They've been a team for a little over a year, dealt with three more potential apocalypses and a baker's dozen of wannabe supervillains with plans that range from patently ludicrous to just ridiculous enough to be dangerous. And that's not including anything they've dealt with on an individual level. At the very least, Tony is sure that Clint and Natasha have probably also toppled at least three corrupt regimes and defeated numerous spies and nutjobs in the same span of time. Not to mention Thor's jaunt back to Asgard, and Steve's occasional road trips when his blue eyes start to look more like ice than freedom.
There are still rough spots between them, sharp edges that catch each other's weak points just so to spill all their hate and pain and ghosts in the form of vicious words and poisonous silence. But the rough spots are shrinking, the sharp edges not dulling - never that - but being pointed in other directions, at other people. He hasn't wanted to leave any of them stranded on a deserted island in weeks.
Which, of course, is when it all goes to hell in a handbasket. Tony's always hated that metaphor, who the fuck even uses a handbasket anymore and since when could a handbasket drag anyone to hell? Maybe if Natasha strangled someone with one, but really, there are better endings to that particular phrase and his favorite involves a helicarrier.
That's where it starts, where it's always started. First, the unexpected gut punch.
Steve's best friend is alive. Steve's best friend is a brainwashed assassin who used to train Natasha back when she was filling her ledger up with all that red. Steve is suddenly moved to both most terrifying team-member and team-member most in need of a hug: Tony has never seen Fury look intimidated before.
Natasha is outwardly calmer, but then the terror of her silence is enough to make a soldier weep, so he's not counting on her being rational or safe, for any measure of the word, until the situation has been resolved.
There are plans made, indications given that perhaps Barnes is coming out of what's been done to him on his own - although Tony personally isn't sure if a half-brainwashed rogue assassin is any less lethal than a fully brainwashed and under orders assassin, so.
And then, barely a week later, they're back on the helicarrier for the right hook that always seems to follow the gut-punch.
Some branch of the FBI has been experimenting on special people, people with abilities out of the ordinary. The clinical discussion of the few details SHIELD has is enough to trigger half the rest of the team - Bruce is breathing deeply with his eyes closed while the white lines around Steve's eyes deepen and Clint's tensed up and watching Natasha, whose hands are pressed against the table with enough force that Tony's pretty sure it's the only thing keeping her from wrapping them around someone's throat.
They do not need this. Not now, not with Barnes out there acting like a stalker or a fugitive depending on the day of the week. In fact, really, it'd be great if this could have happened, oh, never.
"We're not sure how many escaped; there wasn't much left of the base by the time we got there," Fury says, voice rough with enough exhaustion that Tony wonders when he stopped pretending to be untouchable around them. "Two of them had an altercation with a SHIELD agent; there's now one less of them and I have a letter to write to a mother who had no idea what her son did."
Tony winces and Thor is wearing one of those expressions that remind everyone that he's a thousand year old warrior, not just a cheerful, overgrown puppy with a mean swing.
"Are we treating them as enemies, sir?" Steve's voice is carefully neutral and those impossibly blue eyes of his are fixed on Fury without a hint of the deference his use of the word sir implies. Tony smiles despite himself.
"Treat them as dangerous. The order is catch and contain, but if you need to defend yourselves, don't hold back. We don't know what these individuals might be capable of."
Steve looks about as happy with that as Tony knows the rest of them feel. They are all dangerous. Fury still doesn't know what they're capable of, and Tony knows the rest of them, his team, have not forgotten about the reasons behind the Tesseract research. There are those who want to contain them. Bruce still flinches every time he sees an army uniform.
But there's a dead SHIELD agent, and a world full of people not nearly as dangerous as they are, and so no one argues with Fury.
Catch and contain an unknown number of people with unknown levels of power while also trying to catch and not get killed by the deadly ghost of Steve and Natasha's past. Well, can't be any worse than a nuke and a crazy god and a portal in the sky, right?
One day he'll learn to stop tempting fate. Ha. Who's he kidding. He's Tony Fucking Stark and he will never stop daring fate to do its worst.
Barnes seems to prefer the shadows and has yet to do anything more threatening than break into the apartment Steve still keeps in Brooklyn despite essentially living in the Tower. Unfortunately, it very quickly becomes clear that unlike Captain America's pet assassin, this new batch of human grenades has no intention of running and hiding.
There are three assassinations in two weeks before SHIELD (well, Jarvis and Tony and Hill, who's proven to be both competent and able to put up with all their shit) realizes that the targets were all aware of and involved in, to one extent or another, the funding, cover-up, and administration of the now exploded FBI unit.
None of them are feeling particularly sympathetic for the victims, but the level of damage the hits have caused, and the amount of attention they've brought, means the problem falls into their lap. They're soon busy tracking the rest of the bastards they're now in charge of protecting, however reluctantly. Tony wonders how escaped experiments are getting their hands on information he's spending sleepless marathons finding, and how many more unstable geniuses he can offer jobs to before Pepper fires him.
Finally, they get lucky with one of their missions and show up at the right target's house at the same time as their elusive, but violent prey.
It's a girl. Just one. Young enough to look like she should be in art classes with Steve, not blowing out the sides of buildings with a flick of her wrist. Her eyes, dark and angry and bright with intelligence, catch on them and she snarls, then laughs, an incongruously sweet sound as her gaze sweeps over them derisively. "Pretty puppets, doling out government sanctioned vengeance. Other wrongs need not apply, hmm?"
Maybe Tony got the order wrong, 'cause this sure as hell feels like a gut punch.
His quick tongue never fails him though (even when it really, really should) and he steps forward, letting the faceplate of the suit slide up to reveal his cocky smirk. "Sorry, sweetheart, but catching super-powered murderers is kind of our job."
She looks unimpressed and even he doesn't really believe his words. They might be technically true, but he's always been more a spirit than the letter kind of guy, much to, well, everyone's despair. "You can't hide them forever," is all she says in response. And then she's gone, disappearing into thin air as the lighter bits of debris swirl around in her wake.
"Well, fuck," Clint says. And that's really all there is to say about the situation.
They pack up, go home, and start trying to figure out her next potential target. And how to compensate for her ability to teleport - Tony has to work very, very hard to not geek out uncontrollably over the person they're supposed to be catching. She has some version of telekinesis, judging by the whole wall exploding thing, and she can move herself through space at will. Mostly, at this point, he wants to know how the hell the FBI managed to keep her locked up for so long to begin with.
None of them feel all that guilty when they hear that the SHIELD safehouse the Senator had been holed up in is hit. There are no casualties besides the asshat who funneled money into human experimentation, and Tony knows he's not the only one who finds it telling that, other than that first SHIELD agent, there hasn't been a single extraneous death since then. In his experience, most crazed and violent individuals with super-powers don't care about collateral damage.
The next time they beat her to the punch she lets out a long suffering sigh that could match one of Pepper's, and looks more tired than angry when she glares at them. "When you finally catch me, can you make sure my cage has reading material? Torture gets boring real fast."
"We don't condone torture," Steve bites out. He's been twitchy ever since a certain assassin dropped in on him at lunch, ate half his sandwich, and vanished without a word. He also hates this mission possibly more than anyone besides Bruce.
"You know, I read your comics as a kid, Captain," she says, her head tilted to the side as she meets his gaze without a hint of give. "Your stubborn refusal to accept what 'should' be gave me hope. Guess the real world got to you too."
She's gone before Steve can say anything else and no one speaks as Steve stalks back outside to their SHIELD issued SUV, every line of his body tight with anger.
Tony sighs and has Jarvis call Pepper; he needs her pragmatism and warmth before he goes back to sorting through the shitstains they're protecting for the next likely target. Wasn't stopping people like this supposed to be why they were here, doing this whole team of superheroes thing?
He also doesn't want to think too closely about the resignation in the girl's tone and what it says about what she's been through that she's willing to risk being captured again if it means getting rid of the ones behind it. It makes him think of Gulmira and terrorists and a bone deep ache borne of rage and fear that demanded release.
It's all rough spots and sharp edges for everyone these days. Natasha and Steve are sleeping even less than usual and the tension in the Tower is rising to critical levels. If something doesn't break soon, well, a lot of other things will end up broken. And people.
The third and fourth times they catch up to her, she doesn't bother speaking.
There's a lull after that, maybe she's waiting for them to slip up, and that's when James Buchanan Barnes decides to come in out of the cold.