Disclaimer: Characters and situations owned by Marvel.

Timeline: After the end of the "Unstoppable" Arc for Astonishing X-Men; after "Iron Man: Director of SHIELD" for Iron Man. Spoilers for both.

Thanks to: Karabair, once again coming through with the beta.

Sword and Shield

After S.W.O.R.D. had been established as a separate division from S.H.I.E.L.D, Brand did her damned best to make sure they weren't treated as a junior branch. She and Nick Fury weren't friends – Brand didn't have any friends – but she respected him; after all, he had trained her. Which was why she was sure he'd have her shiny new headquarters bugged before she moved in. This was a good training exercise for her security people, and she didn't resent it. On the other hand, it didn't make her share more than she absolutely had to. Once Fury was replaced by Maria Hill, Brand didn't even bother with the heads-of-department chats anymore. She didn't owe Hill anything, and besides, how could you respect someone who first was stupid enough to arrest Captain America in front of her entire staff and then managed to bugger that up completely?

Beyond finding it dangerous because it allowed for any type of infiltration scenarios by various alien races, Brand didn't have an opinion on the superhuman registration act fallout that the media grandiosely titled "Civil War". She was too busy trying to prevent a genuine war, the type that would put an end to the human race, superpowered or not. But she did roll her eyes when the dust cleared and S.H.I.E.L.D. had a new head once again, this time Tony Stark, who as opposed to Maria Hill didn't even have military training but was a businessman playing superhero. Then she started to discover bugs in her HQ again and slightly revised her opinion. There wasn't time to pay a visit to the new director of S.H.I.E.L.D. before the Breakworld situation went to hell. She did, however, decide to reopen relations between the agencies when she came back from the Breakworld with a slight scar on her stomach and a couple of realizations she still hadn't entirely worked her way through. There were a couple of changes she wanted to make in her life, both professionally and privately. Making a polite gesture in the direction of S.H.I.E.L.D. was just a minor one. Also, Stark was supposed to be a genius when it came to weapon design. This could be useful.

"We destroyed the launchsite before we left, of course," she said after briefly summing up the events on the Breakworld he didn't know about already. "And tried to make sure there were no plans and specs around for the next wannabe destroyer-of-worlds to pick up. But the precedent has been set, and we weren't the only ones monitoring the Breakworld."

She looked at him. He had one of the most overpublicized faces around, even before outing himself as Iron Man, which created an odd sensation of familiarity, given she had never met him before. "Could you recreate it?" she asked. "A weapon like that, directed at another planet?"

"You're about a decade and a half too late," he said coolly. "If that was supposed to be a contract pitch. You know I don't do weapons anymore. If you want a Stark Industries contract for rebuilding those very expensive space ships you managed to get blown to pieces, absolutely."

Brand didn't know whether that was supposed to be a power play or just Stark being a dick. Protesting she hadn't meant whether he could rebuild the Breakworld weapon for Earth was pointless. It hadn't been her primary question, but of course she had wanted to know that, too.

"No," she said dismissively. "From what I've heard, you'll be too busy rebuilding your own carrier after it got attacked by an overgrown weed." She gave him a thin smile. "That must have been a bitch to clean out."

For a moment, his expression went completely blank. Too late, she recalled that according to the report an old friend of his, Sal Something or the other, had died in the attack she referred to, which made her remark far more vicious than she had intended it to be. She had wanted to embarrass him, no more. A month ago, that wouldn't have bothered her. But now she remembered how Hank McCoy had looked when he realized the Pryde girl was still inside the bullet and unable to get out; how it had felt when finding the mutilated body of her own second-in-command.

She didn't do apologies. Truth to tell, she didn't have the first idea of how to go about them, especially when they were about something that hadn't even been her intention, and towards someone she couldn't afford to show any weakness. So she decided to move on with the conversation as quickly as possible.

"What I wanted to know," she said, feeling awkward in a way she rarely did, "was whether it's possible. Because if you could do it, someone else out there can. With our luck, it'll be the Shi'ar. Or the freaking Skrulls."

"Of course it's possible," he said tersely, face still blank, voice icy with a sliver of anger and contempt. "Anything that has been invented can be rebuilt. Which you knew before you asked me. Don't waste my time, Agent Brand."

Stung, she said: "Fine. Then tell me something I don't know. Tell me how to get Pryde out of that bloody bullet while we're still able to monitor its trajectory. I thought metal was your thing!"

For the first time since she had entered his expensive office, he showed genuine surprise. He leaned forward in his chair, dark eyebrows raised.

"That sounded as if you cared."

The whole affair with the cure had happened before his time, but Stark probably got debriefed on her deal with Ord and the fact she had handed over mutant corpses to the Breakworld emissary and Kavita Rao when he took office. She could have given him the same speech she had given the committee that had decided her fate afterwards, but that would have been a waste of her time.

"The girl saved the world," Brand said instead.

"And?" Stark prompted. She narrowed her eyes. He was a superhero, and should have regarded gratitude in form of rescue efforts as self evident.

Or maybe he didn't because he was a superhero. After all, he was a realist as well, given his support for the Superhuman Registration Act. And he was both wary and smart enough for those new very sophisticated listening devices in her HQ.

She tried to keep her own expression as blank as his had been, and quoted directly from memory.

"I'm unaware of the need for a conjunction."

Which was what Hank McCoy had said to her when she had voiced her concern about Emma Frost, and had been told Frost was an X-Man in return.

"Agent Brand," Stark said, now sounding genuinely amused, "can it be you've been keeping company with Dr. McCoy lately?"

This made Brand briefly wonder whether the Extremis drug that had enabled Stark to interface with his battle armor on a mental level had given him artificial telepathy as well, and if she hadn't been the professional she was, she would have flinched. Then she remembered that Iron Man and Beast had been team mates in the Avengers. Stark would recognize personal quirks, would he. Shit.

"Dr. McCoy will join S.W.O.R.D. as our new scientific advisor," she said, since a denial would have been silly; after all, she had mentioned exactly which X-Men had been with her on the Breakworld in her brief summary earlier. Besides, Stark would hear about the new line-up soon enough, and it was nothing to keep secret anyway.

As opposed to the fact that her main reason for wishing to see Kitty Pryde rescued really wasn't gratitude for saving the world. Several of her people had given their lives on that mission as well, and as opposed to Pryde, they really were dead, mouldering in the ground of a world not theirs, irrevocably lost; self-sacrifice wasn't something superheroes had an exclusive claim on. But she had observed the impact Pryde's loss had on Hank McCoy first hand, sitting next to him when Summers had radioed the news to them.

Abigail Brand didn't do comfort. Nobody had ever comforted her. She didn't know how to go about it any more than she knew to apologize, but she did know that in addition to regarding the blue-furred mutant next to her as the smartest man she ever met and wanting to jump his bones, she did not want him to suffer, and she did know about suffering and loss. Being an extremely practical woman first and foremost, she had decided to do something constructive about it, which clearly had to be an attempt to remove the cause of the suffering.

"Will he now?" Tony Stark said wryly. She thought about remarking that they couldn't all pick their scientific advisors from prison, but this time she remembered Dr. Maya Hansen was reported dead shortly after the attack on the S.H.I.E.L.D carrier before she opened her mouth. She also remembered that both media and her own report indicated Stark had had a sexual relationship with his personally picked scientific advisor. So she simply replied "Yes" instead, and wished she had the ability to trust rival agency heads, or, well, pretty much anyone. Starting a relationship with someone who was supposed to work for her was something she had never done before, for obvious reasons, whereas Stark seemed to be an expert in this.

"You didn't answer my question," she continued, wanting to get back to the topic at hand and to save herself from the horribly humiliating temptation to ask a smug superheroic playboy for dating advice. "How do we get her out of that thing before the bullet is completely out of reach? Preferably while destroying it altogether. Otherwise I can tell you right now we'll have the next invasion here before the year is over, carried out by people whose planet was hit by something that seemingly came from Earth."

"I don't have an answer for you," Stark said, and there was nothing but focus on a problem in his expression anymore. Maybe being healthily paranoid, rich and used to fighting weren't the only qualifications he had for Nick Fury's job. "Reed Richards says she bonded with the metal on a molecular level, so technology alone won't do the trick. But I may be able to come up with something that destroys the metal, if you give me samples." His eyes didn't leave hers as he added slowly: "Destroying the metal without knowing a way to separate her from it first would kill her, of course, but it would remove the bullet as a threat to anyone. Permanently."

She didn't reply. It was the best, the most logical solution, if he could pull it off. The good of the many. It was what she had always believed in.

Most humans thought you could not read expressions if the other person didn't look like they did. Had a different colour, another facial structure. Or was covered in fur.

Half of her was not human, and all of her had never had the slightest problem recognizing grief. Or the overwhelming wish to do something, anything, to make it better.

"Killing is always easier than saving, Agent," Stark said, and the bitterness in his tone didn't seem to be direct at her. Nonetheless, she glared at him.

"Don't patronize me. If this is supposed to be some sort of test in morality, you can stick it."

"Your file is out of date. Last year, you would have said yes immediately. At least according to Nick Fury."

"Spare me," she said. "Do I look like I want to know what Fury thinks of me? Or you?" She got up from her chair. "You'll get your samples. But remember, any off-world action is S.W.O.R.D territory. So if you find a method, we'll be the ones to use it. Or not."

The safety of the planet was the most important thing, outweighing the need of any individual. Always. But if she had learned something from everything that happened since her original attempt to find a bloodless solution to the Breakworld problem had ended in the wreckage of BeneTech Lab, confronted with a group of angry X-men, then it was this: it was worth looking for other solutions as well. To try and save the one as well as the many.

Stark rose behind his desk as well. "It will be your call," he said seriously, and held out his hand to her. It came across as an oddly old fashioned gesture of respect; a brief firm squeezing of fingers that she felt through the gloves she wore. A handshake, something that definitely wouldn't have occurred to either Nick Fury or Maria Hill. It wasn't something heads of agencies did.

Superheroes might.

"Thanks," she muttered, feeling as awkward as when she had blundered with her remark about the vine attack. "Keep me posted."

She was half way out of his office when he added: "Good luck with Dr. McCoy." Which might or might not mean she hadn't found all his listening devices. Well. She had always thrived on a challenge.