Chapter 1: Issue I
"But I don't see why I need a -- " Tony began, and Pepper gave him The Look.
Nobody talked over The Look.
"You need an assistant because you are no longer running Stark Industries, but I am," she said, adjusting her seatbelt in the back of the car.
"Exactly, so what do I need -- "
"Because you won't stop treating me like yours!"
"You're getting pretty bad about it, boss," Happy said from the front.
"You, be quiet," Tony ordered, then turned back to her. "Aw Pep, come on, I don't -- "
Pepper held up her phone and pushed a button.
Pepper, hey Pep, I need you to pick up some dry-cleaning and a microsurgery kit. Can you be here in like, twenty?
"Got that one during a board meeting," she said.
"Yeah, but that was just once and it was really pretty urg -- "
Pepper pushed a button.
Okay, you know what we need, you and me? Chinese. Bring it down to the shop, I will totally pay you back.
"Tw -- "
Pepper, it's Tony. Do you know where I can get an oil change for a Ferrari at two in the morning? Oh, PS, I'm in Germany. Outside Berlin. I think. Call me back!
Tony gave her a defeated look.
"Everything's set up," she said, tucking her phone into her pocket. "MIT sent its best and brightest to the interview suite. All you have to do is show up and point." She patted his cheek. "You never know. Maybe you'll even end up with a sidekick."
"I'm not building some scrawny, pasty dorkface from MIT a suit," Tony said.
"You graduated from MIT."
"Well, I'm an exception."
"So find yourself another one," she said, as the car pulled to a stop in front of the hotel. "Out you go. Try not to hire anyone based on their measurements."
It was like some kind of New England convention in the hotel.
If Mike Ross had turned left while running from the cops with a briefcase full of pot, he might have ended up in the Harvard interviews for Pearson Hardman's new personal associate to Harvey Specter.
But instead he turned right, and ended up at MIT's interviews for Tony Stark's new gofer.
When he burst into the room he found fifteen people -- mostly men, but a few women -- clustered together around a whiteboard on which an older man was sketching out mathematical equations.
"Now this is an easy -- you!" the man said, pointing at him without looking at him. "Late. Scram. Wait, no, don't scram, why are you late?"
Mike blinked at him.
"Do you talk?" the man asked. "Are you supposed to be here?"
"Probably not. I'm just trying to shake the cops," Mike said. About half the group laughed nervously. The man at the whiteboard looked startled for a minute, and then laughed as well.
"Hey, as excuses go, that's one you may need to use if you work for me," he said, turning back to the whiteboard. "Try and catch up. Hands up if you can solve -- "
"Twelve to the second power over E," Mike blurted.
The man turned around again slowly. He cocked his head, tapped the pen against his lips, and then tossed it down.
"You. Out. All of you. Go show your work in the other room. You, stay," he added, pointing to Mike. The others filed out, peering at Mike as they passed. Eventually it was just him and the crazy-haired man at the whiteboard.
"I'm -- "
"Tony Stark," Mike said, taking the offered hand. "Former CEO of Stark Industries. You operate the Iron Man prosthesis."
Stark's lips quirked. "You watched the congressional hearings."
"Survivor was a rerun."
"You know my name, but I don't know yours."
"Mike R -- " Mike got that far before the briefcase, to his horror, opened. Pot spilled out.
Stark looked down at it, faintly amused. "I haven't seen that much weed since college."
Pepper got a text in the middle of lunch with investors.
Non-MIT college dropout drug dealer Tony Stark's new assistant = how scandalous?
She sighed and texted back. I thought I said no hiring based on measurements.
His IQ = at min 175. Good enough measurement for you?
We'll discuss this later.
2 late. Hired him. Run bg check "Michael Ethan Ross" DOB 2.15.85, please ensure not a supervillain.
Sometimes Pepper thought she wasn't paid enough for this. (Then she remembered she was CEO, and could give herself a raise.)
"So that's done," Stark said, putting his phone away. He sat back in the couch with a glass of scotch and studied Mike. "Here's what we're going to do. You're going to quit smoking pot, it makes you stupid, dump that boat anchor who almost got you arrested, and buy yourself some clothes that don't look like you're on Baby's First Job Interview."
"Trevor -- "
"Is a punk, I know because I was one, drop him."
"He's my best friend!"
"Get new ones," Stark said ruthlessly. "Report to Stark Tower at nine on Monday and HR will molest you for a few hours. Your job is to hand me tools when I want them, get me to at least half of my appointments on time, not make any unnecessary noise, and not bother me if I'm working. Where do you live?"
Mike gaped at him. "Williamsbur -- "
"No you don't. You live in Stark Towers now."
"I'm a public figure. I get a lot of flak for being myself and a lot of threats for being Iron Man. If you're going to be working with me, you need security that Brooklyn can't provide. The top twelve floors are condos, you can pick one. Grab your granny and bring her too if you want, we'll get her a private nurse."
Mike gave him a mulish look. "And if you decide to fire me in two weeks?"
"Oh, good point. Okay, you move in now, she can move in whenever you want."
"I'm not moving in -- "
"Then you're fired." Stark grinned at his expression. "Come on kid, you just blew the technological brain trust of the country out of the water. Carpe diem."
Which was how Mike ended up in the office of the CEO of Stark Industries on Monday morning, being scrutinized by Virginia Potts.
"You look harmless," she said finally.
"Thank you," he answered.
"Tony wanted me to make sure you're not a supervillain."
"Way too much work," Mike replied.
She smiled. "I can see why he took a shine to you. All right," she added, putting a StarkTech tablet in front of him and offering him a stylus. "Keep signing your name until it tells you to stop."
"Should I be a little worried I don't get to read it?" Mike asked.
"Absolutely. To assuage your worries," she said, and tapped a finger at the top of the screen. "That's your salary."
Stark's tour of his workshop was...haphazard.
"So, there's things over here, and this is stuff, and that's -- um, don't touch that -- oh, this is Dummy, and Butterfingers -- ah ah, don't bug him, Butterfingers, or I'll scrap you and build talking dolls from your parts. Also, Jarvis, say hi -- "
"Hello, Mr. Ross," said a voice over the speakers. Mike looked up.
"Are you the AI?" he asked.
"You call him Mike, he hasn't earned Mr. Ross yet," Stark put in.
"As you wish, sir. Welcome to Stark Industries, Mike."
"Thanks," Mike replied.
"And this is -- okay, don't touch that either -- and...some cars..." Stark waved dismissively at a collection of cars worth more than the gross national income of some small countries. "Keep up, are you keeping up?"
"Okay then," Stark said, and pushed a button. A new door opened. Mike thought there might have been angelic trumpets. "And these are the suits."
There were four of them, each slightly different from the others in form. One was polished chrome, two were the classic red-and-gold Mike had seen in the newspapers or on television, and one was solid matte black.
"You're going to be tempted to try one on and take it for a spin," Stark said. "Don't. They have built in safeguards to prevent theft and they're not designed for amateurs."
"You were an amateur when you built it," Mike replied.
"When you can build one of these babies, you can wear it," Stark answered, but his eyes were distant; there was an affectionate smile on his face, the kind of deep affection Mike usually only saw in people who really, really loved their cars.
The tablet Mike was carrying beeped. He looked down at it, startled.
"What, you haven't memorized my calendar yet?" Stark asked, peering over his shoulder. "Oh, Fury. Whatever, he can wait."
"No he can't," said a voice, and both of them turned slowly. A tall man stood in the doorway, leaning casually against the jamb. He had an eyepatch. Mike swallowed.
"Who's the mini-me?" the man asked -- presumably Nick Fury, with whom Tony had a 2 o'clock appointment. "Actually, I don't care. Get lost, kid."
Mike looked up at Tony, and there was a moment where Tony looked at him like...he'd done something especially well.
"Yeah, go get acquainted with the robots," Tony said, jerking his head at the workshop. "Fury, we've had this little debate about your fan club, I'm not -- "
"Captain America's been found," Mike heard Fury say, before the door shut behind him. "Alive."
Stark spent half an hour in the suit room with Fury, and when he came out again he snapped his fingers at Mike and said, "GTO."
"You have two," Mike replied before thinking about it.
"Black one. Take it out, bring it around front. I'll drive."
Tony Stark drove like a maniac. He didn't say where they were going and Mike didn't ask, just tried not to pay attention to the likelihood of them crashing, or to the presence of the Iron Man suit in the attache case in the back seat. He focused instead on memorizing Stark's calendar and answering his questions, which seemed designed to explore Mike's mental abilities and ranged from the liquid mass capacity of a medium-sized bong to a brief history of New York City to his favorite place to get a sandwich.
"Is it true what Mr. Fury said?" Mike asked, when Stark stopped for breath. "That they found Captain America and he's alive?"
Stark glanced at him. "If you tweeted that -- "
"Come on, dude, give me some credit."
Stark looked like he was fighting a smile and muttered, "Dude."
"I signed all the confidentiality clauses," Mike reminded him.
"But is it true?"
"According to Fury," Stark allowed.
"He's gotta be like, what, ninety-five? My granddad had all the Captain America illustrated adventures they did in the forties. Where'd they find him?"
Stark gave him a measuring look.
"Eyes on the road!" Mike said nervously. Stark turned back, but he still looked thoughtful.
"Again, according to Fury, the ice preserved him in suspended animation. He's still young."
"Wow." Mike sat back, trying not to flinch as they cut off a semi. "Your dad worked with him, didn't he? That was in one of the books granddad had."
"Dad used to bitch they never got his face right," Stark allowed.
"Do you think it's really Captain America? Not some kind of hoax?"
"Guess we'll find out," Stark replied, screeching to a halt. He climbed out of the car, tossing the keys to a guy who clearly wasn't a valet but was wearing some kind of paramilitary uniform. "Don't scratch her!" he called at the bemused SHIELD agent, and strode into the Manhattan headquarters of SHIELD like he owned it.
(Mike checked the tablet and found that he had access to Stark's bank accounts and holdings. He had extensive properties in Manhattan; apparently he did own it.)
Stark flashed an ID card at the security gate inside the lobby and then said "He's with me" with a wave of his hand at Mike; that worked for three more checkpoints, while Mike stared around wide-eyed at the huge, muscular people filling the halls, most of them with guns on their hips. There were also men and women in suits, carrying tablets or piles of paper, most of them keeping well out of the way of the armed SHIELD agents.
They passed a glassed-in laboratory and Mike tried not to look too closely at what was going on inside.
What finally stopped them was a small, nondescript man in a suit, who put a hand on Stark's chest to physically prevent him from moving and said, "You brought me an intern? That's sweet, Mr. Stark, but I have several of my own."
"He's an assistant, not an intern, and he's mine, and he wants to see Captain America, and so do I," Stark replied. Mike tried to look cool.
"You, briefing room," the man said to Stark. He turned to Mike. "You -- "
"No, kid stays with me," Stark said. "You can't send him to play all alone with the big dogs, Coulson, he's liable to get shot or irradiated or something."
About ten minutes of fighting, one nondisclosure contract, and two threats of tasering if he got out of line later, Mike met Captain America. He was very tall and very blond and Mike would have liked him a lot more if he wasn't such a douche to his boss.
Much later that night, he called his grandmother, and she asked him how his first day at work was.
"Oh, you know. Just settling in," he said.
Mike's phone rang at two in the morning. He picked up and groaned, "'Lo?"
"Just checking," Mr. Stark said, and hung up.
He spent his second day mostly locked out of the workshop. He sat in an empty office on the second floor of Stark Tower and and spent a long day wrangling with people who wanted a piece of Stark's time, a piece of his fortune, or just a piece of him. Ms. Potts had also emailed him several interesting guidelines, including the SOP for kicking women out of Mr. Stark's penthouse condo, and he feared the first time he'd have to do it.
Occasionally Stark sent him math to do, which was challenging, but after he sent the answers back there'd be radio silence until the next request came in. Probably just as well Stark hadn't hired someone from MIT. Mike didn't think engineers had a lot of experience as administrative assistants. He didn't either, but he'd worked in retail a few times, which made for a thick skin.
He had planned to put off moving into Stark Tower as long as possible, just in case, but when he got home from his second day, at half past nine at night, Trevor had broken into his apartment and searched for the briefcase of pot. Mike stood in the middle of his living room feeling ragey and violated, and made a decision.
He packed a bag, slung it on his back, shoved the briefcase on top, and rode his bike back to Stark Tower. The doorman let him in, and he didn't realize he had no idea where to go until he got in the elevator.
"Jarvis?" he said hesitantly, feeling weird talking to an empty elevator.
"Yes, Mike," Jarvis answered.
"That offer of a condo in this place..."
The elevator started to move.
It opened silently on the 52nd floor, into a hallway with a handful of doors. The one at the end swung open. Lights inside flicked on.
"Thanks," he said.
"Think nothing of it. Mr. Stark will be pleased."
Mike tossed his bag on a couch that was still covered in plastic from the factory. "Bedroom?"
"To your right. Mr. Stark is in the workshop, if you'd care to speak with him."
"In the morning," Mike said tiredly.
"I apologize; I was unclear. Mr. Stark is in the workshop, and would like to speak with you."
Mike sighed and went back out to the elevator bank.
When he got to the workshop he expected Stark to be working, but instead he was standing in the middle of the open floor. For reasons Mike didn't want to look into, he was shirtless, and wearing the bottom half of the Iron Man armor. His arms were crossed over his chest, but Mike could see the famous arc reactor glowing gently above them.
"You brought the briefcase," Stark said, without preamble. Mike's jaw dropped.
"How -- Jarvis," he said, before Stark could.
"I thought I told you to drop that asshat and stop smoking pot."
"I'm not smoking it!" Mike protested indignantly.
"I could give a sweet fuck what you're planning to do with it."
"Then -- "
"You think I don't know what it means?" Stark demanded.
Mike stared at him.
"You don't get a backup plan when you work for me," Stark said, pointing at him. "You don't get the option of failure when you work for Stark Industries."
"I wasn't -- "
"Shut up," Stark ordered. "You've got that pot just in case, and I don't care whether it's in case I fire you or in case you just can't go without smoking up. If you come in expecting to fail, you've already failed."
Mike gave him a stubborn look.
"So either you've failed, and you're fired, or you're going to be here, and do this, in which case you don't need it. Flush it, give it back to your dealer friend, I don't care." Stark turned away. "There's only room for one addict in this building and the position is filled," he added. "Get out of my sight. Get rid of it tomorrow or don't come back."
"It's not that easy, you know," Mike said, but Stark fired up a blowtorch, and the roar drowned him out.
Mike slunk back upstairs.
Tony groaned and rolled over, pressing his face into his pillow.
"Mr. Stark," Jarvis repeated.
"What time 'sit?" Tony mumbled.
"Four o'clock, sir."
"Ngh, in that case I might as well sleep through."
"I thought you would wish to know that Mike has disposed of the package," Jarvis said, a tactful note in his voice.
Tony managed a bleary grin, tipping his chin up momentarily. "Good boy," he murmured, and went back to sleep.
It wasn't that Stark was a bad boss. Or even a rude boss. He was a demanding boss, and as he got the measure of Mike's mental abilities he started demanding more of him, which was when Mike started on what Ms. Potts referred to as "the first breakdown".
"The rest are easier after the first one," she assured him on a rare visit to Stark's garage, Mike's second week on the job. Mike was rescheduling a meeting by email, fielding two phone calls simultaneously about renewed interest in promotional deals for Iron Man, heating lunch that he was going to have to force Stark to eat, and fending off Dummy's affectionate head-patting, all at the same time. He gave her a panicked, I can't handle this look.
Ms. Potts took the phone, said "No," hit call waiting, said "No," again, hung up, reached across Mike to open a form email and send it, batted Dummy away, and hit the microwave release button with her elbow just before it beeped.
Mike stared at her in awe.
"Take this in to him, and don't let him give you any orders for fifteen minutes," she said kindly.
"But he'll -- "
"Fire you? If he tries, ask him who does his laundry."
"I don't do his laundry," Mike said, outraged. "He has a service!"
"But does he know that?" She smiled. "Listen, you were hired to nurture his genius and make sure he's wearing clean underwear."
"Uh, I don't -- "
"Metaphorically. He might have wanted someone brilliant to assist him in the garage, but your primary duty is to his health, not his brain. Don't let him loop you into holding wrenches for him when you should be replying to his emails."
"Thanks," Mike said, because I love you was an inappropriate remark to make to the head of one of the most powerful tech companies in the world.
"How's the new boy toy working out?" Natasha asked Tony, and then kicked him in the face.
Sparring with Natasha was bullshit. It helped, he guessed -- he was certainly learning new moves -- but Tony was still leery of this whole Avengers thing, and he hated being kicked in the face. Still, Captain America had changed the game; that kind of leader, with this kind of backing, was something Tony couldn't resist being a part of. Even if it meant he had to let Natasha beat him up and listen to Steve Rogers give orders.
"Well, he's no Pepper," he grunted, grabbing her thigh and flipping her. She rebounded with a growl. "But what he lacks in tits he makes up in ass."
"Pig," she told him, as they circled each other.
"Not telling me anything I didn't -- hey there sexy," he remarked, as she feinted left and then jabbed right, barely missing his shoulder, " -- already know. Whatever, he keeps my inbox clean."
"Is that what they call it now?"
"I would never hit on an employee, except for all those times I did." Tony ducked a little too late, trying to get the last word in, and went over backwards hard, wind knocked out of him. He kicked up but Natasha dodged, and he had the singular pleasure of being pinned with her foot on his neck.
"Uncle," he wheezed. She pulled him up effortlessly, and he leaned forward, hands on his thighs, struggling for breath.
"Truth is," he said, around deep, desperate pulls of air, "he's -- hnnnnh! -- great. Kid's got a photohnnnh!graphic memory and a fucked up hnnn! personal life. Almost no friends. Huge insecurity complex. Terror of -- hnnnnh -- success. It's like hanging out with me at -- haaaah -- fifteen."
"Try not to warp him further," she said, patting him on the back and walking away.
"Don't think I could if I hnnnntried," Tony breathed.
Mike moved Gram into Stark Tower three weeks after starting work.
It wasn't that he wanted to, but Tony Stark worked long hours, and Mike could barely get away to eat and sleep, let alone visit his grandmother across town. This way he could leave if she needed him, or even work from his living room when he wasn't needed in the workshop. Gram wasn't annoyed with him for not visiting, and Stark wasn't pissed that he was across town if he needed someone to bring him dinner or hold tools for him while he built things (amazing things, things Mike barely understood, things other people seemed not to comprehend at all). Jarvis found him a reputable home nursing service; Stark kicked them out for two days and had his builders install ramps and a wheelchair-accessible kitchen. And...and they were a family again, him and Gram, in a way they hadn't been since she'd had the stroke.
Which came with its own perils, as it turned out.
"Mike," Jarvis said, two days after Gram had moved in.
"Little busy here, Jarvis!" Stark yelled over the whoomph and flare of the forge. Mike, holding the crucible cup carefully, walked with exaggerated wariness to the mold, where Stark took the cup from him and poured.
"My apologies. Mike, your grandmother wishes to see you."
Mike looked up, peeling back the heat-resistant mask. "Is she okay?"
"All her vital signs are within acceptable limits."
"Then she can wait fifteen minutes," Stark grumbled.
"She wishes to see you as well, Mr. Stark."
"What, now?" Stark grinned at him. "I finally get to meet the Duchess, huh?"
"Oh, my God," Mike muttered, but the double-invitation was apparently enough to distract Stark from their makeshift Vibranium refinery. Stark yanked off his gloves, pulled a discarded dress shirt on over his sweaty t-shirt, and made for the stairs.
When they reached the condo, Gram didn't seem to be in any particular peril; she was in her wheelchair, seated at the dining-room table.
"Go wash up," she said.
"Buh?" Mike asked.
"Both of you, you're filthy. It's dinner time. Go wash up."
"Did your grandmother just make us come home for dinner?" Stark asked him a minute later, standing at the kitchen sink, scrubbing grime off his hands with dish soap.
"I'm sorry, she has ideas about family dinner -- "
"Don't talk about it, she might hear you," Stark whispered conspiratorially.
"She's big on regular meals," Mike whispered back.
"You do realize you're a grown man, right?"
"Michael! Mr. Stark!"
"Coming, Gram!" Mike called. Stark laughed and dried his hands.
"Ma'am, this was a very nice gesture," he said, as they emerged from the kitchen. "But I have some pretty delicate -- "
"Don't be rude, Mr. Stark," Gram said. Stark stopped mid-word, something Mike rarely saw and kind of cherished. "Sit down, your porkchops are getting cold."
There was a moment of crackling tension as they locked eyes.
Mike watched with a mixture of fear, glee, and wonder as a billionaire ex-arms-merchant superhero playboy sat down at the table across from his grandmother and folded his hands in his lap. Gram reached over and patted his arm.
"Now then, there's chops there in the pan, and mashed potatoes in the bowl, and green beans," she said. "Michael, you serve."
"Yes'm," Mike said, and found himself having family dinner hour with his grandmother and Tony Stark. Who, it turned out, could actually mimic someone with good manners when you put him in the right setting.
It wasn't every night -- well, Mike was expected to come upstairs and at least kiss her on the cheek and steal some food to take to the workshop -- but at least twice a week, Gram summoned them and made them sit and behave themselves and eat a good meal. Stark unfailingly called her the Duchess, but he ate the food she put in front of him and usually behaved himself.
"I think it's very character-building for poor Mr. Stark," Gram said to him one evening, after Stark had excused himself to go back to the workshop. "Someone clearly needed to teach that man to respect his elders."
Mike slowly got used to the rhythms of life with Tony Stark, such as they were. Stark would emerge from his garage for Ms. Potts or Colonel Rhodes ("Jesus, how old are you, nine? Call me Rhodey, it'll make you sound post-pubescent"), bouncing around them like a dog demanding attention; he'd come out, but only sulkily, for Nick Fury or Phil Coulson. He would emerge for parties, or if Mike nagged him long enough about a meeting.
It took him a while to feel comfortable doing that; the second time Stark yelled at him for making him miss a meeting (one of the important, as opposed to the irrelevant, ones) Mike snapped back Well if you'd just turn the Def Leppard off for two seconds and pay attention to what I'm saying, you wouldn't end up missing these things!
Stark had eyed him, grinned, and said, "Yell like that next time you want me to do something. I obey threats better than requests."
Sometimes he found himself locked out of the garage. JARVIS was always nice but firm about it: Mr. Stark had work even his nimble-minded assistant was not privy to.
The first time Mike got his picture in the paper, trailing behind after Stark with his ever-present tablet as they left a lunch meeting with the Mayor, Stark threw the newspaper at him -- it was an affectionate throw, really -- and barked, "How much did you pay for that suit?"
"I dunno," Mike said.
"I've been neglecting you. It's my fault. You're small and impressionable, you can't be expected to know these things. Give me the blowtorch."
Mike picked up the blowtorch and moved it well out of reach.
"The two thoughts were unconnected," Stark assured him. "You ready for your to-do list?"
"My to-do list already has eight things on it."
"Fine, starting at nine: finish the stress calculations on the new fiber experiments; help JARVIS calibrate thrust on the black suit's repulsors, they're pulling to the right; I want something plant-y for dinner, but not a salad, like an artichoke or some asparagus, wait, no, broccoli chicken."
"Fried chicken and broccoli is still mostly fried chicken," Mike interrupted.
"Shh. Am I going somewhere tonight?"
"If you are, it isn't in the calendar."
"Okay, in that case, you leave here at four o'clock and go here -- " Stark threw a digital business card at Mike's tablet, and Mike didn't think he'd ever get tired of seeing Stark's holograms disappear as JARVIS integrated tablet and data smoothly. "Tell Rene I sent you and get yourself at least three suits that don't look like your dad bought them for you at JC Penney's. Wait, no, come find me before you leave, if I haven't blown anything up we'll go together."
Stark had blown something up by four, but Mike was used to it by now, and since the fire was already out they both went.
Fate was a strange mistress, for superheroes even more than ordinary people. While Mike may have barely missed Harvey Specter while running from the cops, he ran smack into him when given a second chance. Literally.
They were leaving Rene's shop -- Stark excited because new clothes! and Mike exhausted for much the same reason. Mike was turning to tell him something about one of the shirts when someone bounded up the steps and they collided somewhere in the middle, Mike grabbing onto the man's expensive-feeling lapels before they could both tumble down the stairs.
"Sorry -- sorry!" he gasped, trying to smooth down the man's lapels without looking like he was feeling him up. "I'm so sorry -- "
"Is it yours?" the man asked, looking over his shoulder to where Stark was losing it, laughing loudly on the step above.
"Yeah, nominally. God, kid, really," Stark said, yanking Mike back by his collar. "Don't you have innocents to be corrupting, Specter?"
"How's world domination coming, Stark?" the man asked.
"Well, thanks," Stark said, still laughing. The man he'd called Specter looked amused. "Mike, this is my lawyer, Harvey Specter. Harvey, this is Pepper 2.0. He's still in beta."
"I'd say it's my pleasure, but it's not, really," Specter told him.
"I'm so sorry, Mr. Specter -- " Mike started, and Stark cuffed him on the back of the head.
"You'll never get anywhere with an attitude like that," he said. "Harvey, why were you mowing down my assistant? Are you late or something?"
"Roadblocks are for lesser men," Specter said, grinning. "Got a fitting. Hey, are you gonna be at the science museum reception this weekend?"
"Yes," Mike answered for him. Both men looked at him. Mike glanced at Stark and tapped his temple. "Calendar."
"He has his uses," Stark told Specter.
"So I see. I'll find you there, we'll catch up," Specter added, moving past them towards the door. "Hey, by the way, you owe me Knicks tickets."
"Fuck I do!" Stark yelled over his shoulder. Then he bent down over Mike's ear and said, "Make a note, Knicks tickets for Harvey Specter."
"Noted," Mike said, as they began walking again. "Why do you have a lawyer? Doesn't Stark Industries have a whole legal department?"
"Harvey's my personal lawyer. He makes would-be babymamas get DNA tests, runs off the grifters, and administers my personal estate. He's not actually Satan, but he's probably related. Scary effective."
Mike glanced back. Specter was watching them from the top of the stairs, a speculative look on his face. When he saw Mike looking, he gave him a sharp, ruthless grin, and turned to go inside.
Mike's condo in Stark Tower came furnished, down to a bookshelf full of pretentious books he knew the inhabitant was never meant to actually read, just show off. Some of the furniture, in addition, was totally hideous.
"Hired a decorator for the units," Stark said, when Mike brought this up. "Not my fault. Throw it over the balcony if you don't like it."
He didn't throw it over the balcony, but he did slowly weed out both the books and the chairs he didn't like, dropping them off at the nearest homeless shelter. Whenever he had a spare moment, which wasn't often, he borrowed one of Stark's less pretentious cars and went back to his old apartment, ferrying out his books first.
He was just going to pick up the last of them, and maybe some of his posters, when he reached the landing for his apartment and found Trevor standing there, waiting for him.
"You haven't been home in a while," Trevor said. "Find yourself a sugar mama?"
"Jesus Christ," Mike groaned, rolling his eyes. "Are we really doing this? Because if I remember, you're the one who fucked me over."
"Jenny dumped me."
"Good for her." Mike went to elbow past him, and Trevor shoved him back.
"You never should have told her I was dealing."
"I never should have had to hide it," Mike retorted. "Why the hell are you, anyway? You have software clients, and I can -- "
"Seriously?" Tevor looked honestly surprised. "You bought that bullshit? I don't have clients, Mike. I never did."
Mike pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, if you need money -- "
"What?" Trevor asked. "This isn't about money. This is about you and me. And Jenny." He scowled. "You always liked her."
"She deserved to know the truth," Mike said.
"You always thought you were better than me."
This was getting personal, fast, and Mike decided he could get his books some other day.
"Does it matter?" he asked tiredly, and turned to go.
Trevor grabbed him and pulled him around -- he didn't have time to react, didn't even have time to think about it before he was shoved into the wall. Someone down the hall yelled for them to keep it the fuck down, but nobody came out to see what was going on.
Mike shoved back, but Trevor had always been bigger than him; they grappled for a few bare seconds and then Trevor drew back and punched him.
The shock of it froze him more than the pain did -- this was Trevor, practically his brother, his best friend. He didn't even think to lash out, just stumbled backwards and tried to dodge away from a second swing. It caught him a glancing blow against his jaw.
He kicked, but Trevor had the upper hand and was pushing it, trying to grab him by the lapel of his suit, and Mike threw his weight backwards to avoid it. They went down together; Trevor slammed his head into the floor and then scrambled to his feet.
Mike looked up, more stunned than hurt, and saw the horror on Trevor's face.
But something in him -- some defiant, self-destructive flicker that had grown from embers in his time with Stark, made him ask, "Hey, that the best you got?"
Trevor kicked him. Hard. Then the pain did flare, and Mike curled in on himself. He braced for another blow, but instead all he heard were footsteps, running, Trevor's shoes on the staircase, and the distant slam of the building's front door.
He fumbled for his phone, hands trembling, and managed more by chance than intent to hit the red panic button on the side, the one that definitely did not come standard with Stark-issued cellphones.
"How can I be of service, Mike?" Jarvis's voice came tinny over the speaker.
"I think I need an ambulance," Mike groaned.
"You are a total mess," Stark said, about an hour later. "You're a tragic heap of a human being."
Mike couldn't argue. Sitting on an ER bed, with livid purple bruises on his (fortunately undamaged) ribs and an ice pack held gingerly to his face, he felt like a tragic heap.
"What happened, anyway? Why were you even in that part of town?" Stark asked, more gently.
"I was getting some books from my old apartment," Mike said.
"Were you mugged? Did you anger a feral urban bear or something?"
He almost told the truth. He almost said, My ex-best-friend just jumped me and I could use a very gentle hug. But he saw the look in Stark's eye, pissed off and dangerous, and after all this was a guy who'd singlehandedly wiped out a terrorist cell once because he was having a bad day. He had a feeling if he told the truth, Trevor would not just be an ex-friend; he might be an ex-Trevor.
So he lied.
"Yeah. Mugged," he said thickly.
Maybe Stark bought it. Maybe he let him get away with the lie. Either way, he just pressed his lips together and glowered.
"Is Gram freaked out?" Mike asked.
"Nobody's told her. That honor falls to you," Stark said. "Get up, Happy's waiting with the car. Let's get you some really strong opiates and take you home."
In the car, Stark poured himself a drink, offered the bottle to Mike, then nodded when he waved it off and offered him a Coke instead. Mike drank slow sips, letting the sweetness wash the tang of blood out of his mouth.
"I'm locking you out from now until Friday," Stark said. "No workshop, no phone, no email. If you're a good boy I'll let you have Wikipedia."
"I don't need -- "
"Well, maybe email," Stark allowed. "Nobody important ever calls me anyway. Urgent business only, though."
"You don't have to," Mike said sullenly.
"Yeah, I do. I want you up and on your feet by Friday, because on Friday I'm going to teach you how to do more than take hits and cower like a kicked dog," Stark continued. "You know any hand-to-hand?"
"Wrestling team in high school," Mike muttered.
Stark laughed. "I bet you looked awesome in those stupid unitards they make you wear. If I have to get my ass handed to me on a regular basis in the name of self-defense, so do you."
"I'm not a superhero."
"You're not a billionaire, either, sucks to be you, it's still happening. You're my assistant, you can't go around getting beat up for your bling."
"I don't -- " Mike started, then grimaced as his jaw twinged. "I don't have bling!"
"Wow, the point of that just flew by you, didn't it? Not your fault. Okay," Stark added, as they arrived at the Tower. "Go upstairs, try not to give your sainted ancestor a heart attack, see you on Friday."
And he was out the door, back to his workshop.
"I'm glad to see you in one piece," Jarvis said, on the elevator ride up.
"Nice someone is," Mike sighed.
Mike's belongings -- all of them, neatly packed in well-labeled boxes -- showed up in his condo the following morning.
It turned out that in addition to being a genius, a billionaire, a superhero, and the kind of guy who regularly slept with supermodels, Tony Stark was a ninja.
For five weeks after "the asskicking" as Stark insisted on calling it, he spent at least an hour a day throwing Mike around a small workout room, trying to teach him to fight. It worked, on some level, but it left Mike constantly bruised. Gram was totally unsympathetic, and Jarvis just offered ice packs and told him his vitals were within the normal range.
The only days they had breaks were either the ones where Stark was so buried in work he forgot, or ones where the Avengers were called out on missions. Mike tried not to think about those. He'd see the news reports later, but he preferred not to know when it happened, and not to think about it if he knew it was happening.
It scared him.
But Stark was always telling him not to be a gutless wimp about it, so he just tried to ignore it as best he could.
Tony had expected to hire someone with few social skills and no management skills. He'd expected to hire an engineer who wouldn't be able to handle the administrative side of his life, and expected them to quit, and then he could tell Pepper it was a failed experiment and go back to demanding things of her. It wasn't that Tony liked tormenting Pepper; it was just that he was used to her. Pepper was comfortable.
He'd hired Mike on a whim because the kid seemed bright and capable, and sounded like he had nothing to lose, and Tony liked people who lived on the edge. He hadn't anticipated him also being competent and organized, which was a failing on Tony's part, because Tony had kind of based his entire existence around being able to anticipate things.
He hadn't anticipated liking him so much, either. The night Mike got beaten down by Trevor (who did he think he was fooling? Mugged, really?) Jarvis had alerted Tony at the same time he'd called an ambulance for Mike, and Tony hadn't felt really settled until he'd seen him with his own eyes and assured himself he was fine. He'd toyed with the idea of finding Trevor and setting him on fire, but Mike seemed to be against it, and anyway superheroes weren't allowed to do that kind of thing unless their opponents were actual facts evil, not just dickheads who beat up said superhero's favorite employee.
It should have made him more uncomfortable, how much he liked Mike. But after all, most of the people he really liked were his employees, so he was used to it.
He often forgot, because Mike didn't seem to like to show it off, that his assistant had a sideways-moving, innovative mind. When left to his own devices in the workshop, Mike sometimes came up with downright surprising observations about his projects.
He'd really just been dicking around that afternoon, clearing away some old scraps of work and considering what project he wanted to mess with next, when he happened to glance up and see Mike sitting at one of the holotables, a distant look on his face. Tony set down the cords he'd been winding and moved closer, quietly. Mike didn't often use the holotables.
He was doodling a draft in the air, turning it occasionally to get new views, sketching arcs and squares with his finger in a familiar-looking shape. Tony watched as it took form: something resembling a sleek version of a VW bug, the Iron Man armor inside it, hunched and with his knees tucked up as if he were riding a low-to-the-ground motorcycle.
Mike noticed him watching, finally, and looked embarrassed.
"Ever seen Tron?" he asked. "The part with the video game cars? I always wanted one."
In the corner, he'd been doing specs, Tony saw; retractable wheels that could pull back into the Iron Man gauntlets and shin-shields.
"Not bad," he allowed. "You'd need to reinforce the helmet, add some camera feeds so you could see with your head down." He drew a reinforced helmet and then just as quickly rubbed it out, redrawing the regular helmet and adding two arcs running from forehead to nape. "Impact displacement. You'd break your neck otherwise. Bracing here, as well."
"It was just a cartoon," Mike said with a shrug. But he'd drawn the Iron Man armor perfect, every plate and hinge in place, from memory. His mind never ceased to surprise Tony, who didn't consider him an equal mentally but couldn't deny there were some resemblances.
"So was the Ourobouros, and Kekule figured out the Benzene Ring from that," Tony replied, leaning forward. "Jarvis, slap a title bar on that with Mike Ross as the designer, stash it in the projects folder."
"As you like, sir," Jarvis replied, and the doodle faded from view.
"I'm in the mood for steak," Tony said, cutting off Mike's halfhearted objection. "Bring me rare steak. Go."
Mike went. Tony watched him until the door clicked shut, then grinned.
"Bring it back, Jarvis, and do a search of Stark and personal proprietary designs, see if we have anything for retractable wheels."
World-threatening evil wasn't as common as you might think.
In the months Mike had been working for Stark, he'd only gone out on Avengers missions a handful of times. Some of those weren't even strictly-speaking Avengers business; natural disasters were terrible, of course, but only fell under the SHIELD jurisdiction because a flying robot, a Norse god, two assassins and a super-soldier came in handy rescuing people from mudslides and volcanoes and stuff. Mike was willing to bet that Stark wouldn't even see the Avengers that often if they didn't have weekly briefings and semi-weekly sparring matches mandated by Captain Rogers.
He was allowed to come along to the meetings on sufferance; mostly, the idea that if Stark couldn't bring his assistant to meetings, everyone would suffer. As Stark put it, "Thor gets to bring Mjolnir, and Mike's at least twice as smart as a hammer." Only Mr. Fury (scary in a kick-your-ass way) and Mr. Coulson (scary in a ninth-grade-math-teacher way) really objected, and while they were truly terrifying the Avengers tended to outvote them when it came to "Oh god, just let Stark bring him, it shuts him up."
Also Mike was useful in fetching coffee, and sometimes making photocopies.
Usually, after the official meetings, the Avengers hung around, loafing in the conference room and bickering or chatting about SHIELD business. Stark would needle Captain Rogers, Clint and Natasha would smolder at each other, Dr. Banner would distract Stark from his needling, and Thor would sit there looking majestic and making pronouncements.
The weird thing was, they seemed to find Mike fascinating. After all, they were the superheroes. Mike was just the assistant to the most annoying superhero.
Natasha treated him with placid indifference, but then she treated everyone that way. Captain Rogers said he reminded him of a guy he knew in the war (only a tiny bit creepy) and Dr. Banner sometimes had Mike take notes when he and Tony were deep in discussion. Clint teased and prodded him, but it reminded him of Trevor back when they were actually friends.
Thor, once he understood the nature of Mike's memory, was utterly fascinated.
"You are like unto a Skald," Thor declared, and Stark looked annoyed.
"Stop calling my puppy names," he said.
"It is an honorable position!" Thor protested.
"You're a philistine," Clint told Stark. "A Skald's like a bard."
"I dare you to say that again and not laugh," Stark replied.
"Regale us!" Thor insisted. "Mike, assistant to Tony Stark, you must know many battle songs and epic poems."
Mike fidgeted. Technically he could recite Julius Caesar, but...
"Lay off him," Stark said. "Go watch a DVD if you want an epic poem."
"Don't mind them," Captain Rogers said to Mike in an undertone.
"Skalds are well-respected in my realm," Thor continued. "Particularly known for their taunting wits and the fire and power of their mockery!"
Somehow, this led to Mike sitting in a boardroom of the most powerful law-enforcement agency in the country, surrounded by superheroes, explaining the concept of the yo-mama joke to a Norse god.
Thor caught on pretty quickly; apparently Asgardians valued the honor of their mothers even higher than American teenagers did.
"Your mother was defiled by Sleipnir!" Thor boomed. "And she liked it."
"Well, your delivery could use some work, but -- "
Mike broke off as a klaxon sounded over the loudspeakers. As one, everyone in the room stood; Stark went for his phone, Captain Rogers began barking orders, and the boardroom cleared quickly.
"What's going on?" Mike asked, grabbing Dr. Banner's arm in the hallway.
"Assembly call," Dr. Banner replied. "We're needed."
"Where should I go?"
"Comm room," Dr. Banner said. "Down that hall."
"Mike!" Stark yelled over his shoulder, already running the other way. "Stay here and sit still!"
"Good luck!" Mike yelled back.
Which was probably some kind of curse.
He found his way to the comm room, which turned out to be some kind of central dispatch and radio headquarters; scary-looking people in SHIELD uniform were pouring in, pulling headphones on and sitting down at advanced-looking computers. Mike found himself pushed to the back, and then he felt a hand on his arm.
"Get out of the way!"
The woman hissing at him couldn't be any older than he was, probably younger; she had pretty brown hair and hipster glasses, and she pulled him along through a door and into another room, this one with two huge television monitors and an array of mismatched chairs.
"Interns aren't allowed in the comm room," she said sternly, when they stopped.
"I'm not an intern!" Mike retorted. "Why does everyone think I'm an intern?"
"Well, you look like one. Okay, maybe in a nicer suit," she said. "Who are you, then?"
"Mike Ross," he replied. "I'm Mr. Stark's assistant."
Her eyebrows raised. "So you're the freak with the memory, huh? Thor mentioned you. I'm Darcy," she added, offering her hand. "I am an intern, so you don't need to sound so insulted about being mistaken for one."
"Sorry," he said.
"No harm, no foul. Have a seat. Is this your first time seeing a live broadcast?"
"A live broadcast of what?" he asked, perturbed.
"Of the fight! We get radio too, as soon as the Avengers are at the drop point. That feed is Mr. Stark's helmet," she added, pointing at the monitor on the right. "The other feed is SHIELD cameras. You know what they're fighting?"
"Not the faintest idea," Mike said. "Why, do you?"
"No, but I don't think it's good," she answered, as the right-hand monitor flickered to life. Mike could see the interior of some kind of helicopter, or maybe a cargo jet; if this was Stark's helmet cam, that meant he was looking at Captain Rogers at the moment, who was pulling his infamous cowl over his head.
"Check, one two," Stark's voice came over the loudspeaker, startling Mike. "HQ, let me hear your dulcet tones."
"We read you, Iron Man," someone else said.
"Comm check. Captain America?"
"Why am I here?" Dr. Banner asked weakly, rhetorically.
"Because we love a man in a lab coat. Widow?"
"I hear you well, my metal-clad brother!"
Stark sighed. "Check complete. Visual?"
"Visual is a go, Iron Man."
"You have any idea what we're about to jump into the middle of?" Stark asked. It was strange to hear him sound so...professional. No excess babbling, no messing around. Mike sank into a chair and watched as the other monitor came to life as well.
"Looks like a mutant," SHIELD reported.
"Great," Mike heard Natasha mutter.
"Anyone we know?"
"Negative, Captain America. First reports are coming in now, might be someone losing control."
"Okay, let's try to contain first," Captain Rogers -- Captain America -- announced. "If intelligence is right, terminal force is a very last resort."
"And if intelligence is wrong?" Stark asked.
"Then we'll reassess. Everyone on my mark. Ready?"
The thing about watching a battle live was that it was confusing. The news stories always made it so clean-cut; there was a bad guy or a bad situation, the Avengers did something suitably dramatic and photogenic, and the forces of good triumphed. In reality it was a lot of shouting and shaky-cam.
Stark sounded like he was in his element. Apparently professionalism only lasted until the battle began.
"Oh, someone brought his biceps to the fight," he called, about halfway through their attempts to contain some kind of super-strong, super-fast mutant. "Lookin' sexy, Hawkeye. Don't they pay you enough to buy shirts with sleeves?"
"Fuck you, Iron Man!" Hawkeye growled. On one camera, Mike could see him crouched, stock still, waiting for a shot.
"No glove no love, baby!" Stark howled.
"Can we please pretend to be grownups on the comms?" Captain America interrupted. Stark's helmet-cam landed on him, looking vaguely embarrassed. "Thor! On your six!"
Mike didn't realize he was gripping the arms of the chair, taut with tension, until the wood actually creaked. Darcy looked over at him and gave him a reassuring smile.
"They're really careful," she said. "Well, most of the time."
"I'm pretty sure I didn't want to be watching this," Mike said through gritted teeth.
What happened next was confused, a series of yells and camera-cuts on the surveillance screen, and later NBC News would do a computer-generated recreation that made a little more sense. But all Mike would remember afterward was a sudden shriek, like a car braking at high-speed, and Captain America's yell of Tony, look out! and then the sickening crunch of metal.
And the explosion.
Mike was on the first chopper out to the scene, which turned out to be somewhere on Long Island. He didn't necessarily want to be -- not that he didn't want to see Stark, but he was afraid of what he'd find. Coulson just grabbed him, said "You, with me," and dragged him onto a helicopter.
He understood the urgency better when he arrived; he could hear Stark yelling over the whip-whip of the helicopter blades as they landed.
"Get off me get off me you don't know what you're -- stop -- don't touch that!" Stark was shouting, surrounded by a cluster of EMTs, sitting on the back of an ambulance, still in his suit but with the helmet retracted. His left arm was hanging at a decidedly unsettling angle, and the shoulder of the armor was shoved inwards, metal curling viciously from an impact.
"Mike!" Stark yelled when he saw him. "Michael! Get over here and get these morons off me! You, Captain Giant A On Your Forehead, stop hovering!"
Mike pushed through the crowd, elbowing EMTs and SHIELD agents out of the way, and even Captain America stepped aside.
"Good. Okay, now that someone who knows what they're doing is here," Stark called, "You guys go hover around Banner or something. Mike, here," he said, and pointed with his right hand at his left shoulder. "I don't want the armor damaged."
"I think it already is," Mike said.
"I want the impact preserved, we need to run some stress tests on it," Stark informed him. Mike already had his phone out and was snapping pictures for Jarvis to analyze. Stark fumbled in the thigh-compartment of the suit and produced his on-the-go kit: small socket wrench, hex-key, screwdriver, one-shot cutting torch. Mike selected the socket wrench and set to work.
"Okay, careful, careful," he said, as Mike applied the wrench to the wrist joints, which had to be opened before he could access the upper arm. "Easy..."
"I got it," Mike muttered, pulling metal off hurriedly. He knew every inch and plate of the armor by now, and he could see the exploded diagrams in his head. Wrist bone's connected to the arm bone...
"Watch that edge," Stark warned, as Mike pried the plates off carefully. One of them came away scorched and twisted. "Ugh, I think I'm bleeding into the under-suit."
"Hurt much?" Mike asked, pulling the shoulder cap off, wiggling it a little to get it out from under the bent-in edge of the chestplate. Freed from the clamp of metal, the chestplate retracted, along with the other arm; it left Stark in his neoprene under-armor suit to the waist.
"No pain at all. I'm flying for at least another ten minutes," Stark informed him. Mike grabbed a pair of shears from the back of the ambulance and began slitting the under-armor sleeve from the wrist, peeling it back slowly. When he got to the elbow he found blood matting to the fabric, and worked more carefully.
There was a long gash along the underside of his arm where the metal had bent in, but otherwise he looked okay until Mike reached the shoulder. He snipped the other side of the collar, pulling the entire top of the under-armor down for a better look, checking the arc reactor for cracks or dents.
"Diagnostic, professor?" Stark drawled. Mike took his time.
"Shoulder's dislocated," he said finally.
"Well, pop it the fuck back in, don't take all day about it -- mother of shitting hell," Stark yelled, as Mike put his hands on the shoulder and shoved without warning.
"Language," Captain America said.
"Oh fuck you twice!" Stark yelled some more, panting. "Jesus sodomy Christ that hurt." He tested his arm. "Back in?"
"Looks like it," Mike said. He was pretty accustomed to Stark swearing, and even he was blushing at the language. "Couple of stitches and I think you'll be fine, Mr. Stark."
Stark looked up at him, eyes narrowing. "You just stripped me down in front of half of Long Island and relocated my hellfucking shoulder," he said. "I think you're allowed to call me Tony now."
Then he passed out.
Mike -- and, to his surprise, Captain Rogers -- rode with the medical transport back to SHIELD, carrying the busted pieces of armor in a body bag one of the agents rustled up from somewhere. Stark -- Tony -- slid in and out of consciousness, but the SHIELD medics assured Mike he was doing fine. He busied himself getting the initial analysis from Jarvis and studying the scorch-marks on the armor.
"It was very heroic, what he did," Captain Rogers said earnestly. "Stupid, but heroic. That guy must've slammed into him going a hundred miles an hour. Then he exploded." He looked vaguely sad. "We're going to get another angry letter from Professor Xavier about mistreating mutants."
"Why didn't he dodge?" Mike asked.
"Hawkeye was behind him," Captain Rogers said. "I told you. Heroic."
Mike looked down at the armor, then over at Sta -- at Tony, pale and still on the gurney, and felt sick.
He followed the medics as far as they'd let him, until they took Tony into x-ray and told him to stay put. Mike stayed put, standing in the middle of the hall, until a hand fell on his shoulder. He looked up into the terrible single eye of Nick Fury.
"This way," Fury said, and pulled him away, down one of SHIELD's endless corridors and into the debriefing room. All chatter inside ceased.
"Michael!" Thor called finally. "Your mother wears clothing inappropriate to her gender and demeaning to her station in life!"
Clint broke first. He let out an undignified giggle into the shocked silence, which set off a few of the SHIELD agents, and there was a moment of relieved, almost insane laughter before Captain Rogers cleared his throat.
"Why don't you take a seat, Mike," he said.
Mike had never sat in on a debrief before, but he figured he could just skim out the useful parts for Tony later. It wasn't until Captain Rogers looked at him after listening to Dr. Banner's analysis of the situation that he realized they were expecting him to fill in Tony's portion of the debrief.
"Ah, uh," he said, clearing his throat. "Mr. Stark's recovering, he should be fine, I'll be taking him home when Medical lets him go. Um, an initial look at the Iron Man armor, uh, seems to indicate some vulnerabilities in the joints. I'm not sure what Mr. Stark's going to do about that but we'll...do...something?" He faltered briefly. "The under-armor suit held up really well, probably prevented some pretty bad burns, but we'll be taking a look at that too, or I guess have Stark Chemicals take a look, they synthesized it."
"What's your ETA for having the suit back in the field?" Fury asked.
Mike blinked at him. "We could get a functional suit up and running in half an hour. Mr. Stark's probably not going to be able to operate it for at least a few weeks. I doubt he'll want to repair this one as-is, but if he wants to address the joint vulnerability issue -- maybe ten or twelve days? Depends on how his shoulder does."
"I'd like to recommend tapping some of our reserves for a replacement for Iron Man temporarily," Captain Rogers said. "War Machine's on duty in Afghanistan, but we could probably recall him for standby."
"Can we discuss putting someone else in the Iron Man suit?" Fury asked.
Mike laughed outright. Nobody else did.
"You're serious?" he asked. "For starters, the suits are locked up and he's not going to just give you one. Second, it runs on the arc reactor, and outside of War Machine there's only three of those: one of which is a half-functional antique, one of which is in Mr. Stark's chest, and one of which hasn't been tested." He started in on specs and statistics, only half-thinking of it, and was about three minutes into a lecture on the declassified aspects of arc reactor technology when he realized everyone was staring.
"So um," he said, breaking off. "No. We can't discuss putting someone else in the Iron Man suit."
"Then you better hope nobody tries to destroy the planet in the next few weeks," Fury said.
"I think we'd all better hope that, don't you?" Mike asked, wildly daring.
"Let's close this line of thought," Captain Rogers said, before Fury could verbally flay the skin from Mike's body. "Mike, send us a status report as soon as Tony's got an idea of a timeframe. Moving on..."
From across the room, Thor gave him a thumbs-up. Coulson looked like he was developing a migrane. Mike knew the feeling.
The rest of the meeting passed in a blur, until Captain Rogers released them and Mike hurried back to Medical. Tony was awake, his arm wrapped in gauze, shoulder braced and set in a sling over a scrub shirt.
"Hey," he slurred, when Mike approached. "Home?"
"Vicodin?" Mike asked.
"Oxy-fuckin'-contin," Tony answered.
"Score," Mike said, hoisting himself up onto he bed next to him. "You're a total mess," he added. "A tragic heap of a human being."
Tony laughed, leaned on him and then rested his head on Mike's shoulder. "You gon' take me home now?" he asked. Mike glanced at a nearby medic, who nodded his permission.
"Sure. Want me to call Happy, or should I drive?"
"Home," Tony said, ignoring the question. He nuzzled Mike's shoulder. "Put me t'bed."
Mike had the distinct impression that his doped-out boss was making a pass at him.
"Okay, come on," he said, and slung an arm around Tony's waist, helping him up.
He fell asleep in the car on the drive home, though it took Mike a while to notice, thrilled as he was to be driving the Jag. When they arrived, Happy came out to help him haul Tony inside and up to bed.
Mike thought about Tony's sterile, empty penthouse at the top of the Tower, the one he only really used for parties and rarely slept in.
"Jarvis," he said in the elevator. "Take us to my place."
"Very good, Mike," Jarvis said, and started the ascent.
Gram fussed over Tony like a particularly severe mother hen. She installed him in the spare bedroom and somehow kept him from leaving it too often; made him soup and told him to stop whining; sat and played Go with him for hours and called him a big baby when he sulked about Jarvis locking him out of the workshop so he wouldn't overexert his shoulder. Not a great pill-taker herself, she made sure he got a painkiller every six hours (and only every six hours).
When Fury called to see if Tony was ready to get back in the suit, three days after the injury, Gram hung up on him.
Mike hadn't thought the Avengers even particularly liked Tony, but one by one they came to visit, and Gram accepted the presence of superheroes in her home with equanimity. She made sandwiches for Dr. Banner, told Clint there was no running with compound bows in the house, complimented Natasha's nail polish, and accepted Thor's reverential treatment of "an elderwoman!" as her due. She was polite and firm with Phil Coulson. She invited Captain Rogers to stay for dinner, and Mike had to admit she was right when she said he had the nicest manners of anyone she'd ever met.
Even Harvey Specter showed up, flirted with his grandmother, and presented Tony with a fruit basket, compliments of Pearson Hardman. He said a few words in Tony's ear, and then glanced at Mike; Tony dismissed him, and when Mike left they were casually throwing an orange back and forth across the room, talking codicils. He heard Tony laugh, low and pleased, as the door shut.
Mike spent his time bouncing back and forth between catering to Tony's imperious demands and working on the suit repair in the shop. It was soothing; Tony was working out the kinks in the joint vulnerability issue, and Mike got to do the physical end, assembling and disassembling the new prototypes, even testing out a new elbow-joint. Sometimes Tony would call down to the workshop and they'd yell back and forth at each other.
One night, assured that Tony was sleeping and his grandmother was watching a late-night talk show, Mike crept down to the workshop and opened the lockbox where the spare arc reactor was kept. It was one of only four in existence, and the only one of its kind; Tony had one mounted in a glass case, the one he'd built in Afghanistan, and he wore the second one. The one in War Machine was permanently embedded in the suit.
This one was meant to be worn independently, attaching over the chest on a strap like a bandolier. They'd managed to create enough vibranium for twelve chips to power it, but there was only one in the case, which was strange. Mike slotted the chip into the reactor, closed the housing, and pulled it over his head, tightening the strap around his chest. He held up his hands in the classic defensive pose Tony used -- left hand pulled back, right forward, elbows cocked.
"Pew!" he said, jerking his hands as if he were firing repulsors. "Pew, pew! Take that, Whiplash!"
"Having fun, are we?" Jarvis asked. Mike startled.
"Jarvis!" he said.
"It compliments you," Jarvis answered. "I don't know that Mr. Stark would approve of your use of it, though."
"I was just playing around," Mike said, hastily shedding the reactor and popping the chip out. "You don't have to tell him, right?"
"I think we can overlook some...youthful enthusiasm," Jarvis said. Mike carefully packed the arc reactor away. "Your progress on the new armor is ahead of schedule."
"I like working on it," Mike said. "You know when I was a kid, I wanted to be either a lawyer or a mechanic."
"Very divergent fields."
"Not really. It's all about how things fit together. Seeing what's not there as much as what is." He grinned. "Besides, as the protege, I have an image to uphold."
Jarvis flashed an image up on one of the display screens; it was a photograph that had made national news the day after the injury. Someone had managed to snap Mike disassembling the armor after the fight (and if Mike ever found out who Photo Credit P. Parker was, he'd kick him in the nuts) and it had run in the Bugle with the tagline Stark protege Michael Ross assists Iron Man pilot Tony Stark after an injury taken while attempting to apprehend an unnamed mutant. He'd fielded calls for days from old high school aquaintances and distant relatives eager to cash in on Mike's sudden notoriety.
In the photo, Mike had one hand on Tony's shoulder to steady him while the other worked a socket wrench just above his elbow; Tony's face was turned, watching him. Mike's head was bent but his profile was clearly visible, hair ruffled in the light wind.
"At least they got my good side," Mike said. "Hey, do you know what happened to the vibranium chips we were pouring for the arc reactor? There should be more in the case."
There was a pause, which was strange; Jarvis was usually instantaneous with any information he was authorized to provide.
"Mr. Stark has been making some modifications to one of the suits," Jarvis said finally. "The information is not classified above your clearance level."
"Really? Which one?" Mike asked. The door to the suit room popped open, and Mike peered inside.
There was the shiny chrome suit, as well as the two red-and-gold Iron Man suits; the fourth suit, the all-black one Mike assumed Tony was designing for night use, was in its case as well, but the glass was retracted from in front of it and it looked...different.
He stood near the case, studying the new design changes. It had bronze-colored accents now, and one of the arms was missing, sitting disassembled on a table in the middle of the room. It was the helmet that struck him, though: matte black but with two ridged crests running across the crown, starting where the suit's eyebrows would be and extending behind the back of the helmet. When Mike reached up to touch one, it sang a clear, soft note in the air, like rubbing the edge of a glass. It was the same sound Captain Rogers' shield made if you shook it lightly, the sound of tempered vibranium when touched.
"They can't be solid Vibranium," he murmured.
"Vibranium-plated steel," Jarvis said. "Designed for impact resistance."
"The ridges disperse the stress," Mike murmured, feeling the bumps in the metal. "Adamantium would have been better than steel."
"Mr. Stark believed the advantages of Adamantium did not outweigh the added weight or difficulties presented if the suit should require repair at the stress points."
"No, of course," Mike agreed. "Why waste Vibranium on a non-necessary mod, though? Why didn't he put it on the regular suit?"
"I'm sure I couldn't say, Mike."
"Mr. Stark has not confided in me the reason for these modifications."
"Very Tony," Mike said. "Okay, well, he has his own reasons, I guess. I'm going to bed. See you tomorrow, Jarvis."
Chapter 2: Issue II
Tony had access to the best medical minds in the country, experimental and otherwise, and could afford the best physical therapists. He actually managed to start an argument in SHIELD Medical by suggesting that external rotation would be a better bracing position for the arm, or that the traditional sling treatment wasn't actually effective. Mike, accompanying him on that particular visit, watched as doctors started yelling at each other, and caught Tony giving him a mischevious grin.
"I'm taking the brace off on Friday," he said, as they walked out, the doctors still debating behind them. "We're throwing a dislocated shoulder party. Invite your friends."
"So...you and Gram?" Mike said.
"Someday when you're a real grownup boy, you can pay people to be your friends, like I do," Tony replied, grinning at him. "Set it up for the penthouse. Open bar, DJ, extra security, make sure the hot tub is working, and call this number and ask for package #4."
Mike looked down at the number Tony keyed into his phone. "What's package #4?"
"Fifteen male models of dubious sexual morality," Tony said. "Oh, get on the horn to Hef and see what Playmates are free, too."
"Adding condoms to the party supplies list..."
"I knew you were my favorite for a reason."
"I can't bring my grandmother to this party, can I."
Tony shrugged, then winced. "You can, she'd probably get a real kick out of it. Might not help her heart condition."
"Well, that leaves you."
"Aw, are you asking me to the prom? Will you bring me a corsage?" Tony ruffled his hair with his good hand. "You have the standard invitation list?"
"Yep. Oh, wait, the classy standard invite list or the trashy one?"
"Classy. I don't think I've used the trashy one in...years. Go ahead and delete that one, now I feel old."
The party went...surprisingly well, actually. Mike used to read about Tony Stark's parties in his Gram's old People Magazines, but that was before Iron Man and besides, it was People Magazine.
What Tony referred to as the Hospitality -- the male models and Playmates -- were actually all really nice, and seemed to know what they were doing. The DJ didn't suck, and the alcohol was high quality. Mike was congratulating himself on a job well done, hurrying through the crowd with a glass of wine Ms. Potts had asked him to fetch, when he ran into Harvey Specter.
The wine sloshed, almost spilled, the glass fell out of his hand and a passing waiter caught it -- Mike made a mental note to tip him big time -- and went on his way with a wink.
"Hey, whoa there, what's the -- " Harvey said, and then saw who it was. His lips twitched. "Mr. Ross. We must stop meeting like this."
"Sorry, sorry again," Mike said, stumbling backwards.
"Hasn't Tony taught you not to apologize by now?"
"Yeah, it's, getting over the first eighteen years I spent learning good manners," Mike said, rubbing the back of his head nervously. "Enjoying the party? Other than getting body slammed, I mean."
"Sure," Harvey said, sipping his drink. "I complimented Tony when I saw him earlier, but I'm guessing you're the one responsible," he added, lifting a glass of champagne from a tray circling nearby and offering it to him. "Nice work. You're not completely inept at the game."
"The game?" Mike asked, curious, accepting the glass.
"Wealth, power, class. Privilege. The game," Harvey clarified, when Mike gave him a blank look.
"I just do what Mr. Stark asks me to do," Mike said.
"Well, that's hardly going to work in the long run, hm?" Harvey replied. "Tony knows how to front himself, when he can be bothered with it. I guess you need some lessons. All this..." he gestured subtly at the party, "this is the game. You play the game, you make your way in the world. Tony knows that."
Mike fidgeted, sipped his champagne. "Have you known Tony long?"
Harvey nodded, seemingly at ease with the change in subject. "His company did some technical work for my firm, back when I was starting out. It was my job to..." he paused. "Handle him."
Mike grinned. "I bet that was fun."
"Landed me a client," Harvey shrugged. "He said I wasn't like the other Harvard boys he knew."
"You went to Harvard?" Mike grinned. "I used to think about going to Harvard. Law, actually."
"And you ended up in engineering?"
"Nah. Tony just picked me up because I'm bright."
Harvey gave him a sweeping head-to-toe look, slow and a little lascivious. "Bright."
"I've passed the Bar," Mike said.
"Come on, kid."
"I have. I did it on a bet. Ask me anything."
Harvey raised an eyebrow. "I'll go easy on you, give you something you might have learned at Stark. Stock options backdating."
"Aw, come on -- "
"Although backdating options is legal, violations arise related to disclosures under IRC section -- "
" -- 409a. What about Sarbanes-Oxley?"
"Statute of limitations renders Sarbanes-Oxley moot post-2007."
"Not if you can find actions to cover up the violations as established in the sixth circuit, May 2008."
Another long sweep of Harvey's eyes. "You might actually be interesting," he said.
"Well, I am a full-service personal assistant," Mike said, enjoying the flirtation. "I aim to please."
"Do you, now," Harvey asked, and Mike could see he was about to step closer --
"Harvey," said a voice, and Mike jerked back a little as Tony slid smoothly in front of him, right up in Harvey's personal space.
"Tony," Harvey said with a smile, leaning back slightly. "How's the shoulder?"
"Awesome, you should see my left-handed shot put," Tony said. "Michael, is the bad man bothering you?"
"Just getting to know your assistant," Harvey replied easily.
"Don't spoil my work in progress, he's delicate," Tony replied. "Tell you what, though," he added, inclining his head a little. "Pepper's right over there and looks like she could use an evil genius to save her."
Mike watched as Harvey's eyebrows raised slightly, and he cast a thoughtful look at Ms. Potts, who was talking to some guy in an ugly suit and looked very bored, but had managed to acquire a glass of wine.
"Excuse me, then," Harvey replied. "Mr. Ross, a pleasure running into you."
"You didn't have to do that," Mike said, as Harvey slipped away and Tony turned to face him. "I was enjoying talking to him."
"Harvey's great, very smart, very socially adept," Tony agreed. "But you belong to me."
Mike tilted his head. "I think this is the point at which, if I were a woman in a movie, I'd get to throw a drink in your face."
"Don't misunderstand me," Tony said, looking serious. "I just don't like people messing with my investments. Especially when they look like they're trying to get into my investment's pants."
"Jealous?" Mike asked with a grin. "Harvey's pretty hot."
There was a moment of something -- something intense, on Tony's face, and then he shut down completely, went poker-faced and calm.
"Run along and enjoy playtime. Don't let anyone else start imparting social philosophy to you," Tony warned. Mike nodded, saluted Tony with his champagne, and wandered off.
He kept his drinking to a social minimum, aware that if any disasters did crop up, he'd be the one who had to handle them. The party started winding down around two in the morning; Mike helped security kick two people out of Tony's bedroom, called a fleet of cabs and limos for the revelers, and by the time almost everyone was gone, had started to wonder where Tony himself was. Probably in his bedroom, entertaining one of the Playmates. Or two. Mike had no illusions about his employer's abilities.
He was doing a walkthrough of the penthouse, making sure all was locked down for the night and wondering tiredly if he would be able to get more than three or four hours of sleep, when he heard noises -- voices -- coming from Tony's bedroom. The door was cracked open; Mike peered through it from the darkened hallway.
"If you ever step up to my assistant like that again -- " Tony was saying, but he was cut off by something.
"You didn't mind when it was Pepper," and that was Harvey Specter's voice.
"She's not my assistant anymore."
"You didn't mind when she was. Good times," Harvey added, and Mike's eyes adjusted to the dark enough to see --
Two figures against the floor-to-ceiling windows, one pressed back against the glass, the other pinning him there. Bodies moving slowly together, Tony kissing and grinding against Harvey, who had lost his tie and shirt somewhere.
"I mean it," Tony said, hips jerking, and Harvey moaned.
"So what is this, revenge?" Harvey asked, breathless. "Staking a claim? You jealous of him, or of me? I had him right where I wanted him."
"Jesus, you talk more than I do," Tony said, and Mike could hear clothing rustling.
"Well, we know how to solve that problem," Harvey said, and flipped Tony around against the glass, sliding slowly down his body. Mike saw Tony tilt his head back and heard him groan, full-throated, uninhibited.
He quietly pulled the door shut, and walked down the hall before he murmured, "Jarvis -- "
"Mr. Stark will not be disturbed," Jarvis said.
Jarvis woke Mike the next morning at eight with weather, local news, and the information that Mr. Specter had left around five.
"I like it when they throw themselves out," Mike murmured.
"Mr. Specter is usually circumspect," Jarvis agreed.
"In the workshop."
"Tell him I'll be there in twenty."
Tony was already buried in work when Mike arrived; he was messing with something dark and liquid in a beaker over a bunsen burner.
"What is that?" Mike asked, peering at it.
"New Stark Chemicals toy. It's called Duraben," Tony said, dipping a glass rod into the mixture and pulling out a long thread of it, then watching as it oozed back down. "Stronger than rubber and no need to inflate it, just slap a layer over a smooth surface, let it cure, and go. Could totally destroy the tire industry."
"Aerosolizes the most incredibly toxic and damaging chemicals as a byproduct," Tony said. "Not cost efficient when you include the environmental impact or the cost of neutralizing the byproduct. This is half of what we've made, probably won't make any more." He glanced up at Mike and grinned. "Have fun at the party last night?"
"Yeah, except for that time my boss totally kept me from getting laid," Mike replied. Tony's grin widened.
"I know Harvey Specter. He was equal parts flirting with you and imparting the wisdom of the ages. It's what he does."
"He was talking a lot about the game," Mike allowed.
"Ah yes. Harvey's game."
"He said you should be teaching me how to play it."
Stark rolled his eyes. "You want some actual wisdom? Come here, apprentice. The game is bullshit, and everyone knows it's bullshit, but they tell each other it's there to put checks on the power of the stupid and the rude, because they don't know how to play it. In reality, it's always been there to keep the rich in power, because the poor never get allowed to learn it. Not that I'm not for being rich, but that means for me it's pointless. You only have to play the game if you're not wealthy enough or smart enough to get around it."
"But you do."
"Sometimes. It can be fun, and it gets me things I want."
"You seemed to be having fun playing the game last night," Mike said. Tony looked at him and then started to laugh.
"Caught me with my hand down his pants, huh?" he asked. Mike nodded, flushing. "That's all it is, you know. Fun, me and Harvey, a few times a year. He likes no strings, and I...well, I just like sex. A little variety can be stimulating once in a while. Invigorates the mind. Besides, I enjoy a challenge."
"He didn't look like much of a challenge."
"Don't be fooled. He doesn't sleep with clients, except me." Tony gestured at a pile of metal on the other end of the workbench. "Bring those over here."
Mike collected them up in his hands carefully -- some of the edges were razor-sharp -- and carried them over. "So you're good enough to sleep with him, but I'm not?"
"I wasn't aware you'd be this pissy about not being Harvey Specter's latest coat-closet belt-notch," Tony said, not looking at him as he dipped the metal carefully into the Duraben, lining one side with the dark, fast-cooling material.
"Yes, clearly I don't enjoy getting laid."
Tony set the metal aside and looked up at him, eyes dark.
"People like Harvey aren't for you," he said quietly, no trace of humor in his voice now. "It's not about whether you're good enough for them. You're my assistant. It's about who's good enough for you. Harvey is rich, powerful, and smart, but he's not interested in being good to people. He's not for you."
"Then why did you -- ?"
"Because I'm already damaged goods. I have no reputation to lose or shame to feel, and unlike you I don't care about intimacy." Tony went back to dipping the metal pieces, slowly and precisely.
"Tony," Mike said, low and shocked.
"Relax. I'm used to it. I sleep with whoever I want, because there's nowhere to go for me but up. Maybe it's overstepping a boundary, as your employer, but I'd rather not see you in a similar position." Tony set the second piece down and looked at him. "Now are you going to bring me some breakfast or just stare at me and judge my sexual morals all morning?"
It began when Trevor called him again.
Or, no, Mike thought, maybe it began when he spouted off about the arc reactor at the debrief. It wasn't anything people didn't already know, but it implied he knew more about it than they did, that he had an understanding of the technology beyond theirs, which was technically true.
But no, it began before that, probably the day Tony hired him. Tony was a futurist; he'd undoubtedly calculated the odds, and known that one day someone would try to get to Mike. A month after they met, Tony had held up a mean looking microchip gun and raised a questioning eyebrow at Mike.
"Why do you need to chip me?" Mike asked nervously.
"It's a GPS locator. So I can find you when I need you," Tony had said, with a wild grin.
And Mike had bought it, at the time, that his boss was a high-tech control freak, had never even considered the possibility that it would be needed for this kind of thing. He'd never been a cautious man, so he bared his left shoulder and let Stark apply the gun, hissed when it stung, didn't give it another thought.
His left shoulder ached, now, and when Mike tried to turn his head to look at it, hands chained up over his head, he saw dried blood in rivulets, running down to his collarbone. They'd cut the GPS out of his arm.
He remembered Trevor calling him, desperate, apologetic, groveling even. Begging for Mike's help, begging for Mike to please just come meet him at the old empty lot where they used to hang out when they were kids. It was blatant manipulation, but Mike had been a sucker for Trevor since childhood, and he wanted to mend this fence, wanted to believe Trevor's promise over the phone that he was going straight, he just needed help.
So he'd gone -- left Tony to his workshop late at night, left Stark Tower and climbed into a cab. He remembered seeing Trevor waiting for him, pale in the darkness, and Trevor saying, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Mike, I needed the money."
"What do you -- " Mike had managed, before the world went black.
After that, he thought, it was just a kaleidoscope of fragments until now -- struggling against someone in the back of a van, kicking and biting the way Tony had taught him, almost making it out. Being dragged into a building. The clatter of chains.
It frightened him more, not remembering, than it did that he was sitting on a cold floor in the dark with his arms suspended over his head, lured into an abduction by someone he'd trusted implicitly.
He was shirtless, shoeless, phone long gone. They'd cut out his GPS, and he'd seen the faces of some of the people who'd left him here -- two men he recognized as SHIELD field agents, and one man, Dr. Schelmacher, who he'd met a few times in Dr. Banner's lab.
But Tony would find him. The Avengers would come for him, they always did, they saved people and all he had to do was wait it out. He exhaled with relief, the surety of the knowledge keeping the edge of fear at bay.
"I won't go through the usual villainous rigmarole," Dr. Schelmacher said, and Mike startled, turned towards the noise. A door was closing behind him; lights flicked on. "Nice to see you again, Mike. I think you know why you're here."
Kidnapped -- not taken by SHIELD, they'd just have sent Coulson, and anyone trying just to get to Tony would have killed him. They weren't after Tony, or a ransom. They must want to know what he knew.
"Exactly," Schelmacher said, when he saw Mike's expression. "Mr. Stark's digital security is impressive, and as with his father and his father's partner Dr. Erskine, we suspect most of the really valuable knowledge is locked in his head. Or in yours, at present," he added. There was a table near the door, but Mike couldn't see clearly what was on it. Schelmacher opened a laptop.
"We can do this the easy way, or the hard way," he said briskly. Mike rattled his chains. "The easy way, of course, is that you either walk me through entrance to Mr. Stark's database and show me where the information is kept, or you give me the information yourself."
"What information?" Mike asked hoarsely.
"The vita-ray device, and the serum. After that, the arc reactor."
Mike blinked at him. Vita-ray. Images flashed before his eyes of the illustrated adventure books his grandfather had shown him when he was small. Howard Stark's invention, used in concert with Erskine's serum to create Captain America.
"I don't know anything about those," he said, and Schelmacher's eyes darkened. "I don't, the serum, the machine -- "
"We know Stark is working on the formula," Schelmacher said.
"He doesn't tell me everything," Mike replied.
"Ah, but you remember everything, don't you?" Shelmacher snapped.
Mike closed his eyes. Fragments flashed in front of them -- calculations written on Dr. Banner's whiteboard, scraps of conversation between him and Tony, not understood at the time but in retrospect blindingly clear. Half-seen equations on Tony's tablet, which was always shuffled away quickly if Tony caught him looking.
"Good boy," Schelmacher murmured.
"If you think I'm going to tell you -- " Mike started, but Schelmacher picked up an object from the table and he broke off abruptly.
"This is the hard way," Schelmacher said, holding the little metal rod casually. "Electrical burns are truly nasty, Mike. Or maybe you'd prefer...?" he set it down and picked up --
"You are batshit crazy," Mike said, before he thought about it. "Oh my God you're so crazy, is that a whip? Seriously?"
"I have a healthy appreciation for the classics of a bygone era," Schelmacher said.
"How did you make it past the SHIELD screenings? You're so crazy!"
"Michael." Schelmacher's voice was calm. "Easy or hard? Your choice."
He picked up the little metal rod again. It crackled.
"Easy," Mike said, licking his lips. All he had to do was buy some time. Tony would find him, even without the GPS. "I vote easy, oh my God, put the torture dildo down."
He closed his eyes and started reciting everything that came to mind, sorting and organizing it in his head before he spoke, trying to figure out the most effective lie to tell. He wasn't going to give up the supersoldier serum calculations, even if he understood them, which he didn't -- not from half-seen math and scraps of gossip.
He'd seen, in SHIELD files, the results of botched attempts to re-create the serum.
It took fifteen minutes for Schelmacher to close the laptop's lid, turn to him, and say, "Michael," reprovingly. He picked up the little metal rod.
"Seriously, this is what I -- " Mike started to say, but then the rod made contact with the side of his throat and he couldn't even scream, the electricity paralyzing his vocal cords. He could feel his pulse pounding in his ears and it seemed to go on forever...
He sagged against the chains when it was pulled back.
Then it was applied to the other side.
By the time it was over, he had five burns he could count; one on either side of his neck, two in the wound where they'd cut out the chip -- "To cauterize it, of course," Schelmacher said -- and one on his god damned earlobe.
"That was a punishment," Schelmacher murmured, as he cleaned the burns with stinging, painful alcohol, and placed medical tape over them, no bandages. "Now, you can behave, or we can try actually torturing it out of you."
Mike panted, head pounding, heart racing so fast he thought he might actually die of a heart attack before the evil little metal rod of doom could finish him.
"Time...time," he gasped, chest heaving. "Need -- I can't think..."
Schelmacher patted his head, then roughly wiped the tears off his cheeks. "You have five minutes."
He left, and Mike was alone in the dark, in pain and finally, finally afraid, because Tony hadn't come, the Avengers hadn't found him, and these crazy people were going to kill him.
The thought of giving up the formula, of giving up the arc reactor's secrets, never even crossed his mind.
He cringed when the doorknob rattled, curled in on himself as Schelmacher came back. The lights were flicked on. Schelmacher opened the laptop and cracked his knuckles.
"Shall we start again?" he asked.
Which was when the wall blew inward.
Mike shied away instinctively, dragging to the end of his chains, turning his back to the soundproofing and brick fragments and mortar dust that peppered him like bee stings. He heard the whine of a weapon -- that was a repulsor -- and a dull thud. There was another whine and the door blew off its hinges, and now he could hear shouts and gunfire outside the room.
The explosion was over, but dust swirled through the room, choking him and making his eyes water. He could see, just barely, the shape of the Iron Man suit, picking up Schelmacher's body and shoving it against one of the remaining walls.
"Where is he?"
Schelmacher was beyond help; blood was pouring out of a hole in his chest.
"You motherfucker -- "
"Tony," Mike called, his voice thin and high. He coughed. "Tony -- "
Tony threw Schelmacher's body aside like a rag doll and turned.
"Mike," he said, voice dispassionate.
"It's me -- "
"Bow your head and cover your neck."
Mike curled into a ball, hands over his neck, and the repulsors fired again. His arms sagged as the chain snapped, and then the familiar smell of hot metal and insulated wires surrounded him. He felt the suit's gloves lifting his hands off his neck.
"Hey, Mike." Tony's voice, gentle, unfiltered through the mask. Mike looked up into his face, the helmet flipped up.
"No permanent damage," he heard Jarvis say from inside the suit. "Elevated heart rate. The air quality in this room is extremely poor, Mr. Stark."
"Okay, okay, I got him," Tony said, and pulled Mike up against the suit. "Can you stand? Copy, HQ, repeating, Ross is secured."
Mike wobbled on his feet but held steady.
"Now I can carry you out of here," Tony said, toggling his radio off. "But that's a little embarrassing and I'm nobody's white knight. Can you walk out? Cap's -- "
There was a crash and a swearword. Mike didn't even think Captain America knew that particular swearword.
" -- clearing a path," Tony said, amused.
"Take the laptop," Mike said, as he limped along with Tony towards what used to be a doorway and now was a faintly smoking hole in the wall. Tony scooped it up with the hand that wasn't holding Mike around the waist, tossing it to Natasha as she ran past.
"This way," Captain Rogers called from the end of the hall. "Hey, Mike," he added, beaming.
"Hi," Mike said. "Having fun?"
"We are now," Captain Rogers replied.
A SHIELD medical van was waiting for them outside; Mike looked over his shoulder as a blanket was bundled around him and saw that the building he remembered being dragged into was now, mostly, a burned out shell.
"We might have gone a little nuclear," Clint said, joining them at the van. One of the medics ripped the tape off Mike's burns, and the world went sideways for a moment.
" -- appropriate countermeasures to an assault on a SHIELD asset," Tony was saying, when he came back down from the pain. He'd retracted the armor back into its attache, and was standing in the skintight under-armor bodysuit, eyes on Mike. There was a roar and a crash, and the building collapsed completely; after a few seconds of stunned awe by all present, Hulk pushed his way out of the wreckage.
"HULK BETRAYED BY TINY SCHELMACHER," he roared.
"Oh, this should be fun," Clint remarked.
"Somebody trank the Hulk, and let's get the fuck out of here," Tony called, climbing into the van.
"Sir, you can't -- " one of the medics began, easing Mike into the van's gurney.
"Do you really want me to kick your ass right now?" Tony asked.
The medic swallowed. "Nosir."
"Then shut up and drive."
Aside from the burns, the cuts from flying debris, and the gash on his shoulder, Mike was in pretty good shape; they gave him a neurological test, patched him up, and left him in one of the spartan white medical suites. Tony, sitting in a chair next to the bed, looked weary.
"If you ever fuck off without telling me where you're going again, you're fired," he said, as soon as the doctors were gone. "I'd fire you now but you're probably all traumatized and your grandma would kill me."
"I fuck off without telling you where I'm going all the time," Mike pointed out.
"I'm trying to express affection here, it's very difficult, shut up."
"Yes, Mr. Stark," Mike said, teasing, and Tony groaned.
"Coulson wants to debrief you. I have Cap on the door playing roadblock," he said. "I'm not wrong, am I? They came after you because they wanted reactor technology."
Mike swallowed. "Not entirely. They wanted the serum formula."
"How did you even know about -- "
"I didn't, until they brought it up. But I've seen bits and pieces without you meaning me to."
"Right. And you remember everything. Fuck." Tony rubbed a hand through his hair, rising to stand at the edge of the bed, looking down. "We didn't know you were gone until Jarvis told me your GPS was deactivated."
"How'd you find me?"
And now Tony looked...guilty.
"I might have installed a second chip," he said.
"You what?" Mike demanded. "I'm a person, you don't install things in me!"
"It was a deadman chip, cyberbiology. Totally undetectable and inactive -- runs on kinetic energy," Tony babbled. "You would never have known it was there. It only activates when your pulse rises enough to power the chip -- "
"You installed a GPS that would only activate if I was tortured?"
"Well, it did the job!"
"Oh my God, if I weren't all traumatized and grateful to you and probably suffering from Stockholm syndrome I would quit so hard," Mike said.
"I'm sorry, Mike, I never meant for this to -- " Tony said, and then looked away. "Maybe you should. You'd be safer. I can find somewhere for you in the R&D division."
Mike leaned forward, turning sideways, head butting into Tony's chest just above the arc reactor. He felt one of Tony's hands thread through his hair, the other arm slung around his shoulders.
"I'm okay where I am."
"Good," Tony replied. "We'll find out how this happened -- "
"It was Trevor," he said into Tony's chest, and he felt his hands tense. "Trevor called, he said he needed help. When I got there he said he was sorry, he needed the money, and they grabbed me."
Tony inhaled, then exhaled slowly.
"Okay," he said quietly. "It's fine, you're safe now."
"I'm sorry, Tony -- "
"Shh. It's okay." Tony let go of him slowly. "Listen, I'm going to go call Cap off guard duty and send Coulson in. You get tired, you tell him he can debrief you later. Everyone knows you're fine. Rest now, right?"
"Tony," Mike said, as Tony walked to the door. "Please don't kill him."
Tony gave him a smile. "I'll take Cap with me, he won't let me."
"I mean it -- "
"No, it'll be fine, I'll try and he'll stop me, we'll have a bonding moment and braid each others' hair." He paused. "We didn't get everyone in the building. He might know where they are. We have to find him, Mike."
He opened the door, and Mike could see Captain Rogers' broad back, star-spangled and all. Tony poked him, shuffled through, and said a few words; then Agent Coulson stepped inside.
"Well," he said, brightly. "You've had an interesting day."
They didn't find Trevor.
Mike got to go to the debriefing, which they'd postponed until Tony and Captain Rogers returned empty-handed. He slept in the meantime, fitfully, had a call with Gram to assure her he was okay, and changed into new clothes -- a pair of boots and SHIELD-issued civs, a black t-shirt and dark gray pants. When he walked into the debriefing room, Tony kicked out the chair next to his for him.
"Michael!" Thor called. "Good to see you in fine health. Your mother is exceedingly stupid for a number of amusing reasons!"
"Thanks, Thor," Mike replied, settling in. Clint waved, and Natasha graced him with a smile. Bruce, looking exhausted and also wearing a set of spare SHIELD civs, sank into the chair on the other side of him from Tony.
Fury was there, which was a little surprising, given it had been a simple rescue mission. Mike supposed it had to do with the fact that the three people he'd seen while being kidnapped and briefly tortured were all SHIELD ops.
"In the past hour we've had some disturbing intel," Fury said, as everyone fell silent. "What I'm about to say doesn't leave this room. This has escalated beyond simple kidnapping -- "
"Excuse me?" Tony interrupted. "Simple kidnapping?"
Captain Rogers nudged Tony into silence.
"This is now an act of international espionage and our first toehold into intelligence regarding a new terrorist group," Fury continued. "I don't think I need to tell anyone here how serious it is that this group has apparently infiltrated SHIELD. We'll be running extensive renewed background checks on our agents, and particularly on our science staff. As far as we know, Dr. Schelmacher and Agents Thorne and Barclay were the only three moles, but we're taking no chances."
"So are we talking some extremist splinter group?" Natasha asked. "Al Quaida the next generation?"
"Neo-nazis?" Clint countered. Everyone looked at him. "What? Schelmacher, German, Nazi, it's not such a leap."
"Homegrown militants," Tony suggested.
"Canadians," Fury answered.
There was a long silence.
"Like...from actual Canada? That's not some kind of codename?" Clint asked finally.
"As far as we can tell, they're not affiliated with the Canadian government. It appears we have some extremists who are, and this is an understatement, very unhappy with the attitude of the United States to our northern neighbors," Fury continued.
"I got kidnapped by Canadians?" Mike demanded.
"Well-armed US citizens recruited in the cause of a terrorist cell that happened to originate in Canada," Coulson corrected.
"I got kidnapped by Canadians," Mike said to Tony.
"I knew those fuckers were up to no good," Tony replied.
"Returning to the subject at hand," Fury said tiredly, "We've established that the laptop Iron Man collected in the course of the mission was attached to a server, presumably located at the cell's headquarters. This is the information they have, therefore, received from Mr. Ross."
He put up a slide. Everyone squinted. After a moment, Dr. Banner said, "Is that?" and Tony said, "It totally is," and they both burst out laughing.
"Care to let us in on the joke, gentlemen?" Fury asked.
"It's the formula for the chemical reaction that occurs when you fry potatoes," Mike supplied. Fury looked annoyed. "What? I wasn't going to give them anything, I knew you guys were coming for me."
"Our priority right now," Fury sighed, over the laughter, "barring emergency call-outs, is to find this cell's HQ and figure out how far they've infiltrated into SHIELD, as well as other law enforcement and scientific communities. We are looking," he put up another slide, this one a mug shot of Trevor, and Mike shivered, "for this man."
Tony pulled him over, against his side, hand cradling his head on his shoulder.
"Trevor Evans. We believe survivors of the assault mission are sheltering him. Find him, we find the cell. Find the cell, we may be able to take this organization down before they become a larger threat. Coulson will have individual briefings for you all on your expected duties. Look sharp, people, we're in a position to prevent a major terrorist act here."
"That's our cue," Tony said, as the other Avengers and SHIELD agents crowded around Coulson. "Time to go home."
"Don't you have duties?" Mike asked.
"Yep, Coulson already gave me my brief. My job is to take you home and keep you safe."
"I have a photographic memory," Mike said, as they rode the elevator up to his floor in Stark Tower. They'd been mostly silent in the car, which was practically a first for them.
"I may have had reason to notice," Tony drawled.
"I can remember every second I spent there."
Tony looked at him, patient, waiting for once.
"Will I have to?" Mike asked, looking back. "I mean. You know about PTSD. Will I have to keep remembering?"
"I don't know," Tony said. "Depends on the person, the situation."
Mike rubbed his arm, wincing as he brushed over the burns. "Because I'd rather not."
"I'm a big fan of repression," Tony agreed. "But if you want help, you know you have it. Whatever you need."
"Thanks. But here's the other thing," Mike added. "The super-soldier serum? Really?"
"Wasn't my idea." Tony shrugged. "Hardly matters. We haven't made any headway, and we're not recruiting runts like Erskine did. Dad went off half-cocked a lot more than history likes to give him credit for; that kind of thing these days would be tied up in the FDA for years. Besides, one Cap's enough for me."
"I get bored, Bruce likes lost causes, take your pick."
Tony walked him to the door and followed him in, stood quietly aside while Mike and Gram had their reunion, and then after a few minutes said, "Ma'am, Mike needs some rest."
"Of course. Of course," she said, reaching up for one last hug. "I'll be in my bedroom if you need me, dear."
"Thanks," Mike whispered, kissed her cheek, and turned to Tony after her bedroom door had shut.
"You said anything, right?" he said. "Whatever I need?"
"Stay here tonight." Mike tucked his hands in his pockets. "Not for me, just -- if they tried to get Gram -- "
"And here I was getting ready to foot your therapy bill," Tony said. "Spare room bed still made up?"
"Yeah. Wake me when you get up?"
"Sure kid." Tony nodded, looked like he wanted to do something. "G'night."
"Night," Mike said, and went to his bedroom. He heard the door to the spare room close quietly.
Tony woke out of half-sleep, eyes slitting, when he heard the noise. Soft footsteps, and the click of the door. He tensed, ready to jump, but the figure outlined in the light from the living room was familiar, and he relaxed again.
"Tony?" Mike said softly.
"Nhg?" Tony managed, faking sleep.
Footsteps again, the creak of the mattress, and then Mike's body on the bed, close enough to feel the heat of it. Mike curled up on the edge, pulling the corner of the blanket over himself, and Tony opened his eyes.
"For your grandma, huh?" he asked. Mike looked guilty.
"Sorry," he said softly.
"Whatever, it's fine. C'mere, you'll fall off," Tony said, and pulled him over, tucking Mike's head up under his chin. "This is breaking a pretty important employer-employee boundary," he added, as Mike's body settled against his.
"Think we crossed that one when you secretly microchipped me," Mike replied.
"You're not getting over that in a hurry, are you?"
"Not so much, no."
"Saved your life."
"Principle of the thing."
"Man, you'd think gratitude would earn more forgiveness," Tony grumbled. "You should go snuggle with Cap, he gets your hippy love-everyone vibe."
"How'd you do it, anyway?"
"Spiked a drink. The cells of the chip diffuse through the walls of the stomach like nutrients, reform in the bloodstream and attach to the arterial wall."
"You're a slick bastard."
"I know," Tony said. "It's what I like best about me."
Mike pressed his nose (cold, Jesus) against Tony's neck. "He was my friend. Kicking my ass, that's one thing. Selling me out to psychos, that's another. I can take care of myself, you know that, but not when they get the jump on me because -- "
"You really never do shut up, do you?" Tony asked. Mike shook his head. Tony sighed. "Let me tell you something. When my parents died, my dad's business partner took over the company."
"You remember that."
"Read about it."
"After they died he looked after me, guided me, held my place at the company until I could take the reins. He handled the business end, I handled the ideas end, we did the PR together. We dominated the industry. I thought we were friends."
"Tony," Mike said hesitantly. "This is awesome and all, but...relevance?"
"I don't know what he wanted -- getting more rich wasn't going to change his life. I don't know what he got a taste of when he had sole control of the company that made him so fucking eager to get it back after I took over. But he must have wanted something. He tried to have me killed, and when that didn't work, he locked me out of the company and tried to kill me himself. Ripped the arc reactor right out of me to use in his own version of the suit."
Mike caught his breath.
"So I know how it is when someone you grew up with betrays you. Someone you thought had your back sells you out...that can be worse than what the people who bought you do to you."
"Obadiah Stane didn't die in a plane crash, did he?"
"No. I killed him. SHIELD hushed it up. The Avengers Initiative wasn't even off the ground yet, they didn't want me to admit I was Iron Man. I told the world anyway, but Obadiah...I could let that stand, if they wanted. And now," Tony added, pulling the edge of the blanket tighter around him, "Go to sleep."
Mike was silent for a while.
"That was like the shittiest bedtime story ever," he said, and Tony laughed.
One of the perils of always calculating the odds -- as well as having kept company or done battle the past few months with people who could slip through dimensions -- was that Tony sometimes felt the world shifting under his feet in a way he didn't think the others did, or even could.
They were a unit now, the Avengers, and somehow he'd found himself in the position of second-in-command, usually a place he despised, but...well, Cap was a good soldier, and Tony wasn't, and they needed a good soldier at their head. But they needed someone to shake them up, too. Bruce had the brains for it but not the guts, Thor had the guts but not the brains, and Clint and Natasha...well, they were SHIELD first. Which meant it fell to Tony. That didn't make him popular, but it did make him necessary.
He woke around three, in the dark place between night and day, the time he most often felt like this. Mike was still curled against him, but he didn't wake when Tony pulled away and slipped out, padding barefoot down the hall, out of the condo, into the elevator. He stopped at the door to the workshop and stepped into a pair of worn sneakers -- going barefoot in the shop was just stupid, and not the smart kind of stupid -- and settled in at the holotable.
Mike was a puzzle. He grounded him in ways Tony hadn't expected, pulled him back from the clouds without restraining him. He kept pace with him, and took what Tony offered so easily -- the job, the home in Stark Tower, the microchip, the times Tony let him into the workshop and the times he locked him out. Tony's stupid excuses and his good reasons, all of it...Mike just accepted it and smiled. Nothing, Tony had believed all his life, came that easy. Everything that had ever come so easily to him had included a hidden price.
Tony let his head fall, propped his elbows on the table and laced his fingers behind his neck.
When Jarvis had reported Mike's GPS going dead, he'd blitzed Mike every way he knew how -- phone, email, text, yelling around for him, even though he knew what had happened, couldn't help knowing. By now it was easy to layer over panic with discipline, something he'd learned hard in Afghanistan and practiced with the Avengers, but his hands had shaken so badly he'd had to make Jarvis call HQ, and his voice had cracked when Cap had answered and he'd said, "Someone took Mike."
But it had taken hours for Mike's heart rate to spike high enough for the second chip to activate, and he'd been conscious for plenty of that. It had taken torture to get his pulse up. So Mike -- hadn't lied. He hadn't been scared. He had trusted, implicitly, that Tony was coming for him, and that was so much, too much, to hold another person's fate in his hands.
He'd killed plenty of people. Obadiah, Vanko, the still-unidentified mutant a month back, Schelmacher. And that didn't include the people who'd died at the barrel of a Stark Industries weapon, though he still wasn't sure if those counted in his personal death toll. He knew now that it has been wrong, but he didn't know if he had to claim those lives as his fault. It was a dicey question. The others, at least, had been necessity.
He didn't want this, what he had to do now, didn't want or like it, but it was a necessity too.
He'd calculated the odds.
"Jarvis," he said finally, not lifting his head.
"Yes, Mr. Stark."
"The Mark 122, the suit we did the undercoat on but didn't finish. Take it out and give it the overcoat paint layer."
"Your usual design, sir?"
"No. Keep it black. Leave the accents the way they are. When you're done, disable the antitheft protocols on that suit."
"Just do it," Tony said.
"Of course, sir. ETA to finish is seven hours."
He could have given the order from anywhere in Stark Tower, but it didn't feel right unless he was here, in the workshop. Didn't feel real.
When he came back, Mike had shifted slightly, one arm flung out as if reaching for him. He slid back under the blankets and Mike sighed, fingers twitching and tightening around his hip.
"T'ny?" Mike mumbled.
"Go back to sleep," he said quietly, and tried to enjoy a final few hours of peace. God knew when that would happen again.
Day followed day, and Mike's wounds started to heal, but there was no sign of the terrorists who'd abducted him, and no trace of Trevor. They must have gone to ground, and Fury made ominous noises about their resources -- they must have money and assistance, if they could simply disappear like that.
Mike spent his days in the workshop, sometimes with Tony, sometimes without if Tony went to follow up a lead, or went out to shake down snitches with Clint or Natasha. He didn't like the inactivity, didn't like that he couldn't help, but what was he going to do? He wasn't an Avenger.
They didn't talk about the night after the abduction, but he noticed that if Tony was there, he'd always be close by. He didn't once lock him out of the workshop (perhaps didn't need to, now that the serum research was no longer secret) and if Mike went upstairs to check on Gram or have a meal, he followed. He might drag his tablet up with him and sit and work, saying nothing, grunting if spoken to, but he followed. It should have made Mike irritable. Instead it just made him feel safe. He remembered with brutal clarity the way Tony had zeroed in on his location and gone straight through a wall to get to him.
"I'm okay, you know," he said, over Chinese and electrical rewiring in the workshop one evening.
"I know," Tony answered, not looking up from the delicate work he was performing on one of his boots. He blew out a sudden flare of flame, waved a rag around to disperse the smoke, and set the soldering iron aside. "When I got back from Afghanistan I hated to be alone unless I was working. I wanted someone to talk to or look at or...whatever, but people kept asking how they could help and the only thing, the only thing that helped was having someone around. So." He looked up. "Humor me, okay?"
Mike nodded. "Okay."
The next morning, he came down to the shop ready to work and found Darcy sitting on one of the workbenches, playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with Jarvis.
"Are you waiting for Tony?" Mike asked, confused.
"No, he called me," she said. "Great bedhead."
"I wasn't planning on receiving guests. What's he want with you?"
"Nice," she drawled. "Stark Tower hospitality at its finest."
"You insulted the hair," Mike answered, smoothing it down nonetheless.
"He's not here. He said I should take the day and hang out with you, like, I dunno, maybe he's setting us up? You're cute and all, but not really my type."
"Oh yeah? Who's your type?" Mike asked, sitting down at their new laser imaging assembly and starting to work.
"Captain America, duh."
"His arm is as thick around as your whole body."
"Drugs," Mike confided. Darcy laughed. "So Tony just said...hang out? And you agreed?"
She shrugged. "Sure. The workshop's cool and I like Jarvis. I was locked out of SHIELD comm rooms today anyhow."
Mike paused. "They locked you out? Why?"
"No clue. Top secret mission, I guess."
"They locked you out of comms and sent you here...to hang out with me."
"Yeah. Tony said, keep him out of trouble."
Mike set the calibration scanner down.
"Jarvis," he said.
"Yes, Mike?" Jarvis asked, all innocence.
"Are the Avengers on a mission this morning?"
"That information is above your SHIELD clearance level."
"Son of a bitch," Mike said. "That son of a bitch."
"Mike?" Darcy asked, but Mike had thrown himself into a chair, rolling across to a monitor.
"Can't talk, busy plotting Tony's death," he said, fingers flying across the keys.
"Hacking into SHIELD's mainframe is illegal," Jarvis reminded him.
"Are you gonna stop me? Because I'll unplug your server, Jarvis, I swear to God."
"Merely reminding you of safe protocol," Jarvis said sulkily.
SHIELD had good security, but between Mike's genius and Tony's hacker widgets, it only took him about five minutes to break into the comm room feed.
Tony's helmet feed came up first, and the comms a second later.
" -- sure this is the place?" Clint was asking. "From here it looks pretty deserted."
"You'd keep a low profile too," Natasha said. "They've been getting regular shipments."
"Of what?" Bruce asked.
"Dangerous things," Captain Rogers murmured. "Let's do this clean. We've got a walled compound with two buildings -- HQ, you picking this up?"
"Copy, Captain," Coulson replied. "We're detecting -- "
There was a rattle of gunfire, and Tony's cam jerked before steadying. Mike startled back from the computer, into Darcy.
"What are they doing?" she asked.
"They're going after the people who took me," Mike said grimly. "That's right, isn't it Jarvis?"
There was a pause.
"Jarvis, you answer me right now."
"With the current level of SHIELD access, I can ascertain that the mission is codenamed Maple Leaf," Jarvis said finally.
"Those assholes went without me," Mike snarled. "They just went -- and they sent me a babysitter -- "
"Hey! I'm not -- what're you doing?" Darcy asked, as Mike stalked away from the computer, rooting in the main workbench's cabinet.
"I'm going after them," he said, opening the lockbox with the arc reactor in it. "This is my fight too."
"Is that what I think it is? Didn't you say it hasn't been tested?"
"Not field tested. Tony built it, it's not flawed." Mike slung it over his chest and buckled the strap. "Jarvis, open the suit room."
He expected a protest, but got none -- the door popped open, and Mike went for one of the red suits immediately.
"Security override, Muriel Romeo Alpha two five six," he said. There was a buzz.
"That override is not applicable to the red suits," Jarvis said.
"YOU MAKE IT APPLICABLE! RIGHT NOW!"
"Not applicable to the red suits," Jarvis repeated.
Mike turned to the black suit on his right. It looked shinier now, as if it had been lacquered since the last time he'd seen it. The dullish-bronze vibranium glowed in the light. The bronze plates embedded on the interior of the arms and lower legs seemed to bulge.
"Security override, Muriel Romeo Alpha two five six," he said. The glass slid up, and Mike stepped forward, but Jarvis spoke again.
"Please step onto the loading platform."
Mike looked up. "What?"
The suit slid out of view. "The platform, please, Mike."
"Mike, you can't," Darcy said, as Mike ran out of the suit room and jumped up onto the platform where they loaded suits that hadn't yet been compacted for mobile use. he put out an arm, and two servos lowered from the ceiling, carrying a black gauntlet and glove with them.
"Watch me," he said, as the armor slid over him, snug like it was made for him. The chestplate shunted down, locking in place, and he felt a jolt of movement as its interface connected to the arc reactor. "Jarvis, where is operation Maple Leaf taking place?"
"Upstate New York."
"Upload coordinates and import personal preferences. Activate the Heads Up Display."
A little green line of text appeared in front of his eyes.
Begin Tutorial Y/N?
Mike looked at N hard and blinked.
Are you sure you wish to skip the tutorial? Y/N.
"Importing now," Jarvis said, and Mike looked down at his hands while he waited impatiently for the little upload bar to complete. There was definitely something about the --
He shook his arms, trying to see what was going on with the interior panels, and two huge, scythlike blades telescoped out. He looked down further and decided not to shake his legs.
Still, could be handy in a fight.
The blades curved upwards, each segment locked in place; the internal curve was razor sharp, that much was obvious, but the external curve was lined in some dark material, perhaps to protect the suit. He shook his arms again and they retracted.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" Darcy asked. The progress bar finished.
Activate Iron Man Mk. 122 Suit? Y/N
"Nope," Mike said. "Don't tell SHIELD."
Activate repulsor controls? Y/N.
He shot out of the exit port of the building, the one Tony took when he was in a hurry, screaming for his life.
The Mark 122 apparently didn't have automated comm access, which was probably just as well. It only took him about fifteen minutes to get within visual of the target, but he spent at least half of that screaming and swearing as he got used to the G-forces of the suit and figured out how to steer with the repulsors. He was reminded, quite strongly, that repulsor technology had originally been developed to power missiles.
"Jarvis, can I listen in?" he asked, scanning the area. He could see Clint in a tree -- if he looked long enough it would zero in and magnify him -- and Natasha and Captain America were both crawling through high-grass...skulldragging, the SHIELD agents called it. Bruce and Thor were back at the treeline, Thor with his hammer at the ready. On the far side of the grass field was a high concrete wall, enclosing two buildings.
And where was Tony?
The comms cut in mid-sentence, and explained a lot.
" -- just ran in there," Cap said, sounding annoyed. "I hate it when he does that. Iron Man, you are not authorized to go in there and kick their butts yourself!"
"It's cool, he drew their fire from us at least," Clint said. "I can knock out the railgun they've got -- by the way, a fucking railgun? -- but the small arms are gonna be tougher."
"Tony, I mean it -- "
There was an explosion inside the compound. Fire blossoming out of the roof; the shockwave blew the grass flat around Cap and Natasha, and knocked Mike sideways in the air.
His brief tumble was enough to draw their attention; he could hear the sharp intakes of breath.
"What the fuck -- " Clint said. "Cap, we got a really unsettling bogey -- "
"I see it," Captain America answered. "Combatant, stand down or identify -- "
"Relax, guys, it's me," Mike said, flipping through the air to avoid a hail of gunfire as the people inside the compound noticed him too.
"Mike?" Captain America demanded.
"Michael!" Thor said, sounding pleased.
"Does Tony know he boosted one of the suits?" Clint asked.
"Well, if anyone's going to jack a suit..." Natasha replied.
"Mike, we don't have time for stunts, get out of here," Cap ordered.
"I'm not stunting," Mike replied. "I'm here to help."
"This isn't -- "
"I know who you're going after. I know who they are. They tortured me," Mike reminded him.
"Ooh. Playing the torture card," Bruce said.
"Michael -- "
"Uh, is anyone else a little nervous that nobody's heard Tony yelling for Mike's ass?" Clint asked suddenly. Silence on the comms.
"Iron Man, are you copying any of this?" Cap asked. "Iron Man, could you grind your teeth or harass Natasha or something so we know you're there?"
"Avengers, this is HQ," Coulson's voice said, crisp and professional. "Iron Man is down, suit comm inoperable."
"Location?" Mike asked, pulse picking up.
"Mike, you're a rookie, you're not -- " Cap started, but a booming tone in Mike's suit cut him off. "What was that?"
"I have no clue. Jarvis?" Mike said hopefully.
"Radiation levels inside the compound are dangerously high," Jarvis said.
"HQ, did you hear that?"
"Avengers fall back," Cap ordered. He and Natasha began scrambling backwards, keeping as low as they could.
"Did someone just set off a nuke in there?" Clint asked.
"Well, something nuclear just took the roof off," Bruce replied.
"Jarvis, give me a map of the perimeter?" Mike asked, circling the building. There were soft pinging noises, and he realized after a moment that they were bullets, bouncing off his suit. He was distracted by a red circle that started to overlay his view of the compound, pulsing gently. "Oh man, these people are screwed."
"The radiation appears to be -- " Jarvis paused as Mike's repulsors suddenly failed. He yelled in panic as he began to tumble, but tucked his legs under him and tried to glide backwards. A few seconds of horrible doom later, they kicked back on and he jetted outside the red circle.
" -- interfering with repulsors," Jarvis finished. He sounded apologetic.
"Iron Man's in there," Natasha said quietly.
"Yeah, that asshole probably set it off," Clint said, but he sounded scared.
"We cannot abandon him," Thor added.
"The suit is radiation-proof, but comms may be compromised," Jarvis continued. "If I may make a suggestion, Mike?"
"Suggest, please," Mike begged.
"Landing the suit," Jarvis said, and Mike descended rapidly, but without the stomach-emptying free fall of a minute before. "Mr. Stark has implemented some...adjustments."
"What does that -- shit!" Mike yelled, as his legs locked together and bent. The sharp curved blades telescoped out of his knees, flicking forward and back, and as soon as the duraben on the outside edge hit the concrete, he knew what Tony had done.
"Ohh, fuck this is gonna be cool," he said, even as he fell forward. He caught himself on the blades emerging from his elbows, forming a front wheel to match the back one. His head locked forward and down, and the display shifted -- instead of staring at the wheel in front of his face, he was staring at a feed from the top of the helmet, straight ahead.
"Mike, what are you -- " Cap began.
"Tron car," Mike said. "Jarvis, how do I hit the gas?"
"Left hand," Jarvis said, and Mike squeezed.
The suit shot forward, a high whine filling the air as the Duraben-coated wheels roared to life.
"You're not cleared to go in there!" Cap yelled over the comm.
"Try and stop me!" Mike yelled back, already speeding down the road towards the compound. More bullets pinged off his armor.
"Jarvis, get me a fix on Tony, when you can," Mike said.
"Your comm will be compromised in approximately ten seconds."
"Heat sensors on -- " Mike ordered, and a bright white flare lit up the right side of his camera. "Hey, there we go. Jarvis, see you on the flip side."
Static answered him.
Then he crashed through a wall. Didn't stop him, though.
He tried to dodge the bullets as best he could, because after all this was Tony's armor and he'd like to return it in good condition. He made for the flare of heat that was slowly coalescing into a recognizable shape -- the Iron Man armor, arms swinging wildly, body jerking as the people inside the main building attacked him with planks and rocks and anything they could find. Tony was in the middle of a melee with no way out, and the radiation levels were going off the charts. Soon even the suit wouldn't protect him. Mike wasn't sure how some of the people attacking him were still upright.
The heads-up display was still active, though it was sluggish and no requests for outside information were answered; Mike scrolled rapidly through the blink-activated menu until he found Elbow: Flare and was gratified when two bright plumes of blue light burst out of his elbows briefly. He could see in the heat-vision that it got Tony's attention; as Mike approached through the wide, open interior of the main building, Tony shook off two attackers and turned.
"Deploy shoulder flaps!" Mike yelled, and the suit obeyed. He felt the solid smack of Tony's glove on the flap, and then veered wildly, slamming into someone, as Tony swung up on his back. He fishtailed for a moment, righted himself, and kept going. He retracted the flaps slowly and felt Tony's armored arm slide around his neck to hold on.
They burst through the opposite wall of the building, and Mike just kept going. Behind them, more screams of rage and gunfire followed, but there were also other...more panicked noises. Mike tried to concentrate on the ground, swerving around rocks and trees.
Comms came back suddenly, startling him as they left the irradiated perimeter. Mike knew they were back because he could hear Tony yelling, as he probably had been since Mike picked him up.
" -- ly mother fucking hell what the shit -- "
"Well, guess the kid got him out," Clint said laconically, and Tony broke off.
"Iron Man, do you copy on comms?"
"Copy on comms, Cap," Tony said, and let out a whoop.
"I'm here!" Mike called.
"What the hell happened back there?" Tony asked, as Mike skewed around a curve in the road and began to slow.
"Radiation interfered with the comms. Knocked out repulsors too."
"Shit. How hot are we?"
"About three hundred joules, sir," Jarvis answered.
"Initiate decontam procedures."
"You have radiation decontamination procedures built into the suit?" Mike asked.
"Suits. What, like I'm not going to be the go-to guy they call if we have another Chernobyl?"
"Point," Mike said, and then cleared his throat. "Uh, Tony? How do I stop this thing?"
"Relax your hands and spread your legs," Tony said, and then added, "I always wanted to say tha -- slowly!" he said, a fraction of a second too late. Mike had let go and spread his feet wide; the wheels retracted and he sped face-first into the dirt, flipping over when the helmet-bracing kicked in. Tony went flying.
"Sorry about that -- "
"HOOOOO!" Tony cried. Mike could see blurrily, through the helmet-cam, Tony getting to his feet. He pushed himself up, groaning -- he was going to be so bruised tomorrow -- and Tony grabbed his helmet, slamming his own into it exuberantly.
"Iron Man, be advised to maintain position," HQ said over the comms. "Decontamination teams are already under way. Do not retract the armor."
"Yeah, I heard you," Tony said, slapping Mike on the back. "Looking good, Mike."
"I uh," Mike said, resisting the urge to fidget in the armor. "Sorry I jacked your suit."
Tony's head swiveled, and while he couldn't tell what his expression was, his body language was enough. "Don't worry about it. HQ, what's your ETA on those decontaminators? I'm in the middle of a cow field in Ass, New York, and if the reporters beat you here I can't be held responsible."
"Three minutes, sir."
"Is my camera feed back up?"
"Affirmative, Iron Man."
"Hey, Mike, wave to the people back home," Tony said, and Mike waved a black-gauntleted hand sheepishly. Then he let himself fall back to the ground, lying spread-eagle in the dirt. "Atta boy."
"Iron Man," and oh shit, that was Fury on the comms. "What the hell just happened out there?"
"Testing some new armor," Tony said.
"Mr. Ross," Fury said, "as soon as we determine you're not going to give everyone radiation poisoning, you get your butt back here and explain to me why a civilian contractor just interrupted a SHIELD operation. Are we understood?"
"Yes, sir," Mike whimpered.
"I'll handle him," Tony said.
"I heard that, Stark!"
"Sir, yes sir!" Tony replied.
"Hey Tony?" Mike asked. "How do you scratch your nose in this thing?"
"What happens if I sneeze?"
"Noted. No sneezing," Mike said.
It took an hour of scanning, testing, poking, prodding, and scanning again before they were allowed to take the suits off. Tony's retracted gracefully, folding itself up into its attache case. Mike's retracted violently and clumsily, making him stumble as the shoes disappeared from under his feet, folding up into a second much bulkier case and leaving him in the ratty t-shirt and oil-stained jeans he'd been wearing when he came down to the workshop earlier that morning. And, of course, the arc reactor, which he hastily unstrapped and handed to Tony, who tucked it into his pocket.
"Civs for Mr. Ross, again," Coulson ordered, and one of the SHIELD agents passed him a pair of respectable-looking pants and a shirt.
"See you in debrief," Tony said, slapped him on the back, and sent him off. Mike ducked into the locker room to change, feeling like an intruder, and then hurried to the debriefing room. He could hear raised voices from all the way down the hall.
" -- civilian asset -- "
" -- not much more than a -- "
" -- powerful young warrior! I could not have -- "
" -- was younger than him when I -- "
" -- no training, are we going to have another Iron -- "
" -- I heard that, you monocular fuck, you think I'm not -- "
" -- don't tell me you didn't authorize -- "
" -- maybe we should all -- "
" -- the hell I did! That arc reactor isn't -- "
" -- can't keep shouting, someone's got to -- "
" -- told you we shouldn't have classified -- "
" -- think he did a pretty awesome job -- "
" -- tell you to shut up if it wouldn't Hulk you out -- "
"Impressive, isn't it?" Coulson said. He was leaning against the wall next to the door. Inside, all six Avengers, Nick Fury, three SHIELD scientists, and a variety of SHIELD field agents were going at it like shouting was suddenly a competitive sport. "The debriefs were like this all the time when they were starting out."
"Who's on my side?" Mike asked.
"Ordinarily, I'd tell you what I tell all our SHIELD ops, which is that you are on your side," Coulson said. "But Stark's pretty fond of you, and currently Rogers is taking offense to the idea that your age should disqualify you."
"What do you think?"
"I think you should be sent to bed without dinner, or possibly prosecuted for operating an aircraft without a license, but that seems like a waste of a nice young man." Coulson sighed. "Our superheroes are not, traditionally, fans of regulation. Stark was violating military airspace long before he was an Avenger, and Rogers went AWOL to execute his first mission. Banner tried to handle things himself, Thor's a god, Clint's been known to step off the map, and I don't know if Natasha actually knows where the map is sometimes. So in that sense, Mr. Ross, your first foray into crime-fighting seems to have been par for the course. Excuse me."
Mike watched from the doorway as Coulson walked to the front of the room and cleared his throat gently. Everyone fell silent. Mike didn't know what blackmail Coulson had on them all, but it must be impressive.
"With apologies, Colonel Fury, I believe it's regulation for me to chair debriefings," he said. Fury looked murderous, but he sat down. "Mr. Ross, if you'd take a seat..."
"Mike!" about eight voices said at once, and Coulson coughed. Mike sidled into the nearest seat, between Tony and Natasha.
"Given that I don't expect we can hold an actual mission debrief until we've discussed Mr. Ross's incursion, let's begin there. Shut up," he added sharply to Tony, who was opening his mouth.
"How much trouble am I in?" Mike asked in a low voice.
"Let me handle this," Tony replied, just as quiet.
"While SHIELD does not condone ends justifying means, we do operate on the understanding that the security of the country requires flexibility, particularly when dealing with terrorist activity," Coulson said, voice never leaving its usual calm monotone. "And the first of you flower children who tries that old 'giving up freedom for security' line is going to be taken out back and pushed down some stairs."
Man, he's pissed, Clint mouthed from across the room.
"So I am vetoing a discussion of whether Mr. Ross's actions were appropriate, because it's pointless and inane. What we need to ascertain is whether Mr. Ross will be operating the suit in a continued capacity, and if so, how this alters the existing Avengers structure. I don't believe it's efficient to debate whether he should be allowed to operate the suit until we've determined he wishes to do so. Mr. Ross?"
Mike opened his mouth, then glanced at Tony. Tony's face did a complicated What do you want? dance, and then I said I'd handle this, but Mike shook his head.
"They had people kidnap me," he said. "It was my right to hit back."
"That's not how we do things here," Fury replied. "This just proves my point -- "
Voices raised again, argumentative, protesting, until Coulson held up a hand. He looked to Mike again.
"I guess...if I could handle myself in this, we don't need to worry I couldn't any other time," Mike said slowly. "You're asking me if I want to make a pretty big life decision on the spur of the moment. I dunno yet. Besides, it's up to Tony, it's his suit."
It hit him then, sharply, when a brief flicker of doubt and guilt passed over Tony's face, that it wasn't Tony's suit; it fit him too well, had all the mods he'd designed while doodling in the lab, and his security override had worked on it. Tony hadn't sent Darcy to keep an eye on him -- he'd sent her to tip him off...
Sorry, Tony mouthed.
"I need some time to think about it," Mike said. "But if you think I'm not qualified or skilled enough, then let's put that out there and you tell me what I need to do to qualify."
That shut even Fury up. It was one thing to say Mike wasn't worthy; it was another thing to back it up with ways in which he could be made worthy.
"In that case, let's sideline this issue until Mr. Ross and Mr. Stark have come to a decision," Coulson said, and Mike could swear he looked almost approving. "Standard debriefing, and I don't want any smart remarks about Mr. Ross. Captain, you're up."
Captain Rogers started the debriefing with a damage-and-casualties report, obviously working with information SHIELD had just given him. The people in the compound were almost unanimously dead or dying, too irradiated to survive longer than a day or two. SHIELD was doing their best to contain the fallout --
Mike put up his hand.
Couldon rubbed his forehead.
"Yes, Mike?" Captain Rogers prompted.
"Trevor?" Mike asked. Captain Rogers looked at one of the SHIELD agents standing at the edge of the room; she nodded slowly.
"His body's been found. I'm sorry, I know he was a friend of yours."
"I thought I'd at least get to talk to him," Mike murmured. He felt Tony rest a hand on his arm. "Thanks anyway, Cap."
"To continue, then," Captain Rogers said awkwardly, diving back into the report. Mike half-listened, confident that he could recall it later if needed, and concentrated on Tony's nick-scarred hand.
He wasn't even aware the meeting was ending -- nor that they hadn't asked him for his report -- until Tony let go of his arm and stood up, walking out. Mike looked up and around him, confused; normally the Avengers held back, talking and joking, until the others were gone, but Tony was already out the door by the time Mike got his legs under him to follow.
He ran down the hall after him, suddenly angry, angry that Trevor was dead and that he'd fought today and that Tony had kept this from him. When Tony didn't answer his yell, he caught up and grabbed him by the arm, throwing his whole weight behind it. They both looked surprised when he slammed Tony into the wall.
"You set me up," he said.
Tony eyed him. "Are you seriously pissed I gave you your shot at revenge?"
"You could have told me!"
"I did tell you. I left you the suit, I sent Darcy to keep an eye on you so you'd know something was wrong -- " Tony broke off when Mike growled. "You had to choose, Mike. I couldn't drag you into this."
"I was already in it!"
"Not this far." Tony's eyes cut sideways, guiltily. "This is different, you know it's different, fighting this way isn't something you just take off and do because your boss said so. This had to be your choice."
"You built the Mark 122 for me."
"No. I built it for me. I redesigned it for you."
"Because someday you're going to fucking figure out that you're better than this, that you're not happy with being the guy who brings me dinner and handles my calls!" Tony burst out. "I had to give you some reason to stay, I had to have something to offer you. The suit was a backup."
"A backup to what?"
"I want you to join the company. Buy in as my junior partner. I was going to make you the stock offering," Tony said. "But you don't seem to give a fuck about power or money or any of the bullshit, so I thought..." he waved a hand helplessly. "I just wanted you to stay. Somehow. I know you want other things, I know you wanted to have a different life."
"Wanted," Mike said. "I wanted. This is what I want now. You didn't have to bribe me to stay."
Tony's eyes widened a fraction, because for a genius he could be such a dumbass sometimes, and he was opening his mouth when Clint tugged Mike away from him and slung an arm around his neck.
"Come on, party time," Clint said. Mike glanced at him. "New Avenger initiation!"
"SHOTS!" Thor yelled, passing them.
"What?" Mike asked.
"New Avenger initiation. First mission, now we go get you blind drunk," Clint said.
"There is no New Avenger initiation. There's never been any new Avengers before," Mike pointed out.
"Yes. We're inventing it," Bruce answered, coming alongside them. "I'm starving, and I definitely want a drink. Radiation," he added, and shook his head. Mike recalled that a gamma radiation accident had given Bruce his abilities.
"Tony?" Clint said, even as Natasha grabbed him and inexorably dragged him along. Tony glanced at Mike.
"Yeah, fine," he said, shrugging.
It was still midafternoon when they arrived at the bar; Bruce insisted on actual food before drinking, and Cap backed him up, so that it was a decent hour for alcohol by the time they were done eating. Tony was quiet and thoughtful, and Mike hadn't realized just how much ambient conversation the Avengers lacked when Tony wasn't talking.
At least, until Clint started a tab at the bar.
Many, many, many shots later, Mike found himself with his arms folded on a table, head cradled on them and turned sideways to look up at Captain Rogers, who he thought might still be on his first beer.
That was Captain America sitting there with him, he thought in fuzzy awe. Grinning down at him inbetween watching the others and checking his phone for updates about the cleanup of the dirty bomb Tony had set off before it could detonate properly and take out half of New York state.
Clint, beyond him, was hustling drunkenly at darts; Natasha and Bruce were nearby, talking about something in low voices, and Tony was at the bar flirting with four women simultaneously. Thor was in deep conversation with the barman about the quality of their ale.
"So?" Captain Rogers said, drawing Mike's attention back from Tony. "You thinking about it?"
"Hmm?" Mike managed.
"Joining the Avengers. You know we'll back you whatever you decide, but we could use someone in a suit who isn't normally a raving lunatic."
"Be nice," Mike mumbled.
"I am nice," Cap protested. "But he is a lunatic. You have to be a lunatic to do what he does."
"At least he wears a helmet," Mike said, and then snorted with laughter, sitting up and almost falling over backwards. Cap caught him with a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks."
Tony must have seen the movement; he excused himself from the bar and came back with a bottle of beer and two glasses of something clear and dangerous-looking. He set the beer in front of Cap and one of the glasses in front of Mike as Natasha and Bruce scooted around to join them. Clint came up counting his money, Thor right behind him.
"So," Bruce said, making room for Clint, who leaned heavily on his shoulder. "You need a code name."
"Runt," Tony suggested, winking at Mike.
"What about Biker?" Natasha said.
"That's got some negative associations," Cap replied.
"Memory," Bruce said.
"Bo-ring," Tony sing-songed.
"It's not very avenge-y," Clint agreed.
"And Hawkeye's so dramatic and dark?" Bruce retorted.
"Don't piss him off," Mike managed. "Bruce, don't be pissed off, Clint only teases you 'cause he likes you."
"It's fine," Bruce sighed.
"The Mighty Black Warrior!" Thor said, beaming.
"Um...maybe not," Natasha replied gently.
"No, I know," Tony said. "Ram."
"Ram?" Mike asked, squinting. "You're naming me after a pickup truck?"
"Well..." Tony held out his phone, the helmet of the Mark 122 projecting up from the surface. The vibranium ridges, meant to dispel impact -- successfully, if the holes in the compound walls were any indication -- did look a little like ram's horns. "Besides, RAM stands for -- "
"Random Access Memory," Mike chimed in. Steve and Thor looked perplexed. "It's what computers run on," he said, too drunk to coherently explain digital technology.
"Well, welcome to the club, RAM," Tony said, and held the glass to Mike's lips. Mike tilted his head, swallowed the burn, saw Tony's eyes darken.
"I think he's had enough," Cap said, resting a hand on Mike's head affectionately. "Happy coming to get you guys?"
"Cab," Tony said, and Mike was gratified that if he was unsteady on his feet, at least so was Tony "Iron Liver" Stark. "Come on, sidekick."
"I'm so not your skide...sidekick," Mike muttered, as the Avengers slowly dispersed.
"Nah, that's how it works, I'm the original and you're my adoring sidekick."
"Not," Mike continued, only half-aware Tony was helping him into a taxi.
"Stark Tower," Tony said, and it was truly amazing, astounding even, that Mike lived in a place where you didn't even have to give an address, you just said Stark Tower and they took you there.
"Man, you're a talky drunk," Tony remarked. Mike wondered how much he'd said out loud.
"You coulda gone home with that girl," Mike managed, before he strayed off into dangerous mental territory.
"Any of 'em. All of 'em. Sidekick's not supposed to cramp your game."
Tony pulled him up against his side, and Mike burrowed contentedly into his shoulder. "I told you. Game's only for people who can't get around it."
"Thank you for the suit, Tony," Mike said, as Tony's arm tightened around his shoulders. "I really like it. Especially the Tron car motorcycle stuff."
"Yeah, well, don't expect a Christmas bonus this year," Tony replied. Mike wanted to make a smart remark about that, but he was way too comfortable to talk any longer.
He dozed, never really falling asleep, and Tony talked -- not about anything, really, just about the specs of the suit, already waiting for them back in the workshop, about adjusting repulsors to function in high-radiation environments, about Cap's soft-foot recruitment techniques and how he wished he'd seen Fury's face when Mike came over the comms earlier. Mike listened, inhaling the smell of Iron Man on Tony's clothes, and felt profoundly grateful that Tony didn't even seem to have thought to ask if he was going to keep the suit.
They stumbled in through the dock entrance of Stark Tower, past the triple-security and into the elevator that led down to the workshop. Mike leaned against the elevator wall and exhaled, relieved to be home.
"You saved my life today," Tony said, hands in his pockets, regarding him.
"Is this the part where you tell me I could do some good?" Mike asked, not really annoyed.
"Fuck doing good. Just because Cap has a savior complex and I've got daddy issues doesn't mean you should put yourself out for it. You want to do good, go be a cop. You could have a hell of a lot of fun. Having fun? Excellent reason to do this. But it's not my call."
"You're my boss. It kinda is."
"And I told you, this isn't a job you do because your boss says go." Tony pushed off the wall as the elevator slid to a stop. Mike followed him out, then drifted towards the steel fridge built into one wall, where they mostly kept take-out and the occasional chemical experiment. He opened the door and rummaged for a bottle of water; when he turned around, Tony was there. Mike let the fridge door swing shut and then leaned back against it. Tony rested his hands against the fridge, one on either side of Mike's head.
"But if I did say go, you would, wouldn't you?" Tony asked in a low murmur, their faces close. "So willing. So eager to please. Except when you aren't, and then, watch out. But in the meantime you just...accept it all. I can't tell you how good that is. Or how bad it is for me."
Mike looked up at him, head spinning.
"I always want the things that are bad for me," Tony added, looking regretful, and pushed away, stepping back. Mike let him go; he slid down the fridge door, sitting on the cool concrete floor, finished his bottle of water, and went up to bed.
"Jarvis," Tony said, when he was laid out on his bed and could finally, mercifully, rest.
"Yes, Mr. Stark," Jarvis answered.
"Record the following message. Play it when Mike asks where I am tomorrow."
Tony eununciated carefully, aware that this was the kind of bender he was going to have to curb in the future, if only to stop himself ever lying on his bed and talking to his AI with a slur in his voice again.
"Mike, it's Tony. I know you're like fifteen years old, so you can survive all the shit we drank tonight, but I'm not. Yes, a recorded admission of weakness. Treasure it.
"I'm taking the day. Jarvis will notify SHIELD I'm off-call for the next eighteen hours. If the world is ending, fuck it, let it. I mean, obviously, don't let it, but don't call me.
"I know you probably want to talk about feelings and other Dr. Phil bullshit, because you care, which is like your one character flaw. If you are seriously unable to wait until the day after tomorrow -- well, today, the day after today by the time you hear this -- go find Cap and tell him. Very good listener, Cap. We're tight, he gets me, he'll help you out.
"Otherwise I'll see you tomorrow -- the day after tomorrow, as I'm recording this -- Jarvis, is it midnight yet?"
"No, Mr. Stark."
"Day after tomorrow, or tomorrow, you're a smart kid, figure it out. Take the suit out for a spin if you want, I mean it, it's yours. Try not to break any FAA regulations."
He sighed. "I didn't mean what I said, when I said you were bad for me. You're not. You're -- good -- and no matter what you decide, that job in R&D we talked about, you know when, the job's waiting for you if you need to ditch out. Temporary or permanent. So, yeah. Have some breakfast, think hard, check in with SHIELD if you need to. See you tomorrow. Day after tomorrow. Day after today? Fuck." He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. "End recording."
"Recording saved. Would you like a playback, Mr. Stark?"
"Are you trying to kill me, Jarvis?"
"I know how you love the sound of your own voice, sir."
"Not that much. Save and schedule for playback. 'Night, Jarvis."
Jarvis dimmed the lights, and Tony rolled onto his side, curling up to sleep.
When Mike woke up the next morning, Gram was in the kitchen making waffles.
"You know," she said without looking around, when he entered, "Agent Coulson's a very nice man. He called me last night to let me know you might be home late."
"Oh -- Jeez, Gram, sorry, I should have -- "
"No need to fuss about that."
"Uh...good?" Mike ventured.
"On the other hand, he said you were indulging in some kind of initiation ritual, and I do think we need to fuss about that," she continued. She turned in her chair to study him, and Mike winced. "Were you going to tell me you were becoming a superhero, or was I going to have to read about it in the newspaper?"
Mike settled at the kitchen bar, sighing. "It was a spur of the moment thing. I took one of Tony's suits out."
She cocked her head. "Trevor?"
Mike nodded, pressing his face into his hands. "He's dead."
"Well, I'm not going to say he deserved it, but I'm not going to say I'm sorry, either." She opened the iron and took the waffle out, setting it on a plate. "He was a bad influence on you for years. The least he could have done when you pulled yourself together was left you the hell alone."
Mike nibbled at the dry waffle; Gram rolled her eyes and set a saucer of maple syrup in front of him to dip it into.
"Are you all right, sweetheart?" she asked, gentler now.
"I'll be fine. Trevor got himself into it. And I'm not official with the Avengers or anything yet. Tony said it was up to me." He swirled the waffle in the maple syrup. "What do you think?"
"Well, it's every woman's dream to have her only grandchild running around the country risking his life for an ungrateful populace," she drawled. "On the other hand, I suppose it's something to brag about at bridge night."
He smiled. "You're a font of wisdom, Gram."
"Michael." She looked him in the eye. "I didn't raise you to be a coward. Do you know what you want?"
"Then go do it, rugrat."
" -- have to ask, what is it with wealthy men in power and redheads?"
Harvey turned the corner of the hallway to his office, picking up on the soft noise of conversation, and smiled. Whoever had asked Donna that question was probably about to lose a limb, and he just adored when Donna took someone apart.
He had a hot coffee, a full day of asskicking ahead of him, and now he was going to witness carnage. Good start to the day.
Instead, there was a soft laugh. "Smart men recognize our superiority," Donna replied.
"I can't say I disagree. I mean, have you met Virginia Potts?"
It wasn't Stark; the voice wasn't deep enough, fast enough, or sexy enough.
"We get coffee once a week while we plot world domination," Donna replied, as Harvey approached.
Oh, yes. A very nice start to his morning. Mike Ross, Tony Stark's jail bait assistant, was leaning on Donna's desk, in what was probably the nicest suit he owned, turning on charm he'd clearly picked up from Tony.
"Remember me when the revolution comes, and be kind," Ross said. "If I look soulful, can I get half an hour with Harvey Specter at some point today?"
"Nice try, baby," Donna replied. "Not unless it's on Stark business, and if it were you'd already have said, so I'm afraid -- "
" -- Mr. Specter has all the time in the world for Tony Stark's protege," Harvey interrupted smoothly, and Ross's head jerked up. "Donna, clear my schedule."
He didn't have anything for at least an hour, but it sounded impressive.
"You know I love it when you talk scheduling to me," Donna said, then looked up at Ross. "Mr. Specter will see you now. Can I get you a coffee?"
"Brought my own, thanks," Ross said, and held up a thermos. Oh, delightful. Harvey didn't know where Tony got his assistants, but his last assistant was currently running his company and this one was a mixture of predatory viciousness and adorable naivete.
"Step into my office," Harvey said, and Ross followed him inside, eyes skipping covetously over the view of Manhattan before he settled in a chair across from Harvey's desk. Harvey set his briefcase down, sipped his coffee, logged into his computer, and sat back.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Ross?" he asked, all smiles. Tony was never ever boring, but he'd never been as...interesting as that time he'd caught Harvey making a pass at Ross, so he figured he owed the kid one.
"Tony mentioned he was making me a stock offer to promote me to partner in his company," Ross said, looking confident, but it was a thin veneer over his anxiety. He fidgeted with his hands. "I assume you have the paperwork."
"I do," Harvey allowed, unlocking his desk drawer and taking out Tony's file. Well, Tony's "unfinished business" file. Tony's actual file occupied an entire shelf in their archive room. He passed the paperwork over, let Ross skim it for himself.
"And here he said I wasn't getting a Chistmas bonus this year," Ross murmured.
"Tony clearly has a high opinion of your skills."
"Mm." Ross looked up. "You know he told me I should talk to Captain America for advice."
"And I think you'd give better, in this case."
"My retainer's pretty high."
"Well," Ross said, and signed the document with a pen he took out of one of the holders on Harvey's desk (the Trump Scandal pen), "I'm Tony Stark's business partner, so I think I can afford you."
"In that case, you have my distinctly undivided attention," Harvey said. "What can I do for you, Mr. Ross?"
"Mike," he said.
"Mike," Harvey agreed.
"Nothing I couldn't do myself, but I don't have the time or patience today," Mike answered. "I need a trust arranged for my grandmother to have private nursing support for the rest of her life, should I predecease her -- "
" -- quite the legal turn of phrase," Harvey observed.
"A living will, a legal will -- "
"Is there something I ought to know?"
Mike considered him, then grinned. "I checked up on you, you know."
"In addition to being Tony's private lawyer, you represent Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton, Phillip Coulson, Thor -- hey, I bet it's really complicated representing a guy with no legal surname, huh?"
"Odinson," Harvey said, sitting forward, deeply interested now.
"Oh. Right." Mike looked perplexed for a moment, but seemed to recover himself. "And you represent Steve Rogers pro bono, which is a nice touch, though I can't imagine the cost for his legal problems ever being a significant issue."
"Oh, I don't know. Wrangling his return from the dead was fascinating. Finding his birth certificate was a process," Harvey replied evenly.
"Bet you're pissed Betty Ross stole the march on you with Banner. No relation, by the way."
Harvey gestured dismissively. "The billables aren't worth the headache. She can have him."
"So it seems to me you're something of a superhero lawyer."
"Well, if you're building a file on me, I also represent The Wasp. And Spider Man, though again, pro bono for him. He's a wiseass, you'd like him."
Mike laughed. "I bet I would. Anyway, I need you to draw up an employment contract between me and SHIELD, as well."
"Getting into the damsel-saving business?"
"Something like that."
"SHIELD has a standard HR package."
"I don't work for SHIELD. I work for Tony Stark. He holds proprietary patents on the tools of my new trade. They need protecting."
"And so do you," Harvey replied. "Understandable. Can I ask what exactly you're getting yourself into?"
Mike tossed his phone on the desk between them and pushed a button. A hologram appeared.
"Iron Man II. Sleek," Harvey commented.
"It's known as RAM. Capital letters." Mike gave him a cocky look. "It turns into a motorcycle."
"Tony does love having the cool toys first," Harvey murmured. "So, Mike. While Donna preps your contract with the firm, let's discuss terms and conditions. And a branding strategy," he added, and watched the fun wrinkle of confusion appear on Mike's forehead.
Tony woke up, and immediately regretted it.
"Jarvis, before you say a word, lower your volume by fifty percent," he groaned, sitting up. His head pounded and his eyes felt like sandpaper, but otherwise he was doing okay. All limbs accounted for, no mysterious bruises.
"Good morning, Mr. Stark," Jarvis replied obediently.
"Ten forty-two, sir."
"Gaah. Morning report, leave out the weather and national news, go."
"SHIELD has no new updates of significance; Ms. Potts requested a videoconference for two pm; you have sixty-two new emails but nothing high-priority. Three voicemails; two of those voicemails are from Captain Rogers regarding Mike, and one appears to be an "ass dial" from Mr. Barton, though I have delayed deleting it due to the content."
"What's the content?"
"It appears to be Mr. Barton and Agent Coulson engaging in fraternization of a most intimate nature."
"Good save. You know how much I like voyeurism." So Clint got himself a drunken booty call with Agent Taser. Good; maybe they'd both be more relaxed after this.
"I do indeed, sir. Also, Mike has been awake since six twenty-two this morning and your message was played for him at seven oh four."
Tony eased his way to the edge of the bed, then managed to stumbled into the bathroom where a warm shower was already waiting for him.
"Okay, you can raise your volume again," he said, shampooing his hair clumsily. "Where's Mike?"
"He left Stark Tower at seven forty-five and has not yet returned. Shall I ascertain his current location?"
"Make sure he's secure, but I don't need to know unless he's not. No reason to be all Patriot Act on him when I practically gave him the day off. Aside from Pep at 2, what's my schedule?"
"I took the liberty of clearing it, sir, though one of Captain Rogers' voicemails requests a meeting for lunch."
"Confirm, but book somewhere quiet, none of those shitty diners he likes."
"As you say, sir."
The thing was, it was nearly impossible not to like Steve Rogers. God knew Tony had tried, because he instinctively disliked patriotism, blind faith in the goodness of mankind, and authority figures, and Captain America was basically composed of all three. But Steve Rogers was a genuinely nice guy and he had his own demons to cope with, and over the months they'd become...friends. It was weird.
"You know I hate these fancy places, Tony," Steve said, as they sat down to eat at a place that usually required a six-month-in-advance booking for a table. He didn't even bother trying to sound annoyed, and he was smiling, the bastard.
"Well I'd take you out for a malted and a burger, but I need silence and low light," Tony answered, from behind his sunglasses.
"Rough life. I nearly got nuked yesterday, my secretary went rogue, I tried to drink like I'm still twenty-two, and as a result I think I made a pass at him. Now I'm hung over and he's wandered off to brood. How's your day been?"
"Better than yours. You, uh, made advances on Mike?"
"Well, I never said I was a good decision-maker," Tony replied. "Relax, it's nothing I can't fix. It's nothing that even needs fixing! He probably doesn't remember it and if he does I didn't say anything that could get me nailed for harassment, which is unusually circumspect for me."
"I'm reassured," Steve answered, looking skeptical.
"Ugh, you're a cruel man, Cap. Nobody ever mentioned in the comic books that you're a terrible sadist."
"It was the forties. Military censors." Steve shrugged. "We do need to talk about him, though."
"There's nothing to talk about. I gave him the day to think about it, told him to talk to you if he couldn't wait a day to have a touchy-feely conversation, and now he's wandering around New York, probably in the grips of an existential crisis."
"I don't know why you keep sending people to me like I'm some kind of troop mother," Steve complained.
"It's because you give good hugs."
Steve considered this, then tipped his head, fair enough. "But I was in the army, you might recall, and I keep resisting the urge to tell people to buck up and remember that they could have Nazis shooting at them, so life could be worse."
"God, you always play the Nazi card."
"It's pretty effective." Steve sipped his water. "He's unique, Tony. We both know that. He's scrappy and I like that, and I know you like the way his mind works. You built him a suit, you had to know this day was coming. You of all people had to know."
"Do you have a point? Can we cut to it?"
Steve leaned forward. "I want him on the team. He says no, I'll leave him alone, but I want you to take at least one crack at him before he says no to SHIELD. People like us who can control what they have and work well in a team environment are very rare. Look at our future, and I know you can because it's what you do, Tony. We need him. We will need him, and you know it."
Tony slumped forward, hands tangling in his hair.
"What if I get him killed?" he asked quietly. Steve was silent for a while.
"It's not like you not to leap in headfirst. Even when you know the consequences. It's kind of your trademark, Tony."
"They're not consequences for me this time."
"True. And maybe wise. But...I got Bucky killed," he said, his tone still even and rational. "He died on my watch. It tore me up and I think about -- I think about that all the time, even now. But afterwards someone said to me that I had to give him the dignity of his choice. So I try to. And it's bad, it is, it's hard, but it's part of the work we do."
"Very soothing, thanks."
"I know you care for him."
"Language. I know you do. But life is short -- "
Tony looked up. "Seriously, that from you?"
"You learn it in war. Life is short, and you should grab for what happiness you can, when you can. The rest is just a throw of the dice. I end up here, he ends up there, you end up in the Iron Man suit. And I missed a chance, back then, which is not a mistake I'll repeat. I'm not saying give the order, Tony. I'm just saying...if he asks, you have to tell him the truth." Steve paused. "And grab what happiness you can. You can't think too much about tomorrow."
"Thinking about tomorrow is what I do, Steve. You said so yourself."
"Well, learn to make an exception," Steve said, "or you might lose the best thing that ever happened to you." He took another sip of water. "And there endeth the lesson. You watch last night's Mets game yet?"
Mike's next stop after leaving Harvey with enough notes to write a first draft of the paperwork was Coulson's office at SHIELD. Coulson didn't have an admin, didn't need one; people didn't barge into Coulson's office unless they had a very good reason. His open-door policy was well-known, as was what lurked behind that open door.
"Mr. Ross," Coulson said, leaning back from his computer with thinly-veiled relief.
"Got you doing spreadsheets?" Mike asked, mock-sympathetically.
"Do you have any idea the amount of work that goes into decontaminating an irradiated farm without terrifying the populace regarding the new Canadian Menace?"
"Don't look at me, I was just bait on this one."
"You started out bait. You ended up giving Fury a burst blood vessel or three." Even when he was joking, Coulson sounded so calm and professional. Mike wondered if he was on some kind of mood stabilizers, and if they'd work on Tony.
"Yeah, that was Tony playing a head game," Mike said.
"I'm well aware." Coulson smiled gently at his surprised look. "Do you think much goes on in this organization I'm not aware of? Aside from the occasional terrorist infiltration, but really, you can't expect me to be everywhere at once. For what it's worth, Tony has what he thinks are your best interests at heart."
"And what do you think?"
"I think sometimes he gets the idea that he always knows best. It's what happens to people who usually do know best." Coulson studied him. "There's a reason not many of them -- not many of us, I suppose I should say -- have large, close-knit families. Most people who come to this line of work have little to lose. Four of our team lost their parents before the age of sixteen. Another may as well have, for what they did to him. Thor isn't even living on the planet he grew up on. Few have stable outside relationships. SHIELD agents rarely date outside of the organization either. Everyone is afraid. Everyone."
"Afraid of what?" Mike asked.
"That if they find someone, it'll happen to them. What happened to you."
Mike sucked in a breath.
"They form bonds with each other instead. It seems counterintuitive, I know, to be friends with the people most likely to die. It's different, though -- each trusts the others to look after themselves. Took a while, but it happened." Coulson looked cautious. "I think Stark wants you in because you're safer in than out, but that's just his opinion. Consider carefully the kind of dysfunction you're letting yourself in for, becoming one of them."
"I already was," Mike said quietly. "One of them, I mean. Don't you think?"
"Well then." Mike smiled. "Orphan number five reporting for duty, Agent Coulson."
"Are you sure, Michael?" Coulson asked softly.
"You'll be getting some papers from Pearson Hardman law firm in a day or two. You can courier them to me when you've signed them. Don't tell anyone yet -- I want to tell Tony first."
"Well, try not to get yourself blown up," Coulson sighed. "Off you go."
Mike expected to find Tony in the workshop, that afternoon, because Tony's idea of "taking a day" was sleeping in and then working all day. Instead the workshop was empty, though a few stress-tests and experiments were running quietly in the background, a white wash of ambient noise. Mike walked through the shop, now as familiar to him as his home, absently picking up tools and putting them in their place. When he reached the suiting platform, a few servos whirred somewhere.
"Okay," he said, stepping onto the platform. "Suit me up, Jarvis."
"With pleasure, Mike," Jarvis answered, and Mike held out his arms. He'd always thought it must be claustrophobic, being confined so closely, but the suit was like a second skin, and the holograms projected on the dark inside of the helmet gave the illusion of limitless depth. He might be outside on a starry night, if the stars had been mathematical equations and heat readings.
"Cleared?" he asked, loving the way his voice buzzed slightly in the suit.
"You are cleared," Jarvis replied in his ear.
Mike managed not to scream this time, but only through sheer force of will. Tony had -- and this had to be deliberate -- built the vertical-takeoff exit tunnel through to the roof very narrow, and Mike was sure he was going to nick the sides of it and lose power. He burst out of the tunnel into the sky, backflipped far enough to be horizontal, and took off for his first non-emergency flight in the RAM suit.
"I don't think the FAA is going to like you, Mike," Jarvis said.
"Promise to behave, dad," Mike replied, and circled the Chrysler building. "Keep an eye on the police band and let them know I'm friendly, would you?"
A little light blinked in the corner of the screen. Mike checked it, blew it up, and discovered Jarvis was also tracking tweets and instagram photos of him. He buzzed the Empire State building and hovered, waving at the crowd.
"They think you're Iron Man," Jarvis observed.
"They'll figure it out eventually," Mike replied, cutting his boots and dropping into a dive. "Man, I always wanted to base-jump."
He pulled up well before street level and zipped along above traffic, finally coming to light on the roof of a midtown condo building. He crouched, studying the city before him. Time to memorize some new maps -- three-D topography, for a start. From the top down.
"Incoming," Jarvis warned, and Mike switched cameras.
"Holy shit," he said, as the incoming object magnified. He held completely still, crouched and watching, until it was close enough that he could have seen it clearly without the cams. There was a light pressure on his shoulder as a hand used him like a gymnastic horse, vaulting over him, and then the soft noise of feet landing on the roof behind him. Mike straightened and turned.
The man looking at him tilted his head.
"So a guy in a robot suit and a man with spliced spider DNA walk into a bar...eh. Needs work," the man said.
"Are you offering to buy me a drink?" Mike asked, tilting his head as well. He was going to have to learn new body language for the suit, if people couldn't see his face.
"That depends. Do you put out?" Spider Man replied, sounding amused.
"Not on a first date."
"Shucks." Spider Man took a few steps one way, then a few the other, like he was studying a painting. "Nice suit."
"Thanks. Had it tailored." Mike reached up and popped his helmet off, and Spider Man flinched, covering his eyes.
"Hey, warn for spoilers!" he said, frantic.
"Yeah, like word's not going to get out by the end of the week anyway," Mike replied. Spider Man lowered his hand, peering at him.
"You work for Tony Stark," he said. "You're the apprentice. Ross, right? Did he make the suit just for you?"
Mike nodded. "Sort of. It's called RAM. Capital letters."
"I know, right? The jokes just write themselves."
"See, I didn't know whether to go with a you get my goat thing, or 'butthead', or -- "
" -- the horny jokes," Mike chimed in. Spider Man laughed. He was on a roof with Spider Man, making jokes. "This is so cool."
"What, the suit?"
"No, meeting Spider Man."
Another headtilt. "Um, why? Most people think I'm two steps away from a serial killer."
"People are stupid. So's the Bugle." Mike noticed a slight shift under the mask; he'd be willing to bet Spider Man was smiling. "I'm not a real live superhero yet, these things still impress me."
"But you're joining the Avengers, right?" Spider Man asked, jumping up onto a parapet of the building.
"Word travels fast."
"My spies are everywhere."
"Seriously?" Mike asked, and Spider Man laughed again.
"No. Heard it through the gossip mill, but don't worry, it's all in the family -- I mean, we don't talk about this kind of thing to outsiders."
A thought occurred to Mike. "So...why are you here? Did you need something?"
"Just checking out the new kid. Don't be surprised if I'm not the last. Nice meeting you, RAM," Spider Man said, and swung away.
Mike could have followed, but he suspected the hasty exit was politically motivated; his suspicion was confirmed when Jarvis said, "Iron Man incoming," and Mike got a fly-by from the world's most awesome aircraft, piloted by the world's biggest asshole. It nearly tumbled him off his feet, blew his hair around, and sent dust and grit flying.
He yanked his helmet back on, jumped to get the necessary distance from the ground, and fired his repulsors.
"Open comm channel," Mike ordered, and there was a chuckle down the line. "That was a dick move, Tony."
"Teach you to have secret assignations on rooftops with other superheroes. Baby, am I just not enough for you?" Tony asked, teasing. Tony spent most of his time making innuendo, but being in the suit always seemed to up the ante for him. "Come on, Mike, keep up."
"Fine, fine. Where are we going?" Mike asked, pulling alongside him.
"A romantic little spot in the mid-Atlantic."
"It's the least-traveled airspace in the hemisphere. Rhodey and I used to go there when I was training him on War Machine."
"So if I fuck up, I fall into the Atlantic and die?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Tony said. "If you fuck up you fall into the Atlantic and I fish you out and mock you forever."
"Oh. Well, that's nice."
Tony would give Mike this: he was a fast learner.
There were rumors floating around SHIELD (and in certain other networks Tony had access to) of mutants with "photographic fight" capabilities -- people who could witness any move and copy it fluently, first time out. He supposed Mike's photographic memory was similar, because it rarely took Mike more than a handful of tries to master any of the aerial acrobatics Tony showed him. He wasn't necessarily stylish, but he worked at it, and he didn't bitch.
It was fun, out in the open with no air traffic above and no buildings below, just the wide grey-blue expanse of the Atlantic and the darkening sky. Tony loved ocean flying.
They packed it in around dinner-time in New York, when the light over the Atlantic had already faded to night and Mike kept getting distracted by the stars. Tony had Jarvis order them dinner, and a hot pizza was waiting for them in the kitchen of Tony's penthouse when they arrived.
"So, you've been busy," Tony said, as he flopped down on the couch. "I hear you stopped by SHIELD today, and then I catch you making eyes with Spider Man, figuratively speaking..."
"I had some stuff to think about," Mike said, and Tony winced inwardly. "How was your day?"
"Lunch with Cap, some corporate stuff with Pepper."
The silence stretched out, uncomfortably long, which for Tony was about three seconds, but he knew even Mike felt awkward.
"You know why we do what we do?" Tony asked finally. "Cap and the rest and me, I mean."
"You want the individual portraits?"
"No. The unifying factor. Puzzle it out if you haven't."
Mike looked thoughtful. "Because if you won't, who will?"
Tony shook his head. "Because we're not normal. More specifically, we don't react normally to events. It's probably good; if we did we'd all be howling insane by now. But we don't. And neither do you."
"Tony -- "
"No, I think -- "
"No, shut up," Mike said, and Tony looked at him, startled. "I signed the papers this morning. We're business partners now, so we're equals. I went to Harvey's office and I signed the papers for the stock offering and had him write me up a will, and set up a trust for Gram -- "
"Jesus, Mike -- "
" -- and there's a contract waiting at SHIELD for me to sign to join the Avengers, and all of that should be freaking me out, especially the will, because Tony, I really am not nuts about dying or even thinking about dying or defying death or any of it. But I feel good. It feels right. because I don't react normally either, and I think you knew that when you hired me. But -- " Mike inhaled, sharply. "But I can't just...I need to know you won't keep score."
Tony just stared at him.
"You saved me and then put me in danger and saved me and I saved you because of danger you put yourself in for me...it's just going to be such a fuck-up if we try to balance out, and -- and I used to think I cared about that, but it turns out I don't, because there are..." Mike ran a hand through his hair. "There are things I want more. And if we just...let it be what it is, there's no reason now not to..."
Tony tensed when Mike kissed him -- tomato sauce, spices, the smell of machines and sweat -- but Mike just growled hungrily and pressed forward.
"I won't be bad for you, I swear," Mike said against his mouth.
Tony heard himself make an urgent noise in the back of his throat. He ducked into Mike a little, kissing back now.
"I know you think it'd be wrong but -- " Mike kissed him again, " -- I don't care, I want -- everything -- arguing about semiconductors and building suits together and your truly dysfunctional approach to microchipping your employees -- "
"Shut up, shut up," Tony mumbled, tugging on his hips, pulling him over to straddle his lap. Mike's body rolled against his, thighs flexing around his waist. "So wrong -- "
"Good wrong?" Mike asked breathlessly. Tony rocked backwards, Mike following, writhing and kissing his neck. Tony tipped his head back and tried to pull his brain back online.
"Not sure this is...good...wise..." Tony bucked without meaning to. "You're -- young -- younger..."
"You know the only reason that matters?" Mike asked, working on the buttons of his shirt. "Because I matter. If I didn't you'd be ready to fuck me and throw me out when we're done. I matter to you and I know you want this. I want this. And I'll fight you for it if I have to."
Tony lowered his head and licked into Mike's mouth, pinning his face with his hands.
"You never have to fight me for what you want," he said helplessly. He ran his thumbs up Mike's cheeks, tracing the ridge of his cheekbones. Mike leaned into the caress, then turned his head and caught one of Tony's thumbs with his mouth, sucking gently on the tip. Tony moaned.
"I'd give you anything," he continued, while Mike bent his head to unbutton Tony's shirt. Tony ran his hands up Mike's thighs and worked at the fly of his jeans, left hand sliding down to cup between his legs. Mike grunted at the sudden touch and pressure, twisting into it. "Anything you wanted, I'm an idiot, but I would -- "
"Not an idiot," Mike mouthed into the skin of his shoulder. "I don't need anything else. I have you, have the suit -- " he stopped with a little pleased cry, practically riding Tony's hand, hips grinding into his touch. "Tony, please."
"Not yet," Tony murmured, sliding his palm up Mike's stomach, and Mike slowly went still.
"What you said," Mike said, gulping in air, eyes bright and wide. "What you said about...what I'd take from you, how I'd take anything. You weren't wrong. I know when to push, but I want to please you. I want you to be proud of me. I'd do anything for that. Maybe that's wrong, but...we aren't normal."
"No, we aren't," Tony agreed, exploring him now like a new puzzle, like a diagram, hands skimming up his body, over his arms, across his face.
"Tony -- "
"Shh, it's okay," Tony said, kissing him gently, all the pieces falling into place. This was his, this moment, this life cradled in his hands, and Mike trusted him implicitly. Mike was the kind of man who would help Trevor even after the other man had hurt him; even if Tony failed, even if Mike was hurt in this new life they were building, it would be okay, he would be allowed to make it right, to fix his mistakes. And if Mike died, well -- that was the dignity of his choice, and Tony could not give this much of himself to anyone who wouldn't choose.
"It's okay," Tony repeated, lifting Mike's hips up a little, helping him unsteadily to his feet and standing, keeping him close. Mike leaned into him, and Tony felt his weight shift momentarily -- a move forward to the balls of his feet, spine tense and straight, shoulders squared. The posture for flying in the suit.
He was officially fucked.
Mike kissed him, still leaning in, and Tony stumbled backwards with him towards the bedroom, one arm hooked around his waist to keep them together. His shirt was hanging off one wrist, pants open, Mike's shirt gone completely; they fell onto the bed in a mess of clothes and hands, and Tony had always been good at this part, the most fun part, undressing and laughing and wrestling around for who got to be on top.
By the time he was tugging Mike's pants off, Mike was breathless, flushed, smiling. Tony ducked up for a kiss, then leaned over him (Mike's hands skating possessively up his ribcage, one ankle twining with his) and rummaged in the messy bedside-table drawer.
"Have you ever...?" he asked, around a hungry kiss.
"Yeah, it's fine, I want -- " Mike whined briefly when Tony licked his ear.
"Good boy," Tony agreed, shifting as Mike rolled onto his stomach. Tony worked his mouth down along the back of his shoulder, the sharp line of the shoulderblade. His hand dragged up Mike's thigh, tugging gently. For a moment he just let himself rut down against the warm skin under his, and Mike responded with a soft moan.
"Mine," Tony murmured as he slicked his fingers, sliding them over Mike's skin and starting to work him open gently.
"Yeah," Mike managed after a minute, but he sounded out of breath. "More, it's fine, more?"
"You belong to me," Tony continued, pausing every few words to kiss his skin, fingers working into him. "Not SHIELD. Not Cap. Not Spider Man. Not Harvey fucking Specter. Me. Mine."
Mike bucked against the bed and for a second Tony stilled, because it felt as if he were struggling under the weight of Tony's body. But when he went still so did Mike, relaxing into his touch.
Tony kissed his neck, tasting salt, quick and triumphant like he'd planned this all along. He could smell the slightly acrid scent of wire insulation left over from the suit.
"Please, Tony, please," Mike said, his voice thin and desperate, and Tony rested his forehead against Mike's neck, just breathing for a moment against the almost violently possessive instinct Mike was bringing out in him.
"Condom," he mumbled after a second, leaning up again to dig in the drawer. "Condom, fuck -- "
His fingers closed around a slick foil packet just as Mike moved, hips twisting, shoulders turning to flip Tony off him and onto his back. Tony hit the bed, startled, and then Mike was pinning him down, plucking the condom out of his fingers.
When he'd come to work for him Mike had been -- not scrawny, precisely, but slim, a man who lived in his head. Legs muscled from that cheap bike of his, a little, but nothing more. Months of hauling metal and machines around had thickened his arms, cut definition lines into the soft pale skin of his chest, worked surprising strength into his hands. Tony watched in the dim light as those deft hands worked the package open, stroked the condom down Tony's cock, slid up his chest to take Mike's weight as he eased down, thighs tense.
Tony thought, wildly, You're the most beautiful thing I own, and then didn't say it because that was messed up even for him. Though Mike would have appreciated the romance of it and ignored the creepy part. Probably. Mike, like Pepper, had developed a "creepy things Tony sometimes says" filter very early on.
Mike was easing up now, slowly. The heat and pull of him, the flush spreading across his chest and his hooded eyes, it was enough to break a better man than Tony. He gripped his hips and rolled, bringing Mike back down under him. Mike swore and bucked up against his thrusts, arms over his head, body arching wonderfully. Completely lost in it.
"Tony," he mumbled, groaning, twisting, while Tony sweated and swore above him, leaning down to kiss his chest, the furthest he could reach. It was like that high right before finishing a machine, knowing it would work perfectly, the moment before switching it on --
Mike gripped his hair with one hand, grabbed at his arm with the other -- hard enough to hurt, a sweet edge to the sex -- and came with a hoarse yell, pulling Tony down into orgasm after him.
When Mike woke, it was to the unfamiliar feeling of a body curled up next to his, moonlight streaming through the high glass windows. He turned his head and bumped his nose against Tony Stark's forehead. Tony mumbled something in his sleep, fingers flexing restlessly, but he didn't wake.
They were tangled up together in the sheets, Tony's head pressed to his neck, one arm flung over him, Mike's other arm curled behind Tony's head, hand resting gently on his neck. They reeked of metal and sex.
The thing about Iron Man that had always struck Mike, even in his old life when he'd just watched Iron Man and Tony Stark on the television news, was how completely without fear of death he was. Or -- no, that wasn't precisely right. He'd fight hard to live, he didn't want to die, but for Tony, death had little intrinsic value. Weighing action for good against the risk of death, Tony would generally fall in favor of action, even if it meant pain, even if it might mean he was falling to his doom. He'd leap, and trust his brain to get him out of it.
Wasn't like that in his personal life. Not often, anyway. Coulson hadn't been wrong; they were guarded, all of them, quick to defend and slow to trust.
All of us, he mentally corrected. He was one of them now. A superhero. Everyone had said so, they'd done that terrible drunken initiation, there were pictures of him in the suit. Him, Mike Ross, pothead college dropout --
Wouldn't that make headlines when the news got out. He'd never hear the end of it. And Gram...the Avengers protected themselves so that if they died, they wouldn't hurt anyone...if he died Gram would be alone in the world. Even with the trust, she might be cared for, but she'd still be alone. And if he died, Tony...
Tony moaned, shifting against him. "Thinkin' too loud," he slurred sleepily. "Stopit."
"The papers are going to find out about me," Mike said, brain whirring now, panic sinking in. God, what had he done? Signed up for a life hitch as a superhero, his time not his own, always fighting. "About the pot, about college. What am I thinking?"
"I can tell you exactly what they'll say," Tony replied, burrowing deeper into his neck. "That you're retracing the master's footsteps, and you are a pale shadow compared to the shit I pulled at your age."
"But -- "
"Shh, s'okay," Tony insisted. "I'll protect you. Anyway, you're clean. Almost a year now."
"That doesn't matter, you know it won't matter to them. I could take all the drug tests in the world. Besides, I got kicked out of college."
Tony mouthed against his collarbone, arm tightening around him. "Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. Howard Hughes dropped out of Rice. Ralph Lauren left business school to join the army." He paused. "Roll that last one around in you head for a minute. Wow."
"I'm not Howard Hughes," Mike said. "You graduated from MIT."
"I was drunk for most of it. And fuck 'em, they can't stop you wearing the suit. They couldn't stop me." Tony released him, pushing himself up on an elbow. "This is a three in the morning freakout. Calm down."
"I can't." Mike rubbed his face with his hands. "Why did I do this -- why did you let me do this, why did Coulson -- "
"Hey, hey, breathe," Tony ordered, pulling Mike's wrists down. Mike looked up at him, face uplit from the arc reactor, eyes dark and serious. "First, I didn't let you, you're a grown man. I let you choose, so that it would always be your choice."
Mike nodded. "Okay. Okay, sorry."
"Second, it'll be fine. The papers can't do anything to you they haven't done to me a million times, and I'm still here." He drifted his hand up Mike's chest. "You're brilliant, Mike. You walked into a room full of MIT students with a briefcase of pot in one hand and walked out my assistant. You survived months of me being...me...and when you got into the suit..."
Mike watched warily. Tony smiled.
"You should have seen yourself in it. You're fucking stunning, and I don't say that lightly, you have to be pretty good to get that kind of compliment from Iron Man."
"And if I get myself killed while I'm out there being stunning?" Mike asked.
Tony shook his head. "That's a top-notch piece of Stark engineering you're going to be flying around in. You know what you're doing. Trust the suit and she'll treat you right. Trust it like you trusted me to find you."
Mike felt the tension in his chest ease. It was true; when he'd been genuinely in danger of death, he hadn't been frightened, and he hadn't even had the suit then.
"There you are," Tony said quietly. "I knew if I talked for long enough I'd stumble accidentally over the right thing to say. It's a skill."
Mike stared up at the ceiling. "I'm freaking out over nothing, huh?"
"Not nothing. You're going to get burned in the tabloids. But it will go away, contrary to what you might think. And guess what you've got that they don't?"
"The suit?" Mike asked.
"The suit," Tony agreed, settling down again. "And the best job ever. And a billionaire boyfriend who will build you a robot if you want one."
Mike frowned. "Why would I want a robot?"
Tony shrugged. "Might cheer you up? They cheer me up. Also thank you for not freaking out when I said boyfriend just now, because it means I can do that on my own in relative peace."
"Too fast?" Mike asked.
"Not for me, but you're a weirdo." Mike let a hand drift up to tangle in Tony's wild bedhead. "I think we should just take turns being crazy."
"Works for me. I'll split it with you sixty-forty."
"Fifty-fifty. We're partners now, remember?"
"You're my junior partner, and I have ten years on you, and am significantly crazier."
"Okay," Mike agreed, and Tony laughed.
"Go back to sleep, butthead," Tony said, ruffling Mike's hair.
"Knew you were saving that one up."
"Get used to it. Get some rest, tomorrow we have to talk about hiring your replacement."
Tony rolled his eyes. "I'm not going to make you be a superhero and a secretary. We need to hire someone to assist me. Us."
"That should be fun," Mike murmured, closing his eyes. "You sleep too, okay?"
"Yeah, okay." Tony nosed against his ear. "I promise I'll protect you. You know that, right?"
Mike grinned. "Partners. We'll protect each other."
"Okay, good," Mike agreed, and drifted back down into sleep.
Dawn was just breaking over the ocean west of the Bikini Atoll when the barge carrying the bodies stopped its engines, slowly coming to a halt in the water.
The lulling vibrations tapered off as the engines died, and the stillness and the light woke him slowly, like the light coming in through the windows of his old New York loft used to do.
-- don't see why we have to drag them way the fuck out here, he heard, and a reply:
Place is nuclear enough already. Burn 'em here, we're not irradiating anything any more than it already is.
How dangerous can they be?
Well, you're wearing a suit, aintcha?
He turned his head slowly and saw two men in decontam suits moving among -- piles of bodies, familiar faces, the terrorists who'd said they'd pay him if he handed Mike over. They'd said they wouldn't hurt him (lie) and that Trevor's worries were over (lie) and then when things had gone wrong, terribly wrong, they'd taken him...to that farm, he had vague memories of a farm, and of the dirty bomb, a wash of heat and a nauseated feeling...
So what's the plan?
Torch 'em and take the boat and ditch. When we get far enough away, we blow the barge and it all sinks.
I hate working cover ups. Makes me feel like I'm on the wrong side in the X-Files.
Cancerman usually won.
A bark of laughter. Trevor turned his head away. Not ten feet from where he lay, on top of another body, was a low wall and beyond it, the ocean.
He felt strange -- warm, filled with a tingling power. When he looked down at his hands, they glowed faintly red. He made a fist, and something pale and yellow trickled out, burning a scar in the metal.
Hey, did you hear that? he heard, as he slipped over the wall and into the warm water. He felt as though he could swim forever; felt as though he would never need to sleep again.
Just a dolphin or something.
Trevor stretched his legs, and power flowed through them, pushing him along through the water silently. He picked up speed as he went; by the time the barge blew, he was already over the horizon line.
Next stop, New York.
And then, revenge.
TO BE CONTINUED IN: THE INDESTRUCTIBLE R.A.M., ISSUE ONE
ON COMIC STORE SHELVES THIS MARCH!
Haha, I wish. Well, comic books never end neatly, I couldn't end this one without giving Mike a nemesis to fight, could I?
Chapter 4: CODA: Don't Ass, Don't Tell
Phil Coulson is in the professional closet, but Clint's okay with that. Sort of.
At least, until he accidentally ass-dials Tony during a blowjob.
This is the first in a series of codas I'm working on for "Sidekick".
It wasn't a thing, okay -- well, actually it was a thing, but not a thing -- even though sometimes Clint wistfully thought it might be a thing if Phil Coulson would just...
It wasn't a thing, it was just a thing. Where sometimes after a debrief, still a little high from all those good fight-chemicals, Clint would slink into Phil's office, lock the door, and convince him that a quick mostly-clothed mutual handjob and some slower still-mostly-clothed kissing was what they both needed.
It was true, actually, they did need it, but Phil usually still needed some convincing. He had all these issues like the "No fraternizing" rule that wasn't actually a rule, but used to be. And -- Clint couldn't really blame him for being as far into the closet as he was, because when Phil was climbing the ranks you could be kicked out for liking dick. He was still pretty closeted even though SHIELD had a diversity statement and everything, and Clint got that. SHIELD still had some cro-magnons in the lower echelons.
And Phil had trust issues. (But then who the fuck didn't?)
It was always at SHIELD, usually Phil's office, never without at least one locked door between them and the rest of the world. Quiet, they had to be quiet. But it was worth it.
The thing was, the evening they got Mike shitfaced after his first Avengers mission, Clint was very drunk and seventy dollars richer from hustling darts at the bar, so he was in a mood to break rules.
Coulson answered after only forty seconds of knocking, which was a good sign.
"Before you ask how I found you, it's Tony's fau -- " Clint began (Tony had located Coulson's top secret apartment for him before leaving the bar, something to do with traffic patterns) but stopped in the middle of his thought.
Phil was wearing jeans. Jeans and a t-shirt with a faded army logo on it. A tattoo peeked out from under the sleeve on his left arm. Another was visible through the thin fabric of the shirt, a blurry blob on his collarbone.
"You smell like a distillery," Phil said, face blank.
"I...have had a lot of alcohol," Clint replied, staring at him.
"I heard -- new Avenger initiation. I'm so glad we've moved you all past the frat-house phase of your lives," Phil said, but he stood aside, leaning on the door. "Come in."
"Uh. Are you sure?"
This had seemed like a brilliant idea at the bar, finding Phil's home and coming to it and presenting himself as someone eminently worthy of actually getting to see him naked, but now that he thought about it, he was kind of...nervous.
"Well, we can either have this conversation in the hallway for my neighbors to listen to, or you can come in and I'll make you some coffee," Phil replied.
Clint passed through the door warily, not sure what to expect, a little surprised to find himself in a reasonably sized living room with normal furniture and a bookshelf and a rug on the hardwood floor. The windows in one wall looked out on a park; a bar neatly divided the kitchen off from the main room, and there was a hallway that presumably led to the bedroom.
"It's distressingly normal, I know," Phil's voice drew him back to the present. Phil was standing on the other side of the bar, measuring coffee grounds into a machine, but there was an anxious, wary set to his mouth.
"Does the bookcase swing aside to reveal a small arms rack?" Clint asked.
"No, I keep the small arms in the coffee table," Phil answered. Clint couldn't resist; he kicked up the lid of the trunk that served as a coffee table. Sure enough, inside were eight or nine handguns, neatly racked, and a compartment full of various ammo gauges. "I never joke about firearms," Phil continued, resting his hands on the counter. Clint glanced up at him; that wary look was still on his face.
"We should have sex," he said. "Real sex. Naked sex on a bed. You have one of those, right?"
Phil raised an eyebrow. "Couldn't find some pretty young costume-groupie at the bar?"
"I...what?" Clint asked, genuinely startled. "Is that what you think I do?"
"I don't know what you do. Seems a lot of effort to make Tony Stark track me down and then come halfway across New York, that's all."
"Well, it just shows how dedicated I am," Clint said easily. Phil looked down at the slowly-filling carafe. "Look, I can go."
"Can you? You're swaying," Phil observed. "I'd rather not scrape you off the sidewalk when you wander into traffic."
"Do you want me to stay?"
"I have a spare bedroom."
"Hey, who pissed in your cornflakes?" Clint asked. "I thought you might be happy to see me. Or is this another nobody can know thing?"
"Belligerent drunk. Color me surprised," Phil murmured.
"Only when someone's pissing me off. What's the problem? I am offering you all kinds of sex, or I can leave. You want to make up your -- "
Phil slammed a hand down on the bar, still staring at the coffee. Clint broke off uncertainly.
Silence stretched out.
"I don't mind being a convenience," Phil said quietly, after a while. "But I don't like being used. Not in my own time."
"Convenience?" Clint demanded. "What the hell gave you that idea? You're like the most inconvenient person I know."
"Then feel free to find someone who better suits your needs. I can work up a list if you want."
"Jesus Christ. You think I sneak into your office and have to bite my tongue and not even take your shirt off because it's easy? I thought that was what you wanted -- no official fraternization, right? I'd stab a friend if it meant prying you out of your comfortable little closet -- "
" -- if you think this is comfortable -- "
" -- and maybe even getting a relationship out of it," Clint talked over him, but he saw the shocked look on Phil's face. "But I knew I was getting in there with you when I started this. I'm not the one playing keep-away, you asshole," he finished, angry now.
Phil looked up, slowly.
"My god, did you think..." Clint trailed off. "Were you just fucking me as...what, part of your job?"
"Then what?" Clint didn't look away; Phil blinked first, glanced down again. He felt sick. "Do you want this? Was I...oh, my God -- "
"No!" Phil interrupted quickly. "No. I want it. But what we want and what we are allowed to have..." he gestured helplessly. "I thought...if all I got was a quick post-battle fuck -- better than nothing, right? And you didn't seem like you wanted more..."
"I wanted more. You didn't say you did," Clint pointed out.
"Well, I do."
"Then what the hell are you waiting f -- "
The air went out of him in a rush; Phil had moved so fast he hadn't had time to react before he was pinned against the bookshelf, swallowing the last of his objection with Phil Coulson's tongue in his mouth, Phil's hands on his shoulders.
"God, you taste like cheap booze," Phil said, as Clint got with the program and wrapped a leg around his hip.
"You sure know how to charm," Clint replied, then muffled a groan as Phil ground their hips together. There was a surprised, pleased laugh in his ear.
"You don't have to be quiet here," Phil whispered. "No cameras, no mics."
"Your neighbors -- "
"Know. They don't care."
Clint kissed him again, desperately, and then the meaning of that buzzed through his brain. "But -- "
"It's called the supply closet," Phil said, fumbling with Clint's shirt, tugging it up.
"Not out at work. The supply closet."
Clint laughed and went for his throat, biting and sucking, and Phil moaned loudly. He pushed the collar of the t-shirt down and saw briefly a scrawl of text inked in his skin -- Sua Sponte, holy shit, Phil was a Ranger -- before Phil pushed him back again, working at his jeans.
"Oh, fuck," he mumbled, as Phil slid down to his knees. "Fuck, you don't have to -- "
"Shut up," Phil suggested, and tugged his pants down far enough to free his cock, half-hard already, nuzzling into the edge of his hip.
It was dirty in all the best ways, a book digging into the small of his back, his phone in his back pocket pressed up against the edge of a shelf and jutting painfully into his ass, Phil's hands gripping hard enough to bruise, Phil's --
"Your mouth, Phil, oh my God," he groaned, enjoying the freedom to speak above a whisper. "Fuck, you're so good. F -- Jesus, don't make me come, I want you to fuck me -- yeah, like that though, that's amazing -- "
Phil moved fast again, leaning back, rising to his feet with surprising grace, pinning Clint to the shelf.
"You're so -- I don't understand this," Phil admitted in his ear, grinding against Clint's thigh, kissing him. "You could have anyone -- "
"Want you," Clint managed. "Phil, I want you, I want you so much."
"Good, good," Phil agreed, tugging him back from the shelf, and they stumbled along the dim hallway into an equally ordinary bedroom (another bookshelf, heavy drapes on the windows, a large plain bed with a quilt on it, a table piled with paperwork). They undressed hurriedly -- Clint's phone fell out of his pocket with a clatter, Phil's belt almost tripped them -- and then they were on the bed, a mess of hands and mouths, and Clint got down to the serious business of making some noise.
The next morning, the coffee was cold and gross; Phil just shrugged and microwaved a mugful, ignoring Clint's face (but he did make a fresh pot). Clint sat at the bar, watching him move fluidly around the kitchen, wearing nothing but a pair of pajama pants.
"So," Clint said, nodding at the tattoos -- Sua Sponte on his chest, an old-fashioned shield with the stars-and-stripes on his bicep. "You were in the army."
"Special Ops," Phil replied, setting out butter, bread, jam, eggs. "French toast?"
"Jesus, yes." Clint cupped his hands around the mug of coffee.
"I got the ink after I left the service -- no identifying marks, on my old job," Phil continued, cracking the eggs into a bowl.
"Explains some things." Clint chewed his lip briefly. "We should talk about it."
"Probably," Phil replied, back to him, shoulders tense, the muscles a tight, clear warning: back off it. Clint kept quiet. "I...saw things. In the army. Saw what happened to...men like me. Tried to stop them when I could, but it wasn't an easy time. I loved it, I'm proud of serving, I just...it wasn't easy."
"I can imagine."
"I doubt it." Phil flicked the heat on under a pan on the stove. "I'm not proud of being in the closet, you know. It doesn't make me happy. I know we're all supposed to be out and accept ourselves and...what the fuck ever..." he dropped a slice of bread in the wide bowl, turning it to coat both sides. "Old habits die hard."
"I don't care, you know. I mean, I'm sure it's the least of the secrets you're keeping, given where we work."
"Something like that." Phil agreed, tossing the bread into the pan. It sizzled. "There's a married couple across the hall, they know, wanted me to go to Pride with them last year. The woman next door tried to set me up with her nephew. These are big steps for me. You are -- a step for me."
"Okay," Clint said. "Look, I get it. No lectures here. But, uh, we've established this isn't convenience for me, right?"
"Right," Phil said, but there was a note of relief in his voice. "So are we done talking now?"
"Sure," Clint sipped his coffee. "So. Mike fucking Ross, Baby Avenger, right?"
Phil laughed a little, but he followed the change in conversation, slipped into the more comfortable neutral subject of their possible new coworker. They ate french toast with syrup and jam at the counter, shoulders brushing, until Phil glanced at the clock.
"I should get ready for work. We both should," he said, a little regretfully.
"Go ahead, take the first shower," Clint told him. "I'm going to find my clothes and check in with SHIELD."
Phil kissed him, coffee-and-strawberries, and then looked awkward and disappeared into the bathroom.
Clint wandered around a little, inspecting the room with more leisure now that he wasn't drunk, horny, and confused; eventually he went back into the bedroom and found his phone, fortunately undamaged after their wrestling match the night before. Two text messages -- one from Natasha to let him know she got back to SHIELD with the others, and one...
"Oh, shit," he said out loud.
From: Tony Stark
Enjoyed your voicemail last night. Give Grumpy Dwarf my compliments.
He hit call, nervous, and then waited frantically while it rang.
"Hey, Casanova Barton," Tony answered, on the third ring. "Nice -- "
"You shut your mouth and listen to me," Clint said urgently. "What the hell voicemail did I leave you?"
"Ass dial. You and Coulson? Seriously, you're a brave man."
"How much did you hear?" Clint asked, horror mounting.
"Enough to know he probably gives one hell of a blow jo -- "
"Tony, did you tell anyone?"
"Did you tell anyone?"
"The fuck would I tell? Seriously, though, if I had the stones to nail Agent Cranky I'd shout it -- "
"Please, Tony, I'm not kidding around, don't say anything, okay?"
"And I'm not kidding, who would I say it to?"
"Mike. Cap. Hell, Fury, for all I know."
"Why are you so freaked out about this? I'm not going to tattle on you to Fury. He'd probably be relieved, though."
"Phil's not out, okay?" Clint said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "He's worried about his job."
"Why the hell do you think? We're a government organization, military funding, and he spent a hitch watching guys get gay-bashed in the Army fucking Rangers."
Silence on the other end of the line.
"Clint. Honestly. I don't get my rocks off outing people. Jesus, I was just going to tease you."
"Tease me all you want but leave him the hell out of it."
"Okay, okay. Dead serious, you have my promise, on the armor. I already deleted the voicemail." Another pause. "I didn't realize it was like that."
"Yeah, I...sort of didn't either until last night. I know it sucks, Tony, I just...it sucks for him too. It's his call, not ours, right?"
"Right." Tony exhaled. "Sorry to freak you out."
The water had shut off at some point; Clint looked up as Phil emerged, damp, and tilted a head queryingly at him.
Stark, Clint mouthed. Phil rolled his eyes.
"I gotta go," he said.
"Regards to Secret Agent Man," Tony said.
"Tony -- "
"You have nothing to be afraid of," Tony assured him. "I'm off-call today, I'll see you tomorrow."
"Sure," Clint replied, and hung up.
"What did Stark want?" Phil asked from the bedroom.
"You know Tony, Mr. Neurosis," Clint replied. "He's off-call, he says."
"Let's hope the forces of evil don't realize our entire national defense elite squad is hung over this morning," Phil replied. "Shower's all yours."
By the time he emerged, feeling much less tense, Phil was dressed in his suit and pouring the rest of the coffee into a travel mug. Clint stole a kiss, and lukewarm coffee sloshed down the side of it.
"I'm sorry," Phil said quietly.
"I'm not worried. Nobody's perfect," Clint replied. "Well, except me, obviously."
"Hm, yes, obviously," Phil agreed.
"So, should I get a cab back to SHIELD?"
Phil glanced sidelong at him.
"Honest question, not passive-aggressive. You want to protect your job, I get it."
Phil shook his head. "I helped write that damn diversity statement. Might as well start poking it to see if it holds up. Come in with me."
Clint grinned. "Yeah. Okay."
Chapter 5: CODA: Off The Clock
For Christmas, Mike got Tony a threesome with Harvey Specter. It's what you get for the man who has everything.
Along with his reputation as a closer, Harvey Specter had developed a knack for the kind of belligerent tact and sideways-thinking required to represent superheroes. It wasn't easy, but it earned its own rewards.
He didn't display his superhero memorabilia as ostentatiously as with his sports stuff, but there was a decommissioned Iron Man helmet on his office bookshelf and a framed SHIELD t-shirt on the wall, signed by Nick Fury. Theoretically Harvey knew his association with his more unusual clients, both those in SHIELD and the free agents, made him a target; in reality, he felt like the safest damn lawyer in Manhattan.
Harvey had seen a lot of Tony's assistant -- partner, now -- in the past few months, after his debut as an Avenger. They'd had to finalize the paperwork, which always took longer than expected, and he'd done some consulting on the PR about it: first when news hit that Mike Ross was joining the Avengers as RAM, and then when it broke about Mike's sordid little past.
Marijuana, honestly. Harvey had managed much messier drug scandals in his time, for much less photogenic clients.
But he'd been a gentleman to Mike throughout, in part because Mike was now his client, in part because Tony Stark had made it clear in no uncertain terms that Mike was off limits. No innuendo, no flirting. Utmost professionalism.
Mike wasn't precisely making it easy on him at the moment.
"I really am glad you could come," Mike said, clearly on his third or fourth drink. He had a Santa hat on his head. Harvey didn't usually do Christmas parties, though he'd make an exception for Stark, and it was true that the hat did match his tux, black and brassy-silver, clearly modeled on his armor.
He was standing pretty close.
"Always at the service of the Avengers," Harvey replied with a smile. "It's a nice party. Your doing again?"
"No!" Mike laughed. "I'm out of that side of things now. No, Jenny did this -- Jenny!" he waved at a pretty young woman in a severe grey suit who was chatting with Pepper. "Harvey, this is Jenny. Very old friend, and now she helps us out. Jenny, this is Harvey Specter."
"The superhero lawyer," Jenny said with an entrancing smile, joining Mike and accepting an affectionate kiss on the cheek from him. "Nice to meet someone else practiced in putting up with Tony's antics."
"The pleasure's mine," Harvey replied. "Enjoying your new job? Mike apparently couldn't hack it."
Mike made a face, but Jenny laughed.
"Well, it's challenging, but I love it -- "
"Look at this, two blondes, no waiting," Tony said, appearing over Mike's shoulder and slinging possessive arms around their shoulders. "An embarrassment of riches, Harvey."
" -- except for the occasional sexual harassment," Jenny finished, amused.
"I'm pretty sure we put something about it in your contract," Tony said, leering playfully at her. "Three free remarks about your stunning good looks per year, plus a Christmas bonus."
"And if I thought you meant any of them, Mr. Stark, I'd have Pepper rip your ears off," Jenny said, patting his cheek as she shrugged out from under his arm. "I should go make sure nobody's bothering Bruce. I put Steve on bodyguard duty, but girls frighten him."
"We're not the most well-adjusted people ever," Mike remarked, as she left.
"Sanity is for quitters," Tony said, tugging him away unsubtly.
"Mmhm. Harvey, don't leave without saying goodbye, I have some business to discuss with you," Mike told him over his shoulder, as Tony dragged him off. Harvey raised an eyebrow, helped himself to another drink, and contemplated taking Jenny home as a consolation prize. It was quietly evident that Tony had finally managed to actually seduce the kid, which meant both of them were off the market, which was a damn shame.
They didn't look bad together, though.
The Christmas party, unusually subdued for Tony but perhaps in deference to the rest of the Avengers, broke up early, around midnight. Harvey had checked in with his clients, made some potential new ones out of high-ranking SHIELD officials, and flirted enjoyably with Pepper; in all, a nice night.
Now all he had to do was find Mike, get whatever business he had out of the way (new patents to file, perhaps?) and go home, possibly sweeping someone off their feet on the way out. Nobody swept like Harvey, not even Tony.
"There you are," Mike said, as Harvey was about to give up and leave, and have Donna send an apology in the morning. "Come on."
"Where?" Harvey asked, but Mike just grasped his sleeve and tugged him down a side-hallway, following a zig-zag maze Harvey recognized as the way to the back end of the penthouse, where Tony actually lived. They passed through Tony's bedroom door, ending up in a room with a tall glass wall looking out on Manhattan -- better than Harvey's view, but not by much.
"Well, it's fun to throw pennies over the railing..." Harvey said, grinning. "But I don't see why I'm -- "
He broke off as Mike tugged him close, caught him by the black tie at his throat and kissed him.
For a second he leaned into it, a surprised, intrigued hum in his throat, licking at the taste of scotch in Mike's mouth. He couldn't blame Tony for defending this -- it was sweet and just a little dirty...
"Mike," he said gently, ducking away from Mike's hands, pulling back. "Look...I'm flattered, but I don't sleep with clients. Or people who are...otherwise involved."
"That's a shame," said a new voice, and Harvey looked up. Tony was leaning against the jamb of the open doorway, arms crossed. His jacket and tie were gone, sleeves rolled up, shirt open at the throat; he looked like he was more than prepared to kill a man with his bare hands.
Oh sh --
"I was enjoying the show," Tony added.
"Hi, Tony," Mike said, not a trace of guilt or surprise in his voice. He leaned on Harvey from behind. "I got you a Christmas present."
Tony came into the room slowly, the door closing behind him, eyes dark and dangerous.
"Does that mean I get to unwrap you?" he asked, tilting his head at Harvey. "Judging from what I just heard, Mike didn't ask you if you wanted to be my Christmas present."
"Really it's a present to share," Mike said. "And I think he wants it. Don't you, Harvey?"
"All consenting adults here?" Harvey said, just a hint of curiosity in his voice.
"Perhaps not forewarned, but yes," Tony replied. "Not that we do this often," he added, eyes flicking to Mike, "or ever, because I don't like people touching my things..."
"You know Harvey," Mike said, sounding a little exasperated. "He's very careful with his toys."
"He'd better be," Tony said. He leaned up and kissed Harvey, the light nip of teeth hinting at that wonderful concealed, repressed violence Tony occasionally let out to play. Harvey surged into it, but Mike still had an arm around his waist, and he kept him steady while Tony took what he wanted. Tony was good at that.
"You're off the clock now," Tony added, into the sensitive skin at the side of his mouth. "Ditch those chivalric ethics of yours, Harvey -- "
"Just common sense -- "
"And come play."
"Well, if you insist," Harvey replied, as Tony kissed him again, fingers pulling his tie out of its knot. They were taking the unwrapping part fairly seriously; Harvey was still fumbling with Tony's shirt buttons when Mike pulled his arms around to tug his jacket and shirt off together, and Tony was shoving his pants down over his hips.
"Don't rumple the suit," he managed, and Tony laughed and sucked on the skin of his throat, Mike laying little kisses over his bare shoulders.
"Rene will forgive," Mike said, tightening his arms smug around Harvey's waist. He was still dressed, the fabric cool against Harvey's skin. "Tony, go play with your present."
"Where's he going?" Harvey asked, as Tony walked him back towards the bed.
"Don't worry about it," Tony said gently, and Harvey heard Mike muttering vaguely about lockdowns and security checks, the soft muted voice of Jarvis in reply. He glanced back at Tony to find him watching with amused fondness. "You really hate giving up control, don't you, Mr. Specter?"
"There's a time and place," Harvey answered. "Two guys who run around in robot suits guided by their artificial intelligence system...I like to cover my bases."
"Hm." Tony lifted one of Harvey's arms by the wrist, studying it. He kissed the palm, licked at it, and then pushed it over Harvey's head.
"Trust us," Tony said, giving the other arm the same treatment. Harvey stretched, back arching, hips rolling up into Tony's thigh, but he left his arms where they were.
"We are professionals," Mike agreed, returning, stripping off efficiently as he approached.
"Superheroes, even," Tony agreed. "We look after people."
Mike settled on the edge of the bed, sliding a hand up Harvey's ribs. "Tony was right," he said, with a sort of earnest innocence. Harvey tipped his head a little. "You're stupidly hot."
Harvey glanced up at Tony.
"He's young, cut him some slack," Tony said.
"Hey!" Mike scowled.
"Lover's spat later," Harvey ordered, and they both looked back at him. Mike smiled first, and at a nod from Tony, he pounced -- slid into Harvey's lap as Tony moved aside, ran his hands up his chest, over his shoulders, along the muscles on his arms. He was, Harvey realized, putting on a show for Tony; enjoying himself, probably, but mostly enjoying Tony watching them, those too-clever eyes taking in every flicker of muscle, everywhere Mike's fingers traced. It was like being taken to pieces very, very slowly.
Mike leaned in and kissed him, letting his hips settle in Harvey's lap, undulating a little when Harvey groaned.
"Beautiful boys," Tony said quietly, and Harvey watched Mike lean into his hand when he stroked Mike's cheek. Of course -- Harvey might enjoy dominating in the courtroom, might have problems giving up control, but here he was, laid out for Tony, performing just as much as Mike was. Giving up for Tony like he always did, because he was like a force of nature. Unstoppable, and eventually either you bent to Tony or you broke.
"So," Mike said, into Harvey's cheek, still rubbing lazily against him. "You want to take turns?"
Harvey would have liked to have been cool about it, to just raise an eyebrow and snark back something smartassed at Mike, but his body betrayed him, tensing and twitching, and Mike laughed.
"Yeah, you do," Mike said, and then flinched when a condom smacked him in the head. "Tony!"
"Safety first," Tony said, waggling a tube of lubricant in his hand. "Harvey, you stay there like a good boy and just enjoy the show, okay?"
"Mm?" Harvey gazed up at Tony, who was settling himself behind Mike, one arm around his chest, his other hand sliding between them to slick Mike up. Mike tilted his head back, leaning into Tony, and Harvey did as he was told: he enjoyed the hell out of the show.
"Oh -- kay, okay, Jesus, uh..." Mike said finally, squirming like he wanted to escape Tony's grasp. Tony tightened his arm, but he pulled his other hand away and used slick fingers and his teeth to rip the condom open. Mike took it from him with a roll of his eyes, face flushed, and Harvey hissed as it slid on. Mike stroked him once or twice, just to be an ass, and then lifted on his knees, easing himself slowly down again.
"Christ, you're tight," Harvey mumbled, gripping his hips just below where Tony was also holding him. "Okay?"
"Good," Mike said breathlessly, leaning forward a little. He started moving, a slow, grinding pace that Harvey fell into with him, Tony talking above them both, a filthy running commentary Harvey could only barely pay attention to. His world narrowed down to the even hum of Tony's voice and the clench of Mike's body around him; the build of tension and heat, slick slide of bodies and --
Mike came, Tony's hand around his cock, mouth open but silent, a startlingly hot shock against Harvey's skin. Harvey gave up on the last shreds of control, fucking into him hard until his own orgasm rolled through him.
He could feel, distantly, Tony helping Mike off and down into the bed; felt someone's tongue lick briefly at the come on his stomach before something soft wiped it away. Someone kissed him, but he was too blissfully spent to bother opening his eyes. He managed to lift a hand to pin whoever it was in place -- Mike, it was Mike, clean-shaven gorgeous man -- but even that didn't last long before Tony tugged him away. Harvey drifted until the glow began to fade a little.
As it ebbed and consciousness returned, he became aware of soft noises, movement -- Mike on his stomach next to him, sighing softly into he blanket. His hips moved slowly as Tony straddled his thighs, fucking him with deep, precise, deliberate thrusts. Harvey drifted a hand out and rubbed his knuckles over Mike's face; Mike turned and nipped at them, then groaned deep, hands tightening into fists.
Tony's head was bowed, hair falling into his eyes, his own hands gentle but firm on Mike's hips, nails digging in slightly. Harvey watched, sleepy and a little in awe, as Tony staked a clear claim, Mike surrendering with more grace than Harvey could for anyone, even Tony Stark.
"It's so good," Mike mumbled against Harvey's palm. "Tony -- Tony say it -- "
Tony leaned over, hips moving faster now, mouth level with Mike's ear but eyes on Harvey.
"Mine," he said, body losing its rhythm, twitching and then stiffening as he came. Mike, under him, sighed happily and seemed to melt into the bed. Harvey let his hand fall away, reached up to run it through Tony's sweaty hair.
"Best Christmas present ever," Tony said, turning bright eyes on him.
"I enjoyed it," Harvey agreed. "Mike?"
"He's out. Always happens." Tony pulled away with a groan, flopping down on Mike's other side. "Stay?"
"How could I resist?"
"I'm sure you'd find a way if you wanted to." Tony closed his eyes. Mike snuffled and curled into him a little. "Stay."
"You know I don't do feelings, Tony."
"Nobody's asking you to get attached." Tony rolled, resting his chin on Mike's shoulder. "But you were a very nice Christmas present."
"Likewise." Harvey glanced down at Mike, out cold between them. "You do serve great breakfasts."
Tony grinned. "Goodnight, Harvey."
Chapter 6: CODA: Flirting With Danger
Donna blackmails Nick Fury, convinces Captain America to buy her lunch, charms the Avengers, eats pancakes, and vanquishes the media.
Like we expected anything else.
When Steve Rogers was fished out of the ice, SHIELD was more concerned (so Donna had heard, and her sources were excellent) with acclimating him to the new millennium than they were with paltry issues like his back pay, his birth certificate, and his tax records.
Fortunately for them, and for Steve, Tony Stark had taken a personal interest in the case. When Tony was interested in something, everyone was interested in it, because Tony was very loud. Not that Donna disliked Tony; she found him charming. Still. Loud.
It had been a little bit of a shock, meeting Nick Fury for the first time -- the eyepatch, Donna sensed, threw everyone off -- but her job was just to make Harvey's appointments and offer light refreshments. Harvey was the one who'd actually had to talk to Fury at Tony's behest, and then the one who'd had to talk to Rogers himself, first at SHIELD headquarters and then a second time in his office.
The arrival of Captain America set Pearson Hardman on its head, the one time he'd visited. Louis Litt had lobbied hard to be given the Rogers account, even pro bono, so he was there being all bitter that Harvey got to personally shake hands with an American Icon. Most of the women and some of the men on the floor just wanted a peek at the gorgeous blond man stuttering a little haplessly at the receptionist, looking around him in awe.
"You must be Captain Rogers," she'd said, and he'd turned luminous blue eyes on her and looked even more anxious. "I'm Donna, Mr. Specter's assistant. This way."
He'd followed silently, had barely managed a shy Thank you when she showed him in and an even shyer No, thank you when she offered him coffee. She thought he was probably still adjusting to modern life. He seemed to get along with Harvey, anyway; they talked baseball as Harvey gently led him up to the subject of his legal tangles, and whether the army was going to pay him for seventy years of cryogenic service, because the IRS was certainly interested in taxing him on it.
And then Harvey had seen him off to the elevator, and had come back and said, "Jesus, they don't make 'em like that anymore, thank God". But he'd still spent more time than Donna would credit Harvey with spending on any pro bono case, getting Captain Rogers' legal affairs squared away.
It was impossible to dislike Steve Rogers. Something about the smile.
Which was now being turned on her again, shyly.
"Captain," she said, smiling back. "We didn't expect you here today. Or there'd have been a line of onlookers."
"Oh, I -- Steve, please. Sorry, I can make an appointment," he said. "I just needed to get some...help. Advice."
"Well, Harvey's in court this morning, but he should be back soon. I can make an appointment for you, or you're welcome to wait in Harvey's office."
"Thanks, I'll wait," he said, following her in.
"Coffee? Water?" she asked.
"No, no thank you. How long do you think he'll uh...be?"
"Half an hour, maybe," she replied, leaning on Harvey's desk as he settled into a chair in front of it. Rachel passed by the office, stopped, looked inside, and then gave Donna a wide-eyed thumbs-up. When she turned back to Steve, he looked visibly anxious. "If it's urgent..."
"No, not urgent. I just don't get off-base much. Except, well." He mimed holding up a shield. "Uh. Shield," he said, pointing to the imaginary shield. Donna smiled.
"I got that. Sure I can't get you some coffee?"
"I'm all right." He shifted in the chair, glanced at her, looked quickly away.
"If it's not confidential, I'd be happy to take notes and let Harvey know, so that he's ready when he gets here."
"I don't know..."
She realized he kept glancing at her legs. Oh, poor guy. Coming from the forties, he probably thought most people walked around half-naked.
"I just need someone outside the situation," he said finally. "It's -- well, Tony's out of town or I'd just ask him, but he sort of...thinks we should decentralize, move everyone on the team to the old Stark Mansion on the upper west side -- please don't tell anyone that, that is confidential -- and I think it's great, it's easy enough for some, I mean, Clint and Natasha and Thor are already packing, not that they have much to pack, and Mike went ahead to get the place opened up and aired out...but see, Bruce -- Bruce Banner?"
Donna nodded, amused.
"They think he's some kind of security threat, which I've told them he's not because I worked really hard to make sure we have safeguards in place, and they don't want me leaving HQ either, I don't really get why...I'm still in the Army, technically, and the Army wants me on base, so the problem is that if I say I'm not, they might take away my back pay which I kind of need, and if I say I am, then I get marching orders, and I can't disagree, and I just..." he ran a hand over his face. "And now I'm talking too much. I sound like Tony. Sorry. I just want to stay with my team, and poor Bruce feels so left out as it is."
Donna considered him. "Is this what's upsetting you, or do I make you nervous?"
He bit his lip. On a six-foot-two chunk of sleek muscle and bright blue eyes, it was almost funny.
She smiled. "Would it help to pretend I'm Harvey?"
He gave her a skeptical look. "You're a lot better looking than he is -- oh, God, sorry, I just said that...sorry, that's...sexist or harassment or something, isn't it?" He rubbed his face.
"It's okay. I take it as a compliment."
"Thank you," he said, hands still in front of his face. "I know it doesn't seem like it right at this moment, but I do actually save the world on a pretty regular basis. Ask me to shoot bad guys, no problem. Put me in a room with a beautiful woman and I go completely to pieces."
"I'll definitely take that as a compliment," she said. "I don't know if we can help Mr. Banner, I know he has his own representation -- "
"He doesn't want to mention it to her. He doesn't want to make a fuss."
"Well, we can help you, anyway. It should be as easy as requesting housing off-base, if you are still enlisted."
"I tried that," Steve said gloomily. "Fury gave the order. He's my commanding officer, so I can't talk to him about it. I was hoping maybe Harvey could. He's good at making people see things his way."
"None better," Donna said with a smile. "But I can talk to Nick for you."
"Oh no, I wouldn't want to -- "
But Donna was already picking up Harvey's phone and dialing. Fury answered with a gruff, "Yes?"
"Nicky, it's Donna," she said, beaming at Steve, who looked pale.
"Donna," Nick said warily. "Long time."
"I know! We should get together sometime. Listen, I heard about this mess with Captain Rogers and the Stark Mansion? And Dr. Banner?"
"That's a confidential matter -- "
"Nicky, you should know my spies are everywhere."
Nick sighed. "How much do I have to pay you to make you stop calling me that?"
"No amount of money is worth the satisfaction."
"Fine. What do you want?"
"Just for the Captain and the good doctor to be able to leave base with the team. I mean honestly, Nick, you want him to sit around in SHIELD while the others are bonding in the mansion? He needs to socialize."
"As the team leader -- "
" -- he should be with his team, I totally agree. I'm so glad you see it my way. Now, you can put that paperwork through and copy Harvey's email on it, or I can mention Buenos Aires to Harvey when he starts preparing Captain Rogers' lawsuit against SHIELD for infringement of civil liberties. Remember when you were in Buenos Aires?"
Steve looked alarmed; she held up a finger, waited through the silence on the other end of the line.
"He's there, isn't he?" Nick asked.
"Yes!" she said brightly. "How ever did you guess?"
"He seems to be socializing just fine, in that case." Nick sighed. "Fine. I'll talk to my military liaision -- "
"Oh Nick. Just put the order through like a good spy. I'm sure it won't be the first time you've annoyed the military, and you haven't been fired yet. Surely they won't be that upset."
He huffed. "You haven't seen the way the Army guys treat that man."
"Everyone treats him that way. It'll be fine. Don't forget Dr. Banner." She leaned across the desk to open Harvey's laptop. "I'm looking at Harvey's email -- and there's the documentation," she added, as an email from Nick popped up on her screen. "Nick, you're a dear. We'll do dinner, okay? Bye now."
"You'd better not talk about -- " Nick said, before she hung up. Steve was staring at her with wide eyes.
"You just bullied Nick Fury," he said.
"Blackmailed, actually," she replied, standing and smoothing her skirt.
"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say."
A pleased smile broke over his face. "Thank you. It means a lot to us, being able to stay with the team."
"Don't mention it. And there's Harvey," she added, as he pushed his door open.
"Steve! Good to see you. Am I interrupting something?" Harvey asked, shedding his coat and eyeing the two of them curiously.
"Not at all," Donna replied, as Steve blushed. "Just sorting out some housing paperwork."
"You have an email from Fury," she added. "I handled it."
"Easiest pro bono ever," Harvey grinned at Steve. "Anything I can do for you, or is Donna gunning for my job?"
"No, but I am going to an early lunch," she replied. "Steve's buying."
"I -- oh!" Steve stood -- good God he was a tall drink of water. "Absolutely."
Harvey circled around to his desk, settling in. "Well, you two kids have fun. Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he added, and Steve's blush deepened.
"Come on," Donna said, grasping Steve's arm and pulling him out of the office. "Before word gets out you're here and we have groupies blocking the elevators."
"It'd be my pleasure to take you to lunch," he said, with an odd formal politeness. Donna gathered up her purse and led the way.
"Harvey was right," she said, as they headed for the elevator. "They really don't make 'em like you anymore."
Steve Rogers, Donna decided, really could do with more socializing. He seemed to adapt on exposure; by the time they'd ordered their lunches, he was settling in comfortably and didn't stammer half as much.
"It's nice to get out," he said, looking out the window next to their table before turning back to her. "Technically I'm allowed off-base any time I want to go, but sometimes it's a little hard to know where to go. Most of the places I used to spend time aren't there anymore. It's a whole different city now."
"It must feel weird, defending it," she said.
"Oh, I don't know. A fight's a fight," he added, smiling. "Doesn't matter where."
"Do you enjoy it? The fighting?" she asked. He looked troubled.
"Well. There's a certain sort of thrill to it," he admitted. "I'd rather not have to. But at least if it's us doing it, I know New York's in good hands." He cocked his head. "That's not a question I usually get asked."
"Well, I'm unusual," she said, and he blushed again.
"I guess you are," he agreed.
"Oh, Captain America!" she said, clasping her hands and making her voice rise an octave. "What's it like working with all those heroes! Gosh, how much can you lift? Will you sign my breast?"
"Noooo," he groaned, covering his face, but he was laughing. "It's just like that. It's awful."
"Being adored must be hard," she said, as their food arrived. He was still grinning, picking at his sandwich.
"Comes with the job. Sometimes I think it might be better if I were just a normal person, working in an office somewhere or..." his mouth tilted. "I was pretty good at art, back when. Always wanted to draw comic books."
"Not a great money-making opportunity."
"No, I guess not. But it'd be nice, I think. Regular hours, not much death-defying. You like your job, don't you?"
"Love it. I'm the power behind the throne," she said, leaning in conspiratorially.
"So I hear. Nobody's ever cowed Nick Fury like that. See? I wouldn't mind it. You must meet some awfully interesting people."
"Some," she allowed, and his eyes flicked up from his plate to her face, briefly.
The talk drifted into her job and Harvey's, and from there to other topics, until he startled briefly and took his phone out of his pocket.
"Tony," he said, checking it. "We have a logistics meeting for the move. Security concerns and all that. I should go. No -- " he slipped the check out from under her hand. "You did say I was paying."
"That was just to convince you to go with me."
"Sorry. Old-fashioned," he replied with a smile, and counted cash out of his wallet.
"I could get used to that," she said, as they stood. "This was fun."
"Yeah, um...yeah," he agreed, suddenly looking awkward again.
"Give me a call if Nicky gets out of line."
"Nicky," he murmured, shaking his head ruefully, and then seemed to straigten a little. "Would you like to get dinner?" he blurted. "Not tonight, I mean, but we could eat...somewhere at...some point -- "
"I'd love to," she interrupted, before he could monologue awkwardly. "Friday night?"
He gave her a grateful look. "Friday night."
"I'll text you my address," she said, and kissed his cheek and walked out, because you should always leave your conquests on a high note.
"Have fun with the super-soldier?" Harvey asked, when she returned.
"Try not to corrupt him." Harvey sat back. "On second thought, he runs with Tony Stark, you're probably too late."
"Don't underestimate me."
"Dinner on Friday."
"Don't tell Louis, he might try to crash."
"Well, look who's home late," Tony said, and Steve startled.
He'd come into the mansion -- still a little awed that he lived here, still nervous about exploring beyond the common areas and his room -- and he'd been humming something absently, mind a million miles away on dinner with Donna and the dance steps she'd taught him and the kiss she'd let him steal at her door. He hadn't even noticed Tony in the kitchen.
"Physician heal thyself," he replied, pouring out a glass of milk. He shook the carton at Tony, questioningly. Tony held up his coffee mug, shaking it back. "It's two in the morning, what are you doing up?"
"Coffee break?" Tony said. "Got into the zone, started some new designs."
"Mike didn't come drag you off by the ear?"
"He's not the boss of me."
Steve raised an eyebrow.
"He's at the tech expo in Boston, decided to stay over instead of flying back for the night," Tony admitted.
"Hence the distraction?"
"You're changing the subject. Where were you? What's with the getup?" Tony gestured to his clothes, which were admittedly nicer than he normally wore (and with fewer kevlar plates). Steve carried his milk over to the table and settled into a chair with a wide smile.
"On a date," he announced.
"With another person?"
"Don't be mean, Tony."
"Did you hire an interpreter?"
"I can talk to women!"
"Not with any degree of coherence."
Steve scowled. "Yes, a date with another person, we had dinner and went dancing. She's nice. No locker-room talk, either, I was a gentleman and walked her to her door."
"More's the pity. You know SHIELD's probably already scrambling to do a background check," Tony said.
"Thank you, Tony, it is nice I had a date, glad you're happy for me."
Tony shrugged. "I'm a practical man. If you want we can do our nails and giggle about it."
"Pass, thanks. Anyway, she's already in their files." He sipped his milk. "You know Harvey's assistant, Donna?"
"The terrifying redheaded goddess of order?" Tony's eyes widened. "And you didn't hit that? I spent three years trying to get into her pants."
"Possibly if you looked up at her face once in a while?" Steve suggested.
"Oh my God. I just got dating advice from Steve Rogers."
"Not my fault I'm smooth," Steve said.
"Look at you, all smiles," Tony grinned, pointing to his own face. "Honestly, okay, I am totally happy for you. Do we need to have a birds and bees talk before your second date?"
"I'm sure she'll fill me in on what I need to know," Steve said, and Tony choked on his coffee.
"Well, if you need advice, or a good safeword, let me know," Tony said. "Back I go to the dungeon, to build a machine for world domination."
"Have fun," Steve called, and settled in with his milk to replay the entire night in happy detail.
It took longer than he thought it would to hit the papers, but when it did, it was with a bang.
Steve walked into the kitchen one morning, ready for Tony's surly grunt of greeting, Thor's booming "Your mother is so old she knew Bestla!", or Mike yelling at someone on the phone about metallurgy, and instead he got a round of applause.
"The man of the hour," Tony announced, looking self-satisfied.
"Am I? Which hour?" Steve asked sleepily. "Have you been to bed yet?"
"Just going after we eat," Mike called from the stove. "Pancakes?"
"Mimosa?" Tony asked, saluting him with a glass of orange liquid that was probably mostly orange juice. Probably.
"You'll want it," Natasha warned.
"Am I in an alternate reality?" Steve asked. It was a valid question.
"Depends. A boy's first Daily Bugle cover is special," Tony said, and smacked him lightly on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. Steve caught it, unrolled it, and blinked.
"Mike, can I get those pancakes to go?" he said, and Mike gestured at a tray already assembled on the kitchen counter. "Whatever Stark Industries pays you, it isn't enough."
"I think I'm at the level of corporate management where I don't even know how much I get paid," Mike replied. "Trust me, even if you don't want the mimosa, she will," he added, putting one on the tray.
"Our regards to the missus!" Clint called, as Steve took the stairs two at a time back to his room.
Donna was just waking up when he arrived; she sat up in bed, smiled at him, and accepted the tray of food with the graciousness of a queen.
"Hey," she said, kissing him.
"Hi," he replied shyly. There were still moments, though fewer now, where he was bowled over speechless by her. He settled down on the edge of the bed, offering her a fork.
"You know I think you're amazing, right?" he asked, as she poured syrup over her pancakes.
"You're a wise and observant man," she replied.
"And I've never really had a girlfriend before -- not like you, not...steadily," he added. "It's been almost five months now."
"Okay..." she lifted an eyebrow.
"And my job is...weird. I mean, we knew there would be complications eventually."
She set the fork down. "I'm not sure I'm liking the way this is going."
"No, it's just -- I should have...made some kind of plan, but I didn't want to tempt fate, so I've never really thought about..."
"Are you dumping me?" she asked. "Are you dumping me over pancakes in bed?"
"What? No!" he said, worried. "No, no! Why would I -- no, God, Donna -- " he uncrumpled the newspaper he'd been twisting in his hands. "It's just, I should have...but I didn't and now..." he gestured at it, worriedly.
She picked up the paper, studying it. On the cover was a picture of the two of them, shot at a distance in Central Park. He remembered that afternoon; he'd lurked around Pearson Hardman hoping to surprise her, and somehow she'd known and come down early and they'd gone for a walk, like tourists, like normal people.
Underneath was the caption, MS. AMERICA?
"I suppose I should be happy they didn't says MRS. AMERICA," she said, after a moment.
"Are you angry?"
"Am I -- what, at you? No, sweetie," she said, cupping his chin with one hand. "Is that what you thought would happen? It's not your fault."
Her phone buzzed. They both looked at it.
From: Harvey Specter
So you want to sue the Bugle, or can I just go beat the snot out of Jameson?
"I can hold him down while Harvey beats him," Steve offered.
Donna gave him a smile.
"You are going to sit here with me," she said, tugging on him until he joined her on the bed, "and we're going to have breakfast, and then we're going to go out."
"I'll tell you my dastardly plan. Eat," she said, offering him a piece of bacon.
When Captain America walked into the newsroom, all work ceased. You could have dropped a pin in the silence.
He wasn't even in uniform. He did have his shield on his back, but that went with him practically everwhere. Still, Steve was aware he had the tendency to loom. Tony always did tell him he should take more advantage of that.
He loomed over the entry desk.
"Jameson," he said.
The terrified-looking receptionist pointed over her shoulder.
"Thank you," Steve said, because anger was no reason to be ill-mannered, and stalked on. Jameson was just emerging from his office, probably to shout about how quiet it was, when Steve arrived at his door.
"Mr. Jameson," he said, still looming. He was starting to enjoy this.
"Well, Casanova, good to see you," Jameson said, and then said call security to a young man with a camera, standing on his right. The young man looked at Steve, looked at Jameson, and backed away slowly.
"Get in your office," Steve said.
"You don't frighten me, you know," Jameson replied. "Defender of the peace, upholder of the moral code, all that. You wouldn't hurt me. You're an advocate of the free press, aren't you?"
He was, however, backing into his office, which was all Steve wanted.
"Yes, Mr. Jameson," he said. "I am a fan of freedom of speech and the free press."
"Good, then you can get the hell -- "
"See, I'm also in love," Steve said. "It makes you do some nutty things."
He moved aside.
"I'm just here to make sure nobody bothers the two of you till you're done," Steve added, as Donna stepped forward from behind him.
"Be out soon, baby," she said, and patted his cheek. She gave Jameson a gentle push all the way into his office and closed the door behind them. Steve moved in front of it and crossed his arms at the staring newsroom.
The man with the camera, who had backed up behind the nearest desk, looked up at him earnestly. Steve tried to loom a little extra.
"Uh...no hard feelings if I take a picture of this, right?" the man said. "I mean, for posterity of nothing else. The look on Jameson's face..."
Steve narrowed his eyes. "And you are?"
"Peter Parker, freelance photographer," the man answered. "Honor to meet you, Captain."
"Are you the one who took the picture of us?"
"Uh, no, sir, I do specialize in superheroes but only in costume. Usually. Anyway that wasn't me."
Steve nodded. "One picture. Make it count."
Parker beamed at him. "Um, okay, just hold that pose!"
He fiddled with his camera and a flash went off.
"I'll send you a copy," Parker said. Inside Jameson's office, there was a muffled yell. "The things we do for love, huh?"
Just then the door opened, and Donna stepped out, finger-combing her hair back from her face.
"All done," she said brightly. "Lunch?"
Steve nodded, offering her his arm. As they left, he caught Parker mouthing Marry her at him.
"That was fun," he said.
"Well, never let it be said I don't know how to show my boy a good time," she replied, patting him on the arm.
Chapter 7: CODA: Identity
The Avengers want to recruit Spider Man. Spider Man is vastly uncertain about all this, but Harvey's not the best closer in New York because he's pretty.
"I have no guarantee this will work," Harvey said, as he taped the printout to his window.
"Well, how do you normally get in touch with him?" Steve asked, peering out into the evening sunset over Manhattan.
"I don't," Harvey replied, smoothing the paper with the big black spider printed on it. He turned around, leaning against the glass next to it. "Spider Man is shy. He gets messages to me, we meet in the place of his choosing. Usually a roof."
"He seems to like those," Mike put in from the chair nearby.
"But you must get offers sometimes. Merchandising and such," Tony suggested, from his perch on the arm of Mike's chair.
"People bootleg. He's not interested in the merch," Harvey answered. "He's just a kid, you know that, right? I swear to God, his voice broke the first time we talked."
"So why does he need a lawyer?" Steve inquired.
"Honestly? I think he just likes to have someone to talk to. Sometimes I handle work for him -- I pass letters, help out people whose property was damaged, that kind of thing."
"Monetary?" Tony asked. Harvey shook his head.
"Kid's broke, as far as I can make out. He asks, I help them get state reimbursement, process insurance claims." Harvey shrugged. "Uses up my pro bono quota."
"The goodness of his heart has nothing to do with it," Steve said to Tony.
"It really doesn't. I like being the superhero lawyer," Harvey replied. "Gives me a certain style, don't you think?"
"I feel used and dirty," Mike said to Tony.
"Easy, baby, wait till we're home," Tony replied absently.
"And if he doesn't show up tonight?" Harvey asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Then we've spent several lovely billable hours in your company, drinking your exquisite booze," Tony replied, getting up to pour himself a glass of it.
"Even if he does show up, he's not likely to agree," Harvey pointed out. "I know him. He prefers to work alone. He told me nobody in the world knows who he is. And don't get me wrong, nothing but love for the Avengers, but you're not exactly the Earth's mightiest when it comes to keeping your identities on the down low."
"Accountability is important," Tony said.
"We're just not very good at it," Mike added.
"Outed by comic books," Steve said haplessly. "Not much I could do."
"Well, I think -- " Harvey broke off, because everyone's focus had shifted past him, out to the balcony. He turned. "That was fast."
Spider Man stood on the balcony railing, every line in his body radiating wariness. Harvey went to the door and stepped outside.
"I see you caught the sign," he said, letting the door close behind him.
"I catch a lot of things. No pun intended," Spider Man replied. "What's up with the hero squad? If this is an intervention, I swear, I can quit whenever I want."
Harvey spread his hands. "Not an intervention. Think of it more like...an interview."
"Not reassuring, sharky." Spider Man crossed his arms.
"Have I ever done you wrong?" Harvey asked. "You're among friends in there. Come on inside, they have something to pitch to you."
Spider Man dropped down into the balcony. "Did you set this up?"
"Nope. I'm here as their representative and yours. They came to me."
"Is that Captain America? Jesus, he's like nine feet tall."
"Come on inside," Harvey urged. "Hear what they have to say. You want to leave, well, you have ways and means."
Harvey backed through the door, holding it open; Spider Man came in hesitantly, standing just inside it, peering around. There was a moment of very awkward silence.
"So do we call you Mr. Spider, or Spidey, or what?" Tony asked. Mike smacked a hand against his thigh.
"Spider Man is fine," Spider Man said. "Tony Stark, right? Iron Man? And -- Mike Ross, you're RAM, we met on the roof that one time."
"The horny jokes still aren't old," Mike said with a smile. Harvey maintained an impassive face, but it took work. "And this is Captain America."
"Pleased to meet you," Steve said, smiling. "Love your work."
"Uh. Likewise." Spider Man glanced at Harvey, or at least turned his head in that direction. "Harvey says you wanted to see me."
"Recruitment drive," Tony said succinctly. "The Avengers want you," he added, falling into an Uncle Sam pose.
"What Tony is trying to say," Steve said, shooting him a look, "is that SHIELD is interested in augmenting the Avengers team. Right now we're on 24/7 call, and we'd like to build up the team so we can set a second shift." He shrugged. "Government funding goes through the roof after you take out a few terrorist cells. I don't question."
Spider Man was very quiet.
"We want to offer you a job," Mike said helpfully. Lord, Harvey thought, and these were the men protecting all of New York. He should move to Iowa.
"I have a contract here, if you'd like to look over terms," Harvey said, holding up a file.
"And if I say no?" Spider Man asked, almost belligerently.
"Then you sling your web and off you go," Steve replied. "But I understand you don't exactly have legal sanction in the city."
"Frankly we thought you'd jump at the chance for a little legitimacy," Tony added.
"Yeah, awesome and all, but I have family to consider," Spider Man replied.
"So do I," Mike said. "It's taken care of."
"So far." Spider Man tilted his head. "You were kidnapped once."
"And not since I put on RAM." Mike smiled, and he did have a very disarming smile. "Hey, you know you get nothing but props from me. I suggested you. You're a first-round draft pick."
"There are security measures in place to protect you and your family," Steve said, and Spider Man laughed.
"Protect me? Don't we do like, the opposite of that?" he asked.
"That seems to be working so well for the rest of you." Spider Man replied.
"Okay, as the official grownup in this room and the only one who doesn't run around in a costume, I think this is the point where I defuse the situation," Harvey said. "Tony, shut up. Steve, please, stop being the worst salesman in history. Mike...well, you're fine, just keep sitting there looking pretty. You, balcony with me," he added to Spider Man, and they stepped back outside.
"Is this where you play the good cop?" Spider Man asked him, when they were alone. "Best closer in the city, I get it."
"Honestly, I thought they'd be more well-rehearsed," Harvey said. "They mean well."
"I don't like it. I'm not good with teams. Traditionally. Not that I don't like them, just, you know, it rarely works out."
"And I understand that. But I think Mike, at least, has your interests at heart. This could be huge for you, you know."
"Sure. Avengers comes with a regular salary, insurance against property damage, room and board in the sweetest mansion in Manhattan. For your family too. Trust me, nobody is safer than Mike's grandmother right now. She lives with half a dozen superheroes."
"His grandmother, huh?" Spider Man asked, the first hint of concession slipping into his voice.
"Nice woman. Rules the roost. Makes a mean casserole. Look, I don't know if you've got a wife or kids or parents or whatever, but they'd be safe there."
Spider Man looked away. "S -- they don't know."
"Maybe it's time you told."
"No, I don't think so."
He ducked his head. "I've lied for too long. If I told...if I told them now, they'd hate me."
"It's a big step. But I don't think anyone who really loves you would hate you after finding out you're a superhero," Harvey said. "You've had some massively bad press, and I do what I can, but until you come into the light a little more, you might as well fire me now. I can't do anything more than I have. This is your chance."
"Clearly you love this or you wouldn't do it. I think you're all completely nuts -- "
" -- thanks -- "
" -- but if this is a calling for you, don't you want every advantage on your side? Official government support, a team you can trust and work with? These are good people, they do what you do and they understand the risks you're taking. Tony's kind of an ass, but he means well. You could be mentored by Captain America. RAM is one of the biggest heartthrobs in the country right now, and you could run with him." Harvey paused, delicately, and then added, "And the money's good."
That was the hook, he could tell; not greed, but desperation. Whoever the kid was, he wasn't keeping his head very far above water.
"If you're not interested in fame, at least consider your family. Sooner or later someone's going to get lucky and get that mask off you, and then your family's going to be in danger. A little backup could come in handy. In the meantime, why not be sure you're putting food on the table?"
"Can I think about it?" Spider Man asked, in a small voice.
"Sure. They're talking to a lot of candidates right now, but you're number one. SHIELD will wait for you, I guarantee it. I can handle them."
"Why me?" Spider Man asked. "I'm practically a fugitive."
Harvey laughed. "You're a hero. Mike took a shine to you. These people, they get it. Do you understand? They like you. They want to work with you. Steve wasn't kidding, he's studied tapes of your fights. Big Spider Man fanboy."
Spider Man was silent. Harvey leaned against the railing.
"Did you know I'm bi?" he asked, and Spider Man looked up sharply. "I came out to my family when I was -- well, if I'm guessing right, about your age. It sucked, and everyone I knew reacted to it, some better than others, none of them easy. But even with my douchebag uncle who disowned me, I finally felt like I was in control. The worst had happened, my big secret was out, and there was nothing anyone could hold over my head. I get that this isn't the same, and it's nobody's decision except yours. But as your lawyer, yeah, I'd like to see you take off that mask. I'd like to meet the guy under it."
Spider Man studied him for a moment.
"I'll let you know," he said, finally, and jumped up to the edge of the balcony. "Tell them I'm sorry for not sticking around. Pun intended," he added, and tumbled down into the air. Harvey leaned over the edge to watch him swing away, then went back inside.
"Well, that went about as expected," he said, closing the door behind him. "He's thinking about it. Good job."
"Not too over-the-top?" Tony asked.
"No, just right."
"Now what?" Mike said.
"Now we wait."
Two weeks later, Donna buzzed Harvey on his intercom.
"Boss, there's a Peter Parker here to see you," she said.
"Parker, Parker...not a client?" Harvey asked.
"He have an appointment?"
"No, but reception said he said to tell you he's here from the Daily Bugle."
"Interesting," Harvey said. "Send him in."
"You're the boss," Donna replied, and a minute later a slight, young-looking man with short brown hair stepped into his office.
"Mr. Parker," Harvey said, standing to shake his hand across his desk. "What can I do for the Daily Bugle?"
"Excuse the excuse," Parker said with a charming smile. His voice was oddly familiar. "I had to leverage my way in somehow."
"Well, you got my attention, but my client list is full," Harvey said, still smiling.
"Oh, that's fine. I'm already on it," Parker said. Harvey paused.
"Donna, take a coffee break," he said.
"Coffee? Really?" Donna's voice echoed in the office.
"Now, please, Donna," Harvey said, and waited until she was gone before continuing. "Peter, right?"
"Right," Peter said, looking anxious.
"Have a seat." Harvey waved at the chair across from him, and then smiled. "Hell, kid, it's good to see you out of uniform."
Peter sat, looking relieved. "Thanks. It's...weird."
"I bet. Anything we say here is confidential."
"And on your pro bono quota?"
Harvey chuckled. "That too. So I take it this means...?"
"Yeah. I..." Peter swallowed. "My family's not large. I have an aunt. I told her, a few days ago."
"How'd she take it?"
"Better than your douchebag uncle," Peter said. "She says I should join up. I told my fiancee too, I think she agrees."
Harvey whistled low. "Fiancee."
"How'd she take it?"
"Well, she didn't give back the ring, and I'm sure we'll be back on speaking terms before the wedding." Peter sighed. "I knew it'd happen, but it's not as bad as I thought."
"What do you think about the Avengers?" Harvey asked, already making a list in his mind: will, living will, prenup...
"It's really scary," Peter admitted.
"No, I mean, really scary. What if they don't like me? What if we don't...get along? I've done all this for nothing if they put me back out to fend for myself."
Harvey frowned. "Mike likes you. Why wouldn't the rest?"
"I dunno. I feel...exposed, just being here. I feel like a weirdo."
Harvey nodded. "Listen, they're all weirdos. You'll fit right in. I know these people."
"Thanks," Peter said drily.
"Hey, you want the truth from me," Harvey replied. "So how do you want to do this? We can go down to SHIELD right now, or to the mansion if you want to talk with them. I'll go over the paperwork with you, work up a counteroffer."
"Well, it's a generous contract, but with me on your side you can do better. So." Harvey steepled his fingers. "Do I call Nick Fury or Mike Ross for you first?"
Peter looked up at him through a fringe of brown hair. God, was the kid even legal age to join up?
"Mike," he said quietly.
"Mike Ross," Mike sang out, inside the RAM suit, when the alert for an incoming phone call buzzed.
"Mike, it's Harvey."
"Harvey!" Mike said, and then swung around to blast a bank-robber's car tires. He caught it just before it careened out of control. "Hey, can you hold for like, two seconds? Stopping crime, here."
"Don't let me distract you," Harvey drawled.
"Oh, I'm good at multitasking. And..." Mike slammed the car door open, ripping it off its hinges, yanking out the wheelman inside, "...all done. Is it wrong to wish for supervillains, Harvey? Bank robbers are so below my pay grade."
"Very wrong, Michael," Harvey said sternly.
"Oh well. What can I do for you?" Mike asked, giving the all-clear signal to Tony, who relayed it to Clint, who passed it on to Cap.
"Spider Man came to my office this morning."
"Oh! Hot! Is he on?"
"He's on," Harvey confirmed.
"Super awesome. Hang on," Mike said, and toggled over to the comm. "Guys, Harvey just called, Spider Man's on board."
"HULK HATE SPIDERS!"
"Not this one, he's cool," Mike assured him, over Natasha's Will someone please trank him? He toggled back to Harvey. "Just sharing the good tidings. Great work, Harvey."
"Of course it is. He wants to do a meet. Sans costume."
"Even better. I am crime-fighting gross right now, but we're probably going out for dinner after the debrief, we can meet then?" Mike leaned on the car he'd just totaled, while the others assembled for a post-fight conference with the cops.
"Well, if you're debriefing, that might be a good time to introduce him around. Hang on," Harvey said, and the phone went quiet as Harvey presumably consulted with Spider Man. "Can you come late to the debrief? Meet him outside, walk him in?"
"Kid likes you, what can I say? If you can bring him into SHIELD personally, it's a big coup for you," Harvey replied.
"Oh, sure. Fury will give his blessing. Not that I'm planning on asking. Where do you want to meet?"
"Back door? That's pretty inconspicuous."
"Sure. Be there soon," Mike said, and hung up. Cap was demanding details over the comm. "Be cool, you guys, give SHIELD my regards, I'm gonna go meet up."
"Mike, you know Coulson hates it when you blow off the debrief," Cap said.
"I'll be there! I'll just be a little late. Clint, make your boyfriend be nice to me," Mike ordered.
"If I could do that, dickhead, I'd make him be nice to me," Clint replied.
"HULK HATE DEBRIEFINGS TOO!"
"Oh my god, how is this my life?" Mike asked, activating the suit's motorcycle mode. He looked like a total show-off, zipping through downtown as a motorcycle with no rider, but after all, if you couldn't show off, what was the point of life?
Definitely spending too much time around Tony.
He pulled into an alley a block over from SHIELD HQ, deactivated the motorcycle mode, and twisted his way out of the armor, picking up the attache case it folded up into. Harvey and a slim young man were standing there waiting for him. Mike pushed sweaty hair out of his face.
"Sorry I'm not more appropriately dressed," he said, gesturing to his under-armor suit, then offered a hand. "Mike Ross. Again."
The man smiled. "Peter Parker. Nice to meet you. With, you know." He pointed to his face.
"Okay, this is touching. Can we move it along?" Harvey asked. "Believe it or not, I do have other clients."
Mike shot him a grin. "If the paperwork's ready, I can take him from here. Run along back to your lair, Harvey. Thanks," he added.
"Always a pleasure, for you," Harvey said, gave him a wink, and stepped out of the alley to hail a cab, leaving the two of them standing there awkwardly.
"So," Mike said. "Welcome on board. Nice hair."
"Thanks," Peter replied, running a hand through it self-consciously.
"This way to SHIELD," Mike added, pushing into one of the back doors of a row of shops. A little hallway diverted off to the left, and Mike led him down the hall, into an elevator with a keypad lock on it. He pushed the second-floor button twice.
"This place has no second floor," Peter said, and the elevator jolted to life, moving down.
"We're clever like that," Mike said with a grin. "It's really more of a -- "
"Holy crap, are we going sideways now?"
" -- train of sorts," Mike finished.
The elevator let them off in the SHIELD receiving room; Mike led Peter through two checkpoints, using Tony's old "He's with me!" airiness to get Peter past security, and finally pushed open a door marked DEBRIEFING. Cap, who was in the middle of giving his report, stopped and looked over at them.
"Michael, nice of you to join us," Coulson drawled. "And you brought a friend? We still don't need interns..."
"Hi guys," Mike said, catching the back of the chair Tony shoved out for him with a leg. "This is Spider Man. His other name is Peter Parker, and he's going to be joining the Initiative."
Silence settled over the room. Mike noticed Cap squinting.
"Hey, we met once," he said finally. "Aren't you the little guy with the camera?"
Peter sighed. "Story of my life, yeah."
"Well," Cap replied, straightening. "Take a seat. We'll do introductions after the debrief."
"Oh man you know what this means?" Clint asked Thor. "New Avenger initiation tonight!"
"SHOTS!" Thor boomed.
Admittedly, the Avengers didn't fear much. Or, if they did, they didn't show it. But the men of the Avengers Initiative considered it bad luck to anger a redhead, and so they were having a sort of policy summit in the hallway outside the kitchen.
"Do you think it's some kind of omen?" Clint asked in a hushed voice.
"Nonsense," Tony replied. "Clearly we just...have a type."
"That doesn't explain Natasha."
"Nothing explains Natasha," Mike whispered. "You know Donna told me once that smart men simply recognize the superiority of redheads. Stop looking smug, Steve."
"This isn't smug, this is faint terror," Steve replied. He turned to look through the kitchen door again.
Inside, Natasha was pouring herself a cup of coffee; even as he watched she carried it back to the kitchen table, where Mary Jane and Pepper were going over something together on a laptop, heads close together, and Donna was reading a magazine. The amount of red hair in their kitchen was currently pretty statistically unlikely.
"They could form their own team," Tony said. "The Sexy Ginger Avengers. They'd be astoundingly color coordinated. It would scare the hell out of me, if I were a supervillain, four redheaded women suddenly showing up to kick my ass."
"I'm going in," Peter said, looking determined. "I want breakfast."
"I'll come with," Mike agreed. "Steve, she's your girlfriend, you can't spend your whole life in mortal fear of her."
"Can if I want," Steve said, but sighed. "Okay, fine, I'll come along. Tony?"
"Having an imagination moment," Tony said. "Redhead orgy."
"You're not a well man," Clint told him, and dragged Tony along after him through the kitchen doors.
Mike was sure, as they casually strolled into the kitchen, that MJ asked Pepper, "Did it work?" in an undertone, and that Pepper replied, "Oh yeah. They're terrified."
FOLLOW SPIDER MAN, R.A.M., WOLVERINE, PEPPER POTTS AS "RESCUE", AND HARVEY SPECTER AS "THE SHADE" IN AVENGERS: SWING SHIFT, COMING TO COMIC STORE SHELVES IN JULY!
Chapter 8: Author Postscript
Aaaand now it's done for good. This was like Pizza And A Movie all over again, I just kept having ideas.
I'm not super-duper into comic books, but I read them occasionally and so this has been a sort of conglomeration of concepts and ideas from all over; the movie-verse, the original series, the reassembled Avengers, some little alternate-universe tweaks. It comes before Civil War, but some parts come from after; as with most comic book continuities it's kind of a hot, heroic mess.
The idea is that the chase with the briefcase was a turning point in Mike's life, dumping him into his own personal AU, but that his arrival as the Avengers were forming brought them all into an AU where different things were possible. This included roping Spider Man and Wolverine into the Avengers as the "swing shift" -- a second Avengers team, equal to the first but trading off shifts with them so that the original Avengers team can take time off as needed, or to recover from injuries.
Avengers: Swing Shift gives Mike a chance to captain his own Avengers team, which would eventually include Pepper in her Rescue armor to do crowd control, triage, and search-and-save. "Harvey Specter as The Shade" comes from an idea I had ages ago for a crossover where Harvey, as the superhero lawyer, was put in danger occasionally. The concept was that eventually he would be hit with a "phase ray" constructed by Doom to incapacitate the Avengers, which allowed (well, forced) Harvey to phase through matter and teleport from one location to another, and did away with the need for him to sleep, allowing him to be a lawyer by day and fight crime with whatever team was covering nights.
I'm pretty sure eventually The Shade and Rescue would be an item. Harvey just can't keep away from redheads, not that it's easy to do in general. Man, the Avengers have a lot of 'em.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed both the crossover and the codas. Thanks for reading!