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The shadowed council illuminated Stark's computer screen. Their images would occasionally waver as his program bypassed some measure of security. He lounged in his chair, nonchalantly snacking on a box of doughnuts. His bare feet were propped up on his desk, atop piles of various diagrams and blueprints. Nick Fury was speaking, ". . . absolutely essential to the team as a whole-especially after that incident a few days back."
One of the council members, a woman, spoke, "What triggered that accident? Surely it was something that could have been prevented."
Fury visibly bristled at that comment, but his voice remained level, "I don't know what triggered Banner's episode, but I am looking into it, I assure you."
Tony licked his fingers and reached into the box for another doughnut as a different council member, also a woman, piped, "Using the Asher woman as your tool in doing so."
It was not a question, but Director Fury nodded.
"She is too dangerous," one of the male members growled, and others nodded assent.
The second woman scoffed. "They are all 'too dangerous,' that's why Doctor Asher is there in the first place." Council members muttered agreement.
The man argued, "Had she been working with the team a year ago-"
"If there had been a team a year ago," Fury said under his breath, barely audible.
"-and if Loki had possessed her just as he did Barton, there would have been very little anyone could do to stop him. To stop her."
Fury's brow furrowed, "That's a mighty lot of 'ifs' for something that will never be repeated."
"How can you be so sure?" the first woman demanded.
"Both Loki and the Tesseract are gone-taken and locked away in the bowels of Asgard. The chances of his escape are highly unlikely."
"Damn near impossible, and his ability to get to us, here on Earth, is impossible."
The first woman began to make a point, but Tony's screen suddenly flipped to a familiar, balding face.. "Mister Stark," the agent said, "You should not be eavesdropping upon a council meeting. Director Fury will fill the team in with the necessary information."
"Agent Coulson," Tony said flippantly waving half a glazed ring in greeting, "must you ruin a man's cable? It was just getting to my favorite part."
"You should be improving SHIELD's security measures, rather than boring through them. If I ever catch you spying again-"
"I know, I know. You'll taze me and watch-what was it? Supper Nanny-as I drool into the carpet."
"Good. Then we have an understanding." The screen changed to black.
Stark sighed and looked at the mostly-full box of doughnuts in his lap. "I wonder if Steve is hungry."
Clint reclined in Andrea's office at the appointed time. He slouched in the chair facing a trash-can containing crumpled pieces of paper. His feet rested idly on the opposing seat; a stack of paper rested on his toned stomach. He balled the one of the documents in his hands and tossed it into the bin. Too easy. His eyes glazed over the room for a challenge. He carefully began to fold one of the sheets into a pristine and complicated paper airplane. He took aim and tossed it. The paper aircraft looped twice through the air on it's way to the bin, when the office door opened, and gust of air slightly redirected the path of the vessel. It hit the rim, rather than diving into the trash receptacle. "Aw, come on! I totally HAD that."
She looked at the discarded paper disapprovingly, "You do realize that I have to buy my own printing paper."
"Sorry. SHIELD, it would be like them to penny pinch, isn't it? You'd think that if they can fund extraneous weapons that they would be able to spare a few cents for office supplies. You know there was this one time, I was stationed in the North Atlantic- or was it the white front?" He scooted back into the seat, dropping his heavy boots to the floor, and hunched over in thought. "Anyway, it doesn't matter where I was, you just need to know that it was FREEZING. I almost lost a couple toes to frostbite; they turned the coolest shade of purple. Does SHIELD send extra socks or a space heater? No. 'Buy your own,' they said. Great. Because there's just lots of shopping malls in the middle of a freaking ice cap!"
Andrea had pulled out a notepad from her desk and found her place facing across from the skilled archer. She began to scribble furiously in a rough shorthand, though never taking her eyes away from Barton's face. He paused in his ranting only for a moment and she took the opportunity to intercept the conversation, "So you would say that you feel a little animosity toward working for SHIELD?"
"Nah, nothing like that. I'd just like a pair of warm, fuzzy socks now and then." In her mind's eye, Andy saw him perched in his tree house, completely at home, even under her open scrutinization. He wasn't lying, but he wasn't really telling the whole truth, either. It almost felt like he was hinting at something-reaching for some end even he couldn't see. It made her think about the extent of the training he had been through.
"So yeah, you want me to talk about my feelings or something, right?"
"Actually," she asked of him like it was any other favor, "I would like you to tell me about your time under the influence of Loki's scepter."
"Oh." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, chin resting thoughtfully on his intertwining fingers. "There's..." he licked his lips, "there isn't really much to tell." A cyan hue flooded his mind, almost blinding. His fragmented memory of the event felt familiar to Andrea. For a moment, she couldn't quite put her finger on why, but then it struck her.
It was almost exactly the same as when she had witnessed Bruce Banner losing control to the Other Guy. The Hulk.
She was stirred from her reverie when she noticed that Barton was looking at her expectantly. "It's okay," she said. "You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to."
"It's not that I don't want to," a lie only Andy could ever detect. "It's just I forgot most of it when my head was rudely slammed against a metal pipe by Tasha." An airy glow drifted into his perch with the mention of her name. He relaxed back into the warmth of the thought.
Clint was much more open than the others. He showed his affections for the others in the time he spent explaining each detail of their shenanigans. "When I first saw Dr. Banner riding up on that scooter, I didn't know what to think. I wondered if we'd really gotten so low that we'd recruit the help of random hobos. And then BAM! suddenly, he's a giant, green wrecking machine! I would've spent more time freaking out if, y'know, there weren't aliens to fight." Such was the rest of the meeting. The time quickly wore away, and almost before she knew it, their time was at an end.
Andrea ushered Clint out, following him to the threshold. The Black Widow, leaned against the wall opposing the office, awaited the exchange with her male counterpart . He started toward her, and, as he passed, gave her a meaningful look which Andrea couldn't decipher. At least, not without her gift. She had already seen his feelings for Natasha when she peeked into his mind. Rather than peering into his inner working once more, she slipped into the outer fringe of the other's as the archer left them. She was as guarded on the within as she was without. Her mind was not calm, however cool she appeared to be. Her thoughts reeled, taking in every detail and quickly processing its importance. As for her thoughts of Andrea, Natasha's primary response was suspicion. As expected.
The psychologist was met with a towering concrete wall-or rather walls-adorned with barbed wire and alarm systems, squared off to form a seemingly impregnable and imposing fortress. As she looked for an entrance, the assassin walked determinedly into the office, past the doctor's prying eyes and toward the seat in which the interviewer would sit. Andrea sighed, but decided to go along with whatever game Natasha was playing.
"I am not your enemy."
Natasha crossed her arms and tightened security. The phrase offered none of the comfort that she had tried to convey. "A different approach, then."
"I am not going to pretend to be your friend either." A single word had stuck a chord, a faint wisp of memory. Friend. Andrea stood once more in front of the stark, concrete fortress. Children's laughter wafted lightly toward her. She followed their calls to a door with a reinforced window. Inside, a girl with short, flaming locks wore a smile of pure joy. She pulled her small hands to her face, shielding her eyes. The faceless children that surrounded her scattered, giggling as if they were drunk on happiness. "3." She counted slowly, overcoming the temptation to peek through her fingers. "2." Her feet fidgeted, weight shifting side to side as she swayed with anticipation of the chase. "1."
The words tickled her tongue, "Ready or not, here I come."
Her fingers slid down her pale face. She peered past the tips and upon a crowded laughter had long faded away. A rubicund hue distorted the view. She slipped into the juncture, weaving easily through the masses. The young woman searched for her mark, scanned the faces carefully. When a familiar profile caught her eye, she pushed forward toward him. In her haste she had accidentally alerted the dark haired man to her presence. He bolted for a shrouded alleyway, knocking several of the people to the dusty ground, leaving their cries of fear in his wake. She carefully maneuvered through the fallen citizens, toward the shadowed path that her prey had slipped into. She chased him through the cobbled path, but before she caught up to him he vanished into thin air; A morning fog dispersed away by the sun. She had never lost a target . . .
Suddenly, the memory shifted to another narrow corridor of thought. An animalistic roar was projected from behind. She chanced a glance at the monster tailing her, the monster that made those impossibly sonorous growls. The padding of her feet not longer gave the dull sound of stone-sole contact, retaining metallic clinks as she raced across the narrow catwalk. She pulled her weight artfully over a nearby handrail, swinging into the darkness below. Hidden from view, she concealed herself from the eyes of the beast. His footsteps echoed above, a low-gravelly growl escaped his dissatisfied mouth.
Ready or not, here I come.
The monstrosity found her hiding place, bellowing a roar in her direction. She ran from her pseudo safe place, away from the exploding glass and sparks. When the end of the runway neared she tried her best to jump to safety, unsuccessful in the act, being slammed through the air by a giant appendage. When she was sure that she was done for, the thunder god had knocked the towering giant through a wall, pulling himself with it. She pulled her bruised body to the nearest crevasse, wedging herself between two cooling metal walls. She concentrated all her energy on slowing her shaky breath, ignoring the lone tear that rolled off her check.
Once again, Andrea's gaze rested upon the small flame-haired girl. Her eyes aged far beyond that of her body. She no longer giggled joyfully along with the chorus of the other children's laughter, their presence long forgotten. Nor did her feet dance with the anticipation of the chase. She used to love games, even playing with the toys. She sat in her carefully crafted fortress, back lying flush with one of the concrete walls. She gazed upon the discarded toys scattered at her feet.
"Be my friend? Why should you?" She questioned Andrea as the playthings faded from her peripherie. "Love is for children."
Doctor Banner, the last interviewee of the day, sat before Doctor Asher. His hands were gripping the armrests as if they were a lifeline, and a slight frown tugged his features. His eyes were trained downward. A whimsical line from some sort of jingle played on repeat in his head. It was rather maddening, but Andrea ignored it with grace. Andrea didn't think Banner would open up on his own, so she started with an innocent opener, "You seem to have taken well to working with Stark in the lab."
She waited for him to continue, but when the silence began to grow awkward, Andrea spoke again. "Do you like living here in Stark tower?"
That jingle was in the forefront of his mind, and barred any of Andrea's attempts to delve into his mind. Frustrated, she continued, "And do you feel as though you have made it your home?"
A flash of a curly-haired child slipped past the wall the tune had made in Banner's head. The child was running away from darkness; the shadowed monster growled as big, meaty hands gripped at his light green overalls. Andrea tripped through the maze that had formed in the doctor's head, the tune added a corrupt aspect to the chase as she observed. The little boy twisted through the corridors, the roars drowned his shrieks of fear, it wasn't as if there were others around to hear. Tears blurred his vision, "No one will help me this time."
The clever lad dodged down a dark hall, a hall that lead to a room completely absent of light. He could hide from the beast here, "Maybe I could get away." The thought was interrupted when his foot caught on a discarded item left in the ill-lit room. His hands shot out in front to catch himself from the collision with what he expected to be the floor. His hands, along with his upper torso were drenched in a warm, thick liquid; his feet and knees still caught and propped up on the item that had caused his spill. He scrambled to his knees and away from it, grasping at the walls for a switch.
With a click, one lonely, naked light bulb flickered on, and in the dim light he looked down at his hands and his clothes. They were covered with a florid liquid. The broken body that lay crumpled in front of the boy no longer had a face, but the familiar auburn hair told him what he feared most; the monster had taken the only one left who loved him. A shriek left his throat. He stifled the noise with his bloodied hands, lest he be heard. The boy had forgotten what he was running from. Alerted, the beast's snarls emanated from the threshold-from the only exit.
His only escape was to a shadowed corner of the room, where he pulled his knees to his chest in a tight ball and hoped that the encroaching figure would pass, leaving him untouched. The footfalls stopped. In the split moment that the child peeked through his shielding arms to see what was happening, a large, hammer-like fist came down upon his body.
Bruce swallowed, "I suppose."
Andrea blinked. Doctor Banner sat calmly as she breathed a shuddering sigh. How deep had she delved in her attempt to bypass a simple, interrupting thought? Too far. Much too far. That memory had been shoved into the deepest reaches of Banner's mind, the "basement." Andrea mentally shook herself and surreptitiously glanced at her watch. Three minutes down, fifty seven yet to go. "Would you care to elaborate on that?"
He shrugged, "Yes."
"We do have an hour of time to fill for this meeting, Doctor Banner."
"Right. So. Tell me about..." She paused, "your childhood? No. Let's not go there again," she thought. "...tell me about your work with SHIELD."
"So is this therapy session."
An upward curl tugged at the corners of his mouth, but he remained rather tight-lipped. "Who knows? You could be spying for SHIELD to make sure we keep our work secret."
"Paranoid, are you, doctor?" she teased.
"I had to be-to survive abroad."
"Tell me about that, then."
"No." Then, softer, "I'd rather not."
"Banner, we-you-have to talk about something," Andrea said firmly, but not unkindly. "Anything you can talk at length about is more useful to you and to SHIELD than what you're giving me now."
"What would you have me talk about?"
"Why don't you tell be about Betty Ross?"
"NO!" he gasped in astonishment. "I...no. Anything but that." He added, "It's only been a year," at the same time Asher said, "It's already been a year."
The awkward silence between them was almost palpable. "I'm sorry," Andrea finally said. "I didn't mean to be insensitive."
He bobbed his head once, "I know you didn't."
Doctor Asher looked down at her clipboard, or rather, at the blankness of the form upon its surface. She sighed, "Doctor Banner, if you're going to be so terse, you might as well go now and save both of us the rest of the hour." Bruce nodded as he stood. She got to her feet as well. She extended her right hand formally, and he hesitated for a moment before quickly shaking her hand. As Bruce left, she thought to herself, "I already have more than I need, anyway." The memory was vividly burned into her own mind; Andrea would not soon forget.