sam_storyteller: (Alternate Universe)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2013-11-02 10:43 am

Avengers: Coulson's Eleven, 6/7

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 Five

***

Coulson's intel was sound. It led the Avengers to a beach house in Miami, where all eight of them dropped in through the roof and scared the bejesus out of an actor named Trevor who had apparently been hired to front the terror campaign.

"Scoundrel!" Thor shouted, when Trevor tried to explain himself. "Deceiver! Tell us who sponsors your campaign of misinformation or it shall go very hard for you!"

"Nice to see him trying that with someone else," Loki remarked.

"Can we kill this douche?" Tony asked Cap.

"No," Cap said.

"What if we do it while you aren't looking?"

Trevor managed to point them back, somewhat indirectly and incoherently, to Advanced Idea Mechanics, a legitimate tech corporation headed by a man named Aldrich Killian. Pepper, who apparently knew Killian from a pitch he'd tried to make for Stark Industries investments in his products, said he was "creepy" in a way that made Tony froth at the brain.

Bruce got his first real call-up with the Avengers when they took down AIM: Hulk battered his way into their HQ from the outside, along with Thor and Cap, while Natasha, Clint, and Loki snuck inside to liberate his locked servers and all the secret bookkeeping and illegal human testing they contained. Peter toyed with his security forces, mainly; Tony went after Killian.

"I've been told," he said, as he rocketed into the sky with Killian in his arms, "that I have some anger issues to work out. I'm trying to be a sensitive, enlightened man here and trust that Pepper is fierce and confident enough to shut you down without my help. I'm sure she is. But if you ever go near her again or try to touch her…"

He let go before he cut thrust. Killian drifted upwards in the air for a few seconds, hung in place for what seemed like a long time as gravity slowly reasserted its hold, and then started to fall. Tony caught him before he got very far, but not before he'd pissed himself.

"Well, you get the picture," Tony finished. "Hawkeye, did you get all that on camera?"

"Clear as day," Clint replied from Lola's driver's seat. "But if you want to do another few takes, like, just in case we need more footage…"

"Nope. Cut it, print it, put it on youtube," Tony said, just as news choppers began to circle the steaming crater that had once been AIM. "Better grab the others and scoot. I'll handle Hulk."

AIM got the Avengers their first real, meaningful national news coverage. All of a sudden they went from dubious, possibly urban-legendy nightstalkers to bona fide Mysterious Heroes or possibly Lethal Threats To National Security, depending on which network news you watched. MSNBC threw together a Who Are The Avengers special in record time, complete with theme music lifted directly from one of Steve's old propaganda films.

"We all know Anthony Stark," the host said, as the Avengers settled in with popcorn to watch. "Son of industrialist Howard Stark, Anthony "Tony" Stark had what some call a spiritual conversion during a period of captivity several years previous."

"Did you find God?" Steve teased.

"I found Oh God What Have I Done, which is similar," Tony replied.

"As the armored Iron Man, he spent the following years defending the nation's interests and brokering diplomatic treaties with a number of nations until his mysterious hiatus a year ago. Now he appears to have returned -- but who are his new companions?" the host asked.

"I like that they immediately knew I was leader," Tony said. "I feel like I telegraph authority."

"You telegraph somethin'," Steve answered.

"We'll be discussing Spider-man, an alleged terrorist -- "

"God dammit," Peter said.

"Language, Peter."

" -- later in the program. For now, we have new questions. Who are these men? Who is the mysterious woman fighting among them? Where has Stark found his newly minted Captain America -- and is Tony Stark qualified to appoint this man to represent the nation, or replace a fallen hero of the second world war? How has he managed to contain and control the Hulk, until recently viewed as one of the most destructive creatures on the planet? We'll speak to psychologists, historians, and ordinary people who have survived encounters with the Avengers, up next."

"I'm the bait, huh?" Peter asked, as JARVIS muted the commercials. "I'm the one they put at the end so everyone will watch all the way through."

"I'm worried about the word 'psychologists'," Clint said.

"You generally are," Coulson replied.

"Stark Legal is watching this," Pepper said, taking a handful of popcorn from the bowl Tony was holding. "First hint of defamation, we'll be on it."

"Of Tony, or of any of us?" Bruce asked, looking curious.

"I can't sue on your behalf without you being compelled to court," Pepper said. "I can sue in Tony's name because it's connected to Stark Industries."

"SHIELD will turn up the heat after this," Coulson remarked. "Now we're just making them look like incompetents. You were so visible that newscopters found you and they still couldn't put a hand on you."

"They got close, with Bruce," Tony reminded him. That had been touch-and-go; Bruce, dazed and weak from the change back, had been ten feet from a SHIELD agent before Tony scooped him up and bolted with him into the sky.

"Close only counts with hand grenades," Coulson said. They all looked at him. "Fury's idea of a joke." Nobody seemed enlightened. "Because it was a grenade…?" he offered, tapping just above his left eye.

"Oh!" Tony said. "Okay, that's a million times funnier with context. Next time I see him I'm going to tell him to keep an eye out for grenades."

"Shh, it's back on," Peter said, mechanically devouring his own private bag of microwave popcorn.

From their point of view, the documentary was hilarious; it was mostly brief YouTube clips people had posted, wild speculation, and a mini-documentary about Captain America. It did show Steve's face out of mask, though, drawn from one of the old films, which meant that Steve was unlikely to be able to go to the all-night pizzeria again without blowing his cover.

"Welcome to the public faces club," Clint told him.

Natasha was a mixture of pleased and disgusted by her profile on the show; there was a lot of talk of how a woman was keeping up with an all-male team. On the other hand, it did show her deftly neutralizing several men twice her size.

"I don't have time to dwell on these people," she said, standing and dusting off her fingers as the nightly news came on. "Coulson?"

"Right behind you," Coulson said, as they disappeared into the hallway.

"That was a little weird," Peter remarked.

"Eh. Secret agents. No offense," Tony added to Clint.

"None taken," Clint said absently, eyes still on the doorway. "So. Who's on patrol tonight?"

"Cap and Peter, you and Thor," Tony answered. "Unless you want me to take the squirt out, Cap? You're looking a little gunshy."

"No, I'm fine," Steve said. "I want to run down to that construction site we scouted and have you poke around, Peter. I think there's some building code violations."

"It's come to this," Peter sighed as he got up. "Building code violations. That promised near-apocalypse had better come soon," he said to Clint, who was slinging his quiver on his back.

"Yeah, yeah," Clint replied. "Never hope for a fight, Pete, you might get one."

***

They didn't get a fight that night, as it happened, at least not more than a normal night of patrol; they nabbed a mugger, gave a hilarious warning to a guy they happened to see run a stop sign who just about passed out when Cap loomed through his window, and signed autographs for the security guard who caught them exploring the building site. When they finally broke for the night, Peter suggested that they could still technically get pizza, as long as Steve waited for him around the corner. Steve, who couldn't dislike modern pizza as much as he claimed to, agreed and loitered at the corner while Peter swung by the takeout window.

When he ordered their usual, a slice of pepperoni and a slice of olive, the man looked at him, nodded with unusual gravity, and handed him two cheap to-go boxes.

"Gratis, for you," he said, when Peter offered him cash. "For you and the Captain, no charge."

Peter blinked up at him. The man shrugged.

"I saw the show tonight. I know who your friend is," he said. "Hero money is no good here. You come back any time, free slice." He lowered his voice, leaning through the window. "Are you Spider-man?"

Peter put a finger to his lips. The man nodded.

"We knew you were not a terrorist," he said. "NEXT!"

Peter retreated to the corner, offered Steve the slice with olives, and then handed him back his cash.

"What happened?" Steve asked.

"He made us. They say our money's no good there," Peter said.

"Aw -- bless it," Steve said. He could swear like a true proficient in the middle of a fight, but Peter had never heard him swear when he wasn't punching someone. "Sorry, Peter."

"Why? Free pizza," Peter said. Steve raised an eyebrow. "Look, I'm the first to freak out when I think someone knows who I am, but if that guy was gonna tell he'd have told already and SHIELD would be waiting in ambush for us. Nothing to be done about it now. Besides…" he shrugged. "The reason I kept it secret was to protect the people I love. Now I have nine other people helping out with that. I am choosing not to panic this time."

"I think that's very mature of you," Steve said as they walked, keeping to the shadows out of instinct. He inhaled and tipped his head back, savoring the moment. "I never thought I'd miss somethin' boring like walking around New York."

"New York's the greatest city on earth," Peter said. "Nothing boring about it."

"I know that now," Steve agreed. "But it seemed like when -- well, when I was your age -- all I wanted was to get over to Europe. Then we all got over there and half the guys just wanted to go home again."

"Did you?" Peter asked.

"Not until the work was done. I didn't go because I thought it'd be fun. I went because it was the right thing to do."

"You don't talk about the war much," Peter said.

"Not much to say. I mean yeah, I guess I could tell stories, but what would be the point? Better to focus on the present," Steve replied. "There's a lot of work to be done here, too."

"Seems like at this point we're just waiting for something to happen."

"We might be. I don't think Natasha is. She's planning something."

"You think?"

"Hopefully not something too deceptive," Steve said. "But Clint's not worried yet, and Tony's team leader. He's more suspicious of Natasha than any of us, so if he's not after her to find out what's going on, I'll follow his lead."

They didn't have long to wait to find out. The next afternoon, when they woke, Clint and Natasha were gone.

***

"I've sent them upstate," Coulson said, when Tony raised the alarm that their two former SHIELD agents were missing.

"We don't keep secrets from each other," Tony said. "Especially not from the team leader."

"There wasn't time to waste once we had a location, and before that we were speculating. I made the call," Coulson said. Before Tony could object, he brought up a hologram of a floating blue box that Steve recognized immediately. "Some of you may know what this is."

"The Tesseract," Steve said, but two other voices said it in unison with his. He glanced at Thor, then at Tony.

"How do you know of it?" Thor asked, crossing his arms. "It is a valued relic of my father's treasury. It was lost centuries ago. It has come to Midgard?"

"It's been on Midgard," Steve said. "Schmidt found it during the war, seventy years ago. He was using it to build weapons."

Thor looked at him, aghast. "Weapons!"

"Everything from guns to bombs to airplanes. Incredibly powerful ones, really war-ending stuff if he could have industrialized it, but we kept torching his factories. It was my primary mission during the war," Steve said. He turned to Tony. "Your dad was working with the guns we captured, trying to figure out what was going on. But it -- " he shook his head. "It fell out of the plane I was on, right before I went down. It's somewhere at the bottom of the ocean."

"Don't look at me," Tony said. "I saw it in his notes. I thought it was a theoretical exercise."

"It wasn't," Coulson said. "Howard Stark recovered the Tesseract in 1952."

"What?" Steve and Tony asked in unison.

"It was turned over to SHIELD. Technically. Our records indicated it was considered to be in Stark's custody until his death."

"Why wouldn't he use it for his own weapons?" Pepper asked. She glanced at Tony. "If it was so powerful -- I mean -- "

Tony rubbed his face. "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

"Come again?" Loki asked.

"Dad wrote it in his notes below the calculations on the Tesseract. It's a quote from the Bhagavad Gita, but it's more famous in this country for being what Oppenheimer thought when they detonated the first atomic bomb. Which my dad worked on." He leaned forward. "The bomb spooked Dad. He spent his life making weapons but he knew a quantum leap forward when he saw it. He knew we should never have had it so soon. He was at the forefront of weapons manufacture and he still probably held the industry back by twenty or thirty years at least."

"Human civilization wasn't ready for that kind of power," Bruce said. "We still aren't."

"Yeah. I'm guessing when he saw the Tesseract, whole and complete, he knew it was something we weren't supposed to have. He probably locked it up and tried to throw away the key. But nothing ever really gets thrown away once SHIELD knows about it," Tony said. "They're working on it now, aren't they?"

Coulson nodded.

"Tash and Clint went to stop them?"

"To retrieve the Tesseract, if possible," Coulson agreed.

"Should have left it at the bottom of the ocean," Steve murmured.

"Why now?" Tony asked.

"Ah," Loki said, with the air of someone working out a complex problem. Everyone turned to look at him. "The Tesseract can be used to open a portal to other realms, among its other attributes. One of those realms, or rather the space between them, contains an army massed for war."

Tony let his head fall to the table with a light thunk. Pepper rested a hand on the back of his head.

"The Chitauri?" Thor asked. "Those are just a legend."

"On Midgard, so are you," Coulson pointed out.

"I passed through their realm in the void," Loki said. "They are real. I know they wish to claim Midgard. To bring so many soldiers through would require the power of the Tesseract."

"What kind of army?" Tony asked, voice slightly muffled.

"Massive," Loki replied. "Mythologically epic. Their war-leader has some influence in this world somehow -- not much, but clearly enough. He managed to place me here. It is possible he may be manipulating those in possession of the Tesseract into building a gateway."

"We are so boned," Peter said. "We should have gone with Clint and Natasha."

"They'll get further alone," Coulson said. "They know how SHIELD operates. Loki, I want a workup of what kind of firepower this army has. Stark, SHIELD confiscated your father's notes when they brought you in."

"I can reproduce some of them," Tony said. "The math wasn't complicated, just esoteric. Don't know if it'll help. He was calculating its potential as a power source, not a dimensional prism. On the other hand..." he got a thoughtful look. "Yeah, gimme a few hours in the workshop."

"I can help. These readings…" Bruce said, studying the Tesseract and the scrolling information next to it. "They involve Gamma radiation."

"Go," Coulson said.

"What can we do?" Steve asked, as Tony and Bruce hurried from the room.

"Be ready to intercept SHIELD, if Natasha and Clint don't get away clean. Other than that, not much," Coulson said. He looked at Thor. "Can you contact your father?"

"Could I, I would have before now," Thor said, exchanging a glance with Loki. "The bridge is broken; we have not heard from Asgard since..."

"Well, I know how I got back to Earth," Loki said.

"When the bridge was broken, it severed ties to Midgard," Thor said. "I was on the far side from Asgard when I shattered it. I had no options; it was either remain at the separation point or leap to Midgard."

"Heimdall may see us," Loki offered.

"If he does, he cannot help," Thor replied. "The Allfather may summon enough dark magic to return to Midgard, but if the Tesseract is active, he may create a rift through which these Chitauri could come. I always thought they were a cautionary tale against such travel."

"So we're on our own," Coulson said.

"Well," Loki said. "You do have us."

"That's what I was afraid you'd say," Coulson replied.

***

Clint and Natasha returned the next day with a suitcase and matching pair of grim expressions. When they opened the suitcase, a blue glow filled the room.

"We have a problem," Natasha said. Tony, already reaching for the enticing new playtoy they'd brought, found his wrist grasped firmly by Steve, who shook his head.

"Don't touch it without gloves," he said. He looked up at Natasha, his hand still holding Tony's wrist. "It's not stable. It didn't look like that before."

He hadn't seen it for very long, but he remembered how it had looked -- square, blue, almost like frosted glass. Now it looked more like some kind of perverse living creature. The corners of the cube bent in on themselves, rounding off, and then seemed to straighten again if he looked at it from the corner of his eye. The planes on each side bulged occasionally. The glow was bright and constant, not the self-contained light from the engine of Schmidt's plane.

"No, it's not," Natasha replied.

"They were activating it when we got there," Clint said. "Or, I guess it was activating itself, because they seemed freaked out about it."

"How'd you get it out?" Bruce asked, arms crossed as if he, too, wanted to touch it but was preventing himself.

"Natasha caused a distraction. I put an explosive arrow into the apparatus holding it," Clint replied.

"Well, that could have taken out about a third of the Earth's surface," Tony said, tugging his wrist out of Steve's grasp. He picked up a Starkpad and began working on it, glancing occasionally at the cube.

"Didn't," Clint said with a shrug. "Tash grabbed it in the confusion. We took some fire, nothing serious. Fury threatened to slit me from cock to chin."

"Operative D got us out," Natasha continued. "But it's obvious this thing is trouble."

"First instinct is to throw it the fuck into the sun," Clint said.

"At least, to get it out of New York," Coulson agreed. "But there is no minimum safe distance if it...expends." He glanced questioningly at Tony, who shook his head.

"It's cycling energy somehow. I don't know what its capacity is, but -- "

"Not much more," Bruce said, panic rising in his voice.

Tony checked his readout, and almost on instinct yelled "EVERYONE DOWN, MARK NINE NOW!"

Peter and Steve hit the floor as the armor came zooming towards them. Coulson dodged two gauntlets just before Tony raised his hands to catch them, and as soon as they were on he grabbed the Tesseract and started running for the underground tunnel that led to Iron Man's escape route. He stepped into the boots as he ran, jumped high enough to get the chestplate and leg plates on, and dove into the helmet, boot jets activating. He hit the tunnel doing top speed, zipped around a wide curve, and burst out of the bay doors in the middle of the walled garden they'd built on one side of the Tower.

"JARVIS, everything to boot jets," Tony said, lighting up the windows of Stark Tower as he rose. "If I pass out, keep grips on this baby."

"Sir -- "

"Just do it," Tony said, heart hammering in his chest. He knew he couldn't actually feel it, knew the Tesseract wasn't radiating heat at all, but it felt hot in his arms. If he could leave the atmosphere, he might have a chance of getting the Tesseract so far away it would --

Well, realistically, it might pack enough power to wobble the Earth on its axis, or throw both Earth and its moon out of orbit. Still, you never knew your luck.

His armor failed just as he passed the top of Stark Tower.

It was a total and complete failure, and he could feel it throwing sparks. The Tesseract had shorted him out somehow, and as he hung in the air before free fall he wondered if this had been the plan all along: the simple, pure destruction of Earth.

He started to fall, aiming for the Tower's helipad, aware he would crash through at least a dozen floors but might survive to watch the Tesseract go critical in his hands.

Instead there was a sudden thump, and he looked out through the armor's eyeslits to see Thor, tumbling through the air with him, slowing his fall. They hit the helipad hard but not apocalyptically so, and the Tesseract tumbled away. Tony scrambled for it as the armor rebooted.

"It's too late," Thor cried, grabbing him around the waist, holding him back. "Look up, Tony. Look at the sky."

Tony ripped his helmet off and stared upwards. There was a hole in the sky over Manhattan. And, slowly, there were monsters emerging from it.

He heard Clint's voice over the comm in his helmet. "Man, Peter, I warned you about wanting a fight!"

***

A year after the Battle of Manhattan, a book was published about it; a few had already come out, mostly speculation and dense historical records. This one was slimmer than the others, and it was everything they hadn't been: informative, detailed, and above all, emotional. It was published anonymously but went bestseller immediately, and the royalties set up May Parker (who had been a journalist, once upon a time, and knew how to stir her audience) for life.

Most of it was a firsthand account, written by someone who had stood on the Stark Tower helipad that day and watched. Some of it described the chaos in the streets. A few pages were dedicated to statistics: buildings damaged, lives lost, the cost of the cleanup at the time of printing. But there were two sections, close together, which were simple transcripts of recordings, the first leaked to the author by an insider at SHIELD, the second drawn from the Avengers' own records.

The SHIELD recording was verified by SHIELD, who had nothing to lose from the information it contained: that control had been taken from the organization by the World Security Council, who had ordered two pilots with nuclear warheads to destroy Manhattan, hoping to end the Chitauri incursion. Nick Fury cursed on it a lot, and shot one of the planes down before it could leave the runway.

The Avengers recording was much more personal.

LOKI: I need more time.

HAWKEYE: We don't have more time, we're getting our asses kicked down here!

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Loki, how can I assist?

LOKI: The Tesseract was never meant to be mechanically manipulated. I can stop it but I need time!

BLACK WIDOW: We'll buy you all we can. Stark, if you can blow another hole in one of the Leviathans --

IRON MAN: Little busy right now.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Do you need assist, Iron Man?

IRON MAN: Not much you can do about the nuke stuck to my back.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Repeat?

IRON MAN: Just keep fighting, guys, I got this one.

SPIDER-MAN: WHO IS TRYING TO NUKE NEW YORK, DO WE NOT ALREADY HAVE ENOUGH ISSUES HERE --

IRON MAN: I GOT THIS, stop bitching, oh my god.

SPIDER-MAN: I'm taking it personally, I live in New York!

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: SHIELD would never fire on New York. That has to be the WSC.

LOKI: Not really information I need right now, thank you.

HAWKEYE: Where are you taking it, Stark?

IRON MAN: Up through the rift.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: That's a one-way trip.

IRON MAN: Then I guess you get to be team leader. Loki, I need you to be able to seal the rift --

LOKI: I'm trying, it's not -- if I had my tools, proper tools --

BLACK WIDOW: What do you need?

THOR: The lance of ice.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Repeat?

LOKI: The lance of ice. It's in Father's treasury. Prize of the Ice Giants. It could cool the Tesseract. Make it -- malleable, manageable.

THOR: You cannot -- you have power, Loki, could you not -- do something --

LOKI: Not unless you want endless winter on Midgard, brother.

IRON MAN: Running short on time here, boys.

THOR: Call Heimdall.

LOKI: I can't -- I --

THOR: YOU CAN. CALL HIM!

LOKI: HEIMDALL! HEAR ME!

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Hawkeye, on your six.

HAWKEYE: ON IT.

LOKI: HEIMDALL! THE LANCE OF ICE.

BLACK WIDOW: Shit, Cap's down.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Who's at his location?

CAPTAIN AMERICA: I'm not down, I'm fine. Focus on the portal.

LOKI: ODIN, WE NEED THE LANCE. HEIMDALL -- FATHER -- PLEASE --

IRON MAN: Entering the rift. Pep -- [static]

LOKI: FATHER! [crashing]

SPIDER-MAN: Oh my god, they're dead, we're fucked.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Keep fighting!

HAWKEYE: Hulk's got another Leviathan.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Widow, your location is closest.

BLACK WIDOW: Heading for assist.

LOKI: I have the lance. This may destroy the building, madam, you should probably run.

[faint: "I'm not going anywhere" or possibly "I'm not leaving [indistinguishable]"]

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Iron Man, if you can hear me, get back here. We can close the rift.

LOKI: I'm ready.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Hold on my mark.

BLACK WIDOW: Can you see him?

HAWKEYE: It detonated. I can see up through from here. Jesus Christ, Jesus H. Christ oh my god --

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Keep it together, Hawkeye.

HAWKEYE: Keep your face together, this is some major shit happening and I'm underneath it!

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Do it, Loki.

LOKI: Closing the rift.

[Static crackling]

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Son of a bitch.

SPIDER-MAN: What? What's happening?

BLACK WIDOW: He's not stopping.

SPIDER-MAN: WHO'S NOT STOPPING?

THOR: I can catch him --

[Crashing]

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Tony. Tony, come on. Hulk didn't just do a thirty-story dive to save your ass for you to end up dead, come on, Tony --

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: I'm trying to send medical to your location.

THOR: Has he fallen?

CAPTAIN AMERICA: I don't know, I can't get a heartbeat --

IRON MAN: OH MY GOD WHAT JUST HAPPENED.

[Silence, then laughter; unable to decipher source.]

SPIDER-MAN: We won. We won, right? Did we win? Please tell me we won, I'm like, one big bruise and I think I broke a wrist.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Yeah, [redacted]. We won.

SPIDER-MAN: Yay, us.

IRON MAN: Pepper's gonna kill me.

SPIDER-MAN: Hey, does anyone else want pizza? I want pizza.

Chapter Seven

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