Beta: Thank you Doccy, Mitchy and Sabaceanbabe!
Feedback: Is always appreciated, thank you so much everyone who's taken the time to comment so far!
Note: We're done! The route they followed, for anyone curious, is at goo . gl / maps / axzo ( remove spaces ;) )
Darcy made it to the diner ahead of everyone else - not actually that difficult. Nine in the morning and Earth's greatest hopes were either elbow-deep in washer-guts or still sleeping.
Or they were absent, with a huge pile of plush toys in their sky lounge nest.
(She didn't want to know, wasn't going to ask. May have stolen a tiny hippo.)
The early breakfasters had already been and gone; the diner was almost empty and the tables were clean and re-stocked, ready for the next rush.
She claimed the single corner booth before it was taken and they had to do the three-table thing instead, which tended to end up as the one-table thing with a side of stressed waitress.
Bruce and Tony usually played musical chairs and Thor kept insisting he'd just stand. Then you were trying to finish your toast with a 6' 5'' Viking looming over you: little off-putting.
Even worse, sometimes Steve leaned next to her to drink his coffee and then spent the rest of the time fielding tacky passes from every single other person squeezing by, which Darcy had a problem with for no other reason than the objectification, Jane.
And 'can I just get through there?' was totally a pass, Jane.
She shuffled her way around the curve, opened her notebook and had two entire minutes of peace to run through her e-mails (Mom, I don't know Perez Hilton, I swear) before Clint dropped onto the seat beside her.
This time, she was ready. There would be no distractions at critical moments. Not after the accidental, completely out-of-context, mid-sentence mention of whipped cream in her last e-mail, which had her mother talking to Doc Schultz and her sister way, way over-sharing on reply all.
He drew a breath; without looking away from her screen, she held up a finger. "Don't even think about it. Hush your face."
She finished her reply, hit send, closed the notepad and then turned. "Okay, do your wor-"
There was a woman standing politely next to the table at Clint's side.
And, wow. So it turned out there was a way to make Tourist look good.
Darcy kicked Clint's ankle lightly in retribution and smiled at the woman. "Hi. Sorry, he does this thing, so I do this thing. And never mind - you really don't care. Darcy. Cool hat."
"Thank you. Natasha." Natasha slid into the booth on Clint's side, facing the door. She folded her hands neatly in front of her, completely poised - as if what she was wearing (possibly committing) was happening to someone else. "What have I missed?"
Darcy settled back and tucked her notepad into the sling bag at her side. "There was the really big hole. A Very Large Array … Mount Rushmore. Twine. Today we rock the House of Mystery."
"That's …" Natasha stared blankly ahead as she searched for the word. "Exciting," she managed, with barely a lilt of a question at the end at all.
"It could have been Boring topless dancers," Clint muttered.
"I'm sure they have their charms." Natasha pulled a menu towards her and pursed her lips as she scanned it, idly toying with the camera strap around her neck.
Clint leaned an elbow on the table and propped his chin on his palm, watching her.
She didn't look up. "You're staring."
"I'm being punished, right?"
Natasha's mouth curved in a smile that Darcy would have missed if she'd blinked. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I'm thinking the hat." Darcy glanced between them. "With the ears?"
"The hat," Clint confirmed. "With the ears. Nice bow - good polka dots." He leaned back to catalogue the rest of Natasha's outfit; Darcy made room. "Hawaiian-print t-shirt. Cheap shades. Camera - the neon strap's a nice touch. Jeans-shorts. Fanny pack, knee-socks and sneakers."
"I'm blending," Natasha said shortly.
"More 'mocking.'" Darcy waved her hand, so-so.
Clint leaned forward again. "Or taking the happiest revenge on Earth. If you lose the hat, I'll apologize for whatever I did."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." Natasha smiled brightly. "I love Ricky Mouse."
"It's Mickey," Darcy whispered behind Clint's back. "And, actually, it's Minnie."
"I love Minnie Mouse," Natasha corrected, barely missing a beat.
Darcy caught another sliver of an almost wicked smirk before Natasha gasped, "Ohmygod!" and clapped her hands together in excitement.
Her expression lit up with unholy joy. "They have waffles!"
Darcy had the strong urge to recoil; Clint actually did.
He held up his hands. "I'm sorry Stark followed me. It was dark. I didn't see him and I had no idea he'd make you road trip. In the million dollar, luxury RV. Just going to throw that … out … there."
Natasha stared; he stared back.
"Fine, I saw him. I just couldn't lose him."
Natasha stared; he stared back.
"Yeah, okay, I waited until he got to the bar before I left. There was a bet…" He paused and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "This is her fault."
Darcy let her mouth drop open in amused outrage. "You're trying to pin this on me?"
"You started the pool."
"You were sneaky and mysterious!"
"And now I'm wearing a hat with ears and a red and white polka-dot bow," Natasha said calmly, bringing them back to the central point.
"And where did you even get - no." Clint shook his head firmly. "I don't want to know. Ever. What I'm saying is, this isn't my fault."
Natasha stared; he stared back.
"I accept all responsibility?"
Darcy hummed quietly with undisguised admiration. "Nice. How do you do that?"
Natasha bent her head to look back at the menu. "Training."
"Yours or his?"
"Both. It's a matter of-"
"Look. Superheroes." Clint waved towards the door - waving, drowning, same difference - to attract the attention of Steve and Thor as they entered.
Steve looked around as he sat on the other side of Darcy (it was the first empty space, Jane). "Good morning. They're still in the laundromat?"
Darcy smiled a hello and shrugged. "Jane made a dawn coffee run, but, yeah. And they got Erik too." She sniffed. "He was so young and beautiful."
Natasha leaned in to Clint. "Explain."
"Stark, Banner and Foster - and Selvig - went to fix a washing machine last night and no one's seen them since."
"And we're … fine with that. Okay." She straightened and nodded to Steve and Thor with a small, but genuine smile. "Should I come up with a transparent excuse to be here? Which ones have been used already?"
Steve grinned, manfully ignoring the hat. "Actually, I wanted to thank you - I won a bet."
"And Stark lost?"
Steve's grin widened briefly before he adopted a suitably regretful expression. "I guess it worked out that way."
After a moment of quiet deliberation, Natasha slipped off the mouse ears and nodded to Clint. "We're even. But I'm keeping the shirt."
Now surrounded on all sides and kind of needing an exit, Darcy decided on the simplest route: she slid down from her seat and crawled under the table.
By the time she'd made it to the other side, Steve was waiting to help her to her feet. If a semester auditing Lit had taught Darcy anything at all, it was that, if she wasn't careful, from here it was all languishing and needlepoint.
Thor looked more amused than chivalrous (stop sharing your ridiculous theories with your 'it's complicated,' Jane), but she batted Steve's hand away as she stood.
He backed out of her way. "We could have moved for you."
And that was so not the point.
"Get me a chocolate milk and the pancake stack," she ordered over her shoulder as she headed for the restroom.
Darcy ignored the sound of Clint choking behind her.
"The owner of the RV Park won't be suing," Franklin confirmed. "And Public Affairs have undertaken level two damage control measures."
"They spent the morning tweeting that the pictures were clearly Photoshopped," Fury translated.
"Yes, sir. And if necessary, they can claim the video is a test shoot for an upcoming movie. They've lined up two directors and several scriptwriters to back that up."
Fury nodded. "Which leaves the on-site surveillance cameras and thirty or so eye-witnesses."
"We've asked them not to release any footage to major news outlets."
"And they'll comply out of the goodness of their hearts?"
"No, but the laundromat did break up an attempted robbery-slash-kidnapping."
There was a lengthy pause.
"How about you go ahead and work up a report for me, Agent Franklin?"
The door of the diner slammed open, wooden frame splintering under the force. Two men in gray utility jumpsuits, both wearing black ski masks, both carrying shotguns, stood in the doorway.
The waitress behind the counter, an older woman who'd winked at Steve when he'd come in, gave a short, shocked yelp and covered her mouth with her hand, eyes wide.
At the other end of the diner, near the restrooms, a woman in the same gear appeared. Steve hadn't seen her come in; he guessed she'd used the staff exit in the rear corridor.
The taller of the men - Steve went with 'Balaclava One' - strode towards the counter while Balaclava Two covered the room with his shotgun and yelled, "Nobody moves and nobody gets hurt."
"Great, we're being robbed by bad clichés." Clint spun a dinner knife in silver arcs across the back of his fingers.
"This is serious," Natasha hissed. Her mouth thinned, but didn't quite hide her smirk.
"Don't say that," he murmured back. "You'll only encourage them."
On their right, Balaclava Three waved her gun in the booth's direction. "Shut up!"
Natasha acquiesced and said nothing as she gave the woman her full, undivided, unblinking attention.
Balaclava Three stumbled back a step. "I think this is a bad idea, Pau-"
At the counter - searching the shelves, not even trying for the cash register - Balaclava One spun furiously. "No names! Christ, you don't get to think."
What a prince.
A second waitress was standing a couple of feet from Steve holding an empty, round serving tray. He gently took it from her hand. "Can I borrow this?"
She nodded jerkily, distracted as her gaze darted around the room.
Not with fear, Steve realized. She was working out how bad it could get.
To his relief, and doubtless hers, the only other patrons were an elderly couple, a bleary-eyed, middle-aged Packers fan who Steve vaguely remembered from the bar, and a woman in a rumpled business suit who looked like she'd driven all night.
No families and no young hotheads with something to prove.
No other young hotheads with something to prove, he amended as Thor frowned thoughtfully at Balaclava One and drummed his fingers on the handle of his hammer.
"Don't," Steve murmured, when Balaclava Three turned to watch the increasingly frantic search of the shelves behind the counter. "We can end this without losing a wall."
"My aim is not so poor." Thor's eyes narrowed. "A broken door. Perhaps some broken bones, if the smaller one is slow. But these people will have an escape."
"We're going to get them one, let's just try and leave broken anything out of it, okay?"
The robbers deserved the punishment of a court, sure, but not to show up to the trial in a full body cast.
Expression dubious, Thor relaxed his grip on the hammer. "As you will."
Steve glanced at Balaclava Three; she was watching them again, shifting nervously from foot to foot. She didn't seem inclined to tell anyone to be quiet this time.
Balaclava One flung an arm wide and sent half a shelf of dispensers clattering to the floor. "Where is it?"
The counter waitress gestured at the cash register. "It's there! Just get on with it!"
Balaclava ignored the register to kick at some boxes next to the saloon-style kitchen doors. "Where did he hide it?"
"Hide what?" She looked more exasperated than scared now. "He who?"
Balaclava One growled something and stalked into the kitchen.
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Darcy behind Balaclava Three, peering around the door of the women's restroom with a confused expression.
When he shook his head, she slipped back from sight. A few moments later, she was visible in the window on the other side of the diner, jogging towards the laundromat.
With Darcy about to alert the others, Steve concluded that the safest plan would be to keep the robbers distracted until they could be encouraged outside, where Stark and hopefully not Banner could deal with them.
Steve raised an eyebrow at Thor and then angled his head in the direction of Darcy's retreating figure.
Once Thor had nodded, Steve tried to work out how to give Clint and Natasha the same information. It turned out to be unnecessary - when he looked their way, both heads dipped in unison. Which wasn't slightly creepy at all.
So now he only had to hope they'd all agreed to the same plan.
He felt the nudge of a barrel against his shoulder.
"Whatever you're thinking about trying, don't." Balaclava Three prodded Steve's shoulder again. "Get - get on the ground."
Steve looked beyond the gun to the widened eyes of the woman behind it.
It would be easy to take her down.
Heck, between the four them, Steve figured they could probably have the diner secured in ten seconds or less with no casualties, especially with Balaclava One out of the room.
Probably, but not definitely and, right now, it wasn't worth the risk.
The barrel jammed into his shoulder a third time; he shook his head with as non-threatening a smile as he could manage. "No, I don't think so."
The woman wavered and glanced to Balaclava Two, apparently unsure what to do next.
Balaclava Two shrugged.
Balaclava One was a piece of work, but Steve was having some serious doubts that these two had even held a gun before.
Clint cleared his throat to draw her attention. "If you're thrown when someone says 'no,' this really isn't the career for you. Just get out of here."
Except Darcy hadn't reappeared: the team outside weren't ready yet. How they weren't ready, given Stark could be Iron Man in less than the time it took him to fall off a building, Steve didn't know.
Okay, they'd have to draw this out.
"We can't just let them go," he chided and tried to look stern, rather than relieved that Barton and he, at least, were more or less on the same page. "They're committing a crime."
"Badly. Come on, Cap - it's a nice day, the sun is shining. Give them a break."
"You suggest we should release them until they become more competent?" Thor drummed his fingers on the handle of Mjölnir again. "In sport, perhaps. But this is not sport."
They all stiffened at loud crack-bang from the kitchen; Steve spent a good half a second terrified that he'd completely misjudged the situation before he identified the sound as a metal locker being wrenched open, and not a gun being fired.
There was a high shriek over a triumphant shout. A few seconds later, Balaclava One appeared back at the kitchen entrance, arm wrapped tightly around the neck of a terrified-looking boy of perhaps ten, whose arms were pin-wheeling as he tried to break free.
"Found-" Balaclava One stopped short, seeing the tableau at the corner booth and the nervous stances of his accomplices. "What the hell are you idiots doing?"
The waitress next to the booth stared at the boy in confusion. "Cruz?" Her eyes narrowed and she pointed vengefully at Balaclava One. "I know you, Paulie Wilcox. You fu-"
Balaclava Three shouted shrilly over her. "I think we got cops here, Paulie - cops!"
Clint shook his head. "They don't actually give standard issue service hammers to police officers."
"Marines?" Balaclava Two, still by the main door, guessed tentatively.
Steve gestured to Thor. "Not with that hair cut, son."
Balaclava One swore viciously. "It doesn't matter, we're out of here." He pushed his captive towards the door.
And that wasn't going to work either; the entire point in waiting had been to isolate the robbers, not to let them take a hostage on the road.
Steve tensed to stand, but Natasha beat him to it. "I have to get out of here," she cried breathlessly and flung herself out of her seat, towards Balaclava Three.
There was a brief struggle; Natasha managed not to roll her eyes too heavily whilst she waited for the woman to get a grip on her.
At the sudden flurry, Balaclava One turned back, losing his hold in his agitation.
"Kelly!" The kid wrenched himself free and ran towards the booth, hands reaching for the waitress who'd crouched in preparation to catch him.
Instead, Thor strode two steps forward, snatched the boy up by his collar and swung him safely under the corner table in one swift, apparently effortless move.
Kelly he pulled more decorously to safety; she ducked under the table, whispering soothingly.
When Balaclava One took a step forward, Thor shook his head in silent warning and held out his hand.
Mjölnir flew to his palm.
There was a shocked laugh from the Packers fan and a surprisingly loud whisper from the elderly man. "It's those super people, Maude! The ones you like."
Steve stood slowly. "No one has to get hurt, here," he said as calmly as he could into the robbers' terrified silence.
"They do if I say they do," Balaclava One tried, but his snarl was two parts bluster, one part dawning horror. He snatched out at the counter waitress; she jumped back, out of reach.
"He wasn't talking to you." Natasha said, pulling his attention her way. Her expression twisted with sour distaste at the line. "I can't believe I said that."
Clint sat back in the booth and raised his arms to drape them across the headrest, entirely relaxed. "To be clear? That's also not my fault."
"I could have been in France. But, no - I'm in a diner in the middle of nowhere, being threatened by amateurs.
"His ceiling, Barton! What were you thinking?"
Balaclava One pounded hard on the counter to regain their attention, waitress completely forgotten. "Hey!"
At this point, Steve was beginning to doubt the weapons were even loaded, but it still wasn't something he was prepared to risk.
He drifted closer, ostensibly to help the waitress, but mostly to make himself the most available hostage.
When Balaclava One swung the shotgun his way, he froze.
So that worked.
"You give me the kid and you can have this guy and the woman back," Balaclava One offered to Thor and Clint. "Don't and they're both dead."
"You don't watch a lot of news, do you?" The businesswoman asked, sipping her drink with the barest tremor in her hands.
Clint looked at Thor and raised an eyebrow. Thor pretended to consider and then shrugged; he nodded under the table. "I like this one better."
"He's definitely much less likely to kick my ass for this than Tasha." Clint looked back and raised his voice. "No, we're good, thanks - you can keep them."
"I'm going to hurt you," Natasha promised flatly.
At a hint of movement in his peripheral vision, Steve glanced outside; Darcy was holding up a hand, one finger extended.
Steve mentally ran through a few scenarios to get the three robbers out the door as quickly as possible, but realized after a closer look at Balaclava Two that it might not be necessary.
The headgear made it difficult to be sure, but Steve thought the guy seemed to be coming to an unpleasant realization.
"Dude, I think I saw him on TV," Balaclava Two said in a nervous rush, gesturing to Steve. "And, and - that guycalled him Cap. And that's Thor."
"Ding-ding." Clint smiled crookedly. "We have a winner."
Balaclava Two dropped his gun and kicked the door open behind him. "We got to get out of here!"
The gun barrel pressed against Natasha's ribs dipped away as Balaclava Three wavered uncertainly. "Paulie…?"
Natasha took it out of her hands. Literally. She cracked the shotgun open and glanced at Steve. "Not loaded," she confirmed.
Balaclava Three fled, Balaclava One gave a frustrated growl and shoved past Steve to run after her.
Clint stretched and stood. "Did we just spend five minutes distracting those guys so Iron Man could save the day? Because I'm not writing that report."
There was a loud bang from outside; not a gunshot, but very like an engine misfiring.
Then a rising hum.
"Not … exactly." Steve stood watching at the window. Clint ambled over, Natasha and the curious diner patrons and staff followed.
Outside, four washing machines and a drier were vibrating in a menacing circle around the robbers. Steve wasn't sure if it was better, or somehow worse, that they were hovering.
"I thought Stark would just put his suit on," he muttered.
Natasha watched for a few seconds longer. "Be glad he didn't have time to hijack the speaker system," she said at last.
Clint winced in sympathy as Balaclava Two fell screaming before the gaping maw of the tumble drier.
He turned away, shielding his eyes. "I'm kind of disappointed we didn't get to see Rogers throw his tray."
Steve flicked his wrist; the tray he had still been carrying bounced from wall, to ceiling, to wall, to land with a diminishing rattle on counter. "Better?"
"My hero. Can I have your autograph?"
Steve ignored him and turned to look back to the boy, who was standing, head bowed, in the circle of the younger waitress' - Kelly's - arms. Thor hovered protectively.
He walked back and crouched in front of the boy, who looked up with a tear-streaked face. "Cruz, right?"
The boy nodded and sniffed.
"Okay, Cruz. You want to tell us how we can help?"
Agent Hill placed the report on Fury's desk and then stepped back. "Would you like a summary, sir?"
Fury grimaced. "By all means, let's hear the next thrilling installment."
"Wilcox's crew stole some pharmaceuticals from MaxoCorp last week; Diego Alvarez - Cruz's brother - was the bagman. He was meant to bring the drugs to Wilcox when things cooled down, but apparently he had a change of heart, he was working out a deal with the cops instead.
"He stashed them at the diner, then sent his kid brother to collect when the deal took longer than he thought, because he guessed it would be the first place Wilcox would look."
"He wasn't wrong." Fury flicked through the files Hill had given him.
"Alvarez is going to do some time, but Wilcox is on his third strike - the kid and his family are safe."
"And the team?"
"We're almost certain they're still in Oregon, sir. Franklin is with Surveillance verifying that now."
Hill's tone was perfectly even and in no way suggestive of having lost the best two out of three when she and Franklin were ro-sham-boing over who had to deliver the report.
Which he knew she had.
Fury was impressed, just not impressed enough to let her off the hook. "Still in Oregon and yet I have reports Mount Hood remains standing."
"Yes, sir." Maria kept her eyes focused on the wall behind Fury, flawlessly expressionless. "They only visited the House of Mystery at the Oregon Vortex.
"Apparently, it's significantly less mysterious now. Doctors Banner and Foster were very thorough in their debunking. Witnesses claim they were carrying a protractor."
"I see. Is that all, Agent?"
Hill hesitated. "Permission to speak freely, Colonel?"
She stood at ease and then spoke in a measured tone that carried the hint of rehearsal. "More of an observation: you can find them any time. You could have avoided all this completely if you'd just told Stark why he couldn't pay for the memorial."
Fury nodded; she was absolutely correct. "Yes, I could."
She firmed her shoulders. "Then may I ask why you've chosen not to, sir?"
Fury settled back in his chair. "It gives Agent Franklin an invaluable learning experience in managing assets, which I'm sure will be useful on his future assignments."
"And that's all?" A tiny line appeared between her eyebrows: a splash of disapproval with a healthy shot of disbelief.
That was to be expected - hell, encouraged. If SHIELD agents believed things, they weren't doing their job.
He shrugged. "If Stark wants to rebel against the tyranny of the system by funding a text-book team-bonding exercise, who am I to get in his way?"
She nodded, but the line was still there. "But still you could have told them, Colonel," she pushed. "I realize your methods were … unorthodox, but none of them would ever have divulged what you did."
"What they don't know now they won't need to lie about later and, trust me on this, once the shine wears off and the digging starts, they'll need all the deniability we can give them."
He stared down at the files on his desk, at the postcards still scattered under them.
"The thing about superheroes? They have to be super heroes. Paragons: beyond reproach. The thing about superspies?" He smiled in a thin, hard line and looked back up. "We really don't."
Hill met his gaze for a long moment. The thin line of doubt cleared; she nodded. "Understood."
"Is that all, Agent Hill?"
"Yes, sir." She paused. "Except Specialist Honeycutt is concerned you may believe he's behind some kind of twine-based conspiracy."
Fury shook his head slowly. "I do not think that."
"Thank you, sir. I'll let him know."
Natasha leaned a hip against the RV's kitchen counter and dubiously took the tablet that Banner held out to her. She ran a critical eye down the list of attractions already loaded on the screen. "Stark's Vacuum Museum?"
From his seat - lounge - on the couch, Tony shook his head. "No relation. Probably."
"A lot of people are called Stark," Banner agreed. "Unless Stark Industries legal department have found that precedent they were looking for."
"Sadly not - Pepper reassigned the team who were looking into it after she caught them trying to patent air."
Darcy shot him a narrow look. "You realize you're a super villain, right?"
"It's the beard, isn't it?" Stark ran a hand over his chin. "You think I should lose the beard? Because I'm not losing the beard - that's never going to happen.
"If I have to turn in my good guy card and go hang out with Hydra, so be it. I heard they have great parties."
"Golden Lumberjack - Superhero of Oregon," Natasha went on, grimly.
Thor tilted his head. "Gold? These lumberjacks are highly regarded?"
"Well, they're okay." Tony looked around the blank expressions. "No one? Really? I'm instituting a movie night, effective immediately."
"I understood," Erik called from the other end of the lounge, where he was still determinedly trying to write his paper.
"Doctor Selvig is excused," Tony allowed.
The serene keyboard tapping continued, unbroken. "Such a pity."
"I got it," Darcy assured him. "But I still want a movie night - Thor hasn't seen Breaking Dawn yet."
"And you're saying I'm the super villain?"
"Golden," Natasha repeated, loudly. "Gold leaf. Fine. Erratic Rock Park."
Tony grinned widely up at her. "I'm flattered, really, but you had your chance. I'm spoken for."
"Erratic." Natasha scowled. "Why am I doing this?"
"Because we're trying to prove to Tony that you don't hate him," Bruce reminded her, not without sympathy. "Apparently this method made sense to someone, at some point."
"Actually," Tony objected, "I specifically said Agent Romanov loved me. Is the unspoken heat of our attraction completely lost on you people?"
Clint dropped a hand Tony's shoulder as Natasha considered him with the pensive expression of someone deciding where to dispose of the body. "You know Tasha's only nice to her targets?"
On cue, she gasped with saccharine enthusiasm. "There's a strip club in the shape of a jug!"
"And I'm okay with that." Tony nodded sincerely. "If more people threatened each other with novelty strip clubs, the world would be a better place, don't you think?"
"This is a waste of time, I don't care where we go." Natasha waved the tablet around hopefully. "Someone else choose."
No one took it; reluctantly, she drew it back.
"Three Groins in the Fountain," Jane read over her shoulder. "What are they drinking in Portland?"
Natasha studied the picture of the statue, turning the tablet in her hands. "It's titled The Quest, but that does seem less technically accurate."
Tony sat up. "As we've established Ms Romanov is unlikely to kill me in my sleep - at least not before some of the best threats ever - and that I've forgiven her for the unforgivable betrayal, I'm choosing.
"There's a granite wall at the Park Max station with Pi to a hundred digits or so, but it's hilariously wrong. We should go and fix it."
"No, we shouldn't," Bruce said, firmly.
"It's a public service!"
"It's vandalism," Steve corrected. "I realize the distinction doesn't come that easily to you, but give it a shot."
Stark craned his head to look at Bruce. "I think he's talking to you. Are you just going to take that? I can poke you with something if that would help."
Clint nudged Natasha's shoulder. "Pick somewhere before the hair pulling starts."
"The Hat Museum?"
Steve blanched. "Please, no."
"The Freaky-But-True Peculiarium?"
Thor looked interested again. "Do they have enormous balls of twine?"
Natasha shook her head after a moment's perusal. "They have a ventriloquist's dummy."
"That's … like fun," Jane said doubtfully.
"Strapped to an electric chair." Natasha arched one thin eyebrow. "They claim it's murderous."
Tony's hand waved imperiously. "Next."
Natasha dropped the tablet onto the counter beside her and crossed her arms. "Then it's the world's largest continual chocolate waterfall or Voodoo Doughnut. Just choose."
"It's a hug," Tony said, helpfully. "She's hugging."
"Okay." Natasha awkwardly patted her back. "You're welcome."
Franklin gave up trying to straighten the suit he'd clearly slept in - if he'd slept at all - and got straight to the point, which Fury appreciated.
"We know they passed through Portland yesterday, without incident as far as we're able to ascertain." Franklin paused. "Although there was an unusual amount of traffic on Akeny and Third," he admitted. "But we're confident they're en route to Seattle now."
Fury noted that the dark circles under the man's eyes had deepened and that his tone was more resigned than angry - almost defeated.
"I've received solid Intel they'll be stopping in Tacoma," he said, not unkindly.
Franklin blinked owlishly. "Tacoma? What's in Tacoma?"
"According to my sources? A club in the shape of a giant coffee pot." Fury pushed a file across his desk. "Your orders."
Franklin stared suspiciously at the file, as if waiting for it to strike. After a few seconds, he risked picking it up - a few seconds after that, he worked up the courage to actually open it.
He frowned. "I'm being transferred?"
"You're being promoted. Congratulations, Agent."
Franklin looked up, confused. "But-"
"You tracked the Avengers for ten days without entirely losing them, resigning, or defecting to the enemy. And all despite Stark's best efforts. You've earned it."
In the midst of uncertain, dawning hope, Franklin somehow still looked almost disappointed.
"You knew this was a temporary assignment," Fury reminded him.
Franklin gave a lop-sided smile. "Maybe they should have been told that?"
Fury didn't let his own stern expression change, save for a twitch of his mouth. "I disagree. Dismissed, Agent."
"Sir." Franklin backed away, renewed life in his eyes and clutching the file to his chest in a white-knuckled grip.
Once alone, Fury reached forward and activated his Comms. "Tacoma is a go. You sure you're ready for this?"
The speaker hissed, then, "I prefer the buildings shaped like teapots, but I'll manage."
"I wasn't referring to the charming whimsy of the locale. And if your cell starts forwarding, we're going to have words."
"I would imagine not, sir. In the meantime, Agent Hill is being kind enough to bring you some paperwork, if you find a moment to look it over.
"I still have some concerns about the budget, and I've had some thoughts while I was -"
This, Fury had not missed. "Have a good trip, Agent. Bring them home."
The tiny, neon-lined club on the outskirts of Tacoma would have shut hours ago, but Tony had thrown enough money at the owner to outright buy it in his quest to rent it for the night.
They'd dragged a few tables into the center of the room, strewn half the bar stock on top and completely cleared the kitchen of nachos. The speakers were piping something vaguely Europop and the lights were low enough that the edges of the room were almost completely hidden by shadows.
It was three in the morning and Tony could feel the horrible, cold tendrils of reality slithering at the edges of his mind. He swiped the closest bottle; it turned out to be Tequila.
When he'd finished coughing, he waved a hand. "No, look, I'm just saying - I'm just saying - I'm not saying we don't save the world sometimes, I'm just saying – I'm just ... what was I saying?"
Darcy, cheek on the table and eyes shut, snorted quietly; Steve pulled his jacket higher over her shoulders. "I don't know," he whispered. "But do it quietly, okay?"
Tony sighed. "Inside voice."
"They'll have people looking for us soon," Bruce commented, cracking the cap on his third Bud Light.
"They've had people looking for us. They failed. You're welcome." Tony raised his head from an intent study of the worm floating at the bottom of his bottle. "And it's ridiculous. And you know it's ridiculous. And that's what I'm saying. Thor's a god, he doesn't need babysitters."
He ignored Jane and Erik exchanging a dubious look.
Thor slammed a palm hard onto the table in his agreement. "Well said!"
Darcy jerked upright. "I'm awake! And I'm heavy." She plucked at the leather jacket over her shoulders in bemusement, then her eyes widened in half-aware horror. "I'm languishing!"
Steve retrieved his jacket. "You're languishing?"
She stared at him; he stared back.
"I heard nothing?" He guessed.
On the other side of the table, Natasha gave an approving nod.
"And I'm a billionaire industrialist, I don't need watchers," Stark went on, audience or not. "I have directors for that kind of thing. And Pepper, and Rhodey, and Happy, and you know what?" He raised a pointed finger. "I am a grown man, fully capable of operating under his own recognizance."
He ignored everyone, including the remaining bar staff, exchanging a dubious look.
"And Banner … okay, but he needs better watchers. Ones more understanding of his love of twine."
"Thanks, that's thoughtful."
Tony wasn't quite drunk enough to miss the sarcasm, but he ignored that too. He looked blearily between Barton and Romanov. "And … you two are watchers. You probably watch each other watching each other. Because that's healthy."
Barton, sat next to Natasha, shrugged. "It works for us."
"You know who really needs watching?" Tony pointed across the table. "Captain Apple Pie over there."
Steve froze, one arm half into a jacket sleeve. "Me? What did I do?"
"Watching at all times. In case he tries something stupidly heroic, like, like - whatever. That kind of person has to be watched. Constantly. Is what I'm saying."
Steve tugged his jacket the rest of the way on and shrugged to settle it. "This was a long way to go because you don't like the guy who replaced Agent Coulson," he said quietly.
"Banner needed a vacation," Tony denied, without much conviction. "And I felt it was important to explore this great nation's rich cultural heritage. Cranklin," he sneered.
"Cra-Franklin's okay," Clint said and then glanced at Natasha. Her expression did something small and complicated; Tony couldn't follow it, but from Clint's frown, he didn't have that problem.
"He's okay," Clint said again.
"It wasn't convincing that time either. Because, no, he isn't." Tony shook his head firmly; drunk enough to be sure of nothing except that. "He's bought into the propaganda and the next crazed lunatic, he'll do something stupid and then he's gone.
"What's the point of knowing what his name is or whether there's a completely unreasonable Cellist in Portland then?"
Thor shifted uncomfortably in his seat; he opened his mouth, but what could he say?
He'd apologized, sincerely and more than once, but it wasn't like that made things better. And there wasn't, as far as Tony knew, an etiquette guide for those awkward moments when your evil brother killed thousands of people, and one Coulson.
"No. No more heroics," Tony went on and tried not to notice the flicker of relief. "We should unionize."
Jane laughed quietly. "Tony Stark, zillionaire Industrialist, wants to unionize?"
"Billions. Just billions. And I have extremely happy employees. I'm reliably informed they whistle whilst they work."
The front windows flared as, outside, a car rolled to a stop. The headlights blinked off and a car door opened, slammed a moment later.
"Speak of the devil," Tony groused.
"Colonel Fury?" Clint shook his head. "He wouldn't make a personal appearance."
"He might," Natasha contested. "The tequila here is good."
"It's not Pepper." Tony picked morosely at the label on his bottle. "She's still in New York, covering for me. I don't deserve her. I should call before she leaves me for someone with more eye patches."
The door opened. Tony didn't bother to look, but he waved the bottle in its vague direction. "We still have eighteen hours, go away."
Coulson smiled thinly.
"Good," he said crisply into the silence. "We can go by Zillah. There's a gas station shaped like a teapot."
Tony fell back in his chair, strings cut.
He grinned. "Yeah, we can do that."
"I - no, no ma'am, I assure you this is a misdial. I was trying to reach Principal Coulson at a different location.
"No, I have no idea what the budget plans are, but I'm sure he'll have everything in hand when he returns."
Fury smiled; the smile grew a malicious edge.
"And I understand he has plans for an outreach program: he has several volunteers who've agreed to speak to the students.
"Yes, ma'am - I'm sure it will be extremely educational for everyone concerned.
"Not at all. Thank you."