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Double Deuce

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The bar is one of those utterly cliché places you can still find in the heartland – one of those whose owners have yet to get the memo that deep-fried food and smoking are bad for you. 

Heck, even the name is way Eighties:  The Double Deuce Roadhouse and Tavern.  

Walking into the place is like stepping into an acrid blue fog; the single biggest light sources are an ancient jukebox in the corner and an ancient TV, playing what looks like an even more ancient episode of Star Trek. 

In other words, it’s perfect.

Tony pulls his collar up a bit higher, but chances that any of the denizens of metropolitan Manitou Springs would recognize him are pretty slim.  There hadn’t been a single article linking him to Tennessee last year, either, and that was after he’d blown up parts of downtown Rose Hill.  Okay, that guy Gary needed … needs certain persuasion to keep his mouth shut, but the point holds: Context is everything, and people don't expect to see Tony Stark mingling with the hicks.

Of course, not being recognized is one thing; having no one know where he is – unless he doesn’t want anyone to know -- is quite another.  Having earned Pepper’s wrath about that sort of thing once or twice, he looks for a pay phone with a land line even before ordering a beer. Luckily, the thing takes credit. 

When he gets through to Pepper, she sounds gratifyingly relieved to hear his voice. He is less thrilled to find out that help had been dispatched to Colorado already, as soon as his suit went off-line -- based on the last coordinates JARVIS had been able to provide. Tony isn’t quite sure how he should feel about that, but Pepper points out that since he was calling for help anyway, he can’t really complain if it arrives a bit sooner.  He allows her to wheedle the name of the place out of him, and even gets the address for her off a book of matches, although he’s pretty sure she googled, cased and judged the joint as soon as he said its name.

There remains only the ritual promise that yes, he won’t get too drunk while he’s waiting, and no, there are no strippers.  Tony hangs up in good conscience, reasonably pleased that he won’t have to spend the night in some dank motel with third-class sheets, bed bugs and no room service. 

Miller time. 

Last Saturday before the holidays and the pub is pretty packed, especially around the billiard table, but out of the corner of his eye Tony spots some people making ready to leave one of the booths. He dives through the crowd at the bar, a dripping beer in one hand and his metal suitcase in the other, and makes straight for the still-warm seats. 

Sliding into the booth he dumps the folded up armour on the floor beneath his feet. Damn, that sucker weighs a ton when it doesn’t fly – maybe he should think about trying a new alloy …?

Tony takes a resentful kick at the red-and-gold suitcase.  It’s been two hours since all but the straight-up mechanical parts of the Mach 73 had stopped working, one-and-a-half of which he’s spent hoofing it down the mountain, carrying the thing through the snow like so much dead weight, until that logger took mercy and gave him a lift into town.   

At least he’s pretty sure he didn’t get shot down by NORAD. Their headquarters are under one of the mountains around here, but after yelling at him for a bit about restricted air space, they’d gone silent – just before he crashed.

And what the hell happened to JARVIS? Pepper said he’s working fine at the Tower, and in a tizzy about having lost contact with Sir.

Experimentally, Tony taps his wrist phone. Still nada.  Shit. If it hadn’t been for those fail-safe one-shot repulsor bursts, he’d been one for the scrap heap, crashing right into Mount Manitou or whatever the local rock is called.  

Well, no point in dwelling. He takes a deep draught of his beer. Just one, he’d promised himself, and nothing harder -- but man, that tastes good.  And maybe it’ll stop his brain from buzzing?  Even the peanuts look pretty good right about now, regardless of how many unwashed fingers may have grubbed around in the bowl before him.

But what is it about crash landing in the snow in flyover country, anyway, second holiday season in a row…? At least this time he’s not burdened with some overly inquisitive ten-year-old, who doesn’t know from a decent sandwich. 

There’s a shout of laughter from over by the pool tables and Tony looks up from his beer just in time to see a figure looming over him. 

“This seat taken?” 

The voice is followed by the oof of a heavy body landing on cheap vinyl upholstery, as the speaker slides into the booth without waiting for an answer. 

“I was about to say yes,” Tony says, his voice sounding peevish even to him. In his defence, it’s been a long day. “I’m expecting someone.”

It isn’t exactly a lie, so long as no one tries to pin him to a precise time. But it’s obvious the guy can’t take a hint.

“Only free seat in the joint,” he says, with a boyish smile.  “Thanks man. I think I came at a bad time; all the shops are closed and now I’m stuck here.  You know when they open?” 

If this were Manhattan or Malibu or even Denver, the answer would be easy: something’s always open. Out here, Tony has no clue, not that he usually measures his days in units of twelve or twenty-four. 

“Sometime between first and third coffee?”

This seems to make sense to the stranger, who looks around, beer in hand, like a curious kid taking in a museum for the first time. His lack of attention gives Tony a chance to study him, which he does -- a bit warily.  For all that Happy thinks that he flirts with Certain Death on a daily basis and twice on Sundays, Tony is actually not completely naïve; that thing with Aldrich Killian was a pretty convincing reminder that chance meetings can have long-term repercussions.

The man is obviously athletic, about the same size as Cap but not quite as built, and with a touch of Banner’s out-of-Calcutta scruffiness. There are a couple of scorch marks on the sleeves of his red leather jacket that look like explosive residue – red alert time, or does it mean that maybe the guy has a workshop where he could fix his suit, if Pepper doesn’t come through? 

The man seems to have noticed the scrutiny and gives him a look that manages to be both wide-eyed-friendly and calculating at the same time.  Barton gets that same look, whenever he’s come up with a particularly cool new arrow design that he needs someone to build for him.   What does this one want?  Tony eyes the el-cheapo candle – a jar full of oil and a wick -- that’s sitting on the table beside the peanuts, presumably for a spot of holiday cheer but useful as a projectile, in a pinch.  

But what comes next isn’t what he expected.  An introduction.

“Hi. I’m Peter. Peter Quill,” the guy says. But then he adds, with a conspiratorial undertone, like it’s supposed to mean something to Tony, “Also known as Star-Lord.  Here on a visit.”

Oh, goody. A lunatic, with delusions of grandeur. Dangerous or benign? At least the guy isn’t wearing antlers to impress the masses, and seems a level up from the lumberjacks around the bar. (Red leather, not black.)

“Tony,” Tony says, putting his left foot on the suit, right by the open sesame button, just in case.  And then -- he doesn’t know what comes over him, but it does -- he adds, with a right proper regal inclination of his head, “Also known as Ironman. Transmission trouble.” 

Quill is neither fazed nor impressed, nor does he comment on the absence of a last name. 

“Ironman? Hey, that’s cool, man. Pleasure to meet you.” 

Quill extends his hand and, against his better judgment, Tony finds himself taking it. It’s calloused, like the guy works with his hands a lot, and his shake is firm without inviting a testosterone contest. 

The formalities over, Quill takes a sip from his beer and looks around, as if searching for something.  On the side of his ear, Tony notices a small gadget that could be … what? A hearing aid? 

“I’d have expected a place like this to have music.” 

Shit. The talkative sort. Tony rolls his eyes.

“You want music, there’s always the jukebox.” 

Tony points into the corner with his chin, just as one of the locals – a big, hulking brute, days away from his annual bath -- leans over it and punches in a code.  In an instant, the twangy sounds of Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man fill the place.

Tony winces in pain. 

“Whoa, that’s offensive,” Quill says, his tone close to admiration. “I know someone who could weaponize that, without too much effort.” 

Tony looks at him with a bit more respect.  Maybe the guy’s not a total dick? 

“Not a country fan, I take it?” 

“Uh, no. Not exactly.  I like …” the guy rattles off some names that seem pulled straight from the dusty shelves of pop history: Marvin Gaye. David Bowie. The Runaways.  The Five Stairsteps.  Alyssa Milano.  The Jackson Five. (The Jackson Five??) Not totally evil in the way of Ms Whine-ette, but …  Ye gods.  Tony rolls his eyes. 

“I’d have pegged you more for Classic rock, based on that jacket.  How do you feel about the Sabbath?  Deep Purple? Hendrix?” 

Quill shrugs. 

“Been a while since I listened to anything new.  Been away from the Terran music scene.”

Star-Lord?  Terran music scene? 

Now, normally Tony has better things to spend his time on than musical proselytization, and better people to spend it with than certified nut cases, but this is just sad.  Besides, the guy who’d put on Tammy looks like he’s lumbering back towards the box with a fresh load of quarters:  DefCon Five

“Hold my seat,” he orders Quill, “I’ll show you some proper Terran music.” 

He makes a dash for the jukebox, plowing through the patrons and getting to the grail a split second ahead of Country Mouse.  (There may have been a shoulder involved, but hey, the place is crowded.) 

He flashes his Black Card at the guy between thumb and forefinger before feeding it into the machine.

“Self-defence,” he explains to the thwarted competition.  “Country music causes brain melt.  Case in point.” 

Luckily, the bar is taking its retro feel seriously, right down to the play list. Tony punches in the first fifteen songs he recognizes – they’re not all to his taste, but better by a country mile than all that stuff about adultery, honky-tonking and trucks.  

He turns on his heel and heads back to the booth.  At least Tammy’s Stand-By Man seems to know when he’s defeated; he just stands there for a moment, mouth hanging open, and heads for the phone instead.  

When Tony gets back to his seat, Quill is tapping out the rhythm to Paranoid on the chipped Formica table, with a finger that has smudges of grease under the nail. (Mechanic, maybe?) 

“Better?” Tony asks airily.

Quill shrugs.

“Not bad so far. What else you got?” 

There are probably another couple hours to go to extraction, and Quill seems here to stay, and intent on being a vocal nuisance. And just in case he might be tempted to live out his Outer Space kink some more, Tony starts a pre-emptive lecture on how, with the exception of AC/DC and a small handful others, very little decent music was produced between the Fall of Saigon and the Falklands War. 

“The Dark Age of Disco was a blight on humanity,” Tony says with a shudder. “I’m still not sure it wasn’t some sort of alien plot to turn us all into dancing monkeys.” 

The debate is good and his opponent worthy, if limited. Quill seems to really know only about a couple dozen songs and keeps using words like neat to make a point, but all in all the conversation is pleasant enough.  Plus, it passes some time that Tony doesn’t have to spend on thinking about how much he wants another beer, and how he probably shouldn’t.

…..

 

Half an hour on, and the place starts filling up even more.  Judging by the size and state of general grubbiness of the patrons filtering in, some lumberjack firm must have let out recently, or else someone’s ordered an evac of the local trailer park.  Most of them seem to know Tammy Boy; he’s getting a lot of those knuckle-slap greetings.

Tony suppresses a shudder.

Funny enough, most of them don’t seem to be headed for the bar, though; they’re just milling around the billiard tables almost as if they’re waiting for something. 

Tony and his booth mate have just started to debate the relative merits of ‘A Space Oddity’(SciFi or acid dream? The beginnings of a gradual descent into the electronic wasteland of pop, or an uninformed vision of life beyond the stars?) when he feels a warm, firm hand on his shoulders. 

Quill’s eyes light up in sudden awe, and his mouth opens a little; Tony is pretty sure there’s spittle forming in the corners. 

“Hey, Flyboy,” a familiar, sultry voice breathes in Tony’s ear. 

Natasha Romanoff, in the flesh.  

Quill’s reaction is not only defensible then, but biologically mandated.  She may be a global menace, but even in jeans and a t-shirt the Black Widow is quite an eyeful; even Pepper admits that.

“I was told you could use a lift home.” 

Romanoff smirks as she nudges Tony’s shoulder to make him move over, and squeezes herself into the booth beside him. 

“Being fresh out of superpowers, and all that.” 

Tony bristles. 

“I was doing perfectly fine, thank you.  Just taking a break until the hardware stores open in the morning.” 

She looks at him in that oh, puh-leeze way that the women in Tony’s life must have spent years to turn into artistic perfection. If Pepper is the Michelangelo of the Raised Eyebrow, Romanoff is the Da Vinci of the Judgmental Smirk.

And then there’s Jackson Pollock here, baring his pearly whites and now certifiably a-drool.

Romanoff scans Peter Quill as if she were reading an owner’s manual.

“Who’s this guy, Stark? And what did we tell you about picking up strangers in cheap bars?”  

“Hi,” says Quill, ignoring the hostility and holding out an eager hand.  His face is split by a grin that’s practically dripping smarm. “Quill.  Peter Quill.  Thrilled to make your …” 

Natasha ignores the outstretched hand.  Her question is clearly directed at Tony, who for some reason finds himself compelled to take sides. 

“He’s not a stranger. He introduced himself right properly, like the polite chap he is.  Black Widow – meet the Star-Lord.” 

Quill bristles.

“Not the.  Just Star-Lord.  I don’t understand why that is so hard for people, seriously.” 

Tony waves his beer in a vague acknowledgement of Quill’s comment. 

“He’s mostly harmless, Agent Romanoff.  Strange in the head, but promising taste in music.  Bit heavy on the pop, but not irredeemable.  Plus, he hates country so there’s that.”

“Hey!” Quill sounds wounded.  “I’m right here, you know.  Talk to me, not about me.” 

Romanoff gives him another one of those looks, like she’s evaluating how best to take him out.  And she’s probably not wrong; Spaceman does seem pretty fit under that scruffy exterior – like someone who’s been in his share of fights, on whatever planet he thinks he’s on. 

À propos trust, and Pepper’s (in retrospect) rather glib use of the passive voice, when she told him he’d be picked up?

“Why exactly are you here, Agent?  I was expecting my own plane, and my own people, not S.H.I.E.L.D.”  He leans over towards Quill and stage whispers, “My stewardesses are much more accommodating than this one, and a lot less likely to kill you.”

“I’d almost forgotten what a crude pig you are, Stark,” Romanoff says conversationally, but without answering the question.  “I don’t know how Pepper puts up with you.” 

She casts a critical eye around the dim bar, wrinkling her nose at the smoke and no doubt calculating just how far away she is from the nearest Caprese salad. 

“I have to say, apart from your other well-known shortcomings, you have the worst taste in places to crash into. I looked this one up on the way out here.  Apparently, its one and only claim to fame is an alien abduction back in the eighties.” 

Quill takes a careful sip of his beer, looking at no one in particular. 

“About that,” he says.

…..  

Of course, being in a booth with a guy who claims, now with some background, to be on home leave from outer space changes the conversational dynamic a bit.

Pretty soon Tony finds himself asking questions, about trans-stellar travel, vacuum-proof armaments, and breathing apparatus, and listening intently to the answers -- which Quill seems happy to give.  The guy hasn’t tripped up on the science or the internal logic once, so he may just be for real. 

Besides, Tony has seen odder things and people in his life already, lives with some of them, and does like to keep an open mind. 

Romanoff asks a few spy-like questions: “Are you alone here?”, “Weren’t you afraid of getting tracked?” and  “What exactly do you mean, your friends would stand out if they came with you?” -- stuff like that.  

And suddenly, Tony has a mini-epiphany and he turns to Quill. 

“Tell me. Assuming for the sake of argument that you did just fly in from the Milky Way. How did you manage not to ring the bells at NORAD?  Even I file a flight plan …”

Romanoff raises an eyebrow.

“… on occasion, to stop them from sending a tail.  And their burrow is right around here somewhere.  Colorado Springs.”

“Localized disruption of all forms of transmission,” Quill answers proudly. “Rocket knocked out everything in a hundred-mile radius before dropping me off. He’ll do the same thing when they come pick me up, so no worries about freaking out the locals.”

Well, that explains a few things.  Including the lost connection to JARVIS -- not to mention S.H.I.E.L.D.’s involvement, if NORAD suddenly went dark.  He tries to exchange a meaningful look with Romanoff, but she’s in spy mode again.

“Rocket?” she asks.  “There have been no reports of missiles.” 

Quill just shakes his head. 

“Friend of mine,” he says airily.  “I come in peace. I’m just here to …”

A busty blonde chooses this moment to approach their booth, and the words die on Quill’s lips.  The man does have a Pavlovian response to certain visual stimuli; in fact, he reminds Tony a bit of himself, Before Pepper.

“Are you really the famous Tony Stark?” the woman asks breathlessly, ignoring the other two occupants of the booth.  She bends down to give him a pretty good view of her frontal assets; Quill is reduced to scrutinizing the rear ones.  He doesn’t seem to mind though.

“No, he’s not,” Natasha replies, unleashing a totally fake grin and wrapping her left arm around Tony, while her right hand is reaching for … whatever.  Boy, that woman is paranoid.  And probably in league with Pepper.

Yes, I am, darling,” Tony replies brightly, trying to wiggle out from under Romanoff’s grip.  “Call me Tony. And your name is…?” 

He nudges his chin invitingly towards the last remaining empty seat in the booth, the one beside Quill.  To his credit, the man moves right over.  Much better wingman than Romanoff, that’s for sure, if for the wrong reasons. 

I could be Tony Stark,” Quill says brightly, flashing an impressive set of canines at the woman. “If it’s that important to you.” 

“Thanks, but no thanks,” the woman says.  “I need the real thing.”

She pulls out a gun … and all hell breaks loose. 

Romanoff lunges forward, out of the booth, grabs the gun and twists her wrist with it sharply; a sickening crunch suggests the woman won’t be shooting at anything for a while.  Next, Romanoff’s elbow connects with the attacker’s larynx; she doesn’t even bother to watch her fall.  In a motion so fast Tony can’t remember actually seeing it, the Black Widow has drawn both her Glocks and is ready for more. 

Which turns out to be just as well.  

A guy who seems to have appeared from nowhere tries to put some kind of evil-smelling rag over Tony’s face; he lets go with a scream when a load of hot lamp oil hits him in the face like a particularly nasty form of arterial spray. 

Of course, some of the stuff starts burning on the upholstery, which probably isn’t such a good thing. 

Someone hollers, “Fire!” -- another voice counters with, “Barfight!”, and that’s when things get complicated.

Tony slides completely out of the booth – no point getting his butt burned, besides, freedom to move, and suit up.  He shouts into his wristband, “JARVIS – deploy.  Now.

Nothing happens.  Rocket, whoever he is, has a lot to answer for.

Some members of the most recent wave of lumberjacks are starting to converge on them; Natasha is doing a whirling dervish number on two that have finished converging.

“Hey, looks like you could use a hand,” Quill remarks as he vaults out of his seat, and touches the thing Tony had thought was a hearing aid.  Some kind of a mask rolls out over his face, makes him look a bit like a nasty bug. (Alien tech?  Enhanced vision or gas mask?)

Tony, unable to get his own suit to as much as twitch, hits the manual button on the case and slaps on the right glove while rolling out from under some jerk’s foot.

“Be my guest, Starbucks,” he says as he wiggles his fingers.  The gauntlets won’t have JARVIS’ targeting power, but he should be able to trigger and aim the palm projectiles manually.

“I want Stark alive,” the guy from the jukebox shouts. “He’s worth zillions.”

With a sinking feeling, Tony remembers waving his Black Card at the guy, who'd obviously used the landline to call his friends-and-relations in for a spot of opportunity crime.  (At least it won't be the best thought-out plan, then.)

"His friends don’t matter," the guy adds.

Tony raises his hand, fires.

“Wrong thing to say,” he snarls, as the guy goes down, and a buddy behind him with him. The other patrons either scream, run for the doors, or dive for whatever cover is available. 

Quill, meanwhile, has pulled something from his back pocket and is flinging it towards the advancing horde.  It hits one guy in the chest, bounces off, lands on the floor -- and suddenly every last gun flies out of its owner’s hand, and attaches itself to the gadget. 

Supermagnet?

Tony is about to say something complimentary, when he feels the gauntlet trying to detach itself from his hand.  Romanoff snarls something in Russian as she loses her Glocks, and the rest of the Ironman suit is starting to slide along the floor, towards whatever that thing is.  So instead, he shouts, “Hey!” 

Quill utters a slightly sheepish, “Oops, sorry.” 

He taps a command into something on his belt, and the pull stops. The goons’ guns clatter off the gadget and onto the floor, but Romanoff is right there to knock together the heads of those trying to retrieve them, before picking up her own babies.  Poor chaps never stood a chance. 

Tony, for his part, scans the bar for other threats.  His gauntlet secure again, he pops off a guy who has retrieved some kind of shotgun from behind the bar (really?).  Meanwhile the smoke from the upholstery is getting thicker, and flames are starting to lick at the wooden divider.

Quill seems to have spotted someone else and activates … repulsor boots?  He vaults clear across the room feet first, knocking out two more goons who’ve come in through the front door, against the stream of panicked patrons pushing their way out.

“I think that’s pretty much it,” he says, dripping satisfaction as he comes hovering back.  (Definitely repulsor tech.)

True enough, the bar is empty except for the three of them and a number of flattened, groaning goons.

“That was kind of fun, if a bit lame.  Amateurs.”

Lame? Tony is actually relieved that this lot doesn’t seem able to get up again, or starts glowing and setting things on fire with their fingertips.

Speaking of fire – there are smoke alarms going off now, and sprinklers starting to do their thing.

“Hey Stark,” Romanoff is stalking over the fallen with the tiniest of smiles, wiping water off her forehead. “I didn’t know you cared.”

She surveys the wreckage.

“But you have got to stop laying waste to small-town bars all over the American heartland. Maybe you should stop going to them altogether?" 

“Nah,” says Quill, tossing a wallet in the air. The mask that had been obscuring his face is unraveling as he approaches.  “This is the kind of thing that keeps you on your feet and cleans out the sinuses.”

“Did you …” Tony points, a little scandalized.  “Did you just steal that man’s wallet?”

Quill shrugs. 

“I need local currency for when the shops open.  You don’t use units here on Earth, do you?  No?  Didn’t think so.”

There are sirens approaching from somewhere in the distance, and Romanoff motions them to leave with an elegant wave of her hand.  Neither man hesitates; no point in complicating one’s life by answering questions from law enforcement or the Manitou Springs Volunteer Fire Department. 

They pick up their things – Tony his suitcase and Quill his magnet – and allow Romanoff herd them to the back door where a S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicle sits black and ominous in the back parking lot.  It’s almost as if she’d planned for a quick getaway.

“I have to say you’re pretty good in a fight, Starbucks,” Tony admits, as Quill gets into the car, as naturally as if he’d been invited.  “Ever thought about going into the avenging business?  You see, we have this team that periodically gets together to save the world…” 

Romanoff snorts; Quill gives the question about a second’s thought before shaking his head.

“That’s still Star-Lord, Tin Man.  And avenging? Bit after-the-fact, no? Me and my friends, we’re more into guarding, stopping bad shit from happening in the first place.” 

He casts a critical eye on the blue lights retreating behind them.

“Seems you could use a bit more of that around here.”

 

…..

 

Romanoff peels out of the parking lot, content to ignore them and just go about her business.  Pepper does that too (quite often actually), and it’s kind of disconcerting, so Tony feels compelled to ask a question.

“So tell me, Agent Romanoff. Did S.H.I.E.L.D. send you after me because of the NORAD angle, and not because Director Fury loves and worries about me?”

Romanoff shrugs. 

“I got sent to find you in case the whole thing was your fault.  When you do fuck up, you tend to do so rather spectacularly.” 

Tony is incensed. 

“How could it be my fault, if I’m the one who fell out of the sky? Starshine here was the one who tripped the wires.  I’m lucky I didn’t end up on the scrap heap.” 

“We know that now,” she allows as she passes a pick-up truck.  “Didn’t know it then.  Plus, I promised Pepper to bring you home in time for Christmas. She says your last one was a bit of a wipeout.”

Quill breaks his silence from the back seat, but it’s clearly not out of any sense of guilt, nor does he seem interested in contributing to the topic at hand.

“So let me get something straight in my mind.  Those morons recognized you and wanted to grab you because you’re rich and famous? Just how rich are we talking about here? Millions?”

Tony tries to contain a contemptuous snort, but doesn’t quite succeed. Quill’s eyes widen, and he starts to grin in a rather feral manner.

“Billions?”

Given that they’re trapped in a car, his suit won’t work and Quill obviously has some wicked tech on him, this sudden interest is all a bit unsettling.  Natasha has noticed it too; her right hand has left the steering wheel and is fingering her Glock. 

Quill waves her off impatiently.

“Don’t get your knickers in a twist, Lady.  I don’t do kidnappings.  Way too much hassle. You have to keep ‘em fed and watered, and all you ever get is kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. Besides, I like Stark’s taste in music. But – hey …” 

Quill puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder, like one of those hucksters that come up to him at parties with world-changing inventions.

“You seem like a decent enough fellow, with an interest in global security and no obvious intent on world domination. So here’s me, wondering … Can I call you, the next time I have, say, an infinity stone for sale?” 

“You mean like the tesseract, or that … that thing that burrowed into Jane Foster?” 

Natasha, for the first time Tony has known her, sounds alarmed. 

“Oh, so you know about them, then?”  Quill sounds a bit ticked off.  “How come everyone knows about those things, and I have to find out the hard way?” 

Tony considers all this for a moment.  Fury had kind of fucked up with the tesseract – who knows what he and Banner could have done with it, if they’d been brought in in time?  Space travel?  A warm light for all mankind?

But then … he sees a flash of light and feels himself falling … falling … into the ashes of Manhattan.  Barton and Selvig, turned into puppets.  Coulson, dead.  The shadows that had followed him right into the snows of Tennessee, the last time he had dropped from the sky.

The answer is clear, and the firmness in his voice surprises him. 

“Thanks, but no thanks.  Been there, done that, closed the portal.”

Quill seems used to disappointment, and just sits back in the back seat.

“Well, if you change your mind...”

“You’ll be the first to know.”

They drive in silence for a bit.  According to the signs, Romanoff is headed for the Colorado Springs airport; Quill seems content to go along for the ride.  If he really does have a ride in orbit, Tony supposes, it won’t matter much where he gets dropped off.

They’re headed into some kind of suburbs now, and signs of civilization are becoming more plentiful.

“You think one of those stores may be open?" 

Tony remembers, then, that Quill never did tell him exactly what he was doing here, in Colorado. 

“Tell me, Star-Prince.  Don’t they have groceries in outer space? Why do you need a shop that badly?”

There is a moment of silence before Quill answers, his voice cautious, like he is giving away a secret.

“I need a new Walkman.  Or parts, rather, so I can fix mine.  It got blown up with my ship on … never mind, you wouldn’t know the place.”

Now, of all the things in the universe, this is not what Tony expected.  Although he isn’t sure what he’d thought that might bring an inter-galactic traveller back to his spawning grounds?

“A Walkman,” Tony finally echoes.  “As in, a One-Album-At-A-Time-Technological-Crawlman?  Spinning-Wheel-And-Flimsy-Tape-Man?“

Quill bristles.

“Skip the technological judgment, Oh Caveman Who Travels Below The Speed Of Light. Just tell me where I can find one?”

“They’ve stopped making them, like, two decades ago,” Natasha throws in.

There’s a hiss of breath from Quill that’s quite possible some alien curse, and Tony feels a little bad.  The man may have caused their present predicament and have inferior musical tastes, but he did help to stop him from being manhandled by a bunch of lumberhicks, so maybe he deserves a little something.

“Listen, why don’t we just get you a nice iPod?  I’m sure Black Widow here has one kicking around on the Quinjet somewhere -- Barton never flies without tunes.  And Rogers has a whole list of essential songs, by the decade, that we could get from him and load up.” 

But Quill is a stubborn fellow, and the set of his jaw is mulish. 

“I need it to play my tapes.  I’ve built a sound system for my ship, so I can listen to them, but I want my Walkman.  My..."

He hesitates a little.  

 "My mother gave it to me.”

Tony thinks he gets it now.

“Sentimental journey?  Boyhood memories of Earth? How touching.  No, really.”

“Fuck off,” Quill mutters darkly.  “And let me out of the car before I blow one of us through the roof.”

The vehemence of his tone is something new, something unexpected, and for the second time in a minute or so, Tony feels something approximating guilt. 

Supposing it was him – how far would he go to retrieve a memory of his father’s?  Across the galaxy?  

He wouldn’t have to, he realizes; Howard Stark’s legacy is all around him, even when he doesn’t want to see it.  He looks at Romanoff, who is swallowing with pinched lips.  Does she even remember her parents?  Barton does, and pretty much wishes he didn’t.  Rogers’ have been dust for decades.  Banner … 

It’s right at that moment that he spots the fake log cabin, set back from the road, and the sign on a wooden fence.  The place itself is dark, but the sign is lit.

“Slow down!” he shouts, possibly unnecessarily loudly.  Romanoff hits the breaks, then stops, skidding a little on the icy road.

“See that sign?” Tony asks triumphantly and points:  Dead People’s Stuff – Rocky Mountain Antiques! Open Monday – Saturday, 10-5 (Other times by appointment).

Romanoff, to her credit, gets it immediately. 

“Guess we have an appointment. Give me that wallet,” she orders. Surprisingly, Quill complies.

No more than five minutes later, they’re in the store. Tony is fingering an old engine when Romanoff comes up with a wicker basket full of Walkmen, marked “$20.00 or less!!” in excited, retail-friendly font. 

The look on Quill’s face is priceless, and Tony feels unaccountably pleased.

Romanoff deposits the wallet in the basket (“Let the guy explain how it got here!”) and it’s all done, Mommy issues fixed and everything.

They end up leaving Quill outside the store.  As Tony suspected, he doesn’t seem to care where his friends will pick him up, and promises to let them take out the continental air defence system only a little bit when they do.  Quill waves as they turn the next bend, and Tony wonders briefly where he might be headed next -- the loony bin or the Big Dipper?  

The Quinjet has been patiently waiting for them at Colorado Springs airport -- an unusually welcome sight despite the S.H.I.E.L.D. insignia.  The instruments seem to work, so it looks like Quill's buddies kept their promise.  As he stowes his still-dysfunctional suit in an overhead bin on, something occurs to Tony.

“You know, Romanoff, when we get back to New York,” he says , “remind me to send a decent electro-magnetic set to Rose Hill, Tennessee.  Kid I know there relies far too much on electronics.  Diversification is where it's at."

Romanoff looks at him a little puzzled, but somehow he knows she won't forget.

"And afterwards, let's go for a drink.”