Midnight Oil
When Tony Stark can't sleep, he breaks into high-security government files to find himself a man. Somebody objects. Strangely enough, it's not Tony Stark's girlfriend. Yet.

Stark R&D Department

"Shall I further invade the privacy of others?"

After a few hours of being tended to by SHIELD medics and a long flight back to Malibu, Tony has returned to his palatial mansion. He tried to get some rest, but sleep has proven to be even more elusive than usual. Now he's wandering downstairs, still rubbing his eyes as he pulls a t-shirt over his bandaged ribs.

Between the bomb and his crash, he took a pretty good beating. He's covered in a thin layer of scratches and bruises. No broken bones, but a bent rib gives him a twinge every time he takes a deep breath. The Mark V is in far worse shape; it's going to require a full rebuild. Right now there's little more than scrap and spare parts in the secure case where the suit is normally displayed.

"Hey," he says, snapping and pointing to the Dummies, his bank of personal computers, the holographic displays, and the primary interface. "Everybody up. Daddy's got work to do."

Displays spring to life on every side, flooding the room with the skyline of a small city in numbers of lights and blinking diagrams.

"Will that be actual work, or your usual 'research', this morning, sir?"

In the corner, a Dummy fails to compute between how to get 'up' and also stay where it's been ordered, leading it to power its arm up and down continuously in over-excitement.

Tony cringes as the other Dummy attempts to pour him a cup of coffee, which naturally ends up spilled on the floor. "I hate you all."

"My research is actual work," he continues. "And how can you manage to put air quotes around something without fingers? Man, you're good."

"As you say, sir."

Having secured himself both coffee and scotch, he settles into his seat and sips pensively. "Mmm. Midnight oil. JARVIS, we need to figure out what the hell happened in Russia. More than that, we need to figure out how Fury knew about it in advance, sent that many pairs of boots, and they still got their asses handed to them. So here's what we'll do…" he sets aside his coffee, picks up his phone, and expands the holographic screen with a flick of his finger. "We're going to poke through SHIELD's files and look for information on gamma radiation. First one to come up with something useful wins. It'll be like a race, only more dangerous. Ready?"

"Having prepared a list of why this is a bad idea and then summarily discarded it, I am, indeed, ready."

"Good, because I started already." Tony tap-tap-taps on his phone, using it to do things that so-called hackers might be able to pull off on a good day with the right equipment. Maybe. Namely, he's peeling back layer after layer of SHIELD security. "Oh, Nick-Nick-Nick. Setup's not bad. Not good enough, but not bad. Hey, keep an eye out for information on Romanoff. I lost sight of her at the party and never picked her back up."

"I have found footage of the agent in question from the other evening, sir." No sense of competition present in the virtual tone: only fact. "It appears to be incomplete and I am unable to repair it."

Against the flurried back-drop of public information — SHIELD's cover stories, Sterns' biography of published works on gamma radiation, his former workplace and known associates in the field — being thrown up on the screen and processed through to the background as non-essential, a video feed appears, growing from a single pixel to a rectangle that displays the distressed security image of Natasha Romanoff in a tattered dress, as seen from above. "Please tell me you can see me — " the feed plays in flickers.

Tony's eyes narrow as he watches the hasty, spotty transmission. "Okay, prep the Mark VI. And keep digging. I've got some basic background information on the mission. Logistics, troop deployment, stuff like that. All this tells me is that they came loaded for bear. Wait, stop. Go back."

Bruce Banner's file has come up as an associate of Sterns. "This guy… What the hell is he doing here?" he muses, poking a finger at the image to enlarge it. "And he's the leading expert in gamma radiation research. Somehow not a coincidence, I'm thinking. I want more, give me more on Banner."

"I do believe Dr. Banner's research in gamma radiation has brought him up in our gamma radiation search."

In full compliance, the barrage of SHIELD data shuffles to one side to make room for a new array of arriving files focused around the search parameters: Dr. Bruce Banner, while a light powers up beyond the screens.

2008, Culver University in Virginia, Dr. Bruce Banner is involved in a gamma radiation accident.

SHIELD files of the time correspond, indicative of watching the situation.

General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross referenced. General Ross' current status: ON LEAVE.

Research. Pages, documents, briefs, theses of the highest degree and marked intelligence, spanning various areas of gamma and related research. All signed: Bruce Banner (pre-doctorate; dates indicate early heightened thinking), Dr. Bruce Banner, Dr. Bruce Banner.

SHIELD reference: "super soldier".

SHIELD reference: "Agent Masters." Masters' current status: DETAINED.

Meanwhile, based on a struggling list of text off to the SHIELD and Sterns' side, the delving there has hit a digital wall.

"There appear to be significant gaps in both Banner and Sterns' files, unavailable on any server. Further contributions to the field from Dr. Banner regarding gamma radiation ceased since 2008 incident. No personal or residential information available for last five years. Running facial recognition now."

"Yes! Do it. I need a location on this guy." Tony downs his scotch and switches over to coffee. Meanwhile, he's paging through the information that's been brought up. "Super soldier, eh? This should be good. And we've got a member of SHIELD… being detained by SHIELD? See what you can find out about that. I'm looking for more on Romanoff's status. The fact that we're not finding anything makes me think someone's got something to hide."

Minutes pass from this last comment to the next, filled with the gentle thrum of technology at work. The Mark VI looks on in the background.

"Agent Anthony Masters." A picture of a tall, picturesque, blond man. "Capable of imitating nearly any physical motion. Skills include a variety of martial arts. Known associates." Up springs a list of names: they appear to be all, or mostly, female. Then, finally: General Thaddeus Ross. "Aliases include: Copycat, Blondie, Mirrorman. He was tagged during the events of your evening, as well as an earlier incident."

"There's nothing here on Natasha that we don't already know." Tony takes another sip and gives his phone a frustrated thumb-swipe. "She disappeared at the party and hasn't been seen since. Time to change partners. You focus on Banner, I'll take Masters. One of these guys is bound to have some answers."

Despite all his skill and genius, it's not long before Tony runs into another digital wall. Masters. Experienced, highly trained agent, inexplicably being held by his own people. "Tell me you're having some luck, J. Things aren't looking good on my end."

"Sir, facial recognition has picked up this— "

The small, shaky-camera work of a cell-phone appears on the monitor then enlarges, showing a view from near the floor of an averagely built man, on the shorter side, standing on the ledge of an enormous broken window. Equipment around appears to be lab related, and the user holding the phone bumps occasionally into the underside of a table that edges into the top and left sides of the frame.

Slam of a door— footsteps— a man's legs appear at the corner. "Doctor Banner— " The thump of a body hitting the floor. Students mutter and shuffle; somebody whispers, "Holy fuckhe just took out Josh — "

In front, the man— Dr. Bruce Banner, genius— turns over his shoulder to regard the off-screen figure in military boots. The phone-camera quivers, making it difficult to pick up the expression but even digitally there's something there… something— then an odd green light; a glitch?

The man turns front. A female voice: "Don't jump that's at least eighty — " covers Banner's intentional plummet straight off the ledge. Somebody yells. The camera hits the table and the user breathlessly curses, "Oh my God!— " before the clamor of other military boots cuts everything short in authoritative shouting.

Unphased: "I've also found reference to a grouping of aliases flagged by SHIELD and military intercepts. One of them appears to be in current use on a civilian server. Shall I further invade the privacy of others?"

Tony watches the footage, rewinds it, and watches it again with his face almost pressed against the image. "Yeah," he says, clearly distracted. "Invade away. Unless you get lucky, it looks like we're going to have to talk to One-Eye if we want to find out more about Masters or Romanoff."

Over and over, he watches Bruce take his suicide dive. Eyes narrowed, he enlarges the picture and focuses on Bruce's face. "Something's not right. Despite evidence to the contrary, I'm not convinced this guy is dead. Stick with him. If he's still alive, he's probably our best lead."

"Very good, sir."

A screen launches for a chat sign-in: Mr. Green. Usage tagged by multiple military and investigative branches. Half a minute passes without incident except scroll of computer talk. Then:

"Research on Samuel Sterns present in this server, under encryption."

Code rambles by.

"I am picking up the trace of several of the high-level SHIELD files I had been unable to access."

"That's what I'm talking about. Let's make one more push. You hit 'em high, I'll hit 'em low." Tony expands his holographic screen so he can assist. He's like a skilled surgeon, his hands moving almost too fast to follow as he keys in commands, slices through layers of security, and sets false trails for anyone who might be watching.

"I've got us prepped," he confirms. "Save that chatroom log and any attached info. We'll sort through it later. Right now, I want those files."

Information flows, under their combination of searches — bits and pieces trying to fit together until, abruptly, the voice takes a turn for discontent.

"I believe I have been detected."

Tony's false trails begin lighting up like Christmas decorations.

"Encountering countermeasures."

Information on the screen dies; whole chunks zip out as monitor lights flicker.

"Sir, I am being— " As soon as JARVIS' synthetic voice rises in an approximation of human distress, it cuts off. Lights go dark.

"Disconnect! Disconnect now—shit." Tony lets out a low groan and his head drops to BANG against his desk. "Well. Something tells me this is going to get worse before it gets better. Dummies! Finish prepping the Mark VI. Just in case. JARVIS! C'mon, buddy. Wake up. I need you on the security systems. I don't want a repeat of Fury walking in like he owns the place. Or worse, Coulson."

Unfortunately, there's not much he can do besides get the power back online and wait to see what happens next. Unless he wants to suit up and pick a fight with SHIELD, which sounds fun but probably isn't a sound tactical decision. Still, he eyeballs the armor as he works to get the lights and computers up and running.

Five seconds and then lights reappear, with files leaping back up where they had been before being shutdown.

"Functions restored." If he had been programmed to feel relief, that might've been it. Instead, humor prevails. "It would appear that 'Mr. Green' did not appreciate his privacy being invaded. Something to consider."

Tony's hands slow their frantic pace, then come to a stop. "What?" he queries, blinking owlishly. "You mean that wasn't SHIELD ruining my day before it even started?"

He swivels around in his chair and access the primary holographic interface. One after another, he discards files or sets them aside for later. "Banner. We keep coming back to Banner. Him, Ross, and Sterns. My guess is, one of them is Mr. Green. Whoever he is, he just fired a warning shot. Banner's got the background… Just look at this research. And I'm inherently suspicious of anyone who comes with a 'Super Soldier' label and a military escort."

"I was shut down by the civilian server." A couple of partially completed text files pop up, attempting to perform Tetris maneuvers to complete themselves. "However, as I was able to recover one of the secret clearance files the user had previously acquired, I believe I am still the winner."

"And to the victor go the spoils," Tony murmurs. "Good work."

His Banner-related searches are dragged and dropped to a separate holographic screen, leaving a blank canvas for the partial file as it reconstructs. "C'mon, show me what you've got. I want to know what was important enough that someone shut the entire house down as a warning."

The re-constructing text takes center stage, displaying not only recovered text but also slots where none existed to retrieve: patches of blacked out information, obscuring details. To pile on, what text does come together reveals that it is obviously not in plain English. Coded.

"It's going to take me some time to find the code cypher, however I believe there is reference to both Agent Romanoff and Samuel Sterns. Possible connection. Nature known. As well as gamma radiation, and some kind of synthesized blood."

"Finally, something we can work with. Fire up the gantry. While you're sifting through that, I think I'll go out and do some hands-on research." Tony finishes the last swig of his coffee and makes for the Mark VI, which is once again illuminated and ready for assembly. After a few moments spent in the mounting apparatus, he's armored up and ready to go. "Let me know as soon as you have something. And tell Pepper not to wait up. I'm going back to Russia."

"As you do, sir."

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