Blondes, Brunettes or Red-heads
"So I hear your cellist came back," Pepper says, arranging the flowers she's brought — sunflowers, very cheerful — before sitting down gingerly on the edge of Phil's bed. There's still a faint dent on the covers where Beth was sitting a few minutes earlier. It was an uncomfortable conversation. Beth's dating the first violinist in her new orchestra, and Phil, well, he's prepared to move on — he misses Beth but couldn't pretend to be heartbroken when she moved to Portland — but being stabbed by a magical spear has rather delayed any plans he might have had. And, of course, he had to lie through his teeth to her about his injury. Not many people have clearance to know about magic spears.
Pepper doesn't either, but that's never stopped her knowing things.
Phil nods. "A flying visit. Someone must have told her I was in the hospital," he says pointedly, emphasis on the someone. Pepper doesn't look the least bit guilty, but then, she's Pepper. He still knows she was the one who ratted him out.
"Well, come on then, tell me all. How did it go?" Pepper asks impatiently, kicking her shoes off with a sigh of relief. She wriggles her toes in the air blissfully. "Phew, I've been dying to do that for hours."
"You will wear those ridiculous heels," Phil points out, not that he can imagine Pepper at work without her heels. They're an intrinsic part of her. "What are they, Manolo Blahniks? Another gift from Tony?"
"Loeffler Randalls, their new rose shimmer lizard leather," she says, prodding one absently with her foot. "A gift from me to me for putting up with Tony. And you're changing the subject, don't think I haven't noticed."
He didn't think he'd get away with it.
"She came, she went," he says, deliberately succinct and to the point because he knows Pepper wants details. She'll get them out of him eventually, but he might as well have the fun of making her work for them. He shrugs one shoulder, then has to hide a wince — he's still not up to moving much, especially now he's being weaned off the good drugs. Perhaps he'll trade Pepper getting him drugs for info on his (non-existent) love life.
Pepper spares him a sympathetic look — he obviously didn't hide his wince well enough — then gets that very familiar look on her face that tells him she's plotting. Even Tony looks nervous when she gets that look.
"At least let me get on my feet before you start setting me up," he says, and if it comes out more plaintive than he means, well, magic spear through his heart. It's a good excuse.
"Just gathering intel, getting ideas," Pepper replies, getting out her tablet and scrolling through something. Phil isn't even going to ask what she's got on there. "So, blondes, brunettes, red-heads?"
Phil doesn't bother to smother his groan, and Pepper doesn't hide her grin.
"I think your other self is none too fond of Asgardians," Thor says, lifting his voice to be heard over the rumble of noise in the bar. He is feeling good. Loki is silenced and bound, and the Captain has assured him that no one blames Thor for his brother's actions; Thor is certain that is not entirely true, but he appreciates the gesture. Jane is safe and well, and last night Thor was able to show her how much he had missed her. And he is currently sated with much ale, and good, American food, of the type the humans call fast and junk, also Tex-Mex, but that Thor considers a feast worthy of princes.
"What gives you that impression?" Bruce asks. He is so mild and soft in appearance in this form, it is hard to believe that this is the man who punched Thor, god of thunder, who dashed him to the ground effortlessly. And yet, there is something in his spirit that shows through, even in his ordinary form: determination coupled with a peculiarly human sense of humor.
Thor laughs. A brave human, indeed. "One day I hope you may visit Asgard. There are some Asgardians who would do well to be bested in battle by a human."
There is a glimmer of a smile on Bruce's face, and he raises his glass of ale. Thor raises his own in the traditional warrior's manner. He has found many fine men to fight beside here, and a fine woman to love. Life is good.
Sometimes he needs a punch in the face, sometimes he just needs to get roaring drunk and sleep it off somewhere safe
Clint goes to every funeral. He stays at the back and he doesn't say anything. There's nothing he can say. Sorry doesn't cut it.
He resists the temptation to watch from a distance, to find a safe perch in each graveyard. He doesn't step forward, but he doesn't hide either.
Some days, the only way he can get to every funeral is to borrow a SHIELD car and ignore all the speed limits and parking restrictions. Some of the personnel were from out of state, and he goes to funerals in bum-fuck towns he's never heard of before. He racks up his Frequent Flyer miles.
It's like Natasha says: there's too much red in his ledger now.
After the last funeral, Natasha appears by the side of his car. "Beer or shots?" she asks, pulling her hair loose from the black band she had it twisted up in, and undoing the top button of her shirt. She looks tired, sad, and that's telling from someone who's normally so good at hiding any emotions. She'd worked with some of the agents he killed. So had Clint.
Didn't stop him shooting them in the chest when they got in his way.
"Both," he says, because he's not sure there's enough alcohol to fix this even for one night, but he might as well try, and she nods, holding out her hand for his keys. He hands them over without an argument; arguing with Natasha is rarely worth it, and right now he doesn't have the heart even to try.
He wakes up the next morning in Natasha's bed. His mouth tastes like week-old socks — probably smells as bad too, not that he gives a fuck about that — and it takes a moment to unglue his eyes. Tasha is sitting on the end of the bed, brushing her hair, already dressed and poised.
Clint checks under the covers. He's still in boxers and his undershirt. Good. Drunken sex isn't his thing — he likes to remember in the morning, no regrets on either side.
"We're needed in SHIELD in half an hour," Natasha says without turning around. He must have slept through the phone call. He'll let that slip one time, won't add it to his tally of failures, but he won't let it happen again. "There are spare clothes in the bathroom."
Clint doesn't ask how she comes to have clothes in his size — it's Natasha, after all — just takes a shower and gets dressed. Natasha hands him a coffee when he comes out, black and sweet, not the way he likes it, but the way he needs it right now. He doesn't say anything besides a muttered thanks, but he knows she'll understand it means he's grateful to have a friend like her.
Someone who has his back no matter what.
Captain Rogers — Phil is still attempting to think of him as Steve, and not entirely succeeding - returns his cards early one morning. He must have snuck in past the nurses, or maybe charmed them into letting him in, because visiting hours don't start for another six hours.
Except that Phil knows the second they're in his hand that they aren't his cards. The realization must show on his face, because Steve shuffles his feet and looks awkward.
"There was, um, an accident with your set."
"They were in my locker," Phil says. Not accusing, just stating a fact.
Steve winces, and Phil makes a mental note to look into the nature of the accident. If Steve weren't so polite, Phil's sure there would have been air quotes around the word accident.
Phil shuffles through the cards. They're a complete set, most in near mint, though one has a slightly dog-eared corner, and his favorite, the one with Captain America saluting while planes fly pasts behind him, looks like it might have been someone else's favorite once. It feels softer than the others, like someone has carried it in a wallet, or looked at it often. They also all have a neat signature in the bottom right corner. One even has a personalized message on it. Phil bites his lip when he reads it. For a brave man and fellow soldier.
Phil has to wait a moment before he asks. "How did you get all these?" It took him years to collect his original set.
"Everyone helped," Steve says simply.
Those two words are enough to explain it all. Phil imagines the determination, skills and buying power between the group of them. A task like that would have been child's play for them. And yet—
And yet he can't quite imagine it. He wants to, but the idea of Thor and Stark and Rogers and Romanoff and Barton and Banner, this ill-assorted group of individuals, most of whom had no concept of team work, collaborating on something like this — not saving the world, just buying trading cards for the agent who barked orders down the comms at them — is stretching his imagination beyond its elastic limit.
"I understood you'd all gone your separate ways," Phil says. Or so Fury had informed him, in the brief two-sentence update on the Avengers situation that he'd given Phil the day he woke up.
"We did. And then we got back together again." Steve shrugs. "I think—" he starts, then looks like he doesn't know how to continue.
"You're changing your minds about each other," Phil suggests, thinking of the antagonism he'd witnessed between Steve and Tony, Bruce's distrust of everyone, Thor's assumption of superiority, Natasha and Clint's background.
"Yeah," Steve says, and Phil reads everything Steve isn't saying into it. Somehow, without him, they've become a team, a real one. The Avengers. It's really happened.
"It's—well, it's rather ugly, don't you think?" Steve asks, taking a step back on the sidewalk to look up at Stark Towers. He's incredibly polite 90% of the time, especially with Hill or Romanoff, both of whom he calls ma'am anytime they're not in the heat of battle, but when he's talking to Tony he never minces his words. Tony's growing to appreciate it. Sort of. Mostly. It's amusing. He's even getting the feeling that there are times the good Captain is baiting him deliberately. Which he admires. Kind of like poking the sleeping dragon — Tony's all for that. Especially when he's the dragon in the analogy.
Tony would be offended by Steve's observation, but (a) it's true and (b) he didn't have the building designed to be aesthetically pleasing but to be practical. When Tony designs something, of course, he generally goes for both (case in point, the Iron Man suits, which are stunning, no matter what Pepper says about his choice of color scheme), but aesthetics are only important when, well, when it matters. If it's on him, or on his arm, he expects beauty. When it's the grandest building in Manhattan, he just wants it to be big and obvious. Besides, he thinks the building is—"What's that French phrase? Means ugly-beautiful? You know, those women who aren't really pretty, but you can't take your eye off them anyway?" He wiggles his hips a little to demonstrate.
Steve shakes his head, and everyone turns to Natasha.
"Jolie-laide," Natasha says, then goes back to arm-waving and muttered half-sentences with Barton. They're talking weapons again. Tony has this game he plays with himself where he tries to guess how many weapons Natasha has concealed on her, but it's a tough call because she can turn practically anything into a weapon. He's going to bet it's an even dozen today. Not that he ever gets to find out if he's right.
"Yeah, that's the one," Tony says, mostly to himself. "Jolie-laide." Power's sexy, even when it's ugly, and when he's finished, this building is going to be the very definition of power.
He stands between Bruce and Steve while they watch the repairs. Last time they stood together on the streets of New York, they were in a circle facing down an alien army. Tony would take that over being jostled (and ogled) by tourists any day. But there's one particular repair he wants to see — he wants them all to see — that's worth dealing with impatient New Yorkers and curious tourists with camera phones.
He looks up at the remaining letter of the Stark Towers signage. The A is battered and slightly lop-sided, but still firmly attached. It isn't that Tony believes in omens or portents or any of that superstitious crap. But sometimes the way something turns out is a message. He'll never exactly be glad that he was kidnapped, but it did turn his life around. Left him with a suit and a purpose. And now Loki's little alien army has left Stark Towers labeled with just an A. It's as good as message as any.
"Avengers Mansion," he announces proudly to everyone — to the team, his team, the Avengers — as the helicopters bearing the new lettering swing into view. "Specially reinforced floors," he adds in a smirking aside to Bruce, just in case anyone thinks he's having a moment or something.
Tony arrives in a whirlwind of energy. He's wearing jeans with grease stains down the front, and a tee-shirt that looks soft and worn thin from washing, and doesn't do much to hide the blue light of the arc-reactor. There's a matching smudge of grease on his forehead, and what looks like fire-extinguisher foam above his ear. He looks like he's forgotten that he's only human and needs to rest occasionally.
He narrows his eyes at Phil when he first comes in, then ignores him for the heart-monitor. He watches that bleep away for several minutes, looking as though keeping this still is an effort, then darts to the bottom of the bed and reads through Phil's chart, huffing occasionally but otherwise silent.
Phil just lets his head sink further into the pillow (duck down, courtesy of Pepper, who'd tried fluffing up his hospital issue pillow and immediately gotten on her phone to have this one delivered) and waits for Tony to say why he's here. At least it isn't to bring flowers, thankfully. Not that Phil doesn't appreciate flowers, but his room is running out of flat surfaces to put them on.
"Liar!" Tony says eventually, putting the notes back on the foot of the bed. "I'm revoking Pepper's right to call you Phil!"
"Most visitors say hi, how are you?" Phil says mildly. Tony's sure to get around to explaining himself. He's never short of words.
"You're alive," Tony says. Definitely angry, and unusually terse.
"Unexpectedly, yes," Phil says, because he's still on enough drugs that he can't seem to help being perfectly honest. Waking up in hospital was a surprise — he'd thought his last words to Fury were his goodbye.
"Not dead." More eye-narrowing. Phil's never been accused of not being dead before, but this is definitely an accusation.
Tony's being really weird. And although Phil's feeling more himself each day, he's still not functioning one hundred percent, and he needs to be on the top of his game to deal with Tony Stark. Ideally one hundred and ten percent.
Still, he can nudge Tony towards an explanation. "Disappointed?" he asks with a nonchalant raise of his eyebrow.
Tony leans over the foot of the bed and stares at Phil. "How about surprised? It was a pretty sneaky trick." He doesn't sound impressed, though sneaky tricks are Tony's own stock in trade.
Phil's head is beginning to ache. "You'll have to elaborate," he says, and he can practically see Tony's mind churning through the ramifications of Phil's answer. Tony slumps slightly, as though it was the anger that was keeping him going, moves around the bed towards Phil and sits down on the arm of the visitor's chair.
"You were pronounced dead," he says quietly. "Fury gave the Cap your trading cards, covered in blood, told us Loki had killed you." Tony shakes his head, like he's getting rid of a bad memory and then smirks. He's never been one to bother with appropriate expressions, and he never stays down for long. Oddly, it's two of the things Phil most appreciates about him. Well, that and the Iron Man suit, and his propensity towards saving the day. "I thought it was your plan."
"No, I was not aware of any plan," Phil admits. He omits to say that he wasn't aware of anything much for over a week. Though, maybe, just maybe, he can work out where the plan originated. And it explains what Captain Rogers had euphemistically called an accident.
He reaches over to the bedside table for a plastic cup and Stark pours him some water. Phil drinks it slowly, stalling while he thinks.
He puts it all together.
It's a relief. He'd thought the Avengers had come together without him, and he has to admit — only to himself — that he'd been more than a little disappointed that he hadn't been the one to get them working as a team. But now it seems like he did have a part, that his last wish before he closed his eyes and thought he was about to die actually came true. "Director Fury told you and Captain Rogers that I was dead?" he checks.
Stark nods. "And yet here you are. Pasty and not looking particularly lively, but you do appear to be alive. Unless SHIELD has some vampire technology I'm not aware of." He says that in the tone of a man who unrepentantly hacks into SHIELD databases, and knows far more than his clearance level allows, and is perfectly well aware there's no such technology. Well, nothing functional yet, at any rate. But now they have both Stark and Banner on the team. Who knows what they'll be able to accomplish.
"Definitely alive," Phil echoes, and for the first time in over a week he's actually feeling alive, itching to get up and go back to work. He wants to see the team in action.
At first Bruce thinks the best thing about Tony's labs is the quiet. There are assistants available if he wants them, smart ones, but Bruce has gotten used to working on his own, and mostly he likes it that way. So the quiet is good. He can work all day without being disturbed, then head downstairs to his room without having to talk to anyone. It doesn't stop him feeling angry all the time, but at least he can be quietly angry, no fake good face to put on it.
It takes him a couple of weeks to go in search of Tony. He's hit a dead end on the current version of an antiserum he's working on: the histopathology results on every test subject have shown acute necrotizing vasculitis and extreme eosinophilic deposition, plus huge numbers of small clots from platelet aggregation. Some also show signs of hemorrhage, and that was without the added risk of stress. And then it suddenly dawns on him that there's someone else in the building who'll understand the problem. Who'll more than just understand. Someone Bruce can bounce ideas off, jump ten steps without having to stop and explain himself. Someone who won't look at Bruce like he's talking a foreign language. Someone who lives to think outside the box.
Tony's easy to find: once Bruce gets to the right floor, he just follows the music. It's a wonder Tony isn't deaf. When Bruce pushes the door to the lab open, he wonders even more. "How are you not deaf?" he shouts. It isn't the way he means to say hello, but Tony just laughs.
"JARVIS, turn the volume down," Tony says, and beckons Bruce to a series of displays in the middle of the room. "What do you think?" Tony asks, the racket now just about low enough for them to talk over.
They're blueprints for a modified Iron Man, and Bruce simply says exactly what he thinks. "Amazing." He zooms into the details on the nearest monitor. There's a supercavitation spike on the back of the armor, which has to be so Iron Man won't get slowed down underwater. If it works the way Bruce thinks it will, Tony could reach near-supersonic speeds. And— "Is this some sort of chameleon mode?" Bruce scrolls through a series of formulas. Paint like this could reflect the light in such a way that Iron Man would be virtually invisible. "You'd activate it with an electrical current?"
Tony nods, and throws up a 3D demo. "Stealth mode," he says, and he sounds giddy with excitement.
"Not my forte," Bruce says wryly, watching the demo Iron Man fade into the background as it races between skyscrapers, just a faint shimmer giving away its position, and that's only because Bruce followed its position from the start. If Iron Man went into stealth mode before he was spotted, no one would see him coming.
"No, the big man doesn't exactly blend into the background," Tony agrees, but there's no malice in it.
Bruce can get to his own problem later, there's no rush. He brings up the first formula again. "What if you try titanium dioxide here instead of—" he starts, and Tony's already there, nodding his head and working it out.
Working with Tony is astonishing. And annoying and amazing and aggravating in equal measure, and Bruce could do without being poked with a pencil whenever Tony feels like it, but he puts up with it for the sake of Tony's wonderful, crazy, sped-up brain that comes up with more brilliant ideas in a week than most geniuses would come up with in a lifetime. That and the easy familiarity they fall into, the way it gets to be natural to pop down to Tony's lab, or have Tony pop into his.
It takes a while, but eventually Bruce realizes something startling: somewhere along the line, they've become friends. Good friends.
"This is totally going on Facebook!"
Darcy's not exactly sure how she came to get an invite, but Jane said party so Darcy was all over it. And then Jane texted her the address, and Darcy nearly peed herself. She's at a party at Avengers Mansion, which is like, the coolest, most exclusive place in New York. Probably in the entire world. Tony Stark said hi to her when she arrived, and what is her life that she knows Tony fucking Stark, and he knows her name?!
Nobody back home is going to believe it.
Turns out, Tony Stark can cook, and he has a robot that makes really weird but awesome cocktails, and Darcy has never been in a room with so many hot guys (seriously hot, like, smoking hot, and only one of them is taken as far as she can tell) in her life. Captain America is actually real, but she's never going to have the guts to talk to him, but there's the other guy with the arms and the wink, and the slightly sad look underneath, and in a couple of drinks time she's going to go up and ask him to dance. Or something. See if she can cheer him up.
"So, um, why are we all here?" she asks Jane, a bit hesitant because she doesn't want anyone to realize she shouldn't be here and throw her out of the best party ever.
"Celebrating," Thor booms, knocking back something that's probably a hundred percent proof like it's water. She hadn't thought he'd noticed her in the corner, but then she's next to Jane, and Thor's been keeping her in his sight all evening, like he's making up for lost time. "Though there is no goat," he adds, and Darcy looks at Jane for an explanation.
"I think they sacrifice goats a lot in Asgard," Jane says, not looking too thrilled at the idea.
"Yes, indeed. A goat is sacrificed and the blood splattered over all present. And then we feast."
Presumably on fresh goat. Darcy'll stick to canapés made of foods she can mostly recognize and an oddly delicious purple cocktail thank you very much.
"We decided to skip the sacrifice and blood splattering this time," Miss Potts says, slipping into the group in an effortless manner Darcy would die for. She's told Darcy to call her Pepper, but Darcy's only managing to do it out loud so far, not in her head. Miss Potts knocks back her own cocktail — a vivid, acid yellow — and grimaces. "Wow, that was—yeah. I think I need to speak to Tony about Bumble," she says to herself, before looking back up at Thor. "Anyway, the goat — had to nix that idea. Blood splatter is such a pain to get out of the carpet," she says perfectly seriously.
"Salt, that's the trick." It's Natasha Romanoff, who seemed to appear from nowhere, and who quite frankly terrifies Darcy, though she tries not to show it in case Natasha can smell her fear or something.
"Ah, you'll have to give me tips," Miss Potts says, and the two head off arm in arm to discuss blood removal.
Darcy needs another cocktail. Perhaps one of those acid yellow ones. "Is Bumble the robot making the drinks?" she asks the agent who took all Jane's equipment (and Darcy's iPod). Not that Darcy's holding a grudge any more, especially as she heard someone say he only got out of hospital today.
"Yes, but you're probably safer avoiding the cocktails," he says, offering her a glass of white wine. She takes a sip — not her drink of choice, but it makes her feel more grown up.
"Thank you, Agent Coulson," she says politely to show she isn't grudge-holding-Darcy anymore. He doesn't look so stuffy without his tie. Another glass or two of wine, and she could warm to him.
"Call me Phil," he says, then, "sorry, I have to take this," as his phone rings.
Okay, there's no way she's calling him Phil, but still, he's actually kind of cute, for an old guy.
She heads back to the corner where Jane has laid claim to the biggest sofa Darcy has ever seen. Darcy curls up next to her, cradling her glass carefully. "Do you know what we're celebrating? Other than not getting covered in goat's blood, which is probably worth celebrating in itself."
Jane shrugs. "Well, sort of. But, you know—"
"It's classified," Darcy finishes for her.
Jane nods, and slings an arm around Darcy's shoulders. "I think we're all just celebrating being alive too," Jane says quietly, and Darcy remembers all that time Jane didn't know for sure if Thor were alive or not, or if she'd ever see him again.
"That's a pretty good reason for celebrating," Darcy says, and drinks to being alive. And to hot guys.