Only a month between updates this time. That's an improvement, yes?
This chapter brings me up over 100k words for this story, which is a major milesone. I'm so pleased.
Thanks, as always, to my beta, bequirk.
Incidentally, Tony had a list of states that he wouldn't mind never visiting.
New Mexico was on that list.
Granted, 47 of the 50 US states were on that list, but Tony was still disgruntled that he was being shipped off to what he perceived to be the middle of nowhere.
But Fury had made it pretty clear that this little sojourn was non-optional, and besides, Tony wanted to see the Tesseract. Even if he didn't want to go, Bruce was going, and Tony sure as hell wasn't going to send him off to some SHIELD base alone.
Of course, Clint and Natasha weren't so bad, Tony had to grudgingly admit to himself, and they probably wouldn't let anything happen to Bruce. Sure, they were a little too good at following orders, but hey, the world needed followers as much as it needed leaders. And Captain Goody Two Shoes probably wouldn't let anything happen to Bruce, either. But Tony wasn't taking risks. If you wanted something done right, you had to do it yourself.
After the pointless meeting with Fury, Tony, Clint, and Bruce had returned to Tony's house to pack while Coulson and Steve went to Steve's place. SHIELD's airfield was apparently 'super secret' (Clint) and 'hard to find' (Coulson), so Coulson was going to bring Steve there, and Clint had been put in charge of delivering Tony and Bruce.
Yes, 'delivering.' A direct quote from Coulson.
Tony was becoming progressively less enamored with this endeavor.
Still, it was non-optional, so. He'd go along with it. For now.
Tony wasn't particularly good at packing, so he threw some clothes indifferently into a suitcase, tossed his toothbrush in on top, and called it good. He considered calling Pepper to let her know that he was going to be out of town, but he settled for sending her a text message instead. He didn't want to interrupt her if she was busy, and this way she couldn't yell at him for going to SHIELD to antagonize Fury.
That done, Tony went to pack all the other stuff he'd need.
The important stuff.
He'd been working on a new suit since he'd gotten to New York, a version that would respond to a pair of discreet bracelets he could wear just about anywhere. It even folded up into a neatly portable unit that conveniently didn't look anything like an Iron Man suit, not like his last briefcase suit. Fewer colors and all. All he needed was something to carry it in.
He hadn't quite gotten around to designing a carrying case, what with his other pressing business lately.
In the end, he opted for a duffel bag (the ultimate in discreet, though it wouldn't help much if he had to go through any airport security), and into the bag he also threw a couple computer components that might come in handy, his encryption software, and a mobile version of JARVIS that he stuck on an external hard drive. Fury had been annoyingly vague about what the 'mission' was, so Tony didn't know what he was going to have to be prepared for. He decided to prepare for everything.
On the way back upstairs, he ran into Bruce, who was heading down to the workshop.
"What's in the bag?" Bruce asked, raising an eyebrow at how Tony was straining under the bag's weight.
"Oh, you know," Tony answered. "External hard drive, copy of my encryption software, couple of cables, a few other things. The Iron Man suit."
Bruce sighed, but for once, didn't say anything. He just brushed past Tony, muttering, "I need to grab my laptop."
Tony wasn't sure if he should be worried that Bruce evidently felt that bringing the Iron Man suit was an acceptable course of action.
Grabbing his bag from upstairs, Tony lugged his stuff out to the car, stuffing it into the trunk. A moment later, he was joined by Clint, who tossed his small bag neatly on top of Tony's stuff. Then he carefully placed what was unmistakably a bow case on top. And a quiver. Tony snorted. God, the Paleolithic weapon thing never got old. And it made for so many fantastic jokes.
"Iron Man suit, hey?" Clint asked, eying the bags Tony had jammed into the car and ignoring Tony's derisive snort.
"Yeah," Tony answered. He considered being confrontational about it, but decided against it. No point in stirring the pot at this juncture.
Clint shrugged. "Probably for the best. God only knows what's going on in New Mexico."
Tony felt that way about New Mexico most of the time.
"Keys," Clint said, holding out his hand and startling Tony from his brief reverie.
It took Tony a moment to figure out what he wanted. Then he frowned. "Hell no. You're not driving."
"You don't know where the airfield is," Clint pointed out. "It's super secret."
"You can tell me where to go," Tony countered. "You're not driving my baby."
Clint rolled his eyes. "I once drove in reverse for seven miles under machine gun fire without hitting anything, Stark, I think I can handle getting from point A to point B without totalling your 'baby.'" He paused. "Well, I hit one terrorist, but he didn't count."
That wasn't as reassuring as Clint had probably intended it to be.
Before Tony could object, though, Bruce came out of the house, carrying a duffel bag and his laptop bag. He put the two bags in the trunk, careful not to disturb Clint's stuff. "Are we ready to go?"
Tony considered. He didn't think he'd need anything else. And if he did, well, New Mexico wasn't so far from his house in Malibu. Just had to get through Arizona, which shouldn't take long. Tony shrugged. "Yeah, I am."
"Me too," Clint said. "I just need the keys."
Tony opened his mouth to resume their previous argument, but Bruce shot him a surprisingly withering glare. Tony reached into his suit coat pocket (he'd finally showered and changed; if one was going to show up at a SHIELD base in New Mexico, it was important to do so in a $4000 suit) and pulled out his keys. "Fine. Here."
Clint took them without a word and got into the driver's seat. Grumbling, Tony closed the trunk.
He grumbled even more when he saw that Bruce had gotten into the front passenger's seat.
Tony got into the backseat, and Clint pulled away from the curb, switching the radio from Tony's preferred classic rock to something obnoxiously poppy.
"So," Tony asked loudly, to be heard over the music, "Any idea what we're doing here?" He was pretty good at thinking on his feet, but didn't like not knowing what he was getting into. And he couldn't shake the feeling that he was walking into a trap, although how could Fury have orchestrated this 'mission' to distract them? It was certainly within his capabilities (Tony knew Fury's deviousness had no limits) but he'd seemed at least somewhat surprised by the call from New Mexico.
"I know what you know," Clint answered shortly. "Coulson hasn't forwarded the briefing yet."
Typical. Tony decided to poke a little. "And that's okay with you. Do you usually not know what you're doing? I mean, that's been my impression—"
"It's not my job to ask questions," Clint cut him off.
"Right, because blindly accepting things works out so well." Despite his earlier goal of not being confrontational, he couldn't let that one slide. Clint had left himself wide open.
"Could we not do this right now?" Bruce asked. "Or, you know, ever." He paused, then added, "We were all more or less on the same page this morning. We still don't know what SHIELD's up to with Phase 2, and that's what's important. I think now's a pretty good time to stay united, given what we know. Or don't."
That was really reasonable, Tony had to admit. It was true that they still didn't know what SHIELD intended to do with a weaponized Tesseract. And even though Barton was a SHIELD monkey, he had seemed open to the idea of facing them down. "Fine," Tony agreed. "You're right."
Geez, when did he become such a team player?
"It happens occasionally," Bruce said, leaning his head back against the headrest. "Not as often as I'd like."
The rest of the fairly-lengthy ride to the airfield was quiet. Clint hadn't been lying—it was really hard to find. Despite paying extremely close attention, Tony lost track of all the turns they took. Which was a pity, because he figured being able to find this place would come in handy. He tried to trace their location using his phone, but the GPS had gone all wonky on him.
That wasn't suspicious at all.
The airfield itself was fairly nondescript, except for the fact it seemed capable of handling some truly massive aircraft. Something aircraft carrier sized, if Tony's estimations were correct, though it seemed unlikely that something that size could get into the air. Clint showed his badge to an attendant at a gate who waved them through with a cheerful, "Have a good flight, Agent Barton!"
Coulson was standing outside a hangar with Steve, and though Steve had a bag with him, Coulson was not so adorned. This lent some credence to the theory Tony had been developing that Coulson was not actually human but was, in fact, an android of some sort who did not need to do things like shower and change.
He made a note to investigate this theory further if the opportunity arose.
"Barton," Coulson said, walking over to their car as they got out. "You ready to fly?"
"Yes, sir," Clint answered, opening the trunk and grabbing his gear. He tossed the car keys to Tony.
Tony caught them one-handed and adjusted his sunglasses. "Nice place you got here, Coulson. Where is it, exactly?"
"Classified," Coulson answered evenly. He gestured to the hangar. "Transport is just inside. Grab your stuff, we have to get going."
And, realizing he wasn't going to get anywhere with Coulson (and that he had a whole plane ride to pry) Tony did as he was told.
Coulson led the four of them onto a plane that was rather unlike anything Tony had seen before. He made a note to get ahold of the schematics as soon as possible because, as far as he could tell, this thing shouldn't have been able to fly.
It did, though, and soon they were cruising across the country, Clint manning the plane's controls in such a casual way that it was easy to forget he was flying the damn thing.
After take off, Coulson immediately pulled his phone out and began tapping away. "Director Fury sent a briefing," he said. "I've taken the liberty of forwarding it to all of you."
On cue, Tony's phone buzzed in his pocket, informing him of an incoming e-mail, so he dug it out to take a look. Bruce and Clint followed suit, and Steve did as well, though with somewhat less finesse.
Tony wondered what Steve's email address even was. Probably CaptainStarznStripes at something or other dot com. And giving the man a smart phone at all just seemed cruel, honestly.
The mission briefing was, well, brief. And incredibly strange. Apparently, one of the scientists working with the Tesseract had been a fraud. A spy of some kind or another. And he'd made off with a bunch of information before deleting all records of himself from SHIELD's system. The problem was that no one knew what information he'd managed to glean because none of the other scientists remembered him.
The mission was threefold. One, they needed to know how the fake scientist had accessed SHIELD's records. Two, they needed to figure out what he knew and what he might do with it. And three, they needed to investigate the lapse in the scientists' memories.
Well, two parts were. And Tony was fairly sure what he was going to be assigned to. He was kind of the resident expert on accessing SHIELD's records, as he had been largely in charge of their new security system. And, well, hacking into it, too. The third part...that was weird. Tony knew there were things that could induce memory loss—head trauma, some drugs and alcohol—but not in a whole group of people.
"Mass brain washing?" Clint asked after a moment, incredulous.
Tony considered giving a lecture on the safety issues of cell phone use while flying a plane.
"We don't know, Barton, that's what we're trying to find out," Coulson answered.
Clint sighed, but didn't ask any more questions. Tony rolled his eyes. Clint apparently took his 'it's not my job to ask questions' stance very seriously.
Looking up from the mission briefing, Steve asked, "I'm not really sure where I fall in all of this."
"Me neither," Bruce said.
"Agent Hill will have specific assignments for you once we land," Coulson said, swiping a finger across his phone to page through the file.
And that was it. Tony tried, of course, to get more out of Coulson, but Coulson didn't know much, or he wasn't being forthcoming, No one else was better equipped at the moment, leaving them annoyingly in the dark. Tony sighed.
So much for his goal of prying.
The plane ride was surprisingly short—Tony made another note to check out the schematics for this plane—and then they were landing in what appeared to be the middle of the desert. In the distance, a large compound was visible, and there was a black SUV waiting.
Otherwise, it really was the middle of a desert.
"Nice place you've got here," Tony mused, echoing his earlier observation and standing on the runway, looking around. It was as hot as hell and he could feel himself sweating just standing there. He took off his suit jacket, but that didn't do much to help. He'd always hated the heat, and his feelings towards deserts had soured dramatically after Afghanistan. "Let's get to some air conditioning."
Annoyingly, Coulson seemed completely unbothered by the heat, despite the fact he was wearing a black suit. He just gestured to the SUV. "After you, Mr. Stark, Dr. Banner."
Bruce was similarly unfazed by the heat. He just rolled his sleeves up to his elbows and picked up his luggage. Steve was probably immune to heat after being on ice for seventy years. And Clint had dressed in only cargo pants and a tank top, so he was fine. Chipper, even; he threw his bag over one shoulder, his quiver over the other, and picked up his bow and practically bounced to the car.
Tony frowned. What had him so cheery? Was he solar powered?
He got his answer a moment later when the driver's door of the SUV opened and Natasha stepped out. "It's about time you guys got here," she said, stepping around and opening the back hatch so Clint could throw his stuff in. Then she nodded at Coulson. "Sir."
"Romanoff. What's the situation?"
"Agent Hill is getting a team together to scour the base for any sign of Smith. She wants me to take Rogers on a tour of the compound and then for us to join the search. You're supposed to take Stark to Human Resources so he can look through their files and see how they've been tampered with. And Barton and Banner are to report to the research floor; an agent will explain their job to them when they arrive."
Coulson nodded. "Okay." He gestured for Tony, Steve, and Bruce to move. "Come on, let's go."
Bruce and Steve obediently put their things in the back of the SUV, but Tony had been obedient enough for today. "You're splitting us up?" He didn't like the idea of Bruce being shunted off to some corner of the building.
Steve added, "That doesn't seem smart."
"Agent Hill seems to think that, for the moment, we'll work better as separate parts than as a team," Natasha said. "I have no idea why."
"Clint's going to be with me," Bruce added, apparently reading Tony's concern. When had he gotten so transparent? "Besides, it's not like anyone can keep me somewhere I don't want to be."
Coulson frowned at the reminder, but shrugged. "It's true."
As Clint moved around the SUV to get in, Natasha stopped him with a hand on his shoulder and then pulled him in for a quick hug. "Sorry I left you with these idiots," she muttered loudly enough that 'these idiots' could easily hear her.
Clint chuckled. "It wasn't so bad. Okay, it was, but I'll survive."
"What, I don't get a hug, Romanoff?" Tony asked, tactfully ignoring the 'idiots' thing. "And I thought you missed me!"
In response, Natasha stepped over and gave Tony a hug. It turned quickly into a choke hold.
"Point taken," Tony gasped.
Being on this team wasn't going to be any fun at all.
Clint surveyed the floor from his perch up on a catwalk. It offered him a pretty good view of the room, from the Tesseract in its holder to the scientists milling around (Bruce included) to the exits.
He had been hustled down here with Bruce—perhaps to babysit Bruce, though no one was so vulgar as to say as much—shortly after their arrival on base. They'd stopped in the barracks to drop their gear off, and last Clint had heard, Tony had been muttering about renting a house in the vicinity instead. Which, to be fair, wouldn't be so bad. The barracks were...barracks-y.
With his upbringing, Clint was used to communal living, but that didn't mean he loved it.
After that, they'd been split up, which Clint resented. He'd only just gotten to see Nat, after all, and now she was being sent off with Captain America. But he admired the maneuver for what it was. Together, they'd decided to question Fury. In that light, it seemed awfully convenient that they'd been split up. And in this particular way. He was away from Natasha, Tony was away from Bruce.
Maybe it wasn't intentional. Maybe he was reading too much into it, but if his years with SHIELD had taught him anything, it was that paranoia was only paranoia if you were wrong.
Anyway, at the moment, Hill had Bruce working with Selvig—they apparently knew each other—to figure out what the scientists may have let slip to 'Dr. Smith,' the imposter who'd apparently brainwashed an entire crowd of PhDs into forgetting he existed. Clint was doing an overview of the room's security, trying to figure out if there were any vulnerabilities. And, of course, he was babysitting Bruce.
Same old, same old.
Clint was just checking the field of view on one of the security cameras (which he'd installed, so he knew it was fine) when he got a call over the walkie talkie he'd been handed by the SHIELD agent who'd showed him down here.
"Freak thunderstorm rolling in," said the agent. "This wasn't in the forecast."
Given that it was the middle of the desert, Clint could see that. The forecast was probably the same every day. "Copy that." Then, because there wasn't really an order implicit in that information, he asked, "What do you need?"
There was no reply.
Clint tried again. "This is Agent Barton, do you copy?"
Heaving a huge sigh—he'd been here for less than two hours, for God's sake, how much could be going wrong already?—he pulled out his phone instead. He had shit for service, but he managed to send a text message off to Coulson before dropping down onto the floor below.
He approached Bruce and Selvig, who were leaning together, poring over a file. "Hey, guys, I think something's up."
Bruce shot him a quizzical look. "What do you mean?"
"The agents upstairs aren't answering on the radio." He jerked his head towards the door. "We should get out of here."
Selvig objected. "This room is secure, there's nothing—"
He was interrupted by the crash of thunder—impossibly loud in a confined space—that shook the room from ceiling to floor.
"What the hell?" Clint yelled, sure his ears were bleeding. "What's going—"
Bruce and Selvig were both staring at the door, so Clint whirled around to face that way, too, hand automatically reaching for the gun on his leg.
He froze when he saw who was standing in the doorway.
Oh, goddamn it.
Of course Clint remembered him; he remembered everyone he'd ever had in his sights. And this guy was particularly memorable, since he'd taken out some of SHIELD's best in his mission to get to that damn hammer.
Apparently, he had no qualms about doing the exact same thing to get down here, if the alarms that had just started sounding meant anything.
Clint sighed. "I need Coulson."
Tony had mentioned that SHIELD had interacted with a Norse god. Briefly. And given all the other things that had been going on at the time, Bruce had pretty much filed that immediately in the 'not going to deal with this now' folder in his brain.
Unfortunately, he now had to unfile it. Because he was sitting in a room with a Norse god.
Who seemed to be at least somewhat fond of coffee.
This situation was unreal.
Bruce thought it was something of relief to note that he wasn't the only one who was perturbed by this turn of events. Clint was sitting with his arms crossed across his chest and Coulson's blank expression was minutely less blank than usual. He almost looked concerned. Even Tony was speechless, for once, tapping one finger thoughtfully on his chin. The silence wouldn't last—it never did—but for the moment, Tony wasn't talking.
The Norse god hadn't been expected, was an unwelcome surprise, in fact. Everyone was tense. Which put Bruce on more even footing. This wasn't something that he was supposed to accept as normal. And being tense was a normal response. No one was casting him glances out of the corner of their eyes, not even Coulson, and how far did that show they'd come?
Still, Bruce wasn't going to get complacent, was actively working to stay calm.
He'd been having a pretty bad couple of days, after all, mostly due to Tony's propensity for aggravating authority figures. He'd been dragged into confronting Fury, and, though he felt it needed to be done, he kind of wished they'd had a better plan. Especially since Fury had handily sent them all on a mission without actually answering their questions. Bruce didn't really want to go on a mission, but he was 'needed' and he'd swallowed his objections in favor of packing his bags.
The Norse god was almost a comical addition to all of this, the icing on the cake. Thor was magical, which was hard for Bruce's inner scientist to swallow—what was 'magic,' anyway?—and he was also giving off a distinctly hostile vibe.
He hadn't been at first, not really. Sure, he'd seemed a little...aggressive. He'd strode onto the research floor and approached Clint with long, purposeful strides, apparently unfazed by the people he'd had to incapacitate to get down here. He'd then demanded that Clint contact Coulson, which, to be fair, was what Clint had been in the process of doing anyway. It wasn't rude (if you ignored the whole 'he knocked out 7 SHIELD agents to get here' thing), just...loud.
Especially with the alarms blaring.
But Clint managed to get those shut off by making a call on the radio, and while he'd done that,
Thor had turned towards Bruce and Selvig and enveloped Selvig in a hug, clapping him on the back, jarring Selvig in a way that made Bruce glad he wasn't being hugged.
He'd been about to introduce himself to Bruce, at least, it had seemed like it, when he'd caught sight of the Tesseract in its holder behind them.
Then he'd become rather less jovial, frowning and narrowing his eyes at Clint and Bruce.
The Tesseract seemed to have this effect on most people, Bruce noted. No one ever seemed happy to see it.
Still whether Thor's ire was directed at them specifically, at the Tesseract, or at something else still remained to be seen—all Thor had done since Coulson had arrived (towing Tony along) and invited him into the scientists' lounge was drink coffee while they waited for the rest of 'Team Tony' to assemble themselves.
Finally, Steve and Natasha came in, shining with sweat from being out in the desert sun. They both grabbed bottles of water from the fridge and sat down at the circular table in the corner that the group of misfits had claimed as their own.
Or, more accurately, the corner that Coulson had herded Clint, Thor, Tony, and Bruce to in order to get them as far from everyone else as possible.
Thor had indicated that he would prefer to speak to Coulson alone, once Clint had gotten Coulson down from HR. Coulson, though he surely couldn't have been expecting a Norse god to show up, had calmly insisted on the inclusion of the rest of the New York transplants.
An odd choice, in Bruce's mind—he thought that SHIELD agents might be a better choice—but it wasn't like there was some kind of standard protocol for this.
Or...maybe there was, and maybe this was it.
Either way, everyone got settled and turned to Thor. After all, he was the god in the room.
But it was Coulson who spoke first. "Are we going to have a problem?"
Bruce remembered, vaguely, that Tony had mentioned once upon a time that Thor had been responsible for leveling a small town last time he'd come to Earth. If that was true, Coulson's question was a fair one.
"I am not here to cause trouble," Thor said evenly, "But to stop it."
When no one spoke up, he went on, "I have received reports of magic in this location. Very strange, given Midgardians' lack of aptitude in that area."
"Magic?" Coulson asked.
"Yes," Thor said.
Not really forthcoming, was he?
"Is that what's going on here?" Coulson asked more sharply. "With the scientists? The memory loss?"
Thor nodded. But instead of clarifying, he said, "Perhaps you could introduce your comrades, Son of Coul. Before we continue."
"Of course," Coulson said, apparently attempting to be polite. He gestured towards Clint. "Agent Clint Barton. You might remember him from your last...visit. Next to him is Agent Natasha Romanoff, also with SHIELD." He pointed to the others in turn. "Captain Steve Rogers, Dr. Bruce Banner, Tony Stark."
Tony frowned. "I don't get a title?"
Bruce elbowed him.
Thor nodded. "And why did you insist on them accompanying you? Who are these humans?"
"Why don't you tell us why you're here," Coulson prompted with a bland smile.
Thor closed a hand around the handle of the massive hammer he'd set on the table, apparently not appreciating Coulson's attempts at steering the conversation.
"Geez, touchy, isn't he?" Tony piped up.
"You have no idea," Clint muttered.
"I do not have time for games," Thor declared, standing, his chair legs scraping against the floor. "If you cannot aid me—"
"No one said we can't help you," Natasha pointed out, using her most diplomatic voice. "We just want to know what you're doing here."
"You can trust these guys," Coulson said. "They're the good guys."
Not a category Bruce would usually put himself in, but Coulson's words seemed to placate Thor, who considered carefully. He paced impatiently, and it was obvious he'd rather get right to work than sit around and talk this out, but he finally relented, sitting down again. The stiff set to his shoulders communicated clearly that he was still reluctant. "Very well. As I said, I received a report of magic in this area. Specifically, something affecting Dr. Selvig. The magic bore a specific signature, one that has been...lost to me. I had hoped to find its source here."
"Wait," Tony interrupted. "Are you watching Selvig or something? How?"
Thor inclined his head. "Our gatekeeper sees far."
"Yeah, that's totally an answer," Tony mumbled. Then, louder, "So, what, you spy on Earth?"
"No. I do not 'spy.' I only...observe. And only a few individuals."
"Jane Foster?" Coulson suggested.
Thor was not at all abashed to admit, "Yes. And Dr. Selvig. I consider them friends."
"So you noticed 'magic' on Earth and decided that was strange enough to come check it out?" Coulson sounded skeptical.
"Magic on Midgard is strange, yet, but this magic was familiar to me." Thor narrowed his eyes. "I thought I was mistaken, until I arrived and saw that you seem to possess one of Asgard's relics. Then I knew immediately I was correct."
"One of Asgard's relics?" Steve asked. "What do you mean?"
"The Tesseract," Thor growled. "I do not know how your SHIELD has come to possess this item, but I must return it to Asgard. Immediately."
Bruce's eyebrows shot up. The Tesseract belonged to Asgard? That was interesting...and it opened up the possibilities of who was looking into it. Threw in aliens and stuff. Who had this 'Dr. Smith' really been?
"I don't think that's going to happen," Coulson stated, his tone leaving no room for argument. "No one's taking that thing anywhere until we figure out what's going on here."
"What's going on," Thor said impatiently, "Is that my brother, whom I thought dead, has visited this location recently, casting badly concealed magic. My brother is not incautious. Which means he's become suddenly indolent or desperate."
In Bruce's opinion, that didn't bode well. Magic in general didn't bode well; lazy and or desperate magic even less so. He asked quietly, "Your brother?"
"Loki." Thor replied brusquely. "And his objective must be the Tesseract; why else would he linger here? I do not know what he intends to do with it, but I mean to take the Tesseract back to Asgard before he can realize his plans."
He stood again and closed his hand around the handle of his hammer, hefting it to his side.
"Unless any of you would try to stop me?"
Hey, look, I found Thor. He was hiding behind the refrigerator.
Please review, if you're so inclined.