“Here’s what we’ve found,” Coulson called everyone’s attention to the beginning of the electronically-projected jungle of facts and photos that filled up the briefing room.
“It all starts, from SHIELD’s point of view, with the unexpected death of Howard Stark on December 16, 1991.”
“Which may have been planned and executed by Hydra,” May interjected, looking furious.
Coulson shot her a look Tony couldn’t interpret and continued. “Alexander Pierce received an emergency appointment by President Bush to Director of SHIELD.”
“But it’s a private company,” Cap objected. “The President doesn’t have the authority to do that.”
“Correct,” Coulson nodded. “There is possible evidence that Pierce paid Obadiah Stane to look the other way about the RRS completely, but it’s sketchy at best.”
“And twenty years old at worst,” Tony waved it all off. “Let’s move on.”
“January 1992, Peirce used the perceived emergency caused by Director Stark’s assassination to push the largest class ever through SHIELD Academy. My class at the SHIELD Academy,” Coulson looked personally offended by this. “With the intelligence provided by JARVIS and FRIDAY, we’ve been able to verify Peirce and at least a third of that class were, and still are, Hydra. Including Jasper Sitwell and Grant Ward.”
“How?” Tony demanded.
“We found this information through various means,” Coulson answered, not quite evasively. “Cross referencing activity of a suspected terrorist organization that has been getting more and more bold over the last ten years with SHIELD personnel placement and activity. Also, by finding suppressed physical evidence of wrongdoing, including recordings as all SHIELD agents wear body cams in the field.
“And then there is also this,” he gestured at the one blank wall in the room.
What played could only be called a recruitment video, and it ended with the Hydra octo-skull bleeding to life in the center of the screen.
“That was found on former Director, now Secretary of State, Peirce’s private SHIELD server.”
“And you’re sure this is for real?” Tony couldn’t help but ask, because Hydra. They were supposed to be dead in the ‘40s.
Clint handed him the Pad he was holding and Tony flicked him a thankful smile, not even caring whose Pad it was. Okay, he cared a little, but it was Clint’s own Pad, so Tony didn’t feel bad using it to tear through the information FRIDAY had already retrieved.
“Looks that way, Boss,” FRIDAY’s lilting voice spoke up even as she dumped file after file onto Clint’s Pad. “We’ve been able to find two Hydra Preparatory Academies within the United States. I’ve hacked their records. Approximately 20% of SHIELD’S current field agents attended one of them, whether it’s listed as their school of record or not.
“It appears to have also been attended by Secretary of State Alexander Pierce, of course, three Senators—including Chairman of the Senate Arms Committee Stern—a dozen Congressmen, two of the nine currently seated Supreme Court Justices, and one Air Force General.
“And that’s just what we found since you got me into the Helicarrier on Friday, Boss.”
“Just what you’ve found in the U.S.,” Darcy added almost too low to hear.
“The World Security Council?” Rhodey asked. “They’re Hydra?”
“Every single one of them, Colonel Rhodes.”
“Is Fury Hydra?” Cap asked.
“Yes, Captain, he is,” FRIDAY answered simply. “One of the nine heads, it appears. Hydra considers SHIELD their ‘most valuable proactive intelligence asset’. Accordingly, they endeavor to keep one of their own in charge.”
“Which rather explains the shitty psych report SHIELD had on file for Stark,” May said. “And why Fury made sure to give it to you, Captain Rogers.
“They were playing the long game, in case the Avengers actually got off the ground. They set it up so that we would get established with a wedge between the two key members—you and Stark—that they could exploit any time they decided it was necessary.”
“And it kept you isolated from the Stark Family,” Coulson added, “which has long been your strongest ally, even while you were missing. Probably especially while you were missing, since they are the only ones that never stopped searching for you.”
“Being friends with Stark gives you too many options,” Jack spoke up. “That’s not acceptable if SHIELD’s going to keep their pet Super Soldier on the leash.”
“I realized Fury’s evaluation of you was wrong before the Battle was even over,” Cap ran a hand over his face. Then he looked at Tony. “I apologize for letting SHIELD cloud my judgement. I never should have said half the things I said to you on the Helicarrier.”
“You were angry and confused,” Tony shrugged. He had no room for Cap’s emo while he dealt with his own, well, fury. “It’s understandable.”
“No, it’s not,” Cap countered. “But I’ll do my best to earn the trust and friendship you’ve shown me since the moment we met. And before, in continuing your father’s search for me. You won’t regret it.”
“You’re brooding,” Clint informed him as he dropped down on the workshop couch beside him.
“I am,” he agreed. He had plenty of reason to do so.
His father was assassinated because of something he knew or something he did. That, he could understand. It was horrible but understandable. What he couldn’t understand or accept was that his mother was assassinated just because she was there. She’d never hurt anyone, in fact she helped, no doubt, millions of lives, but her life ended brutally and painfully because she was a witness.
His family’s legacy then started getting chewed up and shat out by Hydra. So many people he knew growing up, people close to his father, were either Hydra or assassinated by Hydra. Now there was the implication that Aunt Peg’s sudden mental decline was caused by Hydra.
People were murdering others in his company, in his name. People were destroying governments in his name. People were starting wars in his name. People were selling people in his name.
It was infuriating.
“You’re never going to get to sleep this angry,” Clint shoulder checked him gently. “And you need to bring your A Game to deal with Fury tomorrow.”
Tony scrubbed a tired hand over his face. “And bringing the A Game requires sleep.”
Clint just nodded.
“Tell me what you did today,” Tony ordered—mostly because he wanted to know, but also for the distraction of it.
“Had a video call with my thesis advisor, Amita,” Clint immediately supplied. “She’s a recent transplant from California, there was some drama there that I didn’t actually care about. Pretty sure it had to do with realizing the man she wanted was gay.”
“Charlie Eppes was her thesis advisor.” And that got Tony’s attention. Charlie Eppes was someone he would very much like to meet. “Apparently the two of them used to help his brother—who is an FBI Agent—solve a bunch of crimes using math—which on the surface sounds wildly fictional, but I could see how it would work.”
“You work for SHIELD,” Tony offered wryly. “You’re old hat at things that sound wildly fictional but are actually true.”
Rewardingly, Clint just laughed and Tony felt something in his chest loosen. “Apparently, the coverage of the team and the battle was—is?—extensive. My cover as an airline pilot has been blown all to hell. Amita had strong feelings about this.”
This time it was Tony’s turn to laugh. “What about before that, with Pepper?”
“I don’t think she had an opinion on a cover story that allowed me to travel and miss class at random intervals,” Clint tilted his head, playing confused.
Tony poked him in the side.
Clint rolled his eyes and huffed, “I didn’t want to like her.”
“What?” Tony demanded.
“I didn’t want to like her,” Clint repeated. “I felt like she let you down when you needed her and I wanted to hate her for it, which I know was juvenile. Your relationship with her is none of my business, but that’s how I felt.”
“She could never be what I needed,” Tony admitted softly, putting the truth into words for the first time ever. It hurt but it also felt good. Freeing.
“No, she couldn’t,” Clint agreed.
“That’s not her fault, though.”
“No, it’s not,” he agreed again. And then, because he was Hawkeye, the man who saw fucking everything even if he commented on very little, “But it’s not your fault, either. It’s natural. Just because you’re compatible in one area, doesn’t mean you’ll be compatible in all of them.”
Tony just nodded, not quite up to speaking just then.
“She said she knew she could never be what you needed, and that she realized it early on. That you need someone that could draw a line in the sand and defend it, even to the death. Someone that could jump in the super hero trench and fight by your side. That that would never be her, but she thought that just might be me.”
Tony could barely breathe because that felt good. Hurt, definitely hurt, but Pepper thinking he’d made a good choice was a gift. Almost as much of a gift as Clint was, just by being himself.
“She’s surprisingly nice for the cut throat CEO of a global conglomerate,” Clint offered wryly and Tony couldn’t help but laugh. “Loves fashion, like, to a scary degree. Knowing that much about men’s fashion—which she doesn’t even wear—might actually be a psychosis. You need to have her checked.”
Tony just laughed harder.
“She is helping me with a surprise for your birthday, so definitely wait for after that, but I mean it. Get her checked.”
“She told you about my birthday?”
“That it’s on the twenty-ninth,” Clint nodded. “Twenty days from now. She wasn’t sure about having the City Reconstruction Benefit then or not because attending your birthday party would be a big draw. I told her not to. It might be a draw but you’re not a product and you shouldn’t be used like that.”
“Thank you,” Tony pulled him in for a kiss. He meant it as a sincere expression of thanks, but then Clint just sort of melted against him and it got very hot and very heavy very fast.
When he pulled back, they were both panting. “How do you feel about hurting me a little, baby?”
“Will you get off on it?”
“Will I draw your blood?”
Clint smiled brightly. “I’d love to.”
Tony stood and leaned his ass against the work station with remnants of the Mark VI. Mostly it was wiring and framework that he hadn’t either yet given up on or reused, but there was enough armor to make it very clear that this was Iron Man junk on the table.
“You’re going to give me a fantasy,” he told Clint as he pulled off his shirt. “Come here, pin me against this thing.”
“I assume you mean pin you sexily, not for real, ” Clint said as he moved in. When he was about a step away, he moved suddenly, forcibly shoving Tony’s hips against the worktop and pinning his hands in place so that he’d have to fight to get away. “Because a real pinning would not be sexy.”
“Yeah, no, this is good,” he said breathlessly. “Now bite me.”
Clint raised one sassy, sexy eyebrow. “Where?”
“My trapezius first. Then, work up along my neck.”
Clint ran his nose teasingly along Tony’s collar bone. Back and forth and back again, he drifted further from his chest toward his back with every pass. Then. Right when Tony was just about to curse him out for not giving him what he wanted, he set his teeth in the exact perfect place and bit.
“Harder,” he ordered.
Clint obeyed and he could feel his body relax as his blood rushed.
Clint obeyed again and it was so good he couldn’t stay still. He couldn’t.
“That’s good, that’s good.”
Clint immediately let go.
Clint moved a little more than an inch along the muscle to the base of his neck and bit again, going directly to the perfect pressure.
Again, Tony couldn’t stay still but managed to say, “Enough, enough,” before he moved so much Clint ran the risk of drawing blood.
This time Clint dropped his head onto Tony’s shoulder and panted for several moments. He’d be concerned about the behavior but he could feel Clint’s stiffy pressed right up against his thigh. Looked like his boy was enjoying this as much as he was.
“You won’t be able to hide it.”
“Good,” he purred.
Clint shuddered against him, then set his teeth.
This time when Tony cried, “Stop!” he wiggled a hand free and pulled Clint’s pants open. It was so good, he needed Clint to get off, too. And soon.
Clint reached behind him with his now free hand and returned with something he pressed against Tony’s hand.
He looked up, surprised at Clint.
Clint just gave him that eyebrow wiggle that really, for real serious, should not be attractive. “You’re gonna have hickies.”
Tony just turned his head to the other side, “Make me match.”
Clint made a sound like he’d been struck, quickly helped Tony get his own pants open, and set his teeth in the first position on the other side. He waited, politely but impatiently, for Tony to get his lubed hands around both of their cocks before he bit down.
Tony squeezed them hard but the noise Clint made was not a complaint.
“Stop,” he ordered and Clint complied. “Thrust into my hands. Bite me again.”
Clint’s hands gripped his hips hard enough that they were definitely going to leave bruises, and he started thrusting. Tony loved it.
“Stop.” When Clint pulled off this time his eyes were wild and he was panting. “I want you to come when I do. Do you hear me? Come with me, okay?”
“Yes, sir. Please, sir.”
Clint’s teeth sank in, sharper this time, a little mean, and it pushed Tony right over the edge.
Clint shouted as he came.
Tony let his head drop down to Clint’s shoulder and took a good look at their mess on his chest. Perfect.
He was vaguely aware of Clint moving. Tidying up their pants, cleaning his chest, but he didn’t care. He felt good, like he could sleep.
“Whoa!” he complained when his feet flew out from under him but strong arms kept him up. They held him steadily, in the air, against a strong chest like he couldn’t remember anyone ever doing for him before.
“Sleep, Tony,” Clint’s voice floated into his ear, “I got this.”
“What’s the plan, Tones?” Rhodey asked as he, the Avengers, and SG-1 all crowded into a single briefing room the next morning.
“You’re not gonna like it,” Tony warned them. “Probably gonna think I’m crazy, too.”
“I love it already,” Jack drawled, sprawling lazily in his chair. “Let’s hear it.”
Tony took a deep breath. “It boils down to this: There is an alien armada pointed at all of our heads. I saw it through the portal, and I have no doubt that it’s coming right for Earth. Maybe we closed the express lane above the Tower, but it’s still coming. That’s the end game and that matters more than Hydra or industrial espionage or my personal weapons policy.
“The SGC is our best chance of defending against that, so we cannot let anything jeopardize the SGC.”
“Meaning what, Tony?” Rhodey prodded.
“Meaning we have to protect SHIELD as much as possible,” Phil concluded. “Because, whether we like it or not, SHIELD and the SGC are one and the same now.
“If we go public with the corruption, public with Hydra, best case scenario? SHIELD gets labeled a terrorist organization. All of us will be hunted, no matter our position, no matter our project, or our innocence. Governments all around the world will throw themselves into tearing us apart.”
“Throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Jack interjected.
“Exactly. But we can’t let Hydra keep,” Tony waved, “being Hydra either.
“So, we gotta be quick. We gotta be ruthless. Get everyone arrested and jailed for the horrible things they’ve done without using the H-word. Stomp and scatter the ashes.”
“They’re not going to let us take them alive,” Cap countered.
Tony shrugged, “Then we don’t have to worry about taking it to trial.”
“What about retaliation? When they realize their number is up—because, realistically, there is no physical way we can get them all at once—they’re going to make us pay for it,” Rhodey shrugged. “I would.”
“If you got a suggestion, spit it out.”
“PLATO helped Jack and I place a secure call to General Hammond and we have options.”
“You’re hedging,” Tony frowned.
“I am, let me.
“I know the War Machine helmet records as long as it has power so that, even if I’m knocked unconscious, we can figure out what happened after.”
“Yeah,” Tony drawled questioningly.
“Does the Iron Man helmet do that too?”
“Of course,” he dismissed the notion, not seeing the point. “It’s a standard feature.”
“Can you show us the recording of the armada you saw?”
Oh. Oh, that’s brilliant. “And if I do?”
“We take it to the President and get clearance to strand all those Hydra bastards on the SGC’s off-world prison.” Jack answered. “On Earth, they inexplicably disappear. No trial, no retaliation, just gone.”
“That can’t be legal,” Cap objected.
“If we have a massive force pointed at our heads? If we have a war coming?” Jack shrugged. “We have to do what we have to do.”
“J,” Tony called, interrupting the brewing argument.
“Of course, Sir.”
The clip started with Cap’s voice, “Stark, that’s a one-way tri—” And then it went silent.
And Tony watched in silent horror as he got another good look at an armada so vast it almost entirely blocked out the light of the system’s star.
The missile entered the frame from behind his head, flew onward and connected with the front ship. It hit a little to the right but the explosion illuminated the four fingers of the ship clearly as it reached out in an effort to destroy them. As well as at least three other ships just like it. Thousands of Leviathans undulated around them, barely visible, even smaller than ants scurrying around boots. They couldn’t even see the speeders the foot soldiers had been rocketing through the portal on at this view distance.
“Huh. JARVIS, freeze frame.” The video instantly stopped. Tony stood and manipulated the image to show a ship sort of like a wedge at the top of the frame, but easily filling the same space as three of the four-pronged control ships combined. It was so tall the camera couldn’t catch it all. Tony would guess about a third of the ship was visible? But he was also afraid that that hope was wildly naive. “I didn’t notice this big bastard the first time.”
“Is the prison planet humane?” Cap asked, which Tony assumed meant he was in but he couldn’t actually leave it alone.
“I take that to mean you’re in, Cap?”
Steve looked at him, looked back at the frozen video, and then at all of them. “You were right. That is a war,” he said, pointing. “That’s a war this planet cannot currently win. And we have no idea when it’s going to get here.
“We need to go all in. We all do or there’s going to be nothing and no one left. We need to build up defenses, make escape routes, early warning systems. We need weapons and ships, preferably to keep the fight off planet as much as possible. We can’t have people fighting for the reins—and Hydra would rather the world burn than anyone else rule it.
“So yeah, Tony, I’m in. Let’s get this done.”
“Tell us about the prison planet,” Tony looked to Colonel Jack.
“It’s one of our Beta sites,” he said immediately. “An uninhabited planet with two continents. On the continent with the stargate, there’s a research outpost. Medical and geological for the most part. On the opposite side of the planet, we have ET Australia.”
“How do you keep it secure?” Cap asked.
“Long distance and low technology,” Jack answered. “Subdermal implants knock the, uh, inmates all out when we drop off new guests.”
“No monitoring. Well, not beyond the occasional random flybys with long range drones.”
“They have to farm for their living, build their own housing, weave their own textiles, make their own pots,” Jackson explained. “They don’t have time for mischief but it’s not a bad life.”
“Biometrically locked X-302s drop off supplies if absolutely necessary,” Jack continued. “If there’s like a storm or something that destroys their settlement, especially crops. Mostly crops. It’s not easy, but they do okay.”
Tony considered that. Evicting Hydra from the planet sounded like a winning plan to him, but they’d need to be sure they stayed secure.
Maybe satellite monitoring? He could put an AI on it, just a little one.
And they could separate Hydra around the penal continent. Use the planet’s geography to their advantage.
“I’m assuming you need to show the President the alien threat is real to get the green light.”
“Would be best, Tones.” Rhodey agreed. “We could do it unofficially, but that could bite us in the ass hard and Hammond is ready to throw down for this. He can be in the air as soon as we give him the green light and we can be presenting this to the President within the hour.”
“Who is ‘we’? ‘Cause I got plans.”
“Me, O’Neill, and Hammond. Coulson would probably be good too, since he has all our intel on the…” Rhodey frowned. “Hydra infection. And because he’s your CEO of SHIELD.”
“Yeah, go. Do the thing. J, give ’em a copy to go.
“At some point I’m going to have to talk to the UN Security Council to straighten out the oversight thing. Get Ellison’s input on that too while you’re there. Is SHIELD even legal? I mean really? I don’t really care and my lawyers can keep people at bay probably forever, but it would be easier just to cover our asses from go.”
“Yes, sir,” Colonel O’Neill agreed.
“Who are you taking with you to the Helicarrier?” Clint asked.
“Uh, the Suit Case?”
“Respectfully, sir. You need security. In light of recent information, I’ve been reviewing your family’s security history and it has never been where it should be for people with your level of wealth and social connections.”
Tony boggled. “I don’t need security, I am security. I have the suit.”
“The suit you’re carrying around by a handle that takes over a minute to put on won’t save you from a sniper’s bullet.”
“Neither will security guards.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But if you have a half dozen guys watching for it, it’s less likely you’ll actually take it.”
Tony blinked, “You have suggestions?”
“Try a dozen. We also need to fire half of Pepper’s security team, move her residence to a more secure location, and train her in what to do when her bodyguards react to an emergency.”
Tony looked at Coulson. Maybe he could explain this— This— Whatever this was.
Coulson just shrugged. “He’s a security expert. This is exactly what SHIELD’s trained him for.”
Tony huffed. Well, the bottom line here really was whether or not he trusted Clint. It probably shouldn’t surprise him to find that he did. “You know we’re going to have to sell this to Pepper?” was all he said to Clint.
“Not a good enough reason not to do it.”
Clint was clearly not seeing the problem. “How are we going to convince Pepper to take what amounts to fighting lessons?”
“I’ll make a presentation,” Clint offered. “I can train her myself and I can make it non-obvious fighting. She has a workout routine; I’ll just change it in a way that will help her reflexes in the case of an emergency. Have her over for dinner and I’ll convince her.”
“And her security team?” Tony raised a single eyebrow.
“I can clean that up today, with permission.”
“Yeah, you got it.”
“Good. Now. Who are you taking with you to the Helicarrier?” When Tony hesitated, he pressed. “We don’t know Hydra’s threat assessment of you so we don’t know when, or if, they’ll decide to go after you. But, you’re going to be dealing with a goa’uld so I’d suggest people that can make sure there are no other goa’uld on the Helicarrier.”
“Carter and Teal’c, then.” He looked at the two in question. “If you’re willing?”
Teal’c just inclined his head while Carter smiled, “I’d love to see the Helicarrier, sir.”
“And a Quinjet, we’re going to have to take one to get here.”
She brightened even more and nodded.
“We’re going to have some serious recruitment to do,” Coulson sighed. “Not just once everyone’s arrested and removed from the planet but to get everyone arrested, secured, and removed from the planet.”
“Actually,” Steve leaned forward, “I have an idea about that.”
“Unknown aircraft, identify yourself immediately or you will be fired upon,” came tensely over the radio.
Tony supposed he couldn’t blame them. Not after what the last unknown aircraft did to the Helicarrier, less than a week ago.
“This is Transport India-Mike-Niner-Niner,” he answered. “No arrows on board, I promise.”
“Mr. Stark!” the radio operator squeaked. “Uh, sir. You’re clear to land on the deck. Will you require a long-term berth, sir?”
“Nah, just here for a brief confab. Be gone before lunch.”
“Of course, Mr. Stark. The flight crew is ready for you on the upper deck.”
“I see them,” he confirmed and turned off the radio. He turned to Carter and Teal’c. Where Coulson had gotten them a pair of SHIELD jumpsuits, Tony really didn’t want to know. “How far can you two detect head snakes?”
“I have to touch them,” Carter admitted, “but they have to touch me too.”
“So, they can detect your former snakey-ness back,” he checked because nobody’s actually confirmed that for him yet.
“Indeed,” Teal’c raised a single eyebrow when Tony turned to him. “I am able to detect an infested goa’uld within thirty yards of myself and within line of sight. Touch is required to verify host status in the event of multiple visible targets.”
They set down and Tony focused on his companions. “Fury’s office is right down the hall from Coulson’s. I want you two to hide in Coulson’s until Fury is in the office with me so he doesn’t figure out that we’re on to him before we get him off planet. Once Thor has him, you can get back on station or whatever.”
“Sounds good, sir,” Carter agreed.
Tony squinted at her. “Are you any relation to Sharon Carter? By any chance?”
“She’s my cousin,” Captain Carter confirmed as she held down the button to lower the Quinjet ramp. “Our fathers are brothers.”
Tony squinted at her. “And you let her eat Creme Brulee ice cream?”
“With chocolate sauce,” Carter shuddered dramatically. “You can’t help crazy, sir. Everyone knows Dublin Mudslide is where it’s at.”
He silently held out a fist. She grinned and bumped it.
Walking through the halls of the Helicarrier almost felt nostalgic, which was weird. He was just here for the first time like a week ago? But he’d gained a lot of miles since then, mentally, emotionally, and physically so it kind of made sense.
FRI silently let the half of SG-1 he had with him into Coulson’s office, then she let him into Fury’s.
Fury was not there yet.
Perfect, Tony grinned to himself. What would piss Fury off the most?
Tony moved behind the desk and poked through the various drawers. Fury had a laptop in his second drawer. It was a Dell. Tony was personally offended.
There was no obvious network card or connections and he didn’t want to waste time hacking manually, so he set his phone on the trackpad.
“Of course, Sir.”
The screen jumped past the login screen in mere seconds as JARVIS started poking around.
“Send a company-wide email telling everyone Clint wasn’t at fault for the Invasion and is off limits.” Then he stopped and frowned. Would Fury put hidden messages in his emails? Yes, Tony decided, he totally would. “Can you write it like it came from him?”
“Director Coulson anticipated the need, Sir.”
First the disguises and now this? “Forget empath, that guy’s clearly a precog.”
“I believe he simply prefers to be prepared for all possibilities, Sir.” The note of approval in JARVIS’s voice would make Tony jealous if he didn’t know he was JARVIS’s favorite. He was all his kids’ favorite, that was just how it was.
Right after Tony approved the email but before JARVIS sent it, FRI’s voice piped up, “Boss, he’s coming.”
“J, keep digging,” he ordered as he moved the laptop to where the screen wouldn’t be visible from the door.
Then he pulled their little gift from grey!Thor out of his pocket and kicked his feet up on the desk’s blotter. The door opened and Fury framed himself in the doorway. He sighed in a way that would make Tony regret his life choices if, you know, Tony gave a fuck what a creepy psycho alien thought of him.
“Mr. Stark,” he acknowledged as he stepped into his office and closed the door. “You’re sitting at my desk.”
“Yeah, you know me. Can’t help myself.”
“Found something, thought you’d be interested,” Tony handed him Thor’s gift. It looked sort of like a lightsaber handle but half-size, just big enough to fill Fury’s hand.
“What’s this do?” he asked, pointing to the button that was in place of the blade hole.
Fury stared at him for a long time but Tony didn’t give a fuck so he stared right back.
Eventually, Fury hit the button.
A white light filled the room and when it was gone, so was Fury.
“Score one for the home team.” Tony raised the roof a little bit. Defeating enemy forces deserved it. “J, send the email. FRI?”
The door clicked open before FRI could respond and Carter leaned in, “Sir, there’s a Lieutenant Commander Maria Hill here to see you.”
Tony blinked, surprised. “Let her in.”
“Respectfully, sir, one of us will need to be in the office with the two of you.”
Did that mean she was a goa’uld too or was Carter just embracing her bodyguard role? “Alright, you can come in too.”
Carter nodded, entered properly, and waved Hill in behind her.
Hill entered, and frowned at the visible lack of Fury. “I’m here for a meeting with Director Fury.”
“Little Nicky isn’t here. I put him on a…” Tony waved vaguely, “stress leave. Things have been rough for him lately. He needs it.”
“You put him on stress leave?” her eyebrows skyrocketed at that.
“Yeah, turns out I own SHIELD. Who knew?”
Hill abruptly sat down.
Tony shot a questioning look at Carter who shook her head. Not a goa’uld.
“You know, I know you don’t like me—and that’s fine, a lot of people don’t—but I need someone I can trust in charge of SHIELD’s mobile response platform, AKA the Helicarrier. I’d like that person to be you.”
“I don’t dislike you,” Hill disagreed. “I— I thought you were a hypocrite. You were all over the news bragging about how your company doesn’t make weapons anymore while SHIELD was making not just weapons, but weapons of mass destruction and—it made me uncomfortable.”
“I can see how that could happen,” Tony offered cautiously. “FRI are we private?”
“The truth is, Commander Hill, that I wasn’t aware SHIELD was part of my company. I honestly thought it was a government agency—and, as it turns out, there’s been a twenty plus year conspiracy to keep me in the dark on that matter since literally the night my father died. But I know now, and I’m doing my best to fix things.”
“Part of my plan is to make you an Assistant Director of SHIELD and commander of the Helicarrier, which may become a Helicarrier fleet, for reasons I can’t readily disclose to you here. But—” he raised his eyebrows, passing the sentence to her.
“But I can’t become Assistant Director of a private company and maintain my commission in the Navy.”
“No, you can’t. So, you have a choice to make. You can come with me to the Tower, sign your discharge paperwork and be free to accept your new hire paperwork tomorrow. Or I can move on to my next candidate. Your call.”
Hill scoffed, “Honorable discharges don’t work like that. They take—”
He gave her a look and she shut up. This timeline was marching to his tune and they both knew it. Objecting to that, at this point, was just a waste of breath.
“I’ll need to pack a bag, sir.”
“Awesome,” Tony grinned. “I’ll wait here.”
“On a personal note, I understand you have taken a personal interest in, uh, Agent Barton?”
He raised an eyebrow. Because, seriously? Fucking spies.
She held up both hands. “I’m not making a judgement, but you’ll want to talk to Barnabas Hudson before we leave. It would be better for you to go to him than to make him track you down. He’s old and might hurt himself, and Clint would not appreciate that.”
“Who is Barnabas Hudson?”
“He’s the SHIELD quartermaster. Retired, technically, but that hasn’t stopped him from coming in everyday or spending weeks at a time on the Helicarrier. He specializes in difficult equipment needs, never let anyone else make Clint’s bows or arrows.”
“You said this was personal?” he pushed, not seeing the connection.
“He, uh,” she flushed. “I’ve only heard rumors so I don’t know exactly how it started, but he vets all of Clint’s partners. And Clint, uh, dotes on him. Like an aging father. So, I assume that’s just the terms of their relationship.”
“Clint never mentioned him,” Tony tipped his head to one side.
“Hudson came onboard to help out after the Incursion and Loki’s escape. He was out of Manhattan when the Invasion happened, but there’s no way Clint knows that because he’s hiding from SHIELD, which is honestly the smartest thing he could do right now. Clint probably thinks Hudson’s in the city and will show up when he can, but he can’t—and I think after everything that Clint probably needs his dad, don’t you?”
“You’re friends with Clint?” Tony guessed.
She smiled softly. “You would not believe the lengths he went through to get me and Nat together. We were so oblivious and pining, it could have been a romcom.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
She looked away from him and was silent for a few minutes. Then she nodded once, accepting.
“Go pack your bag. I have a quartermaster to find.”
“Thank you, sir,” she got up and left.
“How do you feel about taking command of the Helicarrier?” he asked Carter the moment the hatch was closed.
“Me, sir?” she blinked.
“Yeah, consider it practice for your future spaceship or whatever.”
She laughed. “Alright. I assume you have goals for my time here?”
“Your and Teal’c’s time here,” he corrected. “No matter how we market it, this is a weapons platform that can be pointed at literally anywhere on the planet without anyone knowing until it’s already too late. And we already know it’s been compromised. I want you and Teal’c to do your snake check thing on everyone and keep each other alive.”
“One day, two max. Long enough for a spot of clean up.”
“Yes, sir,” she agreed.
“And I’ll need to give you one of the Pads from the Quinjet. I want you to review the toys I’m coming up with and tell me how awesome I am.”
She just laughed. “Of course, sir.”
“Now, FRI, where do I find this Barnabas Hudson?”
“Looks like he’s in his office, Boss. Down two levels and all the way aft, on the starboard side of the wishbone.”
Tony frowned, why was FRI using navy terms? That was—
“On the back-right side,” Carter translated like it was automatic. Unnecessary, but considerate.
It was a three-minute walk with Carter in the lead and Teal’c watching their backs.
When Carter went to knock for them, he waved her off. “I get the feeling this is going to be pretty personal; so, uh, let me.”
“Of course, sir,” she nodded and put her back to the bulkhead in the standard bodyguard position. Silently, Teal’c mirrored her on the other side of the hatch.
Tony cautiously peeked in then realized that that was the absolutely appropriate thing to do and slid into the office, opening the door as little as possible.
Inside, he found an office about twice the size of Fury’s. There was the standard desk, with no one behind it, a sitting nook with couch, coffee table, two chairs, and a set of bunk beds along the far wall. Asleep on the lower bunk was a woman that was clearly pregnant even from where Tony was standing on the far side of the room. An elderly man was seated in one of the chairs and another man that was probably a good twenty years his junior was kneeling at his feet.
Both of the younger people were wearing nothing but leather collars, which could not possibly be a good idea in the middle of the Helicarrier, but they didn’t seem bothered by it at all.
The look of the two of them both explained what he was doing here but it also confused Tony even more. The female sub had long sand-blonde hair tumbling around her head in a sea of waves. Tony couldn’t see her eye color as they were closed but he had to assume it was blue because the guy kneeling was all slim-hipped and slinky with sand blond hair and blue eyes. He was Clint, basically, if Clint were a swimmer rather than an archer.
“Hello.” Tony walked in and offered the other man his hand. “I’m Tony Stark.”
The man stood. “Mr. Stark, Barnabas Hudson.” He waved Tony to take a seat at the desk’s guest chairs and joined him there when he did. “Everyone just calls me Hudson.”
“Hudson. I admit, I’m not sure why I’m here. Hill recommended I come, and gave me some idea of what was going on, but now I’m confused.”
“That’s fair,” Hudson smiled, looking all grandfatherly. It was bizarre. “I understand Clint took your collar.”
Tony squinted, “How could you know that?”
“He texted me. I assume from a burner phone.” He dug a phone out of his pocket and turned it so Tony could see the screen.
Took a collar, the first message said.
Then five minutes later: No running him off!!
“Uh, no, that’s his new number. Loki destroyed his old phone while he was, you know, under, and he said he didn’t care about the number, so I replaced it.”
Hudson gave him a pleased nod. “That clarify why you’re here?”
“Somewhat. Mostly, still confused.”
“See, when Clint came to SHIELD, he was a mess,” Hudson shook his head. “The dom that opened him to his submission didn’t teach him Safe, Sane, and Consensual. Clint had no way to express his limits or the knowledge that he could even do so, but he was eager for someone to take him out of his head.”
“You fixed that,” Tony guessed.
Hudson inclined his head, “I did my best.
“That Asshole,” Hudson huffed and shook his head. “I’m not the kind, but even I was tempted to hunt him town and murder him messy. He opened Clint up for some painful stuff and his training was ingrained on Clint hard, but I corrected what I could.”
“The touch thing?”
“Yeah, if he’s collared Clint won’t touch a dominant without his dom’s permission outside of a mission. And he’s pretty reluctant to touch other subs, too. But I don’t know if that’s from That Asshole or just Clint. I tried to train him out of it, but after a while it felt abusive, so I let it go.”
“Anything else I need to know?”
Hudson waved dismissively. “I’m not going to run you off.”
“You’re not?” Tony blinked. “It wouldn’t have worked, but can I know why not?”
“Clint asked me not to,” he shrugged. “He’s never done that before. I guess I want to know why.”
Tony got an uneasy feeling about that.
“It’s not the money,” Hudson said absently, his eyes distant.
Tony relaxed, just a bit. “It’s not?”
“There is very little you could buy him that he couldn’t buy himself,” Hudson snorted. “A small island nation, maybe.
“Clint has an extensive skill set and he’s very good at it. The kind of good that you can’t find outside of government employment very often. And when the Marines kicked him out because he was broken, he was a bit reckless about showing the world just how broken he wasn’t. That paid him really well.
“He made a name for himself. Pretty sure he’d still be making a name for himself—if they’d sent anyone other than Coulson after him.”
“Huh,” Tony sat back. “I’ll ask Clint for story time later.”
Hudson just gave him an approving smile.
“If you wanna come by the Tower in a few weeks, you can stay a while. See if you can figure out what you want to know,” Tony offered. “I’d say you could do it now but you’re probably needed here, and things are a little stupid over at the Tower right now.”
“I wouldn’t take Kara where she can’t get medical assistance immediately, if she needed it,” Hudson waved over at the pregnant sub. “Might be a few months, depending on how she delivers and the state of the roads.”
“That’s fair.” FRIDAY dinged his phone, Hill was outside. “Anything else?”
“We’re good,” Hudson stood with him. “For now.
“Ben, dress.” The sub immediately stood at the word of his dom. “Then wake and dress Kara. We’ll be getting lunch after I walk Mr. Stark out.”
“Walk me out?” Tony asked amused.
“Yeah, need people to see us shake hands or the rumors about you and Clint will take a nasty turn,” Hudson said easily. Like that’s normal.
Which, it kind of was for Tony but there was no press here, just a rumor mill.
A spy rumor mill, he concluded, must be a special kind of ruthless and efficient. Probably why Clint didn’t seem all that worried about the press that hounded Tony’s every move when he was out in public.
“I suppose someone should warn you,” Hudson sighed as they walked down the corridor. “If you or the Avengers get offered the services of Agent Bobbi Morse, codename: Mockingbird—don’t take them.”
“Can I know why?” Tony tilted his head.
“She was Clint’s dom for a while. She, well… It ended badly. And Clint shouldn’t have to kill her because she’s—”
“Difficult and self-entitled?” Tony guessed.
“I was looking for a polite way to say ‘a delusional harpy bitch that can’t handle being rejected’, but that’ll do.”
Tony laughed even though he got the feeling that the real story was not funny.
They made it to the Quinjet and shook hands.
“I’m leaving Carter and Taylor here with you,” Tony told the older man. “They’re going to keep these assholes in line while I brief Hill on her new position. Keep an eye on ‘em, will you?”
Hudson looked them over with a judicious eye. “Those outfits Coulson’s work?”
“He does good,” Hudson sighed. “Wasted on management, I tell ya.
“I’ll keep ‘em in line. You take care of our boy.”
“Fair trade,” Tony nodded. “See you in a few weeks, Hudson.”
“Until then, Dr. Stark.”
“Sir,” JARVIS interrupted the snarky little design war he was having with Carter over the secure messaging platform that connected their Pads.
It had been a nice little afternoon, really. Everyone just sort of drifted into his living room not long after he got back from the Helicarrier. Did their own things separately but together.
Bruce was chugging through the biological information Thor had sent him. Apparently, he sent it in binary, which was either a test, an expression of faith in Bruce’s skills—or Thor was subtly trolling the fuck out of them. Tony honestly didn’t know which option he liked better.
Steve was drawing after spending the day working in the city.
Jackson and May were reviewing more intel, making more lists, and gathering more evidence. Apparently, it was not all in English, but the guy spoke twenty-three languages so it wasn’t exactly a hardship for him. May spoke five, so it wasn’t like she was slacking, either. Jackson was just better in the languages department, but she had more analysis training. In the end, she was giving him as much help as he was giving her, really.
Foster was curled up like a pleased little kitten, tucked around the Pad loaded with everything JARVIS could get her from the SGC and Carter’s briefing packet for the scientist.
They probably needed to feed and water her soon.
He looked down at where Clint was seated at his feet. He’d hired a dozen people today, fired three, and was currently evaluating another two for either the chopping block or transfers. After the second one got so mad at Clint’s email that the guy tried to come up here and confront Clint about it, Darcy had sat down next to him and started writing his emails for him.
“Colonel O’Neill, Director Coulson, and Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes have departed the White House,” JARVIS announced. “They are on route back to the Tower.”
“Good. Hey, have them stop by George’s and pick up our order.”
“And what are we ordering, Sir?”
Oh, right. “Uh, everything?” He looked around the room, “You guys like pizza, right?”
“Hell ya,” Clint grinned. And that was it, they were getting pizza.
“Get triple our usual order, J.”
“Of course, Sir.” JARVIS confirmed. “Colonel O’Neill would like me to pass on that Operation Eviction has been approved by President Ellison.”
“Oh, good. Dinner, beam up, and then we get this show on the road.”
“Of course, Sir. The order is placed at George’s and Colonel O’Neill has agreed to play delivery boy as it were.”
“Good work, J.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Darcy huffed from her spot down on the floor and Clint poked her. “What?”
“Operation Eviction is vile,” she frowned. “It’s going to violate the human rights of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people left, right, and center. It’s disgusting.”
“They’re Nazis!” Clint exclaimed, getting everyone’s attention.
“Just because they’ve abandoned their humanity is no reason for us to abandon ours as well,” she countered.
“We can’t leave them where they are,” May objected.
“No, but I’ve read the SHIELD new hire paperwork. Every SHIELD agent agrees to mediation by a tribunal for disputes. Its stretching to apply it to this situation, but we could. SHIELD has precedent for it. We could seat a tribunal privately to review the evidence, possibly interview the suspect and if the tribunal approves it, we send them to ET Australia. It’s not exactly true due process, but it’s something.”
“What would the tribunal be made of?” Steve asked.
“The agreement with SHIELD specifies a six-member panel. Let’s do two cops, two lawyers, two judges. One of each military, one of each civilian, for balance.”
“The President’s already approved the plan, though,” Clint objected.
“We are still responsible for what we do while following orders that we know are unlawful. And I will not be responsible for this disaster.”
“Half of Rumlow’s reports read like murder confessions,” Clint said. “He’s not only shameless about it, he was obviously counting on Fury protecting him and burying those reports. Why try a guy that’s already confessed? That makes no sense.”
Darcy shook her head. “Those reports were not written with the intent to be confessions.”
“No, they were written to brag,” Clint contested hotly, “and he had to know if they came to light, they would be used against him.”
“After Action Reports are legal documents,” May seconded. “They are his official attestation of what happened in case the matter goes to court or has the be reviewed. They are confessions.”
“How about this,” Tony interrupted. “Anyone that has at least three reports that confess to murder go straight to ET Australia. People with less than three or, you know, understand discretion get reviewed by the tribunal.”
“Who is going to verify these are confessions?” May asked. “There’s got to be some sort of standard.”
Tony blew out a breath, thought about it. “HELEN. She’s neutral, she doesn’t care about these people one way or another and no one has told her about the Hydra thing. J will give her all the After Action Reports SHIELD has on file. She’ll evaluate the reports based strictly on the word usage and legal standards for confessions. She’ll then generate a list of agents that have met the standard three or more times. Those people will go right to ET Australia.”
“Uh. Objection,” Clint raised his hand. “You realize that means I’d be going to ET Australia, right? These confessions need to be weighed against the assigned mission and mission objectives. Because I’ve gone on elimination missions. So have May and Coulson. I’ve also killed people on protection missions, and I don’t beat around the bush in my reports.”
“That’s a good point.” Tony frowned. “So pre- and post-mission reports? Any missions that are thoroughly illegal are thrown out because that shit falls on Fury. Or his passenger, depending on when they got seated. Or whoever in the chain of command pushed it and made it happen.”
“But what about the people that knowingly went on illegal missions?” May countered. “Because you know some agents did missions they knew were illegal just because they wanted to. Because they enjoyed it.”
“We’re skipping a step here,” Tony wiggles a finger at them all. “Operation Eviction only applies to Hydra. Run of the mill assholes will be arrested and tried as close to the normal way as possible.”
“Wait, what?” Darcy looked up at him.
“You heard me. J’s been prepping evidence packages for the FBI from the beginning. I mean, I know they aren’t technically government agents, but generally their crimes cross state and sometimes country lines, so the FBI has jurisdiction.”
“Alright,” Darcy frowned. “That’s less horrible than I thought it would be.” But she was still clearly not pleased.
The elevator dinged and their three travelers returned. The Colonels were carrying pizza boxes while it looked like Coulson got the drinks.
He set a six pack of long necks on the coffee table in front of Clint.
“Clint’s favorite,” he told Tony.
When Clint looked up at his for permission, he held up a single finger. Clint took his one beer with a grin and popped the top off. By hand.
“What’s wrong?” the empath asked the room.
“Not all of us are okay with ignoring the law and throwing away people’s human rights,” Darcy answered sourly.
Jack and Rhodey exchanged a look. Rhodey sighed and Jack scrubbed a hand over his face. “Guys, Patriot Act. The President consulted with the Attorney General once JARVIS verified that she’s clean and she verified it’s legal. All we have to do is prove they’re Hydra and their gone.”
“There are many ways for us to do that.” Rhodey stepped in. “If they have a suicide tooth, if they are on Hydra’s employee log in any way—like, say, they attended Hydra school, tattoos, hell, we could ask!
“And it’s not like we’re killing them,” Jack concluded. “They’re just being temporarily relocated.”
Darcy huffed, “I don’t approve of the Patriot Act.”
“Yeah, well, Congress did so it’s all legal,” Jack countered.
“What about trials? What about due process?”
“They are murderers.” Jack said seriously. Like, scary seriously. “They are traitors. They are terrorists. If I had it my way, I’d put bullets in them and save us all a whole lot of effort.”
Darcy was not deterred. “They’re still human! They still have rights, like that of a fair trial.”
“They’ll get it after,” Jack dismissed her concern.
“Yeah, you know, after the Invasion.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Then we’re all dead and they’ll be living longer, safer lives on ET Australia than we did here on Earth.”
“I can’t believe you,” Darcy shook her head in disbelief and looked to Tony.
Jack looked to him too.
Right. This was his show.
“I agree with both of you, actually.”
“This is Hydra,” Cap interjected scathingly. “They would rather the whole world burn than let someone else rule it or, in this case, save it. If we let them stay, they will sabotage us at every turn. They’ll drag everything out. Waste time we already don’t have.
“In fact, they’d probably welcome an alien invader. They’d see it as a shortcut to power, assuming they can pick up the Earth’s pieces after.”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “As much as I hate to say it, the needs of the many and all that. Dropping them on another planet like this is, basically, remanding them without bail—which is what the Patriot Act allows. So, we’ll stick with Jack’s plan, and when our invaders are nothing but dust and ashes, Darcy can lead the charge to get them all fair trials.”
“And I will,” she nodded once. Not agreeing, just accepting.
Tony woke up all but vibrating with energy. Or that could be, he woke up with his hair being petted by his sub.
Who was sitting up in bed, reading on a pad.
“What are you doing up there?” he tried to ask grouchily.
Clint just grinned down at him. “Are you ready to go into outer space?”
It had been a disappointment last night when Thor made them wait a day for beam up. It made sense, really. They’d had a long ass day already. Tony had some toys to finish up before they were ready to take on Hydra, Clint had wanted to firm up Pepper’s security before they left the planet, and Thor was waiting for representatives of the High Council to adjust to new bodies.
Which was a fucking weird thing to say with a straight face, but there it was.
“Get down here,” Tony ordered, tugging his sub’s hip.
Clint came easily, maneuvering himself so he was laying on his side.
Kissing Clint was the best thing. He kissed, every time, like he had nothing else to do and nowhere else he’d rather be. It made Tony want to return the favor, because being the subject of that focus was the most decadent thing he’d ever felt and Clint deserved all the nice things.
“So,” he said pulling back. “Space? It’s every little boy’s dream, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Clint said almost sadly as he snuggled in under Tony’s chin. “But some of us learn to stop dreaming early.”
Which, fair. Tony certainly had, but, “Well, who could have dreamed this anyway? Living at the top of the tallest tower in New York City?”
“In a ridiculously decadent penthouse,” Clint added. “Regularly flying around in the world’s most advanced stealth jets.”
“With a partner that gets me, fits my every sexual desire. Even the ones I didn’t know I wanted.”
Clint clung to him a little harder, his breathing was picking up because praise. “Being super heroes,” he offered breathlessly. “Saving the world and working side by side with actual aliens.”
Tony pulled back to look at him. “Do you know how amazing you are? So strong, you overcame Loki’s bullshit and pulled it out to save the world. So smart, your thesis is like math porn. And when you graduate, I’m going to be in the crowd making sure everyone knows that I am so fucking proud of you.
“I’m so proud that you’re mine,” Tony could feel Clint’s erection against his thigh. “You manage Pepper like you’ve been doing it all your life. You keep her safe, Clint. You keep me safe, make me feel so safe. You’re so good.”
Clint let out a very good kind of sob.
“My good, beautiful boy. You fit with me and in my life like I never could have imagined. You’re a gift. My absolute perfect gift.”
“There you are, my good boy. Come for me.”
Clint shuddered and came untouched in his sleep pants. Tony felt justifiably smug about this.
“I met Hudson yesterday,” he offered absently as he pulled Clint against his chest.
Clint groaned and glared at Tony half-heartedly for making him brain—no, for making him think—but went easily enough.
“He wants to come visit. I told him to give us a few weeks for things to calm down.”
“You don’t mind him visiting?”
“No. He can’t expect you to submit to him or anything like that, but he can visit whenever. Hell, we can give him your floor, if you really want.”
“Nah,” Clint shook his head against Tony’s chest. “Hudson wouldn’t be comfortable living somewhere he doesn’t own. He can handle a couple weeks of it, but his control issues are pretty intense.”
“I noticed,” Tony agreed dryly and Clint just laughed. “I’m assuming Kara’s baby is his?”
“Oh, yeah. He couldn’t tolerate his submissive having a child he doesn’t have parental rights to.”
“He seems so laidback on the surface, but he’s really intense.”
“You have no idea, sir,” Clint shook his head again, then he looked up at Tony’s face. “Do you want me to get you off, sir?”
“Oh, you’re going to suck me off in the shower, and then you’re not going to get to come again. Not for hours.” He wanted to say ‘not until we’re back on Earth’ but he doesn’t want to make a liar out of himself later.
Clint just groaned and nodded. “I look forward to it, sir.”
“Hey, J?” Tony called out as he urged Clint out of the bed.
“Go ahead and order in. Clint’s going to be in no shape to cook breakfast for anyone this morning.”
Clint groaned again, but didn’t argue.
“Of course, Sir.”
Beaming up to an alien spaceship didn’t feel like anything. No weightlessness, no coming to pieces, no burning, no stretching, much to Tony’s disappointment. He knew intellectually that he should probably be relieved, but still!
Just, one moment he was standing in his penthouse living room. The next, he was standing on a strange, clean, alien command deck.
Instead, his view of the city, he had a one hundred eighty-degree panoramic view of space. Most of which was taken up by Jupiter. Christ, the storm was huge. He knew that, could quote the actual dimensions of it, but staring it in the face in real time made all of that extremely difficult. It was just—
“Tony,” Clint said softly but urgently, tugging his hand.
There was a spaceship that looked just like the pictures he’d seen of Thor’s ship standing like a shining silver beacon in the black. As he watched, a second ship dropped out of hyperspace and took up a position beside the first. It was markedly bigger than the first, or theoretically, than the one they were on—which he hadn’t personally seen from the outside—and much more obviously armed.
That was a warship.
There was the weird elevator-whoosh noise of beaming and two columns of light resolved into two more Asgard in their weirdly plastic thrones. One was a slightly pinker Thor, the other was whiter.
“Representatives of the Tau’ri,” Thor intoned gravely, “meet the Representatives of the High Council.”
“I am Tyr,” Pink announced.
“I am Eir,” came from White. She sounded thoroughly feminine, but physically looked no different from the other two which was interesting. “We have come to assist our allies, the Tau’ri, in missions of great importance to our continued alliance.”
“Awesome,” Tony stepped up to the proverbial plate. “I’m Tony. These are the Avengers—Clint, Steve, May, Coulson, Bruce. That’s SG-1—Colonel O’Neill, Captain Carter, Teal’c, and Dr. Jackson. Darcy, Jane, and Colonel Rhodes are all part of this endeavor for Earth as well.”
“Well met,” Tyr greeted them all. “Let us separate into teams relevant to our duties. I will be aiding in the hunt for Hydra.”
“Then you get Steve, May, Coulson, Jack, Darcy, and Rhodey.” Tony nodded to Clint, who handed off the briefcase he was holding to Jack. “I made some toys that should help. Beaming beacons and such.”
“Very well,” Tyr hit some buttons on his chair and he and his team disappeared.
“I will be working with Dr. Banner on my people’s cloning issues,” Eir said. “However, I feel it would be most effective for us to work here, in case you need assistance removing the goa’uld from its host.”
“Your assistance is most welcome, High Healer,” Thor agreed.
“Where is Fury?” Tony asked.
Thor hit a button and Fury appeared. He was suspended, asleep or maybe in a coma, between two blurred webs of light. One from above, one from below.
“How precise is your beaming tech, exactly?” Tony asked, suddenly inspired.
Thor—somehow, without any actual eyebrows—raised an eyebrow.
“So, we just need to mark the targets for you to beam up?” Rhodey asked.
“Correct.” Tyr inclined his head. “Once marked, I will beam the subjects directly into data crystals similar to the internal structures within the Stargate. Keeping them in data packets effectively puts the subject in suspended animation. They will not fight, they will not eat, they cannot escape.”
“On Earth, blink, not on Earth.”
“That is an accurate summation of events from their perspective, Agent May.”
“Can you alter the data packet?” Darcy asked. “Hydra is rather famous for having poison pills planted in their teeth to prevent capture.”
“Now, you wouldn’t be proposing we violate their body autonomy without their consent,” Jack drawled. “Would you, Lewis?”
She glared at him, “I’m trying to protect them. Make sure they make it to trial.”
“We don’t have the legal right to alter their bodies. They chose to have those implanted and it’s their right to make that decision for themselves.”
“You just want them all to commit suicide and save us from trials later.”
Jack shrugged, “Pretty much, but that doesn’t change facts. And if you think they need poison teeth to commit suicide, you obviously don’t understand how fragile the human body is.”
“We aren’t altering them,” Coulson cut off the argument. “We are beaming them up, changing locations, and beaming them down. That’s it.
“Now, how do we tag them?”
“Tony gave us toys,” Rhodes backed Coulson up with the moving them on thing. “Let’s see what we got.”
A column silently rose up from the floor and Jack set the briefcase upon it.
He opened the case and picked up a weird little tube. “Huh, looks like a laser sight.” He pointed it at Steve and a barely visible blue light appeared in the center of the Captain’s chest.
“My scanners are picking up the signal,” Tyr confirmed. He hit a few buttons and Cap disappeared from his spot only to reappear across the room.
“It works,” Jack concluded.
Rhodey pulled a little ointment jar out of foam support tray. “This is actually Carter’s,” he said. “She showed it to me the other day. A biological radio marker.
“Put some on and your body heat activates it,” he rubbed a stripe on his palm. “Shake someone’s hand, the exposure to their body heat changes the chemical signature so that it can be detected by Asgard scanners.” He shook Cap’s hand. “It should stay active on the target for 24 hours.”
Cap rolled his eyes good naturedly as, again, he was picked up and beamed across the room.
“I have seventy-six similar signatures in one location on Earth. Their location appears to be mobile.”
“That would be the Helicarrier.” Coulson concluded. “Carter and Teal’c must have marked them all while they were on duty there yesterday.”
Tyr hit several buttons, “All seventy-six signals are now in storage.”
“So now we just have to glad-hand or laser mark all the remaining Hydra we know of?” Cap asked.
“Right,” Coulson nodded. “My only concern is getting close to Secretary Pierce. The Senators and such all have offices with big windows. Getting them where no one knows about it will be relatively simple. But Peirce is much too security conscious for that.”
“And he’d recognize any of us if we got close and immediately be suspicious,” Jack frowned.
“Sounds like we need someone nobody knows,” Rhodey speculated. “Friendly enough to set Pierce at ease, smart enough not to raise any of his flags, and able to blend so he’s not suspected at all after.”
“And you can just pull someone like that out of your pocket?” Jack asked sardonically, “Just like that?”
“Yeah, actually,” Rhodes grinned, “I can.”
“Secretary Pierce, Secretary Peirce,” Sam called, racing up to catch the man in question before he could disappear into the back of a limo. “Secretary Peirce, just a moment. Please.”
“Let him through,” a gruff voice ordered, and the big bastards in front of him parted.
“Secretary Pierce, thank you,” he panted like he was breathless and put on his best company smile. “I just wanted to say, I am an Air Force veteran and I, uh, had a close encounter with your special para-rescue squad?” he offered like he wasn’t sure how to talk about his own EXO-7 FALCON squad.
“I understand,” Peirce assured him.
“I just wanted to say thank you. So many politicians don’t seem to remember, or even know, what it’s like to be on the front lines and,” he held out his hand to shake. “I can tell you with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for your efforts on our behalf.
“So, thank you.”
“That’s good to hear, son,” Pierce took his hand and shook it. “Anyone we can bring home, that’s exactly what we want to do.”
“Thank you, sir. It doesn’t make being out there any easier but it does put my mind at ease to know people like you are watching out for people like me.”
“Of course, son. Now, I really must be going. Budget talks—”
“No, no, that’s fine,” Sam let him go and stepped back. “Congress waits for no one. I just wanted a minute, to say thank you.”
Peirce nodded and climbed in the limo.
Sam Wilson watched until Peirce was out of sight, shoved his hands in his pockets, and walked away.
About two blocks later, his phone rang, “Wilson.”
“It’s Rhodes. Good job, man.”
“You gonna tell me what this shit was about?” he demanded as he slid into an alley and ducked behind a dumpster. He pulled out the little spritzer bottle and removed the whatever that Colonel Rhodes had asked him to use with prejudice.
With any luck, it would take the layer of skin Peirce touched off too. He’d never had any desire to pet a snake before, but he was pretty sure that was exactly what he’d just done.
“Yeah, you private?”
“Well, I’m alone. This line isn’t secure or anything though.”
“Not a problem, hang on just a second.”
Then a white light filled his vision and the world disappeared. When the light cleared, he was staring through a window, looking down at the Earth. “What the—”
“Welcome to SHIELD,” a monotone voice said behind him.
He spun around to see a half dozen humans and an honest to god alien clustered together. He didn’t know who he should stare at more, Captain America or the Roswell Gray.
He glared at Colonel Rhodes instead, “This is your explanation?”
“It’s worth your time, I promise.”
“Well, I got class in two hours, so get on with it.”
“Okay, so the Carters are going after the Supreme Court Justices?” Tony checked, reading over their plans for tomorrow.
“Our Great Aunt Peggy was close friends with Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” Captain Carter explained. “It wouldn’t be strange for us to take her to lunch while I’m in town.”
“Okay,” Tony agreed. “And Jack and Teal’c took Cap and Clint to get the, uh, Legislative Branch bastards in their homes tonight.”
He was not a fan of Clint being out in the field without him. He knew the guy had been going out in the field without him for his entire adult life and that he himself was not the kind to be a sniper’s spotter anyway. He just didn’t have those specific skills and he was too recognizable. That didn’t make being left behind any less grating. With a sigh, he gave in and checked the locator beacon on Clint’s collar one more time.
“Yes, sir. And your, uh, kids are keeping an eye out to see who reacts and how. We’ll poke our noses into anyone that behaves oddly.”
“That’s one way to track down the rest of the conspiracy.” Tony agreed. “Hermiod said the changes to the transporter should be done by tomorrow so we can get that thing out of Fury and hopefully get his insider intel which should help.”
“Are you going to be able to get it in one piece?” Darcy asked.
“Not without severe risk to Old Nicky Poo’s grey matter,” Tony shook his head. “We decided his health was more important. The snake will probably come out in three pieces.”
“It’s not like we have the ability to talk with unhosted goa’uld anyway,” Jackson added. “And questioning a hosted one is the most pointless thing ever done.
“Was I the only one tickled by Hermiod’s reaction to Clint doing math?”
Tony laughed. “No, it was great.”
“And then he started muttering,” Carter offered and they all laughed together. “You’d think after working with Jack for so long they’d realize humans have hidden depths, but apparently not.”
“Even the smartest sentient beings can be really dumb sometimes,” was Tony’s conclusion.
Several people in the room—other than Bruce and Foster, who were still neck deep in their respective projects—nodded. Which was hilarious since just about every single one of them counted as a genius in one way or another.
“So, tomorrow,” Tony stretched. He should go to bed but fuck sleeping without Clint—Clint, who knew and understood PTSD, and didn’t get furious when Tony woke him up screaming. Clint, who has woken up screaming once himself and let Tony help, which was new and different for Tony—at his side. “We free Little Nicky, get his insider intel on Hydra, and retrieve Loki from wherever they put him.”
“And from Loki we get insider intel on that armada that god knows who has pointed at Earth,” Darcy agreed.
Tony blinked; he hadn’t even thought about that. He’d been too focused on getting Loki back for Thor’s sake, because they’d promised.
“What else? Bruce, how’s the Asgard Body Project going? What do we know?”
“We know they have three biological sexes,” Bruce answered, scratching the back of his head without looking up, “which is fascinating. They call them Alpha, which is the first letter of their alphabet; One, the first counting number; and Ultraviolet, which is the first color they can see on the spectrum as measured by wavelength.”
“That’s cool,” Darcy observed. “So, they’re all like, equal, but still different.”
“Yes,” Bruce agreed, “The Asgard language does not use pronouns at all, but in English she, he, or they are appropriate. Tyr and Thor are he’s, Eir is a she, and Hermiod is a they. The third is actually the rarest gender, but the Asgard cannot reproduce without them. Because while the Ones carry sperm and Alphas carry children, the Ultraviolets add a third substance I’ve never seen before to mix the genetic soup to make it grow into a new Asgard, basically.”
“Plan?” Tony prompted.
“Whatever we do will have to be multiphasic. First, we stabilize the bodies they are using, or make new stable bodies to transfer them to that are still in line with their genetic heritage. This will probably take a few phases itself, actually. And testing, because we are creating new genetic templates at this point for them to clone off of.
“We also have to consider that the shock of going from sick to healthy could kill them or make them crazy. Which, obviously, we want to prevent at all costs.”
“So slow but steady,” Tony supplied and Bruce just nodded.
“From there we can improve the new template bodies as needed, which is something it sounds like they used to do a lot anyway but these will be necessary changes. Restoring their fertility, increasing physical heartiness, and the like.”
“Once they’re stable, they should probably ban unnecessary genetic changes,” Darcy frowned. “If that’s what’s almost driven them to extinction now.”
“That’s for later,” Bruce shook his head. “For now, Eir, JARVIS, and I are working on cleaning up their genetic code. There’s a lot of crap going on there that I don’t understand.”
Tony tipped his head to one side, “Like, deliberate crap? Or too much inbreeding crap?”
“Deliberate crap,” Bruce sighed. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were deliberately sabotaged.”
“Well, fuck,” Tony picked his Pad back up and started looking at the highlighted faulty sections. “This… This looks like goa’uld DNA.”
Bruce froze and finally looked up at him, blinking owlishly. “Goa’uld DNA?”
“The Asgard as people tend to clone and improve their bodies,” Jackson frowned. “You said it yourself. It’s been implied they do this for the betterment of their people. Goa’uld have genetic memories. What do you want to bet the Asgard tried to gain this ability?”
“But that could never work!” Bruce objected hotly. “Goa’uld are carbon-based life like humans and Asgard are silicon-based. The modifications necessary to make the combination of genes responsible for such a desired trait biologically compatible would either destroy the sought-out benefit or unbalance the entire system, leaving it unstable.”
“Which is pretty much exactly what’s happening,” Tony told the room, and they all shared a moment of horrified silence.
“I remember thinking genetic memories would be badass but I couldn’t imagine a humane way to make it actually work in humans much less in—” Tony waved a hand vaguely upward where at least one Asgard ship should be hovering invisible above them. “But, then, we don’t pop in and out of bodies like they do. So, I can see how they’d want to try.”
“Why would you want genetic memories?” Darcy scrunched her nose.
“Imagine how much more advanced my science would be, my tech would be, if I knew everything my father did. I wouldn’t have to learn it again; I could just build on it.”
“Imagine how stagnant your culture would be if we all lived in our parents’ and grandparents’ choices,” she countered.
“That does rather explain the goa’uld,” Dr. Jackson agreed.
“Why they use the same tactics over and over, even when they’ve clearly stopped working,” Carter seconded.
“They depend on their human slaves for art and music. I always assumed they just didn’t want to waste time that could be spent gathering power on such things but what if they actually can’t create it?” Jackson asked. “Because, to them, it’s all been done before and they can’t see how to make it new or different.”
“Clearly, genetic memories are not the best choice,” Tony cut Jackson off before he could take off with the bit in his teeth. “J, strip all the goa’uld bits out of the Asgard genetic data. Run the remaining model, see if it works.”
“Working,” JARVIS announced.
“It kind of explains the Asgard color patterns,” Darcy added absently. “If you think about it, the patterns and glossiness are kind of goa’uld-y.”
“Well, you’re not wrong,” Tony agreed wryly.
“The render is complete,” JARVIS said and projected a rotating model in the middle of the coffee table.
“They’re taller,” Bruce observed.
Tony nodded. “Thicker limbed and more proportionate.”
“Their colors are definitely more vibrant,” Darcy noted, amused. And she was right. The color variations wouldn’t be out of place in dragons; gold, silver, bronze, red, coal black, linen white, ocean blue, and on.
“Snoutier,” Tony noted, totally bipedal dragons. “Why did they lose the frill? Goa’uld have frills.”
“Three-digits on hand and foot, though,” Bruce noted distractedly, “rather than the five they have now.
“Longer and I would argue more useful than their current arrangement, though.” Jackson countered.
“So, this is your first step proposal to Eir?” Tony checked.
“I think so,” Bruce tipped his head to the side. “The spine is still long enough that the wrong materials would leave the subject with long term issues. And the hips are much too small for childbearing, which they do in a similar fashion to humans. There are other issues but I can’t,” Bruce huffed and stood. “I’m going to bed. I need to think on it before we propose it and I’m just sort of spinning on nowhere right now.”
“Good plan.” May stood as well with Coulson a beat behind her. “We have a lot to do in the morning.”
“Don’t you ruin my sub’s breakfast in the morning,” Tony pointed a warning finger at her, “You can’t even imagine the revenge I’ll get on you if you do.”
May laughed, “I’m making my mother in-law’s cinnamon rolls. No cantaloupe, no blueberries, I promise. Clint will be pleased, and I’ll probably have to make a whole pan just for Steve.”
“Everyone wants their own pan of mom’s cinnamon rolls,” Coulson smirked.
May waved him off. “And for the record, I am much more afraid of Clint’s revenge than I ever could be of yours, Stark. The one time I pissed him off?” she shuddered.
“What did he do?” he asked, both horrified and curious.
“He waited—a whole month—until the team was sent on a mission without him. Then he broke into my apartment and tie dyed every single item in my closet. Shirts, pants, socks, bags. Everything.”
“Didn’t think solid leather boots could be tie dyed,” Coulson added. “I was wrong.
“He didn’t tie dye your dad’s jacket, though.”
“No,” May huffed. “He didn’t tie dye my dead father’s irreplaceable leather jacket. He just stole it and wore it every day until I tracked him down and begged for it back. He made me tell an entire gym full of cadets that he’s the most amazing and forgiving human being alive and that there is no other sniper I would ever, ever, ever prefer to have my back in any situation ever. It was humiliating.
“And the jacket still smells like him! That was three years ago!”
Tony just laughed. “What did you do?”
“You’ll never know,” she glared and pointed at him. “I swore him to secrecy. We who know are taking it to the grave.”
“In other news, the number of mysterious disappearances swells today as the FBI confirms that Senator Maxwell Stern of Virginia has gone missing from his home just moments after dining with his wife last night in their Washington DC home.” The blonde woman’s look of concern looked more like frustrated constipation than anything else as she turned to a different camera. “According to police, the property’s security system was not disturbed and no visitors were reported by the community’s guards.
“As you may recall, CNN reported to you yesterday that Secretary of Defense Alexander Pierce had mysteriously vanished as well from his office where he was supposed to be eating a private lunch between budget talks with the Senate.
“The White House urges everyone to remain calm and allow investigators to do their jobs, but this reporter has to admit that the number of missing is alarming.” The screen morphed into a blue screen with two boxes on it. The blonde remained on the left, but now she was joined by a popular male correspondent on the right. “So far, the missing include Brigadier Generals Marianne Hale and Dallas Fischer of the United States Air Force, Colonel Samuel Johansson of the United States Marine Corps, Senator CJ Anderson of Tennessee, and Senator Julia Jackson of North Dakota. Those are, of course, in addition to Senator Stern and Secretary Pierce.
“Coop, should the American people be concerned?”
“To put it simply, yes,” the white-haired man nodded emphatically. “CJ Anderson is a ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Julia Jackson is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. To have them both missing at the same time is highly suspicious.
“Now to add to that Senator Stern is the Chairman of the Senate Arms Committee? And we have not only three high-ranking officers from two different armed services missing, but the Secretary of Defense is missing too?”
He paused and shook his head. “I’m telling you now, Chelsie, this is our democracy under attack.”
Clint snorted and clicked the television off. “They are going to lose their damn minds when they realize about ten percent of Congress is gone too.”
“And then again when another five percent start going up on charges for the crimes that SHIELD’s been covering up for years in exchange for favors.” Tony shook his head.
“And don’t forget the former-Congress people turned Lobbyists,” Clint laughed. “Any lawyer worth a damn will request closed trials, and that will drive these idiots crazy. They are going to assume they had something to do with the disappearances and tell everybody about their involvement as if it was fact.”
“I wonder if we can turn this into a conspiracy that will kill the Republican Party,” Tony mused.
“Wouldn’t take much.” Clint stepped between his legs and draped his arms over Tony’s shoulders. “Are you ready for this?”
Tony blew out a breath and snuggled into Clint’s stomach. His sub just pulled him closer, almost sliding him off the bed, so Tony stood and turned the embrace into a proper hug.
“Yeah, I am. I did the math, you did the math, PLATO did the math. Hermiod altered the device. Eir and Thor checked it all over. It’s good. We’re good. Let’s do this thing.”
They walked out of the bedroom hand in hand to find the entire crew waiting on them. Clint held out his hand to Darcy, who grabbed Steve’s hand, and then connected with Clint. Steve connected Captain Carter, who connected with Bruce, who connected with Jane until they were all holding hands in a circle with Jackson on Tony’s other side.
“I shall inform Supreme Commander Thor you are ready to depart, Sir.”
Seconds later white light filled the room, when he blinked, they were back on Thor’s ship.
“Why was that necessary?” Jack groused even as he released Jackson’s hand with obvious reluctance.
“Team solidarity,” Clint snarked.
“Yeah,” Darcy nodded. “It’s a thing,” and the two subs fist bumped. Dr. Jackson grinned at them and Tony and Steve shared amused looks behind their partners’ backs.
“If we are ready to begin?” Thor asked.
“Yup,” Tony clapped his hands and scrubbed them together. Asgard ships were a little cold. “You got Fury?”
Thor turned, doing an honest-to-god Vanna White hand gesture.
As they watched, the gently spinning Fury stilled. Then he was moved again, this time to the exact position the scans, measurements, and calculations were all done in the previous day.
“So, you guys are going to port out the snake and then release him, right?” Clint checked. “He’ll be all walking and talking and bossing again?”
Since he knew Clint knew how this was going to work, Tony just raised an eyebrow at him. “Is that a problem?”
“I don’t know, it’s kinda nice having him like this,” Clint scratched the back of his head faux sheepishly and Tony grinned. “Like a modern gothic man statue.”
“You know he can hear you, right?” Jackson asked over the laughter. “It’s only the symbiote that’s completely disabled in this state.”
“Oh, well,” Clint shrugged, trying to play it cool. “Not like he’s my boss anymore.”
Jackson just laughed at him.
“Colonel Fury is now disabled as well,” Eir corrected him and they watched as his good eye fell closed. “It is time for the procedure. Hermiod?”
“Yes, High Healer,” his hands did that creepy glide thing over the keys. It didn’t look like he was actually hitting anything, but he must have been because the systems reacted to his every movement. “First, we will capture the portion imbedded in Colonel Fury’s brain. This will kill the parasite. At least temporarily.”
Tony would almost think that was a joke but he knew that with enough time spent inside healthy biological tissue, it was entirely possible that the symbiote could find a way to evade permanent death.
Three pedestals rose from the deck. There was an electronic hum and a goa’uld head complete with frill appeared on the first pedestal.
“No visible gray matter,” Tony confirmed.
Bruce poked it with an unclicked pen and nodded his agreement.
“Motor and nervous control section,” Hermiod announced and the electronic hum sang out again.
A long, surprisingly thick and kind of lumpy section appeared on the second pedestal.
“His back issues must have been intense,” Bruce muttered, looking a little green. Not like Hulk green though, more going to hurl green.
“We’ll hook him up with a chiropractor,” Tony promised. “Once he’s clear.”
“Lung and heart control section,” Hermiod announced, ignoring the byplay.
The system hummed one last time and a long, pointy goa’uld tail showed up on the third pedestal.
“I don’t see any organ tissue,” Bruce tipped his head to one side.
“No blood,” Tony agreed. “That’s a good sign.”
“And the parasite samples appear to be in complete sections.” Bruce continued. “No missing or damaged skin outside of the intended incisions. All fins appear to be intact.”
“The patient scans free of parasitic tissue,” Eir confirmed. “None of his biological systems appear damaged outside of the one eye which appears to be a very old injury. There are signs of strain on his shoulders, neck, and spinal column. The patient will awake in pain.”
“But he’ll wake up,” Coulson double checked.
“That is correct.”
“Let’s see it,” Tony ordered.
The light shifted Nick to a seated position, and yet another column rose out of the floor. This one was bigger than the others and shaped itself to cradle him on three sides while leaving his feet on the floor.
The light faded and Nick opened his eye.
He looked pissed off, as always, but there was something different about it now. Something, maybe not kinder, but distinctly more human.
He glared at them all. “Get this motherfucking tooth out of my goddamn head!”
“Her name was Maeve,” Fury said, staring almost meditatively at the pieces of his former captor. “She was the third queen to rebel against Ra’s rule of Earth.
“First was Egeria, Mother of Traitors.”
“Traitors?” Jackson interrupted immediately to question.
“Egeria. She spawned those that would come to be known as the Tok’ra.”
Jackson just nodded.
“Then came Hathor the Fool.”
“We met her,” Colonel Jack added faux-cheerfully.
Fury quirked his lips in a not-quite smile. “She was furious to realize you found Hathor before she did and let her escape. She wanted to add her to her Hall of Fools.”
“Hall of Fools?” Jackson questioned.
“Every goa’uld or queen Maeve was able to find on Earth. She took them out of whatever was holding them, including hosts, and put them in a giant freshwater aquarium.” Fury smirked like he was remembering something funny, but the expression didn’t linger.
“She would go there to gloat. We should probably go feed them soon. Or kill them. Whatever. But it’s been a few days and I’d prefer it if we killed them on purpose rather than by accident through neglect.”
“We’ll get right on that,” Jackson agreed wryly. “Uh, who? Does she have? Or is, uh, in her collection?”
“Well, Sekhmet was first. Napoleon had a bunch of her shit, including her canopic jar. The Nazis got it from his collection, so Hydra had it. They’d managed to figure out some of it, but not all, and Maeve claimed it for herself.
“They found Marduk somewhere in Russia. Hydra recognized the sarcophagus and sent him and his little buddies to her too.
“Osiris and his queen Isis were found in canopic jars in the Congo, of all places.
“But the weird one—the really fucking weird one was Egeria. She was located at a Stonehenge-like structure way up in bumfuck Greenland. They found her canopic jar inside the altar stone when it cracked.”
“Egeria?” Carter blinked. “You have Egeria? The Tok’ra queen?”
“Well, technically Meave did, but I’m the only one that can access them,” Fury crossed his arms. “Why?
“The Tok’ra are our allies,” she answered. “My father blended with the symbiote Selmak when he was dying of cancer. She saved his life.”
“And you want to, what? Return their queen to them?”
“Can we really keep her?” Tony asked, tipping his head to one side. “She’s their queen. Their, what… Their mom? Friends don’t take friends moms from them. Pretty sure that’s a rule.”
“Goa’uld don’t have allies and they don’t make friends,” Fury frowned. “They use people for their purposes and abandon or murder them when they get bored.”
“Tok’ra aren’t goa’uld, though,” Jackson objected. “They find it highly insulting to be called goa’uld, actually.”
“They can get insulted all they want,” Fury scoffed, “but a spade’s a spade.”
“They’ve been helpful,” Colonel Jack tried. “Not much for combat but they know all the players. Intel’s usually good.”
Fury glared hotly and Darcy waved her arms.
“Guys! We have drifted wildly off subject. Fury was telling us about the queens. He was up to Meave.”
She pointed at him and he nodded.
“Maeve was the third queen to rebel against Ra on Earth. She had learned from her sisters’ mistakes, but she was betrayed. Her mate, Allili, had fallen to human vices. On the eve of the coup, deep in his cups, he bragged about the plan. To a spy.
“Maeve was captured, dragged out of her host and canned. Her mate and forces, slain. She swore she would get revenge.”
“Director—” Coulson started.
Fury cut him off with a glare. “Colonel. I was never Director of SHIELD, she was. I was barely even an Agent.”
“Colonel,” Tony tried, “when did she get you?”
“My first assignment for SHIELD was a security gig. My partner, Mulligan, was an ass. Playing with some ceramic jars we were supposed to be guarding. One of them broke and she came out. She tried him first, but he died, so she took me.
“I wish I’d died.”
His mantle looked furious and damaged enough Tony couldn’t help but think he wished he’d died during the procedure to get rid of her more than he wished he’d died when she took him. He wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. He knew his view of Fury was corrupted by Maeve, but that didn’t mean he wanted the guy to kill himself or anything.
O’Neill must have seen it too, because he frowned, “You have a duty, Colonel. To your country. To your planet. We need to know what she’s done, how she’s compromised our defenses.”
“And everything you can tell us about Hydra,” Captain We Won’t Stop Until All of Hydra Is Dead or Captured added.
Fury blew out a breath. “There’s a fortress. In Sokovia. We took it about a year ago under the guise of SHIELD peacekeepers dealing with one of the many Sokovian Rebellions, but it’s actually manned by Hydra. Everyone in it is Hydra… except the test subjects.”
“Test subjects?” Tony prodded.
“Maeve was trying to engineer the perfect host. Mutants fascinated her, she saw them as a way to increase her personal power, but she wanted the strongest mutation she could find in her new host. She also wanted a female because she couldn’t use me to…” Fury frowned, considering his words, “spawn.”
“So, she was doing human experimentation?”
“Yes and no.” Fury shook his head. “Her idea, her supplies, but she put Wolfgang von Strucker in charge of the project.”
“Jeez, even his name sounds Hydra-ish,” Tony complained.
“She didn’t tell him what she needed. She just told him they were making human weapons for Hydra. There’s been a lot of kidnapping since the research station’s been started.”
“von Strucker’s in Sokovia?” Coulson asked. He looked at Tony after Fury nodded, “He’s on our list but we haven’t been able to find him. He was a level 7 SHIELD operative.”
“He’s in Sokovia,” Fury confirmed verbally. “He’s not a Head of Hydra, but he’s been working himself in that direction. His base should give you data you can’t find anywhere else, if you can get to it before the failsafes wipe it all.”
“That where you took Loki?” Clint asked.
“They tried questioning him,” Fury said by way of agreement. “Hydra would love more of those staff weapons.
“When you pushed the issue, Stark, I managed to convince her the source of staff weapons would be more valuable than just the one you had. I figured that was less immediately dangerous than that scepter falling into Hydra’s hands. And I figured there was no way that smug bastard would answer any of their questions.” Fury shrugged at the handful of shocked looks her received. “I was right, by the way.
“When nothing came of questioning him, it was decided to make him a Winter Soldier.”
“The fuck is a Winter Soldier?” Clint demanded.
“You’re not going to like it,” Fury sighed.
“Alright,” Tony clapped his hands and scrubbed them together. “We need plans. We got two things we need to do: retrieve Loki and deal with Maeve’s pet snakes.
“First question: do we do these at the same time or separately?”
“Same time,” was Honey Bear’s immediate verdict. “We know Hydra knows about Fury’s little hideaway and he was one of the few that could link Loki and the Research Outpost. If they decide to retaliate, they could destroy the hideaway and we’d lose everything Maeve collected there. Or if they were monitoring the location and saw us go in, they would know Fury was compromised.”
“Same time,” Cap and Coulson agreed simultaneously. The others just indicated their agreement in various ways; nods, thumbs up and the like.
“Okay then. Who is going where?” Tony asked. “I feel like we should have Avengers at both locations.”
Bruce raised a hand hesitantly. “I should go to Paris. They might need me for the science and the Hulk tearing up the Sokovian countryside doesn’t exactly keep a low profile.”
“He’s right,” Honey Bear agreed. “We haven’t specifically talked about it, but the political situation is Sokovia has been volatile for years. Things are quiet right now, but we don’t want to do anything that could set off the powder keg.”
“So, we get inside fast and keep the fighting inside as much as possible,” Cap offered.
Coulson shook his head. “The Keep isn’t that far outside of Novi Grad, the capital city of Sokovia. Gunshots would be heard.”
“And none of you losers can use a bow,” Clint grinned.
“So, we use the beacon guns,” Tony shrugged. “Since Bruce has the science covered in Paris, I’ll cover the science at the Hydra Research Outpost.”
“The Iron Man suit isn’t really low profile, Tones.”
“JARVIS can paint it,” he countered. “I’m used to flying around sure, but Clint’s been teaching me self-defense against my will. I can hold my own.”
Clint nodded his agreement, “Stay in the damn suit, though.”
“Whatever you say, Honey.”
His sub made a face and flipped him the bird. Tony just grinned.
“I’m going to Sokovia,” Steve announced like someone was going to argue with him. As if anyone doubted he was going to do anything other than storm the castle. Storm the Hydra-filled castle.
Colonel Jack shrugged, “SG-1 will go with Fury and Banner to talk to the fishes.
“We’ll probably need more SGC personnel afterwards to secure the facility so we can get everything out of it, but we won’t bring them in until Carter and Fury have disabled the defenses.”
“Clear everyone you bring in with FRI and JARVIS,” Tony ordered. “We aren’t sure we have everyone and we can’t assume Hydra’s our only source for spies. Especially, not when you consider the research the SGC does and the kind of budget you guys have.”
Jack just inclined his head.
“No one is dragging Janie away from the Stargate data,” Darcy cleared her throat and leaned forward. “But I’m going with SG-1.”
When Jack started to argue, she raised an eyebrow at him. “It’s an apartment in Paris, Jack, not exactly enemy or hostile territory. I have my taser, I’ll be fine.”
“Fine,” Jack frowned. “But you will follow orders and I want it noted that I objected to this.”
She managed not to smirk or anything at his quick capitulation, which Tony considered a minor miracle when you take into account the state of their not-working relationship. Instead, she just nodded and straightened to listen more seriously to the rest of the meeting now that it applied to her directly.
“I don’t hit quite as hard but, if no one objects, I’ll fill in for Bruce in Sokovia,” Rhodey offered.
Bruce gave him a relieved smile, “I’d be glad if you did.”
When that got them only nods, Honey Bear continued, “And I feel it would be most appropriate if I ran the operation.”
Everyone turned to look at Steve who just looked back at them confused. “What? A Colonel outranks a Captain. I know I was down a long time but I didn’t sleep long enough for that to change.”
“You won’t have a problem taking my orders?” Rhodey pushed.
Steve shook his head. “Part of leading is knowing when to follow and I’ve been taking a colonel’s orders for a long time. Maybe he wasn’t Air Force but there wasn’t a separate Air Force at that point in time either.”
Rhodey just nodded once accepting, staying silent in an attempt to keep his dignity but Tony could see the heart eyes he was rocking. Being compared even obliquely to then-Colonel Phillips who went on after Cap’s crash and World War II to become one of the Air Force’s first Generals and the second Chief of Staff of the Air Force probably made Honey Bear’s life.
Fuck, he was glad JARVIS recorded everything. He was going to need a clip of this for posterity. And possibly for blackmail.
Clint elbowed him gently in the ribs and he pulled the other man more firmly against his side. “You’re going to Sokovia, right?”
“Like I’m going to let you go into battle without me,” Clint scoffed. “And you need at least one silent killer on the op.”
“May will go to Sokovia,” Coulson told them after a brief consult with his wife. “But, unless you feel strongly that you need me too, I’m going to Paris to represent SHIELD’s interests.”
When Cap and Rhodey frowned like they were going to argue, Tony cut in, “Let’s review the Station’s plans. FRI?”
“Got it, Boss.” She started projecting static floor plans—live floor plans with color coded dots indicating life signals, and some live footage from around the keep. “I infiltrated their systems when Colonel Fury positively identified the location yesterday. I can cut off all outgoing communication the moment you need me to, and I have already disabled the installation’s self-destruct.”
“That won’t give you away?” Jack asked.
FRIDAY sniffed. Honest-to-god sniffed, all indignant. “They won’t know I’m here until I want them to, Colonel.”
“They done anything while you’ve been watching?” Tony asked, grinning at his girl’s sass.
“They have some concerns about Colonel Fury’s lack of contact. Apparently, they had check-ins arranged and he’s missed one. von Strucker seems agitated by it in private, but he’s keeping a calm facade for the men.”
“Fuck,” Fury sighed and patted his pockets. “Motherfucker. I don’t have my phone. Can you send a message with a phone number you don’t have?”
“Of course, Colonel Fury.”
He immediately rattled off two phone numbers to FRI. “From the first to the second, send ‘The fish are singing and the birds are biting’ then in a second message send ‘88213’ with no dashes or spaces.”
“Done, Colonel Fury.” They waited several moments for FRI to continue, “von Strucker has received your messages and seems to be settling down.”
“Good,” Fury nodded. “Keep an eye on him though and let us know if he does anything that is in any way odd. He’s a crazy motherfucker. There’s no predicting him.”
“Will do, Colonel.”
“Alright,” Tony took control again, “Let’s plan.”
They settled into an intense dissection of the station’s defenses and the guard rotations as far as FRI’s observed them.
There were no recordings of the prisoner experimentation area, which was odd. FRI supplied them archived footage of Loki being marched inside, led by Fury and von Strucker. There was no matching footage of him being walked out again so they had to assume he was in there. But—
“Why wouldn’t they have security footage of the experimentation area?” Tony asked, deeply concerned by the entire idea. “It’s a no brainer so far as security is concerned. Or if you needed to review something that happened after the fact which, you know, is going to be necessary at some point, if the experiments are as volatile as what Fury’s saying makes them seem.”
“They probably have security footage,” Clint shrugged. “It’s just on a completely separate network. Wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen it.”
“Meaning May and I go in ahead and find the hidden security room. If they’re hiding a secondary security network, it’s probably not limited to just cameras.”
“We’re already sneaking in,” Cap objected. “Why not just go together?”
And they were arguing again.
By the time they settled that and all inherent issues, it was damn near dinner time.
That, of course, sparked another argument.
“We can’t wait for tomorrow!” Cap pretty much snarled. “There are people being experimented on by Hydra! They are suffering! We have to help them!”
“We won’t be able to help them at all if we die trying to get to them,” Rhodey countered with a patience Tony was pretty sure had been cultivated for dealing with him. Cap should be fucking thankful for that but he obviously was not. “Then Hydra would either kill them to keep anyone else from taking them or hide them so well that they never get any help at all!”
For being willing to follow orders, Cap sure was being bullheaded about the plan. Tony and Rhodey exchanged looks. This was going to be such a nightmare. Just—on so many levels.
When the shouting didn’t even make sense any more, Clint shoved two fingers in his mouth and let out an ear-piercing whistle. Several people winced. Steve actually flinched as if he’d been struck which made Tony wonder about Super Soldier senses, but now was not the time so he focused on his sub like everyone else.
“To recap,” Clint said roughly. “Because I’m fucking tired of having the same argument.
“Tomorrow, because we’re all fucking exhausted, we are loading up a Quinjet and flying to Paris. Team Fish will headquarter themselves in Tony’s condo there. Tony will have to get them past security but that shouldn’t take more than an hour.
“In Paris, Team Fish will tackle Maeve’s Trophy Case and the rest of us, Team Boom, will move on to Sokovia.
“Once in Sokovia, Team Boom will park at May’s safe house until after dark. Under the cover of darkness, May and I will sneak in and attempt to secure the hostages. When everything inevitably goes to shit, Iron Man, Cap, and War Machine will swoop in and save our assess. Beam outs only, no guns. Kill if you have to, but try to avoid killing scientists because they might be useful later. Am I forgetting anything?”
“A staggering amount of detail,” Tony snarked. He couldn’t help but grin at the glare his sub gave him. “But you are essentially correct.”
“Good,” Clint nodded and stood. “Because I want some food and you owe me some dick, sir.”
“Owe you?” Tony asked, shocked and delighted as he followed his sub toward the elevator. “How do you get that I owe you?”
Notably, no one followed them out.
“I haven’t killed anyone today and I sat through that entire fucking meeting without maiming someone. Not even a little bit—and I was tempted. Isn’t it your policy to reward good behavior?”
“It’s a good policy and you like it, so I don’t know why you’re complaining about it,” Tony sassed right back as they enter the elevator.
“I’m not complaining about the rule, sir, I’m citing it.”
“Ah, my mistake.” The elevator doors closed behind them and Tony burst out laughing, “Their faces!”
Clint grinned and pulled him closer until Tony had him crowded against the wall. “Makes me wish I was plugged so you could fuck me right here.”
“No anal at mission time,” Tony tutted. “You could get injured too easily. You know the rule.”
“I do, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want dick.” Clint pouted. He pouted! It was adorable.
“Oh, you’re getting dick. We just have to eat first.”
“As you will, sir.”
Darcy stopped outside of Fury’s townhouse in Paris with a frown. It was beautiful. Obviously old, but it looked rather like it was shoved into place between two larger, more modern buildings simply to make the most of the available space.
Compared to Tony Stark’s ‘little place’ with its five fucking floors done in a beautiful blend of classic marble, gilded moldings, and modern conveniences that screamed Pepper Potts-levels of class, this was—eh. French dishwater? Useful, interesting colors, but not what anyone would like it to be.
Three levels, tons of windows which had to be a security nightmare, and Fury just walked up to the door and turned the knob. The fuck?
“Requires fingerprint and blood sample,” he explained as he held the door open for them. “Don’t use the elevator. It works, but it’ll explode if anyone without enough naquadah in their blood tries to use it.”
And he led them right down a short hall that deserved its own spot on the eccentric-to-criminally insane scale. Black and white parquet floor with a gold and red bench to one side. The red…tapestry? With golden swords on it moved things further along the scale to serial killer rather than tasteless, and Darcy scurried after Fury rather than look at it too closely, because the swords were wavering like a heat mirage and she was really okay with not seeing whatever was actually back there.
They went up a white marble staircase with a red and gold carpet runner that was trying really hard to be classy, but missed—by a mile.
One level up he led them through a postage stamp library/sitting room that at some point belonged to Hannibal Lecter, probably. Then they travelled through the World’s Creepiest Bedroom and into the Bathroom of Maximum Strange. No toilet, but there was a sink and a shower. Only the shower was a perfect circle about six or seven feet in diameter. The shower head was hung right above the middle, directly above the drain, and the curtain was all bunched up in one section on the far side from them.
Fury kept walking until he was in the shower. Coulson followed him right in and they just waited.
“Well?” Fury asked impatiently.
“Right,” Daniel nodded and followed them up.
“Transportation Rings,” Carter sighed and went as well with Teal’c on her heels.
Darcy checked with Colonel Jack because, strangely, he seemed to be the most sensible of them all in this particular situation. Well, other than Coulson. But Coulson had been following Fury’s body around so long it was habit, and his opinion couldn’t really be counted on, in her mind. Jack just rolled his eyes and gestured for her and Bruce to proceed him.
“It’s safe,” he promised, so she stepped into the shower with five other adults.
Bruce stepped up behind her with Jack the last one on board. She watched as Fury stepped on the drain popup with his foot, locking it down.
He held it down until a set of thick stone rings probably about half the size of a stargate—and very similar looking—dropped out of the decorative tile ceiling to surround the shower. Light flashed over them, and when it cleared the rings were moving back into the ceiling, but they were somewhere very much not where they started.
“Transport rings,” Captain Carter finally explained. “Goa’uld version of the elevator, basically, but they don’t always go in straight lines.”
“Obviously,” Darcy deadpanned. She was pretty sure there weren’t dark caves of sparkling rock under modern Paris. The cave was very, uh, room shaped? With solid gold trim and crown moldings. And torches. Couldn’t forget the torches.
“This way.” Fury walked right up to a wall and, without pause, walked through said wall.
Even Coulson hesitated this time, he put his hands up in front of him as he got close. It shouldn’t have been a surprise when they sank into the wall, considering Fury had walked through it but somehow it was.
“I thought you said goa’uld weren’t original,” she frowned. “That they couldn’t come up with their own stuff.” Because this was definitely something she’d never seen before. Stark’s holograms might be close? But he’d never used them like this.
“We’re fairly certain most goa’uld tech was actually created by a race that came before called the Ancients,” Daniel explained. “They were one of the Four Great Races, the builders of the Stargates.”
“So goa’ulds are scavengers.”
“Indeed,” Teal’c agreed and stepped through the wall before the rest of them.
Daniel shrugged at her and stepped through with Bruce and Captain Carter. Coulson and Darcy went together with Jack, once again, bringing up the rear.
He was playing the rear guard, she realized. It was an uncomfortable thought but the members of SG-1 had the most experience with this type of situation so she resolved to leave it the fuck alone and let them do what they did best.
On the other side of the not-door was a hall that matched the room they had just left.
Looking back at the not-door she could see the ring room. Huh, one-way holograms? How did that work?
In the room closest to the ring room was a gigantic, beautifully carved sarcophagus. Not your traditional sarcophagus with a cross-armed dead guy on the lid but a sort of oval prism of silver and gold. It was the goa’uld healing bed she’d seen in so a number of reports from the SGC.
“We’ve yet to find an intact one,” Carter breathed. “Are you willing to discuss selling us this one?”
Fury shrugged. “I don’t want a damn thing in here. And Stark already discussed buying my entire collection. That’s my retirement fund.”
“We could probably retire you on another planet,” Jack offered.
“It’d be too great a security risk,” Fury shook his head. “Stark mentioned it, but I know everything she knew. Everything she did. It’s not an option for me.
“Think you guys could figure out if this is actually addictive, though? The reason goa’uld go crazy.”
Daniel blinked at him. “The Tok’ra are confident sarcophagus healing is the problem?”
“Maeve never used it,” Fury countered. “She couldn’t because it would have healed my eye and then she’da never gotten back into the Hall of Fools.
“I think naquadah is the problem. Maeve was old, she remembered the planet the goa’uld evolved on. They didn’t have naquadah in their blood, then. But all goa’uld are obsessed with it now. Even Maeve managed to make a ship-sized stockpile of it.” Carter squeaked at that pronouncement and Fury gave her a cool-eyed glare. “She got literally tons of it without ever leaving the planet, and it’s not a material that’s native to Earth.”
“Can you give us the gate address of the planet that goa’uld evolved from?” Daniel asked. “We could learn a lot about our enemies by studying their true origins.”
“If it’ll help you kill them all, I’ll even give it to you for free. Be aware of the Unas, though. They come from that planet too.”
“We’ve met,” Jack interjected wryly but didn’t explain.
“They are not to be fucked with,” Fury said.
“You are the master of understatement.”
“What else do you have here?” Darcy prompted, ready to move on.
“This room—” he led them on into a room full of little boxes. He opened the lid of one to show a bunch of vials filled with brightly colored liquids nestled in foam padding. “—is all of the various fluids she’s claimed from the other fish. You know how Hathor had a seductive allure?”
“Boy, do we,” Daniel looked vaguely guilty.
“Well, every one of them can exude something slightly different. Isis’s is similar to Hathor’s, though hers is about friendship, not seduction. Osiris can secrete a fluid that compels truth speaking in anyone he ever shook hands with. Marduk can send out this flesh wasting disease. Nasty shit. Sekhmet can increase strength and stamina in anyone she touches.
“Most of those have pretty obvious super soldier applications, if you can make them work. Make a human successfully reproduce the fluids or whatever.”
“And Hydra is?” Coulson questioned. “Making super soldiers?”
“Egeria’s gift is a little more interesting. She can secrete a liquid that boosts human immune systems and increases healing.”
“Like a HIV/AIDs cure?” Darcy asked.
“If Maeve had cared about humanity at all, sure,” Fury shrugged. “I was actually thinking about Teal’c.” When they all blinked at him, he sighed like they are all extreme personal trials set on this good Earth just for him to endure. “The prim’ta replaces his immune system but he no longer works for a System Lord. Are you just going to let him die when the prim’ta is mature?”
Jack rocked back on his heels, looking more than a little sick.
“Egeria will have to spawn to continue her people,” Darcy guessed. “He can carry one of those?”
Fury was not impressed. “What about the other Jaffa that follow his example and leave the System Lords? Are you going to make Egeria spawn several million prim’ta to support all of them?”
“Well, no,” Darcy bit her bottom lip. “Are we sure the sarcophagus can’t fix that for him?”
“The SGC has probably two, maybe three, years to find out. Before that prim’ta starts to slowly make him sick over the course of another two years after that. Until he either dies and it escapes him or he purposely lets it out.” He turned to lead them on. “Weapons in the next room.
“Some of it is so old and damaged it’s only good for parts, but some of it’s new. There’s even a few crates she managed to get off the NID just before the Invasion.”
“I recognize those,” Daniel said in a sarcastically cheerful way.
“The Seth op?” Jack questioned. He looked at Fury. “Found in Washington state?”
“From outside Seattle,” Fury agreed. “Found them on their way to Canada of all places.”
“We need to get a leash on those assholes.”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed. “We don’t even know where they came from.”
“They’re sort of like SHIELD Internal Affairs,” Fury informed him. “She encouraged them to—well, let’s say she encouraged them to go a little further than was actually necessary.”
Coulson sighed and shook his head. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Pretty sure you got most of them in your Hydra clean up.”
“So, Hydra knows about the Stargate?”
Fury just nodded.
“How to use it?” Jack pushed.
“No, she controlled that information religiously. She managed to keep a gate out of the hands of the Russians and she got a dialing device along with Sekhmet from Napoleon’s collection, but she didn’t have the technical knowledge to get them to work together. That’s in the next room.”
Standing at the DHD, looking at the Stargate, was actually a powerful experience for Darcy. She couldn’t see, exactly, how a species could go from thrashing around in the mud and dirt to figuring this damn thing out, but she could see how doing so would be a heady experience. How it could make someone feel powerful. How it might make someone lose their mind a little bit.
And then, throw in genetic memories of that, that first victor over circumstance. That pride could so easily become a species’ failing.
None of them really regained any decency until Egeria. And rather than stop and wonder if she was right, she was severely punished for making her own way. Damn patriarchy.
Or whatever you called it when a species didn’t strictly speaking have human-style genders.
She didn’t have time for slavers and murderers. Humans would never be safe in this galaxy as long as even a single goa’uld was a threat, but she could understand it a little. She could get a feel for how amazing that all made Egeria. For her to be sitting at the top of, probably, a literal pyramid of power as Ra’s queen and realize that no, this was wrong. And to do everything she could to stop the cycle.
“You’re empathizing again,” Jack poked her. Literally poked her. She wasn’t sure how they’d developed this grumpy sibling dynamic, especially since he was probably old enough to be her father, but she liked it.
“That’s kind of what I do, Jack,” she raised an eyebrow at him, “stand around and empathize.”
“Moral arguments are one thing. Don’t do anything stupid.”
She snorted. “You know me.”
“Not really.” She frowned at him and he shrugged. “We’re very different people. In some ways you’re more a mystery to me than Thor’s ever been.” He waved upward to indicate the one in orbit. “I trust you’ll do what you think is best, but I’m not sure you’ll think it through.”
“I’ll think it through,” she promised. “My conclusions just won’t match yours, is all.”
He just sighed and made a move along gesture. “We’re falling behind. You don’t wanna miss the tour.”
With a nod she followed the sound of voices into a room full of a bunch of large tanks. Each goa’uld was in its own free-standing tank full of greenish water and loaded with plants.
“—each tank is encased in its own forcefield,” Fury was explaining. “Goa’uld are damn tricky even when they don’t have goddamn hands.”
“We should keep the remains of the queen and at least one other for study,” Captain Carter said. “But we can zat the rest out of existence. Right, Colonel?”
“Right you are, Captain,” Jack drawled lazily.
Darcy looked to Daniel, expecting him to be the voice of reason. Surely, they couldn’t just murder these creatures.
Daniel just shrugged at her. She’d never seen his gentle face hold such a dark, furious light. “We should take photos. Or videos. Proof of death.”
“No biological tissue,” Fury reminded them. “The System Lords could just clone the motherfucker to resurrect them if we took samples.”
Daniel grimaced and dug something out of his calf pocket. A camera. “We’ll do video.”
“Where’s Egeria?” Darcy asked because she did not want to see this. She got it, kind of, but she knew she could never just let it happen and that meant she had to leave.
Fury pointed at one of the aquariums. “Kill Osiris first. If you’re keeping Isis to study her, you don’t want her to have an established mate should she escape. Finding and negotiating a new mating will slow down her plans for universe domination.”
“Oh, we’re not keeping them alive,” Jackson said with an almost feral sweetness. “We’re keeping them to dissect.”
“Start with Osiris anyway, but leave some for me.”
Fury led her out of the room and into a separate chamber. There was only one tank in this room with a freaking huge worm thing. Wrapped around a dinky little pirate ship decoration that had been thrown into her aquarium like an extra little fuck you.
“Maeve had to separate her,” Fury explained. “The others got extremely violent and would not settle if she was around.”
“So, they can communicate with each other? Somehow?”
“Yeah, it’s one of the abilities they lose when they leave this form to become a rider, though.”
“So, her host won’t have to carry all that in their body?” Darcy double-checked. “I mean that’s got to weigh fifty pounds!”
“No,” Fury sort of settled himself in to stare at her.
“But the one they pulled out of you was so large. It didn’t look that different from Osiris except for the bone crown thing it had.”
“She was preparing to leave me,” he explained.
“Leave you? But as a host, being as cold and analytical as I can, even I can see you were probably the most useful person she could have had.”
“Yeah, but she couldn’t use me to spawn prim’ta, which she needed to enslave Jaffa and to build a lasting empire,” he reminded her. “And she was going to take one of the female experiments in Sokovia, Wanda Maximoff. Her mutation is ridiculously powerful and Maeve would have gotten the bonus of the brother’s servitude without even trying.”
“That’s horrible. What would have happened to you? I mean, could you have survived that? Obviously, you could. Since you did.”
“The host usually survives the symbiote leaving, unless the symbiote is vengeful or reckless. She could have chosen to tear me up on her way out, but I have to think she’d have used me as her first test subject for Wanda’s abilities. As she would have done for anyone else that witnessed the event because she wouldn’t have wanted the truth of her existence to get out.”
He watched her speculatively for a few moments. “Of course, most hosts are rendered insane by the thousands of years of being used against their will.”
“Does it hurt? When they take control?”
“She was only ever in control so I have no idea what it would be like to be a Tok’ra.” When she didn’t say anything, he turned to look at the glass and continued. “Her emotional state ran through me all the time. When she was pissed, I would burn with it. My blood would feel molten and I’m pretty sure I would run a temperature. Generally, though, Maeve was a cool customer. Life was like swimming in ice water, watching myself do things I never would have imagined before.”
“How do they get in?”
“Goa’uld enter through the neck. The host is held face down and they burrow in with their full physical form. Leaves a scar,” he rubbed the back of his neck. “And then the body is allowed to blend physically with the host while the symbiote buries itself in the host’s mind.
“Tok’ra, theoretically, since they only take willing hosts, go in through the mouth. You see, they don’t have to worry about being reminded of the host’s look of horror at seeing them every time they look in the mirror because the host has been thoroughly educated on the matter of blending and knows what they’re getting into by that point of the process.”
“Someone’s going to swallow that?” she asked doubtfully because no fucking way.
“She’ll shed her outer form and only the core of her would enter the host. About the size of a hoagie roll,” he held up his hands to indicate the size. “And you wouldn’t swallow it, it would bury itself in the back of your throat and settle into your spine and brain.”
“What are you thinking, Sparky?” They turned to see SG-1 et al lingering in the doorway behind them.
“I didn’t think my questions were very subtle, Jack.”
“Then how about you explain your thinking?”
“We don’t have a way to communicate with her,” Darcy immediately answered. “And we can’t just throw her back to her kids to deal with.” She waved a hand.
“When I was,” she pursed her lips together—still, after all these years she was not willing, not able, to make herself say the word. “After I was assaulted, I couldn’t imagine going home and telling my mom about it. I couldn’t handle her crying and trying to empathize, but really making my pain about her. I can’t imagine that feeling is any different when you’re the mom.
“She deserves a say in what happens to her from here.”
“But isn’t Steve, uh, Captain Rogers your…” and Carter made a weird gesture at her neck.
Darcy just raised both eyebrows. She needed the other woman to articulate the really fucking stupid question right the fuck now.
Carter verbally flailed for a bit before finishing, “Your dom wouldn’t approve.”
Coulson cleared his throat. “The only one of us that could use that argument with any credibility would be Clint.” But he’s not here, went unsaid but not unheard as he focused on Darcy. “Clint would tell you that the submissive holds all the power in a d/s relationship—”
“Indeed,” Teal’c, of all people, intoned.
“—and if your dom doesn’t like you doing something that you feel is right or tries to punish you for doing something you haven’t specifically contracted against, then he’s not your dom and you should leave his ass. With prejudice.
“So, do what you feel is right,” he concluded. “And stick with it, even if other people don’t like it.”
Darcy nodded and turned back to the aquarium. Egeria had definitely noticed them. Did she look scared? Did she look curious? Darcy couldn’t tell, and she kind of hated it.
“How do I do this?”
Fury huffed at her but walked up to one of the walls and waved a hand to reveal a golden panel with gemstone buttons. He hit a few and the wall framing the aquarium wavered then disappeared. A fine gold staircase dropped down from the ceiling and settled a platform at the edge of the tank.
He turned and leaned on the wall, crossing his arms with a look of Epic Disappointment.
Darcy ignored him, moved up the ladder and knelt on the platform.
Egeria was there. She was circling curiously, or maybe nervously, less than a foot below the surface. After several moments, she poked her head above the water to get a closer look.
Darcy smiled encouragingly and nodded. “That’s good, come on.” And then she opened her mouth in invitation.
She kept her mouth open as Egeria inched closer, though she did have to swallow a few times because dry mouth. She closed it again when Egeria inched onto the platform to stare at her in the open air.
Darcy didn’t help her get settled because she knew she wouldn’t want a stranger touching her if she were in Egeria’s place. She just backed up and waited.
Egeria opened what was probably her mouth in that body and Darcy copied her.
There was a sound not unlike an airsoft gun and something meaty hit the back of Darcy’s throat. She staggered as a weight settled in her mind, kind and patient and vast.
‘Hello, Darcy,’ a soft feminine voice said in the back of her head. ‘Thank you…for my freedom.’
“You’re alright, you’re alright,” she opened her eyes to see Jack holding her while Bruce checked her pulse. She felt like she was on the floor but she couldn’t remember leaving the platform. “You’re alright.”
“Did it work?” Bruce asked.
“May I?” was asked in here head again. “Just bow your head if I may respond for us.”
Darcy bowed her head and felt her eyes pulse with heat. Then her head rose without any input from her, without her even thinking about it. Then her mouth opened and said, in a strangely low and multi-tonal voice, “I am Egeria.”
“Sir,” JARVIS’s voice sounded softly through the Quinjet.
“Yeah, J?” he asked, settling his head a little more firmly in Clint’s lap.
“Sir, the HOMER cluster has been breached.”
Tony sat up immediately. “What?”
“The HOMER cluster has been infiltrated,” JARVIS repeated. “HOMER has been disabled. FRIDAY and HELEN are responding.”
“Which location?” There were technically twelve HOMER clusters around the planet that his kids lived in. To hide the exact number of servers they were all named for the kids’ dog, as Clint called him, HOMER who guarded the server farms while they went out and played in the world.
“The Tower Cluster, Sir.”
Fuck. “Show me,” he pulled a pad from the cargo net behind Clint. “Tell FRIDAY to take point,” because this kind of cyber warfare was exactly what she was built for. “Tell HELEN to hold back, stay in reserve.”
“Someone’s hacking the kids?” Clint asked, honest concern in his voice. “I thought no one could hack the AIs.” Because they had souls and a soul couldn’t be hacked.
“Theoretically, another AI could do it,” Tony admitted grimly as his fingers flew over the Pad.
“Who else has AIs?” Steve asked, leaving his impromptu flying lesson up front to stick his nose into everything.
“No one is supposed to. I keep track of that shit, for obvious reasons. Several people are trying. Hammer Tech, AIM, Oscorp, but they’re all at least ten years away.”
“Twenty years for Hammer Tech,” Clint offered wryly and Tony flicked him a smile.
“Those are all the official people?” Cap asked.
Tony nodded absently.
“So, it’s someone unofficial.”
Tony froze and realized what Cap’s getting at, “Hydra.”
“We were due some backlash,” Clint agreed grimly.
“Yeah but they shouldn’t know it was us, though.”
“They’re evil, not stupid.” Clint snorted. “The only thing that changed, as far as they’re concerned from before their people started disappearing was the formation of the Avengers. And we’re all living in the Tower.”
“Yeah,” Rhodey agreed with a frown. “It’s a no brainer.”
“Life is easier when the bad guys are stupid,” Tony frowned.
“Word,” Rhodey agreed.
Clint laughed out loud and the two fist-bumped.
Tony ignored them. “Alright, J, tell FRI to lure him to the Jamaican Cluster, we’ll trap him there. German Cluster is back up.”
“Him?” Cap questioned.
“Yeah, him.” Tony snarled. With a few sharp movements, he pulled up a picture and flipped it around. It was grainy and filled with green strings of symbols like something out of a Matrix movie but the image was pretty fucking clear.
He flipped it around and showed Steve.
Steve flushed immediately, all over furious, and growled, “Zola.”
“Is the mission compromised?” was Clint’s immediate concern.
“PLATO, who’s taken over FRI’s duties?” Rhodey asked.
There was a pause long enough to make all of them tense. “Me and JARVIS, guv.
“It looks like they’re evacuating, guv. von Strucker’s getting in a chopper with guards as we speak. They’re pulling in their perimeter and men with loading up with guns.
“Looks like they’re going to kill the hostages, bruv.”
“May, get us there,” Rhodey ordered.
“Tony, you stay here and help the kids. If Hydra kills them, we’re all fucked. Stay in the jet unless we call for you. The rest of us are going to pair up. Clint and Cap, me and May. We’re going to go fast. Take ’em down, we’ll beam up any survivors after.
“We’ll go straight for the prisoners,” Cap offered.
“May and I will go for the scientists,” Rhodey decided. “Beam them up, get them out of the way in case we need them to answer questions later.”
“You’ll call me if you need me,” Tony demanded.
Rhodey rolled his eyes. “I already said I would, Tones.”
Tony flicked his eyes to Clint who nodded then lifted his head, putting his purple and black field collar on display with pride. It was a heady reminder of his submission. Something inside Tony unclenched and he nodded right back.
“Five minutes!” May announced.
Rhodey stepped into his suit and it started to seal around him. Cap pulled his cowl up and shouldered his shield. Clint pulled on his finger tabs and donned his bow and quiver.
“Cap and Clint, you’re up!” May didn’t even set them down properly on the upper terrace they identified for hostage access. She just dropped the ramp and got close. The two men scrambled out; Clint launched three arrows before they’re even off the jet.
May took them up again, circled, and set them down properly inside the castle’s inner courtyard. She went down the ramp and just sort of faded into the night while Rhodey clomped his way down the ramp.
“Defense mode,” he ordered JARVIS and the Iron Man suit moved to the top of the ramp, weapons primed.
“Guys,” he felt the need to remind the team, “remember your call outs so J doesn’t pump you full of holes.”
“It would be greatly appreciated,” JARVIS chimed in, sounding tense to Tony’s ears.
“We got this, J. We got this.”
“Of course, Sir.”
Walking through the halls after an Avengers fight was a bit of an eye opener for Tony. He’d been through an Avengers fight and, of course, plenty he’d fought all on his own but he’d never strolled through carnage that was not at least partially of his own making.
It made a difference; he was coming to learn.
There were a lot of guys pinned to walls with arrows through their eyeballs. Some were pinned with arrows through shoulders, though those were mostly the commanders. Scientists were pinned by hands.
Those for the most part survived, anyway, he thought with amusement as he watched May signal to beam one up.
There were shield dents everywhere. And, apparently, Cap could decapitate people with the shield. That was good to know. Gross as fuck but good to know.
There were scorch marks on the walls, some were distinctly in the size and shape of May’s tiny hands.
And holy bullet holes, Batman.
He was more than a little glad that these assholes were all on his side.
“Where did you need me?” he asked May.
“We’re missing three prisoners, including Loki.” She jerked her chin to indicate further down the hall. “At the end of the hall, there’s a room with a weird metal chair. Hawkeye thinks there’s something funky going on in there, but no one can find anything.”
“Like secret compartment weird?” Tony asked hopefully.
She shrugged but there was a bit of a smile tugging at her lips. “Ask him.”
He found the room easily enough. Clint stepped out when he heard the Iron Man armor clanking down the hallway, so that helped. Inside, Cap was tiredly guarding a second door while Rhodey and PLATO used War Machine to scan the walls for hidden doors and the like.
In the middle of the room was indeed a weird chair, just like May predicted. It was a shiny metal. Titanium, probably. Maybe Adamantium but Tony doubted it. The metal didn’t have Adamantium’s signature swirl pattern though he supposed it could be there but was just too faint to stand up to the room’s harsh lighting.
There was no padding so the thing must have been damn uncomfortable. There were upper arm clamps but just on one side which was weird and there was a headpiece hanging off the back. All in all, it looked like Trip to the Optometrist as done by Tim Burton with Steve King. Pure fucking nightmare.
Especially when Tony got a good look at the hefty electrical lines going into the thing. How could anyone survive that? Just. Jesus.
Not seeing anything that jumped out on him, he activated his Soul Vision as Clint called it.
Sure enough, there was a red ball of energy around the chair. As he stared harder it resolved itself into, well, wings. Fiery but not really, red wings.
“I’m Tony Stark,” he told the ball of light and a head with a ridiculous red and gold crest popped out of the ball. A phoenix. The woman’s spirit mantle was a fucking phoenix. Damaged as all hell, too, so this was at least one of the surviving hostages.
“We’re the Avengers. Well, half of them anyway. We’re here to rescue you.”
The phoenix opened its wings which were so large that they scraped the ceiling and then folded them back into her body.
In real life, the vision in front of him wavered and the empty chair was revealed to have three people either on or near it. A red-haired young woman, a white-haired young man and Loki. Loki, horrifyingly, was strapped into the chair with the face mask in place over his head. He was tense and pale and still, obviously in pain.
“Someone cut the power.”
“What?” Cap demanded even as an arrow flew across the room and took out a junction box.
It threw sparks and the electronic hum filling the room immediately died.
Loki sagged in the chair. The two unknowns on either side immediately set to getting him out of the chair and its restraints. Red fire matching the phoenix’s feathers danced from her fingers as she forced the restraints that they couldn’t physically work to release the Frost Giant.
“So,” Tony drawled. “Who are you?”
“I’m Wanda,” she answered, not taking her eyes off Loki. “That’s my older brother, Pietro.”
“From around these parts?”
Pietro snorted, “Not unless these parts are in Virginia, no.”
“Wait, Wanda and Pietro? Maximoff? Senator Sheppard’s kids?” Clint asked.
“We are not his children,” Pietro all but snarled.
Wanda flicked a finger of red fire at her brother and he yelped. “Yes. Our mother married the Senator when we were eight. He is a good man.”
“He is,” Clint agreed with a nod.
Tony elbowed him, lightly because suit. “You know them?”
“I know of them,” Clint corrected. “Missing senator’s children was exactly the kind of thing SHIELD would deal with because it could be anything from someone seeking leverage to an attempt to unbalance the government.
“Fury skipped my team in the rotation and threw it right to Rumlow, though.”
“Who was Hydra and therefore wouldn’t have even bothered to look,” Tony supplied.
“Right,” Clint nodded again. “You guys want to go home? Or I guess you need a place to adjust to your changes?” He glanced at Tony questioningly.
Tony sighed in that melodramatic way that always made Clint grin. “Yeah, we got room in the Tower. And I’ll get working on a formal training facility,” he eyed Wanda, “outside of the city. I get the feeling we’re gonna need it.”
“Not without Loki,” Wanda was adamant. “He taught me how to get past the control collar. We’d be dead with the rest of them if he hadn’t.”
“He’s kind of the one we came for,” Clint admitted.
The kids tensed up and Tony waved them off, “Not like that. We didn’t realize how fucked up everything was when we let them take him for questioning. We took care of Fury, we are taking care of Hydra, and now we need to take care of Loki.
“Though I hope sleep and food will take care of this, because I don’t think anyone knows Frost Giant physiology well enough to help him otherwise.”
The kids relaxed.
“Can you get him out of the chair?” Pietro asked. “He weighs too much for me to pick him up alone.”
“I gotcha, kid,” Cap said, coming up behind Wanda. Together, he and Pietro did indeed get Loki back on his feet and sort of ambling towards the jet.
He was really out of it. Worse, he was silent. It was very uncomfortable for Tony but it had to be worse for Loki so he let it go and made sure the guy got a shock blanket when they settled him down in the jet.
The trip back toward the Tower was relatively painless and easy.
May called for SHIELD to clean up and take control of the castle with actual peacekeepers this time and they were in the air.
An hour later and they were in Paris. Only Bruce and Darcy joined them. SG-1, Coulson, and Fury remained behind to focus on their newly expanded collection of goa’uld loot, which kept the crowding in the jet to a minimum.
Cap did not take the news that Darcy accepted Egeria as a passenger with any sort of grace.
Tony could feel for the guy, he really could, but he hadn’t contracted with her in any way so Tony’s sympathy was at a minimum.
He knew the guy understood the importance of the sub contract. It was all up in the BDSM educational materials he’d had JARVIS ninja onto the guy’s Pad and JARVIS had confirmed that Cap had read them. So, really, the only person at fault in this situation was Cap. While his feelings were understandable, he didn’t actually have the right to them.
Well, he didn’t have the right to express those feelings.
Clint left the cockpit section to kneel at Tony’s feet. He looked, well, Tony didn’t know how to qualify that look.
“Everything okay?” he asked as he ran a comforting hand through his sub’s hair.
“Yeah, just thinking.”
“You don’t seem to like whatever you’re thinking about.”
Clint just made a face.
“Is this about Darcy and Egeria?” Tony felt the need to ask.
Clint shook his head against Tony’s thigh. “I can see the appeal of it. Life for humans is pretty lonely, you know? And now she never has to be alone ever again—but I couldn’t make that choice.”
“So, you wouldn’t accept a symbiote?”
“Maybe before,” Clint’s eyes flicked to where Loki was a drooling, staring, pain potato. “Before New Mexico, I probably would have jumped at the chance. Now, it’s repulsive.
“Maybe if a symbiote with vital intel needed an emergency host or it and, like, the entire Earth would be lost as a result? I could probably handle that but it’d have to be pretty extreme circumstances and they’d better be prepared to get the fuck out of me, ASAP.”
“Well, we have a symbiote removal device now,” Tony tried to comfort him. “So, in that very remote possibility that you get blended, we can take care of it.”
He counted Mission: Comfort as a success because Clint just smiled up at him gently.
“So, what are you thinking about, really?”
“How are the kids?”
He was pretty sure that was a deflection and not what was actually bothering him but Tony went with it. “Good. FRI’s damaged and probably traumatized, but she was the most equipped to basically kill another AI and she did it.
“She also stole everything off his home server and shared it with the other kids. It’s…” Tony scrubbed a hand over his face, “not nice.
“J’s in charge of sorting through it, but I’m going to ask Mr. and Mrs. Agent to sort through it. Since not-Zola was a Hydra Head, apparently.”
“Was he actually alive? Like the kids?”
“Not really?” Tony hesitated. “It thought it was. It was Zola’s attempt to deny death and overcome like six kinds of stage four cancer so he programmed enough of his personality into it that it would never believe he failed but it was missing the parts that make the kids truly alive.”
“Like empathy,” Clint agreed. “Pretty sure they’re mourning HOMER, too.”
“I’ll bring him back if I can,” Tony promised.
Clint shook his head, “I mean, if you want to? But make him stronger. More like a Cerberus, less like a German Shepherd.”
“Will do,” Tony gave him a sloppy salute and he laughed. “Now, what’s really bothering you?”
“Just thinking about how to keep Loki safe. Making plans,” Clint answered with reluctance. “You won’t like it.”
“Do I have the right to not like it?” Because he wasn’t going to be like Cap. He was not.
“No,” Clint admitted. “Well, unless you have a problem with Loki living with us in the Tower and possibly becoming an Avenger?”
“You have a plan that will let us slip all that past the media?” Tony asked in surprise.
Clint just grinned.
“I can’t wait to hear it.”
Clint put his head down once more on Tony’s thigh and closed his eyes. Clearly it was his turn for a nap. Not that Tony could blame him because fighting. He had done it, Tony hadn’t.
When they landed at the Tower, Bruce, Darcy, and Wanda all accompanied them down to the Infirmary with Loki while the members of the party with ridiculous daily caloric requirements broke off for Snack Time.
“His treatment is complicated by the glamour he’s wearing,” Bruce explained after what appeared to be the most frustrating and fruitless physical examination ever. “I can’t be sure where to stick him for an IV to give him fluids. I put a morphine film under his tongue to take the edge off the pain. It doesn’t appear to have poisoned him but I’m not sure it helped, either. I can’t even really get a solid reading on his vitals because of the glamour.”
“Can we see if he can drop the glamour?” Tony asked. “Or is there a way to break it?”
“That would not be advisable, Lord Stark,” Egeria warned.
He didn’t know why she insisted on such old-fashioned forms of address, but it was hilarious. Clint obviously loved it and Tony was contemplating getting them a pair of huskies. Mostly for aesthetic reasons but also because Clint loved dogs and there were bound to be huskies in need of rescue just because Game of Thrones had happened.
Cap’s face every time she said it was a fantastic bonus, too.
“And why is that, milady?”
“Even in my time, there were tales of the great and terrible Asgardians and their Frost Giant foes. A Frost Giant’s true form was said to kill a human on contact. The merest brush of a hand would freeze one solid.” She frowned, looking over the patient. “If we had a hand device, I could heal him. It won’t care about a glamour. If I tell the hand device to make him better, it will coax his tissues, whatever they are, into a more natural and healthy state for his actual physical body.”
“We can get one from the SGC,” Tony nodded. “J, put in a request and make it clear I expect at most overnight shipping.”
“Of course, Sir.”
“What about that Tretonin stuff?” Bruce asked.
“Maeve was harvesting her captives for specialized fluids with different properties,” he explained to the part of the class that was not in Paris. “Egeria’s strengthens immune systems and improves healing. They call it Tretonin.”
“I’m not sure how that would affect him,” Egeria admitted, “or if that could even work.”
Then she bowed her head.
When she looked up, it was clearly Darcy looking out at them. Tony could see the goa’uld choker she’d been wearing for about an hour now, just hanging like a lazy scarf across the shoulders of Darcy’s yappy and stubborn little terrier soul mantle.
“We’d also have to give him some of our body fluids which could be awkward since he’s not exactly awake,” she said in a tone that could almost pass for cheer. Or sadism. It was multifaceted. “The Sleeping Beauty method comes to mind, but consent is still a thing.”
“A very valid thing,” Tony agreed.
“Consent is sexy,” was Bruce’s verdict and everyone in the room snickered.
“Sir,” JARVIS chimed in, “I am receiving odd readings from the room you are currently in.”
Everyone immediately started to look around. Nothing looked weird, but then Wanda flicked a bit of red at one corner. The red hit a transparent shield that shimmered gold on contact then faded harmlessly.
A beautiful blonde woman in layers of silk and armor stepped out of the shadows to reveal herself. “I am Queen Frigga, mother of Loki and Thor.”
“Your highness,” Tony gave her a mostly respectful nod. “Think you can help us out?”
She smiled gently, “That is why I have come.”
She approached her son and studied him silently for several moments. After approximately a year, she lifted her hands and started making weird gestures. They weren’t all that different from Wanda’s little hand seizures really, and gold light started to stream from her to her son.
Loki inhaled sharply and started blinking his eyes. It took a few moments, but his eyes soon focused for the first time since they found him. He took them all in before focusing on his mother with an almost absent smile.
“Mother,” he held out a hand to her once she stopped the light show. “What are you doing here? I didn’t think the Allfather let you leave Asgard.”
“The King is dead, long live the King,” she answered simply.
“What?” Loki demanded.
“I’m afraid that your father underestimated your brother’s attachment to you and these companions. He forced Thor back to Asgard and demanded his focus on matters of the Realm like a good son and heir should. When your brother refused to give up on you, he destroyed Mjolnir in punishment.”
Loki frowned and tried to sit up but Clint pushed him back down and adjusted the bed to put him in a seated position he didn’t have to work for. Loki nodded his thanks. “Brother would not take that well.”
“Indeed, repairs to the castle will be quite arduous.” A probably-inappropriate smile flickered across Queen Frigga’s lips. “But, on the bright side, all have learned to fear the thunder, and no one dared argue with your brother when he declared you his heir or called for your daughter to be returned to Court.”
“Hel?” Loki asked, obviously shocked. “He called for Hel?”
“She is Thor’s second heir and rightful Princess of Asgard,” Frigg shrugged. “His one true heir should anything happen to you.”
“They will hate that.”
“They will abide by that,” she countered shrewdly. “It’s not as if any of them have the power to fight her off.”
“What’s wrong with Hel?” Tony couldn’t help but ask.
“She’s a reminder,” Frigg answered. She flicked her fingers a bit and a projection formed from Loki’s temple of a lovely black-haired, green-eyed woman with dramatic mascara. Half of her face just happened to be icy blue with extensive scarification and a single red eye. “A reminder that no living Asgardian is less than half Frost Giant. The Aesir bred with them years ago to save their race but use glamours to hide the truth, even from themselves.”
“My daughter is obviously part Frost Giant,” Loki explained. “No glamour can hide it for more than an hour at a time, so she refuses to hide it at all. In punishment, the Allfather murdered her father and banished my daughter to one of the Dead Realms when she proved too powerful for him to kill.”
“There were once Nine Living Realms,” Frigg explained. “Each born of an Infinity Stone, a fruit of the Worlds Tree. Three have been destroyed, taking their Realms with them.”
“Realm?” Tony asks. “Is that more different planet or more alternate reality?”
“Both and neither,” she said, incredibly frustratingly. “There is no proper word for it in your language. Realm will have to do.”
“What’s an Infinity Stone?” Bruce asked.
“Like this,” her fingers alight on the glowing gold stone at her throat. “The Mind Stone of Alfheim. It was the power source of the scepter my son was carrying.”
“So, they’re a power source?”
“They are many things.” She focused on her son. “I saw the Mad Titan in your mind. He is trying to collect the Stones once more?”
“Yes, mother.” Loki laid back more firmly on the pillows, looking exhausted. “His army is vast, perhaps a million strong…but if he were to collect the Stones?” Loki just shook his head.
“Why is that bad?” Tony asked. “I think it’s time to tell the rest of the class.”
“Each Stone is the key to a known element and a Living Realm. Were he to collect them all, he would control all elements required for life as we know it. He would rule all the Realms and none could stop him.”
Loki shook his head. “That is not his goal. He has the Infinity Gauntlet.”
“His plans haven’t changed, then,” Frigg concluded. “He still wishes to kill half of all life.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. What?” Tony demanded even as Loki nodded to his mother.
She hesitated but answered, “With the Gauntlet and all six Stones, he could wipe out half the galaxy with naught but a snap of his fingers.”
“What could that possibly accomplish?”
“He’s courting Death. If he kills all of life, She, too, is lost and his goal is lost. But half? That would definitely get her attention.”
“That’s fucked up.”
Frigg shrugged, “We all do crazy things for love.”
“Not that crazy,” Clint retorted. “So, what, we destroy one of these Stones? Then he can’t have them all and do the thing?”
“No,” Frigg shook her head. “Destroying a Stone would destroy a Realm and its inherent element.” When none of them said anything, she continued. “What is a mortal life without time? If we destroy the Time Stone, there goes both Time and Earth. Without the Mind Stone of Alfheim, what are we? Without the Soul Stone of Asgard? We’d be nothing but automatons.”
Tony frowned. “So, the Stones are Time of Midgard, Mind of Alfheim, Soul of Asgard, and…?”
“Power of Nidavellir, Space of Jotunheim, and Reality of Svartalfheim.
“The Soul Stone is well guarded, perhaps not in the Crown City but within Asgard. As is the Time Stone on Earth. The Power Stone is inside the Tesseract—”
“Which is hidden,” Tony interjected. Not hidden well since it was sitting in a safe disguised as one of his kitchen cabinets but, still. Hidden.
“Odin’s father, King Bors, hid the Reality Stone from the Dark Elves millennia ago and no one knows where. We cannot afford to return that to the Dark Elves because they would side with the Dark Titan, like they did the first time.
“No one knows the location of the Power Stone, exactly, but Thor can set the Warriors Three on the trail. They may be idiots but they have a fool’s own luck.” Loki started choking on a laugh at his mother’s pronouncement. “They’ll see it done. For King and Asgard.
“I have the Mind Stone, which I was going to return to my brother in Alfheim, but now I’m not so sure.”
“So, you’re an elf?” Clint asked. “Legend says you’re a Vanir.”
“I am a Vanir,” she explained. “But Vanaheim is one of the Dead Realms. Myself, my brother, and Hogun the Grim are all that remain of our once great race.”
“Because your Stone was destroyed?” Tony asked.
“In the Mad Titan’s first Infinity War.”
“So that’s how you figured out what destroying a Stone would do?” She inclined her head in answer. “What was Vanaheim’s element?”
“I know not. Now that it is gone, all knowledge of it is lost.”
“Well, that’s not terrifying.” Tony settled his mind and refocused on the important bits. “So, this Mad Titan is the guy that was really behind the Invasion?”
“Yes,” Loki agreed.
“And he’s coming here?”
“He has to. Midgard holds three Infinity Stones.”
“Two,” Tony corrected and pointed at Frigga. “You’re not leaving that thing here.”
She just smirked at him.
“Where is he now?”
“One of the Dead Realms,” Loki answered. “I know not which.”
Not really helpful. “How long will it take for him to get here?”
“The closest Dead Realm to Midgard is Vanaheim,” Frigg answered. “If he knew the hidden paths, he would be here already. Without those, I would estimate five of your years.”
“Five years,” Tony scratched his chin, “to counter a million-man army.”
“It is possible,” she offered. “If we return the Stones to their home Realms, those Realms would prosper enough to raise armies to help defend Midgard.”
“What do you mean?”
“Without the Space Stone, and after being without it for thousands of years, Jotunheim is on the brink of extinction. Time between realms is flexible. Five of your years would be thirty on Jotunheim. Plenty long enough for them to build a fearsome army of Jotun.”
“But then we’d have to deal with an army of Frost Giants after we’ve beaten this Mad Titan back.”
“If you negotiate on good faith, and without the involvement of the Asgard, Midgard can no doubt make allies of the Jotun,” she shrugged. “They need the Stone and you can give it to them. You need assistance and they can give it to you. I fail to see a problem.”
Tony frowned. “Let me think about it.” Because he wasn’t sure making allies without including his biggest ally, King Thor, was a wise idea. In fact, they should probably formalize their alliance with Asgard first and approach Jotunheim together. Especially if the Asgard were no longer lying to themselves about who and what they are, that could open the door for peace between the two peoples.
Also, pretty sure lying to one ally about the existence of the other was not a good way to start an open and honest partnership.
She simply inclined her head in acceptance.
“You sticking around long?” Tony asked. “I can have quarters prepared for both of you.”
“I would be glad to stay. The King bid me seek out and communicate with his brother. His message was extensive and will take much time to relay.”
“Is Loki going to be staying here, though?” Clint asked. “Or has he been ordered back to Asgard?”
Frigga flicked her eyes to her son and only answered them after his nod. “King Thor has left that decision to his heir. He may either choose to remain on Midgard as an Avenger or return to Asgard where he will receive all proper and necessary care.”
Clint raised an eyebrow at Loki who stubbornly refused to meet his gaze.
“Well, if you decide to remain,” Clint offered casually, “I have an idea for a disguise that would let you stay here and basically play the greatest prank ever on the entire Earth.”
Loki looked up at that. “You have my attention.”
“You don’t mind being a woman, right? I mean myth says you bore a horse as a mare, and you just implied you carried a daughter for your baby daddy or husband or whatever.”
“Gender is irrelevant,” Loki scoffed.
“Alright, J, load up the Laura Barton Files.”
“Loading,” JARVIS confirmed and the air above Loki’s bed is filled with images and video of a quite frankly gorgeous woman of Middle Eastern descent. She was graceful and powerful and, it deserved to be said again, drop dead gorgeous.
“That’s my sister in-law,” Clint explained. “How my brother landed her, I still have no idea, but he did and then he transplanted to England to be with her.”
“Who can blame him?” Tony muttered, earning him a bit of elbow in the ribs.
“Her government voluntold them to submit to Super Soldier experiments. It worked, physically, but mentally?” he shook his head. “Can you change your glamour to be her? As my brother’s widow, it would give you an excuse to be here in the Tower with me. And the experimentation she officially survived could be used to explain away your abilities. And she preferred to fight with daggers, which Thor said were your preferred weapons too.”
“And you wouldn’t mind this?” Loki questioned. “Me effectively becoming your sister in-law? After everything I did to you—”
“I hate it less than the idea of you being punished for something you didn’t exactly choose to do,” Clint shrugged. “And I definitely don’t want you killed before I’ve gotten to punch you in the face a couple times.”
“Very well then,” Loki chuckled. Whether it was because he thought Clint wouldn’t punch him or because he wasn’t afraid of a punch from a mere mortal, Tony couldn’t tell, but he was more than willing to build Clint an Iron Man gauntlet strictly for Loki punching.
“And she won’t need the name?” Tony checked. “Because that last thing we need is for her to show up looking for revenge. No chance she’ll show up to reclaim it or whatever?”
“None,” Clint said with a dead-eyed certainty that filled Tony with dread on his behalf. “I guarantee it.”
“Just so everyone knows,” Tony announced as they passed around the dim sum, “Loki will be altering his glamour tomorrow and taking on the name Laura Barton, Clint’s sister in-law—so get used to calling him that. Also, she/her are going to be her pronouns going forward.”
“That’s how he’s not getting prosecuted for the Invasion?” Darcy asked.
Tony shrugged. “We’ve established he was tortured and mind-controlled by this Dark Titan character.”
“And we’ve gotten all the intel we can out of him about that asshole’s army and plan,” Clint added.
“And he’s going to stick around and help us get ready for the showdown,” Tony finished. “I don’t see what else there is to do with him other than maybe a few sessions with a psychiatrist.”
Darcy thought about it and nodded. “Not quite the legal procedure, but I feel that.” She looked at Loki, “Welcome to the Madhouse.”
He gave her a small smile and picked up another dumpling without a word.
“What about the other?” Pietro asked.
Cap frowned, “What other?”
“There was one. He was working for them, Hydra. But, I don’t think it was by choice?”
“They used the chair on him a lot,” his sister agreed. “Probably once a week. And there were words they used to make him obey if they thought he would balk at an order.”
Pietro focused on his plate and wouldn’t look at any of them. “Like when they made him hold us down so they could do things to us.”
“They called him Soldat. Or the Asset.”
“Soldat?” Clint asked. “Like, the Russian word for Soldier? I thought the Winter Soldier program didn’t really work? Aren’t they all supposed to be in cold storage because they went crazy or something?”
“That is correct, Agent Barton.” JARVIS chimed in. “Though there appears to have been a single success. The records obtained from Dr. Zola’s facsimile indicate the successful subject has been cryogenically frozen for the last decade.”
“Do you have a picture of him?” Wanda asked, looking up at the ceiling. “The success? Maybe Zola’s records are wrong.”
“One moment,” and JARVIS projected a series of images in the air above the table.
He started with a black and white still of a guy in a mask and with metal arm crouching in front of a water tower. Then he popped over a video of the same dude doing a full-blown murder strut as he popped a clip into a gun. At the same time, next to the first video, a second video played of the guy fighting like nothing Tony had ever seen. That level of full body commitment would’ve been enough to get anyone short of Cap killed, so the guy was no doubt a super soldier—or at least something like it.
Then there was an image of two pictures. The larger one was a still of a cryotube with the metal hand pressed against the face-level glass. Paperclipped to the front of that was the image of a man in a positively ancient US Army uniform that made Tony drop his dumpling.
Cap made a choked noise and spit out his eggroll. “Bucky?”
An Instant Message window popped up before she could turn off her computer. Without her clicking it, the attached file opened and began to play.
“Personnel of Stargate Command, Area 51, and any other members of Project Nautilus,” the Speaker began gravely. “My name is Tony Stark. Most of you have probably seen me around the SGC this last week. Well, everyone at the SGC saw me, actually. I made a point of meeting every single one of you.” He waved a hand dismissively.
He was clearly still inside the SGC. The wall behind him was the kind of blank gray stone that spoke to the labs on the level that she’d worked on for years now, and the tech she could see peeking into the edges of frame were nowhere near as advanced as Tony Stark would choose to keep in his own private workspace.
“As most of you know, one of the many Stark Industries think tanks, Rogers Research and Security, has taken control of your Project. It was sold to us last year by Congress. That means you all work for me.
“Add to that, the events of this past May the Fourth, and I’m taking Project Nautilus as my personal project so you’re going to be working closely with me.
“If that bothers you, I understand. If it bothers you enough that you want to leave the Project, we’ll let you go. Give notice, burn out your terminal leave, and we’ll even give you a reference. Just do us all a favor and remember that the NDAs you signed when you joined the Project are still binding and will be for the rest of your life. No one dead or alive wants to end up in a hole courtesy of the United States government.” He shuddered melodramatically. “Just, no.”
“For those of you sticking around, we have some serious work to do.” The screen panned out to show Tony sitting alone on a stool. “There’s going to be changes and streamlining of things, like chain of command and requisitions, department adjustments. The kinds of things that would happen during any change of management.
“But,” Tony grinned, “most of you are getting raises, too. Many of you have worked on the project for almost three years now without even a single increase or any sort of bonus outside of the occasional combat pay, and you guys have earned that shit. The RRS, Stark Industries and, you know, the world, thank you for your loyalty and dedication to saving all our asses even when we didn’t know it, but not getting raises is bullshit and I’m not going to let that stand.
“Also. Less than 1% of you have taken vacation in that same three-year period of time. That is also bullshit. You do important work, but it’s also important that you don’t burn out.
“You also aren’t getting proper psychiatric support. Can you guess my opinion on that?” He raised both eyebrows demandingly.
“It’s bullshit,” she muttered.
“It’s bullshit!” he echoed, waving a frustrated hand. “You can’t save the world if you’re collapsing under the weight of your own depression. After we’ve met, talk to your managers, sign up for the paid time off I’m giving you on top of your normal leave, and get out of here.” Tony pointed at the screen. “I mean it. Sign up or you will be assigned a slot and not allowed on site for the duration.”
Tony clapped his hands and scrubbed them together. “That was the fun stuff. Now, the stressful stuff. I said we have work to do. Project Nautilus has always been dedicated to defending the Earth against possible extraterrestrial threats.
“I hate to break this to you, but these are no longer possible extraterrestrial threats. And I’m not talking about the goa’uld or whatever will take their place after we kick all of their asses.
“During the Battle of Midtown—you’ve seen the footage—I went through the enemy portal. This is what I saw on the other side.” He let the clip from the Iron Man helmet fill the screen. It was just a few seconds of footage so he didn’t talk over it.
“See this right here?” JARVIS replayed the clip and put a yellow circle over the most visible wigglers on the screen. “Those are the Leviathans. You know, the big bastards that wrecked large swathes of Manhattan just by existing.
“And my systems are able to verify the presence of hundreds of them just in that one clip.”
JARVIS brought the camera back to Tony. He looked not quite worried, but concerned and more serious than he had been so far. “We have been able to reliably verify that this force is still coming to Earth. It’s being led by a creature known only as ‘The Dark Titan’ and he is bent on wiping all of us out.
“Our sources have told us his press kit promises to kill only half of his target planet’s population, but the reality of the situation is that he will collect less than three specimens from a planet and brutally murder the rest.”
“Obviously, this is unacceptable,” Tony shook his head, “and genocide anyway you cut it.
“So, we’re going to stop it. We’ve got five years, best estimate.” He held up fingers to count off his points. “We’re going to build early warning systems, so even if we’re wrong about our timeframe, he won’t catch up by surprise.”
Two, “We’re going to map our star system within an inch of her life, so we know the lay of the land.”
Three, “We’re going to learn all of her tricks so we can use them to our advantage when the time comes.”
Four, “We’re going to talk to our allies, make friends that will help us beat this.
“We’re going to keep exploring, find proven tools and weapons to use to our advantage.” At five he started over with a single finger. “We also need more materials to build our defenses so our exploration teams need to keep their eyes open for that, too.”
Seven, “We’re going to build our own weapons and ships, to keep this fight off the planet as much as possible.
“We need more personnel to get all this done, obviously. That’s my immediate project. If you know anyone that you feel would be a good fit for the Project and can be counted on to be discrete, feel free to pass the recommendation up to your manager.
“We can do this, guys,” he said bracingly. “Take your vacations, come back energized, and ready to hit the ground running. It’s time to save the world.”
Tony suddenly grinned, “The Iron Man Helmet clip will be available for onsite analysis, but this recording will self-destruct in three seconds.”
The screen went black and the IM window the video appeared from disappeared completely. Sam rolled her eyes and stood to leave. She had plane tickets and a beach house in Hawaii that was calling her name.
“Have a good one, JARVIS,” she offered after a moment of indecision.
“You as well, Major Carter,” he replied just as softly. “Congratulations again on your promotion, and have a safe flight.”
She smiled at the closest security camera, knowing he’d see. “Thanks, buddy.”