George Stacy stood in the middle of the room and studied death. It was on the walls, on the floor, and strewn around the loft apartment in the form of the body parts and fluids that had once been New York's youngest gallery owner.
"You sure, Ellis?" he asked. Although Ellis Hawthrone was the closest thing to Sherlock Holmes Stacy had ever met in his life, he still felt compelled to ask.
"Yeah. The only thing that could do this is the Hulk, but this ain't the Hulk's M.O." Hawthorne huffed. "This is some putz tryin' to frame 'im and you can quote me on that."
Stacey glanced down at his phone as it buzzed. "Unfortunately, Ellis, the DA doesn't agree with you."
"The DA is a putz."
"Can I quote you on that as well?"
"You can quote me selling my soul to the devil as long as I get a smoke in the next two minutes."
"Good to know you have your priorities in order, Ellis."
Tony was still fuming as they gathered in the infirmary. Not only had the living room been trashed, again, but now the tower was crawling with cops, feds and Shield agents.
Worse still, if Coulson was right, the second in command of a paramilitary pro-mutant group who had risked exposure to help him was also in the infirmary, possibly with a broken back, thanks to Thor, who had failed to capture Cardiac and was now moping in the hallway. Not to mention, that if you wanted to, it could be said that they were also holding the head of said group. Frankly, Tony couldn't see how this could get worse.
"This is worse than you realize, Stark," Coulson told him, sitting down in an adjacent chair.
"Why can't something stay at a realizable level of worse?" Tony asked. "I mean, once you hit the realizable mark, that should be it. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred."
Coulson gave him a level look. "After a mission, Rogers goes to the museum to sketch, Thor goes to visit Foster, who in this case was in Florida, Barton goes to a bar, and Romanov does yoga. You store your suit then come up to the main room to have a drink or five before closing yourself in the workshop or lab until dinner. This has been established for the past nine months since the Avengers were formally organized."
A drink sounded really good, actually. "Okay, so? We have a routine."
"Exactly, Stark. Routine. He knows your routines. He's been watching the tower. Watching the Avengers. That attack was carefully planned and timed. If it hadn't been for Powell, you would already have been dead by the time Morse, Romanov, and I arrived."
Now Tony really wanted a drink. "Wait. He would need cameras, recording devices. Every single window on this place has an electrostatic charge to keep dirt off and scrambles the sensor of any camera pointed at it. He''d get nothing but static."
"You're forgetting, Stark. Film cameras don't have sensors."
"Film?" Tony asked. "He got around the tower's defenses using film? That's . . . insulting."
The infirmary door opened and a redheaded woman in a lab coat stepped through. Behind her came a man in scrubs pushing a cart.
"Ah, Doctor Fraser," Coulson rose. "Avengers, this is Cassandra Fraser, your Chief Medical Officer."
Fraser waved a hand, her eyes sweeping over the Avengers before settling on Peter, who had scraped his arm, and Romanov, who had a concussion. "Sykes," she said, she said, pulling a clipboard from the cart, "treat the kid." Her voice carried the faintest trace of an accent Tony couldn't place and he blinked as he realized she was very young. No more than twenty-five maybe.
"So where did Fury find you?" Tony asked. "High school? Science Lab? Alien planet?"
"John Hopkins," Fraser retorted as she examined Romanov's scalp.
"Yeah, but you're what? Twenty? Twenty-Five? Or are you forty and just look young?"
"Stark," Rogers sighed, but Tony had the bit in his teeth now.
"Seriously," Tony continued. "You're just a kid yourself. Or are you from Asgard where they look young but they're all fifteen thousand years old?"
"Stark, she's CMO," Coulson warned. "She can ground you from missions."
"You say that like it's a bad thing," Tony replied.
"No, Coulson," Fraser sighed and rolled her eyes skyward. "It's fine. He would have figured out the truth sooner or later." She locked eyes with Tony. "Okay, Stark, you got me; I'm an alien. I was born on another planet and when I was a little girl, I came to earth through a magic door . . ." she trailed off and gave him a look that said he was dumbest thing on earth. "Get real, Stark. I'm an Air Force brat who pulled a Doogie Howser and has a high tolerance for weirdness and my mother's lack of tolerance for bullshit."
Tony burst out laughing. "You know what, Doc? I like you. You're okay."
"Good. Now I can sleep at night." She shook her head and resumed tending to Romanov.
"Tell it again." Tony put his elbows on the work bench, a hand on each cheek and gave Chris a look like he was a teenage girl who wanted to hear all about her best friend's date.
"Tony, he's told it three times. If you still don't understand it . . ." Bruce passed a scanner wand over the amulet and shook his head at the readout. "Fascinating."
"But it's a good story!" Tony protested. "The dashing hero, a mysterious mystery man, and revenge!"
Chris rolled his eyes skyward and glanced at Bruce, the question clear on his face.
"Unfortunately, yes," Bruce responded. "Frighteningly, you get used to it." He set the wand down. "This wasn't made by a human, and it's definitely not Chitauri. I suppose it could have already been on Earth when they invaded, but either way, what it was doing in an old carnival is beyond me. "
"Waiting for a chosen one, obviously," Tony cracked. "Clearly your hobo friend is your mentor type, placing it for you to find."
"He's not my friend," Chris retorted. "If he was, I'm pretty sure he would have said more than 'Power's gotta be used, not abused, by a Darkhawk.'"
"That's my favorite part," Tony raised his hands, wiggled his fingers as though telling a story around the campfire. "'Power's gotta be used, not abused, by a Darkhawk'," he intoned. "Just the right amount of cryptic. I love it."
"Hm, well it's obvious he knows more about it," Coulson replied, making a note on his computer. "Logic dictates he should still be in the area."
Yeah," Chris nodded, "and like I said, I've looked. Nada."
"There's also the 'a Darkhawk' part. That implies that there's more than one." Coulson made another note. "Yet you've never met another one?"
"Haven't even . . . no . . . wait a minute . . ." Chris frowned. "A few years ago, my roommate convinced me to go to Maine on a seafood binge for summer break. Turns out he just wanted to get with some girl he met on the internet, so I had a rental car and some free time. Anyways, up near Canada, I ran into this guy calling himself Portal. He had bits of what looked like my Darkhawk suit, with a hole in the chest where the amulet would be. We fought, and then wound up teaming up against some dinosaur thing before he opened a hole in the air and went through. Never saw him after that."
"Ah yes, the Caribou incident," Coulson typed rapidly.
"There's a Caribou, Maine?" Tony asked. "Seriously, Jarvis?"
"Seriously, Sir." Jarvis replied. "Ah, Sir, Captain Stacey and Detective Hawthorne have just entered the lobby accompanied by a number of police officers in full tactical gear. He says he has an arrest warrant."
"Arrest? I haven't done anything illegal." Tony frowned. "Have I?"
"The warrant, Sir, is for the Hulk."
Ororo Munro opened her eyes to see a hospital ceiling. She felt that peculiar mixture of ache and numbness that was the result of heavy painkillers. Not for the first time, she wished she was less familiar with that feeling.
"Hello, Ororo," Professor Xavier said from next to her.
"Charles? What happened?"
"We are in the infirmary at Stark Tower. Do you remember going to investigate the attack?"
"Yes, but then . . ."
Xavier nodded. "You were struck in the back by Thor's hammer. Had it not been for the winds keeping you aloft, It is likely you would have been killed. As it is, you have been severely injured."
Ororo's eyes involuntarily dropped to the Professor's chair, feeling a chill run through her veins. "How severely?"
"Broken ribs and severe muscular bruising to the back, cuts on your hands and face in the front. Doctor Fraser believes you will make a full recovery, but for now, at least, you are to stay in bed and she does not want you to move for fear of aggravating your injuries." She genuinely has your best interests at heart, Ororo. I cannot speak for Shield as a whole, but Doctor Fraser's motives are purely medical, he added telepathically. "Having examined your x-rays, I'm inclined to agree. I've asked Hank to come and consult, however, and he is bringing some extra help."
Ororo smiled. "Thank you, Charles. That would be . . . nice."
Xavier nodded. "There is one other thing." He rolled to the door and opened it, revealing the largest man Ororo had ever seen. "Please be brief, Lord Thor. She needs her rest."
"Of course," the man nodded and stood aside to let Xavier roll out before entering the room.
"I . . ." he looked at her helplessly, reminding her of a puppy who knew it had misbehaved, but wasn't quite sure what to do next. "I apologize, Lady Ororo. I attacked without thought like a fool. I give you my word, I will do whatever is needed to see you well again."
"You do not need to apologize, Lord Thor," Ororo told him with a smile. "But I would ask a boon of you."
"Of course. Anything."
"I have never met another who could manipulate the weather. in time, when I can leave this bed, I would like to talk with you about it."
"I too, have never met another with power over Midgard's weather," Thor nodded. "When you have had your rest, I will come and we shall speak of the weather." He rose and then cocked his head, listening to something. "The Man of Iron has summoned all Avengers. I must go. By your leave?"
Thor smiled at her and bolted from the room.
Closing her eyes, Ororo tried to sleep. Logan would be here soon, and she would need all the strength she could muster.
"Just remember, Stark," Coulson muttered in his ear as they entered the living room, "we knew this would happen eventually. Don't antagonize them."
"Yeah, but we were expecting Ross and his goons." Tony muttered back.
"Just stick to the plan, Stark," Coulson reminded him. "Stick to the plan."
"Would either one of you like to tell me what this plan is?" Bruce asked, an edge of irritation in his voice as Rogers joined them.
"Explain later, Bruce, no time," Tony flashed him a smile. "Just keep calm when they put the cuffs on you."
"Oh yeah, sure. Nothing easier." Bruce muttered and then jerked as he felt a jabbing pain in his side followed by the lassitude of the tranquilizer Tony and Shield - mostly Shield, Tony was crap at chemistry - had concocted to put the Hulk down if needed.
"Seven percent," Barton whispered in his ear. "Just enough to take the edge off."
"Thanks." Bruce said, already feeling relaxed and calm, if a bit fuzzy headed.
"Yeah. Just remember, all you gotta do is keep calm and wait for the lawyer."
Bruce gave him a side eye. "They told you this plan?"
"No, but I figure you could use the calm down and if its the cops, then there's a lawyer. Probably."
"Very logical, Barton," Bruce complimented him with heavy sarcasm.
Tony hissed at them to be quiet as Thor entered the room and there was a whispered conversation as Rogers filled Thor in and then the quiet rumble of Thor's temper.
The elevator doors opened and Stacey and Hawthorne entered, flanked by cops in tactical gear with their visors up and pistols holstered. Stacey clearly at leased wanted to try peace first.
"Hey, George, what's this about a warrant?" Tony asked.
"Mr. Stark, I have a warrant for the arrest of the Hulk for the murder of Ms Abagail St Leoan."
"The gallery owner?"
"Yeah," Hawthorne answered. "Something big and strong trashed her apartment, and took her apart like a starving wolf on a chicken."
"Nay!" Thor pushed his way forward. "The Hulk is a valued ally, a true hero! He would never do such a vile deed."
"Well everything points to him, Blondie," Hawthorne said, "so unless you're copping to it, you might want to keep your yap shut."
Stacey and Rogers moved between the two men.
"Thor, easy. He's just trying to get a rise out of you." Rogers put his hand on Thor's chest and gently pushed him back.
"He dares call himself a guardian of this city?" Thor snarled.
"Yeah, I do." Hawthorne's bulldog like face was set, a pugnacious curl to his lip.
"That's enough Ellis," Stacey snapped. "Lord Thor, on behalf of the NYPD, I apologize for Sergeant Hawthorne's remarks." He gave the man a sharp look, and Hawthorne stepped back, scowling.
"May I see the warrant?" Coulson asked smoothly, stepping forward. Stacey handed it over, and Coulson spent several moments studying it. "When did the murder take place?"
"Night before last," Stacey answered.
Coulson studied the warrant. "Jarvis, where was Doctor Banner during that time period?"
"Accessing . . ." Jarvis replied. "Security logs show Doctor Banner logged out of his Stark Industries workstation at Nineteen Fifty Hours. Mansion security shows him arriving by elevator to the mansion at Nineteen Fifty-Seven. He and Mr. Stark then entered Mr. Stark's workshop where they ate dinner and worked on personal projects until Doctor Banner logged out at Twenty-Two Forty-Three. Mansion security shows him entering his room at Twenty-Two Fifty-One. House intranet indicates he accessed the mansion DVR for both the Daily Show and the Colbert Report before power usage logs show that lights went out at Twenty-Three Fifty-Two, presumably when he went to bed. No further activity is logged until Oh Five Thirty-Six when the Avengers were convened for their most recent mission."
"And there was no sign of activity from the Hulk?"
"No, Agent Coulson. As of late, the Hulk has been largely in a dormant state except for missions."
Bruce wasn't sure if he should be relieved or horrified that Jarvis kept such a close eye on him. But then, given the Other Guy, that was probably for the best. On the other hand, he was starting to have a pretty good idea of the plan that Tony and Coulson had cooked up. 'Keep calm and let them cuff you,' he reminded himself. "Ah, I guess I should explain," Bruce said, stepping forward. "I'm responsible for the Hulk. His caretaker, for lack of a better term. If he's hurt someone . . . it's . . . ah . . . my fault, I guess." Out of the corner of his eye, he got Tony's almost imperceptible nod of encouragement. Taking a deep breath, he held out his hands. "If you're going to arrest someone, I guess it should be me."
Stacey gave him a hard look and then took the warrant back from Coulson, who moved off and made a phone call. "In that case, Doctor Banner, I would like to ask you to come with us to the station for a formal interview."
Again, Tony's almost imperceptible nod and Bruce managed a smilie. As much as he trusted Tony, if the Other Guy came out during any of this, it was Tony's fault. "All right, let me get my coat."
Nor sooner had the elevator doors closed than Tony found himself surrounded by several angry Avengers.
"Plan, Stark," Rogers demanded. "What kind of plan involves Bruce getting arrested?"
Tony held up his hands. "Whoa, guys. Easy. We're sort of . . . improvising."
"Improvising?" Rogers asked. His muscles bunched under his shirt. "Sort of?"
"Indeed, Man of Iron," Thor added. "I demand an explanation."
"When the Avengers formally came together, Stark and I discussed security arrangements," Coulson said, closing his phone. "Top of the list was the Hulk, and more particularly, General Thaddeus Ross. With the Hulk in one place, and Stark on the list of his least favorite people, it was only a matter of time before he tried something to capture the Hulk."
"Wait," Rogers frowned. "I thought the Hulkbuster unit had been dismantled."
"You're welcome for that, by the way," Tony added.
"Romanov helped," Coulson added, "but yes. Unit members were assigned to various bases around the world, with the idea that if Ross wanted to move on Banner, we would have some warning when he started pulling in members of the unit."
"Which would also give us time to convince Bruce of said plan," Tony added. "Because you know how he is about the Big Guy."
"I have yet to hear this plan, Stark," Thor growled.
"Banner's watch contains a trackable magnetic device," Coulson explained, "the original plan was to let the Army take Banner, after an appropriate show of resistance, follow him to whatever secret base he'd set up and then go from there. However, since the police came for him, we had to adapt." Coulson smiled. "It's up to his lawyer now."
"His lawyer?" Rogers stared at Coulson like he'd lost his mind. "What does a lawyer have to do with it? What if Ross tries something? What if Bruce changes? If something happens -"
"Don't worry about it, Sir," Coulson said with a smile, "this particular lawyer was carefully selected for her, shall we say, special gifts."
Stacey and Hawthorne had just reached the interview room with Banner when they heard the rapid click of heels on tile. Turning, they saw a woman in a simple dark grey suit striding towards them. She was short and thin, her brown hair was chin length and there was a look in her eye that screamed "lawyer." Stacey nodded. He thought Stark had let them go a little too easy.
Banner made a strangled noise in his throat. "Jen?"
"Captain Stacey," she said, handing him a card, "My name is Jennifer Walters of the firm of Murdock and Nelson. I have been retained as Doctor Banner's legal counsel."
"This is a simple interview, Ms Walters," told her, his mind turning over rapidly. "Doctor Banner is not accused of any crime." Absently, he noted that she bore a certain family resemblance to Banner, which probably explained Banner's reaction. He filed that away in the back of his mind.
"And let's hope it stays that way, Captain."
"Naturally," Stacey replied, and indicated the door. "Sergeant Hawthorne will be conducting the interview."
Turning, he walked down the hall and when he heard the door close, he doubled back and entered the observation room just in time for the interview to begin. What followed was the most fascinating duel between a cop and a lawyer that Stacey had ever seen in his entire career.
Ellis played his part perfectly, coming across as the cop trying to be smarter and tougher than he actually was but still giving away everything as Walters probed and attacked with consummate skill, ripping apart his suppositions, and prying information from him like a precious gem in a mine. She even got one or two nuggets that they hadn't intended to give away, but that happened. For his part, Ellis hammered back valiantly, and Banner answered all questions put to him with a slightly baffled expression.
"George, what the hell is this, who the hell is that and where the hell is the Hulk?" Bill Cambridge was Stacey's boss.
"That is Doctor Bruce Banner, the Hulk's caretaker. The lawyer is one Jennifer Walters, and as for the Hulk, well, we're not concerned with that right now."
"Not concerned - George, the Hulk killed someone!"
Cambridge blinked at him and then his eyes narrowed. Cambridge wasn't the smartest of cops, but he was smart enough to know that and he generally trusted Stacey to his job. "Is that something we can take to the DA or . . .?"
"Malley has chosen to err on the side of caution and go with the clearest explanation."
Cambridge crossed his arms. "Convince me, then."
Stacey made his pitch, citing Hawthrone's record and the Hulk's known psychological profile.
"You're basing an awful lot on Hawthorne's word here, George."
"Bill, in all the years I've known him, Ellis Hawthorne has only been wrong once; I didn't like that restaurant. If he says someone is trying to frame the Hulk, then I'm going to listen to the man."
"Which still doesn't explain why he's flubbing the interview like a rookie."
George smiled. "That's deliberate. Banner needs enough information to take back to the Avengers so they can hunt down the real killer." Stacey spread his hands. "I don't like it, Bill, but the NYPD is not equipped to handle super humans. Or mutants. Or another alien attack. The Avengers are."
Cambridge gave him a look. "George, about that."
Sam Wilson enjoyed his work. He'd graduated early with a master's on the G.I. Bill, done his stint in the Marines, and then got tapped for the CIA, where he'd saved the world with some fast thinking and faster talking before finally joining Social Services, first in Hawaii (and he needed to put in for time off so he could fly back for David and Nani's wedding) and now in New York. It wasn't easy, but Sam had picked up a few tricks along the way, and without those, he'd be much closer to being burnt out. As it was, he was due for a vacation.
Today, however, was shaping up to be a bad day. Upon returning to his office from Stark Tower and checking up on Parker and Green, he'd found a message from his boss, and that was never good. Andrew Sparks was a time server and problem avoider who'd reached his position by sheer seniority and was still a few years away from retirement. Usually, Sam worked around him, including running the office, but every so often, Sparks worked up the nerve to remember that technically, he was in charge, they would have a staring contest, Sam would win, and they would go back to ignoring each other.
But it was too early for their next staring contest, so Sam had taken the time to put on the really good suit and the italian shoes in his office before walking down the hall to Sparks' office.
"Ah, Sam . . . yes, there you are." A fine sheen of sweat showed on Sparks' face, and he was not alone. The balding man in the visitor's chair was lean and hawk faced and a senator, which explained a lot because he was senator Chuck Benton, who was virulently opposed to Superheroes in general, the Avengers in particular, and Tony Stark most of all. After the Chitauri attack, Benton had gone on tv saying that the invasion was the Avengers fault and that they should be responsible for the destruction it caused, even though it had come close to costing him in the next election. "This is Senator Benton, and he ah . . . he dropped by for a chat."
Several pieces clicked into place, along with a mental note to find out who had leaked Parker and Green to the Senator's office and strangle them. "Senator," Sam said, smiling and holding out his hand for a shake, "what can Social Services do for you?"
Benton's hand barely fit around Sam's larger one, but he didn't try to squeeze or any kind of intimidation tactic. "Mr. Wilson, you're the caseworker for one Peter Parker and Doreen Green, both of whom you've placed with Tony Stark, and, you realize, in considerable danger as proven today." Of course, when you were that sure of yourself and full of shit, you didn't need to.
Sam kept his smile on. "I am, Senator, and their files are red sealed." Which was a polite reminder that Benton shouldn't even know Peter and Doreen's name, much less where they'd been placed or who had placed them. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sparks' face get shiner and repressed the urge to swear. At least now he knew who to strangle. "Frankly, Senator, they're as safe as they can be. The attack today was directed at Stark personally, and the household security footage shows that Stark's first action was to order them both to safety."
"Maybe I'm not being clear enough, Wilson." Benton drew himself up straight, his head barely reaching Sam's chin. "You are to remove Parker and Green from Stark Tower immediately."
"On what specific grounds, Senator?" Wilson's smile dropped. "Stark is a captain of Industry, and in that alone, he has enemies, never mind Iron Man and the Avengers. Of course, Norman Osborn is also a captain of industry. Will you be wanting his son removed as well? What about Albert Roxxon? I believe his son is underage, will he also be removed? You recall that Osborn hosted a five hundred dollar per plate twelve hundred person fundraiser dinner for you at the last election, a dinner at which Roxxon was a V.I.P." Sam let that hang in the air. "Respectfully, Senator, please do not use the children in my care as motivational tools."
Benton's mouth opened, shut, opened, and then shut again. Then he glared. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I have another appointment. Good day." With that, he stormed out.
Sam watched him go and then turned back to Sparks, staring at the older man through half-lidded eyes and a snake-like smile. "Andrew, we should probably do a security audit of the office. Benton should not have had access to red sealed files without a warrant, at least. Someone here leaked the information."
"Ah . . ." Sparks swallowed. "That is to say, I don't think an audit would do much good. The informant, ah, that is, the informant . . . ah . . . probably erased their tracks. Yes. Erased their tracks completely."
"Mmm. Probably. But I think I'll do one anyway, just to be safe. Certainly can't hurt to keep everyone on their toes, right?"
"Oh-oh yes. Of course. But ah, we really don't have t-time for that. N-not right now."
"You might be right," Sam agreed. "But this leak does need to be reported to the State office at the very least. I'll just go write the report up."
"Ah . . . th-that won't be necessary, Sam, I'll do it. You should . . . lunch! Get some of the petty cash and see about a lunch run for the office."
"Sure, Andrew, thanks."
As Sam left the office, he could hear Sparks frantically typing. He probably should have mentioned that any attempts to change access logs, especially on a red sealed file would send up flags at the State Office, but he was getting tired of the man. Let him dig his own damn grave.
Doreen tilted her head back and stared. M3 rose up a good ten or twelve floors. "Wow."
"I know, right?" Mary Jane said from beside her. "After my first week here, I gave up using mom's exercise bike."
"Heads up, guys," Harry whispered.
"Crap," Peter muttered.
Doreen blinked in confusion as Mary Jane pushed Gwen back and then pulled Doreen to stand next to her, the two of them forming a wall and putting Gwen between them and a car parked at the curb.
"Ah, Parker," Two men had just left the school. One of them was more leonine, broad and face in body, the other lean, whippet thin, but she couldn't figure out what animal he reminded her of. Both bore impressive mustaches. It was the leonine one who had spoken. "I heard about your Aunt and Uncle and I'm dreadfully sorry. It's never easy to lose anyone you're close too."
"Ah, thank you, sir," Peter said. "I . . . I'm just going one day at a time?"
"The wisest course. Ah, and I see you've added someone else to your merry band."
"E h? Oh! Doreen, this is Professor Warren, our science teacher. Professor, this is Doreen, my . . . er, we're still uh . . ."
"They were placed with the same family," Harry volunteered. "We're introducing her to New York."
"Nice to meet you, sir," Doreen nodded, only shaking Professor Warren's hand when he offered his, first.
"Please, call me Professor Ray," the man said. "And this," he indicated the leaner man, "is my brother Miles, he's teaching an advanced course here at M3 for the second year in a row." Doreen heard Gwen whimper, a low sound of pure dread.
"Charmed." Miles Warren's voice was very level, tightly controlled. He did not offer his hand. "Are you a science major, Miss?"
"No, Sir," Doreen said, trying very hard not run or attack because Miles Warren gave her the willies something fierce. As it was, her tail was standing straight up and all the hair was on end. "Cookin' an I know a bit about engines an' pumps an' the like."
"Engines, eh?" Professor Ray asked, "perhaps you should take Hobie Brown's class. He teaches Auto Shop and there's a fair bit of mechanical engineering in there as well. Might want to see if that appeals to you."
"I'll . . . I'll think about it, sir," Doreen said, heart in her throat, and curled her fingers into her palms, because she could feel her claws coming out.
"Good, and I hope to see you in some of my classes as well. You can never know too much about all forms of science, eh, Miles?"
"So you say, Raymond," Professor Miles replied. "And you, Miss Stacy?" Doreen felt everyone tense up even further. "Will you be taking classes with Raymond or myself?"
"Pr-programming," Gwen replied, peeking between Mary Jane and Doreen.
"Pity," Miles said, "I did enjoy our discussions." He smiled and it looked out of place on his face.
"Ah, look at the time," Raymond said. "Miles, we were only given an hour for lunch, you know."
"I remember the schedule, Raymond."
The two men nodded at them and continued along the sidewalk.
Doreen repressed a full body shiver as she finally realized that Professor Miles hadn't taken his eyes off Gwen, not even when speaking to his brother, like . . . like a wolf on the hunt . . . no, not a wolf. He was more like a . . . like a Jackal. Jackals, she remembered a nature show saying, were predators and scavengers, feeding on birds, reptiles, and small mammals.
The big harley stopped a hairsbreadth from the front doors of Stark Tower, the rider letting it fall where it stood as he stormed inside.
"Whatever level the hospital is in this place," he growled at the front desk. "Now."
Even when on pain medication, Ororo was a light sleeper, so she heard the heavy boots clumping down the hall long before the door opened, revealing five foot three of angry lover.
"Logan," she said with a smile and lifted her left arm. He was at her side immediately holding her hand to his face and for a moment, they stayed like that before Logan lowered her hand, eyes blazing. "Who did this, Darlin'?" he rasped out. "I'll gut 'em."
"You are not gutting anyone, Logan," Ororo ordered. "He and I have already spoken on the matter and have settled it."
"But he hurt you."
"It has been settled, Logan," Ororo repeated in a voice like steel. "And even if it was not, I am more than capable of settling my own matters of honor and you know it." Logan tensed up and then all his anger left him like a deflated balloon and he sank into a rolling chair. "I will make a full recovery, Logan, do not be concerned."
"Sorry, Darlin', that aint who I am. I can't."
Ororo smiled and curled her fingers around his. "As it should be." Then she looked towards the door.
"What?" Logan asked, following her gaze.
"The professor said you were coming down with Henry. He should have entered by now."
"Ah," Logan began and the note of uncertainty in his voice had Ororo's eyes on him in moments. "I . . . ah . . . came ahead."
"Logan! You didn't!" She let go of his hand and pressed her hand to her face.
"I was worried!"
"That doesn't—" She sighed and looked around for the call button, or a phone. "How does one make a phone call or get some help?"
"Good afternoon, Ms Munro," came a deep voice as far as Ororo could tell, it seemed to come from everywhere, yet she saw no speakers. "I am Jarvis. Do you require assistance?"
"Ah, I believe that here is a large red harley parked somewhere near the front doors."
"Indeed. I have already instructed lobby personnel to bring it inside. It appears to be undamaged, despite being dropped onto the pavement upon arrival."
"Good." Ororo breathed a sigh of relief. "I would like to make a phone call. Is there a phone I could use?"
"Phone lines are integrated into the infirmary's monitoring system. What number would you like to call?"
Ororo recited Hank's number from memory and the phone rang once.
"Ororo! How — Jubilee! Truck!"
"Hank? Are you letting Jubilee drive?" Logan asked.
"I felt that it would be excellent practice as her test is coming up and the highway —oh my stars and garters!" Over the phone line came the sound of horns and a girl's voice apologizing. "Ah, Logan, I should tell you—"
"Logan!" yelled a man in the background. There was the sound of a phone being torn out of someone's hand. "Logan! You . . . this is the last straw, Logan."
"Hiya, Scott," Logan smirked.
"Last time, Logan. I have had it with you taking my bike. If the paint is so much as scratched, I will . . . will . . ."
"Aw, whatsamatter, Scotty," Logan sneered, "can't even think up a good threat?"
Ororo looked over as a red-haired woman entered the room and stopped.
"I'm past threats, Logan," Scott snarled. "If there is so much as a scratch on that bike, I will have Jean turn you into Elsie Dee again. Permanently. And then, Logan, and then I will take pictures and video and I will send them to everyone you have ever so much as looked at."
"Logan, I said everyone. I will send them to Magneto, to Alpha Flight, to Omega Red, and Logan, I will send them to Wade." Ororo had seen Logan angry, happy, horrified, in pain, and many other moods. This, however, was the first time she'd seen him turn white with fear. "Not one scratch, Logan."
There was the sound of a phone being passed back.
"Ah, we shall be there in twenty minutes," Hank sounded as shaken as Ororo felt. "assuming favorable traffic. Until then."
"Of course, goodbye, Henry."
"Ah . .. ex . . . excuse me, Darlin," Logan said, rising and then bolting from the room.
"Should I ask?" the woman asked.
Ororo thought for a moment. "Suffice it to say, there are people in the world who will never let you live anything down. Ever."
"Sounds like my uncle," the woman murmured, moving forward and checking Ororo's chart.
"Yes, but he would presumably get bored over time. Wade . . . would not."
The woman made a noise in her throat before setting down the chart. "I'm Cassandra Fraser, Avengers CMO and you, are very, very lucky. Your ribs could have been shattered. As it is, they've been broken before, from the looks of things."
"I . . . have received advanced hand to hand combat training," Ororo said, "and have been forced to use it." She managed a smile. "Not everyone likes lawyers, you know."
That got a chuckle. "Good, keep that sense of humor." Fraser walked around the bed and pulled up the chair Logan had been using. "So here's the deal; Bare minimum, you're gonna be here a while. While you're in better shape some soldiers that I've seen, and that helped, the long and short of it is, there's a chance you may not ever get back to 100%. Broken ribs are nothing to sneeze at and there may be damage to your organs or spine that haven't manifested yet."
"I appreciate your directness, Doctor."
"I learned from my mother," Fraser replied. "It was the only way she could keep some of her patients in bed long enough for them to actually recover."
"Ah, Doctor, you should know. I do not do well in enclosed spaces. Even large rooms."
"Yes." Which was an understatement. "Activity helps, but over the long term . . ."
Fraser nodded and got up to jot a note on the chart. "Thanks for telling me. Physical recovery is a lot more mental than most people want to admit." She scribbled on the chart some more. "This is New York, so open spaces and fresh air are kind of an oxymoron, but I don't see any reason why you can't go out onto a terrace or balcony in a wheelchair at least." She pointed the pencil at Ororo. "But, that's contingent on your recovery. If you feel something is off, you tell me. If I feel something is wrong or I find that something is wrong and you knew and didn't tell me, or if you backslide, back into the bed you go. My judgement is final. Deal?"
Ororo nodded. "Yes, and thank you."
Tony sighed and looked down at the estimate in his hand. Although the damage from Cardiac's attack was largely cosmetic, the building's comm system was going to have to be shielded from Beta Particle energy and he was going to have to come up with a way to make the windows proof against film cameras. Not to mention, replacing the destroyed furniture was gonna cost.
"Maybe we should just start buying Ikea," he said. Pepper raised an eyebrow.
"The new furniture. Make it Ikea. Swiss watches, Swiss furniture, Swiss knives, Swiss cheese, Swiss stuff is good."
"Ikea is Swedish, Tony," Pepper told him gently. "Sweden and Switzerland are different countries. and no, the fact that they both start with 's w' does not make it close enough to count."
There was the recorded sound of someone clearing their throat. "Ah, excuse me, Sir, Ma'am. Mister Parker and Ms Green have returned early and there appears to be some . . . contention."
"What?" Tony asked.
"They are arguing, Sir. Loudly."
The elevator opened and Peter and Doreen exited, where it was immediately apparent that Jarvis was practicing understatement.
"We promised!" Peter yelled. Neither of them had apparently noticed Tony and Pepper standing there as they both immediately headed for the hallway. "Gwen wants to handle it herself!
"Yer a damn fool, then!" Doreen shouted back, her accent thick. "Mah Daddy always said that—"
"To hell with your 'Daddy'" Peter exploded, spinning on his feet and getting into Doreen's face. "Your daddy this, your daddy that! Your daddy can go suck it and die! Oh wait! He did!"
Doreen actually turned beet red and then shoved past Peter, sending him staggering back several steps, and bolted down the hallway, Peter on her heels. Moments later, they heard the sound of doors slamming.
Tony and Pepper looked at each other, then at the hallway.
"Jarvis?" Tony asked.
"I'm afraid the details are . . . unclear, Sir." Jarvis replied. "The argument was in progress when they entered the building, but it appears the children encountered someone who has upset Ms Stacey at least once before. Mr, Parker, Mr. Osborn and Ms Watson have all agreed not to speak of the matter outside of their social circle to anyone, and especially not to Captain Stacey above all else. Ms Green objects to this tactic and feels that some form of authority figure should at least be consulted on the matter."
"Well," Tony mused, "their first fight." He looked at Pepper. "I'll take Peter, you take Doreen?"
"Sir, it may be best to at least grant them a cooling off period and let them work this out between them," Jarvis advised. "Although if the contention continues past the twenty-four hour mark, then some form of intervention may be required."
"Makes sense," Pepper noted. "Growing up, we had a forty-eight hour time limit on arguments. If we didn't settle it before time was up, Dad settled it for us and his solutions pretty much involved either more chores or work at Aunt Ruby's farm. Trust me, you only need to clean out the stall of a diarrhetic bull once before getting along and compromising sounds like a real good idea."
Tony winced. "I can imagine. Well, I can't, but the mental image. No."
Pepper laughed and gently bumped Tony with her shoulder before taking out her phone and opening the texting function. Peter and Doreen; You have 48 hours as of now to settle your argument or Tony and I will settle it for you. She tapped the send button and put the phone away.
"You think that'll work?" Tony asked.
Pepper shrugged. "If not, Aunt Ruby is getting on in years and could always use some help."
Bruce was very grateful for the sedative in his system, because without it, he probably would have flashed over to the Other Guy due to sheer shock. As it was, he stood there in stunned silence as Jen smoothly wrapped up the interview, got him out of the station and into her car before pulling smoothly out into traffic.
Wait a minute.
"Who are you?" Bruce demanded. "Where's Jen? Jen. I want to talk to Jen."
She gave him a side eye. "What? Oh." She laughed. "Things are different now, Cuz. It's one girl in all the world now."
Bruce stared. "That's . . . that's not possible."
She shrugged. "Maybe it's different for me. Maybe there was no separation to begin with. Could be it was all in my head."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
You weren't exactly keeping in touch there," she pointed out. "I didn't even know you were in New York until today."
Bruce took off his glasses and scrubbed his face with his hands. Jen was right. He'd gotten so used to being under the radar and keeping his distance that he "Wait. Why are you in New York?"
"Because I'm living and loving life in the Big Apple," Jen replied with a throaty laugh and a smile Bruce had never seen on her face before. It was beautiful. "I do criminal defense now." She sighed. "Look, Bruce. Before we go back to Stark's, how about I find a coffee shop and we talk, okay?"
"Poledra's Test" was a sculpture twelve feet tall, two feet in diameter and according to the plaque, purported to depict a stick with only one end.
While Steve wasn't sure about the one end part, he did know that it was great practice for form and composition and he grinned like a child at Christmas as he set out his chalk and charcoal. Opening his pad to a clean page, he elected a pice of chalk and went to work.
As much as he wanted to, he couldn't lose himself in art. A lifetime of watching his back, first in the orphanage, then on the streets of Brooklyn and then on the battlefield made that impossible and the serum's enhancing of his senses only made his awareness more keen, more sensitive. So when someone else sat down on the bench next to him, Steve automatically looked up, assessing in one single glance.
The woman next to him had that singular beauty of the athlete. Long torso and legs guided the eye upwards past a flat stomach and muscled limbs to a fine, strong face with a smile that, at least in part, reminded him of Peggy. He'd seen her around the museum before. Like him, she had a drawing pad in her hand and as she set down a small flat case, she smiled at him, whiskey colored eyes under a cap of light brown hair that knew he was staring. Embarrassed, he went back to his chalk and charcoal.
Sometime later, when he'd finally captured the sculpture on paper to his satisfaction, he stood up, rolling his shoulders, feeling his muscles untense, he glanced over at the woman. She was still hard at work, rubbing a paper stump on the pad to soften shading. She was actually pretty good, with that quiet level of competence to her lines that was the mark of the serious hobbyist. It took him a moment to realize that off to the side was a sketch of himself in profile, simple, almost cartoony.
"I hope you don't mind," the woman said in a voice that carried just the slightest hint of Texas drawl.
"Oh, no, not at all," Steve replied, embarrassed all over again.
She looked up at him, glasses now perched on her nose and a quiet smile on her face. "May I?" she asked, gesturing at the pad in his hand.
"Oh yeah. I mean, of course. Sorry." Steve turned his pad towards her, and she smiled.
"Very nice. I never could get the hang of charcoal myself. Once I lay down the lines, that's it."
"Yeah, I'm not too fond of it either, but I try to work in it now and then to push myself."
"And this monstrosity is good for that sort of thing, I guess." She gestured at the sculpture. "Sometimes I think sculptors just get drunk, go to town on stone or whatever until they pass out and then call it a masterpiece."
Steve couldn't help himself, he laughed. "Yeah, I guess that's one way to look at it. When I was in art school, there was this kid who couldn't or wouldn't work in anything but oils and all his stuff was kind of surrealist."
She chuckled. "I can go one better. We had this guy who fancied himself as being avant garde and drew everything in negative space. He could tell you everything about the great masters of the art world and was pretty much a walking talking art wikipedia."
"Wow. What happened to him?" Steve asked.
"Last time i saw him? Working at Walmart. But he's got a blog and a tumblr and they're both pretty popular, so . . ." She removed her glasses and shrugged. "I was just taking art as an elective, so it was more about having fun than anything else." She flipped her pad closed, putting the pencils away before slipping the glasses into a protective case.
"So what do you actually do?" Steve began cleaning up his supplies.
"I'm in acquisitions," she replied. "Which is funny because I have a bachelor's in chemistry. What about you?"
"Security work," Steve replied. He ignored the slight pain of liar's guilt. He wasn't exactly lying, the Avengers, being Captain America, it was all about security. "Um, say, would you, I mean, if you're not, that is . . ."
"Yes, I would love to get some coffee with you," she replied with a straight face. "And possibly dinner."
Oh, wow. I mean . . ." he cleared his throat and held out his hand. "Steve Rogers."
Her hand was long fingered without being delicate and fit nicely in his. "Rachel Leighton."
On a personal note, I really, really, hate working with chalk and charcoal. Gimme pencil, pens, and ink any day.
"Poledra's Test" refers to the stick with only one end mentioned in the books "Polgara the Sorceress" and "The Seeress of Kell", both by David Eddings, who in turn was one of my influences. Here's to you, Dave.
Yes, that was a Lilo and Stich reference and the implication that Sam is Cobra Bubbles.
"One Girl in All the World" is a really awesome instrumental track and so is its companion piece "All the World in One Girl". I highly recommend both.
A nineties-era x-men bio noted that Storm was trained in both unarmed and knife combat as well as her being extremely claustrophobic, which I remember being a plot point in the 90's X-men cartoon.
Elsie Dee in the comics was a robot built by one of Logan's enemies for reasons I never bothered finding out. Or if I did, I've forgotten them. In this universe though, Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost both have very strange, very twisted senses of humor leading them to at one point cause Logan to believe that he was a five year old girl. Why they had a pink and lilac outfit with accessories in Logan's size is something you probably shouldn't think about.
As to whether or not that's Cassandra Fraser from Stargate SG-1 all grown up or if I'm just messing with you . . . I haven't decided yet.