It figures that during the week Pepper is gone to the West Coast for some business thing, and both Tony and Bruce are missing from a formally-arranged Avengers meeting in SHIELD, it's because they're getting stoned on the floor in Tony's lab. DUM-E and U are hovering nearby and there's a holographic tic-tac-toe board lit up in yellow with green Xs and little red penises occupying some of the squares. Steve doesn't need to ask to know who's playing which color.
"Dear lord," Steve groans.
"Hmm," says Natasha.
"This isn't the worst thing I've been caught doing," Tony says casually.
"And I wasn't invited?" says Clint dryly.
"You didn't say the secret password," replies Tony, and Bruce raises a hand, says with careful enunciation, "Three point one four one five nine two six five three five."
"Wrong password, but I love you anyway," Tony tells him, and puts his lips to the rim of a three-foot glass bong to take another hit.
"Pi?" ventures Steve, because his other question involves carefully controlled alarm about mixing mind-altering substances with a potential Hulk and he'd rather not give them ideas, and, dear lord, what the hell are they thinking.
"I'd like a piece of that, please," Bruce volunteers, which sends Tony into a fit of laughter that nearly breaks the glass bong against an upended lab stool.
"Then what's the real password?" asks Clint with a raised eyebrow, and Tony declares, "Tetrahydrocannibinol carboxylic acid, dumbass, I mean really, what did you actually do in high school, go to class?"
"Gentlemen, two of the brightest minds in contemporary science," says Natasha.
"You can't talk about us that way, Miss Romanov, we know things."
"Big things," Bruce agrees easily.
"Including what I'm guessing is the chemical formula of THC," she says drolly. "Subtle."
"I'm just a teenage dirtbag, baby," the lab speakers are whining.
"Sometimes small things, too," Tony adds, ignoring her, "you never really know what might be relevant to something else, a bit of a Schrödinger's dilemma there, you never know until you know it."
"More of a rationalist Cartesian thing, don't you think?" Bruce muses. Tony makes a face, retorts, "Oh my god, Banner, no, no, fuck your Cartesian-ness and your pineal gland bullshit, philosophy is fucking stupid and anyway the only good philosophy is the Greek kind – "
"What, that the signs of a good man included political acumen and physical perfection? You do realize it's just another way to say being a vain, aggressive asshole – "
"I find your lack of faith disturbing, okay, I was talking about the thing with the atoms and the, the small things, see, what did I say about the little things being relevant, I did say that out loud, right?"
"Did you just put Star Wars and Democritus in the same sentence? Hand me the bong, I'm not nearly high enough for that."
"Yeah, suck it," Tony flails. DUM-E chirps and catches Tony by the shirt before he topples back and hits his head on the cement floor.
The other three Avengers are still standing by the door. Natasha and Clint are in uniform, but Steve's in simple plaid and khaki, hair neatly combed, while Bruce looks comfortably rumpled and Tony debauched. He usually looks debauched, even when sex isn't actually involved; it's something in the way his hair gets ruffled from running his fingers through it compulsively, the way he sprawls shamelessly wherever he happens to end up, and if there isn't a poignant metaphor to be extracted from that about contemporary America then Steve is even more disconnected than he originally thought.
"Oh, Mama, I'm in fear for my life from the long arm of the law," say the speakers. There's a hole cut into the front of Tony's black sleeveless shirt, showing off the arc reactor with what looks like…wires?...trailing from it, and Bruce makes a thoughtful noise as he holds his hand in front of its eerie light and makes the shape of a bird with his fingers.
"Jesus, Banner, move your hand closer, your penumbra is too fucking big – yes, there, oh baby, oh baby," he moans outrageously as the shadow on the far wall darkens to a clearer silhouette, and Bruce's head thumps forward onto Tony's knee as he starts laughing.
"Call Coulson?" Clint asks, holding up his phone, and Steve sighs. He's at a loss because, well, honestly, Tony's proven that he understands Banner the best of them all, how far to push the boundaries in exactly the right ways, and for all the stupid things he does, he does it all with a logician's unsettling calculation (a good man's broken heart) disguised by alcohol and recklessness.
"His name is 'Agent,' Legolas, seriously, what kind of name is 'Phil'? Pepper calls him Phil, there is something fundamentally wrong with that picture, like, graviton-fundamental – "
"Strong nuclear force-fundamental," Bruce agrees mildly, muffled by Tony's jeans, "yours is a bad analogy, I think you want something more than just hypothetical."
"Fuck you sideways," Tony says cheerfully. He pokes at the holographic tic-tac-toe and adds another little drawing of a penis. "Your turn, loser."
"The wittiness is strong in this one."
Tony yells, "Ha! Can't me mock anymore, you fucking nerd, take a hit," but Steve finally steps forward and holds out a hand, saying, "I think you guys have had enough," and Tony tries to curl himself around the bong without dislodging Bruce, hissing, "Mine, my own, get your own precious."
"Minus-four Charisma," Bruce mumbles.
"Fuck you diagonally, you roll a negative forty-two and get mummy rot of the groin."
"I have absolutely no idea what you're saying," Steve says with forced patience, "but we were supposed to be meeting with Fury half an hour ago. If you're serious about being on this team – "
"Get the Constitution out of your ass, Rogers, maybe the serum keeps you from getting drunk but it couldn't have cut out your capacity to let loose once in a blue moon. Is it a blue moon? Stupid name, the moon isn't even blue, what is with that, but you know what, Rogers, you've come to the right people. We know things, did you know that? We'll find a way, we'll engineer a new thing."
"You used taxpayer money to genetically engineer a new strain of marijuana?" asks Natasha, crossing her arms.
"Don't be ridiculous, Miss I Stab People in the Neck Without Warning, I used my own pocket money – "
"It's obscene when half the world lives on less than one dollar a day," mutters Bruce, pushing himself precariously upright.
"I've got big balls," declares AC/DC. "Some balls are held for charity and some for fancy dress, but when they're held for pleasure they're the balls that I like best!"
" – dampens the production of the cAMP molecule, a carrier, it's an adrenaline thing, which, in Doctor Banner's case, is possibly a good thing, a very good thing, it's elementary, my dear Watson – "
"Holmes never actually said that, y'know – "
"Never actually said they were fucking like rabbits at the top of those seventeen stairs either, but it's obvious – "
"We could sell them as a circus act," says Clint in a thoughtful undertone to Natasha.
"Or as a warning lesson to an English class."
JARVIS speaks up for the first time. "It would certainly add a new dimension to Mister Stark's already colorful Internet presence."
"Aw, honeybear, you know I've only got eyes for you."
"Stark. Banner," Steve begins seriously, but Tony suddenly bats away the hologram and points a surprisingly steady finger at him.
"No, you know what, Rogers, keep it to yourself. You think we're out of control, you couldn't be more wrong than if you tried to measure mass during motion. You think Bruce here is always on the edge, Jesus, have you met people? They're the ones that'll lose it when you least expect it, no rhyme or reason or natural law, it's human fucking nature. It's the ones who wear their monsters on the outside you can trust because they know the risks, they know things, they run the numbers and you know."
Steve stops and blinks and parses all that, because. Well. That's rather telling, isn't it, and heartbreaking, even when it's delivered by someone who isn't in his right mind – or maybe someone who's more in his right mind than ever, wires coming out his heart because he uses himself the way most people unthinkingly use a mundane battery, who can almost outtalk the god of lies. Bruce seems to have completely forgotten the careful physical distance he always keeps, and Steve is starting to realize it isn't because of the drugs, or the surrounding technology, at all.
"Draci," Bruce observes, and Tony huffs. DUM-E's arm reaches over his shoulder and taps on the arc reactor, making a weirdly delicate tinking noise.
Clint, meanwhile, is on the phone. "Eagle to home roost, the flock has taken flight. Yes, sir. No, they've flown pretty high at this point, permission to reschedule? Yes, I'll let them know." He hangs up and says with a smile, "Fury wants you to upgrade the helicarrier's entire security system now."
"Bark, bark," Bruce sighs.
Tony grabs the bong. "Yeah, no. What. Beam me up, Scottie, we got shit to do and monsters to save."