Nick Fury stood outside of one of the SHIELD private treatment rooms, watching through a window as Natasha Romanova quietly and calmly talked-down a desperate Sentinel from a Zone-out. Her methods, gleaned from harsh treatment in the Red Room and tempered through several psychology courses, were incomparable, making it possible for SHIELD Sentinels to function almost normally until a Guide could be found. That Romanova had, herself, been without Guide for so long was part of her success—she simply knew that Zoning in their line of work could be fatal, and Natasha Romanova loved living too much to give over that kind of control.
As he watched this newest Sentinel calm and come back to himself, Fury knew that his right-hand, Maria Hill, was scrambling to find as many potential Guides as possible to meet with the promising young man. Fury had recruited this agent himself, attracted by his innate talent for computer hacking without a trace that would make him a valuable part of SHIELD’s tech team.
Once the Sentinel was calm and focused, Natasha rose from her seat beside the hospital-style bed. She whispered some sort of promise and headed for the door, where she knew Fury was waiting with a possible new assignment. After so long being used as a spy and killer, Natasha relished her new life helping others like her, who needed to find their way in the world—often without the partner that Fate had provided for them. Natasha knew her own Guide was out there, somewhere, and she was confident that she would find him or her. The little Sugar-glider was almost constantly with her, and her own Raven was often absent—hopefully aiding her Guide and letting him know that she was searching.
“I read your report on Stark. It’s good work, but then you already knew that.”
Natasha allowed herself a small smirk at the remark. “He is…interesting. His brain never slows down; he never allows himself to rest. When his Sentinel eventually finds him, he’ll have his work cut out for him.”
Fury snorted. “I’m sure. I’m amazed that Stark came online as a Guide after all that trauma. His need for survival borders on Sentinel-like behavior. The Arc-Reactor hasn’t held him back at all.”
“No. It has only made him stronger and more determined. He knows that his Sentinel is out there, close by, so he is determined to not only survive—he wants to be a true partner and not a liability. Iron Man is total proof of that. Guides are historically on the back lines of defense, giving support without putting themselves in direct line of fire. Stark will not settle for that. If his Sentinel proves to be a soldier, Stark will be right by his side, fighting just as hard.”
Fury nodded and motioned Natasha down the hall toward his office. “I never understood Stark’s attitude really, until I read your report. You have a talent for seeing beyond a public façade. I’m glad you’re part of our team now.”
“Do you have another assignment for me, then?”
“I do. I want you to read the files on Captain Steve Rogers and Dr. Robert Bruce Banner. On the surface, they have nothing in common. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding the underlying connection.”
Tony Stark and Phil Coulson stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of an observation window, watching as doctors and technicians worked hurriedly to bring back to life the original Super Soldier, Captain Steve Rogers.
Tony had found amongst his father’s notes on Tesseract Energy and the Strategic Scientific Reserve information on the location of the Tesseract off the coast of Greenland. Tony knew that his father, Howard, had searched long and hard for the location of the plane that took Captain America away from the country that he protected, but he only found the energy source. Now that technology had improved so much, Tony restarted the search using computer search algorithms that he had invented, and he found the plane wreckage, buried deep inside an underwater ice cave.
Tony called SHIELD for help with extraction, knowing that the organization would do everything they could to keep the good Captain safe, and then he brought in the best medical help that he could afford—which was a lot.
The initial thawing process was slow-going, because they didn’t want to throw the body into irreversible shock if life was still viable. Blood transfusions were arranged as well, because frozen blood was no good to them. When brainwaves presented during the thaw, a general cheer went up all around SHIELD Headquarters, but Tony and Nick Fury knew that the hard part was only beginning.
Brain damage was almost certain. It was possible they were thawing and bringing back to life a very patriotic vegetable. If Captain Rogers could not regain consciousness or awareness, then it would do no good to let the public know he had been found. If he never woke at all—well, a private burial was better than none at all.
Once the active brainwaves were confirmed, Agent Peggy Carter—long-ago friend of Steve Rogers—was brought from the nursing facility so that she could be on hand to help Steve if he woke up and was aware. They knew a story of ice-suspension and time advancement would be hard to believe, so Peggy would lend credence to the story.
And a friendly face, no matter how aged, would help soften the blow.
“He’s going to be okay. We have to believe that.” Tony spoke softly, as if his voice would interrupt the medical circus in the other room. “I can’t believe that my father would have left so many detailed clues for us to find a frozen corpse.”
Coulson nodded. “Positive thoughts are a good help. So many Guides are on hand to help, so that overload of Empathic energy may be what it takes to bring him around.”
Movement at the end of the hall drew their attention, and the two men turned to find Natasha and Clint Barton—Hawkeye—moving toward them. Natasha’s expression never changed, but Barton was wearing a huge grin.
“Sentinels all over headquarters are responding—we have an Alpha Prime, and he’s definitely becoming aware!” Barton drew Coulson close in an embrace and Tony visibly sagged in relief.
Natasha nodded in agreement. “I could feel his aura from the sparring ring. He is strong, and he will wake very soon. But after so long under the ice, I fear he may need a Guide sooner rather than later.”
Tony turned again to the observation window, and he pressed both hands against the glass. “Mine. He’s mine. I don’t know how or why…but he’s mine.”
Natasha laid a comforting hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Then you will be there for him, even if he fights, yes?”
Tony’s expression hardened with determination. “Anything he needs, I will be.”
Several weeks and many culture shocks later, Captain Steve Rogers was filled in on the mission of the SHIELD initiative—protect the Tribe from attack, from outside the borders and from within—and he agreed totally. After speaking at length with Peggy Carter, Steve was ready to give his everything to SHIELD. Having Howard Stark’s son by his side, acting as the Guide Steve never had in his earlier life, was an unexpected bonus. Meeting a strong, solitary Sentinel like Natasha Romanova—trained to hide her Sentinel abilities for fear of execution and working without a Guide, even temporarily—was a shock, but Steve saw the value in having her on any team. He saw her handle Emerging Sentinels, teaching them to deal without a Guide until one could be found, and he wished someone like her was there for him when he came online. Bucky was great, but he wasn’t a Guide, and he didn’t have the clear instinct to help Steve when he needed it. The fact that his death sent Steve into a Feral Battle Rage proved that.
But that was the past—the long past—and Director Fury was informing them of a new possible threat.
“General Thaddeus Ross is going to be a huge pain in my ass over this, but he seems to think that Captain Rogers is property of the United States Army—and therefore him by proxy.”
Steve grimaced, but it was Tony that was downright indignant. “Wait a minute! Since when is a human, even if he is a Sentinel, anyone’s ‘property’? That shit ain’t kosher!”
“No,” said Fury, “It’s not. And since it was private funding—from Stark Enterprises—and SHIELD resources that brought Captain Rogers out of the ice, any claim that Ross tries to press will fail. But Captain Rogers isn’t the only bee that Ross wants in his little Sentinel hive, and I would like to get ahead of him on that front, as well.”
Natasha opened a folder in front of her. “You speak of Banner, yes?”
Fury grinned. “I take it you’ve figured out the Captain America connection?”
“I see where a connection was attempted, but the science and theory are flawed.”
Steve cleared his throat. “Um, could you bring the rest of us up to speed, please?”
Fury passed a thick folder down the table to Tony and Steve, and Tony opened it to read the papers inside while Fury spoke. “When Erskine began to formulate his Super Soldier Serum back in the 1930s, his original goal was to force Sentinels online—a perfect fighting force. He brought that formula to America when Howard Stark helped him out of Germany, and he refined it over and over, but he never gave up the idea that it would Force Emerge Sentinels. He would hear no argument against his theory, and Peggy Carter had the brilliant forethought to keep all complete records of his formula in a secret hideaway so that the Serum would not fall into the wrong hands.
“After Erskine thought he successfully completed his experiment with you, Captain, he was assassinated and he never learned the truth.”
Steve frowned. “But I was…”
“Already online as a Sentinel when Erskine approached you to become a test subject?” confirmed Fury. “Yes, we know that. Erskine did not, however, and he completely overlooked the protection drive that forced you to attempt enlistment in the Armed Forces over and over again. He thought you were merely stubborn, and therefore a good test subject.”
Steve nodded at the papers in front of him. “So Peggy and Howard hid away the original formula and nobody attempted it again?”
Fury shook his head in the negative. “Unfortunately not. Oh, nothing was done for many years. Agent Carter was very clever with her hiding spot, and only hints of the original experiment remained open to public scrutiny. There was, of course, a filmed record of the experiment, and on that film many of the incomplete notes could be seen.
“After the end of the Vietnam Conflict, there was noise being made about restarting the experiments. The military was convinced that you were, indeed, a Mundane that was forced to Emerge as a Sentinel. Trial and Error tests were conducted on prisoners of war, until the press got wind of it and the trials were stopped. Then General Thaddeus Ross became the head of something called the Bio-Tech Force Enhancement Project.”
Steve’s head jerked up and he glared at Fury. “That sounds like a fancy name for Rebirth.”
Fury nodded, grim. “It was. It was indeed a new name for Project Rebirth, and Ross was very sneaky about how he began his new round of testing. You see, Ross has a theory that is so disgusting in the face of International Conferences on Sentinels and Guides. He postulated that if he could control the Guide, then he could control the Sentinel. He found the partial notes on Erskine’s Serum, and he found biologists to enhance the formula. Then he put forth the idea that if he could use Guides as lures for test subjects, then once the Sentinel Emerged, Ross’ personal Guides would keep the Sentinels under control.”
From the looks of utter disgust around the table, Fury’s people were as unimpressed with General Ross as he was.
“General Ross thought that the reason Rebirth was so potentially dangerous was the Vita Radiation. He found a young scientist that worked with Gamma Radiation, and offered him a unique position to help the Army by creating a way to shield soldiers from radioactive weapons during battles. That scientist was Dr. Robert Bruce Banner, and from what I was told, he was not given the true goal of the Bio-Tech Force Enhancement Project. Banner honestly believed that he was potentially protecting soldiers, when in fact Ross was using his daughter—an online but low-level Guide—as a possible control for the Sentinel that Banner would become.”
Tony quickly flipped through the pages in front of him. “I take it the experiment didn’t go well? I mean, I’ve seen footage of the ‘Hulk’ on a rampage. It’s like tightly bottled rage let loose.”
“Yes,” said Fury, “The experiment was a disaster. Banner did transform, and that ‘Hulk’ is purely emotion-driven. If he did Emerge as a Sentinel, he has no control. But instead of Zoning-out and going practically comatose, his rage takes over and he becomes destructive. From my research, Banner is not at all like that. He’s very even tempered when he’s in control, but the formula and the radiation changed something inside him. And General Ross is of the opinion that, because it was a Military project, Banner—and Hulk—belong to him and the Army. Ross wants to use that rage-monster as a weapon, and I do not want that to happen.”
Natasha looked grim but resolved. “You want to send me after him.”
It wasn’t a question, so Fury didn’t treat it as one. “You have a unique talent for calming Sentinels. I would be a fool not to utilize that talent.”
Natasha smirked. “You are no fool, Nick Fury. Where do I find Dr. Banner?”
“Wait, wait, wait,” interrupted Steve. “You’re not sending her in without back-up!”
Fury snorted. “Like the lady said, I’m no fool. Romanova will have the best back-up I can provide, but she has to appear to be alone. Sending in a strike force will not gain his trust, and it definitely will not keep him calm. And before you ask—I’m not sending Romanova in because she’s a woman. Banner was betrayed by a woman, so that would be just stupid. If you’ve observed her at all while you were Bonding with Stark here, you would have noticed that Romanova has almost complete control of herself as a Sentinel. I’ve only seen her Zone once, and before Coulson could get to her to bring her around, she shook it off on her own.”
Natasha held cupped hands in front of her over the table, where a sugar-glider snoozed comfortably. “Not on my own. Just not with any physical company. My companion has been constant since I’ve joined SHIELD. I think it’s because I’m finally safe.”
The slum in India was typical. Dingy, dirty, void of any compassion.
People existed here, but Natasha doubted they actually lived.
Still, they were people and they were human and they had very human needs. As much as she hated it, using those needs to attract Banner’s attention was effective. At the very heart of him, he was a doctor, and while he only practiced medicine on the sly, without a real license and only for those desperate enough not to care, he studied Bio-chemistry in order to help people, and in these slums there were plenty of people to help.
Natasha had done her homework well and thoroughly. She could honestly say that she could understand Banner’s motives over the years—hiding from General Ross and the military, even though there was a slim possibility that Ross could hold the secret to a cure, because Ross’ indecent motivation led Banner’s true love to betray him. Banner kept to himself when he could, finding work for almost no pay so that he could eat, but never really interacting with anyone in case his rage was ignited and the Hulk burst forth from the careful control that contained it.
Natasha had even had the opportunity to observe, at a long distance, Banner as he Hulked-out due to a military ambush. That was what led her to luring him to this desolate shack away from the populated slums. She didn’t want him to feel trapped, but she needed him to know that she meant to speak to him. If she could reach him—or at least reach that artificial Sentinel that he was forced to become—perhaps SHIELD could help him with his control. And if SHIELD could protect him from Ross and his military machine, all the better. Natasha knew that Hulk could not be controlled, not the way Ross had intended, but perhaps SHIELD could be a refuge for Banner; a place for him to continue his research away from confrontational distractions. Banner’s scientific expertise along with Stark’s engineering know-how could be a huge advantage for SHIELD in their eternal fight against HYDRA.
And Fury was correct: Natasha did have a unique talent for calming Sentinels. She was almost certain that it was a side-effect of her brutal Red Room training, and she knew that if her previous handlers had had any idea that she was a Sentinel and that she could influence other Sentinels, they would have locked her away and she never would have escaped. She would have died in a cage with no hope for a Guide of her own, because she could never, ever, do that to another Sentinel. What General Ross wanted to do was repugnant to her—to everyone at SHIELD—and that was why she was sitting here in the dark, with only a weak radio to bring aid if she needed it.
She hoped that she would not need it. Just as she hoped she would not need the handgun she held hidden under the table.
Loud, scampering footsteps drew her attention, and Natasha looked up as the small girl she paid to lure Banner to the shack ran into the building. Knowing Banner would be close behind the girl, Natasha quickly passed the child the duffle full of food and medical supplies that were promised and then she dialed her senses up to Sense when Banner was close.
The feeling of overwhelming home caught Natasha unprepared. She could feel Banner, could sense their connection along the Spiritual line like she could feel Barton and Coulson, but she did not feel Sentinel. She did not feel partner, or alike, or protector. The buzz along her senses was not like the buzz she felt when she was around Barton or Steve, or even when she was around the newly Emerged Sentinels that she often counseled in the SHIELD medical ward.
Instead, what Natasha felt was comfort, and completion, and overwhelmingly HERS.
Dr. Robert ‘Bruce’ Banner entered the shack, slightly out of breath from chasing the young girl he thought had asked for medical assistance, and he was just HERS.
Natasha did not stand, although she very much wanted to. She kept to her seat, tightly gripping her revolver, and waited for Banner to approach her. She saw in his eyes the moment he realized what she was to him, even if he did not know her name.
Banner dropped his battered medical bag and slumped into a chair across from Natasha, shoulders dropped in relief and fatigue, and he raised slightly hopeful eyes to hers.
“Dr. Banner? My name is Natasha Romanova. I work for Nick Fury with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division.” Banner’s nose wrinkled, and Natasha allowed herself a small smile. “I was sent here to find you, to bring you in so that we can try to help you and protect you from General Ross’ Rebirth initiative. But somehow I think we have so much more to discuss, do you agree?”
Natasha held out her free hand, and a sugar-glider sailed from the ceiling to land in it, just as a silent, black raven flew in and landed on Banner’s shoulder.
Banner raised a hand and gently stroked along the raven’s breast, and he gave a small smile. “Yes, I think we do have much to discuss.”
Phil Coulson walked into the main conference room at SHIELD headquarters and marveled at the scene before him. There were several ways to take what he was seeing: Tony Stark and Bruce Banner talking loudly and gesturing wildly in one corner while Natasha Romanova looked on with mild amusement and Steve Rogers looked confused. Steve was no dummy, but he still had decades to catch up on in regards to scientific research, and Tony and Bruce were leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else in the room anyway. So, an unbiased observer could look into the room and see two scientists being oblivious about anyone else in the room as they hashed out Abraham Erskine’s original Super Soldier Serum versus the ‘improved’ version that Bruce had been injected with several years prior.
Or someone could see two men in deep discussion about a work project while their partners looked on in exasperation.
But the scene was much more meaningful to the upper-echelon of the SHIELD organization—the ones who called this meeting into being. They were about to take on the United States Army by way of General Thaddeus Ross and his Sentinel Project.
Ross had been very careful to keep his preoccupation with controlling Sentinels from his superiors in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For all that the Pentagon knew, Ross’ project was simply a re-design of Erskine’s Super Soldier project, and he was only trying to create more Captain Americas. But thanks to what Banner overheard the day before his fated experiment, SHIELD was aware that Ross was actually looking for a way to basically enslave Sentinels by using Guides as lures.
And that? That went against the International Conferences on Sentinel Relations. The hard and fast rule was that Sentinels were above sacred and secular law. What they did to protect the Tribe was their law, and no man or earthly organization could circumvent that. If a Sentinel took on a cause, then those who believed in that cause were to be considered very lucky. But forcing a Sentinel to acting against his instinct? No, that was a folly that could easily become deadly.
Ross had learned that Nick Fury and SHIELD had managed to ‘hunt down’ and ‘bring in’ Dr, Bruce Banner, survivor of the failed Bio-Tech Force Enhancement Project. The world considered Dr. Banner, because of Hulk, to be very dangerous, and they weren’t wrong. Ross considered Dr. Banner and Hulk to be property of the United States Military because they sponsored that experiment, and in that he was very wrong. Ross also was under the impression that Banner was a Sentinel that had bonded with his daughter, Guide Betty Ross, and the less said about that, the better.
Nick Fury had explained a few things to the United Nations, the United States Armed Forces organizations, and the White House—things like the fact that Captain Steve Rogers, once considered dead, could better now be considered retired, and he was happy to be working with SHIELD with the new Avengers initiative along with his Guide, Tony Stark, and that another Sentinel working with SHIELD, Natasha Romanova, had finally met and Bonded with her Guide, one Dr. Bruce Banner, and she was staying with SHIELD and would not be allowing her Guide to be taken from her.
The President of the United States had given his full approval for the Avengers Initiative, and everyone else was happy to comply with the universal law regarding Sentinels and Guides. Stark was as far from making weapons as he could get, and was happy to make new ‘toys’ for SHIELD to use in their war against HYDRA and other terrorist organizations. Steve Rogers was becoming more than the figure-head that the Army used to raise money for the war effort, and was now willing to be the leader and Alpha Prime Sentinel that the Avengers needed. Romanova and Barton were great assets for long-range targeting, and now that Romanova had found her Guide, her balance was inferior to none—and she could now better teach and train other Latent and Online Sentinels who were being recruited for SHIELD. And she was happy to never let Banner out of her sight.
General Thaddeus Ross had decided to press the issue. He was about to receive a very rude awakening.
“Alright, everybody,” Coulson called as he entered the room fully. “Let’s put on our game faces. Fury had received full approval from the White House, but General Ross is gearing up for a fight.” Coulson looked at Rogers and smirked. “He’s under the opinion that you are still on active duty, despite the fact that you’ve spent decades very inactive.”
“Then I hope he’s prepared to give me all of my allowed back pay, since the last I checked, soldiers were employees and not indentured servants.”
There was general laughter, which served to break some of the tension in the room. Steve reached out and pulled Tony into a seat at the conference table, and Bruce gamely joined Natasha on the other side of the table. For the first time since Coulson had known her, Natasha looked genuinely happy and relaxed. She had finally found her home, and woe to anyone who tried to take it from her.
Coulson nodded to Bruce and Natasha. “General Ross is on his way, and we’re almost certain that he’s going to try to take you by force. We won’t allow that to happen, but you must be prepared for him to pull out all stops in order to get his way.”
Bruce reached over and linked his fingers with Natasha’s. They had only been out in the open for a week, having taken a week in an Indian safe house to Bond and settle before returning to headquarters. “I understand what he’s capable of, believe me. I’m not really concerned. I haven’t had a rage-flare since the Bonding.”
“Yes, well, it’s only been a week, Mr. Green,” said Tony irreverently, “so you could always put on a show of your own by accident.”
“I’m not worried, and I have my Sentinel with me. She soothes me in a way I’ve never known. Ross may try to anger me just to prove that I’m a danger, but Tash will keep me grounded.”
“Okay, then, people,” said Coulson as Barton finally joined them, signaling the arrival of General Ross and his entourage, “Let’s get this over with.”
Bruce said he was prepared. And he was totally prepared—to deal with General Thaddeus Ross and his never-ending attitude.
Bruce was not prepared to see Betty with him, acting every bit like an abandoned spouse; wringing hands and nervous pout giving the illusion that she was hopeful to be reunited her true love.
And maybe she did love him at one time, but that went by the way-side once she agreed with her father to force Bruce into virtual servitude.
Betty’s eyes drifted over everyone in the room until she settled on Bruce. He kept his hands, linked with Natasha’s, under the table, because Betty didn’t deserve to witness their closeness. Betty made to move closer to Bruce, but General Ross grabbed her arm and prevented the movement.
“What is going on here, Fury?” General Ross demanded from the doorway. “You were supposed to be ready to hand over Banner to my authority, not have a Board meeting!”
Fury greeted Ross’ anger with his own bland displeasure. “I’m not handing anyone over to you and your so-called ‘authority’. I’m only giving you the courtesy of seeing my team in full, once, before I have you escorted from this building.” Fury rounded the table until he stood next to Steve and Tony. “You see, General, back in the 40s, Dr. Erskine had the idea of forcing Sentinels online with some wonder drug and radiation. He picked this fine young man to be his first subject, but he chose badly for his purposes. Steve Rogers was already online as a Sentinel when Erskine approached him. Erskine was unaware of this, but Peggy Carter and Howard Stark picked up on it almost immediately. That was one of the reasons that Agent Carter took Erskine’s research and hid it away long before the public experiment.”
Fury allowed the weight of his one good eye to fall on Ross and Daughter as he continued his mini-lecture. ‘Knowing that Captain Rogers was online and fully a Sentinel in every way placed him beyond the purview of the Army, although he was quite happy to serve with the other soldiers. Had he chosen otherwise, nothing could have stopped him then, and it won’t stop him now. Captain Rogers has, against all odds, found his Guide, and he is happy to work with SHIELD as we put together the Avengers Strike Team.
“As to Dr. Banner, well, General—you made the same error in judgment that Erskine made long ago. You wanted to use some neat chemistry and radiation to force an Emergence where none would normally occur, just so you could build an unstoppable army of Sentinels—an army that you hoped to control by holding Guides over their heads as hostages. That didn’t work for much the same reason that Erskine’s formula only worked half-way.”
General Ross was turning a remarkable shade of puce, and Coulson was half tempted to call for medics just in case he ruptured a major vessel or something.
“You can’t expect me to believe that Banner was already online as a Sentinel at the time of the testing! Betty would have sensed it, and she would have facilitated the Bond much earlier!”
Fury’s upper lip curled in disgust. “No, I don’t expect you to believe that Dr. Banner was online as a Sentinel. And perhaps you should submit your Guide daughter for better testing of her Levels. She missed something very important about Dr. Banner in your quest for the perfect specimen.”
“Really? And what did she miss?” Ross was sneering in displeasure.
Bruce spoke for himself. “She missed me, the person she claimed to know so well. I was online, not a Sentinel, but a mid-level Guide. I was never going to Emerge due to your mis-begotten formula, because I had already Emerged years before.” Bruce held up his hand, still joined with Natasha’s, and continued. “I was a Guide who had been tricked and manipulated by the woman who claimed to love me. And I may have changed horribly due to that formula you switched on me, but I now have perfect balance in my life, thanks to my Sentinel.”
Betty paled beside her father, but General Ross was all bluster. “You have got to be kidding! This is not possible!”
Fury inclined his head. “It is more than possible—it is reality. Sitting at the table before you are three fully Bonded Sentinel/Guide pairs, and they work with me. Not for me, and definitely not for you, but with me, and together, SHIELD serves the Tribe.”