- Dark Themes
- Explicit Sex
- Alternate Universe
- First Time
Cautionary Tale: We got through the climax, but none of the falling action. The last chapter was written so fast, it might not be intelligible! Fair warning.
– – – –
Steve exited the elevator on the level of Tony’s penthouse. He was happy to see Tony any time, but there hadn’t been any communication about what Tony needed or why they were meeting up here.
He found Tony setting dinner out on the table. “Hey. What’s all this?” Tony moved closer and Steve readily leaned in for a kiss. The introduction of casual affection over the last week had been a revelation. He’d gone from refusing to think about how he felt about Tony to not being able to stop thinking about it. And he liked kissing and touching so much more with Tony. He wasn’t sure if that meant Steve was likely gay or if he was just that into Tony.
“Just dinner for just the two of us. Date night.”
“Oh. I figured I’d—” He stopped himself, realizing he was being an idiot.
Fortunately, Tony didn’t seem pissed, he just looked amused as he walked back toward the kitchen. “I realize you grew up in an era of defined gender roles. You’re a man so you think of your romantic partner as not-a-man. So I’ll forgive some lapses, but just remind yourself that even if I were a woman that gender roles should be negotiated.”
Steve considered for a second. “You talked to Anthony.”
Tony stuck his head out of the kitchen, scowling. “Is everyone going to suddenly be observant?”
He laughed. “I’ll do my best to stop with gender-based expectations.”
“Or… When you feel yourself slipping into that mindset, tell yourself that I am the man in the relationship and see if that changes how you feel about the situation. Because if you cast yourself in the traditional role of the woman and find it unpalatable—well, first, don’t do it. But also consider that women will probably find it obnoxious too.”
“By how uncomfortable I feel right now, I guess that’s pretty good advice.”
“Progress!” Tony came back with a bowl of pasta. “Either way, the responsibility for setting up dates is both of ours. The odds of us getting out of the tower are nil, so here we are. Sparky is doing filthy things to Thor all evening—after he graciously cooked for us because I’m amazing but cooking isn’t in my skillset—and J will let us know if he decides to head back down for any reason.”
Steve couldn’t help the face he made at the reminder of Thor.
Sighing, Tony gestured to the chair. “Sit and eat while you angst.”
“Tony…” But he sat and dished up some pasta.
“Look, you need to chill. There’s nothing going on that both parties aren’t perfectly happy about, and Tony needs this. Activity is how he processes stuff. And sex is a very good activity for processing. It floods the brain with all kinds of mood-improving chemicals. He’s been through a lot, so let it be.”
Steve bit into some bread like it had personally offended him. “It’s the way Thor looks at him.”
Tony stared at him for a few seconds. “And how’s that?”
“Like he thinks the sun rises and sets on Anthony’s every word.”
“So you’re upset that Thor is smitten?”
“Thor has known him for a week. How could he be that…involved?”
“Maybe he knows what he wants?” Tony shrugged. “Sometimes you just click with someone.”
“Didn’t his girlfriend just dump him?”
“You get that Thor was always emotionally detached to some degree with Dr. Foster, right?”
Steve frowned, wondering what he’d missed. “Why?”
“Because Thor is like 1000 years old, right? He’d be an idiot to get too wrapped up in someone who he would lose in another seventy years. At most. I don’t doubt he cared for her, but he’d be crazy not to keep some level of detachment.”
“Oh.” Steve took another bite of his food, chewing carefully while he thought. “Do you think he’s genuine in his…regard for Anthony?”
“Actually, I do. And I agree that it’s damn fast to be so intense. Makes me wonder if there’s some Asgardian mystery thing Thor isn’t sharing going on.”
“But Anthony talks about it like they’re just fooling around.”
“I think we’re seeing his blind spot in action. And it’s a doozy. So just enjoy it while you can because he doesn’t have many of those. It’s like seeing a kod kod at all much less during the daytime.”
“Was that supposed to make sense?”
Steve huffed, getting used to ignoring Tony’s verbal tangents. “Should I talk to him?”
“God, no. Do you have any how awkward that would be? Just give it a few more days and, if he hasn’t twigged into what’s going on, I’ll figure out a way to bring it up.”
He wasn’t offended, but he was perplexed. “And it’s okay for you to talk to him about it but not me?”
Tony shot him a look. “Just for a moment, ponder which of those scenarios will be less awkward.”
Steve made a face. “Yeah, okay.”
Tony laughed. “Now, no more talk about Sparky. He’s fine. Tell me about your day. I heard something happened with Barnes, but J said you and Coulson had it handled, and I was busy with a project so I didn’t ask anything further.”
“Yeah.” Steve sighed. “Remember that data Anthony turned over to us to go through looking for information on James’ brainwashing or the control words?”
“Well, it was in there, in a benign document written in Russian. And seeing the words in a particular order is apparently enough to activate him.” Steve blew out a breath. “It was easier than I expected to get him settled down, but it was…”
“Yeah.” Steve hated what had been done to James with every fiber of his being, and seeing the proof of just how much damage Hydra had done to him had made Steve livid in a way he could barley contain. He’d needed an hour in the gym and gone through three punching bags.
“And Barnes is okay?”
“Better than I am, I think. Bruce and Phil are keeping him company this evening.”
“If you want to go back down, that’s fine,” Tony assured. “You should have told Jarvis you were busy. We can have dinner any time.”
“No,” Steve said hastily. “I…needed to get a break. He’s doing fine for the moment.”
“At least we have the list now?” Tony offered, sounding hesitant.
He nodded. That was the good news. “The question becomes…what’s next?”
“We’ll figure it out. We need to get over the hump of Hydra being an immediate threat—to him and Sparky—and then we can find specialists who can help him.”
“I wish we could do more about Hydra… Be out there taking the fight to them.”
“We agreed you and I need to stay close to the tower in case Hydra does something stupid. Let May and Coulson do what they’re good at. SHIELD is, for a little while longer, an asset we can exploit for resources and intel. I’m not prepared to be associated with SHIELD any longer in any capacity, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for you either, so let the SHIELD agents be SHIELD agents and you and I can be civilians who are just protecting their own.”
Steve nodded, struggling with his frustration over everything. “I agree. I just feel like I’m not doing anything.”
“You have a whole lot of world to catch up on. It probably feels like going back to school, but it’s what you need. Plus being there for Barnes and getting to know your grandson.”
“You’re right. I know you’re right, I just wish I could do more.”
“Well… There’s always making out like teenagers. I don’t know what it does for you, but I feel all kinds of stress relief.”
Steve grinned. “That’ll never get old.”
Tony shuddered. “I love it when you use a modern turn of phrase. It’s so hot.”
Laughing, Steve threw a bit of bread at Tony. “Idiot.”
Tony batted his eyelashes. “It’s one of my best features.” He tossed the bread back, and Steve caught it deftly. “You doing okay still with separating the idea of James from Bucky?”
Steve nodded, pushing away the sadness. “Anthony keeps helping with that. We talk about it a lot when we have lunch. I just keep reminding myself that Bucky, the Bucky I knew, is gone. I never really grieved for him, so having him here makes now makes it harder to do. There will be parts of James that came from Bucky, but I’m trying to get to know who he is now.”
“You get that he’s a work in progress, right? The more he recovers, the more he’s going to change. Probably in some ways he’ll be more like Bucky and in others he’ll be less.”
Steve nodded again, wishing he could get his hands on some Hydra scientists and commit cold-blooded murder. He pushed the dark thoughts away. “I’ll be there for him the whole way and do my best to become a friend to James.” He decided to ask something that had been on his mind. “You and Anthony are working on something, aren’t you?”
Freezing for a second, Tony met Steve’s gaze. “What are you asking me?”
“Can you tell me what’s going on?” He held up a hand because Tony’s expression was forbidding. “Jarvis went through the whole thing about security clearances and various levels of classified information. So I know you may not be able to tell me specifics. Just… Is that it? Are you working on his classified stuff? Or is something else going on?” Steve felt out of the loop and it helped to know exactly what kind of thing he was being left out of.
Tony blew out a breath. “More or less. I’m not sure if you fully understand the risk Nick Fury brought to Tony’s team at Homeland. He compromised their safety in an appalling way. I signed a lot of extra paperwork and practically promised my first born to get a higher security clearance so I could try to help—in any capacity. I’m not sure I can be much help, but I’m trying.”
Steve shook his head. “I don’t believe there’s anything you can’t do.”
Tony looked flummoxed for a second then he whispered. “Thanks. That’s…sweet.”
“It’s the truth.” He left Tony to his thoughts for a few seconds before adding, “I just wanted to be sure you guys were going to be safe with whatever you’re doing and to let you know that I won’t pry, but I’ll help if you need anything.” It was hard for him to not know everything, but James had been the one to yell at him—for several hours!—about how Steve couldn’t expect to know the world’s secrets.
“We’re being careful. Honestly, there’s a lot I don’t know. They had to raise my security clearance just to have some conversations, and it was already pretty high because of the work SI does for the DoD. And your grandson has the highest security clearance possible.”
“Will they take that away from him?”
Tony was quiet for a long time, and Steve wondered what about that question was giving Tony pause. Eventually, he replied, “I don’t think so.” He put his fork down and pushed his plate away. “Look, the powers that be want him to be an Avenger if we manage to sort out all the issues with the initiative.”
“Oh.” Steve considered for a second. “That seems like a good idea.”
“Yeah, but my guess is they’re still going to ask him to consult on high priority intelligence projects. The government isn’t going to want to lose a mind so adept at interpreting intelligence.”
Steve nodded, considering the ramifications. “If he’s that good at it, I can see why they’d want that. But it makes him vulnerable, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. His cover isn’t completely blown, but it probably will be. Too many people know who he is now. So he’ll be a target because of what he is—due to Hydra’s assholery—and also because of what he knows because of HELIOS.”
“And how do we keep him safe?”
“Well, we can’t be overbearing assholes about that, you get that right?”
Steve made a face. “I know.”
“Your pout is epic…and kind of adorable.”
He rolled his eyes but couldn’t help but smile.
Tony pointed at him. “Considering your worry, I’d think you’d be happier that a fucking Norse god has taken such an interest. That’s one more very terrifying person between Sparky and Hydra.”
There was nothing Steve could do but concede that point. And he was certain Thor would happily stand between Anthony and any threat.
Feeling lighter, they finished dinner, discussing various things—heavily focusing on things Steve was learning about the modern time. After dinner, they moved to the couch and Steve once again noticed Tony’s hesitance to make a first move. He’d observed it a couple times in the last week, but thought Tony would have settled a bit now.
Snagging Tony’s wrist, he pulled him down to sit right by Steve. “What’s going on? I thought you were getting more comfortable with me?”
“I am!” Tony insisted hurriedly even as he practically melted into Steve’s side. “I just don’t want to push you.”
“Really?” Steve was stunned by that bit of news. He wrapped his arm around Tony. “Is that also why you’re always pulling away so quickly?”
“Hey! It’s a compliment. You really get me going, and so I pull away when I’m about a second from sticking my hand in your pants.”
Steve chuckled at the obvious exaggeration. “Tony, you pulled away in less than a minute last night.”
“As I said.”
“Oh.” Wow. “It does stupid things for my ego that you get that hot and bothered so quickly.” He snagged Tony around the waist and hauled him into Steve’s lap. “How about you let me decide if we’re going too fast?”
Tony straddled Steve’s thighs, hands braced on his chest. “Okay, I think I’ve developed a manhandling kink. Sparky said the super strength was super hot and I’m starting to see the appeal.”
“Tony. Shut up.” Cradling Tony’s head, he pulled him down into a heated kiss, readily sliding his tongue into Tony’s mouth, enjoying the taste and the heat of him. In a few short seconds, they were both fully hard, and Tony was rocking against him.
Steve broke the kiss, stroking his thumb over Tony’s cheekbone. “Why are you with me?”
Tony blinked in apparent astonishment. “What?”
“You’re perfect, and I—”
“Oh my god, Steve, I am not perfect. Don’t—” He cleared his throat. “You started off with a false opinion of me based on bad information. Don’t get another false opinion based on your dick.”
Steve sighed, not even getting close to offended. “I’m basing my opinion on how smart you are, how funny, how much you give to everyone around you. I know you’re an asshole—Anthony’s term for your character defects, not mine.”
Tony huffed out a laugh.
“Maybe it doesn’t make sense, but you can have flaws and still be perfect…to me.”
“That’s ridiculously sappy.” But Tony looked happy, so Steve disregarded the words.
“Maybe. But you make me feel sappy. Anthony said I should embrace my sappy side.”
“Don’t listen to him, he’s a terrible troll.” But the smile belied the words.
Steve pulled him down for another quick kiss. “Can I ask you something really personal?”
“Well, if anyone can it’s you.”
“Are you over Pepper? Do you miss her?” He’d worried about how recently that relationship had ended. Steve didn’t resent Tony’s past relationships but he didn’t want to share emotional time with them either.
Tony looked like he was considering his answer. “It’d be easy to just say I’m over it, but I don’t want to lie to you. And I don’t think we really ever get over people we truly care about. So, in that sense, I’m not over her. But it’s also a relief that it’s done. I don’t know that I’d have ever taken the step to end what we had, but, once it was done, it was like a weight was lifted.”
“She never really accepted me the way I am. And it wasn’t just being Iron Man, which was her main talking point, it was everything. It was my propensity for staying my lab all the time, it was the way I behave at board meetings—if I go to them at all—it was just…everything. Every day it felt like some subtle ‘Tony, be different, be better,’ and it was exhausting. I felt like I was always disappointing her.” He shook his head. “And I don’t mean to make Pep sound terrible. She wasn’t a nag or anything, and she’s amazing really, but I always knew I wasn’t quite meeting her expectations.” He looked away. “I’m so tired of feeling like I don’t meet people’s expectations.”
Steve felt like his heart was in his throat. “And I was like that too, wasn’t I?”
“At first, yeah. But we wouldn’t have gotten here if you hadn’t turned off the judgmental vibes, so…” He paused for a few seconds. “Just don’t go back. If you don’t think you can accept me the way I am, tell me now. We can have some fun, get you up to gay sex if you want, but I don’t want to get any more emotionally invested just to spend a few years feeling like I’m making yet another person miserable.”
Steve considered what he wanted to say, but while he was thinking, Tony took his silence badly.
“Yeah, I shouldn’t have said all that. Just ignore me.” He tried to get up, but Steve got his hands on Tony’s hips and held him in place.
“Sometimes I think I don’t understand you even half the time, but I want to. I want to get you. I want to understand what makes you happy or sad or just what captivates your interest. And I don’t care if you want to be in your lab all night, but sometimes I want to be with you there. I like watching you work. I like watching you. I like the that you’re irreverent because it reminds me not to take things too seriously. And I love Iron Man because it shows how you can turn something awful into something amazing. And rather than turning that into a source of profit, you tried to help the world. I admire you so much.”
“Steve…” Tony seemed flustered, but then he lunged forward, kissing Steve with a ferocity he hadn’t experienced before now. It was all-consuming and like nothing Steve had ever felt. They were rocking against each other with frantic urgency, and Steve was perilously close to coming in his pants like when he was a teenager.
Tony broke away gasping for air, flushed and looking so sexy it took Steve’s breath away. “I want to suck you. Can I do that? Will you let me shimmy off your lap and get on my knees, take your cock out, and suck you all the way down?”
Steve gasped and shuddered and nearly came.
Tony nipped at his ear then whispered. “Can I do that, Steve?”
“God, Tony, who would say no to that?”
Tony flashed him a wicked grin then did exactly what he’d said. He wiggled around until he could slide to the floor, kneeling between Steve’s spread thighs. He kneaded the tight muscles for a few seconds then slid his hands up and under Steve’s ass, yanking him forward so he was closer to the edge of the couch.
Without saying anything further, Tony popped the buttons on Steve’s jeans and reached in, freeing Steve from his briefs. Steve hissed through his teeth, nearly coming at the feel of Tony’s hand wrapped around him.
“Jesus, Tony, don’t call me ‘Rogers’ when you’re about to- Fuck!” The sudden hot and wet and pressure on his dick nearly had him shooting off. He arched up, but Tony pressed him back into the sofa.
Steve had more experience with receiving blow jobs that just about any other aspect of sex, and this was nothing like anything he’d ever known. Tony took him so deep and moved his tongue so perfectly… Lightning sizzled in Steve’s veins. He felt tension building in his spine so fast he couldn’t control it.
He gripped the sofa, fighting not to thrust Tony away from him with his enhanced strength as the climax ripped through him, robbing him of breath and his senses.
It was almost embarrassing how fast it was over. Steve was too keyed up and Tony was too good for it to last more than those scant few minutes. He managed several shuddery breaths then looked down to meet Tony’s gaze, and he looked more than a little smug.
Steve reached down and hauled him back up onto his lap, pulling Tony in for a kiss.
“Most guys don’t like- Mmph—”
He didn’t care about the taste of himself in Tony’s mouth. He just had to kiss him again. As he sucked Tony’s tongue into his mouth, he found he really didn’t mind. The idea that Tony had just had his mouth on Steve’s cock made him shiver and start to get hard again.
He got to his feet, keeping hold of Tony, who flailed for a second then wrapped his legs around Steve. Making sure he had his balance, he headed for Tony’s bedroom.
“I guess we’re changing venues,” Tony murmured as he began kissing the side of Steve’s neck. “And Sparky was definitely right about how hot the super strength is.”
Laughter bubbled up, and Steve dropped Tony on the bed then quickly stripped off his own clothes. He braced himself over Tony, kissing him hard before saying, “Relationship rule: We don’t talk bout my grandson in bed.”
Tony grinned. “Even during post coital cuddling?”
“If you can talk about Anthony, I haven’t worn you out enough.”
“Ooh. You’re setting the bar high. I approve.”
Steve felt a moment of uncertainty. “I’m not sure I’m ready for…” He cleared his throat. “But I want to be with you.”
Tony cupped his cheek then ran his fingers through Steve’s hair. “Do what you want. I’m all yours.”
Steve shuddered, claiming Tony’s mouth. He broke the kiss, feeling gratified by the dazed expression on Tony’s face, then kneed Tony’s thighs apart so he kneel up between them. His hands teased at the waistband of Tony’s jeans. “Can I?”
“Oh yeah. You go low, I’ll go high.” Tony grabbed the hem of both T-shirts he was wearing and pulled them off together. Steve’s gaze was immediately arrested by the sight of the mass of scar tissue in the middle of Tony’s chest. Tony nudged Steve with his foot. “It’s just scars, Steve.” His expression seemed stiff.
“I don’t like that you’ve been hurt so much.”
Tony’s features softened. “Consider it proof of how awesome I am at surviving the impossible. Now get with the denim removal and then pretend like you’re my blanket.”
Steve laughed, tugging at the button and zipper on Tony’s jeans, easily working them off his hips and down his legs. He slid his hands up Tony’s thighs then up to his waist and chest before sliding them under Tony’s shoulders, settling his weight on Tony’s body. He groaned as their naked bodies came in contact for the first time. Clothed, Tony looked skinnier than he actually was. The amount of muscle he was carrying was surprising. Especially in his upper body.
“Yeah, that’s really good,” Tony said breathlessly, arching up.
Steve nuzzled at Tony’s throat, kissing and nipping the skin, cataloging the responses he got. Tony was particularly sensitive the closer Steve got to his ear. He sucked at Tony’s earlobe, earning full-body tremors and a gasp. The feel of Tony’s hard cock pressing against his belly was driving Steve insane. He ground against Tony, wanting to just drive them both to completion. “This okay?”
Dazed, Tony managed, “Yeah, yeah…great. Just…” He flailed around on the nightstand, coming up with a bottle. “Lube’ll be good.” Tony slicked up his hand then slid it between their bodies, taking both of their cocks in hand. Steve gasped, thrusting hard into the clench of Tony’s fist.
Tony got their cocks lined up then wrapped his legs around Steve’s hips. “Go for it.”
Steve thrust against Tony’s body, and it was slick and hot and hard. “Tony,” he gasped.
“Perfect,” Tony breathed as he arched up, meeting and mirroring Steve’s increasingly frantic movements.
“You’re perfect,” Steve murmured against Tony’s mouth before licking inside. And Tony was absolutely perfect for Steve. And the feel of his body arching and writing under Steve was the most intense thing he’d ever experienced.
Tony clutched frantically at his shoulders. “Steve… Fuck!” His head arched back, tendons standing out sharply on his throat as he came, liquid heat flooding between them. Steve groaned, tremors wracking his body as he followed Tony into orgasm.
He was collapsed on Tony, trying to catch his breath, but he managed to rouse himself enough to roll away. But Tony held on, legs and arms wrapped around him.
“You weigh a ton more than anyone I’ve ever had sex with—damn super solider bone structure—but I can handle it for a few minutes.”
“You sure,” Steve mumbled into Tony’s throat.
“Yeah. Just…stay with me.”
– – – –
Tony woke abruptly, sitting straight up in bed with a gasp, waking Thor in the process. He gasped for air, trying to get his equilibrium back. He felt heat at his back as Thor moved to sit behind him, wrapping his arm around Tony and dropping a kiss on his shoulder.
“Why will you not tell of your dreams, beloved?”
He snorted in amusement at the over the top endearments. He’d come to expect it from Thor but it wasn’t quite the same as getting used to it. “Are all Asgardians so…hyperbolic?”
“In what way do you think I exaggerate?” There was something about Thor that Tony found incredibly appealing. He wasn’t particularly witty but he was clever and smart, though in a way very different from Tony. And there was something incredibly steadfast about him that Tony found alluring. And it didn’t hurt that he was hot like burning.
They’d had a week together, filled with truly epic amounts of amazing sex—the best sex of his life if he were honest—and Tony worried about himself becoming attached. Thor was stuck on Earth for the time being, and since he had abandoned his mission, he had nothing to do but spend time with Tony. Normally Tony didn’t hang out or sleep with his casual fuck buddies—for good reason. Relationships were a complication he couldn’t usually afford. But, by some measure, Thor was a god. No one was going to go after Thor to get to Tony. So Tony didn’t have to stay distant, but it distance was the mode he was accustomed to. Although, in this case, distance might still be better because Thor lived on another fucking planet.
“Don’t you think ‘beloved’ is a bit much?”
“Hmm.” Thor pressed another kiss to the back of Tony’s neck. “You doubt my affection, but, in time, I will persuade you of my sincerity.”
Tony froze at that, wondering how exactly Thor could be sincere about a term like beloved after a week.
“But you will not distract me again, Anthony. You have been plagued every night, your rest interrupted by this dream. Why will you not tell me?”
“Because it’s just…fall out. You get that the last few weeks have been rough, right? I just need to process.”
Thor adjusted his position, molding himself more tightly to Tony’s back, bracketing Tony with his legs. “You were captured by an enemy and tortured, and you need time to recover yourself, I understand this, but this dream…it distresses you, but you are not afraid. Terrors that come in the night, those I have seen from fellow warriors after a battle, bring fear. But you are fighting. What is it?”
“It is a fear…of a sort. It’s not like I’m being hurt or anything in the dream, but… Hydra took my humanity from me in a very literal way. My DNA was altered such at a cellular level, I’m not like my own people anymore. And then Bruce keeps wanting to talk to me about being part plant. And I just can’t…deal with any more. I’m mentally exhausted. And when he brings up plant DNA, my mind can’t go there. And I’ve had hundreds of hours of psychology training, so dreaming about a damn tree in these circumstances makes perfect sense, but I don’t want to be dreaming about a damn tree every night. Because I don’t to think about plants.”
Thor had been gently touching him, stroking over his belly above where the sheet pooled, or caressing his hipbones, but at Tony’s words, he stilled, hands gripping tightly. “You dream of a tree?”
“Well, not exactly a tree, but tree shaped. Which makes even more sense, since I’m apparently sort of a tree but I’m not really a tree tree. And the brain will go to crazy places to try to deal with stuff.”
“What does this tree do that distresses you so?” Thor was still oddly still.
“It reaches out. And maybe my subconscious wants me to get on board with my tree parts, but I’m not ready, and I need my brain to stop and let me process at a rate I can handle. I think I’ve been doing okay and I’m more than a little pissed that my subconscious won’t get on board the take-it-slow train.”
Thor pulled away from him, and Tony immediately felt the loss. He’d become ridiculously attached to the way Thor felt wrapped around him. He watched curiously as Thor pulled out the leather-bound notebook he occasionally wrote in and began writing something. Not at all eager to go back to sleep, Tony was content to wait and wonder what was on Thor’s mind.
When he was finished, Thor closed the notebook with his finger jammed in to mark his place. “Tell me about your tree. Would you describe it for me?”
Tony hesitated, but Thor had been patiently asking every night and readily accepting Tony’s “no” every single time even though Tony kept waking him up. It wasn’t like describing his dream was going to make it happen more often. “It’s not exactly a tree in that trees as we know them are wood and leaves or needles of some kind. Brown and green mostly. This is like a tree made of light, but sort of a muted light with bright spots on its branches. I figure my brain is conflating the whole plant thing with the way I have this visible energy a lot of the time…” he trailed off as Thor opened the journal and showed him the page he had marked. His eyebrows shot up as he saw that it was a drawing of the tree he had just described. Where the bright spots on the branches were in Tony’s dream, Thor had drawn a ball.
“Your expression tells me this is what you’ve seen when you sleep. You say it reaches out… Why does that worry you?”
Flummoxed, Tony didn’t try to censor his answer. “It reaches for me, like trying to grab me or something.”
Thor blinked a few times. “And then you wake?”
“No. I…pull back and make myself wake up.”
“Oh, Anthony…” Thor put the journal down and reach out to cup Tony’s face in his hands. “Yggdrasil reaches for you and yet you run. This is no threat. There is something it wishes to show you.”
“Yggdrasil,” he repeated tonelessly.
“I know what it is. Or the legend of it anyway. The world tree.”
“Yes. Within the branches of which reside the nine realms.”
Tony shook his head. “I’d always discounted that because the idea of there just being nine realms is absurd. And, considering the Chitauri invasion, I’d think that’s petty well proven. And let’s not get into the absurdity of a tree that size.”
“You confuse realms with physical worlds. There are nine realms within the hold of Yggdrasil, but not all those realms exist on the plane.”
“So, you’re saying the realm you call Niflheim is not actually on this plane of existence?”
Thor smiled brightly as if he found Tony a particularly bright student. “Yes, exactly. Niflheim is the realm of the dead. If it were on this plane, any could travel there.”
“I suppose that makes sense, but you’re talking about something that is…fantastical to people on this world. We don’t acknowledge other planes of existence. Well, outside of various popular mythologies. But you’re saying it’s real.” He sighed and gestured to Thor. “But look at you, sitting right in front of me—and looking very hot by the way—mythology made flesh. I guess I shouldn’t be quite so skeptical. Still…the idea that some energy tree is trying to…what? Talk to me?”
“The only way to know is to surrender.” Thor maneuvered them around so they were lying face to face, back under the covers. “My mother once told me that Yggdrasil used to reach for my father. I know not what the great tree spoke of to him, but she said he stopped heeding its call.”
“For a king who believes in that sort of thing, it doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
“Indeed. Though mother said it was over a singular issue.”
“So this tree is sapient?”
“Yes, but perhaps not in the way you would expect. It has a will. Whether to heed that will is a matter of choice.”
“And has this tree ever reached for you?” Tony idly stroked his hand over Thor’s chest, enjoying the feel Thor’s skin and the shape of the defined musculature.
“Once, when I was young. I don’t remember what was said or done, but one of the Norns visited the palace the next day and proclaimed me the god of thunder.”
Tony frowned. “Aren’t all your people gods of some sort? I figured the titles were handed out to coincide with how you are gifted.”
Thor shook his head. “All Asgardians are skilled, but some are gifted with power, whether energy like you or me, or perhaps seidr—what you call magic. Others can heal.”
“And so it’s not a function of birth?”
“Those who are powerful usually come from those who are powerful, it has always been so, but the gifted can be born to the ungifted.”
“I don’t… I’m not sure any of that is relevant to me. I was born here. I wasn’t born gifted.”
“And yet you are gifted. In many ways, you are like a young Asgardian coming into their powers. Perhaps this is why Yggdrasil calls to you.”
Tony blew out a breath. “Aliens are conceptually a lot easier to deal with than mystical, sapient trees. I just want to be sure we’re clear on that.”
Thor laughed and leaned in for a chaste kiss. “It is always easier to ‘deal with’ that which you can see, no?”
“True.” He slid his arm around Thor’s waist, snuggling closer. “So, what is it that you recommend?”
“Embrace Yggdrasil when you are called.”
“And either I’ll talk to a mystical tree and possibly not remember it, or nothing will happen?”
“Okay then.” A few minutes passed and his eyes popped open. “Except I’m wide awake now.”
Thor chuckled. “Shall I exhaust you?”
“Exhaust? Someone thinks highly of their skills,” he shot back with a grin.
“I speak only what has already been proven. Repeatedly.”
Thor pushed him onto his back, draping himself over Tony, grinding against him. “At length.”
“I concede the point.” He pulled Thor down into a heated kiss. When they broke apart, they both were fully hard and panting. “Exhaust me, then.”
– – – –
The inky blackness was disorienting, and it made Tony feel dizzy.
“I apologize for the discomfort you are experiencing. Your first astral journey can be confusing,” a woman’s voice came through the darkness.
“Who are you? Where are you?”
“I have blocked your sight temporarily to prepare you for what you will see. When I lift the veil, please remember that this is your astral form and no harm will come to you.”
“Wha—” Millions of pinpoint lights suddenly exploded in his vision. He nearly panicked when he realized he was… “I’m in space.” He took shuddery breaths. “But I’m breathing. I’m somehow standing in outer space and I’m breathing.”
“You don’t need to breath at all. You do so because you think you should.”
Tony turned and found a woman standing next to him. Except she was easily a head taller than him with inky hair that seemed to go on for yards and floated behind her. Except it wasn’t random floating, individual strands seemed to be doing something.
“Don’t pay them any mind. Though my primary aspect is here, they must still work.”
“Aspect,” he repeated dumbly. “Here?” He shook his head. “Who are you?”
“I have many names in many realms. In some realms I have more than one name. A name for each aspect or a name in each culture.”
It was easy for Tony to turn off his own freak out and focus on her and the puzzle she presented. He faced her more squarely and noticed that her facial features were constantly, subtly shifting. “And in all your years and all your incarnations, is there one that resonated with you?”
Her features settled for a second and she smiled down at him. “I always liked Morrigan.”
“Ah. Goddess associated with war, destiny, fate, and death.”
“Destiny and Fate are my callings, but those often lead to war and death.”
“And so they become conflated.”
“Yes.” She stared out at the vast expanse of stars.
“And why am I here? And am I really here? Because the last thing I remember is going to sleep thinking I wouldn’t fight it when the glowy tree reached for me.”
“Yggdrasil is the pathway I used to reach out to you, but you have to accept, and so you have.”
“And so a goddess of destiny wishes to speak to me. That’s not alarming.”
“They call me goddess, but I am not a god like the Asgardians. I am more a cosmic entity. Here since the beginning of time. There are four others.”
“And they are?”
“Death, Entropy, Infinity, and Eternity.”
“And you would be Fate.”
“Okay. Well. Now it’s even more alarming. A cosmic entity needed to have a heart to heart.”
“Do you know where the universe began?”
Tony’s brow furrowed. “No. How could anyone know that?”
“It began in your solar system.”
Tony stared. “Well, don’t tell people on Earth that. We already think we’re the center of the universe, we don’t need it confirmed. Our egos will inflate beyond literally anyone’s ability to tolerate.”
She smiled faintly. “Do you know what an infinity stone is?”
“No, but that’s another terrifying sounding thing I’m hearing today.”
“In the beginning, there was a singularity called creation.”
“That sounds weirdly biblical.”
“Creation derived her name from creating the universe. The by product was her six… We’ll call them her children. They were space, mind, reality, power, time, and soul. Creation was…tired and sought her rest in a small, white stone. Around her, she created Midgard.”
“You’re kidding me? So the Earth was the very focal point of the creation of the universe? Wow. Really, don’t tell anyone on Earth that.”
Several of Morrigan’s strand of hair prodded at him. Up close he could see they were thicker than a hair and looked more like filaments of some sort.
Morrigan brushed them away. “Stop bothering him and focus on your task.”
“Your hair is sentient?”
“One strand for every aspect, reaching out through the pathways Yggdrasil has formed. Some are clones of others. Hundreds of thousands, and some are more unruly than others.”
“Huh. Okay, well, I won’t try to wrap my brain around that mystery. So, the source of the creation of the universe is sleeping inside the Earth, and she left behind six kids.”
Morrigan smiled faintly, the effect unsettling as her features continued to shift. “Yes. The creation of the universe birthed the cosmic entities, the six singularities and Yggdrasil. The Norse called Yggdrasil the tree of life because life literally came from the well of creation energy. It flows through the universe, but it has four anchor realms in the physical plane of existence and four anchor realms in the spiritual plane.”
“So that’s eight realms.”
“The ninth realm is Midgard, the heart of Yggdrasil because that is where creation rests.”
“Oh lordy. So the entire universe is touched by Yggdrasil but it is anchored by the nine realms?”
“Yes. Odin ultimately claimed dominion over the nine and was to serve as their protector, but he concerns himself with only Asgard for many centuries. But that is another tale. We, the cosmic entities, shaped the singularities into stones, much like their mother. Together, they are the single greatest source of power in the universe.”
“Outside of creation?”
“Yes. But she sleeps. And they are drawn to her. The time stone currently resides on Earth, and the Space stone did so until recently. The space stone is particularly diligent about seeking out its mother.”
“And is this a problem?”
“It’s something to be aware of.”
“Okaaaay.” He stared at her for several seconds, watching her expression morph. “Why am I here?”
“Do you know the legends of the Fates?”
“Greek mythology… Those Fates?”
“People lives represented by thread, woven into a tapestry, thread cut when you die.”
“An adequate allegory for the people of that time. And since you’re aware of it, we’ll use it illustratively. It has never been my function to weave some tapestry or cut threads.”
“I figured. That’s way too literal.”
“Yes. But each living thing in the universe carries the energy of Yggdrasil. And if you represent those energies as threads, they weave their own tapestry. And when a physical body dies in a being with consciousness, the consciousness moves on to another plane and exists as a new part of the tree.”
“Oaky, I’m following.”
“Allow me to give you an illustration…” She waved her hand and the vastness of space disappeared, leaving what looked like millions, or maybe even billions or trillions, of threads weaving around each other. “Tell me what you see?”
“They are lots of threads and they sort of weave around one another.”
“Life interacting with other life. Tell me about the colors.”
“It’s a pretty muted palette, all told, but there are those bright threads. They’re like light.”
“Yes, the instruments of fate. They operate differently to other life in the universe. They create change around them in a way that ensures the universe continues to function as it should. It is…problematic when they die before their time.”
“Are we talking about me or Tony Stark?”
She smiled again. “Both of you. Tony Stark should have died in that cave with the metal encroaching on his heart.” She held up her hand and one of the hair-filaments wrapped around it. “But there is a watcher over all my instruments. And we interceded to ensure he survived.”
“Wow. You make me sound like a tool. And that really didn’t come out right.”
“Your will is your own, Anthony, but it’s been your actions in many lives that make you glow so brightly.”
“Many lives,” he repeated dully, not sure he wanted to go down that path.
“There is always new life, but some old life chooses to be born again. Those who follow the path of Fate almost always choose to live again, to continue their work.”
“Okay.” He blew out a breath. “Back to Tony. Why not just get him out of there?”
“We try to interfere as little as possible and not in a way that would make people question reality. Physically moving his body would raise question. Nudging the metal away from his heart would not. Bringing him to the astral plane while they performed surgery did not harm him either.”
“Does he remember that?”
“No. Very few remember their time here. If I muse bring one of my to this place, it is usually desperate and I block their memory of it to keep from influencing their lives.”
“Okay, well, thank you for taking care of Tony. I know his situation was awful, but it sounds like it could have been a lot worse.”
“You ask me about your friend, but not about yourself.” Her tone sounded curious.
“Well, I’m not sure I want to know.”
“A man whose trade is in information wishes for ignorance?” She sounded amused.
“No, I guess not. But just because I want to know doesn’t mean I want to know.” He waved his hand. “It’s a conundrum. So, lay it on me. I assume I was going to die?”
“Not immediately, no. Everything that has happened to you is what would have happened if you had a bit more Asgardian in you. Perhaps as little as two or three generations.”
“So I am descended from an Asgardian?”
“Yes, you are from the line of Heimdall. A child he did not know of was left on Midgard when Asgard closed the bifröst. The experiments performed on you awakened the Asgard in you to protect you from the changes caused by the various serums they injected you with.”
“And so you made me…a little more Asgardian?”
“Does this have something to do with the plant?” he asked dryly.
“Yes. All species are children of Yggdrasil, but one of the very first were a plant-like race. They are incredibly adaptive. The addition of them allowed the Asgardian nature to awake without killing you in the process.”
“Are we talking sapient plants?”
“They are not plants in the way you think of them. They eat, sleep, live in social groups, love… They are called Groot.”
Tony sighed. “And will I ever have to meet these Groot?”
“You’ll likely encounter at least one in your lifetime. They are more in tune with life energy than most other beings. They will recognize you as kin.”
“Okay, so this Groot part was there to help me survive, and if I ever encounter one, they’ll think I’m a long lost cousin or something? Or will they try to strangle me with a vine or something?”
“They will be…confused. But they understand fate in a way many do not. Tell them you’re my instrument and you are related to them to ensure you’re survival.”
“And they’ll let it go?”
“Well, that or they’ll try to protect you the rest of your days. What’s the Earth term…It’s a toss up?”
Tony snorted in amusement. “Yeah, that’s the term.” He kept staring at the threads weaving themselves into…something. “So is that all I needed to know? How I survived?”
“No.” She reached out and cupped his face and he felt an odd tingling energy. “Anthony, to save you we had to change you. Some Asgardians are truly chosen by Yggdrasil to be what your realm calls gods. Yggdrasil has chosen you.” She hesitated. “Again.”
He took a step back, breaking her hold. “Whoa. Just slow down. I’m going to skip the god part of the conversation for now. What do you mean again?”
“Your first life, you were born on Asgard.”
“Life is a circle, perhaps you were fated to return their sooner than you might have wished.”
“Isn’t fate your lookout? Wouldn’t you know?”
“I’m a guardian of fate, Anthony, not its creator. Which is why I protect you. You became an instrument of fate when you gave up your life to save the future of Asgard.”
Tony knew the answer to that immediately. It resonated in him. “Thor.”
“Yes. It is vital that Thor be the next king of Asgard, but he was nearly cut down very young. You were friends, and his soul recognizes yours. As yours does him.”
“I don’t even know what to do with that.”
“Nothing. Right now, you have a sort of balance. You have this knowledge, but he has memories you do not. You’re not equal in what you know, but it creates balance between you.”
“So he’s really being sincere with the…endearments.”
“Yes. You are not obligated to stay with him, but do not dismiss his feelings. Your souls walked the world together once before.”
He didn’t want to discuss Thor anymore. “Why was it so vital to save me?”
“The universe is poised on the precipice of destruction. And because of the stones affinity for Earth, the battle will be wage there.”
“You have a few years to prepare, but Thanos will come. He’ll believe he comes for the stones, but the stones want to be on Earth. His path towards Earth, in a way, makes it easier for him to collect the stones. And if Earth falls—Midgard, the heart of Yggdrasil—it will destabilize the tree of life and threaten not just the life Thanos wishes to take, but all life. Earth, more than any other realm, could not afford to lose one of its protectors.”
“And what is Asgard’s role in all this?”
“Thor needs to know some of this, what you tell him is up to you, but be discerning.”
He nodded, thinking through the issues.
“As for Odin… He has removed himself by failing to listen. Perhaps Thor can delay Ragnarok, but it is unlikely.”
He shot her a look. “Now is not the time to be vague. I can almost feel a non-interference speech coming, but if you’re going to trust me to act, then actually trust me with all the information I need rather than having me stumble around in the dark.”
“Ragnarok is a prophecy about the destruction of Asgard. Made because Odin refused to listen.”
“His children. Odin and his first born, Hela, walk in both planes. And both planes were in chaos when Odin came into power. He sought to bring peace the way many approach it, through war. Hela thrived on war. It fed something dark in her. He was told to strip her of her power, but he could not bear to have that godly distinction removed from her.”
“From her or from his line? I mean, was he being all paternal or was his pride at stake?”
“Pride,” she acknowledged. “As he ages, he tries to be a good king in a way he wasn’t in his youth, but he refuses to correct his mistakes. Or even acknowledge they exist. So his seidr keeps Hela imprisoned in another plane. When he failed to heed our counsel about Hela, we tried to bring him to reason about Loki. Odin could not live forever and Loki has the potential to channel seidr in a way like none before him, even Odin himself. Loki could hold the lock on Hela’s prison. Loki could also bind Hela’s powers—if he were trained.”
“What was he supposed to do that he didn’t?”
“He was supposed to stop demonizing Frost Giants. Loki discovering his heritage was inevitable. And we knew he would not do well to discover that he was the proverbial monster parents warn their children about. Odin was advised to seek true peace with the Frost Giants, but he chose, instead, to allow the bigotry on Asgard to stand and bound much of Loki’s seidr. When Odin dies, Hela will escape and Asgard will fall.”
Tony huffed. Damn family dramas that ruin the universe. “And can that be stopped?”
“Perhaps, but that would be a difficult path with Loki. He has no love for Asgard any longer. Only his mother and Thor.”
“To make sure I have this right… Loki could be instrumental to saving Asgard—someday—but he’s not instrumental in this bit with this Thanos guy?”
“Loki would prefer to stay far away from Thanos. Thanos is who found Loki when he fell from the bifröst. Loki, due to his heritage, capable of surviving a great amount of torture.”
“Ah.” Something else to add to the to-do list. “And he was under the influence of something mentally when he was on Earth.”
“Yes. The mind stone was placed in a scepter long ago because most mortals are not capable of the raw power of an infinity stone. That scepter was used on Loki before he was sent with it to Earth.”
“And can Thanos create more portals straight to Earth? Send another agent to finish what Loki didn’t?”
“No. They needed the space stone, which is hidden in the tesseract, to create the invasion portal, but he was able to create a portal between the two stones to send Loki to Earth. And he does not know that the only reason that worked on Earth was because the creation stone is there. He assumes it is because the space stone was at one end of the portal. The stones will work outside their domain to be closer to their mother.”
“That feels kind of sad.”
“Perhaps. You may not be able to change the course for Asgard. Loki is as much an instrument of fate as you are, but he’s been abused. Fate can turn against those who abuse its chosen.”
“Can I be honest with him and let him make an informed decision?”
She cocked her head to the side, her facial features freezing in one look for several seconds. “I foresee good and bad outcomes from Loki having knowledge. I can only advise you to act as you would when it comes to Loki and not heed the advice of others.”
“So I have to be an arrogant ass to save Asgard?”
“See it how you will. However…” She stared out into the vastness of space, the illusion of the threads having long since faded. “The stones will all come to Earth eventually. Over time, they were almost all made into other objects. I never approved of the using the stones that way. The fact that they cannot be used by mortals should be reason enough to leave them be rather than caging them in devices that bend them to the will of others.”
“Okay, when you put it like that…”
“I sought to protect the soul stone from this. Instead of a weapon or a tool, I created a great trap around it. But it is now farther from Earth than the others with no hope of travel outside of Thanos. In this I have made a mistake. It is unwise to make an infinity stone desperate.”
“That does sound…potentially catastrophic.”
“My intention was to accept the repercussions should Thanos manage to satisfy the terms of the trap around the stone. But I think it would be wiser to free the stone.”
“And maybe apologize,” Tony added, “Because I think really powerful beings underestimate the impact of a good, old-fashioned ‘I’m sorry.’ Just sayin’.”
She looked thoughtful. “I will consider your counsel.”
“Okay, then. Just tell me, is it now my fate to wind up on Asgard?”
Several of her hair-things curled around him again, and she waved them away. “Your time on Earth would have ended in…another forty years at most?”
“You potentially have thousands of years in front of you. What will you do with them? Live amongst those with painfully short lives, losing those you care for over and over and over? Or move to be with people whose lifespan matches yours? I will not advise you in the matter of your own personal future. You were an instrument of fate and you still are. And your role was always to stand watch over your people. New instruments will rise, and who you call your people may change.”
His lips twitched. “A sentry of sort.”
“As you will.”
– – – –
Tony jolted upright in the way he always seemed to wake these days, except that it was clearly the middle of the day. He had to have been asleep for at least twelve hours.
He blew out a shaky breath, wondering if all of that had been real or just a weird plant-fear fueled dream?
Thor was sitting in a chair by the bed, drinking coffee and watching Tony with an expression of concern. “Are you well?”
“I… What happened?”
“When I woke your spirit was no longer within your body. I gathered you heeded Yggdrasil’s call.” Thor set the coffee aside. “So I sat vigil by your bedside and waited. I told Steve that I had kept you up all night and so you would miss your usual lunch with him while you gathered your strength.”
Tony couldn’t help but laugh. “You used the way he freaks out about me having sex to keep him from worrying about me?”
“Nicely done. I wholeheartedly approve.”
Thor set the coffee aside and moved to sit on the side of the bed so their hips touched as they faced each other. He reached out and brushed Tony’s cheek. “What happened?”
“I, uh… Well, I’m not sure it was real.” He reached up to rub his hand over his face but froze when he saw the black around his wrist. One of Morrigan’s filaments was wound many times around his wrist, creating a nearly quarter-inch band of black that shimmered faintly when he moved. “I guess it was real.”
Thor took Tony’s hand and lightly touched the black band. “This was not there before.”
“No… It belongs to Destiny.”
Thor’s eyebrows shot up. “Yggdrasil summoned you to speak with one of the cosmic entities?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Do you wish to discuss your journey?”
“Uh…How about in a little bit. Let me take a shower and eat. Get my head on straight.” Tony could use a few minutes to decide what all he was going to tell Thor. He figured his partner in crime in all this was actually Stark. But Tony wanted to be as honest with Thor as he could be.
“Such odd expressions,” Thor said with a fond smile. “Your head is no way crooked. You are most symmetrical.”
Tony took in the smile, the tender touches and expression, and considered it in the light that Thor was serious about all of this. Their souls knew one another even if their minds did not. How incredibly…weird. There was a lot he could tell Thor, but he thought perhaps that bit of news needed to be held. At least for now.
He climbed out of bed then reached for Thor’s hand. “Come on. Shower blowjobs wait for no man.”
Grinning, Thor grabbed Tony and almost sprinted for the shower.
– – – –
“So you’re a god,” Stark observed once Tony had finished.
“Really? That’s what you got out of everything I said?” Ultimately, he’d decided to tell Stark everything except the part about Tony having lived a life as an Asgardian before. He kind of considered them partners in crime and with them both being agents of fate, as it were, they were in the same sort of boat.
Stark shrugged. “There’s not much I can do about the rest except do what we already planned to do. But if you’re a god, I need to know these things. Like what type of god and do you require fealty and regular tribute?”
“You are…” he pointed at Stark, shaking his finger, “…so much like me it’s unnerving.”
“I know, right?” Stark offered him his fist, and Tony bumped it. “How much did you tell Point Break.”
“A lot thought not all of the stuff about me, but I left off most of the details about Asgard.”
Stark cocked his head. “How come? That’s the part that most concerns him.”
“Yeah, I know, and maybe it’s selfish, but I feel like that’s opening up a huge family drama that I’m not prepared to deal with right now.”
“Seems fair.” Stark shrugged. “But you plan to tell him?”
“Well, yeah. I can’t very well go tripping around Asgard some day trying to fix shit and not keep him in the loop. Oh my god. I can’t believe I even said that. The surreal aspects of all this really hit me sometimes.”
“Well, what I know for certain is that I can’t figure out what thing is made out of it.” He gestured to the black band around Tony’s wrist. “All the tests and scans I could do while it’s attached to you are inconclusive. And I assume you don’t want to try cutting it off?”
Tony curled his hand around his wrist as if that would protect the band. “No…? She said the hair things were her aspects. Or cloned aspects. I don’t really understand either of those. But it seems…wrong to cut someone’s aspect.”
Stark shook his head as if he were dazed. “Okay, the surreal just hit me too.” He took a deep breath. “And if she’s talked to me, how come I don’t have one of those?” Before the words were even completely out of Stark’s mouth, a long black filament appeared and began wrapping around his wrist. Stark jerked back, but it just kept winding around his wrist. There was a little flash of blue light and the band was sealed.
“Oh.” Stark was bent over, bracing his hands on his knees. “I remember. I remember talking to her for hours while they—” he swallowed heavily as he stood back up. “I didn’t want to remember because I knew I’d think I’d gone crazy, but she told me I’d get through it, and that the hope, the promise of that, could help me succeed if I’d let it.”
Tony let that be for a few seconds, giving Stark some space. “You okay?”
“Yeah…yeah, I’m good. I just need to process.” He took several breaths. “Okay, back to the god thing. What kind of god are you?”
“I’m not a god.”
“It sure sounds like you are.”
“We didn’t really discuss that a lot. We talked for hours and she confirmed I was the kind of Asgardian who was gifted, but their ‘god’ positions come with titles and responsibilities. One of the damn Norns have to visit you and anoint you or some such. I’m Tony DiNozzo, responsible for shit here on Earth. Not for Thunder and Lightning or the Sun and Moon on another planet.”
Stark nodded, looking severe. “Would an altar in your quarters be too much? Or should I build you a temple?”
Stark grinned, utterly unrepentant. Tony figured the guy needed some space to deal with everything.
He spun around on the stool and headed for the door. “I’ll leave you to your architectural shenanigans. Clearly getting laid does terrible things for your personality.”
“Hey! I didn’t tell you that.”
Tony spun around and started walking backwards. “My real super power is my powers of observation. Feel free to have T-shirts made.”
– – – –
Tony was reading reports and recommendations as fast as he could, and replying to several on-going email chains. The decision was about to come down about SHIELD and the Avengers. He’d thought turning in his report would be the end of it for him, but several of the powers that be wanted Tony in the loop.
He’d somewhat reluctantly agreed to the Avengers Initiative for himself provided he not have ethical issues with how it was run or who was running it. Everyone was staying hands off for now because they were trying to keep everything off Fury’s radar. But Tony had the green light to work with Stark on contacting the UN. Which he’d done, and they already had a meeting set up for next week to explain everything.
Another report crossed landed in his inbox and he reluctantly opened it and then immediately sighed and banged his head off the table. SHIELD would not stop trying to hack Homeland, and they’d up their attempts in the last twenty-four hours. Hard hits on the HR records had been captured. He wanted to take Fury out and strangle him.
Also, he was fucking starving. He couldn’t seem to eat enough the last couple days since his sojourn to wherever the fuck he’d been. Apparently astral projection made you hungry. Who knew? He was trying to decide between replying to a few more emails or seeing if Jarvis could order him an entire cow.
The elevator doors opened and Stark came out, looking more than a little frazzled. “I need you.”
Stark grabbed his arm and started pulling. “No time to dilly dally. Who knows what might happen.” He was practically shoved in the elevator. “Forty-two, J.”
Stark faced him. “First off, Fury told Agent we have to surrender Barnes.”
“So… Was it Romanoff or Barton who spilled the beans?”
“Agent suspects Natashalie. He’s furious because he’s been making plans to help give her a safe place to land, but he told her not to discuss any of the stuff going on here with Fury.”
“Why after all this time?”
“Guess she chose a side. Thinks Fury can protect her better than Coulson can.”
Tony scoffed. “And Barton?”
“Supposedly he’s on administrative leave for refusing to follow orders about something. Agent said he’d gone off grid, but he knows how to find him once everything blows over. Jarvis, hold the elevator.” The elevators slid to a smooth stop. “Fury claims to have a court order for custody of Barnes. He’s going to show up here tomorrow loaded for bear and demand we turn him over. Says he’s watching the building and if any of us attempt to leave by jet, we’ll be followed and escorted to a SHIELD facility.”
“He doesn’t have a court order. Or if he does, he didn’t obtain it legally. And I have paperwork upstairs that gives you legal conservatorship.”
“Wait. What?!” Stark stared at him wide-eyed.
“I mean you have to sign it, but, yeah. I figured you’re the most stable in this situation in many ways.”
“Ugh. I feel like I just grew up.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Okay, that’s a good plan. But if Fury shows up with a bunch of armed goons, demanding we turn him over, then what? I can’t have a shootout I the lobby. Pep would kill me.”
“We’ll just have to have armed goons with more authority. I’m thinking the Secretary of the Army or the Army Chief of Staff might have something to say about that.”
“Yeah. Barnes is basically a POW who needs extensive trauma therapy and rehabilitation. They’re fine with Barnes being in our collective care because we have resources to help him that they don’t and/or can’t afford. But they’re not going to take Fury coming in and trying to take one of theirs very well.”
“What have you been up to?”
“Plotting. Seriously epic amounts of plotting.”
“I really need to be in on more of the plotting because I miss all the good stuff.”
Tony pointed at him. “You have a day job, and I’ve been trying to spare you the unbelievable amounts of yapping all this has taken.”
Stark made a face, looking disgusted. “But they’ll help?”
“Yeah. I don’t know if they’ll send actual soldiers, but it’ll be someone with more authority than Fury and whoever he’s bringing to the table.”
“Okay, so that gives me something to tell Steve when I go to break the news to them. Because I didn’t want to deal with any overreactions there.”
“Maybe tell him we’ve got a plan first, and then tell him what the plan is for.”
“Why are we going to forty-two if you need to talk to the super duo?”
Stark sighed. “You can take us down there now, J.” The elevator started up. “Something came up, and I thought it’d be good maybe, a nice surprise or something, but there are issue, and lots of talking, and I got dizzy.”
“You’re babbling.” The elevator doors opened and Stark shoved him out.
“Tony!” Then he had his arms full of Penelope. “I have been frantic.”
He grinned and hugged her. “I’ve been planting my crops.”
“No, I had to watch you get kidnapped and when you resurface, you have to go into hiding. Then all we get is the guardedly okay code for days on end until you tell me to quit my job!” She pulled back and flashed a grin at Stark. “And the Iron Hotness has been filling me in on your plan. It’s gonna be great. I have so many ideas. But!” She held his upper arms, looking serious. “I showed up here, ostensibly to sign some employment contracts because I gave my notice you know, but now Mason is missing.”
Tony was no longer amused. “When did it happen?”
“I don’t know. Morrow agreed we had to shut down the monitoring on you guys because the only way anyone was able to find out about those feeds is because they were still active. I shut them down and we purged everything. He was a no-show at work two days ago. We started looking immediately, but we think he may have disappeared after getting gas on his way home from work three days ago.”
“Who is Mason?” Stark asked. “She said there was an urgent issue, but this is the first I’ve heard any real details.”
“Supervisory Special Agent Mason was the other person who had an agent as their cover. And it makes me think SHIELD is behind this.”
“Why would he take him?” Stark asked.
“He needs to compromise the identities of the team so he has leverage with me. I wasn’t running the team back then. Mason and I were recruited at the same time, so there was always a more obvious paper trail between us.”
Penelope looked confused. “You think another member of the alphabet soup has Mason? What does he need leverage for?”
“He’s been very aggressive about getting me to work for him, so he can sort out an epic mole infestation he has.”
“Wouldn’t that be better from outside the agency?” she asked, sounding incredulous.
“You’d think, but Fury doesn’t like anything he can’t control.”
She shook her head. “Mason won’t talk. Of all of us, he has the most actual training.”
“But we’re not dealing with torture and truth serum here, Pen. It’s magic and alien artifacts and who the fuck knows what while they dig inside your brain. I know they can seemingly erase memories—though it seems like it’s more like a block—so who knows what they can do?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get him back.”
“How do I help? And are you absolutely sure SHIELD has him?”
“No, so that’s where I need your help.” He shot Stark a look, who nodded. “We’ll get you set up to start some serious hacking, see if you can figure out where he went. Jarvis can help you.” He glanced at Stark, eyebrow raised, and Stark nodded again. “In the meantime, we need to meet with the rest of the team and explain what’s going on.”
“Can I come with you, or do I need to work in secret.”
“I don’t know yet how I’d explain you.”
She made a raspberry sound. “Something close to the truth? I was your computer analyst, and now that you’re gone, Mr. Stark hired me and is going to hide me in his company so I can keep helping you out. That HELIOS is dead, but people want you to continue the work and you need your trust data mining goddess to do that.”
Tony considered for a second and shot Stark a look. “You see any holes in that?”
“None, really. To Steve and Barnes, she’d be the only one hiding down there, and we’re going to make the software legit because her apps are…” Stark made a thumbs up sign. “With everything being real, it will look like exactly what she said. That we’re hiding one programmer amongst other programmers.”
“Great!” Penelope said, grabbing them both by the arm and heading toward the elevator. “We’re agreed. Let’s get Mason back.”
– – – –
Tony watched on the monitor as Fury entered the lobby with Natasha Romanoff at his elbow and at least twenty armed agents following him. All he could do was shake his head at her foolishness. Next to him, he could practically feel the fury pouring off Coulson and May.
Pepper Potts had flown out from California, arriving early this morning to take part in their charade. Penelope was acting as Pepper’s new personal assistant for the purposes of today’s drama. Potts had to be read in on a lot in the wee hours of the morning, but she’d jumped on board easily enough, adding some helpful suggestions to their plan.
Tony thought she seemed glad to back in contact with Stark. It seemed as if the two had maintained radio silence about everything except work since the breakup. It was clear they both cared, but that they were both happy with the way things were now.
Steve had been a little grumpy and was sticking rather close to Stark, but that wasn’t a big surprise.
Pepper exited the elevator after making them wait for several minutes. She walked up to Fury. “Director Fury, I understand you presented some sort of legal paperwork to the receptionist?” Her tone clearly conveyed just what she thought of that idea.
“Federal order remanding Barnes to the custody of SHIELD.”
“I see. And is there a reason why you think this Barnes person is here?”
Fury smirked. “I have it on good authority that he’s in the building.”
“Hm. Well, I wouldn’t know, but I certainly haven’t seen anyone who isn’t supposed to be here.”
“Then we’ll search the building,” Fury shot back.
“You most assuredly will not! SHIELD has no actual powers for search and seizure no matter how many writs they have in their pocket. A search would have to be conducted by the local law enforcement or the FBI. And I see none of them here. Our legal team is calling a judge as we speak—”
“I can have the police here in five minutes to execute this order.”
Tony took that as his cue to make the call.
Pepper held up a finger to Fury. “One moment. This is Pepper Potts.”
“Hello, Pepper, Tony DiNozzo her. I understand that you have some unwanted houseguests.”
“Oh, hello, Director DiNozzo. Yes, there are some agent here from SHIELD who have some sort of federal order that they think allows them to search the building.”
“Well, see if Fury wants a sit down before things escalate any further.”
“Certainly.” She pulled the phone away from her mouth. “Director DiNozzo is concerned about an escalation of this situation here in the lobby of people’s place of work. He suggests a meeting.”
“That’s all DiNozzo had to say.”
Pepper smiled. “Wonderful. I’ll escort you upstairs.” She cast a disdainful look at the agents. “Your goon squad stays here.”
“I never go anywhere without a bodyguard.” He gestured to Romanoff.
“Oh, of course Agent Romanoff is welcome. Hello, Natasha.”
“Pepper. How have you been?”
“I’m doing very well, thank you. Please come upstairs. We’ll use one of the executive conference rooms on the 77th floor.” As the elevator doors opened, she added, “I’ll just text my assistant and have refreshments ordered.”
Tony’s phone chimed a moment later.
— Don’t leave me alone with them for too long. I don’t want to be arrested for stabbing one of them with my heels.
Tony snorted and texted back.
— Headed your way as soon as they’re in place.
He gestured for Bruce to take over the monitor on the lobby and then checked in on everyone else. All around the building, people were getting into position. They couldn’t very well have no one show up to work, but minimizing civilian fall out had been a high priority, so most of the people masquerading as SI employees were either Marines or Homeland Security agents. Most of the workers in this building had been given a last minute call not to come into work today. The exceptions had been some lab personnel, who would be in high-security lockdown for the duration, and anyone Jarvis had identified as being a possible spy within SI. It was likely not all of them were spies, but they couldn’t take the chance. The thirty-nine people on Jarvis list had been detained when they arrived at work.
Jarvis’ voice came over the speakers. “Ms. Romanoff has placed a USB drive with malware into an assistant’s computer terminal as she passed on her way out of the elevator.”
“Of course she did,” Stark said stonily. “And what does it do, J?”
“It would infiltrate our system and open a breach in our firewall then send her positional data on elevator movements and security doors. It would also leave a backdoor for her to hack in at a later date.”
“And you’re okay? Not actually infected?” Stark clarified.
“I have contained the malware, Sir. I am well.”
“Send fake reports to her based on our movements except show us coming down in the elevator from 93. We only need to fake it for a few minutes.”
“As you wish, Sir.”
“Did they really think I wouldn’t plug the security hole that let them affect Jarvis after the last time?” Stark muttered.
Tony found the whole thing rage inducing. Really, how dare they do that to Stark and Jarvis? Again?
Everyone got in position fast, so Tony looked around at each person. “Showtime.” He glanced at Bruce and Barnes. “You sure you’re okay being the eye in the sky along with Jarvis?” In reality, the eye in the sky was a big bank of monitors they’d set up in Pepper’s office, figuring no one would look for them there.
Bruce nodded. “Yeah. Hulk is feeling kind of tetchy, so we’d better stay here. Try to stay this shape so we don’t ruin Pepper’s furniture.”
Tony clapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Big Guy,” he said directly to Hulk. “I know you want to come, but we need someone watching everything. I promise we’ll watch some cartoons later.”
“He says Frozen,” Bruce shot back.
“He’s never getting tired of that movie, is he?”
“Apparently not. But I am tired of it.”
Tony chuckled as he began gesturing people out of the room.
Barnes added, “I want to back you up, but I’m better here. They have the same data you had, so they’ve had the control words. If they’ve figured them out, I’d imagine Fury is the kind of asshole who’d use them to make a point.”
“I don’t think you’re wrong.”
“So I’ll be here with the one person who can completely contain me if needed.”
“We’ll see you soon.”
Barnes gave him a casual, two-fingered salute then sat next to Bruce.
Agent May peeled away from the group and headed down to be with the team who would be apprehending Nick’s gaggle of agents.
Tony paused at the door to the stairwell. “Everyone remember. Only Stark and I can improvise. We’re the only ones right now that know all the contingency plans. So stay with the script.” There hadn’t been time to fill everyone in on every possible thing, plus there were things they just couldn’t tell people, so everyone needed to stay on task.
He got agreement from everyone but Thor, who was looking rather stubborn. “I do not like this charade. They come here planning to harm you, and I will not allow it.”
“But they’re not going to harm me. Also, you are not the boss of me. We can work out this partnership thing if that’s what we both want, but you don’t get to make decisions for me.”
Thor huffed a little but nodded. “Agreed.”
“Good. I trust you at my back to look stern and intimidating, but please don’t say anything we didn’t agree on. I need to get information out of them, and I can’t do that if we tip our hand too soon.”
Thor nodded again, looking less reluctant. “I will guard your life like my own, but I look forward to seeing you engage in this deception.”
“Lord.” He rubbed his hand over his face. “Let’s go.”
Stark handed him an orange as he passed, grinning when Tony scowled. The troll-in-chief had taken to leaving what he called tribute or offerings all over the place. Including handing off food, particularly fresh fruits.
Rolling his eyes, he tossed the orange from hand to hand as the followed the others to the conference room.
“Oh there you are,” he heard Pepper say as Stark entered the room first.
“Someone forget to tell me we had a meeting? I’m hurt, Nicky.”
“I’m not here to see you Stark. Right now, I’m here to meet with DiNozzo, and then I’ll be leaving with Barnes.”
Steve entered, moving behind Stark.
“Rogers. I understand why you haven’t returned to work considering Barnes and DiNozzo, but this situation doesn’t actually concern you.”
“I’m just here to be sure everyone plays nice,” he said sounding way too much like a disapproving parent. He moved out of sight, and the plan was for him to prop up a wall behind Stark.
“Phil,” Fury acknowledged.
“Director Fury,” Coulson said woodenly, moving to take a seat.
Thor was next in.
“Welcome back to Earth, Thor. We’ve been trying to catch up with you since you arrived in Tromsø. I look forward to speaking with you after this meeting.”
“I look forward to that as well.” Thor stood to the side so Tony could enter.
“Director DiNozzo,” Fury said from his position leaning back in his chair. Romanoff was behind and to the left of him. “Heard you wanted to talk to me.”
Tony took a seat directly across from Fury. “What are you doing? What’s your game?”
Fury leaned forward, bracing his elbows on the table. “We need to clean house. You know the work we do is vital, and I need you to get that work done.”
“So all my ‘no’s’ over the years don’t matter?”
“There are things that take precedence over personal desires. You’re needed, now more than ever. We thought we’d beaten Hydra back almost seventy years ago, and yet they’ve infiltrated our organization. An organization vital to the safety of the planet. You’ve seen this. There is nothing more vital than fixing this.”
“And you think you need me to do that?”
“There is no one better, and you know that. You’ve seen the kinds of threats we protect the Earth from!” He gestured to the Manhattan skyline. “There is no higher purpose.”
“Maybe you need HELIOS’ help, but you didn’t need me specifically. And even if you needed me, you don’t need me under your thumb.”
Fury shook his head. “This needs to be done in house.”
“So I can get killed? Because that’s the logical outcome.”
Thor grumbled his disapproval.
Fury shook his head. “We’d protect you. I’d assign Agent Romanoff to your protection.”
“Joy,” he deadpanned, and she bristled a little.
“But you’re a little different in your own right now. You can probably handle yourself.”
“Oh, probably.” Tony tried again. “Tell me why me.”
“You have a different perspective.”
Tony pushed to his feet. “If you’re not going to communicate, I’m done. We can duke it out with the police when they get here. I’m sure—”
Fury held up a hand and Romanoff immediately produced a folder—from where, Tony had no idea. “Read that.”
Tony considered for several seconds but decided to let this play out. He slid the folder closer, opening it to find about twenty sheets of paper. Intelligence briefs and analysis. “What’s this?”
“Tell me what you see?”
“Am I being tested now?”
“I want to know what you see.”
“It doesn’t work this way, and you know that. Most analysis is hours upon hours of research and profiling. It’s—”
“Just give me your first impressions,” Fury ordered, like Tony worked for him.
“Why not, Glowbaby?” Stark said as he precariously leaned back in the chair, feet propped on the table. “Just do what he wants and maybe he’ll go away.”
Tony glared Fury and then at Stark for good measure. He got a text the he checked quickly.
— Do as he asks. For now.
Well, that answered that. “First impressions only.”
Fury made a surrender gesture, and Tony almost scoffed at it.
He began thumbing through the reports, reading summaries, then digging into some of the details. It was three separate reports, so she sorted them that way and made a couple extra piles for the background information.
Even a first impression took Tony almost thirty minutes. He’d had to fire off one urgent text about an information lead, and the refreshment cart had arrived, manned by a guy Tony knew to be a Force Recon Marine.
Finally, he put everything back into the three main piles. “All right, I read them. I mean, I feel like you’re throwing me a fucking softball here, Nick. What’s your point.”
“A softball?” Fury repeated. “You had thirty minutes with them and you were able to ascertain that not all of them were real?”
“Are you fucking kidding me right now? None of them are real.”
Fury’s brow knit in obvious confusion. “No. One has been verified.”
“These are all crap. The only intelligence you can assess this quickly, is bad intel. So I assume that’s your point.”
Fury shook his head. “No, one was verified, one I know is bad, and one I suspect is bad.”
“No. They’re all bad.”
“I vetted it myself,” Romanoff snapped.
“Is that supposed to be meaningful?” Tony asked, truly bewildered.
“I trust Agent Romanoff’s opinion,” Fury barked.
“Well, maybe you should look at the advisability of that after you, you know, deal with Hydra.”
“Dude, I don’t work for you.”
“You do, you just don’t know it yet.”
“Take care, Director Fury,” Thor said, sounding furious. He stepped next to Tony and set Mjølnir right on the table. “I will not—” Thor stopped fuming at Tony’s gentle touch to the back of his leg, hopefully out of Romanoff’s line of sight. “Do not make threats.” He left the hammer and went back to the wall.
Tony stared at it. He understood exactly what Thor had just done. Clever. He’d put a weapon in Tony’s reach that Fury would dismiss as a threat.
Tired of the game and knowing he didn’t have a ton of time, he thumped the first report. “This one is stupid. It’s riddled with contradictions. I figure someone vetted this for you and told you it was bogus but you probably made it worse just to see what I’d do with it.”
“It took some of my best people hours to come up with the conclusion that it was bad.”
“Sucks to be you.” He touched the next report. “This one? Looks good on the surface, but all the five separate sources weirdly go back to a woman, all different names, but with the same basic description. Now, it’s unlikely that five separate sources on this kind of action will all be women. But that they’d all look alike? No. Statistically impossible. Someone fed misinformation deliberately to five different people to create a narrative. Figuring that out is basic profiling.”
He hesitated over the last one, but he’d gotten a text in his thirty minutes of analysis that the problem was dealt with. “Presumably this one is the one Agent Romanoff thinks is real. That there’s a terrorist cell in that location. And I have a hunch you’ve already dispatched people to do something about it before you handed that over to me. But the thing is, that terrorist cell? Is a fucking CIA black site.”
Fury’s mouth fell open.
“Or it was. They’ve evacuated. And I’m sure they’re going to want to know just how SHIELD came to the conclusion that one of their top secret locations was the home of a terrorist.”
Romanoff swore in Russian.
“Someone lie to you, Agent Romanoff? That seems to be going around.”
“Wow, Nick,” Stark said, mock sympathetic. “That’s a whole lot of sticking your foot in it. Did you get up this morning with ‘Piss off the CIA’ in your to-do list.”
Fury shot Stark a dirty look, and Steve took a step away from the wall.
Stark covered for Steve by getting up to make a cup of coffee.
“The point, DiNozzo,” Fury said, “is that you can do what no one else can. And SHIELD needs that.”
Tony shook his head. “You don’t get it. I don’t trust you, and I never will. And the thing is, I think you believe what you’re saying. I think you believe you’re the world’s last line of defense. You really believe that it’s your duty to make the tough calls. That it’s okay to manipulate, like, cheat, and ruin a life here or there if it protects people.”
“And if I do?”
“Well, I just don’t agree, and I never will.” He braced his arms on the table. “I told you after the Chitauri that one of the ‘spies’ you were looking for was on the World Security Council. I informed you in good faith that your leadership was part of the problem. But you did nothing about it.”
“These things are delicate. I couldn’t afford to tip my hand. I’ve been isolating the moles—”
“Isolating the moles?” Stark repeated, sounding baffled. “How do you isolate Hydra in the rank an file from Hydra in one of the top spots? That makes no sense.”
“I was handling it.”
“With Project Insight?” Tony asked leadingly.
Fury stiffened. “How do you know about Insight?”
Tony shook his head. “You think I didn’t already know about a top secret project to use helicarriers to target our enemies with advanced targeting systems and weaponry.”
“Whoa, really?” Stark asked.
“Excuse me?” Steve said, sounding pissed.
Tony stayed focused on Fury. “I wrote a formal report against the project because I knew you had spy problem. That you continued to try to implement that when you knew you hadn’t cleaned house is unconscionable. In general, I think it’s a bad idea, but it’s a really bad idea when the organization is fully of Hydra.”
“This has nothing to do with Insight—”
“It has everything to do with it!” Tony yelled, startling nearly everyone. Sparks shot off his skin, and a second later, Thor drained away the excess energy. Tony took a deep breath. “You left Pierce in play even once you knew Hydra was a problem—”
“It was Pierce?”
“Oh my god. You hadn’t even figured out who it was? We’ve known for two weeks that it was Pierce.”
“But I spoke to him yesterday.”
“Yeah, he’s being watched. We’re tying to get as many collaborators as possible. While you sat on your ass and tried to clean house from the inside. And come on, Pierce was fucking obvious. SHIELD was only sanctioned by the President to run if the UN provided oversight. He was never informed that the UN split it off into a private oversight agency. And the reason he didn’t know is because Secretary Pierce lied to him.”
“I couldn’t know about Pierce’s lies.”
“You could have suspected when there was zero inquiry by the joint chiefs or Congress into what the fuck you guys were doing. That was suspicious in its own right.”
“Pierce said the President approved the change.”
“With no discussion, terms or conditions?” Tony asked, appalled at how stupid that was. “You can’t be that naïve.”
“None of this matters. You’re coming to work for SHIELD.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Cleaning up this mess isn’t enough reason?” Romanoff shot back.
“I’m cleaning it up just fine without working for him.” He pointed to Fury.
“You’ll get to keep Barnes and the rest of your team at HELIOS will remain safe.” Fury insisted.
“Wow. Coercion. Nicely played.” He gave a slow clap.
Fury’s eyes narrowed. “You may not know Barnes well enough to care, but Rogers will care. And he’ll go where Barnes goes.”
“True,” Tony conceded.
“And the law says Barnes goes with us. But if you come with, we’ll forget about that order.” Fury was obviously trying to placate an angry Steve Rogers. “Barnes can stay here if that’s what they want.”
“Well, Barnes isn’t my lookout. So, what’s this about my team?”
“You wouldn’t want anything to happen to them I assume?”
“Are you threatening them?” Tony clarified.
“Their covers could be compromised.”
“Not unless you know something you shouldn’t and then proceed to do something you shouldn’t. That’s a lot of shouldn’t. As in should not.”
Fury glared. “Do you know where your team is right now?”
“Yeah.” He shrugged. “Maybe not right this second, but everyone checked in this afternoon.”
“You’re lying,” Romanoff snapped.
Fury held up a hand. “You are lying. And this needs to end. We leave with you and Barnes stays behind. Your team all goes home. Or you stay here, hiding under Stark’s skirts, and Barnes and Rogers go with me, time will tell about your team.”
“Under his skirts?” Tony repeated. “Wow. You gotta work on the expressions there.”
“Jesus, Nick,” Stark said as he worked his way through another orange. “Give us some credit. I only wear skirts for Steve.”
Tony pressed his lips together.
“I like the black one,” Steve whispered, and Tony nearly choked.
“I knew pencil skirts were the way to your heart,” Stark whispered back.
He glanced over because he had to know, and subtle microexpressions said they were both full of shit, but it was a near thing. Most people would be fooled. Tony would never have expected it from Steve. Go, Grandpa.
“Look, Steve and Tony’s skirt kink isn’t the point here.” Tony had to get his back on track. “Clearly the point is that you think you’ve compromised my team in some way and are ready to exploit it. Ready to put lives in danger and compromise intelligence analysis in this country so you can get your way.”
“Basically,” Nick agreed. “You really don’t understand what we’re dealing with. There is nothing more important than this.”
“Yeah.” Tony took a deep breath. “Protecting the planet is awfully important.” He got to his feet but then paused. “But the thing is that the secret is out.”
“We don’t need a covert agency when people already know about aliens. I mean, they all saw it on repeat 24/7 for months. And yet you weighed the worth of an intelligence program that serves every agency, including SHIELD when needed, against your own personal agenda.” He put his hands out and mimicked scales. “You took a Hydra-ridden SHIELD in a world where aliens aren’t a secret and weighed it against HELIOS.” He see-sawed his hands a bit, slowly letting the SHIELD hand sink. “And somehow you decided that you were what was needed. Curious.”
Fury’s jaw clenched and he got to his feet. “I don’t think there’s anything more to say.”
“Oh, I do.” Tony braced his hands on the table and glared at Nick. “Project Insight was Hydra’s baby. You had delusions of using it to kill off all the Hydra assets you identified, or thought you identified. I have zero faith that you picked the right people because, after all, your shitty intelligence department is why we’re all sitting here.”
Romanoff looked like she was about to come across the table and kill him. Fury stuck his hand out, obviously reining her in. Tony felt heat at his back and knew Thor had moved closer.
“But, Nick, we found the target list for Insight, and it included,” he dropped his voice to a whisper, “the President of the United States.”
Fury reared back like he’d been slapped.
Everyone was staying cool even though Tony had dropped a major bomb on them, but he’d been forbidden to bring up Insight until he got the go ahead. Which had happened about five minutes before the meeting.
“So, there are a lot of people super annoyed right now. I mean, the secret service would love to pound you into paste because you knew you had a problem and planned to use an untried weapon to solve it, but what you would have done is kill the President. Along with about twenty million other people, including Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.”
“What the actual fuck,” Stark exploded. Steve grabbed his arm and pulled him back toward the wall.
Tony continued. “But don’t worry, we cleaned up your shit. Those helicarriers have been grounded. They were weeks away from launching anyway, but they can’t very well launch with no navigation systems. The Department of Defense is going to figure out what to do with them.”
“You are jeopardizing our safety,” Fury bit out.
“Your safety? I mean, personally? Yeah, I am. The world’s safety? No. I’m fixing your fuck up. And I would have worked with you, but you had to have it your way or no way. Your delusion that you always know best is dangerous.”
“And you think you know better?”
“I don’t have to. I don’t operate in a bubble and refuse to take input from others. So, here’s what’s happening. SHIELD will be torn down to its component parts. Some of the agents will be salvaged into other agencies, but many will return to civilian life. The Hydra operatives are going to disappear into the kind of hole we reserve for terrorists. Agent Coulson will be acting director, supervising the effort. After which time, he will be sent to a new duty station.”
“You have no authority for that.”
The large flat-screen on the far wall flared to life and President Ellis filled the screen. The Joint Chiefs and many of the Cabinet were arrayed at the table behind the president.
“Good morning, sir.”
“DiNozzo.” Ellis smiled faintly. “Thank you for getting the information we needed from Director Fury.”
“It’s always a pleasure to assist you, sir.”
Ellis nodded, attention turning to Fury. “Director Fury, there are two hundred Marines and a hundred Homeland and FBI agents in the tower. Your team in the building as well as all your teams in the surrounding area have been apprehended. If they pass their vetting, they’ll be processed back into their lives.
“We arrested Secretary Pierce this morning and he’s being held and questioned about his ties to global terrorism. He’s already revealed many conspirators. The UN has taken steps to ensure the World Security Council is no more. Their decision to privatize the council, and keep that decision secret, is one that I think will haunt them for years to come.
“The top secret CIA facility that you nearly bombed was safely evacuated.” The president glared. “SHIELD is finished. You will be escorted by Homeland Security agent, and a contingent of Marines, to the Pentagon for debriefing. Agent Romanoff will join the other SHIELD agents to be vetted for ties to Hydra.”
Ellis accepted a note and read it. Tony glanced at Fury and found him stony-faced. But Romanoff was enraged. He signaled Stark to be on the lookout.
Ellis cleared his throat. “I’ve just been informed that information was obtained on site after the SHIELD agents were detained that SHIELD had a Homeland Security supervisory agent named Keith Mason imprisoned. Apparently he was abducted by Agent Romanoff and interrogated for suspected ties to HELIOS.” Ellis set the note down. “He being retrieved as we speak.
“But due to your thoughtless and arrogant actions, I have no choice but to end the intelligence analysis project known as HELIOS. It’s a great loss to this nation, and I consider what you’ve done to be criminal. It’s fortunate for you that I’m not allowed to determine those things.
“And in case you were wondering if we missed anything, the federal judge you bribed to sign POW Sergeant James Barnes into your custody has also been arrested.” He nodded decisively. “We do like to cross all of our t’s.”
He gestured toward the doors. “There are agents waiting to escort you both. There are men with orders to kill should either of you prove to be a threat to anyone. Please don’t put your deaths on their conscience.”
Tony stood back, shoulder to shoulder with Thor and watched as Fury and Romanoff left. It didn’t have to go this way—they could have made different choices at any point.
As soon as the Homeland agents were gone with Fury and Romanoff, Ellis cleared his throat and Tony immediately stepped back into the camera sightline.
“Thank you for your service, Director DiNozzo, though it seems that’s the last time I’ll be able to address you as such.”
“It’s been my honor, Mr. President.”
“I understand you’re considering the offer to join with the Avengers.”
“The wind does seem to be blowing that way, yes, sir.”
Ellis smiled and nodded. “Glad to hear it, son. The light show was impressive. I think the Avengers will be a good fit. I don’t suppose you’ve sorted out a codename?”
“Uh, yes, sir, I have.”
“Care to tell an old man?”
“Sentry, sir. My codename will be Sentry.”
Ellis nodded. “Apt, DiNozzo, very apt.”
– – – –