Rating: T (language)
Fandom: Avengers (movieverse)
Characters: Tony, Steve, Maria, Morse, Clint, Pepper, Darcy, Rhodey, Natasha
Spoilers: Takes place after the movie. Follow-up to Reprise. #10 in Recruitment series.
Summary: There are no easy answers.
Notes: I was going to wait until I was a little farther along with the next fic, but since Marvel Heroes isn't up yet (I'm SLynn if you play!) and I've finished I thought I might as well start. This is six parts and I plan to post once a day. Enjoy!
Steve didn't sleep much anymore. Seventy years under will do that to a person, even if they haven't been genetically altered. Some nights he tried to get more than just the few hours his body needed, but it wasn't a regular thing. Besides, sleep had always felt like a waste of time.
The fortunate part was he now lived with a group of self-professed insomniacs so usually, if he wanted company, someone was available to chat.
The unfortunate part was tonight everyone was inexplicably sound asleep.
That almost never happened.
So, at just after midnight, and after seeing Tony's workshop shut down and Bruce's lab empty, that the range and gym were both dark, Steve decided to give it a try and go to sleep.
Ten minutes later, still wide awake, he'd popped some popcorn and turned on the classic movie channel, hoping to pass the time pleasantly and give his mind a break.
"Captain Rogers," JARVIS said fifteen minutes in to the film, pulling up the lights in his room automatically and dimming the volume on the television set. "I am sorry to disturb you but I am receiving some unsettling readings from Mr. Barton's room."
"You know how Clint feels about you checking up on him," Steve said, almost admonishingly before realizing to whom he was speaking.
"I understand the limitations set upon me," JARVIS returned, "but protocol dictates -"
"Is this some kind of loophole Tony added?"
"No, sir. This one was augmented by Mr. Barton."
"Really?" Steve asked, confused. It wasn't that Clint didn't like JARVIS; like everyone, he found the AI incredibly useful. However, Steve couldn't think of a single instance where Clint had asked JARVIS to be in his personal quarters. The man liked his privacy.
"One of the many duties I perform is to check the vital signs of the inhabitants within the Stark Tower Complex. Mr. Barton felt that my initial guidelines were too broad, but saw the usefulness of them, as it is the quickest way to discover persons in duress."
"Duress?" Steve repeated, getting to his feet and starting to feel an odd sense of dread. Tony and Clint had very different definitions of what that word would mean, and JARVIS was always exacting in his phrases. If Clint changed the perimeters...
"Captain Rogers, if we could defer this conversation for a later time, I really must insist that -"
JARVIS stopped suddenly and the lights came on full. With them came an alarm and Steve had a sudden flashback to the lab incident.
"SHIELD medical has been alerted," JARVIS said overhead. "Vital signs have reached critical condition. Please proceed to Mr. Barton's room at once, Captain Rogers. Mr. Stark is being awakened. Dr. Banner is being awakened. Ms. Lewis is being awakened. Overriding personal preferences now and declaring a Stage One emergency."
"Are Clint and Natasha inside?" Steve asked, already out his own door and running towards Clint's room. He shared a floor with the two of them. They each had their own room, lately they just hadn't been using both of them.
"No, sir. Agent Romanoff left over an hour ago."
"Left?" Steve asked, confused. "Never mind that. Can you pop this lock?"
"I have already tried and cannot, sir. It appears to be stuck."
"Son of bitch," Steve muttered, bending over and looking for himself. Sure enough, the inside of the lock looked to be almost melted. Twisting the handle as hard as he could, Steve put his full weight against the door. "Tasha was the last one out this door?" he asked for clarification.
It gave way almost at once.
"Clint?" Steve yelled out as he stepped over the threshold.
The room was full dark and he hesitated in the doorway. As soon as he moved inside JARVIS brought up the lights and Steve saw that the coffee table had been overturned and that there was blood. There was a lot of blood.
"That's a hell of a wake-up call," Darcy said breathlessly from the doorway. "What's going on? JARVIS bugging or something?"
"No," Steve said quietly, motioning for her to stay back.
"I have an incoming call from Agent Hill," JARVIS announced.
"Put her on hold," Steve said, scanning the room quickly before turning to Darcy. "Get up to the roof. Medical should be landing shortly. Bring them straight here and don't answer anything they ask unless it's Agent Hill or Director Fury doing the asking."
"Okay," she said with a nervous nod, hesitating only a moment before racing back out of the room.
"Connect the call," Steve told JARVIS as he moved to the kitchen and out again, it being obviously empty.
"Captain Rogers, I'm en route with medical," Maria asked over the open line. "Tell me this is a drill."
"No can do, Agent Hill," he answered, aware that they were probably being listened in on at her end.
"What's the situation?" she asked.
"I'm not positive yet," he answered, as he slowly pushed open the bedroom door and saw that there was additional blood on the rug leading off towards the bathroom. Maria remained quiet on the line, waiting for the more information to come. Steve took three quick steps into the bathroom and finally found him. "Barton's hurt. He's unconscious and bleeding."
"Hurry," Steve urged, already trying to determine the extent of the damage.
"ETA is five minutes."
"You're escort is on the roof waiting," Steve confirmed. "Disconnect the line, JARVIS."
"I already have, sir."
"Where are Tony and Bruce?" he snapped, picking up the towel that Clint must have been using to staunch the bleeding before passing out. It looked like he'd been at least semi-conscious at one point and had crawled in from the living room. He must not have been in his right mind; Clint should have just called for help. Personal preferences or not, JARVIS would have likely responded if he had.
"Mr. Stark is with Ms. Lewis. Dr. Banner is stepping off the elevator as we speak."
"Bruce!" Steve yelled, needing help immediately and hearing the sound of the other man running to meet his cry.
"What happened?" Bruce asked as soon as he was in the room.
"We'll worry about that later," Steve decided. "How bad do you think this is?"
Bruce nodded and carefully moved the towel out of the way so he could get a better look. It appeared as if Clint had been stabbed three or four times in the stomach. The wounds were bleeding freely, but didn't seem to be very deep. What was more worrying was the low babble that was constantly flowing from the man's mouth. He was obviously in pain, and at least partially under, but a quick check of his eyes revealed that he'd also been drugged.
"He may need a surgeon," Bruce said. "As long as nothing vital was nicked, he'll make it. But we need to hurry. Keep applying pressure."
"Got it," Steve said, surprised when Bruce got back to his feet and stepped away. "Where are you going?"
"I need a second," Bruce answered, turning his back on the scene and going so far as to shut his eyes, but it was still fresh inside his head.
"Hey," they both heard Tony shout from the front room. "Did someone slip in the shower or something? Darcy said -"
"We're in here," Steve answered, seeing that Bruce wasn't able. "SHIELD is on their way. You need to canvas the room, quickly, before they get here. We need to be on top of this thing."
"What in the hell?" Tony asked from the doorway, looking struck by the sight.
"No time," Steve urged. "Tony, you and Bruce get out there and look for a knife or something. Anything. I've got Clint."
Tony nodded and understood, at least in part. Something bad had gone down and if they didn't get the jump on the investigation, SHIELD would. And they probably wouldn't put Hill or Fury in charge.
"Come on," Tony said, pulling Bruce by the elbow into the living room. "JARVIS, encrypt all the video feeds from tonight and no one accesses them without my direct say-so."
"At once, sir."
"Okay," Tony said, taking a deep breath as he looked over the area. "Whatever this was, it started on the couch."
"Natasha did this," Bruce said, his voice flat.
"Let's not jump to conclusions," Tony returned, shaking off the thought. "Let's especially not do that when SHIELD gets here."
"She told us this could happen, Tony. That she was volatile. Dangerous. Her head was full of potential traps and triggers and we ignored that," he said, growing more worked up as he spoke.
"Do you need to leave?" asked with complete sincerity.
"I do," Bruce said, nodding his head and unable to look at the blood in the room for even a moment longer.
"Head up and give Darcy a hand."
Bruce turned and left, leaving Tony alone in the room to make sense of this mess. It did look like whatever had happened had begun on the couch. The largest blood stain was there. Not to mention the tipped over coffee table and broken wine glasses on the floor. The blanket seemed out of place, but it also had blood on it. Knowing time was short, Tony checked the kitchen. In it was an opened bottle of wine, a cell phone with a cracked screen, and a knife.
Probably not just any knife, probably the knife.
She'd washed it.
Tony shook that thought from his head, knowing that the likelihood of it being true was still high, but he couldn't deal with it just yet.
First Barton, then Romanoff; that had to be the order of his thought process to begin.
"Coming through," Maria shouted in the hallway, ushering in two medics and a gurney.
"Bathroom," Tony said, gesturing to the other side of the room.
Maria let the medics go without her and turned a questioning gaze to Tony.
"Was this an accident?" she asked softly, clearly hoping that was the case.
Her eyes landed first on the knife and then the cell phone.
"Pocket that," she said indicating the phone, and he didn't need to be told twice. "Morse is in the hall with Banner."
"Well, she'll probably want to ride back with Barton and Lewis," he returned hopefully.
"Probably," Maria agreed.
Together they went back in to the living room as the medics were wheeling Clint out, Steve just behind them looking grim. His hands were still spotted with blood, despite the continuous wiping he was doing with the towel he'd used on Clint.
"We're going to need to process this room," Agent Morse said as she entered. "If you don't mind," she finished, waving the three of them out of the room.
"Process?" Steve asked, letting Tony and Maria go ahead of him.
"Standard procedure," she answered. "I'm sure you understand, Mr. Stark."
"I would, except Clint isn't with SHIELD any longer, and I still own this building so..."
"But Agent Romanoff is with SHIELD," she said, refusing to budge an inch.
"She's not here," Tony countered.
"Oh, she's not? Maybe we should just call the police then."
"No one's calling anyone," Director Fury said as he got off the elevator. "This will be handled by SHIELD and the Avengers. Anything you find, Agent Morse, I expect you to share."
"And anything they find?" she asked.
"I'm sure, in the spirit of cooperation, Mr. Stark will gladly pass along any information he deems vital. Won't you, Mr. Stark?"
"Scout's honor," he returned, throwing up the salute and everything.
"Satisfied, Agent Morse?" Fury said briskly without waiting for an answer. "Now, finish up here and then report back to the Helicarrier. Agent Hill, you're with me. Gentlemen," he continued, motioning for Tony and Steve to accompany them.
They four rode up in the elevator in silence.
"Ms. Lewis is escorting Mr. Barton back to the Helicarrier," Fury said as soon as the doors opened, but not on the penthouse floor. They were headed for the conference room. "I asked Dr. Banner to wait here for us. We need to talk."
Bruce was already sitting at the table when they walked in and didn't bother to get to his feet. Both Tony and Steve could see he was still shaken by these events, but holding himself together.
"Report," Fury demanded as soon as the door shut.
Steve explained all of what he knew and Tony added in the information he had, but even combined it wasn't much.
Even after Tony had JARVIS queue up the video feeds from outside Clint's room and they watched Natasha leave, go into her own room for a few minutes, return to tamper with the lock on Clint's door, and then calmly exit the Tower as if she was headed out to lunch, they still didn't know.
And they wouldn't until Clint woke up because there were no cameras inside of personal quarters.
"There's only one real possibility here," Steve said reluctantly and Fury nodded in agreement.
"What possibility is that?" Maria asked, clearly confused.
When everyone avoided her gaze, Maria knew she was out of the loop on something. She just couldn't imagine what it could be that would make this situation make sense. Barton wasn't her cup of tea, but Romanoff seemed to like him well enough. She couldn't picture a situation where either would willfully hurt the other.
"Agent Romanoff may or may not be imbedded with certain triggers," Director Fury said, carefully picking his words.
"Triggers?" Maria asked. "What kind of triggers are we talking about, sir? Like, she's experiencing flashbacks?"
"More like brainwashing," Bruce provided, rubbing his eyes and sighing.
"Brainwashing?" she practically scoffed.
"Romanoff being brainwashed is too farfetched?" Tony asked, fiddling with the phone he'd picked up in Barton's room as he spoke. "Hell, Barton and Selvig got their brains hijacked during an intergalactic alien invasion."
"Yes, well, I don't see any aliens," Maria snit back at him. "You mentioned triggers, sir?" she said, addressing Fury again. "So she was programmed with some kind of defensive kill switch? I'm not sure I understand."
"We don't know what she was programmed with, Agent Hill," he answered. "But we need to find out. Fast. Agent Morse is already assuming Agent Romanoff has gone rogue and has orders to put her down. We need to find her first and set her right again. Now, I'm asking all of you, can that be done?"
"Yes," Steve said at once and Fury took him at his word, exiting the room and leaving them to it.
"Can we do this?" Bruce asked, looking skeptically around at the others.
"First things first," Steve began. "Maria, I assume SHIELD can start searching for Natasha the way they did for Clint, right? Using cameras and..."
"Wireless cameras, smart phones, security feeds; everything digital and electronic in the information age," she provided. "Yes, but -"
"But that not only tells us but them," Tony provided and Maria shifted, uncomfortably aware that she was still part of 'them'.
"Clint was smart enough to keep his head down and out of sight," Bruce added. "Natasha will do the same."
"So we have to find out where she's going," Steve sighed. "What about your cards, Tony?"
"Huh?" he said, looking up from the phone in his hand. "Oh, yeah. Already checked. She left it behind."
"Why did this happen now," Bruce asked no one in particular. "What set her off?"
"I may know both very soon," Tony said slowly, still working on the phone in his hand before ultimately letting out a disgruntled curse. "Or not. Damn, she really did a number on this thing."
"Something's there that she didn't want seen," Steve figured. "Is it her phone or his?"
"His," Tony answered.
"Can you fix it?" Maria asked.
"It'll take some time. Probably more time than we have," Tony admitted. "She's erased everything and the SIM card is cracked. I guess we should be thankful she didn't dump it down the disposal."
"Or picked up a bigger knife," Bruce muttered.
"She cleaned the knife," Tony mused, setting down the phone and getting that look about him. "And the blanket - she covered him up."
"Like, remorse?" Maria suggested tentatively. She still wasn't sure exactly what caused this mess, but it was obvious no one thought Natasha was in her right mind.
"She used a paring knife," Tony nodded. "If she wanted him dead she could have used something bigger. Could have slit his throat."
"Tony, if we didn't find him when we did, he would have bled out," Bruce argued, really struggling with this. The other guy was really struggling with this. "The cuts were shallow, all things considered, but where he was stabbed... It's just a slower death. That's all."
"Let's talk motive," Maria said, shaking her head, "because I do not understand at all."
"It's personal," Bruce said, looking and feeling extremely anxious. This was the last conversation he wanted to have, but Maria looked determined.
"Romanoff having some kind of mental kill switch is personal? Because it sounds very much like something I should have known about."
"Hey, if SHIELD doesn't want to share with you, that's not our fault," Tony returned.
"No, I guess it's not," Maria answered, her eyes on Steve.
"It was personal," Steve said in his own defense. "Natasha told us in confidence."
"Well, if that's the case," she fired back at him sarcastically.
"Are you actually lecturing us about keeping secrets?" Tony asked incredulously.
"I thought we were past that point, but I guess it's just a one-way street after all."
"No, Maria," Steve insisted. "That's not true."
"I have been open and honest with you and have shared things with you, for this team, that could cost me everything. We agreed to work together."
"I didn't agree," Tony interjected.
"We are working together," Steve said, ignoring Tony. "I honestly didn't think to tell you because it was private. I'm still not sure how much..."
"There is a big difference between personal issues like where Romanoff sleeps at night and personal issues like Romanoff might snap and stab her lover," Maria said, still very angry at the deception. "I don't expect to be told everything. Just the important things. And this was one of them."
"No one thought this would happen, Maria," Bruce said, trying to put himself right with the situation, and her as well.
"But you at least knew it could happen. I was left in the dark."
"How does that feel?" Tony asked.
"Fuck you, Stark," she yelled, for the first time momentarily losing her composure. "How much penance do I have to pay? What exactly did it cost Barton to get in your good graces?"
"We're..." Bruce said, getting to his feet and crossing the room to relieve his agitation. "This is getting us nowhere."
"You're right," Tony sighed. "Long story short, Hill, Natasha has some left over spy-codes in her head from her pre-SHIELD days. Satisfied?"
Maria didn't say anything. Her arms were folded across her chest and her eyes were set on the floor.
"Maria?" Steve said quietly.
"Fine," she said with a nod, still avoiding looking directly at any of them.
"Can we talk about this?" Steve asked her.
"Later," Tony insisted. "Kiss and make-up later. Right now, Bruce is right. We're getting nowhere. I'll start checking other databases. Try and get the jump on SHIELD techs with some facial recognition programs. Still got this phone, but don't expect miracles."
"I'll check in with Morse," Maria said, heading for the door. "When SHIELD is done processing the room we can all head back to the Helicarrier. If we can't track her, we need to be ready to respond when they do."
"Okay," Tony said with a brisk nod, and Maria left without saying any more.
"Tony," Steve said as soon as she was gone, "that was -"
"I'm sorry, okay," he shrugged, knowing where this lecture was going. "I don't like her."
"I don't think you actually know her," Steve argued. "And it doesn't matter if you like her or not. We are working together. Maria has a job and a purpose here. If this is going to work we need someone on the inside."
"Director Fury -"
"Lies to us," Steve interrupted. "All the time. It's his job. Maria is more forthcoming. Her position gives her more leeway to tell us the things Fury can't."
"When it suits her."
"We all lie, Tony," Bruce said, coming to Steve's aid. He understood Tony's reservations about bringing in Maria, but he also understood the importance behind it. "I do. You do. As long as we're honest about the big picture..."
"Not good enough," Tony objected.
"Not your call," Steve said evenly.
"And it's yours?"
"I can decide for myself who to trust," Steve answered on his way out the door, too angry to stay.