sam_storyteller: (Alternate Universe)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2013-11-02 10:13 am

Avengers: Coulson's Eleven, 3/7

Title: Coulson's Eleven
Rating: PG-13
Summary: After Vanko destroyed the Stark Expo, SHIELD instituted a Superhuman Detention program, designed to capture and hold dangerous people -- dangerous people like Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and others who made themselves noticeable. The superhumans SHIELD has imprisoned -- and some SHIELD agents themselves -- have other ideas about what constitutes 'dangerous'...

Chapter Two

***

It took Natasha about ten minutes to shake their tail, piloting her best with Clint on guns, shooting to damage rather than to destroy. Thor did his part too, with gleeful whoops they could hear even from inside. After they shot down or shook off the pursuing jets, she passed control over to Clint and got up, heading for the back. Rogers was calmly inspecting his shield, Parker was looking pale, and Loki was watching them both. He and Rogers both stood when she entered, and Parker struggled up after a second.

"I'm told you can do magic," she said to Loki. He bowed, took her hand, and kissed it.

"For milady rescuer, anything," he said.

"Try that again and I'll pull your fingers off," she answered calmly. He looked up, snapped his teeth at her, and grinned. "We need to vanish. We're entering Canadian airspace soon."

"My pleasure," he replied, and went towards the cockpit, resting both hands on the bulkhead.

"Wow," Clint announced. "That...works. We just dropped off every radar in existence."

"Not to be the party pooper and thank you very much for springing us, but who are you exactly and why are we going to Canada?" Parker asked. "Also, um, I have this aunt -- "

"Taken care of," Natasha said.

"That's ominous."

"She's waiting for you."

"Still not relieved," Parker murmured.

"She's safe. You'll see her soon," Natasha said, taking a seat. "Believe me, that just became the least of your worries."

***

They landed in a green field on the edge of a lake so blue it looked unreal. There was a house nearby, all low, elegant lines and glass, and outside a patio heater was going next to a charcoal grill. The smell of roasting food drifted back to them on the wind.

The Iron Man armor stood to attention on one side of the pit, and on the other side, in a rattan loveseat, Tony Stark and Pepper Potts were curled up together, her head on his shoulder. All of this was lost on Peter, however, who could only see the his aunt, standing up from a picnic table and coming forward.

It hit him suddenly, in a way it hadn't since his first night on the carrier with Steve -- the months of imprisonment, the worry for May and his friends, the fear. He ran forward, catching her in his arms and pulling her close, so relieved that she was here and safe. When she finally wriggled free, she patted him on the cheek and smiled.

"You are in a lot of trouble, young man," she said, and Peter beamed.

"Come back," Tony Stark called from behind them, and he saw the others were already heading for the fire, accepting platters of barbecued ribs and bowls of baked beans from the man Stark had escaped with. "Come eat, the food's ready."

Peter was coming forward, but he flinched and tried to body-block Aunt May when something landed nearby; it turned out to be the flying guy, who Agent Romanoff said was Thor, a god from another dimension. Flying guy ran forward, yelled "Brother!" and grabbed the totally suave and kind of creepy Loki in a hug.

"That's sweet," Peter heard Barton say to Romanoff. "I feel all warm inside."

"Not to kill the mood, but Coulson's still on the carrier. So's Hill. What happened to not leaving a man behind?" Romanoff asked, seating herself.

"Coulson knows how to handle himself. He chose to stay behind," Barton said, and they dropped into whispers Peter couldn't hear.

"Oh, my brother," Thor was saying, side-hugging Loki as they walked.

"Do show some discretion, Thor -- "

"We thought you lost to us!"

"Ow," Loki muttered. Thor dropped him into a seat. "Ow!"

A plate of ribs and beans was thrust into Peter's hands and he was suddenly ravenous; he stuck the plate to one leg and grabbed food with both hands. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had food that was more than lukewarm.

"I'd like to welcome you all to the hideaway," Stark said, and Peter took a moment to freak out over being at the same campfire as Tony Stark, billionaire playboy. "Property of a shell of a shell of a shell corporation, so we're safe here."

"SHIELD doesn't know about this," Romanoff said.

"That's kind of the point. So for the foreseeable future, or until we get to whatever cunning plan Agent Agent and his henchpeople have cooked up, I'll be your host."

"Um," Steve said. Everyone looked at him. "This might be outta line but...who are you?"

Stark stared at him.

"Just, you look kinda familiar -- "

"Nobody told him who I am," Stark said, looking around. A few people shook their heads. "Nobody told him? Oh, it's like Christmas," he added, pleased. He turned to Steve and gave him a beer. "Anthony Stark. You knew my father."

"Stark?" Steve asked. "Like Howard Stark."

"Not very, but yes."

"You're Howard's boy?"

"And you're welcome, now two generations of Starks have saved your spangly ass. So, Romanoff and Barton are the only ones who know everyone here, I think; I'm not talking to Romanoff over a little incident of needle-stabbing that neither I nor Pepper are over, so Barton, whoever you are, you're up."

Clint set his beer down and stood up. "My name is Clint Barton. Until about four hours ago I was a SHIELD operative codenamed Hawkeye. This is Natasha Romanoff, codenamed Black Widow."

"Apt," Stark put in. Potts elbowed him.

"You don't have a whole lot of reason to trust us," Barton continued frankly. "Natasha and I have both been on teams that brought you guys in."

"Why are we free now?" Thor asked, sounding more curious than angry.

"Well, we had what you might call a little come-to-Jesus moment about that," Barton said, and drew a deep breath. "We looked around and thought that the six of you might do more good on the loose than in the slam, especially if SHIELD isn't pulling your strings. Took a lot of risks to get you out. And we do have a plan," he added, nodding at Stark. "But first we need to make some introductions. So. Anthony Stark, also known as Iron Man -- "

"That robot thing!" Steve blurted.

"It's a prosthesis," Stark replied.

"Who has had perhaps the most illustrious career of any of you, so even though he's got a mouth on him, his experience is useful," Barton continued. "Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries, and we have her to thank for bed and board."

"Well, I don't often get to play hostess," Potts said with a smile. Stark looked at her like she hung the moon, Peter thought.

"This is Dr. Bruce Banner," Barton said, and Peter nearly dropped his food. "He's a foremost expert in Gamma radiation, and sometimes if he gets mad he turns into a rage monster. So don't make him mad."

Peter knew he was staring, but he couldn't help it. Dr. Bruce Banner. Right here. Eating a bowl of beans.

"Steve Rogers," Barton continued. "We know him as Captain America; one of the most iconic soldiers of the second war. He was 'rescued' from an arctic ice shelf by SHIELD. Captain, you haven't got a lot of experience in the new world, but we're going to count on your tactical training heavily in the coming days."

"However I can help," Steve said. Peter punched his shoulder. Steve was really nice, and super-cool about not being cool at all.

"Peter Parker," Barton said. Peter ducked his head. "Who has had a short but very public career fighting street crime in New York."

"I'm so proud of you," May said in his ear. "And you are very grounded."

"Thor and Loki," Barton announced. Thor nodded; Loki looked bored. "They come to us from another realm, known as Asgard. Thor's got a mean swing, and Loki's an asshole."

"I own that," Loki said. "And here I sit, wondering to what end I have been brought here. Do we have any table linens? This food is untidy."

"I'm getting to it," Barton said. "Alone, you could all go back to the way things were -- except for you, asshole," he added to Loki.

"I was minding my own business," Loki said.

"You were robbing a bank," Romanoff put in.

"Well, a man has to live somehow."

"Uh, can I get us back on point?" Stark said. "I'm guessing you have an alternative to us going back to New York and being immediately arrested again."

"We think that the world needs to see how much it needs heroes," Romanoff said. "And we think that together, you may be stronger than you would be apart. The reason SHIELD had to blackmail Stark into imprisonment is that he had connections. He had a public face. You don't have that, but you could. If you work as a team, if you're visible as a team, you can defend yourselves. Eventually, you won't have to."

"I'm not sure you quite understand Hulk's vision of a team dynamic," Dr. Banner said. "He doesn't get along with...anyone."

"But you do. And you are valuable without him," Romanoff said.

"It might be easier on everyone if I disappeared."

"I don't think that's true," Stark said.

"You've never met Hulk."

"No, but I have some interesting theories I'd like to test. Stick around at least that long."

"Besides," Potts put in, "It's forty miles to the nearest highway."

"What about the two'a you?" Steve asked Romanoff suddenly, as if he'd been considering it for a while. Romanoff and Barton looked at each other. "You burned your bridges with SHIELD, huh?"

"We have resources," Romanoff said. "We're used to working off-grid."

"Why not put them to use with us? You want to put together a commando team but you won't be on it?" Steve said.

"I vote to kick Romanoff off," Stark put in.

"Aw, can it why don't you, she helped us get out," Steve retorted.

"Excuse me?"

"Children," Potts murmured, and both men subsided. "What Tony means to say is that he has trust issues and you shouldn't listen to him. I think this is a good idea -- I think it's the only idea -- and I think for it to work, you two have to be part of it. You know their playbook."

"Regardless," Romanoff said, "none of this has to be decided tonight. And -- "

"And," Aunt May interrupted, standing up. Peter looked at her, startled. "It's been a very busy day for everyone. I think, for tonight, we should settle in and rest. There's plenty of food in the house; there will be pancakes tomorrow at eight, and I expect you all to be there. You can hash the rest out then."

Peter watched as, one by one, they all succumbed to her calm, serene, and parental stare.

He was so glad to have her back.

***

They brought Coulson to him in handcuffs.

He had a split lip but looked otherwise undamaged, which was probably a good thing. Fury looked at the cuffs, raised an eyebrow, and waited for one of the agents to clue in and take them off.

"Everyone out," he said.

"Sir -- "

"Agent Coulson's had his fun, he's not going to kill me. Out," Fury ordered. They filed out hesitantly, and he turned to Coulson, who was adjusting his cuffs fussily. "So. You finally got to throw the shield."

"Couldn't resist," Coulson said, smiling faintly.

"I gathered. Do you want to explain how all our Level One detainees escaped and why they were helped by SHIELD agents?"

Coulson's eyebrows curled together slightly, defiantly. "They are superheroes, sir."

"And?"

"And?" Coulson responded.

"I want to know what happened to you. What went wrong here."

"Ah," Coulson said. "You want to know what went wrong. How this breakout could have been prevented?"

"Yes."

"Who would bring those people together and not expect it?" Coulson asked. "Look around. The world is falling apart and we're hoarding our best chance at survival. Hiding them in corners because we're afraid of them. That they're the monsters our parents told us about. But we're the ones locking them away. We're the monsters. And they fight monsters."

"Excuse me?"

"There are half a dozen Level One threats that these people could be containing. More efficiently and less expensively than SHIELD, with a far smaller cost of life. We've expended enough energy on powers, when we could be expending it on the bad guys."

"These guys are the bad guys," Fury said. "They make more bad guys."

"Then they should help tidy them up, don't you think?"

His voice held the same note of disdain and censure it had when he'd declined the job of head powers-hunter. Anyone else wouldn't have had the right to decline, but Fury and Coulson went back. He hadn't liked it then and he didn't like it now, that much was obvious.

"We have six rogues on the loose. Eight if you count Barton and Romanoff," Fury said.

"And they were aware you were counting them, Director."

Fury narrowed his eyes.

"Barton and Romanoff aren't powered, but they're exceptional at what they do. They saw the writing on the wall. How long before you came for them? How far out of line could they step before they ended up in a cell?"

"And you?" Fury asked.

"Twenty years ago, if we'd been hunting powers, my name would have been on that list with theirs. You offered me the job, so maybe it is now. I had an ethical code which said I couldn't permit this to go on any longer. If you want my resignation, you have it. If you want me in a cell, you can have that too."

"Do you know where they went?"

"No, sir."

Fury studied him. Finally, he reached into his desk and took out a set of keys. "You're free to go."

Coulson looked startled. "Excuse me, Director?"

"You're relieved of duty. Fired. You're free to leave. In fact, if you're not off my Helicarrier in an hour, I'll throw you off the edge myself." He tossed the keys to Coulson. "Take Lola. Get the hell out."

"You can't be serious."

"Do I look like I'm joking?"

"I'm a security risk," Coulson pointed out.

"Yeah, that didn't cross my fucking mind. Thing is, down there, you say what we do up here, people just look at you and laugh. And you know if you did speak up -- well, we lost Hawkeye, but he ain't the only sniper I got," Fury said. "So go, keep your mouth shut, and stay out of my way."

Coulson had long ago perfected the art of the poker face, but he had tells, and Fury knew them all. He looked crushed. Guy might have preferred prison. Who could fathom Phil Coulson.

"Yes, Director," Coulson said quietly, and left.

Fury, in the silence of his office, grinned to himself.

***

Stark's "cabin" on the lake was a doozy, Steve thought. It had twelve bedrooms, two living rooms, three kitchens, untold bathrooms, and an observatory on the roof. He'd retreated to the observatory while the rest of them were settling in, wanting a moment to gather his thoughts. He'd gone straight from prisoner to fugitive to -- soldier again? Captain again? He'd been given back his shield, which had cost someone dearly, he figured, but freedom hadn't really become real to him yet. Now, looking up at the night sky, he was getting there.

"Nice after the Helicarrier fluorescents, huh?" a voice behind him said. Steve glanced over his shoulder. Stark was leaning against a telescope bigger than he was, arms crossed.

"Just trying to maintain perspective," Steve replied. "Finding that a little difficult at the moment."

"Have you even seen the outside of the carrier since you woke up?"

"Nope."

"When was the last time you had boots on US soil?"

"1942. But I've been doing a lot of reading," Steve offered. "I'm up to the Vietnam War, and Peter's been teaching me about, um, pop culture. I'm never sure when he's pulling my leg..."

"He tell you about iPhones? MTV? Twerking?"

"Twerking?"

"Skip it, you'll be horrified."

"You come up here to tell me about horrible things?"

"No, just taking a break."

"Figured you'd be downstairs with your girl."

"Pep runs an empire. She had a conference call to make. Looks suspicious if she drops off the radar completely." Stark paused, then forged ahead with the thing Steve really didn't want to discuss. "So, elephant on the roof..." Stark gestured expressively between them. "You knew my dad."

"Yes. He was a good man."

"People keep saying that."

"Wasn't he?"

"Not by the time I knew him, but he was effective, which is almost the same thing. I want to make sure you get that I'm not him."

"I'm displaced, not delusional," Steve said, turning to lean against the railing, facing Stark. "I don't know you. Not well, anyway. But if you were up there in a cell with the rest of us, odds are you're a decent person. Peter says you're a hero. That's good enough for me."

Stark gave him a smile. "You really are that good."

"I do my best."

"My old man never shut up about you. I figured half of it was lies."

"Howard was a slick talker but he didn't lie for the sake of a lie. Least, not while I knew him."

"No, I suppose not." Stark seemed to think this over for a minute. Steve waited, but the silence was starting to get awkward.

"What is it you do, anyhow? With the, uh, prosthesis," he asked.

"It started out as just a fun way to punch the bad guys," Stark said. Steve smiled a little. "It's not that anymore. Iron Man became a symbol. I became a diplomat. The fights are what get in the papers, but in the last few years I brokered a lot more peace deals than I broke buildings. I'm a deterrent to some. Mainly I throw really great parties."

"Why did SHIELD lock you up?"

"Stomping on their toes? Worries that I had a little too much clout? Nick Fury pissed off that I keep calling him Patches? Who knows why SHIELD does what it does. What line did they feed you?"

"National security."

"You bought that?" Stark asked.

"I didn't have a lotta options. Then I had Peter to consider. You got kids?" Steve asked.

"Christ, no. I try not to repeat my father's mistakes."

Steve tilted his head. "You think you're a mistake?"

"I think him being a father was one. Look, that's not the point."

"Then what is?" Steve asked.

Stark looked away, out at the stars. "Ultimately? That I'm not a team player."

"How many teams you been on?"

"Okay. That's a point."

"I got nothing to lose here," Steve said. "I miss having a team. I liked it. You can dilly-dally all you want, but when we sit down to hammer out who stays and who goes, I stay. I'm in, and I'm going to make sure the people who freed us are in, too."

Stark shrugged. "I don't know if we have a choice, to be honest, but I guess this prison's a little airier than the last one."

"So you're in?"

"I don't know. It's not just me I have to consider. Pep's already been kicked around by them once. She has a say in what I do."

Steve turned again, staring hard at the lake to avoid the pinprick tears in his eyes. Lost chances, lost dances.

"That must be nice," he said, but when he looked back, Stark was gone.

***

Downstairs, Bruce was making his bed when he became aware someone was watching him.

"If you're hoping for a show, I charge extra," he called out, and with a sheepish expression, Peter Parker dropped to the ground outside the bedroom he'd picked. The young man leaned in the doorway, overly casual.

"Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to peep."

"Sure you did," Bruce replied. "I can't imagine why, though."

"I, um, so, I'm kind of a nerd," Peter said.

"Join the club."

"And I've read some of your papers."

Bruce stopped in the middle of making the bed, turning around. "Sorry?"

"I don't wanna say I understood all of all of them but I got most of most of them," Peter continued. "And I just think, um, it's really cool to meet you."

"You're...how old are you, twelve? Why are you reading my papers?"

Peter spread his arms haplessly. "Told you. Nerd."

"Yeah, well, I'd say treat me as a cautionary tale but it looks like I'm late for that, Spider-man."

"Being fair, I totally didn't do this to myself, but also being fair, it's way more awesome than uncontrollable rage monsters bursting out of me," Peter said. "God, wow, that was really rude. I just. Can I bask in your glow for a while? Because I have very few science heroes and almost all of them are dead, so it's like...you and Reed Richards, and I'm told he's not that sociable." Peter looked shy. "Exalted company for me, you know. You, Captain America, Tony Stark. Couple of gods. Couple of secret agents. I'm just a kid from Queens."

"We're all just kids from somewhere," Bruce said. "Until the day we're more."

"I read about the Hulk, you know," Peter said. "They haven't got nice things to say about him. They never had nice things to say about me, either."

"Difference is, you can read," Bruce murmured.

"So you're him? Do you control him?"

"Nobody controls him. All I control is when he gets loose," Bruce said.

"Would you tell me about what happened? I mean, I'm interested in the science, but I was an accident too. I figure, if we know more, we're better prepared. For, you know, whatever."

Bruce smoothed the blanket on the bed. "Maybe tomorrow. I could use some sleep."

"Sure. Me too. Anyway, it's nice to know you, Dr. Banner."

Bruce gave him a thin smile as he left. "You say that now…"

***

"We have much to speak of," Thor said to Loki, when the meal was ended and the others had gone inside under the watchful eye of Allmother May. "Walk with me."

"Promise not to murder me," Loki replied.

"On my soul, I tried to save you before."

"Preserve us from those who try," Loki murmured, but he joined Thor on the path down to the lake. "I'd just as soon not, you know."

"As would I -- I would accept all that has passed and be glad to merely have you back," Thor said. "But."

"Yes, I suppose so."

"Your actions were misguided."

"Yes."

"You admit it?" Thor asked, surprised.

"Do you believe you are the only one who can be humbled by our father?" Loki asked. "I spent a long time passing from there to here. I had time to consider matters. I don't claim to be a better man than I was. Just wiser."

"Are they not the same thing?"

Loki looked amused. "You would think so, brother."

"How came you to Earth?"

Loki drew to a stop at the lake, gazing down at the rocks that led to the water. "I fell into the void. I came out in Germany."

Thor gave him a skeptical look.

"It doesn't matter," Loki said, almost rebelliously. "The bridge is shattered, and you and I on the wrong side of it."

"Not so wrong."

"I think not, but…" Loki peered at him. "You are destined to rule Asgard, brother," he said, dropping into a familiar mocking tone. "What need do you have of Midgard? Or is it the girl?"

"Jane," Thor corrected. "And she is a learned doctor."

"Where is she in all this, then?"

"I have not seen her since my return. SHIELD captured me first. I was weakened from the fall. Nor do I wish to, not yet. If she does not know where I am, she cannot be held accountable by them for my actions. She is safer wherever she is."

"How noble," Loki said, but his heart wasn't in his sneer.

"Do not you wish to help us to our permanent freedom?" Thor asked. "What will you gain from it?"

"Not a Midgardian wife such as you would have. Nor eternal service to the side of good. But once free of these SHIELD hounds, I can think of gains to be had from Midgard."

Thor rolled his eyes. "You say that now, but I know you."

"So you believe." Loki sniffed and changed the subject. "What do you think of this armored knight, the Iron Man?"

"He talks a great deal too much for how little he says, but I have heard he is valiant in battle."

"Another Volstagg."

"The stripling talks likewise; perhaps it's a human trait," Thor mused.

"That one. Cleverer than he appears."

"I can think of no one else so," Thor said, grinning at him. Loki smiled back, though it was hesitant.

***

Aunt May woke Peter the next morning, earlier than he would have liked and definitely before anyone else seemed to be up. He stumbled after her into the kitchen, sitting down while she began assembling breakfast utensils.

"Ms. Potts and I went shopping on the way here, since the cabin only had weevily flour and canned potatoes," May said. "I don't think Ms. Potts shops for herself much."

"Why, what'd she buy?"

"She just seemed a little lost once we got out of produce. No damage done; I know what we needed," May said, taking a bag of flour out of the pantry and beginning to pour it into a large bowl. On the stove, a griddle and two frying pans were heating.

Peter suspected what was coming next. Aunt May liked to be doing things with her hands when they talked about hard things. He got up and went to the fridge, pouring two glasses of orange juice from a pitcher he found there.

"I keep trying to decide how to talk to you about this...Spider-man thing," she said, reaching around him for the milk. "I'm so glad we get to speak about it face to face."

"Aunt May, I didn't mean to -- "

"Hush," she told him. "Let me get through this, won't you, Peter?"

He nodded apologetically.

"I am very proud of you," she said, not looking at him, concentrating on cracking eggs into another bowl. "I think you should know that. Few men your age are tested in that way -- in the way where honor is put up against desire. Not in such a hard fashion. And I'm proud you chose right, that you chose honor. That you chose to use your abilities for good."

"Well, you know what Uncle Ben used to say," he mumbled.

"Yes, but there's saying and then there's doing," she said. "So yes. I am proud."

"But."

She smiled, stirring the batter. "But. Doing what you do -- returning now to what you did that got you into this mess -- it's like signing a hitch with the Army, isn't it? It's just such a totally different career path from what I had hoped...from what I thought we had planned together for you. College, a good career -- there's nothing wrong or shameful about what you do. Nothing wrong with being a soldier if that's where your heart and duty lie. It's just different, Peter, and when you choose that path, it takes you away from others."

"I thought I could do both. School and the job and the Spider-man stuff," he said. "I still think I can, Aunt May."

"Do you want to try?" she asked. She stopped stirring. "I won't be ashamed of you, whatever you decide. I just…I've lost my husband, and if I lost you too…when I lost you too…"

"What did they tell you?" he asked quietly. He hadn't had the courage to ask before.

"A man came to the house and told me you were a Level One detainee at SHIELD. A detainee," she said, sounding disgusted. "That there was nothing I could do. I tried, Peter, but nobody would touch SHIELD -- "

"Hey," he said, pulling her into his arms. "It doesn't matter. I couldn't do anything either and I was there. You're here now, that's what counts. You kept safe. I was so worried about what they'd done to you."

"Nothing," she said. "They didn't do anything, that was almost worse."

"Someone has to prove to them it won't work," Peter said.

"I know. And I know you have a calling to this," she said into his shoulder. "But…"

But I don't want you to, he expected.

"But just don't sign any paperwork until I've read it over," she finished.

Peter laughed and tightened his arms. "I won't. Aunt May...look, would you be happier being proud of what I did, or would you be happier with me safe? I'll stop if you ask."

She squeezed his ribs. "Dear boy. I could never stop you from your calling. We'll work out the rest later."

"What would I do without you?"

"Starve, I imagine," she replied, but she didn't pull away. They stayed there for a while, in the warm, safe kitchen, until someone touched Peter's arms and Aunt May stiffened. Peter lifted his head and saw Tony Stark, in pajamas worth more than his college savings, hugging her from behind.

"Mr. Stark!" she said, elbowing him off with a laugh.

"What? Seemed the thing to do," Stark replied. "Hugging. I'm for it. Besides, someone left me coffee on my nightstand. People have been promoted for less. Call me Tony."

"Go on, you big flirt," she told him. "Peter, help me with the pancakes, I'm going to start on the bacon. Tony, set the table, if you would."

He bowed with a flourish and began taking down plates. Peter whistled, nodded at the dessert plates in his hands, and then nodded at the actual dinner plates in the cupboard. Tony frowned and swapped them out.

"And how is Ms. Potts this morning?" Aunt May asked. Peter gave her a scandalized look.

"She's already on calls," Tony said. "She'll be off soon, but she can't stay here long before people start getting suspicious." He looked wistful, like he understood the necessity but didn't much like it.

"Well, I'm sure they'll have you all back in New York in no time, judging from last night," May said, pouring out the first of the pancakes. "She's a very nice woman. All the gossip magazines say you don't deserve her."

"Nope," Tony agreed cheerfully. "But I got her and I'm not letting go now. Her bad luck."

A door slammed somewhere nearby, and Steve came into the kitchen, sweaty and wearing a t-shirt about a size too small for him. May gave Peter a look which said she was clearly enjoying that.

"Hey, squirt," Steve said, patting Peter on the back. "Makin' enough for everyone?"

"Capsicle, where've you been?" Tony called.

"Went for a run," Steve answered.

"At five in the morning?"

"It's seven in the morning, and I get up early."

Peter glanced at Steve, but he looked okay. Sometimes he had nightmares; Peter didn't know if Steve knew he was aware of them, but he often woke around three in the morning to the sound of Steve working out his demons on the heavy bag (they'd gone through four in the time Peter had been imprisoned with him).

"Unreal. You smell like a moose," Tony complained.

"All this open space," Steve said, ignoring him. "I missed that. Nice to stretch my legs again. You should come with me tomorrow, Peter, we'll see if you can keep up."

"Don't get eaten by a bear," May told Peter. "You have a delicate constitution, being eaten by a bear would be very unhealthy."

"I'll take that under advisement," Peter said. "Seriously, Steve, you reek, go wash. Pancakes'll be out by the time you're done."

One by one, everyone drifted in, lured by coffee or the smell of bacon frying. Peter looked after the food with May and let Tony hold court with the others, everyone avoiding the subject of teams and crime fighting and prison.

Tony, as Peter suspected would become habit, broke the ice.

"I was thinking," he said, taking a mouthful of pancake and suddenly groaning. "May. Come cook for me, whatever you're making I'll double it."

"Sass," she murmured.

"I mean it. No, so I was thinking about Kevlar," he said.

"Bulletproof material," Peter murmured to Steve.

"A replacement for Vibranium!" Steve said excitedly.

"Kinda, but not really."

"I'm thinking about Kevlar," Tony continued. "I'm thinking about helmets."

Thor looked up from his food. "We have helmets," he said. Loki gestured with one hand; briefly, a large gold helm appeared on his head with hilarious horns sticking out of it.

"You have handlebars," Tony said. "And the rest of these punks don't have anything. I'm thinking about communications devices in cowls. Thinking about masks. I'm thinking with horror about matching uniforms. Iron Man doesn't need a paint job."

"So I guess you're in," Steve said.

"I'm thinking about fabrication," Tony continued, blithely ignoring him.

"How about we hear this plan they've got, first," Dr. Banner said. He'd been quiet up until now, drinking orange juice and making himself a bowl of rice and scrambled eggs in lieu of pancakes. "I suspect it involves more than just going somewhere and punching muggers until we get discovered."

"I've got some scores to settle in New York," Peter heard himself say before he thought about it.

"Get in line," Tony replied. "I need to do some serious dialoguing with the Mandarin."

"Well, this is all very Ocean's Eleven," Ms. Potts said, helping herself to some food. "Thank you, May, this looks delicious."

"Ocean's Eleven?" Thor asked.

"It's a movie about bank robbery," Peter said, comfortable with his role as pop culture guru to lost-looking heroes. "Danny Ocean gets ten other crooks together and they rob a casino."

"Classic film's better," Tony put in with his mouth full.

"Stark's Ten," Bruce teased.

"You do seem to have taken command," May told him.

"No no no," Tony said. "I ran one company of lunatics, I'm not taking the job back now. Rogers -- "

"I agree with Dr. Banner," Steve said. Everyone looked surprised. "I think whoever joins up, you should lead."

"Why?" Tony asked, baffled.

"Because you don't do teams," Steve replied.

"He's sneaky," Tony said to Peter. "You didn't warn me he was sly."

"You didn't ask," Peter replied serenely.

"It's not completely unlike what we have planned," Natasha interrupted. She'd been quiet until now, but she'd sprinkled sugar on her pancakes, rolled them up, and steadily plowed through at least three already. "Your scores are a good place to start; we need to get Lizard off the streets and the Mandarin is dangerous. The idea is to raise visibility -- to show that you're there, that you're not going away. Eventually, there will be a bigger threat. Something public and dangerous. Something to conquer. You'll be symbols then. They won't be able to dislodge you once that happens."

"Are you so sure it will?" Loki asked. "Not to question the wisdom of Midgardians, but there's an Asgardian proverb about going to the battle if the battle won't come to you."

"Nat's pretty confident," Clint said.

"Are we speculating about creating a disturbance?" Tony asked.

"No. But you people...SHIELD wasn't wrong that you attract trouble," Natasha said.

"You're like gunslingers in the old west," Clint added. He made pistols with his hands and shot them around the table. "Everyone wants to challenge the sheriff."

"Say we believe you," Loki said, leaning back in his chair. "What happens if your former comrades in arms come back for us? I don't mind the peace and quiet of a nice cell, but it does grow tiresome quickly."

"They can't take all of you down at once," Clint said. "It takes a specialized squad to get just one of you. NYPD got fucking lucky with Peter."

"It took weeks to set up Stark," Natasha added. "It took a lot of manpower to bring down Hulk. They wouldn't even transfer Cap out of his cell because they knew if they got him through the doors, they wouldn't be able to hold him. Thor had a handicap he doesn't anymore."

"And I was distracted," Loki added pointedly. Natasha gave him a sympathetic smile and a completely unsympathetic shake of her head.

"If they get one of us, the rest come after him. Or her," Steve said firmly. "Nobody fights alone. We each take a partner."

"Ooh! I call Bruce!" Tony said.

"I haven't said yes, yet," Bruce replied.

"Don't make me beg, baby," Tony crooned. Pepper rolled her eyes.

"I think perhaps that ought to be an order of business," Steve said. "We need to know who's in and who's out. I'm in."

He looked around the table.

"I'm in," Peter said, glancing at May. She smiled approvingly.

"And I," Thor boomed. He looked at his brother pointedly.

"Does this position carry a stipend?" Loki asked. "Any sort of benefits?"

"Not being in prison," Dr. Banner offered.

"Well, when you make a compelling offer like that." Loki groaned. "Fine. In. but only until we've cleared up this SHIELD business."

Tony and Steve both looked at Natasha.

"You don't want us," she said.

"Yes," Steve said. "I do."

"Can't believe I'm saying this, but we need you," Tony added. She looked at Clint. He shrugged.

"Fine. We're in," she said.

Bruce didn't even wait to be prompted. "I'm in. Otherwise Tony's just going to keep nagging."

"I don't nag. I persuade."

"We do need a better name than Stark's Ten," Clint said. "Aside from the fact that only eight of us are active combat."

"Got an idea?" Tony asked.

"There was an operation planned," Clint said. "Before the Superhuman Detention plan went in. It was a sort of first draft. It called for SHIELD to take in superheroes and use them in domestic defense."

"The Avengers Initiative," Natasha said.

"Avengers, huh?" Pepper asked. "I like the sound of that."

"Avengers," Thor said. "Yes. Avenging our imprisonment, if nothing else."

"Fine," Tony said. "Avengers. In which case, let's talk some more about ways and means. I got a few ideas."

"He always has a few ideas," Pepper said to Aunt May.

"They usually do," Aunt May replied.

Chapter Four

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