Who Doesn't Want to Hug Captain America?
The Terrible Temptations of Trolling Tony Stark
Pepper's phone sounds on speaker and Stark says, worriedly, "Is there anything in Nevada except prisons and bad cell coverage?"
"The Hoover Dam, gambling, and divorce ranches," she says back, disconnects, and orders another drink.
Bruce takes off his glasses, polishes them, and puts them back on. The pair of them are sitting at a tiny cocktail bar – rough seating and the drinks come from a tent, but damn they're good – watching over the crowd as Stark does his best showgirl impersonation. There are real showgirls on stage, too, but at this point, Bruce suspects Stark could pull the crowd entirely on his own, naked, or smelling like a skunk from three days in the lab. Bruce resolves not to mention this last, by reason of giving ideas. "He doesn't know what this is about." It isn't a question.
Pepper runs her finger around the martini glass idly. "Well, at first I was in a hurry, and explaining it all to Tony would take time I needed to organise the event. Then it was just funny." She taps a long fingernail on the table and glances again at the phone.
Bruce nods, dubiously. "And the rest of us, are we here to help with PR, or...?" This setup honestly doesn't smell like Army playing games but... eh. He'd seen Hawkeye earlier, lounging in a high place in a Hawaiian shirt and scruffy straw hat, every muscle shouting indolent ease. But his eyes had that thousand-yard stare, and he barely took time to nod at Bruce before going back to scanning the crowd. Perhaps it would have been better to go visit Asgard with Thor and Doctor Foster and their hordes of overly boisterous, drunken friends...
On the distant stage, Stark raises his arms and cries, "So, how about those hopping desert mice, huh? Yeah!" The crowd cheers.
Pepper puts her hand to her mouth. "Oh, I forgot to tell you, yes, well you see-" She stops and looks over Bruce's shoulder.
Natasha is coming towards them, white flowers in her hair, moving like a poem in fire and water. (Not that Bruce is crushing like a sentimental schoolboy. Not at all) "Could we borrow your services for a moment, Bruce?" She holds up a medical kit. Pepper catches her breath in her throat.
With a Bound They Were Free!
Steve Rogers is Captain America! Steve Rogers is striding around in the red, white, and blue, kissing babies and discussing earnestly the importance of maintaining the habitat of a national treasure. Steve Rogers has even managed to improvise a stage routine with the nice girls they borrowed from the casino theatre.
Steve Rogers is quietly furious.
He can, as it happens, spot a covert operation when it is slapping him in the face with a three-day-old mackerel. As a military man, he understands the occasional need to go off book. But as a team leader, he needs better intel than walk around looking shiny. When this is over, he and Barton and Romanov are going to have, as they say, words.
A small truck manoevres through the crowds and screeches to a halt in front of him and a girl with bleached blonde hair and daisy-rimmed spectacles leans out the window. "Captain America!" she says happily.
He puts on a toothpaste-white smile automatically, then realises that he knows her. It's... Darcy Lewis, from S.H.I.E.L.D, who picks up the paperwork, sometimes. She always seemed too nice to get mixed up in this.
She smiles widely and dips her glasses, and he sees behind them a black bruise and a manic glitter in her eyes that he recognises from his old days on the Front. "You've gotta count as senior S.H.I.E.L.D personnel, am I right? 'Saskatchewan'."
A crackle on comms and Barton says, "Tell her 'Arkansaw'. Wait..." A burly man in a suit just coming around the corner quietly crumples to the trampled grass with a small dart in his neck. "Now tell her 'Arkansaw', area's clear.
"'Arkansaw'," Steve repeats, and, "Hawkeye, when this is over..."
"Got it: words," replies the archer, agreeably.
Darcy hops out and leads him around the van, past the side where 'Prison Services' has been sprayed over with Hopping Mice FTW! She's favouring her abdomen and Steve winces a little. He knows that women are strong and capable and tough, but he still... doesn't like it, when they get hurt. "Sorry we're late," she says, as she slides open the doors. "There was trouble..."
There's a human form lying crumpled in on itself on the floor.
"... with the thing with that stuff," the last inhabitant of the van says, where he sits indian-fashion in the back corner, bare elbows resting on denim-clad knees, and a black wand with a sparking end held lightly in his fingers. Agent Coulson's hooded eyes brighten a little. "Good evening, Captain Rogers."
"Good evening," Steve says back automatically.
"We may, technically, be guilty of kidnapping," Darcy says, poking the body with her finger. It – he – rolls over and glares at her. She pokes him again.
"It was a jailbreak," says Coulson
"But I think I can write it up as the transfer of a prisoner to S.H.I.E.L.D. custody."
Later, in a small white room with uncomfortable chairs, Darcy will say, "Oh see, it was awesome, 'cause I was all 'Eeeeeee', and Coulson went Karate Kid, not the 'wax on wax off', the 'sweep the leg bit', and then -"
And Coulson will add, poking irritably at an IV needle in the back of his hand, "There was a weapon on the table."
"And what a taser, is that how Thor feels? I wanna keeeep it."
"So we commandeered a vehicle and headed for the indicated extraction point."
And Agent Maria Hill, their debriefer, will ask Coulson, "Is she on the good painkillers?"
"Are you on the good painkillers?"
And Coulson will turn and glare at the IV bag hooked to his wheelchair. "Possibly."
Who Doesn't Want to Hug Captain America?
Here and now, Coulson sits on the edge of the prison van, dangling his sneaker-clad feet, and says, smiling slightly, "Captain Rogers."
"Agent Coulson," says Steve (Captain America!) standing soldier straight. "It's good to see you upright." He pulls down his cowl and sits down awkwardly next to Coulson. He doesn't know what to say. He hardly knew the man, really. He isn't used to getting people back. "Bugs Bunny is still around, huh?" he ventures, nodding at the logo on Coulson's t-shirt.
"The classics never go out of style," says Coulson. He adds, hesitantly, "Captain Rogers, could I perhaps ask you a personal favour?"
Steve quirks an eyebrow but nods.
"Give the young lady a hug."
Steve smiles and goes over to a refreshment tent where Darcy is tracking the pouring of a cup of coffee with the intensity of an addict. He taps her politely on the shoulder, and then gathers her carefully into his arms. She sighs happily and relaxes into it, saying, "Oh yeah, that's the stuff. This is healing wounds in my soul I didn't know I had. You got good pecs, Rogers." Then, very quietly, she starts to cry.
Barton appears beside him. "Storytime with Elvis?"
"Barton," Coulson says, "there is no Storytime with Elvis, there was no Storytime with Elvis, and there never will be Storytime with Elvis. It was misinformation on a compromised channel."
"I'm never going to live it down, am I?"
"It's good to have you back, sir."
Barton's eyes flick to where Steve Rogers (Captain America!) is rubbing circles on Darcy's back and making shhhing noises like a pro. He looks back. Coulson realises suddenly that his hands are shaking, little irregular spasms that aren't from the chill of a desert evening. "Not in public."
Barton smiles with the corner of his mouth. "We got you a medical examiner. Standard procedure when coming in from the field." And indeed, Natasha is coming towards them now, towing Dr Banner, who now owns a medical case and a bemused expression.
"Agent... Coulson, right?" says Dr Banner. "I don't think we quite met properly, before."
"It was busy," Coulson agrees.
Maria Hill will quirk one elegant eyebrow and send Darcy out of the room. "I think we'll get a more complete debrief later. Oh, your opinion on Probationary Staff Member Lewis in the field."
Coulson will frown. "She's loud, she's impudent, I now know far more about - feminine hygiene - than I ever wanted to, and when she cannot get her predigested musical pap she will try to sing it. And she cannot sing." He will shudder. "The Dead Puppy song is going to haunt my dreams... Adequate to requirements."
"Transfer to your department?" Maria will ask, tapping at her tablet.
Sleep of the Just
Here and now, Banner pinches his hand and watches the skin stay puckered up. He smooths it back down "You're dehydrated," he observes. "Any numbness?"
"Some. A lot. It's getting better," says Coulson.
"Hmm. Squeeze my hand. And the other."
"Will I ever play pianer again, doctor?"
Banner smiles. "Could you play pianer before?"
"Not even Chopsticks."
"Well then." Banner breathes out through his nose. "The chest trauma healed up pretty well. As for the other, six months on your back does nobody favours. We'll get you some physical therapy and see how it goes."
Coulson nods. The shakes are coming back, and he hides it with coughing. Banner keeps his head down as he puts his stethoscope and sphygmomanometer and penlight back in their case.
"We'll take it from here, Doc," says Barton, coming into the quinjet with a soft red blanket in one hand and a silver thermos in the other.
"Thank you for your help, Bruce," says Natasha from behind him. The doctor nods, and leaves quietly.
"Do I get a teddy-bear?" Coulson asks as they give him a thermos mug with hot chocolate and marshmallows and wrap the blanket around his shoulders. Natasha silently produces a mouse plushy with a cheerful red Stark Solutions! logo on its chest. Coulson starts to laugh and can't stop. Someone wraps their hands around his on the warm cup, and another puts an arm around his shoulders. He doesn't care who. They are all of them S.H.I.E.L.D personnel, possessed of the terrifying determination of their service. But for now the job is over, and Coulson can sleep.
Epilogue, or, The Terrible Temptations of Trolling Tony Stark, Two
"Pepper? Pepper, Pepper, Pepper? There are Skrulls in the quinjet!"
"It's three in the morning, Tony. Get some sleep."
"No, see, it's Skrulls. And I know that, because the Spy Twins don't sleep, they just hang upside down in undisclosed locations."
"Or don't get some sleep – I saw some steel drummers and a fish-headed lady come over from Burning Man. You could talk to them!"
"And anyway, Pepper Pepper, Agent Coulson doesn't take off his suit, he can't, it's bonded to his skin. Hang on. Phil? Wait. What? Is this a her vengeance will be twelve percent of terrible kind of thing?"
"Go to sleep, Tony."
"I love an evil woman."
I apologise for the lack of Thor and Dr. Jane Foster, I just have trouble writing them.
As far as I know, the Desert Hopping Mouse is out of my imagination, but let it stand for all small creatures that need a hand every now and then.
"I saw some steel drummers and a fish-headed lady come over from Burning Man" – I'd originally planned to end the story at the Burning Man festival, but research shows they're really responsible about buying tickets in advance and bringing enough food for a week, and don't encourage walk-ins and day-trippers. Still sounds awesome, but less easy to write the last chapter in.
Thank you to my beta reader, Daisy Ninja Girl, who laughed at my jokes and helped me through some tough spots.
It's been a fun ride – I hope you find the ending satisfying. And, all of you who commented or favourited or kudosed or even just read this – thanks. You're awesome.