"Who the hell drank all my booze?" Tony shouts at the universe, at Thor, at JARVIS, at Pepper, at his teammates who seem to think he really meant it when he said "Mi casa es su casa" and wasn't just being nice, and, for good measure, at Thor again. And not just because he's the only one in the common room besides Pepper, but because there aren't that many people who could drink all of Tony's booze alone and live through the liver damage.
Thor holds up his empty hands in a gesture that would look a lot more innocent coming from a guy who has biceps smaller than the average bear. "I would not exhaust your stores without informing JARVIS."
"About that," Tony says, glowering at the air.
"I placed the order as soon as you discovered the lack, sir."
"And you didn't register it before because--" Tony lets the silence hang.
JARVIS sounds contrite. "There was some interference with my sensors in the area. The recordings are blurred in the relevant period."
"Show me," Tony says, and swears a blue streak at the playback.
"What is that? Are we being invaded by Smurfs?" Pepper asks, watching over his shoulder.
"You know how I've always said there's nothing I hate more than magic?"
She thinks a moment. "I don't remember you ever saying that before."
"Well, I have." Tony rubs his temples. "And if there's anything I hate more than magic, it's family reunions. You can put that in next year's Wit and Wisdom of Tony Stark desk calendar."
Thor puts his hand on Tony's shoulder. "I did not know you had family with whom to reunite, my brother," he says.
"But," Tony says, stabbing a finger in the air as if it's responsible for the disappearance of his alcohol, "if there's one thing I hate more than magic or family reunions, it's magical family reunions. Those really, really piss me off."
"You don't have any family," Pepper says, testing the words out slowly one by one.
Tony groans. "I don't have any nuclear family. Any close family. Any family close enough to bother mentioning, ever. What I have are cousins on my great-great-great-great grandmother's side who live in another dimension."
"Oh," Pepper says, and Tony gives her a betrayed look. "Is that why--"
"Don't," he protests, but she keeps going.
"--why you dye your hair?"
"You dye your hair?" Bruce asks, coming into the common room with his own hair standing up at angles that make it look as though he's been thinking very hard while running his hands through it and decidedly not showering for at least two days straight. "You'd look distinguished in gray."
"No, no, and no." Tony points to Pepper. "You promised you'd keep that to yourself." And to Bruce, "No, that's you, and besides, it's not gray. We're not talking about this."
Bruce frowns. "How can your great-great-great-great grandmother's DNA have any influence on what color your hair is? Hers specifically, I mean?"
"I hate fucking magic. And I am going to the lab, now. If something blows up, that means I'm fine." Tony stomps toward the elevator.
Behind him, Bruce says, "I'll just--"
Pepper says, "Thank you."
As the elevator doors open, there are blue-orange blurs on the floor. Tony groans and says, "JARVIS, when is the whiskey coming?"
"Ten minutes, sir."
There is a lusty cheer from just about every corner of the room. Thor puts his hand on Mjolnir, Bruce goes into a half-crouch, and Pepper hits a code on her phone.
Tony sits down on the floor. "Come out. Now."
"Ta's nae more likker!" shouts a large voice from next to the elevator. At floor level.
"If you don't come out, I'll cancel the order."
"Ach, ye drive a hard bargain, Big Wee Splodey Tony," says another voice.
Tiny blue heads start to appear all over the room attached to tiny blue-skinned men, each of them about half a foot tall with wild Crayola-orange hair. They’re dressed in scraggly kilts and bits of fur. "What the fuck?" Bruce says, his voice dropping precipitously.
"It's fine," Tony says, sighing. "Well, it's not fine, but they're not going to go away. And they're not harmless--"
There is a general outcry from the blue men. "Crivens, nae!"
"But they're not here to try to take over the world or anything. They're Nac Mac Feegles. And they're technically family." Tony looks around at them from his vantage point on the floor. "What are you all doing here?”
They swarm around the room at ankle-height, climbing people. Bruce backs away from them, going faintly green as a wave of blue men get near him. Tony shouts, "Don't touch the guy in purple," and the wave breaks and falls into a tussling pile of bodies before individual knots skitter in other directions. One, bold enough to be rude, winks at Pepper from her dress and lets go as soon as she can see it clearly enough to try to swat it away in all its kilt-wearing nakedness.
Two of them end up in Thor's hair and immediately begin shouting. "Ach, I cain't see!"
"Ye kicked me!"
"I'll give ye a face full of heid!"
Thor removes each of them from his hair and holds them by the arms in midair where they struggle and keep shouting. "Your family is a tribe of tiny warriors," he says to Tony, a smile blossoming across his face. He's the only person in the room who looks less than perturbed.
"A tribe of tiny warriors who weren't invited to my new pad," Tony says, raising his voice as another group of them start fighting in the middle of the coffee table. "Who's your Big Man and what's going on?"
One of the blue men, no bigger than all the rest, stands in front of Tony and stares up at him, his shock of orange hair tipping back as he looks up. "Ye've got a fine place and a fine kelda, Big Wee Splodey Tony, and you're nae so wee as the last time we met."
"It'll be a better place when you're not here." Tony snaps his fingers at the blue man. "You. Rob Anybody, right?"
"Aye." The little man puffs his blue chest out.
"What do you want?"
"Oh, waily, waily, waily," another tiny man says, tugging on the edge of his kilt so that it is even more revealing than normal. "We cain't go home."
"You can't stay here." Tony pinches the bridge of his nose. "There's no space."
"They don't look like they'd take up much space," Pepper says, sounding as though she's on the edge of dissolving into laughter. "We have all those extra floors. People six inches tall could fit lots of places."
The men begin clapping and hooting. "A most excellent kelda!" Rob says. "She has the knowings of the building, right enough. We could fit ten clans in here and have space for more."
"She's not a kelda."
All the little men shuffle away from Pepper as if she's about to try to stomp on them. Rob fidgets with his kilt. "Aye, I wouldna want tae tell you your business, cousin, but I knows a kelda when I sees one even if she is a bigjob."
Pepper asks, "What's a kelda?" and enunciates the word carefully.
The room collectively holds its breath in very small gasps.
"She's the little blue queen bee. In more ways than one." Tony rolls his eyes. "This is my building and you'd better get out of it. JARVIS, hold the alcohol order until further notice."
There is a great wailing and gnashing of teeth very close to floor level. "Nae, nae, we want tae go home, Big Wee Splodey--Big Not-Really-So-Wee-As-He-Used-Ta-Be Splodey Tony," Rob says, trying to placate him with a calming gesture and a name that suits his stature more than the one the clan gave him when he visited at the age of nine.
"Wouldn't it be easier to call him 'Big Splodey Tony?'" Pepper asks, the corners of her mouth twitching.
"It could be your new call sign," Bruce says, grinning. He seems to be calming down considerably.
"Thanks a lot," Tony says under his breath.
"Aye, ‘twould be simpler, kelda, a fine wise thought that is," Rob says. "Big Splodey Tony, we canna get home without help."
"Ye've got tae help us," another one cries, and goes so far as to cling to Pepper's calf. "Ye've got the knowings, kelda, of the namin’ and the tappin' of the feets, and a fine brood of sons already."
"What?" Pepper asks, glancing at Tony with a foreboding look.
"Later," he says. "When they're gone."
"Crivens!" says another little man. "Not the narrowin' of the eyes!"
Pepper raises her eyebrows at him, though they're already far enough up that it can't make much of a difference from his point of view. "Right. If we help you get home--whatever that means--then you'll go away and you won't come back?"
"Aye!" they cry, more or less in unison.
"Unless we get a wee bitty bit lost on the way," one says, his voice trailing off on the end, "and the bottles come along when we're lookin' and we happens tae find 'em and have a wee bitty drink. Then we could get all turned round and end up back here. Somehow."
Two more grab him and silence him, muffling his protests with their hands. "Nae, nae," Rob says, once the dissenting voice is quiet. "Once we're gone, we'll stay gone. Unless ye'd care tae invite us round for a spot of yon whiskey."
"You know how I haven't invited you over for any holidays, birthdays, vacations, long weekends, short weekends, or brunch, ever?" Tony says.
"It's not about to change." Tony runs his fingers through his hair. "How do we get you home immediately?'
"Weeeeeeell," Rob says. "I reckon that's a tale for a gonnagle."
"What?" Tony gets up quickly, looking around in alarm. "If you so much as touch any damn mousepipes, I'll--" he falters, trying to come up with a threat that makes sense to them and sounds reasonably threatening. He says, "Pepper will cross her arms."
"Oh, no, not crossing her arms," Bruce says mock-theatrically, but the words get lost in the smaller but more enthusiastically upset rustle of tiny feet moving as far from Pepper as they can get.
"There's no need for that," Rob says, holding up his hands to ward off any more disapproval.
"Good," Pepper says, biting the inside of her cheek to keep herself from laughing. "What's a gonnagle?"
"I am, missus," says another tiny man. "And I won't lay a finger on the mousepipes, Big Splodey Tony, as long as ye'll promise tae help us."
"We will do whatever we can," Thor says, leaping into the spirit of things.
"No mousepipes, no broken glass, no more drinking my whiskey, and I'll help you."
Rob gasps, as does the gonnagle. "Crivens, ye canna be so cruel tae yer own flesh and blood!"
"Start talking right now." Tony glowers down at them.
"We can go where we like," the gonnagle says. "Leastways, we always could before, nippin' between the worlds when we needed tae, crawsteppin', but there's a great wall between us and home."
"Go around it," Tony says, keeping his voice flat.
"'Tisn't that sort of wall," says the gonnagle. "We can run and run, but there's no end tae it."
"Surely you can fly over it," Thor says.
"Nay, we've sent our brothers up the side, climbing and climbing, but they dinna come back."
"Did you try to dig under it?" Pepper asks, getting down onto the floor next to Tony.
The gonnagle smiles at her. "Aye, kelda, that we tried too. We dug and dug, but we couldna find the bottom of yon wall, not with all the digging."
There is a moment's silence. Bruce sighs. "Okay, fine, I'll say it. But only because someone has to. Go through it."
"Yon purple bigjob is a smart one," the gonnagle cries, clapping his hands with a small, dry noise. "If anyone can get through a wall, it's Big Splodey Tony."
"Cousin Tony," Rob says. "Who wouldna leave his cousins wanderin' the worlds, not if he can spare a wee moment tae get them home."
"And a bitty bottle tae tide them along mmff mmff mmff," another says, and is grabbed mid-sentence by two of his friends.
"We cannot force them to stay here," Thor says, sounding as though saying it breaks his heart. "What world do you live on, tiny cousins of the man of iron?"
They look at each other in a series of furtive glances. The gonnagle clears his throat and says, "We don't live anywhere, as such. We're all dead, y'see, but we'd like tae get back tae our proper Heaven, bein' as how that's what we're used tae."
"Dead Smurfs," Pepper says, and starts giggling into her hand. "What did we do wrong? Do we need to get someone in here to adjust the feng shui so we don't get any more ghost Smurfs?" As she speaks, she starts laughing harder and harder till she's leaning on Tony. "Maybe we should get a Smurf exorcist. Or just tell them to Smurf off."
"I dinna know this word 'Smurf,'" the gonnagle said. "But missus, we're nae Smurfs."
"Nac Mac Feegles!" another cries.
"Nae king! With a singular exception! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master!" rises from the floor around all of them.
"Ta' can onlie be one t'ousan!”
"Okay, not Smurfs," Pepper says, keeping her composure despite the outburst. "Where is this wall you're trying to destroy?"
Rob clears his throat. "'Tis a world away from here, missus kelda. East of yon sun, west of yon moon, and a bitty crawstep."
"If we are dealing with bridges to other worlds, I will call my beloved," Thor says, his face lighting at the prospect. "Jane can open a bridge to anywhere."
"On a good day, maybe," Tony says. "But these guys can get around without a Bifrost or an Einstein-Rosen bridge, usually."
The gonnagle nods. "It be only a step between the worlds."
"But--" Thor starts looking disappointed.
Bruce pats Thor's shoulder. "I'm sure Jane would love to see this, whatever it takes."
Rob looks alarmed and tries to talk behind his hand, which isn't terribly subtle when he's addressing someone over ten times his height. "Er, Big Splodey Tony, a word with ye?"
"What?" Tony asks, edging up on the end of his patience.
"In private, like."
"My team can hear whatever it is."
"'Tis Big Man business," Rob says, puffing out his chest.
Tony sighs and follows Rob off to a corner, where he crouches way down. "I'm not buying you all the whiskey in the world," he says, forestalling any further mention.
"Ach, ye dinna know how tae host yer clan, but that's nae what I was thinkin'. This Jane--she's yon blond fellow's kelda? Kelda Pepper's a good one, aye, but we need tae be gettin' on home, not bidin' here while they have a wee bitty fight over the lads."
Tony snorts. While he's lining up words in an order that makes sense with the Feegle worldview, Rob adds, "Unless she's still a mite, this daughter of yer kelda."
"No," Tony says, and manages not to laugh through sheer force of will. He doesn't want to explain Feegle biology to Pepper until it's strictly necessary--which will probably be the next time she asks. If they have to power through a magical wall between realities today, the challenge of making sense out of tiny blue biology will have to wait. He's one of the best multitaskers in the known universe, but everyone's powers of persuasion have limits.
Telling Pepper that his magical cousins think that she is Jane's mother would stretch them beyond even their elastic tolerance, not least because it would raise the question of what a kelda's function is. Tony doesn't want to think too hard about what the Feegles think of the Avengers' family structure.
"Nae?" Rob has an impressively large amount of worry for such a small person. "Then they'll not get on at all."
"They get along fine," Tony says. The worst argument Pepper and Jane have been involved in was about the impossibility of getting everyone out of labs at a reasonable time for dinner on nights when the world wasn't in dire need of salvation, and they'd been on exactly the same side for most of it. "It's different with--with humans." He stops himself from saying "bigjobs" by force of will.
"Yon Jane--is she a hag?" Rob asks.
Feegles are rarely known for their discretion, but it's a good thing Thor's not close enough to hear that question. It would take too many layers of explanation to get from "hag" to "witch" to "scientist" fast enough to forestall Thor, who doesn't have any patience with people who insult the good Dr. Foster. "She's as close as we've got here, yeah. She can open gateways to other worlds with the right, the right spells." Technology is not a Feegle strong point.
"Ahh." Rob looks slightly more relaxed. "And then ye'll make the whole wall go tae bitty pieces?"
"If I can't, Thor will give it a try. He's got a hammer."
"Weeeell--" Rob looks more concerned yet.
"And if we can't, Bruce will smash it."
Rob looks over his shoulder and stands on tiptoe to get closer to Tony's ear. "Bruce is yon purple bigjob?"
Rob clears his throat, looks again, and says apologetically, "We sent our best warriors against yon wall, Big Splodey Tony. Yer Bruce is a mighty warrior, tae be sure, a credit tae ye and yer kelda, but he might be a wee bit small tae smash the wall all by hisself."
"HULK SMASH PUNY WALL!"
The Feegles cheer and leap into the crater Tony's explosives left, clambering over the debris from Mjolnir's strikes against the wall. A horde of them swarm over the Hulk and launch themselves off of his shoulders, hitting the wall with their heads and apparently sustaining no damage. The wall survives these impacts. Other Feegles use Thor and Steve as springboards.
The wall shudders under the assault of huge green fists, the crashing of Mjolnir, and the clang of a vibranium shield. More chunks of magical stone go flying.
One skitters across the ground and comes to rest not far from Jane's interdimensional device. Pepper takes a step back from it before Tony pulverizes it with a repulsor blast. "Are we still clear to retreat?" she asks.
"We're holding steady from this end," Jane says through the communication system. One of the Feegles is also standing by so that if whoever or whatever built the wall comes back, they can escape to earth. Back on the Earth end, Jane and JARVIS have Jane's latest prototype fully powered up. Stark Tower is dark for the occasion with the entire arc reactor devoted to the project.
"Verra good haggin', that is," Rob had said when they showed him the system, and it had taken Bruce and Tony combined to hold Thor off long enough for them to define the word for Thor.
"It may be a while over here," Pepper says. "Tony, get that chunk."
Tony destroys another incoming piece. "Yes, kelda."
"Nac Mac Feegles wha hae!"
"RRRAAAARGH!" the Hulk roars, echoing from inside the tunnel he's made. The wall is thick enough that he's fully inside it, with Steve and Thor beside him. The wall trembles, and so does the ground.
"We've got sky!" Steve yells from inside the tunnel. He was happy to come along on the mission as soon as Tony managed to assure him that most people these days didn't have a vast blue family much shorter than they were, and when it comes to beating things up, Captain America is a good person to have along. Natasha and Clint are both on assignment somewhere in Asia, mercifully; if the Feegles think Pepper is a kelda they would have a field day with Natasha. Tony is willing to bribe everyone in sight to make sure Clint never finds out about his heritage. The internet does not need to fill up with "Tony Stark is a fairy" jokes. The Feegles would find that horribly offensive, but not for the intended reasons.
The Feegles pour into the tunnel and the chunks of stone flying the other way come thicker, faster, and smaller until it looks like a blizzard of pebbles with the occasional giant rock.
"Oh, that's not good," Pepper says, and gets Tony's attention away from protecting the bridge device long enough that he can see the wall starting to reform on the near side. Pieces of stone flow down behind the people in the wall, closing up the hole they've made.
"Stop digging!" Tony calls over the comms. The hail of stones stops, mostly, though it takes longer for the Feegle-sized chunks to taper off and a fight breaks out over who threw the last stone. "The tunnel's closing. Come back."
Steve is at the mouth of the tunnel first, his shield over his head and his face pale. With the shield in the way, the stone stops flowing, but from the way he braces himself, it's clear that he's holding the tunnel open. "There's a hole big enough for the Feegles, and they say the other side is Heaven. I don't know whether they mean that literally. It smells like livestock," he says, some strain in his voice. "The Hulk's got the middle of the tunnel. For now."
Tony sighs and steps into the tunnel next to Steve to keep it as far above their heads as he can. He doesn't like the thought of being trapped in a magical wall, but he's sure he can blast his way out if it collapses on them. Steve isn't saying anything, but he looks like the idea of being encased in a solid object again freaks him right out. "Rob!"
"Ye did it, Big Splodey Tony!" Rob clambers up his armor and places a kiss on his facemask, which is almost far enough away from his actual skin that it's not horribly disturbing. "Our big wee hag's on the other side, an' her special ship liniment, an' all the ship we can steal. She says the Hag o' Hags is havin' Words with the folk that put up the wall. If she canna get it down, nobody can."
"Great," Tony says, not asking for clarification. He knows better than to tell Rob that the Feegles owe him for the booze they drank, or to invite them back for a victory celebration. He could probably afford the party and its attendant property damage, but the hangover would be killer. The Wee Free Men hate contracts even more than Tony does, but they have their own twisted sense of honor, especially with family members. "Get all your people out on that side, and we'll take all ours home."
"About that brrrunch," Rob says.
Midtown Manhattan is still a wreck in places. If he waits, they'll show up again, possibly after all the repairs are completed. "Once the wall is down for good," Tony says, regretting it immediately. "Send one guy to ask first, in case I'm busy--and bring your own liquor this time!"
Rob darts down the tunnel toward the light at the far end. "Better get the green bigbigjob out before the tunnel gets any more wee," he says. "Bring him tae yon brrrunch, he's a mighty warrior. Be seein' ye."
Through a series of miracles and a few more Hulk punches, they all end up on the right sides of the wall before it reseals itself entirely. "Ready, Jane?" Pepper calls down the apparatus.
"I've got a fix on all of you," Jane says, and they're in one of the tallest laboratories in the building with a lurch and a jerk.
"HULK MISS WEE MEN," the Hulk says sadly.
"That makes one of us." Tony stomps off toward the disassembly units.
"HULK WANT BATTLE SKIRT."
That stops Tony in his tracks. He can't look at the Hulk without imagining him smashing the hell out of bad guys in a tartan skirt, and if he thinks about that for more than a second, he'll burst out laughing, which isn't the best survival strategy around the big guy. "They’re kilts. And--we'll talk about it when you're shorter, okay?"
Thor says, "Your clan is most brave, Man of Iron, whatever their garb."
"They're idiots," Tony says, and sticks his feet into the robotic hands.
"Not all of them." Pepper walks calmly beside him as if she travels between dimensions to help mind their equipment every day. Tony doesn't share any of the Feegles' standards for womanhood, but they're right. She's not a kelda, but she could be, if she were significantly shorter and bluer. "But you're right about the hair dye. Orange really isn't your color."