"Four more. Behind you." Clint called through the comm to Tony. "They're coming up through the sewer grate."
"Damn, it's like smell-o-vision down here. Jarvis, adjust the filters to compensate." Tony blasted two of the strange fishlike creatures. "Hulk doesn't seem to mind. Be sure to make him hose down before you kiss him, Kili."
The Hulk was enjoying himself, Clint could see; he'd waded right into the middle of the group … school? ... of slimy monsters and was ripping into them with glee. The new nasties had popped up near the river, crawling out of the muck to attack. Fishmen with claws and pointy teeth; Clint's world had gotten really weird, well even weirder than usual. One day back from Vegas and here they were, dealing with some villain who called himself Mr. Fish … really? Mr. Fish? … and his army of stinky whatchamacallits.
"Got some people trapped in the coffee shop on the corner." From his vantage point, Clint had a good overview of the battle; the biggest problem was that more of the monsters kept oozing up, two for everyone they cut down.
"I have them," Thor responded; one swing of his hammer exploded three at one, sending the gooey innards splattering onto the window and street. The others slunk away from Thor's onslaught, and the Big Guy made serious inroads through the largest crowd that surrounded Mr. Fish.
"You got a shot, Hawkeye?" Tony asked.
"Working on it. For someone with a terrible name, this guy knows how to stay out of line of sight." The guy – some sort of strange human/fish hybrid that bubbled and shouted how no one could laugh at him – finally showed himself and Clint let fly, arrow driving right into the man's shoulder, or dorsal fin, Clint didn't know which one, but it served the purpose to disrupt his concentration. "He's down."
Capturing the fish dude meant the rest of the op was pure cleanup; he'd controlled the creatures and most of them slipped back into the depths they came from. Only a few stayed to be gutted by the Hulk, who chased them down back alleys and pounded them into sludge. Clint was actually glad his first post-suspension Avenger outing went so smoothly. Tony and Steve had gone out on a limb for him, basically insisting he was an integral part of the team; Tony had gone so far as to suggest that the Avengers were contingent on Hawkeye's participation. So the fact that things had gone swimmingly … oh, he'd have to use that one with later … helped make their argument to Fury even stronger.
"Tell you what, no fish for dinner, okay?" Clint suggested as he packed up his bow. "I'm thinking steak and potatoes."
Clint took the stairs back down as the cleanup was under way. He needed to give Tony shit about getting him his own jetpack. Riding with Thor or Tony got old after a while – and the Hulk was having too much fun squishing around down there to bother – so Clint made his own way out into the street. The smell was even more intense, briny and day-old seafood left out in the sun; Clint winkled his nose, wondering again how Natasha always seemed to miss the messy action.
"Excellent shot," Thor nodded as Clint approached; Tony came in for a landing nearby. "He was the mastermind; with him down, the fight was over."
Tony flipped up his faceplate "Mr. Fish? Really? Couldn't come up with a better name than that? Sounds more like a fast food restaurant than a villain. Good god, what a stench."
"What a lovely smell you've discovered, your highness," Clint laughed, his good mood infectious; Tony grinned back, always willing to enter into the on-going battle of the best Han Solo.
"Don't get cocky, kid," Tony shot back.
"Tony is royalty?" Thor asked, confused by the conversation.
"Star Wars. Best movie ever." Clint supplied. "We'll watch it Thursday. You can't understand American culture if you don't know the Force, dude."
"Hulk like Chewie." The Big Guy never snuck up on anyone, especially not when he reeked to high heavens, blue blood and guts still clinging to his green skin.
"Oh, man, stand down wind, would you?" Tony clanged his faceplate closed as the Hulk's smell wafted over him.
"Hey, Big Guy, wash that stuff off, okay, and we'll watch Tangled again." Clint could feel his eyes start to water and his throat close up, but he saw the Hulk's look at Tony's words. Yes, it was possible to hurt the Big Guy's feelings, but he smiled at Clint's offer. A hydrant down the block had been knocked open, sending a geyser of water into the air, and he ducked into the stream, rinsing himself off.
"Tangled?" Tony was incredulous. "A princess movie?"
"He likes the horse," Clint said to shut him up. It was true; Hulk couldn't get enough of Maximus.
Suddenly, a glowing sphere of energy manifested in the street, edge almost brushing the building on either side, neatly bisected in the middle by the concrete roadway. Little tendrils of gold and red curled out like mist, tiny static discharges jumping to signs, lampposts, anything metal. One even tickled Tony's suit, and he brushed it off.
"What the hell?" Tony lifted off the ground as Clint notched an arrow. "Some sort of unknown energy signature; Jarvis doesn't recognize it."
"I have not seen such a thing before," Thor cautiously approached. The circle stayed steady, neither moving nor changing in size. "Could this be from Fishman's magic?"
Trapped on the other side of the circle, Hulk roared, rushing right towards it.
"Hulk, wait," Tony began, but the Big Guy was already crossing the sparkling membrane, charging right through and out the other side. With a pop, the sphere dissipated, shimmering out of focus then fading from sight. Hulk growled and turned; there was nothing there anymore but the fish guts and body parts on the asphalt and sidewalk.
"That was weird." Clint lowered his bow; the Big Guy appeared to be fine. "You get enough readings to make anything out of it?"
"I'll get Jarvis on it, and Bruce can check it out once he's back, see if it's related to the Gordon Fisherman over there."
When Tony had offered Bruce space in his labs, he had no real idea of the scope of what he'd started. Now, the beacon of sustainable energy, Stark Tower, was almost unrecognizable from its original plans. Bruce in residence meant the Hulk as well; while he hadn't thought through that too carefully, Tony had quickly realized modifications were necessary. Human size doors, for example, had to be widened and heightened, reinforced balconies for the Big Guy to land on, a heavy-duty construction elevator capable of handling the weight load – all had to be redesigned and retrofitted. When Steve moved in, gym space expanded, and then Clint and Natasha, and Clint started dating Bruce and the Hulk was around a lot more, watching TV and joining team practices. State-of-the-art facilities, a quinnjet hanger, underground labs … there were always something changing in what was now called Avengers Tower.
The Hulk's space was one of the old practice rooms; after the last redesign, Tony had shifted the large space with sliding doors into a playroom for a big green kid. A massive TV with a seemingly endless array of channels – twelve cartoon ones alone – filled the space along with large sprawling furniture that supported his weight, a bathroom with a shower big enough for seven people, and an array of video games the likes of which any gamer geek would have an orgasm over. Jarvis kept the fridge and cabinets stocked, an impressive feat considering how much the Hulk could eat in one sitting.
Clint had left the Big Guy crashed on the couch with four bags of chips, Rapunzel swinging her frying pan at Flynn's head on the screen, Spongebob in the queue in case the meeting ran long; if, Bruce reappeared before Clint was done, he'd probably end up in the lab working on the sphere data. Maria Hill had very graciously given them time to clean up before the debrief – she'd taken one whiff and sent them away with a wave of her hand. Actually he'd been glad to put it off; he hadn't seen Maria since she'd suspended him in the very room he was heading for now. Maybe if he was lucky, he could piss her off again. Yeah, that would be fun.
"How's the green princess doing?" Tony asked as he joined Clint in the hall. "Should I get him a tiara?"
"He's eating you out of house and home at the moment, so maybe stock in Frito-lays would be better," Clint laughed. "Or better yet, genius, figure out how to make the chips and dip work out even."
"Oh, man, if I could do that, then I could buy another island." Tony laughed. "That's even more complex than restaurant math."
"Another island? Wait, do you have one already?" Damn, the man was holding out on them. Visions of white beaches, an ever full glass of Sex on the Beach, and a week with nothing to do but hang with Bruce danced in his brain.
"No way, Barton. Not going to happen," Tony wagged a finger at him as they entered the room. "No hulk sex on my beach, dude."
"Gentlemen, please." Maria winkled her nose. "I really don't need to know about your extra-curricular activities. Any of you."
"Well there goes the personal sex video for your birthday. Way to spoil the surprise." Tony strolled to his chair, sitting down just as Thor came in.
"We are talking about sex? Excellent! I have a story about the time that Sif and the Warriors Three went to Elfheim …"
"And when is Steve getting back?" Maria as she sank down in her chair and put her head in her hands. Clint almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
"Joshua Ledbetter, get over here and finish this ice cream you begged for." Amelia was at the end of her rope with the six-year-old. Balancing her youngest on her hip, she called for her son again, his attention riveted on the steel drum band playing just down the sidewalk. "Josh. Come here."
The pop was soft, buried underneath the music, but the boy turned his head, cocking an ear as if he could hear. Small, no bigger than a pea, the circle appeared, floating at the height of the boy's head, slowly growing larger. Fascinated, Joshua stared at the iridescent colors, reaching a hand out as a tendril wafted towards him; his mother, suddenly aware of what was happening, jerked him back, moving them all away from the edge. As it grew, the bottom dropped below the pavement, the sphere covering the whole pathway, eating up a section of grass where a couple abandoned their picnic basket until it finally stopped halfway through the bench Amelia had been sitting on, forgotten ice cream melting on the green slats.
"And we have nothing about the anomalous sphere?" Maria asked. She'd been all business, as usual, no mention of anything that had happened last time. Clint shared a quick glance with Tony, who'd long since lost any interest in the proceedings.
"Um, no, because I'm here, stuck in this meeting, rather than being in the lab. Once we get out of here and get Bruce back, we'll work on it." Tony's fingers never quit dancing over his tablet screen as he was talking, taking the art of multi-tasking to a new level. Or just pretty much ignoring Hill.
"Any educated guesses?" Maria pressed on. "Magic or science?"
"It was nothing that I have ever seen before," Thor offered, but even he was losing what little patience he had to start with. How the hell were they supposed to know what that thing was? They'd had no time to investigate. "But I do not know magic well."
"Forgive my interruption, Assistant Director, but we have a situation developing," Jarvis's voice was a welcome distraction.
"What is it Jarvis?" Tony seemed just as relieved as Clint felt.
"The Hulk is undergoing some sort of distress. His heart rate is elevated and he appears to be in some pain."
All three of the men were on their feet; Clint beat the other two to the door because he didn't bother to nod to Hill or say excuse me like Tony and Thor. In a flash, he was headed down the corridor for the elevator to the Hulk's room.
"What the hell is this?" Officer Pete Mahoney wondered aloud. Weird shit was happening all over New York City; ever since that alien invasion it just seemed that life got stranger every day. Floating ball of … something … mist? … cloud … who the hell knew? … right in the middle of Central Park. "Somebody put a call into the Avengers or SHIELD? This looks like their cup of tea to me."
"Yeah, Bob told dispatch to contact 'em. We're just supposed to watch it and not let anyone touch it. I mean, really, what idiot would go touching something like that?" His partner, Roger Wells, hooked his thumbs onto his belt as he looked around.
"Damn kids or junkies or one of those hipsters takin' pictures, maybe." Mahoney shrugged. Standing guard was boring, but hey, it could have been a lot worse. "There's all kinds in the world."
The sphere flexed, a ripple running clockwise around its circumference; blue chased red then gold then silver, like one of those kaleidoscopes Mahoney had as a kid. Expanding then contracting, little arcs of static electricity jumped from the surface to metal, one connecting to Wells' gun with a crackle and sizzle. He fell back on his ass, lucky that his rubber soled shoes grounded him.
"Roger? You okay?" When his friend nodded, Mahoney took charge of the situation. "Everyone! Clear out! Get away from the sphere!"
"Pete." Wells pointed and Mahoney turned to see the sphere start to dissipate, falling like a curtain from the top down, energy sinking into the earth below with a final few electrical discharges. Lying in the middle of pathway was a naked man, face down, steam rising from his warm body in the cool autumn air. His dark hair curled around his face and for a few seconds, Mahoney hesitated, unsure of what to do. Then the man moaned and tried to push up; crossing the few steps, Mahoney dropped to his knee beside the guy who looked up at him with confused brown eyes.
"You okay, buddy?" he asked. Guy could be an alien or something, but, hey, it was his job to help the citizenry, right?
Dazed, the man glanced around, realized his state of undress and carefully covered his crotch with his hands as he sat up, curling in on himself to try to hide from the staring eyes. "Where am I?" his voice was scratchy, and he coughed to clear his throat.
"Central Park. New York City." Well, Mahoney thought, he speaks English, so that was good.
"You got a phone I can use?" The man asked.
"EMTs have been called, and we'll get this all straightened out, okay?" That answer only seemed to make the man more determined.
"Look, call Tony Stark. I can give you his private number." The man insisted. Stark? Damn. So this was an Avenger sort of thing.
"The Avengers are already alerted," Mahoney assured him.
"Call Tony. Tell him Bruce needs a pick up."
"Come on, Big Guy, calm down and tell me what's wrong." Clint watched as the Hulk shivered, curled into a massive green ball of body in the corner; furniture was askew, the bedding torn apart, chips scattered around the floor. He managed to get close enough, telegraphing each slow movement, and he laid a hand on the large bicep, circling his fingers in a soothing motion.
"Can't, can't, can't … alone. All alone." Clint didn't think he'd ever seen the Hulk cry, but the tremulous voice suggested he might see it soon.
"You're not alone. I'm here." Taking one more step, Clint could ruffle the brown hair. "Come on, Jade Jaws. Tell me what's up."
"Not here." He lifted his head, sniffling as his brown eyes focused on Clint. "Tried. You need the little guy, but can't."
"It's okay, buddy, take your time. We can wait on the Doc for a while longer." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tony and Thor flanking him, taking opposite sides just in case. "Don't worry about it."
"No." The Hulk's head surged up; the others started, but Clint stayed calm. "Little guy NOT HERE."
Clint blinked at that. "Bruce isn't there?" What the hell did that mean? It wasn't like Bruce could take a vacation and leave the Hulk.
"NOT HERE," the Hulk repeated, his voice rising. "Gone. Just Hulk." He slammed a fist into the floor; everything rattled and jumped as the force rippled across the room.
"Damn," Tony muttered. "If that's true …"
"The sphere?" Thor questioned.
"Gentlemen, I believe I can offer some information to shed light on the situation." Maria spoke from just inside the door. "Shield agents just picked up a naked man who appeared in a … quote … 'bubble-like sphere' … in central park. He says he's Dr. Bruce Banner and is in route here even as we speak."
Clint stood, stunned, reaching a hand to touch the Big Guy's reassuringly warm green skin; too many possibilities scrambled for prominence in his brain. Neural inhibitors, alien copies, the Enchantress' magic … in the world of weird that was his life there were, unfortunately, too many plausible explanations.
"Little guy? Need little guy." The Hulk was getting agitated again, fists clenching as he grew more frustrated.
"Take it easy, Big Guy. I'll go get him, okay?" Clint patted the massive arm. "Promise. You just wait here. We'll figure this out."
"I will stay with the Green Warrior," Thor offered. "We have yet to help Master Chief complete his quest to defeat the Composer."
"Cupid come back?" Hulk was worried, and Clint gave him his most confident smile.
"Absolutely. We've got to show Thor Star Wars, remember?" He said, despite the spiral of foreboding tightening in his chest. With a nod of thanks to Thor, he followed Maria and Tony out of the room.
"That's the second time today, Dr. Lawson," the nurse explained as the doctor walked around the comatose body, checking the various machines and readings. "Both patients showed increased heart rates and brainwave activity. There was a spike in their gamma output as well. Patient 432042 appeared to start to rouse during the last event, but Dr. Danvers did not."
The doctor reached a hand down and lightly touched Carol's forehead, brushing his fingers across her skin and tucking back a stray blonde hair. "There were no experiments or other variables to account for the spikes?"
"No, sir. Nothing here."
"Order a new round of testing for both patients; I want to see if there have been any changes in their conditions. Also, I'll need all information from the moments before, during, and after the events; please forward those to my laboratory as soon as possible."
The nurse heard the dismissal in his voice and left the room quickly. Walter half-smiled at her haste; he knew that the staff here wondered about him, why a scientist of his caliber was so interested in these patients and who had pulled the strings to get him access. None of that mattered; things were unfolding far too quickly and a sense of urgency drove him. He needed to understand what was happening here on Earth and these two people … along with another handful in New York City … were at the very epicenter of it all. Already, pieces were in play. He just hoped he wasn't too late to help.