banner’s extremely desirable mind. Tony was working on the skittishness and the hunted look he sometimes got when startled. He really wasn’t as worried as he probably should be about having a stranger living with him, one: JARVIS was a great watchdog and two: he was a genius, he could come up with quick contingency plans anytime. In any case, things were going well: they talked science and threw ideas around, watching the relevant sci-fi movies Bruce had missed over the years, as well as the classics of course, and they’d even had dinner with Pepper when she’d been in New York. Tony was very happy seeing two of his favourite people get along. Maybe had Tony been more emotionally developed he would have found it strange that Bruce had been hustled into his group of ‘favourites’, but as it was he didn’t and the only niggle of tension was the absent figure who brought them together. It was another day in the lab about three weeks in, when Bruce checked his phone and Tony may or may not have made a tiny reference to Ghostbusters. Bruce put his phone away with what was becoming a familiar put-upon look with an undertone of amusement.

“Tony,” he sighed, “just don’t.”

“What? Can’t a fellow scientist just show a bit of curiosity about the Afterlife? One of the Great Remaining Unknowns? ” The second look he received showed that he was fooling anyone, either with his innocent tone or the real reason for his ‘scientific curiosity’. Bruce huffed, running a hand through his greying hair and answering haltingly.

“No just, Phantom…” Something in Bruce’s eyes changed as he said quietly. “He’s not in a good place right now.” Tony stilled, his curiosity ramping up as he was eager to learn more but at the same time he was a little disquieted by the phrasing.

“Fallen in with a rough crowd?” Looking at his hands briefly, Dr Banner folded them on the work bench and turned calmly towards Tony, voice slow and careful. Even Tony knew to take his tone seriously.

“Look, I’m gonna say this and only this: the Phantom is a good man and he always does what he thinks is right…” He trailed off, shifting a little before continuing softly. “But sometimes I don’t think he…I think he’s a bit, not delusional but…he’s detached from reality.” Tony thought about that, wondering whether Bruce merely meant that the Phantom was unrealistic about his goals and ideals, but from the tone and his expression, Tony could only conclude that he meant something altogether more serious.

“What? He’s crazy?” Tony was a great many things but being sensitive was not one of them. Bruce continued to look uncomfortable, but he was still talking.

“I’m not a psychologist but yeah, a little bit. I mean think about it, you said that the second time he kidnapped you it was to what? Check you were alright? What well-adjusted person does that Tony?” Feeling defensive on the Phantom’s behalf, Tony smirked.

“None of us is an example of ‘well-adjusted’, Brucie.” Bruce sighed and rubbed his glasses with the bottom of his shirt, refusing to react to the endearment.

“You know what I mean.” He replaced his glasses, looking even more tired than he’d done a moment before. “Look, it’s not my place to say and I don’t even know all of it, I’m just speculating but, whatever happened to him before I met him…He’s not quite right Tony.” Instantly Tony’s mind went to the file marked ‘Project Alpha’ and the implication by the creepy scientist at SHIELD that the Phantom wasn’t mentally all there, that they desperately needed him back. Needed him back for their own selfish gain or…to help him? His stomach turned. Neither scenario sounded very appealing. Tony held back a dramatic sigh. It seemed that it was both a blessing and a curse to be of interest to such a mystery masquerading as a cat burglar! As if drawing a line under the discussion, Bruce nodded to himself and picked up the tablet he’d been using to do his calculations.

Later that night, Tony felt that he had to say something about their discussion earlier. It wasn’t at all apologetic or anything, but Bruce’s lip twitched a little.

“Actually I’m amazed you haven’t been grilling me more, especially about, what was it your bodyguard said? ‘My Underground Nerd Fame’?” Tony snorted. Suddenly reminded about being on his guard around his fellow scientist; sure they were acting friendly and were both allied with the Phantom, but they didn’t have that level of trust between the two of them. Yet. He hadn’t yet found out what had happened to cause Bruce to go on the lamb nor had Bruce found out his secret. Still, it wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility that they might at some point swap secrets. Tony wasn’t very good at the ‘friend thing’ but maybe he could handle ‘allies’ okay. The Phantom and him seemed to be doing alright.

In the middle of telling Bruce about his happier kidnappings, because he really doubted Bruce was about to go rat him out to SHIELD anytime soon, he was a little bit astonished when he was interrupted, something he’d never seen the mild-manner doctor attempt before.

“You watched Casablanca?” Tony frowned, what was going on here?

“That’s the one thing you took away from that story?” Ignoring the flippant response, Dr Banner asked again.

“That’s the one with the Nazis, right?” Tony instantly knew that there was something valuable to be learned from the doctor’s surprise. Something to do with Nazis… Huh, he couldn’t think of anything. Had the good doctor had a run in with some neo-Nazi group whilst in hiding? Or had the Phantom? There must be a link in there somewhere! Deciding to push his luck, Tony enquired pseudo-casually.

“Hey, who’s Dr Rosario?” Tony knew he’d asked the right question when Banner tensed, looking away. Tony insisted. “Phantom mentioned her.” Bruce looked like he was deciding how much to say, Tony waited but wasn’t rewarded that much for his, he thought, Herculean efforts to stay patient.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you, it’s… It’s not my story to tell.” Tony huffed, he was not jealous of those two’s little bromance, he was not!

“You sure? Cos the way he described her…” But Bruce just shook his head. Having learnt that his usual techniques didn’t work on the doctor, Tony pouted a little but kept quiet, turning over new angles of enquiry in his head when Bruce surprised him.

“I will tell you something you do need to know though…” He took a deep breath as if steeling himself, then dug into his pocket and pulled out a USB. Tony barely contained his grabby hands as he took it and plugged it in to a port. JARVIS processed the information quickly and turned it into holographic data projected in front of them. There was a lot of data but the most noticeable detail was a large cube-shaped object in the centre. Bruce cleared his throat. “The Tessaract.” The name tugged at Tony’s memory and he tried to locate it as Bruce went on. “No idea where they got it, we haven’t been able to find that data, but as far as we can tell it’s a cube of immense power, and yes I just said ‘cube of immense power’.” Tony’s mind whirled, where did it come from? Immense power? That didn’t sound good… He studied the numbers in front of him, woah! Those readings were off the chart! But what were they even…? Ah yes, there it was: ‘appropriated’ by SHIELD for their own dubious purposes. “The Phantom wants to return it to the original owners.” Still running numbers through his head, Tony couldn’t help the little chuckle that escaped him. He couldn’t imagine a more suitable ‘Casper’ response to a stolen artefact. Even one of unimaginable power. He, on the other hand, wasn’t such a boy scout about other people’s things. Not if it was just borrowing… The possibilities of what he could do with such a resource. However, there was the pirate problem and the risk of planet-wide annihilation of course.

“JARVIS, do your thing.” Whilst the potential for clean energy would be immense, Tony was already doing all that and it’s better to remove the dangerous plaything (all the better to piss the brass and Fury off)

“According to daddy dearest’s notes…It’s Nordic?” He exchanged a glance with Bruce. “Who’d know?” JARVIS answered smoothly.  

“There are numerous Ancient History scholars listed here sir, however, according to this SHIELD data a Dr Foster, current field-runner on astrophysics, is the best source of expertise.” Tony frowned.

“That’s odd. A leading astrophysicist the SHIELD go-to expert for all powerful magic cube?” He glanced at Bruce who shrugged, a little suspiciously if Tony knew any better, and Tony hummed absent-mindedly. “Thanks, J. I guess we should get started.” Bruce hummed and said casually.

“I don’t know her personally but I do know how to reach another expert in the field, Eric Selvig, he might know how to contact her.” Tony nodded seriously.

“Then let’s do that.”

 …

Steve was in the middle of a sketch when he received the job offer. He’d been taking a break from analysing lines of attack on a secret military base he’d drawn up previously; testing them for weaknesses as well as possible merits, by sketching out an idea for another painting. He’d just started to relax when his phone had beeped. Vague and mysterious as some of his loftier clients liked to advertise, he bit his lip. With Bruce at Stark Tower enlisting Tony’s help with the Tessaract problem he was trying to focus on his part the plan: working out where in the hell it was. So he shouldn’t be distracted by jobs, but the message had set his gut churning suddenly. There was nothing out of the ordinary about it – ordinary by his standards – but still he didn’t like it and like always, he had to investigate. Bucky would damn his sense of duty, calling him a dumb punk but following after anyway. Steve smiled a small, bitter smile but didn’t let himself get lost in the memories, the urgency in the message clear and compelling. It was getting dark outside so he donned his Phantom gear, taking a small arsenal of weapons and slipped out of his apartment onto the roof. Jumping and grappling over the streets, he tried to mentally prepare himself for a firefight, anticipating an offer he’d have to refuse or maybe a sting? Halting a rooftop away, he watched a small operation in progress, a group of men loading boxes from the warehouse into a couple of helicopters. They were dressed in plain black combat gear, no insignias he could see and they were speaking in voice too low to pick up language, accent or terms to help him place them. He catalogued the warehouse and goods quickly: it was a mid-security facility, a sophisticated security system and a single night guard currently watching proceedings impassively. It wasn’t obvious whether the men were authorised or the guard had been compromised but judging by the late hour and the message he’d received, he’d assume the latter. The team of men was quite small, being led by a single man dressed the same as the others, short hair, strong arms…Steve stared, he knew that face…it was one of SHIELD’s agents. Hawkeye was it? Curiouser and curiouser. Well, he’d come this far… Checking the automatic text alert that would be sent to Bruce should he be unable to disable it in an hour’s time, Steve steeled himself and swung down in front of Hawkeye, who didn’t even blink. Damn, he’d seen him coming. Breaking away from directing the line of men the SHIELD agent approached, his body taught with tight, economic movements but not tense from stress or fear as far as Steve could tell.

“Phantom.” Rising from his crouch, Steve nodded, forcing himself to act casual. That became very difficult, however, when he got a closer look at the agent’s face. The eyes. He recognised that shade of blue…but from where? It made him feel cold, like he was frozen and his ears rang, meaning he only made out some of Hawkeye’s offer.

“…enemies of SHIELD…higher purpose…skills to bring them down…” Finally controlling his reaction, Steve quickly processed what he’d understood. As the awkward silence dragged on, the general sense of unease rose, Steve’s blood fizzing with anticipation and unease. Barton seemed undisturbed by this pause, as if simply waiting for instructions, like a television on standby. From the little Steve knew about this agent, he wouldn’t orchestrate something like this, as an agent entrusted with Tony’s safety he was either a very good double agent or… There was something very wrong. His biggest clue was the eyes, unnaturally blue, the same blue as… No, it couldn’t be! Firmly he pushed the rising panic down, gritting his teeth against the paralysing cold threatening to overwhelm him. Throwing caution to the wind, the Phantom nodded curtly. He had to find out the full story, how the Tessaract’s blue was in this agent’s eyes and what whoever could control it was planning on doing next. Clambering into the helicopter, he fired off a text message with his heart in his throat.

 …

“Director Fury is on the line, sir.” JARVIS coolly interrupted one of Tony’s rambling monologues about anything and everything which Bruce was listening to, lips twitching in amusement. He couldn’t help but feel at ease when his host was on a roll, babbling about the environmentally friendly developments his company was making, or his suits, or Pepper, or Rhodey, or Bruce, or his suits. The fugitive found it hard to believe that this partnership was working out so smoothly. When he and Steve had first mapped out their plan, it had seemed like it would be a necessary but testing time for him, despite Steve’s reassurances as to the billionaire’s character. It was in the middle of the night, the two scientists silently agreeing to continue ‘sciencing’ as Tony put it, rather than sleep. When JARVIS spoke, Bruce couldn’t help but tense. He’d never met the man who was calling, but knew the name and the ripples it sent through the underground. Before Tony could even respond JARVIS continued. “He is quite persistent, sir.” As Tony argued with JARVIS, Bruce concentrated on breathing steadily, faintly registering his phone vibrating in his pocket. Tony’s voice rose sharply.

“What do those morons want now?” He swung round and pointed a finger at Bruce. “Don’t make a peep.” Bruce had no problem nodding, side-stepping to get out of range of the video phone.  A serious face and fierce eye came into view.

“Stark, we have a situation. You’re needed-” Tony put on a dramatic air with ease in response.

“Oh really? I’m starting to feel used Nicky! You only-” Clearly too frustrated and rushed to listen, Fury continued speaking over the top of him.

“A chopper will come and pick you up at 0600. Oh,” his expression flickered in amusement for a moment, “and bring Dr Banner with you.” As Fury signed off, Bruce felt deeply disturbed and yet unsurprised by SHIELD’s knowledge of his presence at Stark Tower, though Tony seemed to take great offence and was muttering about counter-hacking and ‘damn spies’ under his breath. He suddenly turned to Bruce.

“I swear I didn’t-!”

“I know Tony, they,” he sighed and waved his hands, “have their ways.” Tony snorted in agreement and Bruce looked at his phone to check the time, wondering how much time he had to make a clean getaway when he noticed the Phantom’s message. Reading it quickly, Bruce felt himself go really still. He didn’t believe in coincidences, especially when it involved spy organisations. Tony was still ranting about SHIELD and getting wry responses from JARVIS but Bruce became calm and focused. Steve would be on the other side of whatever was happening and if he could help in anyway, even if it mean going into the lion’s den, well, he owed Steve a lot.

“Tony,” he interrupted the genius’ protests firmly, “have a shower and pack what you need. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“Waaait, you’re on-board with this?” Bruce smiled a little and shrugged.

“Could be fun.” Tony obviously wasn’t convinced of his reasoning, but Bruce didn’t give him a chance to probe further, leaving the lab to grab his things and telling the Phantom to be careful in his head.

 …

What am I doing here? This is the location of every bad action movie I’ve seen on late night television rolled into one. The Phantom strode through the warehouse assertively, trying to look like he knew what he was doing even though he hadn’t actually received any orders or even duties yet. Extrapolating from his list of skills and the signs pointing to a construction or collection effort of some kind, Steve assumed that Hawkeye and whoever was, controlling? employing?, using his services wanted the Phantom to steal something for them. The underground base was vast, with long, twisting corridors all leading to a large, expansive space in the middle where the majority of the work seemed to be happening. Nimbly sidestepping piles of crates and jogging armed guards, Steve quickly catalogued all the details of the operation, trying to gauge what he was dealing with. There were lots of different parts with various scientist-looking types tinkering with them and in the middle was…

That was it! The Tessaract! It was just as beautiful and horrible as he remembered.  Steve shivered, the blue glow wrapping him in a cold he only felt in his nightmares. Flashes of his fight with Schmidt, the screams of men being vanished into nothing, Bucky’s blank expression laid out in a dank lab all tumbled in his head as he resisted the urge to approach it. A masked lackey, taking a quick brake from hauling cargo wandered over to the glowing blue object, looking as dazed as Steve felt.

“So it’s like a, battery, thing…?” The scientist stepped back from his work and replied enthusiastically.

“No, you’ve got it all wrong!” The tone of the scientist’s voice was grating on Steve’s nerves, his naked adoration for the object bordering on obscene. Also a quick cataloguing of his features revealed another set of eerie blue eyes, in the light of the terrible object it was even more obvious that the thing was somehow present in him. “This isn’t just a power source like we all thought. It’s so much more.” Blank, light blue eyes gazed lovingly at the glowing object and Steve couldn’t bring himself to look directly at it, part nervous and part revolted as he observed the doctor from the corner of his eye. “It’ll be our gateway to another world but it can do anything: destroy, create, transform… A tool with which we can achieve anything.” The lackey had grown disinterested, merely grunting before shuffling off but the scientist didn’t seem to notice, too entranced by the eerie blue glow. Shivering, the Phantom forced himself to walk away mainly because he couldn’t be seen doing anything suspicious but also because of the chills arrowing up and down his spine.

The scientist’s words, however, did not stop ringing in his head. He knew now that Loki meant to open a portal, to what he wasn’t sure but instinctively he knew it to bode very badly for the world. His mind started working on solutions and strategies. If the cube could open a portal or be one itself, perhaps it could be sent back to its original owners somehow. Thinking about the way Schmidt had died and the stars opening up above them… Stomach twisting, Steve had to admit the possibility that his enemy hadn’t died at all, but had been transported to somewhere else in the universe. Hearing more about the Cube’s capabilities, it was looking more and more likely. But Red Skull’s teleportation – if it indeed had been that – had been unintentional. How could Steve get it to teleport itself to where he wanted it to go?

Earlier he’d briefly seen a costumed man brooding and occasionally giving orders, overhearing that the man’s name was Loki. A new villain? Or perhaps an old one… Steve’s sources had mentioned something big happening in New Mexico, an incident which had involved a whole town and then been swiftly covered up by SHIELD. From the scant information, the mention of gods and huge surges of energy was beginning to sound more plausible. Walking on autopilot, Steve set his mind to puzzle-solving: rumours of gods on Earth, vacant eyed SHIELD agents and scientists, the Cube and a mysterious man with the name of a god, what did they add up to? He’d overheard Loki bristle at the scientist’s mention of his brother, if Steve knew his Norse myths right that would be Thor, God of Thunder. Judging by Loki’s reaction, Thor would probably try to stop his attempts to open a portal to God knows where. But the chances of Steve being able to steal the cube and figure out how to send it back safely were slim. Even disregarding all of the security surrounding it, there were the ever watchful eyes of the Hawk and even more disconcerting, Loki. He’d only caught glimpses of the so-called god, but he’d overheard a great deal both on the helicopter ride over and whilst stalking around the base. Most of the ‘hired help’ didn’t particularly care who their employer was but there were a few that talked in hushed tones about the self-important Brit wearing funny clothes. Though it had been very tempting to put down their description of the figure as a ‘god’ to superstition, the dark, twisty feeling in Steve’s gut had warned him otherwise. And besides, the Tessaract attracted all manner of monsters, why not something not human?  Steve frowned, his best bet was to contact the brother somehow, the scientist seemed to know more about him but he would probably be a hard source to tap, especially so close to…

So caught up with his ponderings, Steve almost walked straight into the god himself. Catching himself in time, Steve suppressed a gasp, trusting his mask to hide his surprise and hoping he’d be able to slip away unnoticed. Unfortunately, the pale head turned sharply, obviously having also been interrupted from deep thoughts. His eyes scanned Steve, suspicion heavy in them and Steve forced his heart rate down though his mind almost hysterically insisted that the god could see through his mask somehow. The ‘god’ was dressed how Steve would imagine a god would dress, long flowing clothes in a deep green. But there was something manic about his long hair and fierce eyes that undermined the regal quality of the costume. Bowing his head in silent apology, Steve held back a huge sigh of relief as the god seemed to dismiss him, returning to his private thoughts and stalking away. Trying not to let out a huge breath of relief, Steve steeled himself and set out to look for Hawkeye, might as well have something more concrete to send to Bruce than: Almost got made by a Norse God and the blue cube thing freaked me out.

Despite the constant stream of chatter from Tony, which had become surprisingly soothing over the past few weeks, Bruce still felt exhausted with fear as the helicopter landed on the Helicarrier. Again, the Helicarrier was one of the things about SHIELD Bruce had heard about through his underground connections though of course little of what he’d learned specifically about it hadn’t interested him, the most salient details being how to avoid every being brought on board. Stifling a hysterical laugh, Bruce bowed his head involuntarily as another group of agents marched past. Just breath Banner, you can handle this. He remembered a warm hand on his back and a soft voice encouraging him to breathe and to calm. Gritting his teeth he berated his sub-conscious for bringing up that memory. He didn’t need anyone else to survive. Yes Steve had been there for him in a few sticky situations but that didn’t mean that he was dependent on him. He would survive, he’d make it; even if it was nice to get a good night’s sleep every once and a while with a look-out keeping watch. Tony interrupted his inner pep-talk by leaning over and half-whispering.

“Woah, SHIELD’s packing! What do they need us for?” Bruce was about to reply in kind when a smooth voice interrupted them.

“Gentlemen. This way.” Out of the corner of his eye Bruce could see Tony’s reaction to the stunning redhead but he couldn’t focus on it once he did a double take. Clenching his fists and feeling even more indignant when he caught her glance at them, Bruce tightened his jaw and nodded stiffly at her, hoping Tony didn’t catch on to his fierce reaction to the invitation. Whether anyone else noticed or not he couldn’t say, because he spent the ensuing minutes following the woman cursing everything and everyone that had led him to this point, everything that had led him to being escorted into the enemy’s den by the woman he’d mistaken for a mark. He bet they were all laughing at him, the whole of SHIELD giggling at poor gullible Dr Banner following their carefully laid clues leading to Dr Rosario like a good performing monkey. For a wild second he questioned Steve’s motives for seeking him out, he was young, strong, competent and upstanding, a likely undercover agent… No, he dismissed the thought as he forced himself to keep breathing steadily. No government agency would ever condone such a ridiculous cover story for such an important mission…or would they? But then he remembered the way Steve would sometimes trail off and stare longingly into a memory Bruce couldn’t see, the soothing hand on his back and the soft words. If he was acting, he deserved a boatload of Oscars. And anyway, Bruce had been trying this ‘trust’ thing out, maybe he shouldn’t completely throw it out before he had undeniable proof of a betrayal. And if it was true…then he would have to deal with it. They reached the control room and a tall figure burst out of a corner, barking sharply.

“Romanov!” Well, at least Bruce wasn’t the only one on edge. He watched nervously as Fury, for how could it be anyone else?, stalked towards them like a pissed-off jaguar and was even more impressed with Dr Rosa- Romanov’s calm and brusque demeanour in the face of it. “I thought I told you to–”

“You did sir, but I didn’t see the need for any more deception.” Her gaze flickered to Bruce so fast he questioned whether he’d imagined it. “Since we’re all working towards the same goal.” Oh were they? He held back a laugh, SHIELD could pretend to ask for cooperation all they wanted, he knew what they really wanted. The fierce glare from her superior didn’t subside but neither did the Director cut in so the agent continued. Bruce could tell that her main concern hadn’t been her boss anyway, even since the ‘incident’ he’d been able to smell fear quite accurately and he could sense her well-hidden terror of him. It was another point in Steve’s favour: an undercover agent would be properly briefed on all the ways he could be destroyed by this particular target and trained to cope, not that there were many survival techniques against ‘you-know-who’ but obviously an agent such as the one in front of him would know them. But Steve had never been afraid of him. He could be startled and worried at times in which it seemed like he might meet Bruce’s ‘second-half’ but he’d never been truly scared of the possibility. SHIELD hired the best, not the completely suicidal. Or were they really that devious? “I used my cover as Dr Rosario to-”

“Rosario?” Tony cut in quickly, his lightning fast mind connecting the dots. Romanov glanced at him disapprovingly but addressed his interruption.

“Yes, I went undercover in Ross’ facility on a simple reconnaissance mission when I discovered the Phantom’s presence. I’ve been tracking him ever since,” she turned to Bruce, her expression expertly hiding her quickening heart, “and the operation changed from retrieval to surveillance once we’d established that he was of sound mind and body.” Her eyes seemed to glimmer secretively at Bruce. “Super, even.” Bruce felt like his face was frozen in shock. Did she mean ‘super’ as in ‘super-serum’? They thought that…? Steve really was Captain America? Or they, they really believed…? He heard Tony questioning her in an urgent tone but it was too quiet under the ringing in his head. Even as his rational voice began pointing out the impossibilities of such a thought, his mind went through memories of Steve. It could be possible, after all Bruce himself was an example of impossible feats existing in the real world. For a moment he wondered whether he should have given Steve more credence and maybe he should have spent more time figuring Steve out or trying to help him. But no, they were only acquaintances, just because Steve was as kind as possible without being reckless or naïve didn’t mean they were ‘friends’ or anything. He was abruptly pulled out of his internal monologue when Fury loudly cut over Tony’s ramblings.

“Moving on, now we come to the reason we brought you two out there.” Turning to Bruce he began, “Dr Banner you are the world’s number one expert on gamma radiation, we need an object located…” His patience wearing thin and with certainty that SHIELD knew most of what he and Steve had discovered, Bruce interrupted curtly.

“The Tesseract.” Nodding, with something like regret in his eyes, Fury continued quickly.

“Yes, as you know it emits low levels of gamma radiation and we need to track it, and quickly.”

“Okay, let’s get started.” Not seeing the point in protesting or spending time questioning Fury further, not when Steve was on the other side of this and may need his help, Bruce decided to just get it done quickly. Though he wouldn’t say it out loud, Bruce knew he couldn’t let SHIELD keep the thing if – once – they re-acquired it. Steve was right; returning it to its original owners was the best thing to do for everyone involved. Even though they had no guarantee as to the morals of those people, Bruce was almost certain of SHIELD’s lack of morals in this case and he wouldn’t risk their true goal being realised. Their government had enough weapons as it was. He could tell from Tony’s expression that the engineer was still considering how he’d use the tool. Bruce forced himself to refrain from biting his lip and made a mental note to bring it up later, even if he had little chance of convincing him to give up any ambition of using the Tesseract himself he had to try. His lip twitched a little without his permission as he was reminded of Steve’s strong jaw set rigid whenever he had his ‘righteous face’ on. Expression softening a little at his memory of their first meeting, he thought maybe that he’d buy Steve a drink when it was all over.

“Phantom,” Steve looked up from the building schematics and right into the creepy blue eyes of Hawkeye, “you’re going to take point on this. The rest of the guys will back you up but only if necessary.” He nodded in recognition, gut churning as he considered his assigned task. It had been a long time since he’d been unable to choose his missions and that familiar guilt was bubbling in his stomach.  On the face of it, it didn’t seem too bad a task: stealing some nuclear material from a highly defended facility. However, he knew this whole op was rotten and whatever the stolen good’s intended function would do nothing but harm. He could turn away and fight his way out – no doubt they’d refuse to let him walk free and still able to talk – but realistically he knew that had little choice. He was determined to discover this villain’s true purpose and help Bruce and Tony bring him down, hopefully sending the Tesseract back to its true home in the process. Running through his mission again in his head he didn’t kid himself that he had much time to accomplish all that. It was very clear that this whole mission was counting down very fast, he’d have to strike quickly when the chance arose and not let any opportunity slip away or it might be all over before he knew it. Unwilling to let SHIELD in on any information they could use to secure the Tesseract, he sent Bruce an encoded message, a code of their own private invention, praying that his friend would be able to interpret the message unmolested. Maybe even from Tony- He cut himself off from that thought, and put his head down, he couldn’t afford any distractions, not now. He just had to follow their plan, keeping an eye out for any guidance on how to accomplish his own goal. If nothing came along, well, he’d just have to improvise. The rest of the team were gearing up and he followed them to the chopper, trying to ignore the feel of sharp eyes watching him as he went.

Chapter Text

“So, this is a bit crazy.” It wasn’t a great opener, but Bruce had to say something to break through the tension that had been taught between him and Tony once they’d been left together in the lab. Well maybe not entirely alone; eyes darting around to the four corners of the room, Bruce couldn’t help but almost feel the physical presence of the surveillance that must be on them. Glancing up at him and catching where his gaze was, Tony instantly understood Bruce’s concern and nodded in agreement to not mention their knowledge of the surveillance. They talked a bit about the logistics of searching for the cube, skirting around the topics they really wanted to talk about. But when Bruce had breached the silence, Tony instantly looked over, though his reply took a few moments.

“This? This is a normal Tuesday for me.” Having actually lived with the man, Bruce could only agree, though he restrained his answering smile a little.  What Bruce really wanted to talk about was the revelation that Steve might actually be who he claimed. But it wasn’t just the surveillance which stopped him, he was sure that Tony didn’t have any idea of Phantom’s identity and whilst he wasn’t exactly sure what was going on between the two, he suspected enough not to get involved. He’d barely managed to withstand the genius’ incessant questioning on their mutual friend before. In fact, he was desperately hoping no one asked him about the Phantom during the whole thing, as he didn’t want to have to lie about his involvement on the other side. Still, as he glanced again at Tony, he wondered what he had made of the undercover agent’s hints. He was about to attempt a coded comment when suddenly the *radio* in the corner lit up and the red-headed agent spoke over the radio. “Stark, report to the hanger bay.” she stated without preamble, urgency underlying her flat tone, “we need your expertise.” Although he shared a look with Bruce, Tony did not seem to be as uneasy as Bruce felt. He took out his palm planner and responded casually.

“Whatever you say, Red.” Feeling a core of irritation and confusion under his overwhelming relief at not being called upon to help out as well, Bruce tried to school his face into a neutral expression but when Tony turned to leave, he found himself calling out, stomach twisting.

“Tony, what do they want…” Still tapping Tony turned, concern evident in his eyes even as it was obvious his concentration was on other things.

“Oh, they probably want something fixing.” Biting back an impulse to call-out the badly-concealed lie, Bruce decided to keep it short.

“Good luck.” The answering smirk was not as pronounced as usual but it was something, Bruce supposed.

Trying to continue with his work, Bruce turned over possible scenarios in his head; all of them relating to the Tesseract. Something SHIELD didn’t want him to know perhaps? Some kind of plan Fury was going to bring Tony in on? He was under no illusion that they would have to be ruthless in the retrieval of the Tesseract but he hoped that Steve didn’t get himself captured whilst fighting on the wrong side. Or hurt… Gritting his teeth, Bruce breathed in deeply before checking his silent phone and wishing he believed in crossing fingers.

On the flight over to Stuttgart and a mysterious opponent, Tony turned over everything that had happened since he’d got Fury’s call. The biggest reveal was when he’d arrived outside the hangar bay, already suspecting what red-head was going to insinuate, only for Coulson to ambush him with his own ‘suitcase’, an eyebrow raised. Their exchange had been brief due to the urgency but had still been annoying to see the triumph in Agent’s eyes. Part of Tony thought he should have felt more shocked or threatened by the revelation that SHIELD had ferreted him out, but in the end, he still had leverage with SHIELD. After what he’d learned and overheard in the last few hours, SHIELD finally cottoning on to his secret was the least of his worries.

Romanov revealing Dr Rosario to be a cover for SHIELD’s presence in a secret and most likely dubious military facility; also confirming the previous scientist’s rant at Tony about the Phantom’s ‘unstable psychological state’ as unlikely, it all revolved around his mind. So SHIELD had evaluated the vigilante as worthy of notice but not bringing him under their control, he wasn’t sure what to make of that. What had Phantom been doing in such a position in the first place? And the red-head had mentioned ‘Ross’, as in General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross? He hoped not, but given Ross’ involvement in shady military projects and his rumoured involvement in Bruce’s disappearance, it was likely. Tony had only met him once but that had been enough to cement an extremely negative impression of the crazed soldier. He really hated to think how his friendly ghost had ended up anywhere near Ross. What had the sexy agent said? Had he been stealing something from the facility when she was undercover? He was usually known for stealing things back from criminals and unscrupulous museum curators, not top secret military bases; granted the papers weren’t usually able to cover those stories. Tony couldn’t believe that he had been employed by the military, not with his particular skill set. Maybe… He knew he should be concentrating on strategizing for the battle ahead but all he could think of was the memory of that crazed scientist insisting they ‘re-acquire’ the Phantom. Rosario- no, Romanov had mentioned ‘retrieval’ rather than ‘capture’ or ‘arrest’. You don’t use that to describe a thief who’d broken into a top secret base and stolen something and you really don’t stop pursuing him once you know he’s ‘of sound body and mind’. It was looking like the cat-burglar hadn’t started out in his current profession, though if SHIELD had been previously aware of him then maybe he’d just been apprehended by the military and-

“Sir, 30 seconds till arrival.” Speeding over the city, Tony could see a large crowd gathered in the square and JARVIS quickly identified four, no five dramatically-dressed figures standing in positions around the crowd. What happened to just one horned crazy? Scrutinising them all as he flew in, Tony tried not to laugh. He’d received an incredibly brief description of the villain in the hanger bay: a jealous and spoilt Norse god with magic powers. Tony thought they’d forgotten to add ‘cos-player’ to the list. Said over-dressed villain was raising his mystical stick thing at an old man in the crowd and Tony narrowed his eyes as he aimed. The repulsor blast knocked the horned god off his feet and Tony yelled at the crowd to run. JARVIS noted that the other ‘gods’ had disappeared, evidently illusions. Under the impassive mask of Iron Man, Tony was smirking at the disgruntled, feline expression on the thief’s face and he didn’t hesitate to fire again. In the end it only took a couple of knocks and the appearance of Romanov in the jet to get the “god” to surrender. Tony didn’t hold back on his snort that time. How did this guy get away with the Cube in the first place? SHIELD was more incompetent than he’d thought!

The jet landed and two nervous-looking SHIELD agents wielding guns and handcuffs climbed out. When Loki smiled creepily as they approached, Tony didn’t blame them for looking nervous. He followed the group boarding the jet, scanning for anything else. On the jet, his thoughts went to his lab partner. Did Bruce already know *his secret identity* courtesy of SHIELD’s heavy-handedness? Would he care? It wasn’t as if the other man didn’t have his own secrets. Secrets possibly related to the Phantom if they had Ross in common… and that brought him right back to the Phantom.

A clap of thunder interrupted his musings and something rocked the jet. Fully alert again, he vaguely heard the red-head saying something and a glance at Loki confirmed that it wasn’t his doing. Unable to identify what it was, Tony opened the rear door, ignoring Romanov’s protests. Suddenly another loser in Shakespearean dress swept in, throwing Iron Man to the floor and grabbing the first loser before sweeping out again.

“Right, now there’s that one.” Irritated now, Tony flew after them, barking at JARVIS to try and find them in the storm. The cloud line was thick and the wind threatened to throw him off course a few times, a truly dramatic storm to match the crazy characters that kept on popping up. There! Swooping in, Tony couldn’t help the small smirk as he repaid the favour and knocked blondie off his feet. The accompanying roar from the newcomer as he was thrown into a clearing was quite satisfying, almost making up for the inconvenience this whole episode was for Tony’s day. Getting to his feet swiftly, if a little clumsily, the challenger half-growled at him and charged, forcing Tony to swerve out of the way.

Now here was a challenge! Tony couldn’t help his gleeful grin as his mind raced with tactical manoeuvres and strategies. He hadn’t ever really had a worthy physical opponent, Hammer’s drones were laughably easy to outsmart, Vanko had been a three second fight and well, Obie- Another attack from the god forced him to concentrate though his joy could not be lessened even as he was flung around by the over-dressed man. They exchanged a few more blows, swooping above the trees and crashing into clearings. Suddenly a blast hit the ground between them and caused them both to hesitate as the jet’s speakers blared out.

“Boys. If you want to put down your rattles I think we have better things to be doing.” Reluctantly, Tony lowered his repulsors, still keeping an eye on the big guy, who sighed and followed suit. Well, it’d been fun whilst it had lasted. Wow, this day was just getting better and better!

 

Bruce grit his teeth, trying to get his shoulders to lower from their defensive position.

“You know you can’t keep it here.” Steve’s unknown fate playing on his mind Bruce forced himself to speak up, trying to look like he was holding Fury’s gaze without actually doing it. Tony had sauntered back in an hour earlier, after spending a long time ‘repairing something’, reporting that Loki had been captured but some iridium had been stolen. Bruce hadn’t been able to find out much more before Fury, Romanov and this other ‘god’ – apparently Loki’s brother – had gathered in the lab and started arguing. Surprisingly, Bruce was given leave to continue his plea so he did, calmly. “With Loki so close…he has to have a Grand Plan and that thing is in it.” The Director snorted and crossed his arms.

“I know he’s trying to play us Banner, that’s why I’m keeping him where I can see him.” Shaking his head slightly, Bruce heard Steve urging him on in his head.

“This is what he wants.” Aware that his voice was getting thin, Bruce clamped his mouth shut and breathed in through his nose for a while as the heated discussion went on without him. Sorry Steve. Picturing his friend’s forgiving smile in his head, Bruce focused on breathing steadily, ignoring the threatening voices around him.

Across the room, Tony turned to Romanov and opened conversationally.

“So Doc, I never did ask you…” The agent raised a perfect eyebrow as he continued, his tone getting sharper as he went on. “What is you doctorate in? Ensnaring Vigilantes? Supernatural Espionage? Ghostbusting? I hear the MIT course is good.” What might be a smirk played along her top lip as she replied, deadpan.

“Threat Analysis, three year course at Harvard.” Leaning in a little closer, as far as he dared to the obviously dangerous agent, Tony went on, circling around the answers he desperately wanted to hear.

“Sounds intensive, there many job opportunities in that area?” She gave him a little flirtatious smile, obviously fake, and was about to reply when Thor’s booming voice interrupted, overruling the others.

“The Tessaract belongs on Asgard.” It wasn’t hard to believe that he was a Prince of dubious godliness, his mere presence radiating command and grandeur. Seeing Tony about to argue, Bruce interrupted quickly.

“He’s right.” Bruce ignored Tony’s annoyed glance and Steve’s face in his mind. “We can’t control it here, that much is obvious.” Fury crossed his arms and shook his head.

“No, we need to study the Tessaract-”

“You? It’s wasted on you SHIELD clowns! I should be the one to-”

“I say no! The Tesseract must return to-” A tinny voice came over Fury’s handheld radio.

 “Sir, there is an unauthorised jet trying to-” And then Bruce knew that they were too late as the world disappeared into red.

Watching the skies worriedly and forcibly not checking the phone he knew hadn’t vibrated recently, Steve realised that no one was coming. He’d sent Bruce a message once he’d realised the destination of the Tesseract, since then becoming increasingly worried about not knowing where the self-proclaimed god had gone after the job in Germany. He’d felt bad about stealing the iridium, but the Cube had been under strict guard and he hadn’t had an opportunity to nab it. Again, his stomach squirmed with the moral greyness of it all, but then it hadn’t exactly been a clear cut existence since he’d woken up anyway. What was another bad deed done with good intentions? He didn’t know the exact game plan, but judging by their height above the ground in a large city, whatever it was the scientist was preparing the Cube for, it was intended to have a large reach. Was it more mind-control? An explosion of sorts? The god wasn’t around, maybe he’d intentionally distanced himself to avoid getting caught in the blast? A plane appearing in the distance snagged his attention and he forced his hopes down. Though his eyesight was better than 20:20, it took a few minutes to identify that it was a jet, a SHIELD jet. Yes! He surreptitiously checked his phone again. Still no answer from Bruce, perhaps he’d forgotten to reply in all the excitement.

He glanced back at the creepy scientist fiddling with the monstrous machine placed in the middle of the roof. Luckily it was just him and the scientist up there, the rest of the protection detail scattered around the building from when he’d ordered them to patrol. Steve had been surprised at how easy it had been to infiltrate the Tower. He knew all about Tony’s AI and had planned accordingly but none of the traps or alarms he’d anticipated had gone off. Probably Loki had dealt with it somehow. He’d known that neither Tony nor Bruce had been in the tower due to Bruce’s text much earlier but he’d still instructed Loki’s goons not to use lethal force if they encountered anyone around the perimeter and on the top floors. He’d wanted to accompany them to enforce the policy but he hadn’t dared let the Cube go unattended in case he needed to make off with it. Turning back to the jet, his radio crackled and Barton’s dead voice barked.

“Boss is coming back. Make sure the Tesseract is ready.” Heart liquidizing in his chest, Steve stood in shock for a moment. His eyes stuck on the jet approaching Tony’s launch pad, thoughts of Tony flashing in his mind, picturing his smiling brown eyes widening in horror. With difficulty, Steve forced himself out of his panic and looked away, assessing the scientist over his shoulder. This was it. The countdown was almost up and now he didn’t have a choice. He steeled himself, chanting in his head that this was the only thing he could do. With regret, he dealt the scientist a clean blow to the head and checked that he was out when he crumpled to the floor. He hated attacking civilians but it couldn’t be helped and he paused for a moment, rapidly assessing his actions with Erskine’s voice in his head. Well, it wouldn’t be the only time that test had come out inconclusive.

Shaking himself mentally, he forced himself to look at the machine, glowing ominously in front of him. Still able to recall with excruciating clarity the last time he’d laid eyes on the thing almost 70 years ago, he breathed in deeply. It was different this time, he had to focus on it, this was the threat he had to deal with and if it caused him to be shifted another few decades into the future… No, don’t think like that. He approached slowly but with purpose, all too soon within touching distance. Okay, this was it. Forcing his eyes to remain open he reached out his hand and then suddenly felt his whole body tense just before he heard the figure behind him.

“And what exactly do you think you are doing?” The still tone didn’t hide the simmering anger behind the words but Steve still felt an icy chill flood his entire body. Straightening and turning quickly around, he tried not to tremble in front of the god, but, well, he was a god. A very angry god. Oh boy. He didn’t even see the first blow coming, just yelped as he was knocked back, hard. Gasping, he tried to re-group but was flung away again, back hitting the low wall of the roof with a low thud. He could vaguely hear the stone crumble as he forced his limbs to cooperate and move! Something strong gripped his neck, yanking him up and his head felt heavy and light at the same time as he struggled to focus on the blurry figure holding him; the fierce words came through muted but understandable.

“You worthless worm!” Steve felt ripples of panic fighting through the dull roar in his head, one hand pulling ineffectually at the god’s iron grip, the other wavering at his pants pocket, trying to find something to help, what was it that would help? He was certain there was something in there…if only he could reach it. The furious god continued snarling as he squeezed. “Hiding in plain sight, mortal, like snake in the grass, ha!” Air running out, Steve’s fingers closed over something solid. “Think you could fool me, did you? I am a god! And you arrrrg!” With what felt like the last of his strength, Steve successfully grabbed the smoke bomb out of his pocket and smashed it into Loki’s face. It took a second to click open and dispel the gas, during which Steve would have laughed at the god’s incredulous and confused expression had he been any less afraid for his life. With a hiss the gas sprayed in both of their faces, Loki dropping Steve to collide with the ground, hard. Coughing weakly, Steve struggled to a kneeling position as the god raged and cursed hoarsely above him. His whole body ached and he could barely coordinate his limbs to move away from danger. In the end he managed a few feet before danger caught up. He didn’t even register the hit, from one moment to the next he was thrown into darkness and his last thought was that he hoped Bruce would be alright without him, but maybe Tony would…Tony. Tony…

Chapter Text

 

 “Sir, there is an unauthorised jet trying to-” The room rocked, a deafening boom flung them to the ground. The world turned black and the air rang with muted screeches, vibrations drilling through Bruce’s body. He grunted, unable to move his limbs, head heavy and filled with white noise. Time slowed as he blinked sluggishly, pressed to the ground and feeling the tell-tale pounding of his heart, a far-off roar growing louder. Distantly he recognised Fury barking out orders.

“Stark, Romanov, get that engine back online! And Thor-”

“I am going to my brother!” Rolling over, Bruce groaned, head pounding. He barely managed to realise that the Staff had gone before all rational thought was lost in the swell of rage rushing upwards inside him. Desperately he tried to hold on, begging incoherently and clutching his head as involuntary grunts forced their way through his mouth. There was movement close to him but the whole world quickly faded away as he was lost in the tug of war between his desperation for peace and he furious pounding through his entire being. He clung desperately to good things, good memories. Happy faces, smiles and laughter, dark hair and kind eyes, no, those memories are sad now. Bruce held back sobs of frustration as he searched for calm and quiet and happy, conjuring images in his mind's eye of soft plains and bustling, local markets. Cool evening breezes and lunch at Stark Tower with Tony yammering on about something unimportant, his eyes dancing. A stranger offering him a scrap of paper with a phone number on it, a reckless amount of trust offered to him freely with soft, understanding eyes trying to hold his gaze. A steadying hand on his shoulder, urging him to breathe.

Vaguely, he registered other voices around him but they were drowned out by the furious pounding of his heart. It had seemed like an eternity and no time at all since he’d been knocked down. He knew suddenly that Tony was kneeling beside him, reassuring him that the engine had been taken care of, they were safe again, no one was attacking them, he was safe. It was almost too much, too much sensation, confusion, fear, rage. Then the weight of a phantom hand pressed on his shoulder and he could breathe out again. Finally, back to his base-line for calm, Bruce straightened, trying to ignore the stares and got out his phone. He probably wouldn’t have remembered to look at it hadn’t he just been focusing on Steve. Sure enough, there was a message:

 

Stark Tower. Come now.

 

Wordlessly, he let Tony’s grabby hands take the phone and read the message as he looked up at the others.

“I know where it is.”

Ten minutes later they were on a jet headed to New York. Romanoff was piloting, jaw set and concentration razor sharp, Tony was huddled in a corner tinkering with the battered suit having been forcefully persuaded not to risk flight in it; Coulson’s voice was calm but curt over the radio, sounding like he was resisting the urge to hit something as he radioed from the other jet holding a regular SHIELD team for support whilst Bruce fidgeted and listened half-heartedly to Tony’s incredibly reductive summary of the situation.

“Barton blew a hole in the flying base, Loki got away, with the sceptre and his oily grin and Thor chased after him, cursing in iambic pentameter.” A glance at Romanov’s averted gaze confirmed that the brainwashed agent was still at large as well. Coulson spoke then, sharp and serious.

“So, now you’re caught up, how about you tell us who your source is?” Bruce sighed and started reluctantly.

“It’s the Phantom. He’s on the inside. Told me he’d been recruited and he’s been keeping an eye on the situation.” Holding up his phone unnecessarily he added, “and he’s been feeding me information.” He looked around at their wary faces and wished he’d learnt to be more persuasive. “We can trust him. I trust him.” Coulson replied shortly.

“Why didn’t you tell us this earlier? We could have-”

“It wasn’t my place to tell. I don’t trust SHIELD with his identity. Neither of us do.” He sighed again, suddenly exhausted, how to make them understand? “It’d been a long time since anyone had shown me the trust that St-” No, it would take more to weaken those emotional walls, especially around these people. He’d already let slip part of his name, that was too much. Just then New York came into view and everyone tensed, gripping their various weapons whilst Bruce clenched his fists. The dread in his stomach rising with each breath, almost paralysing his chest with its intensity.

They could see tiny figures, one green and one red, fighting on one of the lower floors. Flying at each other and parting with brutal force. Quickly, Coulson and Tony negotiated a plan. Ironman and Black Widow would take on the forces Loki had brought to the Tower, Bruce could see his friend bristling at the idea of his creation invaded, whilst Bruce and Coulson’s team would secure the Tesseract. They’d give Thor a little longer to try and subdue Loki before stepping in.

Landing on the pad of Stark Tower, Bruce fought through the nausea climbing up his throat and followed the others out onto the landing pad. Suddenly there was a streak of redgreen behind them that crashed into the second jet, throwing it into a spin.

“Coulson!” He heard Tony shout as he flew forward, helping to stabilise the jet as much as he could before it landed hard on the ground. A few torturous seconds passed before the radio crackled into life.

“We’re fine. No casualties.” Breath filled Bruce’s lungs and he gulped as Coulson went on, “Bruce, you get up to the Tesseract, see if there’s a way to contain it. We’ll catch up.” Nodding and swearing under his breath, he ran panting up the stairs, listening as Ironman and Black Widow encountered the team of Loki's hired goons and also Hawkeye. It sounded like he was giving them a run for their money before Romanov had bit out to leave him to her. Bruce didn't hear whether Ironman agreed to this or not as he'd finally reached the roof. Bursting out into the small space he took a minute to catch his breath whilst staring at the machine. The blue glow definitely felt other worldly, and there was a sense of dread to it, possibly from Steve’s stories about how the same glow would disappear men in a fatal flash. He walked towards it before he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye. For a long moment, Bruce’s mind almost refused to register what it was seeing. He just couldn’t reconcile his mental image of The Phantom, his fellow fugitive… Steve, with the broken body in front of him. As a yawning sense of doom pulled around him, Bruce half-staggered forward and reached for, for his friend, a numb part of him already labelling it all as hopeless. Calloused fingers pressed against a still-warm neck and he almost laughed at the weak pulse he felt underneath the clammy skin. There wasn’t much visible blood, but the clothes he wore were black and glistened wetly in places and some of his limbs were angled unnaturally where he lay…more lifeless than Bruce had ever seen him. He lived but, for how long? Nausea rose up in Bruce’s stomach, clawing its way up his throat as his head buzzed and his body became very, very still. No hand on his shoulder now. Gritting his teeth and clenching his fists, he didn’t even try to hold back. Thirty seconds later, a giant ball of emerald rage found the God of Lies and drove him through the ground.

Feeling the vibrations of the Hulk’s roar and subsequent rampage, Tony cursed. He sarcastically acknowledged JARVIS informing him of the obvious fact that Banner’s playmate was loose and knocked out the last of Loki’s Lackeys – their official title in his head. Coulson’s’ team was still grounded and by the time they could reach the Tesseract it could be too late. He took stock of the situation: Natasha was still sparring with her brainwashed team mate, Hulk was still laying into Loki like there was no tomorrow as Thor attempted to separate them, looking earnest and heart-broken. Tony himself had already taken out the security team Loki had infested the Tower with so basically, they got this. Approaching the roof, he could see the machine, all glowy and threatening and some figures, one crouching over another lying propped up against the stone. Speeding closer, he identified the crouching figure as Dr Selvig. The terrible blue cube was pulsing ominously, JARVIS giving him dire readings, so Tony triaged.

“Dr Selvig! Help me secure the Tesseract!” Turning and looking a little dazed, the scientist blinked at him before nodding and indicating to a case located near the machine. Approaching the thing, Tony let his mind fly through speculation and into deduction, working out what he was seeing. Luckily Selvig had recovered his voice to guide him. Together the scientists disabled the machine and packed the cube back into the case. Sighing with relief and informing his new teammates of this victory, Tony turned and shook a still a little dazed-looking Selvig’s hand.

“Good job, doc.” The man nodded, looking over Tony’s shoulder as his expression turned serious. He pulled away, moving to walk behind Tony so Tony turned and saw the cause of Banner’s rage.

Steve’s first thought on waking was, this is bright…ah, and tight. He then tried to pry off whatever was on his face but found he couldn’t. Snapping fully alert, he realised that both arms and legs were strapped down, the slightly stale smell of canned oxygen meaning that he must be wearing an oxygen mask and a beeping beside him increasing in frequency. Pings and stabs of pain flared throughout his body, he figured that most of his injuries had healed but there was probably still internal and external bruising. At least the breaks had healed, as far as he could tell. The room was brightly lit and… He blinked and as his eyes focused he locked stares with Director Fury. Forcing down the panic clawing up his chest, Steve tried to focus his mind.

“You’re safe, Captain.” Still a little groggy from unconsciousness, it took Steve a moment to hear the silent for now. The Director continued. “We’ve been keeping an eye on you. Dr Rosario was actually one of our agents.” Steve frowned as his mind struggling through fogginess to remember what Fury was referring to. Eventually he remembered and it must have shown on his face because Fury went on, a slight smirk on his face. “She was both impressed and irritated when you escaped just before her planned extraction.” Steve blinked, he hadn’t seen ‘Dr Rosario’ whilst being kept prisoner by Ross’ division, but he supposed that she wouldn’t have wanted to draw undue attention to herself.

“Whilst I understand your... frustration with the whole situation, vigilantism is still a crime. Assault, breaking and entering, using weaponry without a license, kidnapping...” A flicker of what could have been amusement flickered over his expression as he paused there, “these are all serious offences, which could see you put away for a long time. If you hadn't been answering to any authority, that is.” Even weakened and groggy Steve caught the hidden agenda. Ah, so that’s his play.

“You want me to join SHIELD.” Steve didn’t need to think about it. He had already considered the option many months earlier, when he’d been investigating Tony’s links to the organisation. Whilst he had never uncovered anything as heinous as Ross’ underhanded dealings and unethical practices, he just didn’t trust Fury though. He couldn’t put his faith in the organisation. He knew there were good people there, but still, there was a warning in Steve’s mind not to trust him, not to turn his back. Even the ever-present awareness of the restraints currently holding him down didn’t sway him. He’d never been much of an actor or manipulator, especially now, as drained as he was.

Anyway, he’d already decided, back in the beginning, that should he be arrested then he would accept responsibility for the consequences. No, he wouldn’t suffer a secret laboratory or illegal experimentation but a prison sentence for the crimes he’d committed? Steve had once promised to stay a good man and even at the end of his rope, battered and exhausted and utterly without the strength to fight, perhaps especially now, he could see that lately he hadn’t been keeping that promise. He was in no position to argue, and by damn did Fury know it. Fortunately for Steve, he wasn’t as alone in this century as he sometimes felt. Loud voices rose from the hallway and two familiar faces burst into the room.

“Steve!”

“Casper!” Blinking stupidly, it took a few tries to process what was happening. It certainly didn’t help that Tony was babbling at full speed, quipping and snarling in equal measure at the unsurprised-looking Fury. Steve couldn’t help relaxing even in the restraints, simple joy at having these two men he’d grown close to physically near him, unharmed and unhindered, grew within him. Finally, it was Bruce’s level but dangerous tone which cutting through everyone else’s voices that brought him back into the moment.

“He’s awake and not violent so you can take those off!” Looking down at his strapped down limbs, having completely forgotten that they were there, Steve looked back up at Bruce, a tired smile forming. His friend smiled back a little, unable to hide his relief and shifted on his feet, clearly exhausted. Tony was still ranting at Fury but he’d moved closer to Steve’s bed and when Steve gave a raspy cough, he cut himself off and looked over worriedly. Looking like he was resisting rolling his eye, Fury waved in some doctors who removed the restraints, checking the readings and asking Steve the routine questions to establish his mental wherewithal. With Tony still muttering increasingly implausible threats to Fury, Bruce turned his attention to the chart at the end of the bed. Even as the doctors filled out he was still struggling through his exhaustion from transforming to fight through the awkward emotions between himself and Steve. He’d experienced relief like he’d never felt before when he’d found out that Steve would make a full recovery and he still wasn’t prepared to sift through the emotional implications of that realisation. Tony, on the other hand, had given a few hours thought to his relationship with the man he now knew to be Steve Rogers and was now perched near Steve’s head, hands fluttering nervously as if birds deciding where to roost.

Fury left unnoticed.

Chapter Text

Groaning to himself, Clint sat up, wincing at the sharp pain lancing through his skull. He felt the presence beside him through habit and familiarity rather than through any of his poor, battered senses.

“Wha’ happen?” A wry voice came from his left.

“Norse Gods is what happened.” Opening his eyes gingerly, he looked to the source of the wry words and made out a familiar shape.

“Tasha?”

“Lie still, you’re going to be in pain for a while.”

“Nah, screw that, tell me what happened.” He winced as he shifted a little. “Maybe the cliff notes version?”

“We worked out where Selvig was setting up the Cube: Stark Tower.” He stared at her and she shrugged. “Luckily we brought a Hulk to the party. Stark and Selvig stopped the Cube before it could open a portal to another realm and the Hulk smashed everybody’s favourite Norse God into the ground.” She showed him a photo on her phone of a green-clad shape which had been forced into a marble floor. He cringed even as he felt sharp relief.

“Whatever set off the Big Guy off must have been a doozy.” Natasha shrugged, in that way that said she knew the answer, but wouldn’t bother to enlighten him. He fingered the back of his head carefully, wincing at the pain. “So, did the, ‘thing’ on me, wear off when Loki got squished?”

“No. I hit you.” He gingerly raised an eyebrow. “Really hard, in the head.”

“Great, thanks.” She smirked, but he saw the lingering concern in her eyes. He quickly changed the subject. “So everyone’s okay?” She nodded. “And the Norse guys?”

“On their way back to Asgard with the Tesseract.” Clint considered for a moment, then shrugged.

“Cool. What’s for dinner?” She rolled her eyes at him, unable to stop her lip from curving ever so slightly upward.

 “You nearly took this whole identity thing a little literally.” Interpreting the concern underneath the casual line, Steve smiled to himself and, shying away from contemplating his close brush with death, shrugged.

“What happened anyway? Fury didn’t say…” Tony swivelled and saw that the man himself was gone.

“Hey! Where’d he go?” He turned back and waved a dismissive hand. “Eh, don’t worry Ghost, Pepper’s already got her best lawyers chomping at the bit to take him down!” There was a beat of silence before Steve sighed heavily and said reluctantly.

“Tony. I’ve been running so long…maybe it’s time for me to stop.”

“Excellent idea! Though screw SHIELD, join us! Join the Avengers!”

“…Avengers?” Tony pushed down the thought that Steve’s confusion made him look adorable and replied nonchalantly.

“It’s sort of a thing.” He glanced at Bruce, “our thing. Yours too, if you want.” He refrained from biting his lip, he was not 12, he was not 12. “And you want. You definitely want.” Shaking his head as if to throw off his confusion, Steve looked to Bruce questioningly.

“What sort of thing?”

“A saving the world kind of thing. When it needs it.” Looking up at the blank ceiling, suddenly reminded of his cell he’d woken up in, he considered briefly if this was some sort of extended fever dream. He could feel the tension radiating from his new friend next to him and found it didn’t matter even if it was. He smiled.

“I’m in.”