SUMMARY: It was uncomfortably quiet in the limo on the ride back to Stark Tower.
RATING: PG-13 (for swears)
AUTHOR'S NOTES: You know how I said this thing would be nine chapters long? Whoops. Turns out there's an epilogue after this one.
“If the fluid is heterogeneous, consisting of individual layers each of constant density, then the pressure varies linearly with a different slope in each layer and the preceding analyses must be remedied by computing and summing the separate contributions to the forces and momentums.”
It was uncomfortably quiet in the limo on the ride back to Stark Tower.
Tony refused to attribute it to anything other than simple exhaustion. He certainly wasn’t feeling the least bit guilty. No, sir. Nor was he feeling in any way hurt that his apology—an apology he’d very generously offered even though none of this was his fault—hadn’t been received as graciously as it deserved. Nope.
Just because he was hunched down sideways in his seat, resting his head against the window with his eyes closed, didn’t mean he was pouting. He was just tired. That was all.
“That probably could have gone better,” Steve said after a while, breaking the silence.
“I do not blame them for being angry with us," Thor said. "We accused them of betraying us, and in so doing, it is we who have betrayed our teammates.”
“I feel the need to point out,” Tony said without bothering to open his eyes, “that just because they weren’t responsible for the bugs doesn’t mean they aren’t still working for Fury.”
“Come on, Tony,” Steve said with a weary sigh.
“No, he’s right,” Bruce said quietly.
“Ah ha!” Tony said, sitting up and pointing at Bruce. “See!”
“If you’d talked to me before you confronted Barton and Romanoff,” Bruce said, shooting Tony a sideways look, “I’d have told you that they’re both too smart to get caught doing something as obvious as planting surveillance equipment. But if Fury’s this interested in keeping tabs on us, you can bet they’re part of his plan somehow.”
No one spoke as the limo pulled into the garage beneath Stark Tower and glided smoothly to a stop in front of the elevator bank. Steve was out of the car and punching the up button before the driver had a chance to open the door for him.
“Hey,” Tony said, catching up with him. “Look, I know you want us all to be one big happy family—”
“It’s not about what I want,” Steve said tersely, and Tony couldn’t figure out if he was mad at him specifically or just upset about the situation in general. Sometimes all that old-fashioned “chin-up” and “roll with the punches” stuff was hard to get a read on.
The elevator doors slid open and everyone stepped inside.
“Okay, but—” Tony started.
“Welcome back, sir,” JARVIS interrupted.
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said impatiently. “I’m just saying—”
“I should inform you that there has been an unauthorized override of security protocols,” JARVIS said mildly, as if he were simply reporting that breakfast would be delayed.
“WHAT?” Tony yelped. “How? What kind of override?”
By then, the elevator had already reached Tony’s penthouse. Stupid super-fast elevators. Why did he ever think they were a good idea?
The doors opened.
Nick Fury stood in the foyer waiting for them, his hands clasped behind his back and an expression of dark amusement on his face.
“Jesus,” Tony gasped, letting out a breath. “You guys really need to stop doing that. You know I have a heart condition, right?”
“Director Fury,” Steve said, nodding curtly at Fury. “What are you doing here?”
“We need to talk,” Fury said.
“Yeah? Well, I need a drink,” Tony said, walking past Fury. He went straight for the bar and reached for the decanter of scotch. “Anyone else?” he asked, because he was nothing if not a good host. The only response he got was a bunch of scowls, which he chose to interpret as a no.
He carried his glass over to the couch sank down into the cushions, propping his feet up on the coffee table. If he was going to talk to Fury, he was going to make damn sure the bastard knew he wasn’t the least bit intimidated.
The others had followed him in from the foyer, but they were all hovering uneasily around the edges of the room. Only Fury chose to sit. He lowered himself onto the couch across from Tony and leaned back, stretching his arms out along the tops of the cushions as if he were settling in to watch a football game. And then he smiled.
Tony rolled his eyes and sipped at his scotch. “Well?” he said, glancing impatiently at his watch. “Were you waiting for me to offer you tea or something? In case you hadn’t heard we’ve had kind of a long night. Helping people, saving lives. Superheroing. You know how it goes”
Fury’s smile shifted into something humorless. “Barton and Romanoff didn’t have anything to do with planting those bugs,” he said.
“Seriously?” Tony said irritably. “Thanks for the news flash, Chief, but that’s information we could have used yesterday.”
“Then you admit you are responsible for this treachery?” Thor demanded.
“It was a calculated risk,” Fury said carefully.
“You mean a mistake,” Tony said. “And then you figured, hey, might as well fess up since you were busted anyway.”
Fury shrugged. “I think it’s fair to say there’s been a lack of trust on both sides.”
“Tell us plainly: are Barton and Romanoff working for you?” Thor asked.
“No,” Fury said. He paused. “But it’s no accident I let them go when I did.”
“You wanted them on the team,” Steve said, pacing around the edges of the room. “You fired them hoping we’d take them on.” He stopped and looked at Fury. “Why?”
Fury’s gaze went to Tony. “You didn’t want SHIELD involved. Those were your terms. That we butt out and let you people run things as you saw fit.”
“And you agreed to those terms,” Tony reminded him.
“You couldn’t even keep your shit together long enough to run your father’s company,” Fury told him. He jerked his thumb in the direction of Steve and Thor. “These two know about as much about twenty-first century geo-politics as my big toe. And that one,” he nodded at Bruce, “goes on a murderous rampage whenever he gets stressed. So pardon me if I wanted to make sure there were some fucking professionals at the wheel.”
“That’s… actually not the worst reasoning I’ve ever heard,” Tony admitted grudgingly.
“Did they know?” Steve asked. “Barton and Romanoff. Did they know why they were here?”
“They’re espionage experts,” Fury said dryly. “I can’t say with any certainty what they did or didn’t know. But if you’re asking if I told them, the answer’s no.”
“So they are innocent in all this,” Thor said.
“Ish,” Tony corrected. He wasn’t prepared to ascribe the word “innocent” to anything those two did.
“You people didn’t really think we were going to let you run around in your capes doing whatever the hell you wanted, did you?” Fury asked.
“He’s actually the only one with a cape,” Tony said, inclining his head at Thor.
“I don’t know what world you live in,” Fury said, “but I live in the real world. And in the real world every action has consequences, consequences that affect everyone else in that world. In the real world, the only way to stay on top of all the bad guys trying to sow chaos out of civilization is by sharing information and resources with your allies. You need us, gentlemen, just as much as we need you.”
“He’s right,” Steve said. “If it wasn’t for SHIELD, we wouldn’t have known about the Chitauri attack until it was too late.”
“If it wasn’t for SHIELD’s experiments with the Tesseract there wouldn’t have been a Chitauri attack,” Tony snapped, swinging his feet to the floor and sitting upright. He’d had just about as much as he could take of Fury’s holier-than-thou attitude.
Fury fixed Tony with a steely, one-eyed glare. “Do I really need to remind you that it was your father’s idea to harness the power of the Tesseract?” He turned to Steve. “Or that we only recovered the damn thing because your friend Howard Stark was searching for you?” And then he swiveled to Thor. “Not to mention, it wouldn’t have even been here in the first place if Asgard hadn’t treated the earth like their own personal Barbie Dream House.”
He let that sink in for a moment before continuing. “Like it or not, we’re all in this together. We are all culpable in this mess. And we’ve all made our share of mistakes.”
“Some more than others,” Tony muttered.
Fury ignored him. “But when it comes right down to it, we all want the same thing: to protect this planet and the people living on it.” He got to his feet and cast his eye around the room, silently challenging each of them.
“Or maybe you don’t,” he continued. “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’re just in this to get your rocks off, or to feed your egos, or hell, I don’t know, because you like running around in pretty tights. You’ll have to make up your own minds about that.” He paused. “Let me know when you do.”
Tony watched Fury stride out of the room. He had to give the guy credit, it was a great fucking exit. Tony had tried for exits that dramatic, but never really seemed hit the mark. Something to do with gravitas, he suspected, or the lack thereof.
“Why do I feel like I just got reprimanded by the principal?” he said when Fury was gone.
“Because that’s pretty much what just happened,” Steve replied wryly.
“Ooookay,” Tony said, scratching his chest. He still had the taste of dust from the accident site in his mouth and the smell of the hospital in his nose and what he really wanted to do was take a shower and then crawl into bed—preferably a bed with Pepper in it. But he was pretty sure neither of those things were going to be happening anytime soon. “What now?” he asked with a sigh.
“We vote,” Steve said. “On whether we want to collaborate with SHIELD.”
“You mean whether we want to put ourselves under SHIELD’s thumb,” Tony amended. “Because that’s what we’re really talking about. You know that, right?”
“Whether we want to collaborate with SHIELD,” Steve repeated stubbornly. “And whether we still want Clint and Natasha on the team.”
“Is it not the same thing?” Thor asked.
“No,” Steve said. “It’s not.”
Tony wasn’t sure that was true. But he was no longer sure it wasn’t true, either.
“I want in,” Bruce said suddenly.
Tony’s head whipped around to stare at him. “On the vote? Because unless you’re on the team…”
“I want on the team,” Bruce said. “Assuming the invitation’s still open, that is.”
“Of course it is,” Steve told him.
“Right,” Tony said, not bothering to hide his grin. “So how do we do this? Show of hands or secret ballot?”
They took Clint back into surgery first thing in the morning.
Left to her own devices, Natasha wound up aimlessly wandering the halls of the hospital until she stumbled across a vending machine. She pressed her forehead against the glass and stared at the stale, cellophane-wrapped snack foods with a mixture of disbelief and horror. Sno Balls. Donettes. Crunch ’n Munch. Why they didn’t stock these things with anything that resembled actual food?
“You planning on buying something, Agent, or you just gonna make out with it?”
Natasha didn’t turn around. “I’m not your agent anymore,” she told Fury.
“Always been partial to Cheez-Its, myself,” he said.
“I don’t eat fake cheese,” Natasha replied.
“In that case, try this.”
She sensed rather than saw the movement as he tossed something her way. Natasha spun and snatched a shiny red apple out of the air.
Fury looked her up and down with a critical eye. “You look like shit.”
“It’s been a long night.” She tossed the apple in the air, catching it again in the palm of her hand, and thought about how satisfying it would be to wing it straight into Fury’s face. She was pretty sure she could break his nose from here.
He smiled mirthlessly. “So I heard.”
She tossed the apple again and caught it, her fingernails digging crescents into the tender skin. “What do you want?”
“Come on,” Fury said, turning and walking off down the hall. “Let’s find someplace private to talk.”
Clint’s first reaction was to laugh. “Who the fuck does he think he is?”
Natasha shrugged. “He’s Fury,” she said, as if that was all that needed to be said.
He was still feeling a little fuzzy from the anesthesia, but he wasn’t so out of it that he couldn’t appreciate the absurdity of the situation. “So he thinks he can just strut in here, offer us our jobs back and we’ll come running? Is that it?”
“Pretty much, yeah.” She was sitting on the edge of his bed, watching him with what he’d come to recognize as her concerned face. He’d been seeing a lot of her concerned face lately. She always seemed to be trying to gauge his reactions, evaluating him for signs of weakness. And he’d probably been giving her plenty.
Clint felt a sudden wave of nausea. He swallowed the bile in the back of his throat and reached for the cup of water on the rolling table.
“You don’t have to say yes,” Natasha pointed out.
Sure he didn’t. He could fuck off back to the cabin and start drinking himself into a stupor all over again. Because that worked out so well the last time.
“Why didn’t you tell me about Hill?” he asked, the question that had been festering since yesterday.
Natasha hesitated. “Because I knew you’d get upset about it,” she said finally.
He shook his head. “So? You really think I’m that fragile, that you have to protect me?”
She pressed her lips together and didn’t answer. Which was all the answer he needed, really.
“Fuck,” he said. “Seriously? What did you think I was gonna do?”
“I don’t know,” she said flatly. “Maybe something rash like throwing yourself into an avalanche.”
Clint grunted, which was about as close as he was willing to come to admitting she might have a point. “You still should have told me about Hill,” he groused.
They were both quiet for a while. And then Natasha said, “What about the Avengers?”
“What about them?” he said, not looking at her.
“You still want to quit?”
It hurt to admit it, but he’d kind of liked being one of Avengers. They weren’t all that bad, once you got used to them, and it hadn’t been the worst, feeling like he was part of a team. Until it had all gone to shit. He supposed that had been inevitable, though, really.
But then helping those people at that accident site… that had felt genuinely good—better than anything had felt for a long time.
He stared down at his shattered leg, which was starting to hurt like a motherfucker. “I don’t know.”
“You want to go back to SHIELD?” Natasha asked.
He’d at least been good at being a SHIELD agent. Damn good, actually. And it had given him a purpose, even if the job could be pretty murky sometimes. But did he really want to go crawling back there after everything that had happened? Did he want to be somewhere he obviously wasn’t wanted? Because that was the real problem. He didn’t seem to be wanted anywhere.
“I don’t know.” Clint squeezed his eyes shut. “Fuck.” He really wasn’t feeling up to making major life decisions at the moment. “What do you want to do?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Natasha said.
He cracked one eye open so he could look at her. “Of course it matters.”
She shook her head, her expression hard. “I go where you go.” Her voice sounded tight. Strained.
“Don’t,” she told him. “Don’t say anything or I swear to god I will kill you with my bare hands.”
He felt his mouth curve into a smirk, despite his better judgement. “You love me.”
It was a cruel thing to say—love was weakness as far as Natasha was concerned—but that didn’t make it any less true.
Her eyes flashed dangerously. “I warned you, Barton…”
“Okay,” he said putting up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I take it back.”
But he couldn’t seem to stop smiling. He laid his hand down on the mattress so that his fingertips were touching hers. She looked away. Then she linked her hand with his, her slim, delicate fingers slipping between his and squeezing, just a little.
The tightness he’d been carrying in his chest finally started to relax a little. There was one place he was still wanted, after all.