Author's Note: This fic was a summer project I embarked upon in 2014 after seeing Winter Soldier. I nearly made it to the end and then developed an odd anxiety about working on it and had to put it down for four years. With Infinity Wars out, I am tackling it again, starting with editing and reposting the old chapters, some with new and extended scenes. (And hopefully less typos? I tried.) And a final ending this time around! Sorry to those who watched from the beginning and waited so long. I hope you have fun reading it through again for old time's sake and enjoy the new content.
This takes place after Winter Soldier, but SHIELD did not completely disband. They are still around and rebuilding the organization from the ground up in attempts to make sure any Hydra sleeper agents and bugs are completely wiped.
By: Ty-Chou aka Ghost of the Dawn
Chapter One: Bean Sludge
"Nick? You don't mind if I call you Nick, do you?"
Director Fury looked up from the screen where he was trying to concentrate. Next to him stood a certain genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, quite too close for comfort.
"Director Fury, if you please, Mr. Stark," he replied with no small amount of annoyance in his voice.
"Nick, listen, I've got some very bad news for you."
All of Fury's annoyance was instantly forgotten. Tony Stark may not have been anywhere near his favorite person, but he, unfortunately needed the man. With the failure of Project Insight and all the security leaks, SHILD was on tight shutdown. New protocols were in place to ferret out any enemy agents that still might be hiding among their ranks. As much as they tried to purge their workforce,
there was no guarantee Hydra's eyes and ears weren't still hiding in the shadows. Fury had nowhere else to turn but sources outside of SHIELD to rebuild his computer programs and security systems from scratch.
That's where Tony Stark came in. SHIELD offered him a fat contract and several donations to other charities to personally see to a full system restoration and security upgrade. And since he had been commissioned for such a serious task, Fury was all ears when Tony came to him with this news.
"This coffee? It's horrible," Tony said seriously a faded mug in his hand.
"There's a Starbucks down the road," Fury snapped back. "Now, what's the bad news?"
"That is the bad news," Tony insisted. "This coffee: awful. No, you know what? It's worse than awful. It is vile swill unworthy of human consumption. It is the rankest bean sludge I have ever put in my mouth. It-" He paused when he noticed Fury's extremely annoyed expression. "You really should be more concerned about this. This is clearly a sign that there is still something very wrong in your organization."
Fury tipped his head, jaw set to hold in his temper. Had he known he would have to look at Tony Stark's infuriating face so often, he would have hired someone else. "You have five seconds to explain that to me before I kick your ass out of my control room."
"You see, Nick-" Fury rolled his good eye. "-I have been here for the past five days, right? And so far, every single day there has been morning coffee for me and it has tasted fantastic. Quite possibly some of the best I've ever had. But today, today was a nightmare for my taste buds, as I so stated before. So you see my concern." He held up his mug, as if expecting the direction to taste it for himself.
Fury only continued to glare, obviously not getting whatever point Stark was trying to make.
"Inconsistency!" Tony barked. "There's a hiccup in the system! You know, if you kept your eyes- well, eye- on the small things like this, then maybe so much wouldn't have gone on right under your nose."
Fury's eye widened with rage, but it took a moment before the words finally made it out. "Get the hell out of here!"
Tony Stark's body was next seen stumbling out of the main control room as Fury shoved him into the hall. His mug sloshed the offending coffee onto his shirt and the floor.
"Fine," Stark said, "but the next time an evil terrorist organization infiltrates all aspects of your little club, don't come crying to me to fix the mess."
"Go!" Fury ordered with venom,and Tony scooted quickly down the hall.
It was then Fury noticed there were two other agents standing at the door. Neither looked happy to be there.
"What?" he demanded.
Natasha Romanoff leaned against the wall, looking extremely fatigued and grouchy. She held a steaming white mug in her hand.
"This coffee tastes like ass," she said in a scratchy voice.
"And you?" Fury demanded of the tall, blond man standing next to her. "Are you here to complain about the coffee, too?"
Captain Steve Rogers had a small, perplexed frown on his face, but no coffee mug in hand. He stood with uncertainty, arms folded, as if he weren't comfortable in his own body.
"I'm... just having a very off day," he finally said.
Fury sighed loudly and turned his back on them. "I don't have time for this shit. I have work to do." He closed the door in their faces.
Tony lounged in the large meeting room he commandeered as his office during his occupancy of SHIELD headquarters. Feet propped on the massive table, several other empty chairs around, he frowned at the different holo-screens floating around him as they relayed the status of his various projects. It was still bothering him. He frowned at his favorite mug, now empty and forlorn, leaving a ring on the table's surface.
Pepper would always get that exasperated look and shake her head when his mind clamped down on the smallest of problems. She was always a big picture person while he liked to micromanage. The tiniest of mysteries always tripped him up. He loved a good puzzle. He also loved to procrastinate. Either way, it was something to do.
With a wave of his hand, Tony brought up a new screen.
"JARVIS, get me camera footage from the main break room."
"Any particular time, Sir? Or do you just want to admire the decorating?" said a mechanical, long-suffering voice.
Tony rubbed the stubble on his chin as he thought how to narrow his search. "From this week only. Let's start our first day, Monday morning. Start time... let's do this, find when I first entered the break room."
"Excellent idea, Sir. One can never have too much video of one's self."
Tony made a sarcastic face to the open air. "Just shut up and do it."
In mere seconds, black and white footage of Tony himself in the break room with a cup of coffee popped up on the screen. His face was pleasantly surprised with his drink as he sipped it. Tony revisited that memory and missed his coffee from the last week anew.
"Okay, now rewind it from there."
The computer silently obeyed and Tony watched as several agents before him visited the coffee station. He sat forward when one in particular looked to be filling the coffee maker.
"Pause it there."
Though he only had a back view of the agent, Tony could tell he was looking at a woman from the shape of the body and the long hair pulled back into a bun. He almost assumed it was Agent Hill. Same type of hair, but not quite the same height. But the bun was rather messy with random strands falling out. Agent Hill was far too orderly to come in like that.
"JARVIS, pull up Tuesday now. Let's see if we can get a better shot of our mystery barista."
After ten minutes of surfing footage of the break room, Tony had several shots of his coffee girl, but had yet to identify her. He was having a hard enough time just finding a good still of her face. The woman always had her head down, away from the cameras, as if purposefully hiding from them.
But Tony certainly wasn't about to give up that easily. "JARVIS, search all security footage for this person, see if you can't find me a clearer shot. Once you do, identify her and bring up her agent records."
"Should I also alert Ms. Potts of your new stalker status?"
Sometimes Tony wished JARVIS had some sort of physical form so he could throw things at it. "This has nothing to do with her. Just do what I say."
"As you wish, Sir."
Tony leaned back in his chair with a sigh. The things he put up with for a good cup of coffee.
Director Fury walked by the long windows of Tony's de facto work space to see him fully occupied with a multitude of hovering screens. Though it appeared Stark was working hard, Fury had a feeling it wasn't all related with what he had been contracted to do. Something was up. Fury turned to his radio.
"Romanoff here," the redhead's voice replied, sounding more awake this time.
"I've got a baby-sitting job for you."
"Stark?" she responded simply.
"Just keep an eye on him. I feel like he's nosing around where he doesn't necessarily need to be."
"He's probably just bored."
"Or he's up to something. Just keep tabs on him and alert me if he oversteps his boundaries."
"Copy that. Romanoff out."
Even as Fury ended the call and went on his way, Tony was staring at an agent file. An identification picture was tacked on, showing a woman with the same stray hair and a lack of expression on her face.
"Agent Marcia Gray, huh?" Tony said to himself. "Not much on you here." He glanced around the file. "Specialty: extraction. What? Is she a dentist or something? Key notes: DNR. Whatever that means in this place." Tony's gaze went back to the picture, making his own assumptions based on her appearance. "You probably work some boring desk job in a tiny cubicle without a window. Girl makes one hell of a cup of coffee though. We'll see what was so important you couldn't be bothered to make any today."
"Sir," JARVIS' voice cut in. "I've checked all the footage from today. Agent Gray is not in the building, nor did she report for work this morning."
Tony tipped his head. "Interesting. Well, it's a good thing this file just happens to have a home address."
Tony parked where the GPS directed him and stepped out of his rented Porsche. The neighborhood was quaint and unassuming. Not too posh, but not too ghetto. The perfect place for a secret agent to reside and pretend they lived the average life. It was January and New York was still in the middle of winter. Tony zipped up his coat against the sharp, chilly wind as he located the stairs and headed up to the second floor. Apartment 214 was right in front of him and he did not hesitate to raise his hand and knock.
"What are you doing, Stark?" a female voice asked behind him.
He turned to find an unexpected, but familiar redhead standing behind him, hands on hips. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold.
"Oh, Agent Romanoff. I assume Fury sent you to be my handler? I'm just making a quick house call, it's noting to be concerned about."
Natasha stepped closer, unswayed. "A call to whose house?"
At that time, the apartment door opened and bleary-eyed woman peered out. Her brown hair was more of a mess than in the surveillance footage and she was dressed in a robe that would have been a brilliant pink years ago.
"Hi there!" Tony greeted brightly. "Agent Gray, I presume."
The woman squinted at him. "Mr. Stark?" Then her gaze slid over to the head of brilliant red hair. "Natasha- Agent Romanoff."
She gave a quick nod in greeting. "Marcy."
"It's been a while," Agent Gray said, voice scratchy. "You look really good."
"You look like hell," the redhead shot back.
Agent Gray coughed and then sniffled. "How's Barton?"
She smiled. "He's doing very well. He'll be in town tomorrow, in fact. I'll tell him you asked about him."
Agent Gray nodded and then both women looked expectantly at Tony.
"Hey, I just came about the coffee," he said. "The stuff at HQ is hardly passable."
Natasha gave a grunt of agreement.
Agent Gray blinked at Tony as if he were a radiant light that hurt her eyes. "My coffee?"
"Big fan," Tony insisted, one hand pressed to his glowing chest. "The day just doesn't start right without it. You'll be in tomorrow to make some, won't you?"
"I'll... try. Depends on how I'm feeling. I caught this nasty flu bug and it's hit me pretty hard."
"Understandable. Maybe if we came in and helped-"
Natasha cut him off by grabbing his arm. "We're going now. Sorry to bother you. Feel better, Marcy." With that, she dragged Tony by the arm back down the stairs.
"If you can't make it in, call me," Tony called as he was pulled down the stairs. "Maybe we can set up a delivery or something."
He was yanked out of sight and Agent Gray shook her head as if she could not believe what just happened, and then shut the door.
Tony turned back to Natasha. "Why am I the only one who has a handler? Why doesn't Bruce have one? You'd think he's the one SHIELD would want to keep an eye on the most."
Natasha gave a secretive smirk. "I assure you there are protocols in place. And I hope you're done harassing our staff."
Tony glanced back at the apartment building. "For today, anyway. I make no promises for tomorrow."
Dr. Bruce Banner filled his cup at the water cooler, fully aware of the wide berth given him by all SHIELD employees. It didn't bother him so much. He understood and he enjoyed the quiet.
"Have you tried this stuff?" Tony demanded, shoving a mug in his face.
Well, almost quiet.
"I don't drink coffee," Bruce replied calmly. "It makes me jittery. I don't think anyone here would like me when I'm jittery."
Tony put a companionable arm around him. "Consider yourself blessed, my friend. It tastes like it was filtered through a week old maxi pad."
Bruce made a disgusted face while Tony promptly dumped his coffee onto the floor.
"What are you two genius idiots doing to my new carpet?!"
Said idiots turned to find Director Fury storming toward them. Bruce instantly backed up, hands raised in surrender as one finger pointed at Tony.
"Take it out of what you owe me," the billionaire responded without missing a beat. "You're already late on your first payment."
"It's in the mail," Fury responded with a tight jaw.
"Get back to work," was all Fury said in retort and turned on his heel with the flip of his coat tails.
"Oh, I've got work, alright," Tony said seriously, and turned to sneak off to places unknown.
Bruce wasn't even going to ask.
SHIELD Agent Clint Barton stepped into the elevator as Tony pressed the button for the main floor. The two nodded in greeting.
"Going somewhere?" the archer asked.
"Just a quick errand. You come to stop me, Hunger Games?" Tony asked in challenge. "I thought Romanoff was my assigned baby-sitter."
"I'm the handler this time if you're headed to see Agent Gray."
Tony quirked an eyebrow at the unexpected response. "The more the merrier, I suppose." He paused, then added, "Have you tried the coffee?"
"Tastes like it came out of the back end of a gangrenous water buffalo."
Tony snorted with a grin. "Yeah, it does."
The door to apartment 214 opened shortly after the first knock. Agent Gray, looking very much in the same state as she did the day before, peered out. Before she could even offer a greeting, Clint promptly shoved Tony out of the way, then held out his arms to her.
Her pallid face lit up slightly. "Clint! Come inside, it's cold out there." Then she quickly backed up when he tried to hug her, long sleeve covering her mouth. "You don't want to touch me, I'm disgusting right now."
"Too bad, you're getting a hug anyway."
Agent Gray held both arms in front of her like a shield, but Clint still wrapped his arms around her. The woman closed her eyes for a moment and Tony slipped inside.
"How long's it been?" Clint asked. "Two years?"
"Four," Agent Gray corrected.
"FOUR?!" Clint blinked at her, going through his mental calendar. Then he realized he didn't even know what day it was today, so maybe she was right. Being a SHIELD agent made the time fly by so fast.
Tony's muttering could be heard from inside the apartment and Agent Gray turned around. "Can I help you with something, Mr. Stark?"
He yanked open her blinds with a loud whir. "Just getting some light in here. Sunshine is very good for you. Also, this," he added as Agent Gray walked toward him. There was suddenly a device in his hand and he punched it into her arm.
"Ow!" she barked, jumping back and rubbing away the pain.
Clint was suddenly between them, pushing Stark back. "Hey! What was that?"
Tony raised his hands before Clint decided to go all assassin on his ass. "Nothing, just an immune system booster, compliments of a small pharmaceutical company I own."
"FDA approved?" Agent Gray asked suspiciously.
"No, but I've used it several times myself. The last two even had the desired affects with no hallucinations."
By then, Agent Gray decided she was still too sick and tired to worry about it and let out a heavy sigh.
"Actually, Agent Gray," Tony then said, "since you did ask, a cup of coffee would be fantastic. Thank you."
"I don't have any," she replied in a flat voice. "How's tea?"
Tony sighed while Clint tossed his coat on a chair like he owned the place. "Fine. That's fine."
Agent Gray retreated into the kitchen to get some distance, but Tony followed her in. "So tell me, how is it that I don't remember seeing you around the 'ol HQ since I've been here?"
"I'm paid to blend in," she replied as she heated the water. "I do my job better when I'm not noticed."
"And that job is?"
"Hey, nice collection," Clint interrupted as he came into the kitchen. He was currently admiring an assortment of newspaper clippings, articles and photos, hanging on the fridge and around the walls.
Tony stepped over to have a look. All the articles were related to the public exploits of the Avengers team. "This isn't creepy at all. Stalk much?"
"I enjoy reading about you guys," she insisted. "I'm proud of you. A lot of us in SHIELD are."
"Mmhm," Tony said as he took a mental count of who were in which pictures. "Seems you have a predilection to a certain star-spangled science project."
"Most women do," Clint smirked, raising a curious brow toward her. "Though I'm surprised you're one of them."
Agent Gray quickly turned away with an embarrassed shrug. "It's not like that. He's pretty much your poster boy. Most of the papers go with shots of Captain Rogers, that's all. There's several photos of Mr. Stark. And one or two of you in there, too, Clint."
Tony and Clint exchanged smirks, but let it go.
When the tea was ready, the three moved back to the living room.
"So you and Barton used to be partners," Tony said as he made himself at home on the couch. He sipped the tea. Not bad, but he sure missed that coffee.
"It was years ago, before Natasha became part of SHIELD," Clint responded.
"So you're the ex, then," Tony said to Agent Gray with a playful quirk of his mouth. "Ex only in the streets, or also ex in the sheets?"
Clint gave Tony a sharp look, but Agent Gray made a loud snort through her clogged sinuses.
"Only the streets. And happy to be so. Clint and Agent Romanoff work seamlessly together and I was able to be transferred some place where I could be more useful."
Tony wasn't sure, but Clint looked like he didn't exactly agree with that statement. But before he could entertain that mystery, something furry jumped upon the couch behind him.
"Why, hello. Who is this?" Tony asked of the large gray tabby perched by his shoulder.
"That's Dippy. Don't mind him. He just likes to look out the window."
"Dippy? That short for anything?"
"Dipshit," Agent Gray replied simply.
Clint choked on his tea.
"He belonged to my dad before he died," she went on to explain. "And he's quite possibly the dumbest cat alive."
As if on cue, the cat started yowling at nothing in particular.
"I'm over here, buddy," Agent Gray called. "You're fine."
The cat turned with a startled look, as if not realizing there were people in the room, and promptly fell off the back of the couch.
"Yup. That's Dippy."
Clint smiled, silent nostalgia on his face.
Tony set down his tea. "Well this visit, though disappointing, was at least a little entertaining."
Agent Gray let out a grating laugh, then a few coughs. "I'm sorry you have to wait. I promise I'll personally make you a cup when I'm no longer a living cesspool of germs. Is that satisfactory?"
Tony let out a exaggerated sigh. "I suppose."
Agents always greeted Steve each morning when he walked into SHIELD central. Most would nod; a few of the more confident ones would offer a "Morning, Cap" as he passed. The female agents would give him winks or sly grins. Sometimes they giggled at his passing and gave him flirtatious waves as if to beckon him to them.
Even though it sometimes made Steve feel a bit shy, he didn't mind the flirting. It was a nice change from his previous life of being absolutely invisible to women. Today, however, he had a hard time returning any smiles sent his way. He wasn't sure why, but his uneasy feeling had been going on for a few days now.
As he stepped into the elevator alone, he allowed himself to frown as he tried to assess his inner turmoil. He just didn't feel like himself, like something important was missing. But what? People had off days. This was normal, right? But why was it going on for so long? He felt like he was missing something, he just couldn't put his finger on it.
The elevator door was almost closed before a hand shot in.
"Hold the door," Tony called before stepping inside. He nodded at the taller blond man. "How you doin', Cap?"
Steve just shrugged as they ascended. "I don't know. I've felt... a little off lately. Not sure why."
"Maybe you're getting sick," Tony suggested. "It seems there's a bug going around."
"I don't get sick," Steve insisted.
"Of course you don't," Tony muttered. Then in a louder voice, "You ever tried the coffee here?"
"I don't drink it much. The caffeine has no affect on me. I heard Natasha complain about it for at least five minutes the other day, though."
The elevator binged their floor and both stepped out.
"She's not wrong. We've all had to choke down the most vile-" Tony paused when he saw Agent Gray, looking very well and standing in the doorway of the break room, steaming cup in her hand.
"As promised, Mr. Stark," she said as she handed over the coffee. "I trust this means no more unannounced visits to my apartment."
Tony took a sip and, for a moment, he was in love. "I promise nothing. I am a man of routine after all."
Steve, when he realized Tony was intent on flirting with the coffee girl, continued on his way.
"Good morning, Captain Rogers," Agent Gray said softly as he passed, as she did every morning.
He didn't seem to hear her, as was his norm every morning. The only difference between this day and all the others was that Tony Stark was present to witness that she was completely invisible to the captain. It was embarrassing.
Tony watched Steve walk obliviously away as he sipped his small bit of heaven. What a dumbass. Did he not know he just walked past perfection? If Tony were Steve, he would wife this woman for the coffee perks alone. Coffee first thing in the morning, in bed. What could be finer than that? Feeling the need to say something encouraging, Tony turned to where she was standing moments before.
"Hey, Agent Gray-"
She was no longer there. She wasn't anywhere to be seen.
"What the—where did she go?"
Unknown to either, further up the hall, Steve suddenly had the feeling that whatever had been missing from his life the past three days was suddenly put back in place. Something gentle soothed his nervous edges and the next person to greet him was answered with a genuine smile. Today felt like it was going to be a pretty good day after all.