"Sounds like a real mess."
2210 HOURS, NOV 29
Maria Hill crushed the plastic cup in her hand. Before her on the table the dozen pictures of the Battle of Las Vegas were laid out in chronological order.
"Almost had all your new toys broken."
Fury shrugged his shoulders and leaned back in his chair, "Yeah, lucky for them a Norse god just so happened to be around to help out."
"About that whole 'god' thing." She began to ask before Fury halted her.
"I don't know if he's really a god or not, the important thing was that he was on our side, at least for this. So in the clean-up I made sure to grease the wheels."
Hill picked-up a picture of Thor, standing next to Captain America with an army of SHIELD and local first responders in the background. "So he was looking for his brother he said?"
"Loki. Norse god of mischief. Turns out he had left a string of his handiwork back in Asgard that Thor had to do damage control on. His trail led here, what they call Midgard, where that mission crossed paths with ours."
"How did everybody else turn out?" She asked, "SHIELD never disclosed how the team licked their wounds afterwards."
Fury made a show of exhaling, "Janet was alright, a bit nervous from all the excitement, but none the worse for wear.
Pym felt useless. He sat in his room for a day staring at his helmet, lamenting that he hadn't really contributed all that much to the effort. To be fair I never thought he'd fight Hulk, just help on the edges.
We tried to debrief Stark immediately after to protect his identity, but he managed to get his suit working enough to fly off before we could stop him. A few days later we finally got the chance to catch-up to him, but he wasn't much in the mood for conversation.
Romanov helped Barton clean himself up after his little mix-up with the local HYDRA boys. Unbeknownst to her, Clint was on a job to find out about the recent surge in blackmarket arms deals in the city when he wound up tied to a chair.
For her part, my best girl Natasha took it all in stride. She's been through a lot, seen some nasty stuff. So this wasn't quite the most dangerous spot she's ever been in. But I did notice something bugging her though. I suppose something about being chased by a giant green rage monsters sticks with ya."
Maria Hill flipped through more of the photos from the scene, and settled on one that showed Steve Rogers holding up Bruce Banner in the center of the activity.
"And these two?"
"Rogers," Fury continued, "He got a good dose of culture shock. Surrounded by the Vegas lights, fighting The Hulk alongside a man in a robot suit, it was something for him to adjust to. I had him take the next day off.
And Banner… hooo boy, was that ever a headache. Millions of dollars in damage, the Army chomping at the bits to get their hands on him. I spent as much time keeping him under SHIELD jurisdiction as I did anything else."
Shuffling the pictures together, Maria took a lingering glance at one that showed the eight future Avengers in the same shot.
"All the pieces were in place then?"
'Eh, not quite." The Director sighed, "That's when things got interesting."
TWO DAYS AFTER THE
LAS VEGAS INCIDENT
In one of the higher floors of the Triskelion, Steve Rogers stood in front of the massive window that overlooked the Atlantic. The dawning Sun was climbing over the horizon under a colorful layer of atmosphere as the light bent around the edge of the globe. Still wearing his sweaty jogging clothes, he leaned over the back of the couch, head bowed.
The room the had been furnished for him was beyond luxurious, it was easily twice as large as the apartment he grew-up in. the world around him was supposed to be his home town, the very streets he walked when he was a kid. But it all felt so foreign to him, like he had gone from rural Oklahoma to Hong Kong. It was a much different city than the one that he remembered, and there was no escaping the feeling that he didn't belong.
Images in his mind flashed by, the snarling face of the Hulk about to crush him with his bare hands. The wearable science-fiction of Tony Stark shooting lasers from the palms of his hands, able to fly from continent to continent. Janet Pym, as sweet a girl as Steve had ever seen, a mutant able to shrink herself. And Thor, some god from another realm? It was… incredible to think of.
"Something troubles you Captain?"
The voice came from the Asgardian himself, and Steve looked up to see Thor hovering in the air in front of the window, his arms crossed over his chest.
"Is battling ogres not to your liking?"
It was a small gesture, not intended to be funny Steve thought, but it did serve to brighten his mood.
"At this point, fighting an ogre wouldn't be so crazy. It's adjusting to everyday life that's the hard part."
Rogers pressed the button on the side panel, and a section of the window slid aside, allowing Thor to float in.
"Then you must come with me to Asgard one day. I find it far less… uh, vexing than this Midgard."
"Yeah, I've been pretty vexed ever since they woke me up." Rogers said as he sat on the couch. "I go from living in a three-room apartment in the Bronx to living in the future with gods and robots, and people with superpowers."
"Perhaps my own sense of wonder has been dampened." Dropping down on the couch on the opposite end, the framework let out a painful creak under Thor's weight. He set Mjolnir down on the coffee table, where it rested without a sound.
"For in my long life, I have battled many creatures of the several realms. Ogres, dragons, all manner of trolls and giants, elves, and these things have become somewhat mundane for me. Verily, one of the reasons I joined the battle against the one called "The Hulk" was for some sporting battle."
Mentioning this, Thor's attitude dimmed slightly. "Though it seems the might of Mjolnir has laid low this beast as it has so many."
"I think Iron Man may have softened him up for you." Rogers smirked, but Thor waved it off.
"I have felled a bull Bilgesnipe with single blow, this Hulk was no more of a challenge."
At that, Steve had to chuckle to himself, knowing far better what he Hulk was capable of.
"Speaking of Hulk, wherehaps have they sequestered his smaller, frailer self?"
Down below the daylight of the Triskelion, underneath all the offices, decorated lobbies, polished plaques, and guided tours, was The Vault. The surface was an artificial island, sitting atop a flexible stem of an elevator shaft and support columns that rooted it to the seabed where the secondary and arguably more important facility lay.
The Vault was where they kept a number of particularly dangerous characters, under tight lock and key in specially designed containment cells. Several of them were occupied under the watchful eyes of the guards, and one in particular stood by itself in the center of the chamber. Inside, Bruce Banner sat hunched over on his Spartan bad, nothing more than a raised mattress with a sheet and a blanket. His clothes were similar to hospital scrubs, spotless white, and hung off his thin frame. His scraggly brown hair draping over his downcast face.
"What am I looking at Doc?"
Standing outside the chamber, Nick Fury eyeballed his prisoner, the middle-aged man in a lab coat next to him flipped through his clipboard of notes.
"He's malnourished and dehydrated, but nothing too severe considering the length of time he was submerged into the Hulk. Physically he'll be fine enough with a little rest and proper nutrition, but mentally he's shot."
The doctor handed Fury a tablet, showing the up-to-date diagnostics.
"As best we know he's been running around as the Hulk for months without a break. It seems to have a degraded physical effect, but the constant psychological stress has taken a massive toll on him."
"Has he said anything yet?" Fury asked, looking up from the data.
"No, nothing yet. He's taken some half-hearted bites of food, but aside from that he just sits there."
On the wall, about waist height was installed a box with two buttons, and a speaker. Fury tapped on the left button and it illuminated.
"Dr. Banner, my name is Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD. I want you to know that you are not under arrest, but there are some things we need to sort out."
Banner didn't move, continuing to sit there with his hands clasped.
"Is there anything you'd like to tell me Dr. Banner?" Fury asked again, "Anybody you want me to talk to?"
Hearing that, Bruce's head swiveled over in the others direction. His hands gripped one another, but after a moment he wilted back to his original state.
Biting his lip in disappointment, Fury hit the second button and turned to the doctor.
"Is she here yet?"
The man checked his watch, "Should be within the next hour."
"Good." Fury said, handing him back the tablet and turning to leave the cell behind. "Let me know when she gets down here."
"Will do Director." Putting the clipboard and tablet at his side, the doctor continued to stare at the listless former scientist, wonder what his reaction would be later on.
As he walked away, Fury removed his phone from the inside breast pocket of his jacket, pressed a few buttons, and held it to his ear. When the other end finally picked up, he stepped into an alcove just beside one of the inhabited cells. Inside, an unusually tall mandrill dressed like a stage magician ambled up to the glass for a closer look at the Director. Slowly, Fury turned to glance back at the prisoner, who bared it large canine teeth and loosed an unheard cry.
Lashing out in a flash, Fury banged his fist on the translucent wall. Mandrill recoiled, and stepped carefully over to the opposite side of his cage.
"Yeah I'm here, sorry about that." Speaking into his phone, Nick continued to glare at Mandrill for a few seconds. "I was just checking in on our houseguests, they holding up alright?"
"Well enough." Answered the savvy Russian accent. "Janet is starting to get restless, and Hank never wants to stop playing with his tech."
Many floors above Fury, in another of the modified apartments, Janet Van Dyne and Hank Pym were being housed. Since returning from Vegas, Hank had been kicking himself for not being able to help the others in time, and spent nearly every waking hour trying to make the adjustments to his suit that would have helped back in the fight. Janet had tried to tell him that it was okay, and that nobody held it against him that he didn't fight Hulk. But Pym wasn't hearing it.
Keeping a close eye on them via a number of hidden cameras in the room, Black Widow reclined on her sofa in the room above them, a bowl of blueberries on the table beside her, a laptop sitting across her knees that displayed the various camera angles.
"Doing much better than most of the people who've gone up against The Hulk I suppose."
"Well that's good to hear." Fury massaged the bridge of his nose. "Last thing I need is a couple of traumatized Millennials. Is Barton feeling any better?"
"I think-" Romanov started to answer, until the sound of a flushing toilet from the other room stopped her.
"Hey 'Tasha, we got any wet-wipes?" Hawkeye called out.
She sighed, rolling her eyes. "I think he's just fine. A little banged up from his former co-workers, but the same old Clint."
Nick had to chuckle. Barton and Romanov had know each other for years, and he liked having the two around.
Upstairs, the bathroom door behind Natasha opened, and Barton came out, wearing a pair of jeans and a pale blue t-shirt. He strolled over to her as she spoke and leaned his head down.
"Hey Fury, Clint here."
She put the phone on speaker with the press of a button and held it out.
"What'chu got for me Hawkeye?" Fury said over the line.
"I think you were right about that Richard Fisk kid in Las Vegas. I think he's running the local Hydra operation."
"You think his father's involved?" Nick wondered, knowing that the involvement of the notorious crime boss on the other coast would be a crucial bit of information.
"Not sure." Clint shook his head to no-one in particular. "I've never seen any intel of Kingpin working for Hydra. Doing some business with them off and on sure, but not as one of their flunkies. But his little prince might be a different story; stepping out from pop's wide-ass shadow, make his own bones."
"Thanks Barton. I'll see what else I can get going over there. For now you rest up, I may have another assignment for you sooner rather than later."
"Ah, sure, no problem Fury. It's not like I had anything I wanted to go do."
Romanov put a hand her free hand on Clint's chest and shoved him away.
"Director, have you been keeping-up with the tabloids? That candid cell-phone shot from Vegas showing him in the suit is blowing-up all over the internet."
Shaking his head in frustration, Fury recalled that in the clean-up of the Vegas incident, some civilian had managed to snap a photo of an unmasked Tony Stark. The next day the picture was sold to the highest bidder, and was soon plastered on every tabloid and newspaper in the country. In reaction, Stark had opted to go hide in his tower.
"Yeah I seen it. Damn amateur paparazzi."
"I'm thinking you should send someone over to talk to him. I could do it if you want." Natasha gave a quick glance over to see Hawkeye eating a banana and scratching his crotch as he admired the Atlantic view.
"Not a problem at all."
"Naw, I better go talk to him myself." Being the prima Donna that he his, Fury knew that getting Iron Man back in the game would require some messaging of the ego. "Besides, I need you within arm's reach. There's something about this whole thing just feels off to me."
"As you wish Director, Clint and I will watch the kids."
"It's not a punishment Romanov." He reminded her. "Just a recharge."
Black Widow closed her eyes, "Wherever I am needed Director." She ended the call, and checking to see what her roommate was doing now, saw him practicing some katas. He was having some fun with it, and making exaggerated, jerky movements.
"теперь я няни троих детей
In Stark Tower, Tony sat on a leather couch, a tumbler of brown liquid in his hand that rested on his knee. His head was titled back, settled on the headrest, his face relaxed and a trail of drool leaking from he corner of his open mouth onto his shoulder where it soaked into the lavender silk shirt.
"Good morning Sir." chimed the disembodied voice of JARVIS over the many obscured speakers installed in the room. Tony opened his eyes halfway to see the rising sun greeting him as it peeked over the horizon. And he looked down to see that he was not wearing pants.
"Ugh, what time is it?" Stark begged as he used his glass-holding hand to shield his eyes from the harshness of direct sunlight.
"It is three minutes past six, Sir."
"In the evening?" looking around at his surroundings, Tony noticed that his living room was a total mess, his liquor cabinet nearly empty and his slacks draped over the 70-ince flat screen.
"In the morning." JARVIS corrected. "Shall I prepare breakfast?"
"In the morning? Good god." Peeling himself from the couch, Stark put the glass down on the floor and put the other hand across his forehead. With no small effort he walked over to the nearest mirror and gave himself a good look-over. His shave was two days late, his hair looked like a rat's nest, large colored bags hung under his eyes, and he just generally looked like hell. Not to mention the aches and bruises that made themselves known as he stretched.
"Yeah… JARVIS, start up some breakfast and some aspirin."
"Right away Sir."
While the automated kitchen whirred to life on the other side of the room, Tony grabbed the remote control and meandered back towards the television, mumbling to himself.
"The hell was I so broke up about anyways?"
Standing in front of the screen, he grabbed the pants and flung them aside. He aimed the remote and pressed the power button. The first station that came on was one of the national news channels, featuring a picture of himself.
"…seen here in the aftermath of the disaster in Las Vegas, Tony Stark is in fact the mysterious Iron Man, much to the shock and bewilderment of many who wrote him off after his return from his ordeal in Afghanistan. New reports-"
Shutting the television back off, he stood there staring at the blank screen.
"Sir, are we expecting a visit from any former employees today?"
The question struck Tony as odd, and he scratched his head trying to think if he had scheduled anything today.
"No….. I don't think so…"
Down on the street, a man marched through traffic. His armored tech-suit was dark blue over black, and brimmed with neon blue lines across the plates. On his head, the helmet was studded with four red optics that analyzed sensory data. Pedestrians hurried out of his way, and cars screeched to a halt as he strode purposefully through traffic. One taxi cab was skidding on its breaks when the man reached his left hand out to the side, and cast a beam of blue energy into it's engine block. The beam encased the entire front of the vehicle in a block of ice, freezing it to the asphalt.
Blizzard was on a mission.
Stepping to the side of Stark Tower, he aimed his fists down at an angle, and began blasting his ice-beams.
"JARVIS!" Tony yelled, watching the drop-down monitor which showed the satellite feed of a man ascending the side of the tower on an ice-rocket.
"How's the new suit coming?!"
"Putting it together now sir."
Quickly, Stark looked around the room, deciding what objects could be useful or not.
"What could be handy…. Let me see… let me see…"
The wall spanning window behind him shattered, and turning on a pivot, Tony watched as Blizzard glided in through the broken pane on an ice slide.
As soon as the villain spoke the word, a glass bottle of water struck his faceplate and shattered, the water freezing on contact.
"Usually my guests are a little more polite Donny!" Tony called out from behind a counter, hurling more miscellaneous objects in the invaders direction. "And they're usually women!"
Shielding himself from the small assault and smashing off the ice stuck to his face, Blizzard lashed out wildly with a beam, cutting a swath of spiking frost across the apartment.
"Ever since Iron Man locked me away, I've been waiting to get my revenge!"
He intercepted another container of water with his beam and the weight pulled it down before striking.
"But now the whole world knows who you really are! AND WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE! RAAAAAAHHHH!"
With a scream and a heave, Blizzard poured both hands towards the counter where Tony hid behind. The space was covered in a chunk of ice feet thick within seconds.
"Come on out Stark! I wanna get to know the real you!"
Stomping around the corner of the bar, Blizzard moved to pounce on the trapped hero, and found nothing.
Behind the counter, the ice had formed a wall of spikes that would have skewered anybody hiding there, but Stark was gone.
On the story directly below, the portrait of Tony and his parents lifted up to allow him to shoot through the passageway in the wall, and land on his bed with a bounce.
"I knew putting that slide in was a great idea." He said, heart racing as he climbed over his plush bedding towards the wall.
"JARVIS, the suit?"
"Waiting on you Sir."
Rushing over the wall space beside a dresser, Tony laid his hand on the paint, and where his skin made contact, the surface illuminated with a soft blue glow. The door panels slid away from each other along a seam, and within the alcove, an Iron Man suit rotated to face him.
"Just my size."
Upstairs, Blizzard thrashed in every direction. "WHERE ARE YOU STARK!?" He screamed, using his cryonic beam to throw the couch against the wall. "I'LL BRING THIS WHOLE PLACE DOWN IF I HAVE TO!"
The floor underneath Blizzard exploded, and he was sent crashing into the ceiling. He came back down in a heap, groaning from the sudden disorientation. Hovering up from the newly created gap, Iron Man looked down at him.
"You've overstayed your welcome Gill! Let me show you the door!"
Surging forward, Iron Man tackled the rising Blizzard around his waist, and drove him through the wall behind into the open air. The pair arced downward towards the ground, the freezing hands latched onto the back of the armor.
"They'll have to chisel you out of that armor Stark!"
"Dammit Gill! Haven't you ever heard about the scorpion and the frog?"
"The hell are you talking about?"
As the ice sunk into the suits components, the thrusters shut down, leaving them both in a free-fall.
Onlookers on the street watched on, some covering their mouths in astonishment, as the two plummeted straight into the roof of an office building. They crashed through the ceiling and into a room filled with copy machines. Blizzard slowly turned over, groaning and whimpering from the internal injuries. Iron Man was first to his feet, but could only move in a jerky manner.
"Sir, some of the plates are still frozen to each other. I'm heating the affected components now." JARVIS informed him.
"Oh is that it JARVIS? I thought it was the gum I stuck in there."
"Gonna.. Ugh… tear you apart!" crawling on his hands and knees, Blizzard coughed and grunted sharply. But Iron Man trudged over, and grabbed into the back of Blizzard's helmet.
"This tech is mine by the way." Stark said before applying the other hand and ripping the device in half and throwing the pieces aside.
In a final outburst of energy, Blizzard reached up and gripped Iron Man's helm in both hands. He snarled at the emotionless faceplate, spittle flying from his mouth as he cursed his enemy.
"You ruined my life Tony Stark! And I'm gonna take-!"
Blizzard's diatribe was cut off by a Unibeam blast at point-blank range. Donny Gill was sent careening through several machines and embedded himself in the wall.
"You're gonna take your thievin'-ass back to jail." Tony said, watching Blizzard's head hang limp. Several small pieces of ice fell from crevices in the armor, and it was now that he noticed the little streams of water cascading down to the floor.
"The armor has been successfully de-iced sir." remarked JARVIS casually.
Popping open the faceplate, Tony looked around at all the damage that had been incurred.
"JARVIS, figure out who all the stuff belongs to and cut'em a check. Also, contact SHIELD, let them know I got another rat for their cage."
"Doing it now Sir."
"Oh, and one more thing please?" Stark massaged the bridge of his nose, mentally flogging himself for not thinking of it sooner.
"Do let me know if there are any more psychotic criminals who hate me that are out walking around."
"Where would you like me to start?"
The thought was not a comforting one for Iron Man.
What am I going to do with my life?
What kind of life do I even have left?
Sitting on his bunk in the cell, Bruce Banner contemplated the same notions he had been doing for the past two days.
He had disappeared months ago, and in his place a monster had hijacked his body. The last thing he recalled clearly, was pushing the young man out of the way and into the ditch, then the explosion of the Gamma bomb, and then…
Patches of memory was all he had between now and then, vague shapes and fevered images of seeing the world through the eyes of the Hulk. Fighting the military, trekking through wilderness, a bizarre throng of bright lights, these and more were mashed together in an incoherent train of thoughts. It was like being in the mind of an animal, or a primitive hominoid, just instincts and urges with only the faintest glimpse of rational thought.
It had been an exhausting, terrifying ordeal, and Bruce knew that there were a lot of people who were demanding answers for the Hulk.
The voice was from the same doctor who checked on him every day. Another probe for responsiveness, perhaps by now they were wondering if he could even hear them.
"A sensory diagnostic would make sense". Bruce thought, trying to imagine what the SHIELD scientists might be thinking. "I would examine the subject for any signs of abnormal bodily functions, draw blood and fluid samples, test for residual Gamma radiation… Is this containment unit calibrated to prevent leakage?"
"Dr. Banner, I have a guest here to see you."
Another guest? Maybe SHIELD is finally opening the door for all the interested parties. The D.O.D. would want their own inspection done, bring in their own personnel.
At the sound of a new voice Banner finally stirred, lifting his head to the figure on the other side of the glass. Despite the protest of his neck and shoulders at the new angle, he couldn't help but stare dumbfounded, his face and hands trembling to be in the presence of Elizabeth Ross once again.
"Betty?" He said in a raspy throat, ignoring the hasty note-taking of the man who stood a few feet to her rear. He could only focus on her, in this facility of the dangerous and villainous, she was all that existed. Dressed in a simple knee-length brown skirt, and a white collared shirt, tears flowed down her face.
"Oh god Bruce… What happened to you?" She put one palm on the glass, and the other reflexively covered her mouth in shock and despair.
For several moments they simply gazed at one another, until he slowly lifted himself off the bunk and strode towards her.
"Betty… the Gamma-bomb… it, it did something to me. I don't know how to explain it, but it turned me into… that monster."
Collapsing against his side of the glass, Bruce put his own hand to hers, his eyes not deviating from hers. "I don't understand what happened to me!"
"My father tried to capture you, but you kept getting away." She told him with a quivering voice. "We couldn't figure out a way to fix you."
"And that's when SHIELD stepped in…" Bruce trailed off, considering how his condition had gotten to this point. During his incarceration the doctors had described to him the events that resulted in his arrest; a specially designed team of people with powers and abilities had been deployed, and only through the deus ex machina of someone claiming to be the Norse god of Thunder did they succeed.
"You're sick Bruce." She continued, breaking into his thoughts. "And until we find out how to cure you, they have to keep you here."
"But I can help them!" he exclaimed, raising to his feet, "No one knows the science behind what happened better than I do! Tell them I can help!"
"No Bruce." Betty said sadly but sternly. "You could turn back into that thing at any time until we understand it more. For your sake and everyone else's, you have to stay in there."
"No! No, Betty you can't let them do this!" Banner struck his fist against the surface. "What if they learn how to re-create this thing? How to control it!"
"Well that would be interesting, wouldn't it?"
Another voice, this one low and methodical surprised Bruce Banner. Mostly so because it sounded like it was coming from inside the cell.
Bruce spun around, and gaped at the sight of a tall man standing in the center of the room. He was dressed strangely, a long dark green robe with golden trim over what looked line fine linen of a matching color scheme. Long black hair cascaded downwards from underneath a golden helmet, from which grew a pair of long, curved antlers. He stood with his hands behind his back, and what drew Bruce's attention the most, was the set of bright green eyes that stared back at him.
"Who…. Who are you?" Banner stammered, "How'd you get in here?"
"Bruce?" Worried, Betty looked past him to try and see who he was talking too, but there was just empty space. She glanced back at the SHILED scientist who had ceased taking notes to likewise watch with confusion.
Instead of answering him, the man simply stared back at Bruce, a small grin was all the expression he spared.
"Bruce who are you talking to?" Betty asked again.
"You don-" Turning to her, Banner searched her face for confirmation, but to his dismay found only bewilderment. He gestured an arm to where the stranger stood, casting a finger.
"Betty don't you see him? He's standing right there! With the horns!"
"Bruce what are you talking about? There's no one else in there!"
"What…" A sudden wave of exhaustion came over him, and Bruce leaned back into the glass wall, sliding down until he came to sit on the floor, his hands on his head. "Am I hallucinating?" He asked himself.
"Perhaps you are." The man spoke with a hint of speculation. "Perhaps you are not."
Panting with anxiety, Banner put the side of his face against the glass, "Betty, help me please."
Too stunned to form a response, she backed away from the cell, raising both hands to cover her mouth.
"A pity you don't recognize me Dr Banner, for I have been with you for some time." The figure took a single, measured step forward.
"I've never seen you before in my life." Banner cried back, earning a gasp from the onlookers. "Who are you!?"
The man brought his hands into view, holding them palm out.
"I am he, whose whim will bring Asgard crashing down. I am he, whose tongue in an anvil where the sharpest lies are forged. I am he, and I have things to say that you must know.
I am Loki, who you must not trust."