"New parameters," Tony said, and gestured a control panel into being. He scanned the thicket of matrices and graphs and then started changing things, hands deftly grabbing and shaping, muttering numbers like curses.
The phantom city floating in front of him morphed smoothly from baroque to modern, buildings growing taller, sleeker, glassier, streets widening.
"That's more like it," Tony said. He pointed dramatically at the big red button and the simulation began.
The Chitauri entered from the left, the Ultron clones from the right. They were like ants -- huge armies of ants, swarming through the city. The Ultron clones were more concerned with information -- as they advanced, they set up outposts and sentries and kept their lines of communication open, because every good AI knows that information is power -- but the Chitauri were faster. They reached the open square in the center of the city first, and claimed it with one of their undulating airships.
Tony became aware of a crunching sound from behind him.
"Who's winning?" Natasha said, offering Tony the open end of a bag of potato chips. He waved them away.
"Us," Tony said.
Natasha squinted at the simulation. Tony grinned. The Ultron clones advanced on the Chitauri on multiple fronts, and the fighting began in earnest.
After a few moments studying the situation, Natasha pointed to a window above the main square. Then to a narrow alley between two of the shorter buildings. Then she hesitated, moving her hand slowly back and forth.
"Give up?" Tony said.
"This isn't the current team," Natasha said.
"I might have made a few changes. Improvements to our fighting styles, more cooperative moves, better technology..."
Tony's grin widened. "He's here, I promise you."
Natasha bent down to look at the floating city from below.
"Good idea, but you won't find Captain America there," Tony said.
Natasha frowned. The Ultron clones were starting to beat the Chitauri back. The Avengers emerged from the alley to sow confusion to both sides.
"Wait for it..."
Natasha followed Tony's gaze away from the center of the simulation, just in time to see a giant fist emerge from nowhere. It crunched through the side of the city. Buildings crumbled, the tiny Avengers scrambled for cover, Ultrons leapt into the air to swarm toward the source of the disturbance and Chitauri, with their ship as a stable base in the crumbling city, advanced on both of their foes.
"Very funny," Natasha said.
"Wait for it..."
The simulation froze, and then the city began shrinking. Soon they were looking at the simulation from above, and above the crater, the pattern of collapsed buildings spelled out four words.
"You wouldn't believe how hard it was to get that to happen without compromising the realism of the simulation," Tony said smugly.
Natasha stepped into the simulation, ignoring the lights that started flashing, and reached into the center of the frozen city. Hidden in the simulation, forming the ground the city was built on, there was a roundish object made of metal and plastic. As she drew it out, the simulation moved along with the object, keeping it mostly hidden until Natasha stepped out of range of the projectors.
The robot, stripped of its decoration, was a smooth oval except on one side, exactly where the fist hand punched the city in the simulation, there was a dent.
"Captain America Was Here," Natasha said, speaking the words that had been engraved in the simulated city. "I'll say this for you, you're not subtle."
Tony gave Natasha a sharp look. She gave him nothing back, but after a moment, his grin turned sheepish. "You don't like it?"
"Were you planning on leaving this here in the lounge for the amusement of all? Steve has a good punch, but you..."
"I was just... working things out."
"Tony. Steve hit your robot. But you made a robot that got in everyone's way. And it wasn't that long ago that we were all going all out destroying robots made by the AI that you had a hand in creating. You know that, you put it in your simulation. So maybe you ought to cut him a little slack, rather than spending all your time trying to get at him."
Tony shrugged, conceding the point. "But you've got to admit, it was a good simulation. Maybe a bit over the top, but before that... We all need to understand what happened, and what we're capable of. That was the real point."
"Hmm," Natasha said.
"And hey, you weren't using it. This system is a work of art, and I bet Captain Rogers writes plans on paper."
"I use it," Natasha said.
"It doesn't look used."
"I'm neat, and put things back exactly as I find them. But now that you mention it--" Natasha set down the robot, and moved back to the control area. "This looks like fun. What do you say, Stark, let me play god?"
"Oh yeah, this is going to be interesting," Tony said, his eyes gleaming.
Natasha gestured at Tony -- shoo -- and stepped into the position of power.
"You know, Steve is very good at drawing his plans with his pencil and paper. You should talk to him about design. I think you'd both learn something."
When Tony was a kid, he heard all of Howard Stark's stories about Captain America about a million times, but the bridge story was Howard Stark's favorite. He must have told that one several billion times.
Unlike some of the other stories, the bridge story wasn't complicated. There was a pontoon bridge, and it was the only way to get tanks across a river. In order to attack Hydra's base, they needed to get a lot of tanks across the river. The bridge had been captured by Hydra months ago, and they set up defenses on both sides of the river, and then they took some local civilians and put them where they'd get hurt if anyone attacked the bridge.
It was like Hydra was thumbing its nose at them. I dare you to figure out a way to do this without doing something awful like blowing up civilians.
The Howling Commandos came up with plans to attack the bridge, or the machine gun nest that protected the bridge, or the supply line to the outpost defending the bridge, or the Hydra tanks that protected the supply line, but none of these plans quite did the trick. They all thought they'd have to risk the civilians, or give up on the bridge.
But Captain America said no.
And one night the Howling Commandos sent half their forces to pin down the defenders and the rest to place precision charges to rip up the anchors and detach the middle of the bridge, and then Steve Rogers took all those anchor cables and tied them in a big knot and put them over his shoulders, and he walked down the bank of the river dragging the bridge along behind him, with those hostages safe and sound in the middle of the bridge, being pulled to freedom.
They set it up again about a mile downstream, and got their tanks across without any problem.
"They thought they had him, they thought they'd either stop him or make him play their dirty game," Howard Stark said a million billion times.
"But they didn't know Steve Rogers."
When Sam entered the lounge, Tony and Natasha were sitting on the couch, arguing. The simulation area had been expanded into all four corners of the room, and half a dozen simulations were running at various speeds. Sam caught glimpses of Chitauri and Dark Elves, Avengers and a few players he didn't recognize at all.
"Sorry," Sam said, directing it to Tony, and shaking his head when Natasha beckoned him to come further in. "I thought you'd already left. I was just going to...watch a movie." It seemed a little ridiculous in light of everything going on around him, but Sam was used to that.
"Pepper's doing CEO stuff, and I was tinkering with some ideas I had," Tony said.
"He's been very busy," Natasha said. She was looking at Sam meaningfully. Sam advanced a step, and looked at the nearest simulation, trying to figure out what was going on.
"No, actually the opposite of busy," Tony said, distracting Sam. When he looked up, Natasha seemed fascinated, and Sam began to get the idea. Find out what Tony's been up to.
"I used to tinker when I felt like something had to be fixed." Tony glanced at Natasha, and said awkwardly, "Me and Bruce. We came up with all kinds of pie in the sky ideas. Now I just--" He shrugged.
"It's like a disease," Natasha said dryly. "Tinkering. Not just flying robots--" Natasha gestured toward one of the simulations where Sam caught a glimpse of someone with wings like his. But not exactly like his... "Our friend Tony Stark has bigger plans."
"Hey, don't knock the flying robots, I'd take one of those," Sam said, squinting at the winged man. "Flying robots are cool."
Now Tony was looking at Sam speculatively. And Natasha winked.
"So what's this one all about," Sam asked, gesturing at another simulation.
"Natasha figured it out in half a minute," Tony said.
Oh, it was like that, was it? Sam stared at the simulation, his mind racing. "You're designing a new kind of enemy," Sam said slowly.
"No, I'm designing a new kind of team," Tony said, slamming the conversational ball back like he was playing ping pong at the Olympic level.
Natasha frowned. "So, you don't think the old kind of team is good enough?"
Tony started flipping some kind of control interface this way and that, faster than Sam could ever hope to follow. "I didn't say that. But..."
A thought occurred to Sam. "Hey! Is that what that flying robot was for? Was it gathering information about the team?"
"No! I have plenty of information already. But--" Tony fell into a reverie, his hand twitching across the controls of the simulation. Then he stopped entering data and his eyes fixed on Sam like Sam was a problem he was trying to solve. It was a little unnerving.
"Is that why Captain America punched my robot?" Tony Stark said. "To keep me from recording the team?"
"I think Steve punched your robot because it was annoying him," Natasha said.
But Sam said, being honest, "Maybe. I mean, look at that." He gestured toward a simulation that was currently displaying Ultrons. "It can't steal information that's not on the network."
"Luddite," Tony said.
"This is what happens when you give influence to someone who was born in 1918," Tony complained. "It spreads."
A complex movement though several levels of controls, and Sam found himself standing in the middle of a simulation. He looked around and there was destruction all around him, and when he looked up, there was an arrow above him and a rotating sign that said "Captain America Was Here."
"Tony," Natasha scolded.
"I'm just saying what I think," Sam said, backing away. The edge of the simulation had to be here somewhere, but all he could see was walls surrounding him, and the flash of an enemy ducking around a corner.
"What I think," Sam repeated. "I just wanted to watch a movie, and now I'm stuck in...in a news video from a few years ago. Tell me how this happened?"
Natasha cut in. "Tony's trying to be convincing. And failing."
"He hasn't yet realized the first law of convincing: you need to listen. Like Steve does."
"Do I need to get you a sign too? Captain America was--"
"Tony. Can I ask you something? Do you trust Steve?"
The silence was very thick.
"We all know who he is," Natasha said.
"Do we?" Tony said softly.
"We do if we listen."
An illusionary Chitauri dropped out of the sky right in front of Sam and he couldn't help it -- he yelped and ducked. When he looked up, the simulation was fading, revealing Tony Stark, who was looking at Sam with a very strange expression on his face.
Sam noticed the robot from earlier sitting on the floor just before he ran into it, stepping forward. "Oh, didn't see that. Does it still work?" He picked it up, tapping at the dent and then turning it over to glance -- carefully, that thing was a little like a loaded weapon -- at the repulsor that had kept it up before. "Is it out of power?"
"Tell me about what you'd do if you had a robot that could fly," Tony said. He glanced at Natasha, then back to Sam. "I'm listening."
"He's going to tell the bridge story again," Tony complained. "I know he is. He's got that look on his face that says Captain America is the solution to all our problems."
James Rhodes was still a little surprised to find himself at a Stark dinner party. He tugged at his tie and glanced around again. Pre-dinner drinks of the rich and famous... His gaze snagged on one of the other guests standing near Howard Stark.
"Tony, is that General Stone?"
Tony barely glanced up, then shrugged. "I can't believe he's going to tell that story again."
"Tony, this is important."
Tony gave a sulky look, and then nodded. "I think so."
"Wow," Rhodey said. "This is not what I was expecting when you said boring event." He found himself drifting in that direction. General Stone was one of his heroes. He wasn't exactly thinking of meeting him, just being in his General vicinity was more than he'd ever expected.
Tony trailed along, still complaining, but Rhodey wasn't really listening. General Stone was listening to Howard Stark, so Rhodey concentrated on picking Howard's voice out from the rest of the crowd noise.
"...which is just like the situation I was talking to General Stone about ... a use for Stark weaponry ... can't let them get away with it, but we can stop them, just like Captain America ..."
"As far as I can tell from my father's stories, Captain America was certifiably insane," Tony muttered.
That caught Rhodey's attention despite himself. He stopped drifting forward and looked at Tony. "Insane?"
"Not in touch with reality. So stubborn he killed himself, does that sound like the pinnacle of sanity to you? And yet everyone talk about him like he was a model of perfection."
"Captain America gave his life to save others, it's a story about sacrifice," Rhodey said. "The kind of sacrifice that anyone in the military might be called upon to make."
"Stories are not reality," Tony said testily.
"How is that not reality?" Rhodey said. "Do you really think--"
"Shhh," Tony said, pointing at his dad. "You're missing the best part."
Since Rhodey really did have a great deal of respect for Captain America, he paused to listen. And no lie, he was curious about what Tony would consider the best part, too.
"Captain America was a good soldier, and good soldiers need good weapons. That's where Stark Industries comes in," Howard said grandly.
"Do you think Captain America would be wearing a shirt with Stark across the front if he were alive today? Instead of stars and stripes?" Tony asked, a little too loudly.
Rhodey winced. "Who wouldn't be honored to wear stars and stripes and fight for our country?" he said, low voiced, hoping that General Stone wasn't looking.
Howard Stark was. He glared through the crowd at his son. But before Howard could come up with a rebuttal, an older woman who had been talking to someone on the other side of Howard turned. There was a respectful hush as she stepped forward into the group around Howard, her crisp English accent carrying easily to Rhodey's ears.
"What Steve really stood for... And Howard should know this... Steve stood for listening and caring and finding the best in people. That's what the bridge story really means. He wasn't perfect, he didn't have all the answers, but if he couldn't capture the bridge without hurting the hostages, he'd take it some other way."
"Because he cared," Tony muttered.
The woman stared at him, and Rhodey was happy to see that Tony had no desire to sass her in a louder tone.
Then Howard laughed. "Still riding your high horse, Peggy? Still complaining that you can't get everything you want and a pony too?"
The woman -- was that Peggy Carter? -- shook her head. "In your own words, Howard, all I want is the bridge, without the dirty games. Just like Steve always wanted. How many years has it been? How is it that we're still having the same problems? The same hints of corruption? We don't need weapons so much as we need respect for rights and freedom, and that's the truth and I will stand by it ... just like Steve would have."
"We do what we have to do," Howard said. "That's what Steve would have done. He died doing something that needed doing."
"What Steve did, and what is under discussion today--" Peggy Carter quit talking abruptly.
"Yes, not the place," General Stone said.
"If they could have another million Captain Americas, they'd all die just like the first one," Tony said, and suddenly everyone was looking at him. And at Rhodes.
"My son," Howard said dryly. "A little to the side of the point as always."
General Stone cleared his throat.
The tension stretched into a triangle now, silence spreading out across the room. But Peggy Carter kept looking at Howard Stark, and Rhodey would have known that she knew Captain America even if everyone didn't already know that. But the way she looked at Howard Stark, Rhodey thought she didn't think Howard had known Captain America at all.
"It's not Steve that's changed," she said. "He never would. It's us."
Howard looked -- not startled -- but maybe a little sad.
Then Tony snorted. "So you mean if you don't change, you're dead. Or is it that the dead don't change? Either way, count me among the living and bored."
Howard Stark stared at Tony for one tense second longer, then turned back to General Stone. "As I was saying..."
When James Rhodes entered the lounge, Tony barely glanced up. "Put this somewhere," he said, passing Rhodey a hoop made from some kind of shiny material. After a moment, Rhodey identified it as braided from strips of an empty potato chip bag. The crumbs were a bit of a give-away.
"Just do what he says," Natasha said lazily from the couch, and Sam took pity on him and gave him an explanation.
"We're fixing the robot," he said. "That's the target for it to fly through, to test navigation."
"Rhodey knows all about jumping through hoops," Tony said. "It's what he does when the high brass say jump, after he says 'how high'."
"Top brass," Rhodey said. "By the way, Steve said to tell you that he'll be coming by to talk to you."
"Whatever," Tony said. "Do you have that in place yet? Because if you keep holding it in front of you, you're going to be head-butted by a robot."
Rhodey quickly found a thumbtack from the notice board that Steve had put up, and attached the hoop to the ceiling in the corner near the door.
"I'm not going to make it easy for you," he said.
"Likewise," Rhodey said. "In spades."
Natasha laughed, and Sam smiled like he knew the feeling. Tony took it as a compliment, and as an instruction.
"Okay, now your job is to fly it," he said, tossing a virtual control panel at Rhodey. Tony then tossed the robot into the air, and Rhodey scrambled to keep it from flying right into a wall, never mind getting it through the hoop.
Sam came over to watch Rhodey fly it. "Looks complicated."
"Not that complicated," Rhodey said. "Come on, I'll show you." They sat down across from each other at the table, with the control in between them, and Rhodey gave Sam the crash course in Tony Stark's user interface philosophy. Pretty soon they were sharing the flying between them.
The robot zipped and stuttered around, but the worst problem was a tendency to veer left. Tony kept capturing it and changing the alignment of the repulsors or re-balancing the case, but Rhodey thought it needed more than that. It was a challenge for him and Sam to fly, but they started to get the feel for it after a while.
Natasha kept the robot in line by tossing wadded up pieces of paper at it when it went off course.
"Okay, try this," Tony said, and Sam took it up, in a high arc for the hoop by the door.
And then the door began to open.
"Watch out!" Rhodey and Tony shouted at the same time. The robot wobbled and sped up as all of them pounded the controls. And the robot sailed through the air on a beeline for Captain America's face.
Watching through the virtual control panel, Rhodey saw the flats sides of four clenched fingers, lightning fast, he heard the crunch and looked up to see the robot sailing through the air and crashing into the opposite wall.
"Some punch you've got there, Cap," he murmured.
And then there was an awkward silence. Steve looked shocked. Second time today, and Rhodey knew he'd regretted the first time. Had been planning to apologize.
Tony broke the silence: "Well, at least it's symmetrical now."
For once, Tony was watching the dawn spread brilliantly and peacefully across the sky because he'd gotten up early, not because he'd stayed up late.
He wasn't at all surprised to find out who else got up early. "Mmmph, you again," he said. "There's coffee."
"I'm glad I caught you," Steve Rogers said, ignoring the coffee to sit down across from Tony with a regrettably earnest expression on his face for so early in the morning.
"Me too," Tony said. "Because being tracked down by Captain America with something to say is like being tracked down by an over-friendly bloodhound."
Steve blinked. "Over-friendly?"
Tony shrugged. "It's relative."
This time Steve waited out the responses that Tony could see flickering behind his eyes. Back on target in two seconds flat. "But I did want to talk to you, and apologize."
"Accepted," Tony said.
"Don't you want to know what I'm apologizing for?"
"I think I have a pretty good idea. And if we talk about it too much, how much would you like to bet that we'll just end up arguing? Not the right way to reconcile our differences."
Steve was silent for a moment; Tony couldn't tell what he was thinking until he spoke. "Then what is?"
Tony sipped coffee and watched the dawn, giving that the thought that it deserved. Then he tilted his head toward the corner, where the robot from yesterday was sitting. All the dents had been ironed out and there was a sign that said "Avengers leave things better than they find them."
"Did you see that?" he asked Steve.
"You fixed it?"
Tony shook his head. "It'll fly again, but it wasn't me. Probably Rhodey, but I wouldn't put it past any of the Avengers."
"That could have gone without saying. But the point is, whoever did it, what that says to me is that the Avengers isn't you or me, it's a lot of people who all want this team to work, and are willing to work with both of us to do it."
Steve nodded slowly, like he was waiting for something more.
"So what we need to do is trust them, even if we don't trust each other. And trust the team enough not to get in their way, if that's the best we can do."
"I'm glad you finally see it my way," Steve said.
Tony blinked. "Is that your way? I thought your way was--"
Steve put up a hand, and Tony stopped talking. He felt a little mutinous, but as the silence stretched, he realized many of their recent arguments had been about trust. And about teamwork, and what that meant. And he'd just suggested putting the team first, hadn't he? Maybe that was Steve's way after all.
Just as he was thinking this, Steve reached out and clapped Tony on the arm.
"You know what, Tony? I think you've got something there."
"And the team?"
Natasha Romanoff stared at the screen, which was blank, but she could imagine Nick Fury's face on the other side of it anyway, to go with the measured tone of his voice.
"It's ... different," she admitted. "Not exactly the team it looks like on paper."
"No. But we're coming together. It's different from the first team. We're not individuals coming together as strangers, everyone on the team already has loyalties -- or hatreds to overcome -- and that makes a difference. Plus, if we'd known how often some of our former teammates were going to be stopping by, we'd have made the conference tables bigger."
"Tooooony Stark." There was a world of understanding in those two words.
Natasha snorted. "He's a polarizing influence."
"Do you want him to be distracted? It could be arranged."
Natasha sat very still.
"He has very predictable reactions," Fury said, almost apologetically. "There are a few technology puzzles I could send his way..."
"No," Natasha said. "When he's really with it, Tony's an asset to the team. And Tony thinks on the run. We just have to keep him running our direction, and we'll have the team we need and Tony Stark too."
"And what about you? That job offer is still open if you ever want to ditch that unruly bunch."
"You don't mean that."
"I know. You brought the Avengers together in the first place, and you know they need me. I'm the only one who can keep this 'unruly bunch' together for long enough to accomplish anything. Steve... he's a good leader, but he's impractical. Tony is too, in a totally different direction. I'm the mediator. It's sort of like being a spy, except that I don't just find out what's going on and that's the end of my job. I create the middle ground."
"I'm glad you realize that."
Natasha laughed. "I'm glad you realize that too. I'm committed here. My old job... I could still do it, but I don't want to be so alone any more. The mission still comes first, but I'd rather share the mission with people who understand that. And it's exciting, doing something so old and so new."
"In that case, I guess this is the last time I'll be calling you."
Natasha made a small noise of protest.
"Agent Romanoff used to be comfortable with anything. Natasha Romanoff, Avenger --"
Natasha nodded. "I won't tell your lies any more. I haven't for a while, didn't you notice? But that doesn't mean we can't compare notes, one spy on a mission to another."
There was a long silence, then a breath let out, a release of tension. "Fair enough. Avenger to ally." There was a comfortable pause, and then he asked, "Are you happy?"
Natasha smiled. "It's not all work," she said. "Sometimes it's--" She hesitated. "Fun. Fulfilling. Terrifying. One retired spy to another, I haven't given up anything I regret ... too much. And I like that I can spend more time being ..."
Several words flitted through her mind. Trustworthy. Known. She spoke the word she chose with exquisite care. "Truthful."