Sorry for the delay…
Nick Fury sat at his desk, head in hands, regarding how to word the report he needed to send soon, how to explain the dog's dinner he and the Avengers had made of the attempt to stop A.I.M. from completing the Cosmic Cube. True, they had succeeded in their objective…the cube had been destroyed before it could fall into the wrong hands. But most of the A.I.M. members had escaped, a massive explosion had devastated an entire city block and turned it into an inferno requiring the services of five different fire departments to put out…and the Avengers were down a man.
Captain America was dead.
They had inspected every inch of the rubble once it was safe to do so. They had found broken machinery, a few bodies of A.I.M. soldiers and Red Skull's henchman who had died prior to the explosion, even a few A.I.M. documents (although nothing of particular value), but no sign of the Cosmic Cube. Or Captain America.
In fact, the entire area that had once been the factory floor was empty except for ash, as if everything in the immediate vicinity of the cube had been vaporized.
Nick Fury sighed and shook his head. He mourned. The nation mourned. Already, the government bustled with activity, everyone busy with funeral arrangements, memorials (Fury himself was attending one such ceremony at the White House later that day), tributes, everything they could think of to honor the dead hero. And it wasn't just his celebrity status that fueled that activity, either. No, the surviving Avengers had made certain to let everyone know how Captain America had given his life to save the city, had remained behind in an exploding building to hold back the energy from the unstable Cosmic Cube. A great many people in New York City owed the Captain their lives, and they wanted to pay their respects to him in every way possible.
And all this, of course, only made the fact that it had been his and SHEILD's carelessness that had gotten the city into that situation in the first place even harder to explain.
They should have gotten more information. They should have been more cautious about charging into battle. They should have found and busted the A.I.M. cell within that factory before they could even begin work on the cube. There were a million things they could have or should have done to make this turn out differently.
And, of course, Nick Fury knew it was all bullshit. Another example of everyone who wasn't there playing "Monday Morning Quarterback." He and his organization were not about taking crazy risks. They had found out as much information as possible, had attacked as soon as they could and had done everything in their power to stop A.I.M. and keep the city safe. It was just that…sometimes, your best wasn't enough. Sometimes, things happened that were beyond your control. Sometimes villains simply had unknown aces up their sleeves or Murphy's Law prevailed and a situation went south too quickly to be controlled. Sometimes, things just went to hell and it wasn't anyone's fault except that of the criminals who started this whole messy business.
But such explanations, true as they might be, weren't likely to fly when you had a dead national hero on your hands.
A buzz from his secretary shook him out of his fog. "Sir, Tony Stark is here to see you."
Nick Fury scowled slightly and repressed a sigh. "Send him up," he told his secretary, pushing aside the report he was still no closer to completing. Stark was the last man in the world he wanted to see right now, but he knew that the matter Stark wanted to see him about had to be dealt with eventually. Even if doing so was even more unpleasant than writing a report trying to explain the death of Captain America.
Nick Fury sighed again, thinking of the unpleasant little surprise they had discovered during their sweep of the ruined factory, a surprise that was currently being held in the most secret, maximum security cell on the premises. They had told everyone that they hadn't found any survivors in the factory when they had searched it, and while this was indeed true, it certainly wasn't the whole truth.
No, the survivor they'd found had been underneath the factory.
The surviving Avengers told him about the bunker, of course, and that the Red Skull and Crossbones had gone down there to detonate the factory before the Cube could reach its critical meltdown point, but all of them had expected both supervillain and henchman to have long since fled once the fire had been contained. And while it was true that there had been no sign of Crossbones when they'd gone down to investigate, the Red Skull was…still there.
He hadn't been trapped…no, the bunker had survived the blast and still been completely operational when they'd discovered it. The SHIELD agents had been able to enter it by simply pushing a button. But once inside, they had been surprised to find its original occupant curled into a ball underneath the control panel, weeping softly. And try as they might, they had been unable to get any sort of a response from him. No matter what they said or did, he didn't acknowledge them in the slightest, and, in fact, seemed to be completely unaware of their presence.
Nick Fury didn't know what had happened in that room underneath the factory, but whatever it was, it had pushed the Red Skull into a state of complete catatonia. And now he was lying silent and unresponsive, in a cell right there at SHIELD headquarters, waiting for them to decide what to do with him.
Of course, Nick Fury knew what should be done with him, and that was to turn him over to be tried for his various war crimes and other terrorist activities he had attempted over the years. Not only was it the proper thing to do, but, Fury had to admit, it would definitely make his own life easier too. If they could publically admit they had captured the Red Skull, and publically allow him to be tried and sentenced for his various horrific crimes, then it would certainly improve SHIELD's image…and Fury's own.
Right now, the public only saw a bungled operation. One that had resulted in the death of a national hero. But if they could show that it had also resulted in the capture of a hated supervillain, specifically, Captain America's own nemesis, the entire operation would look much better. Fury was fairly certain they could pin the bulk of the blame for the incident on the Red Skull as well. It wouldn't be too hard of a lie for the public to swallow….after all, the Red Skull was much better known than A.I.M. and much more closely associated with using the Cosmic Cube for destructive purposes. If that path was taken, Captain America's sacrifice would be much more palatable. He had not died stopping a bungled situation, he had given his life to stop his most hated enemy from destroying the city…and had caused that enemy to finally be brought to justice in the end.
It was an easy solution, a simple one, and one that Nick Fury knew he likely wasn't going to be allowed to use. Because in the world of high-ranking military men and powerful politicians, simple solutions were a rarity. There were always other factors that needed to be considered. Unpleasant as they were…
The door of his office opening noisily and without so much as a warning knock heralded the arrival of Tony Stark. Nick Fury looked at the man with misgiving. He wore a wrinkled button-up shirt and a pair of dark blue jeans. Hardly appropriate attire for visiting the head of SHIELD, but then, given the situation, he supposed Stark's distraction from formality could be excused. And his eyes looked bleary and red-rimmed. Again, hardly surprising, given the situation (Stark and Rogers may have been two very different people, but they had remained steady comrades and friends for most of their Avengers's careers), but Nick Fury couldn't help wondering if grief was the only source of that redness, or if Stark had been imbibing in the vice he was famous for.
Fury almost sighed. It was certainly a foolish question. With Stark and liquor, it wasn't so much a matter of "if" as a matter of "how much," and expecting him to be careful while dealing with the grief of losing a close friend was probably asking a bit too much. Still, he hoped the man could at least manage to be professional during this meeting.
"What can I do for you, Stark?" he asked, trying not to roll his eyes. Another foolish question. They both knew what Stark wanted. Still, Fury was unwilling to dispense with formalities entirely. Managing to remain professional was a small consolation in the middle of this debacle, but it was still something.
"It's about the Red Skull," Stark replied, apparently wasting no time in getting to the heart of the matter. "I need to know what you're planning on doing with him."
Fury pressed his lips together, hoping the action would keep him from scowling. "We're going to turn him over to the International Criminal Court," Fury told the man, as if stating the obvious. "Isn't that what's usually done with captured Nazis?"
"Spare me the bullshit, Fury!" Stark suddenly snappd, his red-rimmed eyes narrowing in irritation. "We both know protocol isn't something that matters much, this high up the chain."
Maybe it didn't, but Fury wasn't going to acknowledge that fact. It gave him the only bit of control he still felt like he had in the middle of this mess. He wasn't going to simply let Stark strong-arm his way into getting what he wanted. Let him work for it. Let him come up with a convincing case.
"Calm down," Fury said firmly. "I know these past couple of days haven't been easy, but I still think you can keep your composure while you're in my office. Now," he continued, figuring it was time to stop beating around the bush, "did you have an alternative course of action in mind?"
"We need to keep him under our control," Stark immediately answered. "We can't risk turning him over to the International Criminal Court and losing control over what happens to him. We can't risk letting them lock him away where we can't have access to him or worse, executing him. He's too valuable!"
"Valuable?" Fury asked, doing his best to sound skeptical. "How is a catatonic megalomaniac valuable to us?" As if he didn't know. Still, if Stark wanted to take his prize away, let him work for it.
"He won't stay catatonic forever," Stark replied.
"What makes you so certain?" Fury said. "None of the doctors we've had looking at him have been able to get any sort of a response out of him." Which was true, but misleading. They had given him a rudimentary medical evaluation, but it wasn't like they'd had the top psychiatrists in the nation doing their best to break him out of his catatonia. There had been more important things to worry about besides Red Skull's mental health. As far as Fury was concerned, the piece of shit could remain a glorified mannequin until they decided what to do with him.
"Because the Red Skull can't even stay dead for very long," Stark replied. "He always comes back, even when we're certain he's been killed. The bastard's worse than a cockroach." Stark shook his head, looking almost amazed. "If drowning and being vaporized and being shot and even dying of old age can't keep him down for long, I don't think a mental breakdown can either."
"And if he does recover, what exactly are you planning on doing with him?" Fury asked. "Locking him up in Stark Tower and charging admission for the public to take a look at the caged-up Nazi supervillain?" Actually, that did sound a bit like some sensationalist scheme Stark might dream up after one too many vodka tonics. He probably should stop giving the man ideas.
"Quit playing dumb, Fury," Stark said quietly, his voice almost a growl. Fury raised an eyebrow slightly, looking at the man with a trifle more respect. So he could see right through the ruse, could he? Perhaps he had had enough sense to go easy on the liquor before this conversation. "You know why I want him. And why you should give him to me. It's in both our best interest. It's in everyone's best interest, for that matter."
"Yes, he's bound to have knowledge of the criminal underworld that we can use," Fury admitted. "But so do a lot of the criminals we catch. I don't know that that's worth more than the good PR we'd lose by not turning him in…or the risk we'd take by keeping him under your jurisdiction." He actually didn't mean that as a slam against Stark….Red Skull was probably more secure in Stark Tower than in most prisons, but he was an enormous risk wherever he was, especially considering his unlikely escapes in the past. If Stark wanted to take it was a slam, however, Fury certainly didn't mind.
To his mild annoyance, Stark didn't take the bait. "We both know he's far more valuable than any underling you've captured in the past. He's not only the head of his organization, he's the head of one of the top criminal organizations in the world. He can give us far more information than anyone else in your custody ever has. But it's not just information in general I want out of him…it's a specific type of information."
Fury sighed. He knew it would come to this. "And that would be?"
"He found out A.I.M. was creating a new Cube, even before we did," Stark replied. "He must have extensive information about their activities. There's bound to be information our informants don't have. You know we need that information, if we're going to have any hope of tracking A.I.M. down."
Fury knew. They had not found a single A.I.M. member alive, and they had found very few of them dead, for that matter. Most of the bodies they had discovered had been Red Skull's henchman. True, the Chairman had died, but they both knew that there were several other members of A.I.M.'s Board of Directors. Not to mention the financial sponsor who had arranged all this. The mysterious "Baron" the Chairman had mentioned. Fury knew of a few criminals who went by the title (Baron Strucker and Baron Helmut Zemo being the best known), but nothing he'd seen suggested any of them had close ties to A.I.M. Perhaps it was another baron, or perhaps "Baron," was simply an alias of some new criminal they'd never faced before. With no A.I.M. soldiers or scientists available for questioning, they had very few leads.
Fury sighed again. He knew whatever leads they could find would be important too. Since most of A.I.M.'s leadership remained intact, it was very possible they might try to create another cube. Especially since MODOK had also been missing when they'd searched the wreckage. Fury didn't know if the creature had escaped or if A.I.M. had recaptured him, but if there was any chance it was a the latter, they were in no position to sit back cooling their heels.
"You know I'm right," Stark prompted him. Fury realized he'd let his silence stretch out for too long.
"I know," he said, still not sounding happy about it. "Still, I can't make you any promises. It's going to be difficult to arrange this. I'll have to get permission-"
Stark cut him off with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Bullshit, Fury. I know you haven't told a soul that he's here. Because you knew something like this might happen. You knew we might need him. No one who has any authority to stop you knows he's alive. I'd bet my company."
"Yeah, and even if that were the case, what makes you think I'd turn him over to you?" Fury grumped, hoping he didn't sound quite as sulky as he felt.
"Because you wouldn't be turning him over to me," Stark replied. "You'd be turning him over to the Avengers. He'd be in the custody of some of the greatest heroes in the world. And you could rest assured that not only would they keep him safe, they'd also use any information he gave them responsibly."
Fury pondered that. It was true they needed any information the Red Skull could give them if they were to have any hope of finding A.I.M quickly. It was also true that they couldn't keep him here at SHIELD. It was too risky that he'd be discovered and then Fury would lose custody of him. As high ranking as he was, there were always those members of the government who outranked him…or who were powerful enough to try muscling in on his business regardless of who had a more impressive title. He needed to keep the Red Skull someplace away from SHIELD…but where he'd still have access. And what safer place than with the Avengers? Stark Tower was practically a fortress, Stark's relationship with SHIELD meant that Fury would likely still be privy to any information they got out of the Skull, and the people who were most likely to be the ones to find and face A.I.M. again-the Avengers-were the ones with direct access to any help the Red Skull could provide them. It did seem to be the best solution, given the circumstances.
"You know I'm right," Stark said again, apparently growing bored with having to go thirty seconds without massaging his ego.
"That still doesn't mean you're getting him," Fury said shortly. Actually it did, but Fury still refused to roll over like a beaten dog. Stark's smug mannerisms annoyed him on the best of days, and on a day like today, it was all he could do to keep from picking up one of the brass paperweights on his desk and hurling it at the drunken playboy's head. "You're asking me to give up an extremely valuable prisoner. Maybe one of the only things that might help repair SHIELD's reputation. If you think I'm just handing him over to you because you asked nicely, you're crazy. What are you offering in return?"
"I'd think knowing that you're helping stop A.I.M. from conquering the world would be compensation enough," Stark said. When Fury remained silent, Stark rolled his eyes with a snort. "Of course, if it's not, Stark Industries is always working on new weapons, computer technology, surveillance technology…al sorts of goodies the head of SHIELD might be interested in. Pick your favorite and I'll draw up an exclusive contract between our two organizations."
"Deal," Fury said quickly. Stark had been right that stopping A.I.M. would have been enough to make Fury to turn the Skull over to the Avengers, but that didn't mean he was above bluffing a bit to try and get something else out of the deal. New weapons or tech weren't going to do much to compensate for PR nightmare he still faced, but they were better than ending up with nothing but an empty cell down in the basement.
"Good," Stark said with a nod. "Have your secretary set up an appointment so we can draw up a contract. And I'll be in touch with you about transporting him to Stark tower. We'll have to come up with a way to get him there that won't arouse suspicion. In the meantime-"
"…in the meantime, I'll release a report saying we've found his body in the wreckage," Fury finished for Stark.
Stark nodded. "Only those of us who are in on the deal can know he's alive. To the rest of the world, the Red Skull is officially dead."
"Agreed," Fury said. "And you'd better make sure it stays that way."
Stark nodded, then glanced toward the clock on the far wall. "Well, I suppose I'd better get going and leave you to your reports. I've got some place I've gotta be in an hour."
"Oh?" Fury asked, although there was no need. He knew.
Stark's face clouded slightly. "Yeah. Memorial service for a friend."
Fury suddenly found himself giving a sympathetic look to the man he despised so much. For all their mutual dislike, the two of them weren't completely at odds. They still had some things in common. Like shared comrades…and shared grief.
"Yeah," Fury said, allowing a touch of sadness to enter his tone. "Me too."