There was no faint whirring noise, no rattle and clank of machinery. No – Stark Industries did better work than that, and Tony Stark did the very best. His latest piece came alive with smooth, flawless silence, metal digits twitching to life and curling into a fist.
Triumphantly he lifted his hands in mock exultation. “It's alive.”
“Ha ha.” The recipient of his present lifted the prosthetic, turning the mechanical hand and flexing the fingers experimentally. “He always this funny, Steve, or am I just special?”
Steve Rogers, sitting backwards on a swivel chair with his arms crossed loosely over the back-rest, snickered. “How's it feel, Buck?”
Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes shrugged. He repeated the motion more slowly, testing the feel of the metal joint. “Like an arm. Which, frankly, is a step up from my last one.”
“Ugh, don't even talk to me about that monstrosity.” Tony sniffed disdainfully. “I did better work on my eighth grade science project. That wasn't a prosthetic arm, it was a metal club welded to your shoulder.” He threw his hands up for emphasis. “For an underground organization that's secretly been infiltrating another underground organization for decades, they have absolutely no finesse.”
“I don't need finesse.” Barnes shrugged again, still inspecting his new limb. “I just need something that isn't theirs.”
Steve hummed in response. Tony stayed out of that one – he hadn't had an awful lot to do with Hydra before the discovery of its presence had all but dissolved SHIELD. And even then, that was just to yank his funding like a rug under their feet and liquidate all their Stark-affiliated assets, as well as a few non-Stark-affiliated ones he could get his hands on. There was no history there for him – maybe there had been for Dad, but Dad hadn't exactly been forthcoming about it. But Steve was Good People, same as Coulson had been Good People, so when Steve had wandered in with a freshly-rehabilitated ice fossil assassin and a request, Tony had been happy to oblige.
That, along with the upcoming Stark Expo and certain recent revelations on the other side of the country, had made for a rather busy few months.
There was a knock at the doorway, and Pepper walked in with a clipboard in her arms and strands of hair rapidly escaping her ponytail. “You have a minute, Tony?”
Tony whipped around. “For you, I have all the minutes. How's prep going for the Expo?”
Pepper sighed, brushing one of the flyaway strands behind her ear. “Exactly how it always goes – hectic and a nightmare.”
“Fair enough. By the way-” He turned back to the two ninety-year-olds in the room. “Both of you are invited. VIP and everything.”
“Really,” Barnes said flatly. “You're inviting me.”
Tony spread his hands. “Hey, might as well bring you two relics into the twenty-first century, in style. Steve, what do you say? Got a space in your busy schedule?”
“I'll think about it,” Steve replied, in a tone of voice that suggested that he did, in fact, mean to think about it. “We're still rooting out Hydra hideouts.”
“I haven't a thing to wear,” Barnes said dryly.
“Tick-tock, Capsicle, it's happening in a couple months.” Steve turned back to Pepper not a moment too soon – she was beginning to look impatient. “You were saying?”
“It's about the special invitations, actually. I wanted to go over the list with you.” Pepper's face added, privately , and Tony followed her out of the lab with a quick wave to Steve and Barnes. Once they were outside, Pepper cut right to the chase. “So, first off, this is the first year we're not inviting Robert Callaghan.”
Tony winced inwardly. Robert Callaghan, once upon a time, had been Good People too. The man was a genius, a pioneer, and an absolute gift to the robotics field. If Robert had ever gone corporate, Tony would have had a proper rival on his hands. As it was he had gone the academic route, and instead of a competitor, Tony had an on-off drinking buddy and a pool named after him on the SFIT campus. Not the worst thing to bear the Stark name, to be sure.
Of course, then Robert had to go and commit arson and attempted murder.
Not that Tony blamed him much – Krei was a smarmy little upstart that warranted extra security detail at the Expo to make sure he didn't pinch anything. But the end result was one dead undergrad, one hell of a lot of property damage, and one robotics innovator behind bars for good.
Tony buried his discomfort under another quip. “Yup, can't invite him. The orange jumpsuit would clash with the overall aesthetic.” He crossed his arms, looking thoughtful. “Think it'd be in poor taste to invite Abigail without him?” If there was one good thing to come out of that whole mess on the west coast, then it was Abigail Callaghan's rescue. Nice girl, smart too – he had to wonder if she was back on Krei's payroll, though.
“I sent her invitation this morning. I did have someone else in mind, though.” From the clipboard she took a newspaper clipping and held it out to him. “One of SFIT's newest students.”
Tony glanced at the headline. It wasn't front-page material, but the article was substantial enough. College Robotics Prodigy Receives Grant . The kid in the photograph looked... hell, he looked twelve , if Tony was any judge. “Ooh. Up-and-comer, I like.”
“Youngest student to be accepted at SFIT yet,” Pepper said with a grin. “Might just make his day. And maybe we could make an impression on the little genius before Krei tries to snatch him up.”
Beaming, Tony kissed her on the cheek. “The only genius here is you, Pep. So, who else is coming?”
A half hour before lunch, Honey Lemon and Wasabi walked into Hiro’s lab station to find him hanging upside-down from the ceiling. His jacket was unzipped, dangling over (or rather under) his head like an upturned cape, and his shirt was riding up his stomach. The effect of gravity on his uncombed mop had Honey longing for her hairspray just so she could preserve it once he righted himself. His eyes were closed, brows knitted together in concentration. Below him, Baymax stood with both arms outstretched.
The robot turned his head and blinked. “I am spotting,” he announced.
Honey shook her head and smiled up at Hiro. “Hit a roadblock again?”
Hiro didn’t open his eyes. “I’ll get it eventually. I just need to rush all the blood to my brain first.”
“I’m no bio major, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works,” Wasabi pointed out.
“It is not,” Baymax affirmed.
“It’s part of my process.”
“What's part of your – whoa.” Gogo walked in with Fred at her heels, stopping short when she caught sight of Hiro's position.
“How long have you been like that?” Fred asked. “Because you're gonna regret it once it's time to flip over again. Try not to faint – I did that one time, and I ended up with a concussion.”
“What's the problem?” Honey asked. “From the looks of it they're working just fine.”
From the ankle down (or up, rather) Hiro's feet were encased in microbots and secured to the ceiling. The transmitter headset was firmly in place, miraculously not slipping off with gravity.
Hiro opened his eyes and shook his head. “I know they work – they've always worked. I'm trying to make them better .” Slowly, the microbots lowered him from the ceiling. Another mass of them gathered into a structure below him, building from the floor to turn him the right way up before he stepped down. He staggered for a moment, blinking as the blood rushed from his head, and sat down hard in the nearest chair with a sigh. The microbots returned to the large bin on the table. “Right now I'm focusing on the transmitter. See?” He lifted the device in question from his head, though not before detaching a couple of hair clips – evidently how he'd held it in place while upside down. “I'm trying to make it smaller, maybe as a smaller headset or an earpiece instead of this circlet thing.”
“Well, you're good at that,” Honey pointed out. “Taking things, making them more compact.”
“I know . How do you think I got it down to this size?” Hiro hefted the transmitter. “Most neurotransmitter units need these big clunky helmets to work, and I had a hard time shrinking it down to just the ring.” He shrugged. “I'm just not sure how to take more volume out of it without compromising the overall function. If-” His voice caught in his throat, and he frowned deeply. “There's a way. I know there is. But I'm trying to think of it, and it's just not coming.” Aimlessly he kicked at the floor, spinning the chair around.
“It hasn't been that long,” Wasabi pointed out. “You literally just got your grant, which is pretty impressive in itself.”
“Yeah, besides, I don't blame you for being weird about 'em,” Fred piped up. “I mean, it makes sense that you'd draw a blank here and there in the process of making them, well, better, considering we took down a supervillain who was trying to kill us with them.”
“He's right, you know,” Honey added. “We've seen what these can do in the wrong hands. No one would blame you for dropping a project like that.”
“I can't.” Hiro thumped his sneakers on the floor, halting the spinning. “I have to fix them.”
Gogo snapped her gum. “The transmitter-”
“It's not about the transmitter,” Hiro cut her off forcefully. He toyed with the device, avoiding their eyes. “Look, you're right. They can be used for bad things, but so what? So can everything else that's ever been invented.” He scowled down at his lap. “Callaghan... he misused them. He ruined them. I made them, he stole them, and he used them to try to murder someone.” Finally he raised his eyes to them again. “Sound familiar?”
The chair shook when Wasabi grabbed it and turned it to face him. “Hey, that is nothinglike what you did.”
Hiro glared up at him. “It's exactly like what I did. Don't you get it? Tadashi made Baymax to help people. And when I found out he was – when I found out there was someone to blame, you know what I saw when I looked at Baymax?” Leftover guilt rose up in his chest, and he shot a quick, shamefaced glance at the robot. “H-he might as well have been just another bot I was fixing up for a fight. I tried to make him a weapon because I was pissed off and out for revenge, so don't tell me I wasn't doing exactly what Callaghan did with my microbots.” He got up from the chair, slipped past Wasabi, and placed the transmitter on the table beside the bin. “I fixed what I did with Baymax. Callaghan's not around to fix what he broke, so it's up to me.” He scowled down at the bin. “Besides, I made them. He stole them, and now I'm taking them back. Making them mine again.” He turned back to the others, hoping he hadn't gone off on too much of a tangent. But Wasabi was nodding, Fred and Honey looked eager, and Gogo...
Gogo stood with one hand on her cocked hip, grinning at him. “Beats wangsting over them and swearing off microbots forever,” she said with a one-shouldered shrug. “I like your reasoning.”
“And they could always come in handy with our extracurriculars,” Honey pointed out, using their designated code word for “organized vigilantism.”
“Yeah!” Fred punched the air. “Plus, one more way to stick it to Callaghan.”
Hiro snorted. “Please. He's got way more to worry about than what I'm doing with my life. Besides, he's in prison, he's out of our lives, so... y'know.” He leaned his hip against the table, crossing his arms. “Screw him.”
“Speak for yourself,” Gogo said wryly. “I still see his face every time I turn on my damn TV.”
Wasabi shrugged helplessly. “Can't do much about it. Every news outlet's covering his trial.”
“Yeah, if by 'covering his trial,' you mean 'repeating month-old facts that I already know.'” Gogo pulled a face, disgusted. “It's not worth thinking about when no one's heard anything new, but it'll be a cold day in hell when the media finally loses interest.”
“Then can we stop talking about it?” Hiro said acidly. “It's hard enough to brainstorm without having to think about him, too.” His stomach gurgled sourly. “Also that.”
“I would suggest a well-balanced meal that includes whole grains and antioxidants,” Baymax intoned.
“I'll keep that in mind. What time is it?”
“Close enough to lunch,” Fred piped up. “That's why I'm here. You guys want to grab some takeout? I got coupons.”
Wasabi side-eyed him. “Why do you need coupons?”
“Oh, they're not for me. I just brought 'em in case you guys wanted to go Dutch.”
“What kind of takeout?” Honey asked.
Fred held up the coupons in question, flicking them into a neat fan. “Asian fusion.”
“Whoo!” Honey fist-pumped. “Count me in! I've been craving chow fun since this morning!”
“I can deactivate while you are gone,” Baymax offered.
“Sure, thanks, buddy.” Hiro patted the vinyl fondly. “We're satisfied with our care.”
As the robot returned to his docking station, the group trooped their way back out of the lab. Hiro stalled in following them, just long enough to lock up the bin of microbots and slip the headset into his backpack.
One could never be too careful.
An hour and a half into lunch was a moderately crowded time for the Lucky Cat Cafe. By then the lunch rush had died down and the wait was almost nonexistent, but there were still enough people to blend in. It was the perfect atmosphere for a quiet lunch on one's own.
Most importantly, the press hadn't found this place yet.
A young woman pushed open the door, trying not to flinch when the bell jangled loudly. She couldn't help but feel stares from everyone already in the cafe, even though a quick glance around told her that no one was actually looking at her. She pressed her bug-eye sunglasses into place, tugged at the scarf knotted loosely around her neck, and stepped closer to the counter.
“Usual table's open.” She glanced up at the sound of the owner's voice. Cass Hamada had a tray of dirty dishes balanced against her hip, but still took a moment to pause and smile at her.
“Thank you.” Sure enough, her favorite table was vacant. It was small, meant for only one or two diners, and tucked in the corner. Away from the doors and windows, out of the main path of traffic, it was the perfect place for privacy. She seated herself, ordered a latte that was more milk, foam, and syrup than coffee, and settled down for a few hours of quiet. Her stomach gurgled quietly, and she cast a longing eye toward the pastry display.
What the hell. It wasn't as if she couldn't afford it.
Her luck held. It was a quiet day for the cafe, and however much she watched the windows, she never spotted... well, him. If she did, she would leave – she knew where the back door was, and she could leave a fatter tip as an apology for using it. But at least today, the necessity never came up. She watched the other customers through dark amber-tinted lenses as they dwindled and business went into a lull. She was almost done with her current coffee. Maybe she would buy herself another strawberry-filled croissant. Three wasn't excessive, was it?
Cass Hamada noted the lull just as she did, and at a quarter to three the customer looked up to see the owner making her way over. Carefully arranging her face into a smile, she greeted her hostess.
“Hello, Miss Hamada. Business... good?” Her voice came out clipped and careful.
“Slow day, but no worse than usual. And I keep telling you, call me Cass.” Cass slid into a seat across from her and set down another latte before her. “So, how've you been doing, Abigail?”
Abigail Callaghan accepted the refill. “Good. Maybe... better?” She took a careful sip. “Therapy works. I... understand. Everything.” She paused, nerving herself for the next sentence. “Finally... got a solid answer on my.... um...” She frowned as the word escaped her. “My... when I talked to the... person. Chancellor.”
“Your appeal to re-register,” Cass said with a nod. “And?”
“And I've been– I'm going back. To SFIT. Graduate student,” Abigail said. “Spent last night going over my – my, um–” Talk around the word. “Classes, that I need. Class list. I start next semester.”
Cass's eyes widened, and her mouth curved in a smile. “That's wonderful news. You ready?”
“Hope so.” Abigail bit her lip. “Not sure if... letting me back, because of Dad's...” She couldn't remember the word legacy, and she couldn't think of a way to describe it, so she gave up and skipped it. “...or in spite of it.” She took another sip and met Cass's eyes. “What do you think?”
Cass shook her head, and flyaway strands of brown hair fell over her face. “I think you can't afford to dwell on it. You're in, and that's the important part. Their reasons shouldn't matter.”
“But they do.”
“Yeah.” Cass smiled sadly. “I guess they do.” She took a quick glance around, to make sure she wasn't neglecting anyone. “But all that aside, how do you feel about it?”
“Scared.” Abigail never forgot that word anymore. It was always on the tip of her tongue, in a veritable queue of words that meant the same. “Scared, terrified, nervous, appre... app... damn, lost it.”
“Well, look at it this way. No more GE credits, no more writing requirement.”
“Thank God,” Abigail said with a rueful little laugh. “Can't words good anymore. I mean, doctors said it's... there I go again. Starts with T. Not forever.” She rubbed her forehead. She'd spent months in hypersleep under conditions that barely qualified as optimal. Of course there would be consequences. “Still see a... speech... doctor. I see her later today. Getting better. My mind makes sense. My mouth can't... keep up. It trips.”
“It gets back up,” Cass pointed out. “That's the important part.” In spite of herself, Abigail smiled again.
“There's... two reasons. To be scared,” she admitted, after taking another long pull of coffee. Fragments were easier – she could eke out sentences piece by piece. Without elaborating, she watched Cass from behind the shield that her shades provided.
Cass either took it in stride or kept her face skillfully blank. “I see.” Of course she did. There was no reason for her to believe otherwise. “Abigail, if you need help – pick a time and date, I can make it happen. Once you're more comfortable with communicating, of course. He doesn't-”
“No,” The word shot from her stumbling lips at panic speeds. She recovered almost instantly, mentally kicking herself. “No, I – no.” Her fingers tightened around the handle of her mug. “I know it has to... happen. I have to – do it. I will. But – later. Can't yet. Don't... don't know how.” Her eyes stung, but she blinked the feeling back. She was good at that these days. “It's like... words, now. I try to think, but... just... won't come.”
Cass nodded, and didn't press the subject. She didn't press, and for that reason alone Abigail could have gotten out of her chair right then and there and hugged her. But that was too bold, too personal. She couldn't do that, she couldn't bring herself to touch this woman – it was all she could do to manage looking her in the eye, and even then she usually had sunglasses as scant shelter.
“Well, regardless,” Cass went on. “You're welcome here, you know that? For a cup of coffee, to talk... even if you just want to sit inside and daydream, that's all right.”
“Thank you.” These words slipped effortlessly from Abigail's mouth, a tired platitude that her tongue had formed so many times that at this point it was just a jumble of meaningless sounds. She flushed slightly. “Not everyone... is kind.”
Cass's hand folded over her own and gave a gentle little squeeze – not even a squeeze, really, so much as a slight pressure from her thumb. “Abigail.” Her tone of voice was odd, as if not even Cass herself know how she was supposed to sound. From behind the the shield of amber-tinted lenses, Abigail focused on warm brown eyes the same eyes as Tadashi Hamada's eyes. “None of this was your fault. You know that, right?”
Any hope for words was dashed when Abigail's throat closed like a camera iris and her breath hitched through it. She nodded, squeezing back in a moment of boldness. And she did know, she did know, even if teachers and reporters and a few old former friends did not. But sometimes it escaped her the same way words did, and it was nice to be reminded.