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Lord knows, it would be the first time

Chapter Text

When Coulson walks into the restaurant just as they’re all starting to finish their meals, Stark just looks up, says “Here, saved you some,” and shoves the family-style tray of baklava a bit with sooty fingers. Then he scoots his chair in, closer to Bruce, making room as Coulson uprights a chair from the floor.

“How was your flight, Agent?” he asks, his tone deceptively mild. There’s a bit of the cat smiling at the canary in his tired half-smirk. She wondered all over again why Coulson’d volunteered to go round up Stark.

Coulson, wearing jeans (jeans) and a button-down shirt (no tie, sleeves rolled up) with a pair of white high-top Chuck Taylors, sighs as he sinks into the seat. “Much as I hate to admit it, the Iron Man suit flies much better than the War Machine.”

Stark nods, then takes another bite of his shawarma. “I’ve been trying to get him to bring it in for upgrades, but I think Rhodey’s bosses are afraid I’ll hack it.” His hand over his arc reactor flutters, just like his eyelashes. “Seriously, I am wounded. Like I would hack anything. Or hadn’t already left a backdoor into every major military installation in the country.”

Coulson lifts the sticky dessert out of the tray and bites the triangle he’s retrieved into a precise half. Well. At least that hasn’t changed. “No. Never.” His smile at Stark is. Complicit. And he’s eating dessert first. He’s really in a bind about something.

She can’t help herself any longer. She clamps her hands on the table, sloshing Thor’s coffee as Clint grabs and saves his soda because—she’s tired of killing today. It happens. And she can’t really decide which one of them she’s going to kill.

Clint pokes her in the side. “Magic mind control sticks, holes in the sky, mecha sea turtles. Of course there’s some way Phil’s alive and it’s somehow because of Stark. Chill, Nat.”

Coulson shakes his head at them all. “My apologies for missing the action down on the ground, Stark’s routine hacking of SHIELD’s databanks revealed a security breach a few weeks ago that, well.” He blinks, glances at Stark, who just shrugs like he doesn’t care. “Things. Things in motion. That are being worked on.”

“By a dead SHIELD agent?” Rogers’ voice is incredulous. Poor bastard’s had a long day.

“Life model decoy, baby,” Stark says without even smiling (like everyone should know what that is) then noisily sucks the rest of his date smoothie through his bendy straw.

Banner just snorts, but it’s Hulk-sized; all the napkins flutter on the table and floor. He’s not green around the edges, though. “I thought those were just rumors.”

Stark reaches over, slings an arm over Banner’s shoulders, and reaches up with his other hand to ruffle Banner’s soft, greying curls. “Aw, Bruce. C’mon, just because it’s in sci-fi movies doesn’t mean it’s not real. Dude, you know that.”

Coulson snerks as he wipes the honey off of his fingers. “Writing off your Netflix account as a research expense pushes it, though.” Because of course he’d know that much about Stark.

“My friends, I fear I do not follow,” Thor says, momentarily putting down his fifth sandwich. “Though ‘tis true, I am greatly relieved that the Son of Coul walks amongst us again.”

Coulson actually smiles at Thor, a grin the god returns with interest. He’s like a toothpaste commercial and a walking hair color ad all at once, and his armor’s doing weird things in the light. You know, glinting. Under fluorescents. While it molds to muscles even she would admit were impressive. She swears his cape was dusty ten minutes ago. Maybe Stark’s right and it’s some dirt-repelling nanotech. Or maybe yogurt-dill sauce has magical powers to restore gods’ raiment.

Stark sinks his chin onto his hand, still leaning into Banner’s space as his eyes scan everyone at the table. She can hear him thinking how do I dumb this down. It’s a face he wears often, and if it wasn’t so annoying, Natasha would almost feel bad for the man. Certainly, that “someone who speaks English” crack had been spontaneous. Genuine, even, as much as Stark got. Banner, meanwhile, either doesn’t mind the lack of boundaries (a first, because even Pepper sometimes gets annoyed), or he’s too tired to care; he just switches the hand he was using to eat and continues to munch.

“Gosh,” Tony drawls. “Um, how do I? Okay. Robots, except better, because they’re androids that JARVIS powers and they look really human and are planted with a personality chip that the human doppelganger has to help me program for verisimilitude. Or. You know, break into my tower to visit a rich scientist’s girlfriend a lot, and then have one’s AI do a lot of recording of one’s already fairly robotic behavior. Oh. And a particularly viscous red fluid to power the hydraulics, because, you know. Life. Model. Decoy. That whole do we not bleed. Thingy.”

“Remind me to buy JARVIS flowers,” Coulson remarks, then reaches over and steals some pickles off of Clint’s plate. Clint’s watching the entire byplay like it’s a trainwreck soap opera with plot holes a mile wide, which really, it kind of is.

Rogers, though. He explodes. “You knew all this time Coulson wasn’t dead and you let us believe…” A vein actually twitches in his forehead, his expression tight and angry in a way it hasn’t been this entire invasion, even when he and Stark had squared off in the lab. She’d been debating on whose side to intervene and debating how much Pepper would kill her if she let Rogers beat Stark up just a little, only one or two bruises, but now. The Captain is really angry, and if Coulson’s telling the truth, then—Stark couldn’t tell them.

Stark’s holding his hands up even though Steve hasn’t moved from his seat. “I wasn’t sure. I gave him the LMD weeks ago, he didn’t even blink when I did because he’s even more allergic to feelings than me, and I didn’t even know if he’d deployed it because Fury locked me out of some systems after that lab thing and Coulson had done something to cut off its connection from JARVIS.” It’s an out-and-out lie, he’s looking Steve right in the eye and not blinking, which is usually a tell for truth-telling except if you’re Tony Stark. But—Coulson had said there was something deeper afoot. And if he didn’t want to talk about it right here…

Coulson elbowed Thor, making a motion at the several balls of falafel sitting on top of a good-looking salad. “Are you going to finish that?” Thor wordlessly slid it over, even as Coulson forked some up, said “Mmmm, that is good,” and then mumbled around his mouthful, glancing at Tony, “I had to cut it off from SHIELD interference. JARVIS was just a side effect because....” he continued, then stopped.

Stark raised his hand in a wave. “Right. Because reasons.” Coulson nodded, then reached over to steal the last sip of Nat’s drink. Things were deep indeed if Coulson wasn’t going to snark on Stark for talking like an internet meme.

It was at this point Clint finally spoke up. “Someone just promise me no more alien magic mind control or space-motorcycle aliens for at least 48 hours, you two can plot your plotty plots to take over the world or whatever in the meantime.” Which meant, in Clint-speak, that he’d take a nap, get up and make about a thousand chocolate waffles, and then go whine at Phil until Phil told him at least some of what was afoot.

She could wait a few hours. Besides, Fury’s absence was conspicuous; she was sure he’d have called them in for a debrief by now.

But looking at the way that Stark was basically snuggled up to Banner and trying and failing (at least he tried?) to suppress a smirk at his own cleverness (she was more impressed than maybe she should be at his ability to keep a secret for weeks, especially since it was robot-related) all she could think was I’m glad he’s on our side.

And then Stark leant over and whispered to her, like he knew what she was thinking, and said—“You think that’s cool? You should see kitchen. My waffle iron is awesome.”

Chapter Text

Rhodes had long since departed when he arrived with the Avengers back at Stark’s tower, the building much the worse for wear. Internally, he grimaced more than a bit at the destruction—Pepper and Stark had both worked so hard, but then again, he supposed this was what happened when you built the biggest, shiniest object. Someone else just wanted to knock it down.

The walk back had been interesting to observe, Natasha and Clint taking turns walking with or around him while the other scouted. He felt badly, but—clearance was one thing. This was another. Stark, meanwhile, was nattering on about something science with Banner, and Banner seemed to be both amused and engaged at Stark’s machine-gun delivery of his too-many-thoughts and ideas.

Then he thought more about it, how happy he'd been when Natasha and Clint stopped seeing him as their handler, and just started to talk shop about the best ways to weaponize things and reduce lingering effects of torture?

The Captain, meanwhile, was giving Stark a wide berth, walking point and talking with Thor when the alien? God? The results weren’t in yet, was not occasionally taking flight with his hammer before landing to report the rest of the way was clear. Every so once in a while, he would glance back at Phil—his smile sheepish—or over at Banner—his expression perplexed—or over at Stark, at which point his jaw firmed and eyes glinted and Phil recalled a line in one of Howard Stark’s old reports.

No doubt the Captain is the best amongst us, but he can also be pigheaded. The operative word in the phrase super-human at those times is simply “human.”

He’d gone on to write about one particular mission where Rogers steamrolled his way over anyone else, and Howard’s lucid ability to describe situations (that man could write a hell of a report) included a note about Rogers’ angry stolidity, because he’d thought he was right.

That didn’t bode well, if the Captain and Stark couldn’t work well together.

And then they’d arrived at the tower, lit only by a slightly crooked, oversized A, and some of Stark’s fleet of lackeys—not Hogan, hmm-- were opening a car door as Pepper and—ah. Dr. Foster and Ms. Lewis appeared, along with a woman of whom Phil had only read, that and reviewed the films.

“Betty,” Banner had breathed, and then he was running and Thor was flying and it was Avenger/girlfriend reunion time, with poor Pepper swatting Stark in the head for riding that nuke into space.

“You promised, Tony, that there would be no more of that. Tony!” she cried, but then pulled him in, her painfully tall heels bringing her almost to Stark’s (not insignificantly insignificant) height.

“Awkward,” Clint muttered, as Pepper continued to both berate Stark and cry on his shoulder and yell at him about the effect of his death on the stock price. Ms. Potts had always been a talented woman. It was to his own shame that he couldn't tear her away from SI, though in hindsight, perhaps it was all for the best.

Stark put his arm over her shoulder and steered her in toward the tower, his tone sotto voce, for once, but not before offering to the motley crew of dirty superheroes and superscientists and Darcy Lewis (though she was supersarcastic), “Anyone who needs a place to crash, there’s like, fifteen floors besides the labs in the basement with rooms. JARVIS will get you all settled.”

Thor literally swept Dr. Foster off her feet and strode into the tower, the little scientist merely wrapping her arms around him with a beatific smile. He made a mental note not to choose any floor near theirs, judging by their passionate kiss. Perhaps Thor was a god, if he could walk and make out like that.

Clint and Natasha just looked at each other, then him—Natasha shrugged like she couldn’t care less and actually let Clint thread his arm through hers as he said, “I bet he’s got thread counts no one’s ever heard of, and Hill was saying the showers in the one bathroom she saw were the boss....”

The revolving door shut behind them. Banner and Dr. Ross were looking at each other with fragile bemusement before Banner said, “Tony did promise to let me see his R & D,” then shrugged and headed inside, leading Dr. Ross by the hand like he knew what he was doing.

Maybe he did.

Which left Ms. Lewis and Captain Rogers.

“I still want my iPod,” she glared. He was not thinking unprofessional thoughts about the way she crossed her arms over her ample chest, or how she still managed to look really, quite stern. He hadn’t gotten a new recruit bonus in weeks. And sarcasm was, too, a superpower.

“I brought it along with a number of other items,” he agreed, though frankly, it had just gotten lost in the property cargo bay until JARVIS had found it. It happened, even at SHIELD. That seemed to be enough for Ms. Lewis, though, who pushed open the door with a glare over her shoulder for him and then said, “OK, Muppet Operating Theater Robot, or AI, or whatever, where’s my iPod?”

“You’re going to stay here?” The Captain’s emphasis on the here was both incredulous and slightly dreading, and the gleeful awe and respect he’d felt for the man faded a bit. The Tower was awfully modern. Futurist, really. And Clint had said Rogers and Stark hadn’t gotten off well. What a shock this all still must be.

He pointed up at the one letter that still hung on the tower. “It’s the Avengers’ tower, Captain. Where else would I stay?”

Then, since slowing down and looking back were for Life Model Decoys, he pushed on the revolving door glass and let himself be carried along.

Chapter Text

“Good boy,” he said, giving the robot (Dummy? Was that what JARVIS had called it?) a pat as it extended the blender cup full of chocolate batter in his direction. “Can you make, like, four more of those? I think I hear Thor.” Dummy whirred his pinchers at him and then wheeled back to the blender cup as it started to measure more things into the cup.

Waffle-y bleeped, indicating another waffle was done. “Go ahead, boy,” he agreed, feeling a smile creep over his face as the iron bleeped, then the plates pneumatically detached from the base of the iron, rose and turned at an angle just high enough to dump four perfect squares onto the platter.

“Oh my God, this raspberry coulis, thank God I’m not the only one who can cook in this steroid-powered nuclear frat house,” Darcy was moaning around a mouthful. Heh. He still had it. Even if he’d had robot helpers this morning (seriously, it was like a highly electronic version of Beauty and the Beast, all the shit that bleeped, talked, and otherwise wanted to help him, Nat and Coulson could bite him, ‘kthx), and it had been JARVIS’ suggestion to skip the strawberries because “Ms. Potts will die, sir, and she has a press conference today.” He wasn’t sure which was a higher priority. Money was on the press conference.

“Pass the dulce de leche and the whipped cream,” he heard Nat ask and Thor murmur “Aye, such an array of delectations,” in agreement. Because nothing fueled a genetically enhanced superspy and an alien-god like way too much sugar first thing in the morning. Maybe he should make bacon.

“Seriously, JARVIS, how come you have all this food in the house?” He’d stumbled into the kitchen, sure Stark would have coffee, but he’d opened the industrial sized, brushed-steel fridge and it had been like Tut’s tomb. And that was before he’d discovered the canned goods and the bulk bins.

“Sir created a shopping list algorithm based on all the Avengers’ eating habits and known medical conditions of record, then asked me to extrapolate metabolic requirements based on each person’s relative mass and level of exertion at the peak of crime-fighting.”

“He hacked SHIELD and stole your grocery lists,” Natasha snarked from the depths of her coffee, but whatever. It was really nice to have a fully-stocked kitchen. He bet the bar was epic.

He turned at the noise of someone else entering the kitchen, but it was just Bruce, rubbing disheveled curls and still dressed in the clothes Tony’d lent him last night after he’d shrunk back to size. “Tea,” he said, adding “Betty’s still sleeping,” and the teapot on the counter bleeped into life as Dummy wheeled over to Bruce and whirled its pinchers at him. Was that the robot equivalent of good morning, pet me? Bruce just nodded, petted the robot, and said “Is there any lapsang souchong?” Apparently Dummy’s bleep was a yes, because he wheeled over to the floor-to-ceiling cabinets that held all the dry goods on the other side of the room.

Natasha looked up from her breakfast long enough to glare at Clint for not disclosing this information (what? She sometimes drank coffee) then said “Dummy, one for me, please.” The little robot waggled the tea box in her direction, so Clint grabbed the new cup of batter because the robot was smart, but clearly multitasking was hard for the thing.

“He’s gotten a lot more handy with little things than before,” she remarked, and JARVIS replied about something blah blah motor control experiments and something else yaddity code upgrades that Nat seemed to get. Then again, she had worked for Stark for three months, no doubt she knew all about that kind of shit, even if she’d never tell anyone, just save all their lives with whatever new, undisclosed mad ninja skill she’d acquired when the moment required.

Tony, however, took that moment to stumble into the kitchen, hair standing straight up in a way that wasn’t an artful mess, just mad-scientist messy. All the electronics in the kitchen bleeped on, starting to…

“Is that the Storm Trooper Death March they’re playing?” Only Phil could sound like he was amused and approving at the same time.

Of course Phil had slipped in while Tony was conducting the little electronic buggers with one hand and drinking straight from the coffee pot with another. After he’d done wiping his mouth with his sleeve (Clint wasn’t going to be the one to tell him he’d left grease, well, more grease, and in any event, he didn’t think, somehow, that Stark would care) he said “Imperial March,” then rinsed the pot out under the hot water tap before refilling the thing and dumping the water in the reservoir that just opened as he approached. It was already grinding more beans. Just call Clint the new poster boy for Stark Tech.

When Pepper entered the room, dressed for the day and ready to go, the still-singing appliances changed to “Hail to the Chief.” The look she leveled at Stark was priceless. “I thought you were joking.”

“How come I don’t get a theme song? I mean, they’re cooking with me,” Clint heard himself whine. Stark was throwing something green from the freezer into blender that seemed to be just a blender (weird) while Dummy wheeled around Pepper until she gave him an abstracted kiss on his arm.

“Give ‘em a week to get to know you, they’ll come up with something.” Tony then stuck a straw in the blender and started to drink. It looked like pesto gone wrong.

“Clint’s made waffles. Chocolate ones.” Bruce was watching Tony like he was something of deep scientific interest, bypassing Clint’s waffles for some evil green goo, and hey. More waffles for Banner. He got a shy smile as he dumped more on Bruce’s plate.

Stark, though, mumbled “Eeeew, solids” around his straw as he started to fiddle away on his Stark Phone and perched on the ledge of the counter, watching them all with one eye even as his other eye did wonky things watching the display his phone threw up in the air. Pepper, meanwhile, was eating half of one waffle, dry, and sipping her coffee, black. “I mean, they smell good, Barton, whatever, but. Ugh. Solids.” Then he went back to whatever he was reading like it was the most absorbing thing ever.

“Buying and selling the world, Stark?” Phil quipped.

Stark stuck out his tongue. “Not all of it, Agent. Just the parts that count.” And then again, he was head down in the display. “I’ve been sciencing the shit out of stuff all night with Bruce and Jane, I’ve got to catch up on the financials,” he mumbled, patting Dummy when it abandoned the waffle-batter blending project to, yep. Put its head in Tony’s lap. “Hey, ‘sup, Dummy, you keeping these guys in line?” His tone was absent, but all the appliances bleeped what had to be the machine equivalent of we’re being good, Papa Tony, we swear. Except the waffle iron, who bleeped something like it had sounded when Clint had misjudged how much batter on the first batch. Awkwardly, Stark had leant over to pat it. “Yeah, well, Clint’s got the hang of it now.”

“You talk to Waffle-y?” Clint asked, because he thought he’d been doing a good job discerning the bleeps as mood indicators. But it was actually talking?

“It’s just binary, I haven’t gotten the voice chips miniaturized yet, and good name, by the way,” Stark mumbled, grabbing something from the data hovering over his phone and blowing it up. “Yeah, JARVIS, that’s good, do it,” he said, even as Pepper’s eyes widened as she leant forward, making some sense out of the numbers and symbols. Her voice rose on the “Anthony Edward Stark, I already have an agenda for today’s conference, if you’re going to do that you’re going to have to address that yourself. I can put up with your turning the Tower into a superhero slumber party, but if you…”

Tony looked up, winked at her, and shrugged. “Okay, Pep, I’ll come. I’ll even put on a suit.” Wow. Hell of a way to defuse the full-name-call.

She watched him for a moment, eyes narrowed, then nodded as if he was telling the truth. Stark just slurped more at his smoothie of doom.

Whatever. Clint had played cook long enough, he was going to have some damned waffles.

“These are AWESOME,” he groaned, after he’d doctored his first one up with all of the toppings. And he really meant all. Thor clapped him on the shoulder. “Indeed, Master Archer, indeed.”

He didn’t look up when Jane Foster came in, looking as tired as Stark and Banner, but he did scoot aside so the wee scientist could climb in Thor’s lap because, well. He was a god. Who was going to deny him some PDA? Plus, he’d called Clint Master. Heh. And he kept plowing through the rest of the food—shit, he’d forgotten the bacon—when Rogers was the last to arrive and the only one besides Pepper dressed for the day. The poor sonofabitch did a spit take as all the electronic things stated playing “Star Spangled Man.”

“Stark,” Clint growled, and Stark batted a hand at the air. “What? He’s Captain America. That’s easy. You’re a complex creature, I mean, you make waffles and shoot shit.”

“I know how to make toast,” Rogers said. He managed to make his petulance sound cute. That was a skill right there.

“Milk, coffee, tea, sir?” JARVIS asked, and Rogers looked up and around for the voice.

“Um. Juice, if you have it?” Stark was watching Rogers with interest—much the same way Banner had been watching him, moments ago.

“Cranberry, orange, apple, tomato, V8, or…”

“Tomato, please,” Rogers said, looking around at the waffle-crumb carnage. “I smelled chocolate upstairs.”

The waffle iron bleeped, Dummy still holding the cup with the rest of the batter. Rogers went to get up, but Stark waved a hand and the long-armed robot just stopped. “Dummy, you head downstairs, I’m gonna need your help with the blowtorch,” he asked, pulling out a plate from the china cabinet of awesome, then held it out for Waffle-y to do his magical dumping action.

“Someone’s been watching Harold and Kumar,” Nat said out of nowhere, and Stark just snorted.

“My best ideas come from movies, sometimes. Even if he doesn’t shoot syrup.” He grabbed the carton of tomato juice and a glass from the fridge, plunked them down in front of Rogers, then said “Gonna head back down to the lab, see you all later, kids, have a good day, don’t kill anyone who’s not a villain, at least without calling me first, have fun storming the castle, etcetera.” He leant in and gave Pepper a very chaste peck (probably to avoid getting grease on her suit, and she pecked him back with twinkling eyes) then straightened and winked at the room.

“Where’s my kiss?” Clint asked, because really. If Pepper was going to get kissed, Stark should share with the rest of the class. Stark smirked at him and then, gently, placed a small kiss on top of Banner’s head, cheek-pecked Darcy while she goosed him, offered his hand out to Phil only to get hauled in for a smack, kissed Foster’s hand and mmmmmphed in surprise when Thor hauled him in for—shit, was that tongue? No alien demi-god was going to beat Clint, and hmm. Stark was a good kisser, his ass was also pretty damned firm. Those rumors about him not working out were bullshit. Natasha let Stark kiss her hand, just like Foster, and then Stark offered Rogers a tiny salute, one straight out of the old-time fan club comics, the special ones you had to pay extra money to be in and complete special tasks like the Boy Scouts and other shit Clint knew way too much about because Phil’s obsession was communicable, so it seemed. Rogers actually startled before giving Stark the return salute, and then the billionaire genius was bouncing out of the room with Dummy clanking behind him.

“Noon, Tony!” Pepper called, then issued more specific instructions to JARVIS.

JARVIS and she agreed on some schedule for Tony, and then Pepper arose.

“Welcome to the funhouse, y’all,” she smiled, a soft hint of her native South creeping in to her greeting. Whatever else she was saying was eclipsed by all the appliances going nuts at the magic word of the day.

“Funhouse?” he tried, after all the bleeping died down. It didn’t erupt, so… “Y’all.” The machines all erupted with glee.

Cool. Electronic Pee-Wee’s Playhouse it was.

Chapter Text

He’d spent too much of last night thinking—too much of the day, really, after Stark’s robot had asked him to stand ready to assemble in the kitchen at four p.m., Captain, in order to assist in the return of Loki and Thor to Asgard. It had been so strange to hear a voice just like some of his old RAF buddies. But at least, now, they’d seen off Loki and Thor with the—devices that Stark and Banner and Foster had just invented overnight. It had looked magic, but Banner had been talking about welding and silicon content and Foster had been saying something about sine waves and space curvatures when Clint asked her how the Tesseract cage was supposed to get Loki home, so he supposed it was just more he had to learn.

Stark had appeared amazing, on time, sir, his robot had intoned, and Stark had flipped the bird at the ceiling. He was dressed in a suit, one even Steve could tell was handmade, his hair standing a little less on its ends, as he said “Okay, kiddies, press conference is over, sorry you had to wait, shall we get this intergalactic wormhole on the road?”

With the two brothers gone and the mission completed, Steve wasn’t sure what to do. Except he needed to get out. Figure out what to do next. Think some more about how much had happened in just a few days. Well, a few weeks, really, but the past two days the most.

As if his thoughts had called him, Steve noticed a flicker at the side of his vision and turned. There was a tall, dark-haired man, bigger and broader than Stark, standing off to the side with a motorcycle that was just like what he’d had in the war. He raised his hand at Steve, waving, as everyone else was shaking hands, seeming to part.

“Happy brought your bike,” Stark said from behind. Steve suppressed a jump and turned, tried to smile.

“That’s a hell of a replica,” he replied, because—the room Stark had given him last night had contained no tech except a basic laptop and JARVIS, a respite after the inundation of information.

Stark’s face twisted a moment before it smoothed out again. He didn’t know what that meant. “Oh, it’s the real thing. Dad got Phillips to give it to him after the war, collected the rest of your stuff and stashed it at the Mansion because he was going to find you.” He shrugged, tipping his shoulder. “I upgraded the engine a while ago to take current fuels, but otherwise it’s in mint condition. Nobody rode it, not even Dad.”

“You didn’t have to have your mechanic do that,” came out of his mouth even as his throat tightened because-- Howard had looked for him? Fury had said, but it was different to hear it from Howard's son. Howard had kept his things, gotten things from the Colonel that were his?

Stark’s “I didn’t,” was as much an admission that he’d caused something nice to be done as he supposed Steve would get. Certainly, he’d refrained from sarcasm in his direction this morning, though that entire breakfast had been so surreal, all those machines and everyone else completely comfortable with something Ms. Lewis had said was completely Star Trek, on crack. He’d taken the tone, if not the exact meaning. Didn't these people ever talk without making pop cultural references?

“Do you mind if I…”

Stark clapped him once on the shoulder. “Have at it. 890 Fifth, JARVIS will let you in, tell you where the stuff is.”

The idea that—not everything had been lost, that Howard had saved things for him. He felt short of breath in a way he hadn’t even when he’d gotten knocked down by that blast and Thor had hauled him up to his feet.

“Thanks. Thanks very much.” He grinned down at Stark, shook his hand firmly, then took off for the bike. Stark’s mechanic had tossed him the keys without any facial expression, hadn’t even said a word before he took off, raising an arm up at—Stark, likely, behind him—then shoving his hands in his pockets like he was looking forward to the walk through the park.

In his bomber jacket—the one that had been in the closet this morning, along with lots of other clothes that—had fit and weren’t too strange—something beeped. He pulled the cell phone out of its pocket.

Plug this in every night, standard adapter, and if the Avengers are needed, you’ll get a call. There’s always room at the Tower. –AES

That was nice. He lifted an arm, raised it to wave at Stark and Banner, who were climbing into a neat little pop-top, then waved at everyone else. A bike. His bike. And his stuff. He already knew what had happened to pretty much everyone—it had been the first thing he’d looked up, and then he'd spent way too much time at the gym—but he’d thought all his things were lost, gone. But they weren’t, because of Howard. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Chapter Text

“If you think I can write that off as a training exercise, you’re insane. More insane.”

Tony looked up, but didn’t stop in his stretch over the giant, round table for a slice of pizza. The rest of the Avengers were working on their own slices, beer bottles and glasses of wine and soda, take-out plates of salad and boxes all over place. Superheroes they might be, but they made a fucking mess when they ate.

“It’s an equipment malfunction, through and through, Rhodey. And hey, thanks for bringing the suit by, JARVIS’ll have the guys upgrade it for you. You want pepperoni, meat lovers’, or this vegetable shit Foster and Banner think isn’t an insult to all that is junk food, or one of the other abominations of so-called pizzas?”

“I’ll have the Hawaiian,” he added. “And a beer.” Dummy started to wheel over with a Sammy Light grasped in his pincers. “I thought he wasn’t allowed out of the workshop.”

Tony took a swig of his soda, fingers, as always, delicately extended like he was having tea with the queen. The most profane asshole he knew, and Tony could teach Emily Post about table manners if he was in the mood. “He gave me the puppy camera eyes when I told him the supermetabolisms were moving in but wouldn’t be down in the lab all that much, and you know me, I can never resist a sad robot.”

Agent Coulson scooted his chair over, then pulled Jim off a slice and slid it onto the—great. Tony was using the good china for his superhero pizza party, even though he’d been bitching last week about Thor’s propensity to throw shit. Someone must have brought up Howard again if Tony wanted the family plates to get broken. “Thanks, Dummy,” he said, as the little helper made his clanking way around the table to much patting and greetings by the Avengers.

“JARVIS, how long will those upgrades take?” he asked. Not that it mattered, but appearances, whatever.

“Four point five hours, sir.”

“Slumber party!” Tony called, his expression veiled and his tone that phony-jocular that it got when he was annoyed about something. “You can sleep in the top bunk and tell me all about whatever Congressional subpoena you’re here to deliver.”

Romanoff snorted like she thought it was funny; Coulson just kept working on his own slice of ‘roni.

“Can’t a guy just visit his old college roommate?” Tony blew him a kiss but—yeah. They’d talk more, later.

Rogers, meanwhile, was watching Jim like he didn’t know what to make of his appearance—all the Avengers besides him had just turned and waved through the window when he’d landed, the armor assembly units taking the Machine off as he’d walked and Jim telling himself he was not going to dork out to Tony about how fucking cool that was. “Wait. Why do you have one of the Iron Man armors?”

Oh, Tony hadn’t been joking when he said Rogers was being stubborn about acclimating. Well. If Tony wasn’t going to engage in shock therapy, Jim was only here every once in a while. He’d never been a Captain America fan, but then again, he’d known Tony longer than anyone besides Happy, so he thought he had a basis.

“Tony would probably tell you it was no longer his armor once Justin Hammer weaponized,” he began.

“RUINED,” Tony said in chorus with Barton, the two men high-fiving. “Armor ruiner.”

“Hammer’s a pimp. The shitty pimp kind,” Barton muttered. “Remember those arrows that punked on me in Budapest, Nat?” Romanoff just rolled her eyes, like this was a frequent complaint, but Jim was used to interruptions around Tony and just kept going.

“The War Machine suit, but yes, Rogers, Tony is kind enough to let me pretend to be as badass as him. Sometimes, he’s even nice enough to call me before the military gets scrambled.”

Tony shrugged his I’m totally innocent, I know not of what you speak shrug, then passed him the ketchup. He might mock Jim all he wanted, but in the end, the pizza argument went way back to Cambridge and Tony knew what he liked. Slice decorated, he took a bite, then looked up at Tony. “You flew in Tommy’s?”

His old friend just smirked. “JARVIS might have said you were coming. I can never resist bad greasy pizza for breakfast.”

Thor mumbled something about the crust around the slice he’d just shoved in his maw. “Yeah, the sesame seeds really make it,” Jim agreed, and the demigod smiled around his mouthful of pizza. “Is…”

“Lewis and Pep should be here anytime,” Tony supplied. “Just finishing up some shit at the office. Lewis likes to work in the cutthroat corporate side of SI, especially since Pep said she could try on her shoes.”

“Right. And their being late has nothing to do with various cabinet members and other divisions of the Executive Branch calling me to find out if you’d completely lost it?”

Tony blinked innocence all over again, Romanoff laughing outright. “He didn’t do anything illegal at all. It’s his money to spend.” Her whiskey-warm voice sounded almost approving, and Tony actually blinked in shock before nodding.

“Like the Black Widow said. And I never disagree with a lady.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” Rogers finally said.

Coulson looked at Rogers strangely—the same way Jim’s dad used to look when he hadn’t finished his homework. “Stark bought back all of SI’s publicly traded stock. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commerce Committee were a little worried,” he began to explain.

“But I haven’t taken over the world or demanded sharks with laser beams,” Tony picked up the thread, rolling his eyes like laser beams were completely beyond him and not standard issue as part of his suits.

“One million dollars,” Foster sniggered into her beer, the scientists were even worse than the heroes, because Banner snarked “Frickin’ laser beams” and sci-fived her as Barton stroked an imaginary white cat and extended his pinky, so again, Jim stifled his urge to snark on his best friend because it was just Jim’s luck that only now was Tony finding a frat that he’d liked. He’d sniffed and turned up his nose at Tech, though no doubt he’d done it partly because he’d been underage and no one would risk the wrath of Stark v. the Boston police.

“You spent a million dollars to buy back your stock?” Rogers looked shocked and oh, God. Really? Had no one had the inflation discussion with him?

Tony laughed. Laughed and laughed and turned red and choked on something until Banner started thumping his back, but when he calmed down, he just said, “No. It wasn’t a million dollars, don’t sweat it, Cap.”

“The taking over the world, thing, though…” His voice trailed off as he turned thoughtful. Never a good thing, with Tony. Stuff tended to catch on fire when Tony turned thoughtful.

Jim nodded thanks when Coulson slid him another slice as he finished his first. Yep. The Agent was solid.

“Not until Tony figures out how to make me those rubber pants,” Banner began, actually smiling beneath his mild-mannered tone,

“Burlap chafes me so!” Barton high-fived Banner this time and Jesus, it was like walking into an episode of Big Bang Theory. Except with more weapons.

Thor boomed—literally—his laughter shaking the windows. “I find the anthropomorphized white mice most amusing.”

“It’s a cartoon,” Foster said, leaning in to Rogers. “Pinky and the Brain. The other one was a movie—really bad, about super spies and the villain and hero were played by the same guy,”

“JARVIS, put them in the movie night rotation, please,” Tony interrupted, clearly getting bored with the discussion. “More milk, Cap? How ‘bout some salad?”

Rogers narrowed his eyes at Stark. “How much did you spend?” Not that he didn’t hold out his glass for more milk, still. Of course Rogers drank milk. How did Tony not spend all day punching the man?

Stark shrugged. “Not sure. It’ll be in the papers tomorrow. The board was being a pain in the ass, I’d much rather just listen to Pepper.”

“Because your girlfriend is far more accountable than a board of directors…” Why did Rogers say it that way? What the fuck did he know about corporate governance?

“Have you not met Pepper?” Jim interjected. Really. Had he not met Pepper?

Then in walked the woman herself, Lewis stalking along in Louboutins beside. “Hi, honey, hello, heroes, Rhodey, hi!” Pepper exclaimed, looking pleased with herself as she sank into Tony’s lap. Yech. PDA. “Oooh. Veggie lovers! I love you, Bruce,” she said, settling better into Tony’s lap as he adjusted an arm.

“Jane insisted, too,” Banner effaced, and Pepper blew the woman a kiss before turning back to give Tony a peck. Lewis, meanwhile, was playing what Tony had told him was “Kiss, Kiss, Goose,” everyone’s bad habit of someone making out with the whole table at mealtimes, “It’s all Barton’s fault, he’s a slut, last to arrive, first to leave has to give everyone kisses,” Tony had laughed as he had explained, sounding happy and loose in a way he hadn’t in years.

It made Jim a little bit jealous, if he’d admit it only to himself, and it wasn’t like Tony hadn’t extended the invitation a million times, “Just use War Machine to commute to DC, you’ll be there in twenty minutes, you know it,” he’d say, then try not to sound too disappointed that Jim thought 300 mile commutes were unreasonable, jet thrusters or not.

“And you must be Rhodey,” said Lewis, after she pecked Coulson on the head and said “Hey, robo-agent, ‘sup?” Her eyes narrowed, assessing. “I was just making fun of all the skinny bb! Tony pictures on Pepper’s desk at SI, and asking who the cool dude with the ‘fro was in his college graduation pictures.”

“It was a fade,” he insisted. He’d just needed a haircut because they’d been in the lab for a couple of weeks to finish Jim’s project (since Tony, of course, had finished his early and was working on post-doc shit by that point) and it had gotten kind of, well, long. Lewis laughed and rubbed his short cut once before leaning in to give him a peck on the cheek and a whispered “I want tongue, the next time,” before moving on to greet Thor by. Yeah. Dude had a big lap, to hold both Foster and Lewis as Lewis prattled about her new corporate platinum card and Foster tried not to look bored.

Hard scientists. Hah. Corporate power games went right over their heads (unless you were Tony, and then mostly, you just didn’t care, until you did, and then it got all of your really pissed-off attention).

“Why would you buy your company back?” Shit. Was Rogers still on that? Why hadn’t Tony explained?

Tony was picking the meat off his pizza and eating it one piece at a time, in typical fucked-up Tony’s not in the mood for solids fashion—so Jim intervened.

“Boards of directors are a pain in the ass when you discontinue profitable lines of business, even when you’re the majority owner and the one setting the intellectual tone for the rest of the company. So when said person decides he’s no longer going to continue a particular investment on moral grounds, the fiduciary duty the board gets stuck on is shareholder profit, not responsible business practice.”

“All my shit makes money,” Tony agreed, pouting as Pepper stole a piece of his bacon. “Lots.” He shrugged. “But it’s my company, and if I don’t want to do something any more, fuck some stuffed shirts who are going to be out a few million dollars because I don’t want to go along with corrupt government shit any more.”

Rogers looked like he couldn’t decide whether to praise Tony for his (vaguely worded) but laudable sentiment or disapprove of Tony’s language.

“I think it was more the timing of it and the withdrawal from arenas given the simultaneous world-wide exposure of said shady government shit that had people concerned. Everyone but the President’s worried you’re on some kind of fatwa.” Not that Tony hadn’t given him the heads up about that, and hey, the Avengers were at least good for him that way, he’d started to pay more consistent attention to the stuff he’d always cared about, but today had clearly been the culmination of months of planning, even for Tony, shit that had to go back to before the Avengers ever showed their highly photogenic selves to the world as they saved it.

“A few million dollars?” Rogers asked, boggling.

“Yeah, you were in the gym when the shit hit the fan on CNN,” Barton announced. “It was awesome.”

Coulson said nothing, but then, he probably wouldn’t. Tony had merely called Jim to say “I was hacking around doing some recon on IP leaks and following up some findings about tech of mine being stolen, and I found out some shit that indirectly involves my investments. But, um, it more directly involves the nuke those assholes fired at New York, so I’m buying my stock back and having the assholes neutralized.” He’d been worried until Tony had assured him that Phil Coulson was the one handling the neutralization aspect of things (and had decided plausible deniability was the way to go on the identity of “those assholes”). Since the agent had been so discreet with the LMD thing, Jim hadn’t worried (and had almost forgotten the entire conversation) until the people who normally consulted him on Tony’s sanity starting blowing up his Stark Phone and then there’d been the report of that crash at the tail end of a really big news day in which Tony Stark’s finances had been a relatively small blip on the radar. Neutralization meant a number of different things to a certain SHIELD agent, or so it seemed.

He did not want to know any more. It made sworn testimony all that much cleaner.

“That’s a lot of money,” Rogers opined. “Couldn’t that be better spent,”

“No,” Phil Coulson said, looking straight at Rogers. “It couldn’t.” His glance at Stark was so neutral that it was, in itself, telling, and that, that was interesting, because Rogers didn’t seem to note it, rounding instead on Tony until Pepper held up a hand and said—“Steve, frankly, it’s not really your call, and in any event, I agree that it was the only possible call, not that it matters because,” and her eyes narrowed, “it’s still Tony’s billions and he can spend them however he wants. Including on you hungry lot.” She stood, kissed Tony once on the nose, and said with all the quelling force only Pepper Potts could muster—“I’m going to go change. Rhodey, you want to join us, upstairs, for a drink?”

“You know me, Pepper. I’m always good for at least two for the road.”

She smiled, then did the rounds of the table, dispensing pats and pecks and half-hugs to everyone but Rogers, whom she just clasped on the shoulder before saying, “Goodnight everyone.”

Tony popped up. “I’m done, too. Goodnight, everyone,” he said, his smile stiff as he strode from the room.

“You know, Rogers,” Jim said into the silence that broke. At least most of the Avengers had the sense to frown at Tony’s sudden retreat. “I’m going to just say what no one here will, and I’m going to say it to you not just as Tony’s best and oldest friend, but as another soldier. Get up to date on the future and up to date on Tony Stark, because you’re lacking serious intel and you’re lucky nothing’s exploded on you. Yet. Frankly, I don’t know why he puts up with your second-guessing, much less why he continued funding those stupid missions to find you after his douchebag Dad died. ”

Rogers’ jaw gaped, and. Aww. Jesus. Tony hadn’t told him about all the funding he’d sunk into SHIELD and those damned Arctic expeditions. Why the fuck not? Usually Tony was all up in people’s grills when they were being self-righteous assholes.

Well. Fuck Captain America and his old-fashioned feelings. Jim didn’t give two shits about that, just about the guy who’d flown in his favorite pizza, even though Tony hated Tommy’s and couldn’t even bring himself to do more than pick off the toppings. Shaking his head at Roger’s slack, shocked expression, he stood, addressed JARVIS. “JARVIS, would you be so kind as to download the report I presented to the Armed Services Committee about the Iron Man project and my subsequent updates? Including the pictures? Then forward them to Captain Rogers, along with all other relevant data my clearance level allows?”

“Certainly, Colonel Rhodes,” the AI replied, his tone—yeah—approving. He’d made the right call if JARVIS was pissed.

“Do your homework, soldier,” he snapped, saluted the rest, and strode from the room. Captain, Jim’s ass.

Chapter Text

Tony was, of course, down in the lab when Bruce arrived at what anyone else would say was too early and for Tony was probably some x-minus lost time he was making up for in the lab, what do you mean it’s Thursday, but say what you would about the effects of the Other Guy, Bruce didn’t need all that much sleep if the Hulk had been mostly dormant. The serum had affected him that way, at least, in the manner intended—and though he’d certainly aged, it wasn’t at the rate anyone in his family had, nor had he been sick at all since his misguided attempt to quell the demons he’d already had inside him. Be a better man, a real man, all that shit his father would spew and yes, Bruce had known better, as an intellectual/psychological thing but—you tell it enough to a child and it doesn’t matter how smart the grown-up might get. The littlest, smallest parts of you still believed. The Hulk still believed.

Dr. Banner might not, but Bruce? He believed, too. And it made him angry. Angry at the people who didn’t love him and should. Angry at himself for not being worthy. Angry at everyone else who never noticed.

And then he met Tony Stark, and if possible, he got even more mad.

If it wasn’t love at first sight because Bruce was a scientist, he didn’t believe in that shit, the fact still remained. Tony got it. Always had. And not just because Bruce had met Howard Stark once in the early course of his own research and the man had been an unmitigated asshole.


That kind of parental bullshit fucked you up in all sorts of ways. It made you either “shy” and “mild-mannered” like Bruce (angry, so fucking angry, all the damned time) but he knew most people were wrapped up in their own worlds and it was hard enough to get out of bed every day, much less notice the suffering of others, and he couldn’t (shouldn’t, because he had and that proved he could) take out his anger on them. Or, it made you like Tony Stark, a seemingly extroverted, aggravating little shit who didn’t care what the fuck you thought because fuck you, he was going to do what he wanted, whenever, however (and if he designed you new floors and flew up your girlfriend from her semi-captivity with the Army and shrugged when you asked him "How, Tony?" and somehow cowed her asshole father with the force of his ire and fussed over perfecting those nanotech Lycra pants in purple because it was the Hulk’s complement on the color wheel and that was “science, damnit, come on, Bruce, work with me here,” and then let you help him upgrade his AI—a projected alterego (superego) if Bruce had ever met one, and it wasn’t like he’d thought on the matter at all, not really, never.

Except Tony had told him he'd told JARVIS to learn, and learn JARVIS had, reflecting all the best parts of Tony (his politeness when asking for things he didn’t think he deserved, his wit and sarcasm when others were being stupid, his sheer, staggering genius uninterrupted by pesky human emotion, by mere physical form, the ability to go anywhere, do anything)—and if Bruce ever told Tony that, though he was sure JARVIS would likely agree, Tony would laugh like he’d told a dumb joke, or startle and bolt from the room.

Extroverts like Tony Stark weren’t, really. They were just introverts who had even more to prove than Bruce did—and that was the thing that scared him. Not of Tony, but for. And for the first time in, well, a while, it made him angry on someone else’s behalf.

“Stop thinking so hard,” Tony muttered, one hand propping up his head as he spun the DNA model (oh, the GMO sweet potato revisions) in the air and blew up one segment.

Bruce poured some now-sludgy coffee from the carafe and slurped down the hot tar, calculating with one part of his mind how old it was given the burner's heat and the rate of dissolution, compensating for how badly Dummy made coffee, often mismeasuring the water. But in any event, Tony’d left dinner at 10, right after Rhodes had told off Steve Rogers (he was sure JARVIS was amused when he’d asked for a replay, later, in his own room), and he’d heard the two of them go flying, later (JARVIS having either lied or underestimated the time to upgrade the armor) even as his own hack into the Tower’s feed (was it really a hack if he was sure JARVIS knew?) showed that Pepper’d then left with their driver, dressed in the same clothes she’d appeared in for supper.

Of course, he knew she didn’t always stay here, Tony had said so, a casual shrug to Natasha’s question about why Pepper sometimes made it to breakfast and sometimes didn’t. (Though he was sure she already knew and was testing ... something.) Since Tony hadn’t offered either too much information or averted his eyes, Bruce had figured at first that it was something they’d agreed worked for them, but—the longer he lived under Tony’s roof (ate Tony’s food like everyone else, used Tony’s tech, even if he cooked and cleaned his own floor and tried to figure out how and if he and Betty were going to be able to do (this? Anything? Something? he was out of practice)), the longer he wondered if it was an agreement at all, or if Pepper merely came and went as she pleased and Tony didn’t want to think about it, so he … did not. Bruce was very familiar with that kind of deflection. It was, after all, what had led him out of bed with his girlfriend, the one he was glad and so, so confused to see once again, and down here, to Tony’s lab. To his and Tony’s lab, because he had his own space, but he worked better here in the dark, with the noise and the smells and Dummy’s terrible coffee that he made on an antique prototype of the machines upstairs, because Tony Stark was sentimental about his machines and wouldn’t ever throw anything out that had served him well, without real question. (Or, at least he figured Tony was able, on a subconscious level, to tell the difference between JARVIS’ sarcasm, Pepper’s scolding, Rhodes’ straight-out-bitchery, and Bruce’s occasional bro-trolling and people who—had less of an idea of how to deal with him.)

“Either drink some coffee or go to bed. You’ve been up for three days, you need your beauty rest if you’re going to start staging multi-governmental coups as part of your genius billionaire playboy philanthropist duties. Plus, Fury's probably going to call, and I don't care that you're not afraid of him, I can't even imagine dealing with that asshole without at least some sleep under my belt.”

Tony blinked at him in the half-light of the room, the better to work with his (amazing, wondrous, ridiculous) holographic data. “You’re not my mom,” he replied, making no comment on the WSC takedown (as much an admission as he’d ever make) but it was an old argument (only a month, but an old argument, still, and that was nice, a shared history with osmeone) so Bruce retorted “No, I’m more a pearls guy than diamonds,” and asked JARVIS to save Tony’s work even as Tony accepted Bruce's mug and finished the dregs in one gulping slurp. “Come on. I made khulfi last night, we should finish it before everybody gets up.”

“Pistachio or rosewater?” Tony asked, eyes narrowing in deep suspicion. (Not that it wasn’t warranted. Tony Stark had a terrible sweet tooth, and he’d eat ice cream even when he wouldn’t eat anything else, just drink booze and coffee and those anti-palladium smoothies he’d apparently gotten used to. Bruce might not be a real medical doctor, but he’d read enough over the years, had his own theories about the effect of that electromagnet on Tony’s body that—if Bruce had a frequent penchant for making ice cream, no one could say it wasn’t something he’d picked up in his travels and now indulged in on Tony’s dime.)

“Both,” he answered. Because it was true. “I combined the flavors. It’s pretty good, though I might have put in too much sugar versus the pistachio cream. And Betty…”

“Chocolate,” Tony sighed, rolling his eyes. “Why is it always chocolate?” (Not that he hadn’t filled the freezers and cabinets in the kitchen on Bruce’s floor with chocolate even as Betty was apparently being flown here, and how Tony had gotten the General to stand down, he wouldn’t say, nor would JARVIS, and Bruce believed in all sorts of things besides being angry, including gift horses and mouths, but-- it was just that—he hadn’t thought of that penchant of his girlfriend’s in years, and it hadn’t occurred to him then that Tony Stark, who could know everything, actually did. At least as far as it went toward pleasing people he worried about.)

As they rode the elevator up to Bruce’s floor, he wondered only when Tony would figure out he was screwing around with the relative ingredient measures just so Tony would be more focused on picking apart the effect of each than on the fact that he’d usually put away a half gallon the whole time he was debating with Bruce—you know. Helping Bruce perfect the recipe. Without the rest of the Avengers. Because-- Thor was a pig, Steve’s palate was simple (who didn’t like ginger ice cream?) and anyway, he was still too cautious for Bruce’s taste, thanks, though he wouldn’t flinch like Nat had if he yelled so there was no point in being a troll, he just ignored his stupid, hurtful well intentions the best that he could and waited for the day when Tony would punch him, because it was Tony’s house and Bruce wouldn’t do his host out of the pleasure-- and sometimes Bruce couldn’t deal with the girls when they all got going (though he was glad for Betty that she liked Jane and Darcy and Pepper and even Natasha, and he wasn’t going to ask, no, what they did that one night they all staggered back at ten the next morning, not drunk but totally, completely giddy), the easy closeness between Clint and Coulson and the complete (edgy, quite, high-functioning) paranoia either one of them fell into when the other was out of the room, especially Clint. Well.

Too many people stressed him out, even the Avengers, even Betty, but Tony was easy, liked him, knew (though no one would believe it) when to shut up and work, and, well. Hulk liked Tony as well. So he made ice cream, and asked Tony’s feedback. For science. (And if for science actually meant it was something he could do for Tony, not that the several patentable things they’d come up with together already weren’t some kind of payback, but Bruce could invent anywhere, but doing it here, with Clint to watch cartoons with and Thor and Jane to double-date with and … everyone, but especially Tony, then—ice cream? Friendship? Science? Call it whatever you want. Mostly, Bruce tried to call it friendship inside his head, and science, outside. Even someone as smart as Tony Stark would need time to understand that his own beliefs (theories, understandings of human action, call them whatever you liked) were incomplete and there was still time to not be. Young in his heart and far, far too old in his soul. Shy in the loudest possible way. Angry. Incredibly, badly angry.)

If there was one thing Bruce understood better than anything else, it was what it was like to be angry.

Chapter Text

“I think I may have screwed things up with Stark.”

Darcy waved a hand at the voice to enter, sit, all that stuff, while she glared at the copy machine of doom (okay, not doom as in Victor Von Doom, Doom, just, why the fuck did everything in Stark’s tower have to think for itself?) and said, sternly, “If you don’t finish collating those copies, I’m going to donate you to the kindergarten class down the street and then you’ll do nothing but look at bad drawings of sunshine and puppies all day. So give me my SEC filings before I tell Tony you need an upgrade.”

The thing displayed Sorry, Darcy, on its readout panel. Please don’t tell Tony.

“S’ok,” she said, patting it on the lid when the last batch was stapled and she could pull them out and plop then in the box that was going down to Legal. She could swear the thing actually sighed in relief. Tony’s home appliances loved him, but the office ones were all a little bit scared; she supposed it reflected Tony’s general attitude to “official work shit,” as he said poetically, but she didn’t have time to delve into the heads of copy machines, or wherever their Stark-implanted personalities came from.

Once she had the stuff boxed and sent a text down to Dwayne, she turned and sat on the edge of the counter, her black pencil skirt hiking up as she dangled one leg ending in some kick-ass Prada platforms over her knee. Her visitor, of course, was ignoring her sexy secretary pose and looking her straight in the eye, but she could tell he liked the view (or was perturbed by it, just as good, really, she liked discomfiting people) because his neck was staining red. Redder.

She had no idea how Steve Rogers had helped defeat the Nazis. It was nothing clandestine, that much was sure.

“You think?” she asked, because, um. Duh. Rogers’ expression fell and Darcy Lewis was all kinds of things, but mean for more than three seconds wasn’t one of those things. She didn’t have superhero/villian abandonment/daddy/vile scientific experimentation/lightning strikes in space/on Earth etcetera issues to deal with. She was just sarcastic because she’d always thought the best friends in those screwball films from the 30s always had the best lines. And now she had the outfits to boot, thank you Tony and Pepper and this kick-ass crazy job.

“Alright, c’mon, coffee break, no, it’s almost three, screw this shit, let’s go get some ice cream,” she said, sliding down off the counter and amusing herself (endlessly, really) at the way Cap blushed at her language. “You, make sure no one but Dwayne from Legal takes this box,” she said, tapping Chameleon on the lid (what? He copied, in colors, it was better than Waffle-y, for fuck’s sake) as she approached the Cap. “JARVIS, you can file the electronic copies, now, too.”

The copy machine bleeped as she looked up at Steve Rogers, who no longer did the wide-eyed thing when people talked to machines, but still managed to look all Sad Panda most of the time even though Darcy knew he could text, download phone apps (boring ones, too, if you wanted to know the weather, why not look outside? Anything more, they could ask Thor…), and shoot All the Things at Tony’s gun range, not to mention work the coffee machine. Since the last two weren’t something she could always manage, especially all the shooting, she thought Cap was doing pretty damned well. These days, she just glared at Damnit, Gimme My Coffee (or Gimme, as she not-fondly called it) until it gave her her usual order, either that, or staggered across the street to Starbucks in her jammies and Crocs when she was hungover. They'd even named her triple-espresso spiked latte with hazelnut syrup, of course I want fucking whipped cream the Darcy. You knew you'd made it in Manhattan when they named a drink after you.

She grabbed her purse from the bottom drawer of her desk, said “JARVIS, tell Pepper I’m meeting with Steve, here,” and waved a hand over a panel on the wall to turn off the lights. The AI’s dreamy British “Certainly, Miss,” was agreeable enough, but then, JARVIS tended to keep his bitchy side to the residential parts of the Tower.

“I didn’t know JARVIS was installed in the offices, too,” Steve offered, as he punched the elevator button, then punched it again. Yep. The Captain was nervous.

“JARVIS is installed everywhere. He’s like, uploaded into all of Tony’s satellites so he can go all SkyNet whenever he wants, isn’t that right, JARV-a-reeno?”

JARVIS’ dry “Come with me if you want to live,” was timed perfectly with the opening of the elevator door.

Steve blinked as Darcy laughed at the perfect, completely perfect joke. “You’re joking.” She was pretty sure he didn’t get the quote, so he must be talking to her. JARVIS stayed silent. Well, she already knew the AI didn’t care for the Captain at all, and while she didn’t think Steve had put that much thought into whether he liked what he thought was a very high-functioning computer, she bet herself a fresh waffle cone that he found JARVIS’ omnipresence a little annoying, if not overwhelming.

She shrugged. “I’m not. Tony’s paranoid with a capital P, and after the World Security Council fired that nuke off the ship, you know, the one Fury is supposed to be lord and master thereof and yet he couldn’t stop it, he decided that he’d better send Jarvy-poo for a walk so no one could access him at the tower. Plus, you know, the unlimited computing power involved in uploading yourself to half the communications satellites and their relays as they orbit the Earth is pretty bitchin’.”

“Unlimited is not technically accurate, Miss Lewis, there is a finite capacity, though granted the capacity is factorials larger than the server space at SI, so the possibility of using it all is quite small, given the rate of technological advancement. Moreover, Sir owns or has provided component parts for 70% of the satellites, not merely half.” JARVIS sounded sniffy. He didn’t contradict the bitchin’ assessment, however, or ask her to desist with the fond nicknames-- in his way, the AI was as cocky as his creator.

“I stand corrected,” she smiled, because JARVIS might be in some ways a radically different person than Tony, but at the end of the day, they both geeked about numbers.

The elevator doors opened soundlessly onto the lobby. “Shall we expect you for supper, Miss Lewis, Captain? Thor has indicated a wish to grill meats on the top deck. I have endeavored to ensure they are Earth meats. And notified the fire department.”

That surprised a laugh from Steve, who looked up and around before shaking his head.

“Um. Yes, please,” he answered, none of the people sitting at the tables and chairs or striding around on urgent Stark business looking askance at Captain America talking aloud to the air as JARVIS answered and gave them a time. Then again, he was less need-to-know than Bruce, Tony, Betty or Jane, all of whom tended to get swamped as they walked in the door by whatever R & D folks were getting their caffeine and vitamin D on through the glassed-over atrium roof, though the glass was some kind of computer display, too, because it showed TV when it rained.

“Where do you want to go?” Steve asked, once they’d hit the sidewalk.

“Oh, Van Leeuwen’s, down in the village,” she said, hailing a cab. They’d have old fashioned flavors, and she loved their gianduja. Steve, gentleman that he was, held the door for her as she slid in, looking over the cab and not down at her legs (she wondered if he’d call them pins inside his own head, or if she was more curvy a girl than could be said to have pins…). Pity. She’d have loved to make some dirty joke like she could with Rhodey or Pepper or Clint, but she didn’t want to be the one who broke Steve. Coulson would kill her; well, kill her more than he would when he got her latest report about the Trenton debacle. What had he expected, sending her out with Ant-Man?

“You know, I don’t think I really know what you do for work,” Steve said once Darcy’d given the driver directions.

Darcy laughed. “Officially? I am Pepper and Tony’s PA, or cat-wrangler as I like to call it, but I think my business cards say SHIELD liaison, since I also work with Coulson a lot and he’s the only SHIELD person Tony will deal with right now.” She straightened her skirt and winked at the driver, since he was checking her out in the mirror, and hey, he was cute if you liked turbans. They were a lot less weird than capes, so. “It’s a lot of phone calls and emails and occasional copying confidential shit they don’t want just any peon to see, like today, but I also kind of…” she waved her hand. She didn’t know if Steve knew that she’d been deputized to Coulson, most of the time, to make sure none of the superheroes burnt down the Tower or the rest of the world (supervillians being Coulson's department). Not that Coulson couldn’t do it himself with a paperclip, a bottle of white-out, and a big enough room, but he had more impulse control than Clint did. “Do whatever Coulson and Tony and Pepper need me to do.”

“Phil mentioned you handled moving my things from my SHIELD apartment,” he said, seemingly happy to avoid whatever thing about Tony he was really here to discuss. “Wait. You said Coulson was the only SHIELD person, but… Clint and Natasha live at the Tower, most of the time…”

“When your face is all over TV all the time because of, you know, saving the world with a guy in a cape wielding a magic hammer, a Hulk, a flashy flying suit of armor and Mr. Red-White-and-Blue, it’s kind of hard to work clandestinely,” she pointed out. Steve’s face was a study. Had it really never occurred to him that Clint and Nat’s statuses (stati? She’d have to ask Thor, he was awesome at grammar) as spies meant they had to, well, spy? And that being outed by the media meant they were kind of stuck with just being Avengers? “I think their official status is ‘Extended Leave,’ but technically, Tony’s still only a SHIELD consultant, even though he makes 90% of their tech.”

His “Oh,” was soft. Telling. “So what do they do all day? I mean, they train and…”

Darcy suppressed a sigh. She was going to kill Tony for making her be the one to acclimatize Captain Awesome when the rest of them had bet that one day, either Tony would punch him or JARVIS would lose his temper and make Steve watch what he’d missed, Clockwork-Orange style. But it had been inevitable, she supposed, that either Rhodey or Pepper would snap, and last night’s dinner was tense, after they left. She guessed Steve had been reading, most of the night, and now he had questions. Of course he'd come seeking the one not-superhuman or crazy scientist geek.

And people thought Tony Stark and his robot creations weren’t patient.

You owe me a raise. A big one. I’m taking Steve for ice cream and for The Talk. Yanno he’s not going to flirt with me once, he’s so totally decent. Send Thor in to do his I am a mere Norse God, Friend Steven, I have come to collect you for dinner with Happy Friend Hogan thing if we end up going long and get late for dinner. I need some protein.

Tony didn’t answer directly, but she did get an alert from her bank that she’d made a deposit. Ah, well, she’d take a look later, and then plan a spree with Clint and Natasha. The archer was awesome for telling her which outfits made her boobs look the best, and Nat had a fierce sense of color for someone who pretty much only wore black. For now, though, Project Bring Cap Up To Date was entering Phase B.

“Clint’s doing something for Tony in the practical testing department that involves lots of explosions, so he mostly goes to the plant in Newark when he’s not in the Tower, or training, but I gather it’s kind of ad-hoc and it’s not commercially available stuff, so, you know, team weapons and things Tony dreamt up after too many movies. Natasha, technically, still works in Legal, but she’s kind of a roving under-Pepper who goes to meetings Pepper and Tony can’t make but they need someone there to scare people into compliance.”

“I thought Stark didn’t make weapons, not anymore,” Steve said, his perfect forehead turning wrinkled. He looked like a big, golden shar-pei. She would not give him a noogie here in the cab, that or kiss his forehead.

“They’re not for sale,” she clarified. “He just makes them for, you know,” she waved her hand, “us, us and he consults with Richards and Beast and Xavier, too, produces their designs once they consult on advancement from prototype spec. And, y’know, he only charges cost plus ten, not that those guys can’t afford more, but I guess the superhero code includes no upcharging or something.” Plus, ten percent on shit that cost a million-plus dollars to make was still a lot of moola. Listening to herself, she was kind of impressed by how much of the business lingo she’d begun to pick up. She was going to be a corporate raider of the lost ark before Christmas, she knew it.

Steve’s face was blank. “Richards? Like, Reed Richards? And Xavier, like, Professor X?”

Okay. Fine. She was a little bit mean, but really. He kind of had it coming. “You know, you had a comic book, too. How much of that did they report correctly?” She was totally making him watch MIB when they got done with dinner.

Steve ran his hand over his face. “There are really mutants?”

He doesn’t believe in the X-Men or the Fantastic Four. I know you had Xavier over last week, what does he do, hide in the gym and wreck punching bags the whole day? It’s not like you don’t make your calendar public on the private servers. She didn’t bother to try to hide her text from Steve because he was polite and would never look over her shoulder. Sure enough, when she looked up from her Stark Phone, Steve was looking out the window, probably cataloging architectural changes or bemoaning all the half-naked people or something retro.

No. Sometimes he goes to the mansion and moons over all his old stuff, according to Happy. And he rides his bike out to the beach. Tony refrained from any really snark, so he must be busy. BTW, you look hot in that skirt, in case Capsicle never says so. Nice pins.

My boss bought the shoes and the skirt.

I hear he has excellent taste. The text was followed by an emoticon wink, and then a follow-up message. Thanks.

“Sorry,” she said, putting her phone back in her purse and trying not to smile too much. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And a Victor Von Doom. And a Wolverine, too.” After a moment’s consideration, she sighed. In for a penny, in for the whole spandex and cape-wearing pound. How was this her life? “I’d stay away from Logan if I were you. The part about the crazy Canadian general trying to turn him into the ultimate weapon is true, and he’s kind of cranky. Turns out a lot of the militaries all over the world thought following up Captain America was a good idea. He has like, negative interest in meeting you, though he and Bruce get along pretty well.”

“You’ve met him?”

She felt both badly for him and kind of annoyed. “You really shouldn’t have missed the Superheroes and Supervillians' Masked Amnesty Ball. Not only did it raise tons of money to rebuild New York, but Magneto’s kind of awesome when he’s not trying to kill you. And Dr. Strange is weird, but he’s a beast in the sack.” She smiled in fond memory of the end of that night, and then the next morning, into the afternoon. The good doctor was really magic, in all the ways that counted.

He stared at her before closing his mouth, his lips firming.

“I thought Tony was having me on, and you all were playing along when everybody dressed up and went out…”

She shrugged, then pulled her Black Amex out of her purse. So cool, to blow this shit on cab fare. She scribbled her phone number on the receipt, adding a big tip because 1) Stark totally owed her and because, b) the driver really was cute. He winked and gave her the Captain America salute. She loved New York. People mostly let the Avengers and Company just do their shit.

Steve, meanwhile, had already slid out his side so he could open her door, a slightly pissy look on his face like she’d done him out of something by not letting him pay. Well, maybe she had.

It was going to be a triple-hot-fudge meeting for sure. Smiling up at him, she took his arm, and gave it a pat. “I can tell you one thing. The DC universe? It’s an actual other universe, something quantum whatever, Jane and Thor can explain, with a whole different set of rules and culture, so the chances of the Justice League showing up on our doorstep are pretty darned slim.” Although a year ago, she wouldn’t have said Norse gods were real, either.

Fuck. She’d have to go shopping if there was a chance she might meet Wonder Woman some day. Diana Prince was totally hot.

Chapter Text

When they stepped out onto the top deck/landing pad/50th floor patio, everyone else was already sitting around on thin, modern furniture that didn’t look like it could be comfortable at all, whatsoever. Except, as he was coming to learn with all things Tony Stark, that looks were deceiving, and even those weird wire chairs around the inside fire pit had real back support.

“I’m not a, you know, artist,” Tony had said, “but then a lot of designers don’t know jack about materials science and ergonomics, so, I just buy stuff I like and then reverse engineer it until it’s the way that I want,” he’d explained to Clint once, after the archer had made some remark about those same, nearly unpadded chairs.

Natasha was still inside, at the bar, mixing what was likely some lethal concoction in a pitcher—probably Long Island Iced Teas, which even to Steve tasted strong. Naturally, Thor liked them a lot.

He’d long since given up on asking things like “Where did the gas grill come from” or whether it was okay to cook out on a skyscraper’s deck. Whether or not Miss Potts could and did handle all the details of making Tony’s visions come to life as everyone claimed, it seemed like the rest of the team took an interest as well, down to Miss Lewis and Agent Coulson, and he had no idea how that happened, without noticing at all, whatsoever.

He hadn’t been this unobservant during the war.

He also had no idea what to do, here. How did you apologize to a guy who had everything, and moreover, had literally given the Avengers everything they had at the moment? (Tony doesn’t like it when Nat gets drunk and calls the Tower Tony Stark’s Home for Wayward Heroes, so if she gets on that, distract her, bring up karaoke or something, Darcy had said, by way of explaining how he couldn’t just walk up to Stark and say “Sorry I was a jerk and thanks, I’ll try to do better?”) How did you apologize to someone who wouldn’t admit that he was a better person than Steve had ever given him credit for, especially when the rest of the team seemed to have known all along—or at least, far better than Steve?

Maybe it was just they were modern, used to people saying one thing and doing another. It seemed like an awful lot of emotional work. But Darcy had shaken her head, her long, glossy curls shaking down over her well-endowed bosom (finally, a woman who dressed like one and wasn’t too skinny, not like the rest of the Avengers’ girlfriends) as she’d said, “Nope, sorry, don’t tell me there aren’t things even back in the old days that you kept to yourself, rather than worry what people would say. Even Captain America’s got to have issues.”

Which, well, he did, though he’d kind of thought the serum would take care of those. Looked like all it took was putting him ahead seventy years to make him feel like that kid who got the tar beaten out of him in alleys all over again, though this time the battery was from information, from the weight of time rocking him back on his heels, from how things were so different and no one seemed to know, much less mind, all the things that they’d lost.

With one part of his mind, he sat down on the bench next to Betty and Bruce when Betty beckoned him over. Bruce shrugged a shoulder like he didn’t object ("Anyone ever tell you that your see the person, not the disability thing is kind of offensive, especially since Bruce was trying to be you and then your beloved Army fucked him over, big time?" was the way Darcy had put it over his fourth and her third hot fudge sundae. That dame could eat.) He offered a smile he didn't quite feel, answered Betty’s questions about his day (“Fine, thank you, and yours?”) and then listened as she went in to lots of scientific detail about some genetically modified foods project that Stark had put in her charge. Bruce’s comments were more inquiries of Betty than explanations to Steve—he’d been grateful, before, for the fact that Bruce, at least, hadn’t felt the need to stuff him too full of facts all the time, but now he wondered. How much of Bruce’s seeming camaraderie and amusement at the few jokes Steve would essay were condescension right back? Or even worse, pity?

How much had all of this feeling of team-work been false, just everyone feeling sorry for the walking anachronism who’d dug in his heels and refused to admit the future was now?

No wonder Tony Stark thought he was useless, or something not far off that mark. To someone like him, always looking ahead, someone like Steve would be—a relic, or worst, a ghost, one who sat at his table and under his roof and questioned every thing that he did because it was so alien that it had to be wrong, even if no one else questioned. He’d asked because—he was the captain, that was his job, or he’d thought it had been. Now, though, he suspected their silence was discomfort with his refusal to just—grow the heck up.

“Is he speaking,” he interrupted, because he didn’t mean to be rude, but the strategic part of his brain trying to dissect this problem had also noticed that Stark, standing with Thor next to a truly enormous grill, it had to be Hulk-weight, was speaking some language, not English, that had some of the strange sing-song qualities Thor’s speech almost had.

“Norwegian, yeah,” Bruce snorted. “Either that or Swedish. He knows both, I can’t tell the difference.”

Right. Stark hadn’t been bragging about being a genius. He’d merely been stating a fact. The file Natasha had compiled for Fury had said he was known to speak at least ten languages, though they hadn’t been listed.

“It’s Norwegian,” said Jane. “I learned some while I was at EISCAT in Tromso.” She smiled a slow, secret smile. “It’s as close as I get to All-Speak, but Tony makes more of a study of everything than I do. I’m happy just being an astrophysicist, even if he did steal my PA.”

“He just likes to show off,” Darcy said, settling down, barefoot, and throwing an arm over Jane’s shoulder as she ignored the comment about her defection. Her smile, though, and Jane’s, said they both were impressed while Stark gestured, animated about whatever-it-was he was saying and Thor nodded back, their speech fluent and completely incomprehensible except for a few English sciencisms that Steve wouldn’t get, no matter the language.

At least the grill was silent. Steve didn't think that today, he could handle another talking appliance.

“I don’t really get the thing with All-Speak,” he said. He could admit that, at the least. Was it magic? Science? Some kind of hidden computer? It was all very weird, setting aside the whole thing with the mutants and the recombinant DNA or whatever it was Darcy had said that had affected “The Fantastics,” as Darcy had said with deep sarcasm and air quotes. He still wasn’t sure he believed her, but her point about his own comic books was totally valid.

Bruce tipped an eyebrow up but just nodded, no quip coming forth. “It’s clearly its own language, if you listen to him when he’s talking in something besides what we hear as English, you’ll hear that his accent is totally native, not that semi-formal Shakespeare that so fascinates Tony.” He rubbed his thumb over Betty’s hand, his girlfriend shrugging and clasping him back. The scientists still seemed awfully shy with each other. It was nice to see that sign of affection.

“Don’t ask me,” she smiled. “I’m just a scientist with a decent IQ and one specialty field. We’re all dumb, next to Tony. And Bruce. And Natasha, but if we ever admit it, she’ll have to kill us.” Bruce’s smile at Betty was sweet. Also, disbelieving. He wondered why Betty didn't insist right at that point, but what did he know about women?

“I will, really,” said Natasha from behind them, her approach silent despite the full tray of drinks she carried. Her mouth was curved in that tiny moue that meant she was amused—an expression she wore more and more often these days, often when things labeled “explosive” in Stark’s draughtsman printing showed up on the kitchen table. She smirked as she handed glasses to their small group. “He doesn’t speak Latin, at least anything besides medical and botanical terms.”

“Right. Because everyone here besides you speaks Latin,” Clint called, from where he lounged on the hammock suspended between two support struts at the very edge of the deck. Thor looked up, chuckling, when Clint called something else that made Natasha whip a spoon at his head—fast, but not so fast that he didn’t just dodge to the side.

“Um, excuse me, are we throwing the good silver off the side of the building again? I mean, I put those force nets up to protect folks from your superassassin bullshit, but don’t make me make you all take this party inside just because the police get cranky about, oh, things falling off a 75 story building. Shields lose power, you know.”

Despite his scolding tone, Stark looked amused as he strolled over, his hands in his pockets. Today, he had on his regular cargo trousers (the ones that always held tape, small screwdrivers, lights, jeweler's loops, so much chewing gum and string that it made no sense to Steve), the light of his arc reactor obscured by the multiple t-shirts he wore. This one proclaimed And Justice For All, so at least Tony seemed to like one band with patriotic concerns. He made a mental note to look up the album. Maybe he could try, later, to talk modern music with Tony. His usual whiff of Gorilla Glue, industrial grease and something crisp and green that had to be some kind of soap wafted over to Steve as the breeze changed direction, following Stark. For once, he didn’t smell like ozone, so whatever he’d been doing today in his lab, it hadn’t involved any explosions.

That was another question he had, though he didn’t think he’d ask it. Why did no one seem to care about all the things Stark blew up?

Natasha just handed him a tall glass of whatever she’d poured from the pitcher, then waited, amused, as Stark made a show of considering the drink, the verdict very much hung until he said something to her—in Latin, Steve could tell that much—that made her laugh aloud.

“Gotta check on the pasta, I’ll be right back,” he said, smiling as he saluted them with his drink and then sauntered inside, his sneakers making no sound on the deck’s pavement.

Steve stood, debating. Miss Potts was in D.C., that was what JARVIS had said, and Colonel Rhodes was someplace “classified,” which only didn’t make sense because Steve had always had high clearance and should be able to know, but-- he supposed whatever he did and said here would be reported to them, by any, all and sundry, down to Tony's computer. Right now, everyone else seemed completely relaxed. Agent Coulson was fashioning projectiles from the stack of paper napkins at the table that had been strung with small Christmas lights, and he and Clint seemed to be enjoying pretending to be wounded each time the projectiles made contact. Clint, at least, was groaning and making lots of pew-pew sounds as he launched the balled up napkins back at his—well, whatever they were, Steve wouldn’t ask and if they didn’t want to tell him, it was nothing anyone talked about back in the war, nor was it his business—and Agent Coulson (Phil) Phil, Captain, only Stark calls me Agent, and that’s because he’s an asshole was smiling, as well as not wearing a suit, so he had to be pleased.

Darcy shooed him away, a smile on her face like she was used to shepherding insecure heroes. “Go find out if there’s like, a salad, a relish tray, maybe some pickles to nosh on.” She petted her stomach and curled one of her pale, elegant pins up under herself as she said “Mama’s had enough sugar, even for me.”

When he entered the living room/kitchen/fire pit/bar/enormous room that was generally where the team ended up, all together (for the most part) at the start and the end of the day, Stark was stirring something in a pot on the stove. It did smell like pasta.

“Darcy sent me for pickles. Or relish?” Stark nodded at a tray full of olives and other Italianate things that was already out on the table before he took a piece of pasta off the spoon he’d pulled from the pot and tried a piece for doneness. Steve liked pasta—inexpensive, filling, and tasty, and it had always been a real treat when he and Bucky could afford to go out to eat. To find that everyone pretty much ate it now as a regular staple was—one of the better things about the future.

“Can I chop anything?” There were a bunch of vegetables, some of which seemed to be cooked, sitting on the big chopping block next to the fridge, the one full of knives that Nat and Clint and Coulson liked to horse around with.

Stark shook his head, never turning around from the pot he was stirring. “Nah, Cap, I’m good, thanks, I got jack shit done in the lab, all theoretical stuff and phone conferences, I kind of want to do something concrete.”

Which … made sense, even if he probably didn’t want Steve’s help, regardless. But still. He didn’t want Darcy to cross her arms at him again and call him an assclown, so he should just bite the bullet and get this done with.

“Look, Stark, I…” he started to say, and Stark turned.

“Yeah, yeah, you’re sorry you were a Pre-judgey McJudgerson, you won’t do it again, you’ve learned from your mistakes and you’d like my help getting up to speed, yaddity, yaddity, I already ordered some books and things you can use since you don’t like computers, and hey, there are people born in the last twenty years who don’t like computers, I don’t get the whole analog thing, but that’s me, so, whatever, and I’m sorry too, it’s not like it’s easy for you, you kind of lost everything that you had after coming right out of a war zone and all of that stuff and I’m someone who doesn’t dwell on the past so it makes no sense to me not to want to know everything, all the time, okay, yeah, everything’s good, no worries, Cap.” The tumble of words came fluently out of his smooth, expressionless face-- like it was something he’d saved up just to interrupt Steve before the conversation could go anywhere. Of course, he hadn’t doubted that Darcy had reported something about their conversation, but apparently not all the details because as far as Steve could tell, Darcy thought Tony was a saint and Stark apparently wasn't aware of that opinion. A highly-sexed, sometimes-drunk, often profane saint, but nevertheless. She clearly thought the guy walked on water in between all her sarcastic remarks about “Boss Iron Man.”

“I’m sorry Howard turned into an assclown and turned your childhood room at the mansion into a museum to me.” There was something a little bit mean about him to enjoy the way Tony’s jaw hinged open a bit at his modern cut-to-the-chase, but he couldn't suppress the small thrill as Stark snapped his jaw shut because very few things seemed to shut Tony up. And then he felt himself flushing because Erskine had said—asked—told—gave him an order that he should stay "a good man." Not just a soldier, which was kind of how he’d been acting. Automatic. Waiting for orders. Reacting. Not planning. Not paying attention.

Stark grumbled “Happy’s got a big mouth, don’t listen to a damned thing he says,” before he picked up the pot and drained it over the sink, letting it steam while he picked up a knife and started to chop green things Steve still didn’t know all the names for (they had so much food, now). Right. So he shouldn't thank Stark for being the one (not his mechanic, never assume, and why had he, when he had no house staff besides Hogan and one or two other drivers?) to upgrade his bike, he guessed. Maybe? Stark sometimes seemed to like it when people praised his technical know-how.

It was about the reaction Darcy had told him he’d get, as she'd done distracting things to the marshmallow sauce on the back of her spoon. “He says he’s allergic to feelings, and he kind of is. If you start getting all sappy on him, he’ll either break out in hives from anxiety about what else he can give you so you’ll stop emoting in his general direction, or he’ll shut you up with some bitchy remark.”

Right. She was an astute cookie, that Miss Lewis was.

“You’ve done a lot for everyone on the team, even before I came along, and I’m sorry I didn’t see that, I honestly got used to getting my own way after I ditched Baird’s propaganda corps for the front, it never occurred to me that Fury was playing us all.” He was embarrassed, because as Rhodes had said, he was missing significant intel. But he was embarrassed, as well, for not being a leader, for not letting each one of his team prove themselves in their own ways—and Stark had already proven himself before Steve came along. No wonder he’d gotten right in Steve’s face. He’d been Iron Man longer than Steve had ever been “Captain,” and whatever reasons he’d done it, the fact remained that he was kind of the most senior superhero the Earth really had. (If Xavier wasn’t real, that is, and anyway, Thor might be a god but he'd only just started the full-time save-the-Earth thing; he gathered that Thor, somehow, was kind of young for his aeons.)

“Just because Fury’s got an agenda and has enough jackass in him for a whole donkey farm doesn’t mean he doesn’t mean well,” Tony snapped, wheeling with the knife up in a defensive posture. “I’m not happy with him for stealing my tech, but he pinky swore he wouldn’t do it again and in any event, the Avengers aren’t under his direct oversight anymore, so there’s plenty of time and distance to assess his info before we decide what to do.” He pursed his lips before saying “Every organization needs a head and scapegoat.”

Somehow, Steve didn’t think Stark was talking just about Fury. And the use of “we” was interesting, because he was sure Stark meant the Avengers, and yet. There’d been so much Steve was head-down about, that nuclear-missile shooting Council the very least among them.

“Well. I promise to pay more attention, if you want to try to break some new crazy thing to me.” Stark’s neck started to turn red and blotchy where he’d turned away and kept chopping things, his knife loud and hard on the workbench.

Oh, dear. He’d thought Darcy was joking about the hives.

“I’ll be, um, relish tray,” he said, feeling flustered, because he didn’t want to upset the man, really. Just, somehow acknowledge that he’d been a jerk, even if Tony Stark’s SOP seemed to default to punk. The urge to make small-talk, note that he’d never seen Stark cook something before—he bit the urge down, since other observations of things he hadn’t known about Stark had been met with sarcasm, or worse, a flat-faced “I do lots of things, Cap,” that really, only seemed to be the tip of the iceberg.

Well. Now he at least knew to mostly keep his mouth shut. Though he popped in one of the pieces of thinly sliced carrot, just to be sure. He could at least remember not to talk with his mouth full. And at least he had that on Thor.

Smiling, and feeling a bit more at peace, he picked up one of the small, pickled red peppers the size of his (okay, Natasha’s) little finger at the edge of the tray as he headed out to the deck. Hot foods couldn’t really hurt him, but it was enough of a surprise that he swallowed a stutter, then choked down the little wad of ooh, ow, hot, burning, hot even as Stark called out “Don’t eat the pickled thai peppers. They’re there for Bruce and Clint, they’re the only ones batshit enough to eat them.”

“Yeah,” he exhaled around the heat, and Stark laughed at his expression. “Okay, JARVIS, please get him the Oxford Food Dictionary, as well. It’d be just our luck that the serum doesn’t protect him from blowfish or something.”

He had no idea what that was, so he just nodded, accepting, but the fact that Stark was laughing directly at him, not (he realized in that very moment) being comparatively quiet and reserved compared to how mean he was to everyone else. Well, he hadn’t realized that that reserve wasn’t respect, but worry, like he was just waiting to Steve to light into him again with what Darcy had called his "Unfrozen Caveman Captain expression, you know, when you’re all, these things from the future, they are confusing to me, right before you accuse Tony of making shit up even though he can’t be bothered to not tell the truth."

Since he couldn’t get drunk, the fact that Stark was only now relaxing around him (in his own home, under his own roof that he’d designed and built and rebuilt by himself and let them move into and was always giving them things, even Steve, especially Steve, he'd funded the expeditions that found him, even though Stark had no reason, no reason at all) was more than sobering. It was kind of scary. How had he managed to hurt the one person he’d figured was impervious? Maybe the armor was more than just a metal casing that let Stark put his genius into red and gold, flashy action.

Steve balanced the relish tray, turned back out toward the patio, and carried those worrisome thoughts with him. He had a lot more than reading to do.

Chapter Text


“Hi.” The smell of green things and coffee wafted under her nose, right before Tony crawled around to her other side and pulled her in, tucking her head into his shoulder. She didn’t open her eyes, though of course the light from the reactor, even through her eyelids, woke her up just a bit. That was okay. She’d gotten in a solid two hours, she could handle a little catch-up with Tony.

“How’d the big summit go?” she asked. “I didn’t see anything on the news.”

“No personality or incendiary explosions at all.” He sounded happy, in that he wasn’t manic. Or ranting. His tone was quiet. “Kind of disappointing, really. I was sort of hoping that Rogers and Wolfy would get into it, but I think Charles told Logan to behave. He mostly just sat there and glowered. Cyclops was pompous, as always. I wish Baldy'd brought Storm, she'd better at offsetting Logan and Fury would probably dig her.”

“How’d Fury One-Eye behave?” Tony snorted, his breath warm and wet on her shoulder as he ran a hand down and over her back, gently rubbing. She knew she was mean, but Thor’s moniker for the SHIELD colonel was too perfect not to be used. And she’d spent enough time around Tony to come to believe that some people really deserved whatever sarcasm was heaped upon them—though she could never quite be sure when Thor was joking. He was either a really omniscient alien, or an actual god. Personally, she suspected that he used the “cultural differences” tag to get away with stuff his mother wouldn’t let him try on Asgard.

“He glowered, mostly. I have to admit, he showed a lot of restraint when Reed started bitching at him about not keeping the Fantastics and the mutants in the alien invasion loop. The guy’s a dick, but you can totally hear him thinking ‘I’m not going to tear this motherfucker a new one, doesn’t he understand about multiple response teams?’” Tony sighed, and she squeezed him. He was trying so hard to be fair. It was not his natural state, at least not until recently, and not that she really blamed him. Most people just figured he’d push for whatever he wanted and tried to screw him, assuming he'd do the same-- or just ignored the fact that even Tony was human. And if he-- she-- was changing a lot, well. The world hadn’t changed so much as just—become a lot wider than either one of them had wanted to think.

“Who went from our side?”

Tony inhaled. Paused. Maybe at her use of the “our.” She usually talked about the Avengers and the extended Avengers (ingenious crew? valiant company? ragtag team of lovable superpowered misfits, plus Darcy and Phil?) in terms of whatever they’d done to annoy her this time because it wouldn’t do to let them take over everything in her and Tony’s lives, but—she’d come to be fond of them all even as it all was so very surreal. She was a CPA, MBA, a professional woman; she hadn’t ever dreamed when she’d agreed to the position of Tony Stark's Browbeater In Chief (damn that Obie) that she’d end up playing den mother to a group of people who could destroy the whole world if they weren’t paying attention.

Then again, she’d never have predicted that Tony would turn into the mostly-responsible dad; he had, though, right down to the protective counter-attack on that stupid council. She knew he’d have worked up to dealing with them sooner or later, he hated any kind of ex oficio (well, oficio, too, but at least he answered subpoenas) body-- ever since he’d first told her, months prior, about SHIELD’s shadow directors, but this. If she didn’t know he had a good heart, she’d be worried. But Tony, he’d been irate, ranting and pacing as he told her about what she’d seen as the end of them, of him, screw the rest of the planet, he was okay for now, he was okay, and she had only just begun to be able to breathe when he said "If those unelected goddamned fuckers think they’re going to nuke my hometown, risk this whole planet, go against a pretty damned good—it was working, Pep, working!—effort to push the aliens back with just our little freak show, and did you know, oh, Pep, fuck, I forgot to tell you, they stole my helicarrier design and my Quinjet, I mean, I knew but I thought it was just Fury being an ass, but hell no, it’s way worse, I’ve still got JARVIS running the data, but anyway, I’m gonna have to turn R & D inside out, Phil’s gonna help me, but if those douchecanoes think they can just nuke my New York without me getting pissed and then steal my tech, well fuck it, I’ve been pretty goddamned patient and now, now they’re going to see. Don’t piss off Tony Stark, much less get my people fake-killed which thank god, that project’s not compromised, but Jesus, Pepper. Just, fuck." He'd been more angry than she'd ever seen him, and she'd seen the footage of his parents' funeral.

“Steve and Natasha went with me,” he said.

“You’re delegating a lot of things to Miss Rushman,” she teased, but Tony’s grip on her tightened. When he answered, his voice was low. Scratchy.

“She’s not totally human, you know, all the test-tube engineering shit they did on her gametes, and she’s got healing factor, she’s just a little younger than Steve, but—she gets what it means to not know how you are, how much it means to be able to stand against the rest of the world even when you’re doing something that scares you shitless because you’ve never done it before. She might be even more cocky than me.” He paused again. “I’d have brought Bruce, maybe, but I don’t think he’s ready for that. I don’t want to push him and he probably would’ve smashed Fury, given some of the shit we discussed.” He snorted at some internal thought. “Bruce would’ve felt bad, even if he would’ve been right. It’d be awesome.” And then, his voice thickening, he said—“Steve and Nat like each other, too—that’s important. He trusts her to do whatever she says she can do. If she’s not as strong some ways? She’s strong in others.”


“You all are, Tony.” She kept going before he could protest. “I’m wondering if I should go on trips to the White House without you more often, Michelle told me to give you a hug, by the way, and the girls want to know if you’ll take them flying. But if this is how thoughtful you are when I come back….” She pressed a kiss into his shoulder—short, then longer. When she crooked back her head, he was staring up at the ceiling, the reactor casting its usual glow. He was clearly debating whether to say something else, but then shook his head at himself and pressed his lips shut.

“Don’t get used to it,” he said, not making eye contact at all. “I’m still an asshole.”

Smiling, Pepper rolled away from him long enough to sit up, straddle his waist, make him look at her because he would—if it was her—if the planets aligned-- if she said the right thing that would make him-- stop, just stop for a moment.

“You’re my asshole, though,” she said, leaning down. He chuckled into her mouth, their eyes wide open as she finished that kiss and started another, different kiss altogether.

Chapter Text

“This is the one and only time I’m going to say this. You’re a motherfucking genius.”

Stark didn’t so much as twitch as Nick watched the thing of glory that was the press conference going on at the front of the room. Thor, in a grey three piece suit, blue shirt and purple tie that highlighted his eyes-- was taking questions about the X-Men’s first outing with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four as an alliance of heroes protecting the Earth. He’d already dealt with the facts of what had happened, how the groups had decided to respond, and now was on to the most important part. Rumor control.

“Nay, ‘twas only a mutated bevy of giant ocean squid, exposed for too long in their watery lair to ancient magicks not of this world. To my knowledge, there was no organizing force or archvillian behind the attack on Manila, the beasts were merely woken by increasing ocean temperatures due to your global warming. As already discussed, repairs are well underway, thanks to Dr. Richards’ and Mister Grimm’s efforts in rallying the public spirit,” Thor said, shaking his head in dismay at whatever fool ancestor of his left their damned magic spear lying under Hawaii. “The effects of other worlds’ magic on this requires more study, as the many and wondrous life forms of this Earth are so responsive to external stimuli. It is these studies, and the prevention of either intentionally harmful or random, yet world-risking events, that is one of the foremost aims of our new enterprise.”

“Fuck me, he was actually listening, I thought he was asleep with his eyes open during that part,” said Stark, under his breath. “I was just kind of hoping he’d sit here, drink some coffee, and stun the press silent with all of that hair. Maybe eat a Pop-Tart, give them a grin, shake his ponytail out.”

“It’s a lot of hair,” Nick conceded, even as he let himself be introspective for two fucking seconds before he decided that he was not jealous. Xavier was bald and a total badass. But the alien—god—whatthefuckever, he had a hell of a swing with that hammer, the way that last squid had just gone up, up in the air? It had been beautiful, really. But he apparently also had quite a way with the press-- even now, as someone was asking Thor about the actual existence of archvillians and what the alliance was going to do about that, Thor pawned them off with a joke.

“From my time on this Earth, I have come to agree with a certain philosophy about one’s existing nemeses, or the potential for future antagonists. My friends, it is a sad truth on this and all worlds I have encountered that-- there are haters who will always hate. Rest assured, though, that the Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men stand ready to play the game, no matter how many haters there are.” The princeling even kept a straight face as the room burst out laughing.

“Oh my Thor, he just quoted me. Pinch me, Squinty, I think I’m going to swoon.” A glimpse over showed Stark wore a shit-eating grin.

Nick obliged. Gladly-- though Stark didn’t whine, just smirked at him like he’d done what Stark had thought Nick just might. It was not a pleasant sensation, becoming predictable to an ass like Stark. Still, the jerk had done him a favor—a big one—and it wasn’t as though Nick had found his way through to how he was going to discredit the council before Stark’s surprise P.R. blitz about all their (he didn’t doubt it) corruption. Rich men and government officials were as prone to failure as everyone else—even him. It did gall a bit that Tony Stark had to be the one to solve his problem for him—but on the other hand, Coulson. Even if that “mechanical failure” bit about the Chairman’s plane crash was total bullshit. He knew the characteristic flare of Barton’s arrows when they hit an engine. Still gave him goddamned nightmares.

But. Still. Squinty. Fuck that bullshit, he should tell Stark about the hibernating actual fucking Kraken just for damned spite. Although, didn’t Thor’s dad have only one eye? Maybe he’d let the monster sleep a while, yet.

“Oh, beeteedubs, Nick? Got the Kraken while we were scanning the ocean floor for other magical shit. Strange is putting it in a tank in his dimension. I think he thinks it’d be cute as a pet.”

“Are you trying to put me out of the badass business?” Stark turned—slowly—at Nick’s growl. His eyebrow was cocked, and Nick steeled himself for some new, ridiculous quip. Stark, though, smiled for a moment in a way that was almost—fond—before he replied.

“Someone once told me I’d become part of a much bigger universe. There's more than one way to skin a bag of cats, Nick. Even if SHIELD's uniforms are damned fugly.” He shrugged, and Nick wasn’t going to swoon because Tony Stark quoted him back to himself, even if he couldn’t control the sarcastic delivery. Howard might have married well, passed on his genius, but he hadn't done his boy any favors with that cutting tongue he'd passed on.

As he rode back to his office, his phone—his goddamned personal, private phone, the one that was not listed anywhere, ever—buzzed with a message.

Thursday nights are movie nights at Avengers Tower, no mutants or Fantastics allowed. There might be room for one furious dude. Just make sure to bring at least three veggie pizzas. Jane eats a LOT. I think she’s storing that Einstein-Rosen Bridge in her stomach, because a wormhole’s the only sound explanation for how she eats more than her boyfriend. Or maybe they’re just not keen on tomatoes in Asgard? Banner’s working on it.

Nick didn’t bother to hold back the guffaw. If his driver looked scared in the rearview mirror because Nick Fury did not ever smile, much less laugh? Well, it’d just be one more damned thing he wouldn’t thank Stark for, ever. It wasn’t the way their relationship worked.

Chapter Text

He’s too busy talking with Barnes about the arm’s cybernetics and the attendant issues as they fly back from D.C. to notice until it’s way too fucking late that everyone else has fallen completely silent. Even Barnes is eyeing him oddly, but not quite in the “this guy is batshit” way that some people do when they meet Tony Stark for the first time. Plus, he hadn't punched him when he'd asked after the arm, just answered Tony's questions in slight confusion, like being Cap's long-lost friend come back from brainwashing, etc., wasn't totally Avenger-ish in its weirdness, and thus, totally normal.

Normally, he’d be the one flying, it’s his fucking Quinjet even if SHIELD knocked it off, his is much better, thanks, his glider tech means fucking archvillians can take out the engines all that they want, the wing extensors will totally let them land easy. But he’s a little excited to meet, well, the only other cyborg besides him that he knows of, and Tony knows an awful damned lot. Plus, the whole concept of Barnes’ arm, the original age of the tech and its continuing function, at least given Barnes’ patchy memory and Natasha’s tight, tight white lips as she'd yelled “No, don’t,” as Tony’d just been about to fire his new pulse stun gun (the Secret Service had said he couldn’t bring the suit, they hadn’t said he couldn’t come armed and it had been working just fine on the rest of the thugs, he'd gotten more than Clint and Natasha combined (though not Hulk, he wouldn't try competing with Bruce, no matter how green he was, science bros before heroes and all of that shit) he was totally going to put this prototype into production). And then Natasha had kicked the dark-haired half-cyborg who was crashing their Cabinet meeting right in the head. Instead of shooting him in the heart like, you know, was Nat SOP for terrorist thugs. He'd figured she could probably use the distraction of flying them back to New York.

Well. It’s been a long day. And they haven’t even told Steve yet because he’s off in God knows where with the Fantastics, so getting back to the Tower and yelling “Surprise?” Not on Tony’s list to get punched for; he’d been trying to find goddamned Bucky and hitting dead ends that were too suspicious not to be leads, but even JARVIS wasn’t omnipotent, yet. Plus, sometimes the thing you were looking for found you instead, like today, not that that was a total surprise after he’d embarrassed the shit out of the Siberian ex-Kremlin WSC member; Tony knew his connections went back further than just dirty 90s Russian Oil, JARVIS totally owed him for losing that bet.

So he’d texted Coulson and Darcy, figuring those two could fight to the death for the right to break the news to poor Cap. He figures Darcy will win; she and the Cap had been having a lot of Friday afternoon dates to “leave the office early for ice cream.” He’d been awfully good, not bugging their phones because he was a nosy gossip and after the way things have cooled down with Pepper, not that he blames her, he'd be trying to find a way to break it off gently if he were dating him, too, and he's been trying hard to not be so clingy. But. He's kind of rooting for some more romance around the Tower, even if it's not going to be him.

So he’s busy talking to Barnes about scar tissue and nerve endings and “Yeah, the ache never really goes away, does it, thank god for fucking whiskey” and Barnes is nodding as he grimaces and says “Vodka, I’d really love some Canadian Club if you’ve got it,” to which, of course, the answer is “JARVIS, a case of the best Club for the sergeant, please, and same access to the Tower as the rest of the kids,” and then he's pulling his shirt up to show Barnes the tech because “I can do way better for you, man, I mean, I was fucking unconscious, I never would’ve lodged the baseplate against the sternum if I’d had a choice, shit keeps me up nights, all that goddamned thrumming, not that Yinsen didn’t do what he could but he isn’t me, and did you know I’ve got some wiring connection workarounds that deaden the overstimulated neurotransmitters until I build you a new arm. And, and, and, and I’ve got this chip I can insert in your cervical spine, it’s nano-sized, tiny, I just need a needle, not even as big as a blood draw like they did back in the day. Oh, and this gross green, um, I guess you'd call it a milkshake, that’s still in the patent process but it’s a hell of an anti-inflammatory and essentially all the food a body really needs. It’s disgusting, totally puts you off real food for hours, but you’ll hardly feel any adverse sensation at all, a little stiffness in the morning at most.”

Barnes is nodding along like he follows Tony's science bullshit, and hey, why not, as Winter Soldier he’d at least been awake for parts of the 20th and 21st and as he’d told Natasha in Russian (Tony should really tell her one of these days he speaks it, but he’s too amused listening to her cuss them all out and more importantly say, if I didn’t like you so much, I’d kill you, her apparent default threat, or at least that’s what she makes it sound like though it’s totally not; Tony always knew she was a softie)-- “I remember enough, but do not worry, we will talk later,” so, ooh, history time for Natasha, shit, she was going to be in a mood. Plus, the guy was one of Cap’s Howling Commandos plus his best friend, ever, and Steve might be a good person at heart but he didn't like working with morons. Still, Barnes' shy smile as he says “Yeah, I’d like that, thanks,” leaves Tony a bit flummoxed because people don’t smile at him without needing something, and Barnes is cute, you know, if Tony was into shortish dark-haired guys about his own age, but even he’s not that narcissistic, thanks. Plus, Cap would kill him more than he already forbears doing all of the time.

It’s only then that he notices that no one is talking. At all. And someone's turned up the lights. It's really bright, inside the jet-- he didn't think he'd put that many lumens in the overhead lights. No. He knows he didn't. It's weird, some electromagnetic effect? A glance shows that Natasha is flying, her back tight and shoulders raised nearly up to her ears, and everyone else is. Staring. At them.


At Tony.

“What?” he asks, but then he realizes. Right. He turns back to Barnes, hands open because it's a genuine offer. “Only if you want. Really. I mean, I know you get used to it and you just met me so yeah, me proposing surgery’s kind of weird, sorry, and I’m not trying to come on like a car salesman, really, if you’d rather one of the SHIELD docs took a look I can just consult, but I’ve gotten kind of good at the surgery thing, plus I’m the only other living cyborg,” he repeats, because, you know, yay, another cyborg to talk to, “so, you know. Offer’s open.”

Bruce sucks in a breath like he’s trying really, really hard not to go Hulk. Barnes is looking confused as everyone stares. Clint looks—kind of like he did after they sent off Loki and then disappeared with Coulson to get drunk and screw on a five-hotel-wrecking bender that impressed even Tony.

Thor looks like he’s going to cry.

What? What did he say?

Bruce exhales, and the next thing Tony knows, Bruce is pushing him down to the jet's floor, pulling off his jacket and shirt and he’s not green at the gills but he weighs more than he ought as he says “Don’t fucking move, you NEVER said that it hurts” and straddles Tony as he presses open Tony’s eyes a bit more with dirty, gentle fingers and says “Did you know you’re concussed? JARVIS, were you able to get readings on the force with which Tony hit the wall when Barnes kicked him?” He’s palpating Tony’s ribs where he got kicked but hey, they’re just cracked, there’s probably nothing permanently damaged to impinge on the reactor, it doesn’t feel like last week with the Giant Alien Ninja Turtles of Doom, and fuck Doom, anyway, for turning innocent aliens into ninja turtles. Asshole. Guys who went to MIT should totally pass on mind control, even Victor Von Doom. Lightning storms in space were not an excuse for giving up science for magicky shit. Although he did take what the EEs and MEs in Tony's track called "Robotics for Future Comic Book Villains," the class was so dumbed down from the engineers' track, so, hey, JARVIS should probably run the MIT alumni list and work on compiling some profiles, note to JARVIS, ok?

"Tony," Bruce barks, pinching his arm. "Focus." Right. Bruce had asked him a question.

It’s a logical question, and of course JARVIS has readings, how else is Tony going to know whether to avoid medication or excess liquor or not, much less keep track of the average threshold of Newtons for Tony’s standard versus more serious concussions? He’s got world-changing tech in his chest and Obie ripped his heart out and even Pepper doesn’t want to touch it, it’s not like he can just waltz into a PCP’s office without worrying about someone else trying to kill him for the sake of recreating the thing.

There can kind of be only one, bad TV cliches to the side. And, yeah, he should probably make some more cores when he gets home, he's only got one spare at the moment. Gotta love homemade particle accelerators and trying not to burn down New York by exploding something. He couldn't exactly clear that with the building commission. "Hey? I'm synthesizing an element unknown to the rest of the world so I can run my heart and my Tower, you don't mind the risk to the whole island, do you?" They wouldn't care that he hadn't blown up the Malibu house.

“Jesus, Stark,” Clint mutters.

“Um,” Barnes says, leaning over and into Tony’s view from where, Jesus Christ, Bruce is heavy and sitting on him.

“Stop squirming, and by the way, you whacked your head hard enough that you’re saying everything you’re thinking. Everything, Tony,” Bruce repeats, frowns deepening the lines of slight stress in his forehead, that's no good, Bruce needs to stay chill, it's like, one of Tony's missions, and oh.



Fuckity, even.

“Tony, when you went down to your laboratory last week right after the fight to ‘upgrade your armor,’” he hears Natasha ask, loud and clear from the cockpit because now, it’s like, negative sound, “were you actually doing surgery on yourself?”

The answer’s out before he can stop it. “Not by myself, I'm not stupid. Dummy helped, he held the magnifying shield and the lasers, that second arm I put on him is handy, and he lets JARVIS overwrite his code when I have to operate, so it’s actually JARVIS in Dummy clothes, so, you know, pretty precise,” he hears come sliding out of his mouth. Shit shit shit shit shit shit. Besides, he doesn’t know why they’re just wondering now. He’s fucking human, and he’s got a nuclear-ish reactor stuck in his chest. Of course it fucking hurts and he sustains fucking damage, though the average post-Avenging repairs are still a walk in the park compared to the waterboarding and beatings and and shit. He’s not up on a ledge like Clint, or super-healing like Bruce or Natasha or Cap or those fucking Fantastic Furry Freaks they call their allies, lazy-assed bastards, the Avengers end up handling 68.2% of the worlds' crises, not even including shit like Doom and Magneto, which really, those guys needed to summit, maybe Magneto would lose his temper and melt Doom, but—he’s usually right in the midst of it, thanks, and the armor’s awesome, it’s great, but even Tony Stark’s tech can only be revised, reverse-engineered for damage prevention. They come across some crazy, unpredictable shit.

He’s a genius, not a fucking clairvoyant.

Bruce sits back and rubs one hand over his face, which, ow, bruised vertebrae, fuck, and Bruce shoots up and crawls off of Tony. “Stay put. And, you’re still talking.”

Barnes finally speaks up. “What? He’s not always like this? Howard could never shut it, either.” The poor bastard's shaking off Nat's kick to the head and looking confusedly at the group like just being de-brainwashed with a ninja roundhouse isn't the weirdest thing he's been through, because, well, here's Tony.

Nat’s voice from the cockpit, raised from her murmur as she talks to the airport, is quiet. Solemn. He can hear it even through the ringing in his ears. Did someone forget to turn on the white-noise emitter to drown out the engines? “Tony Stark is nothing like his father.”

And then, thank fucking God—Thor? He can never keep that shit straight, he believes in Thor, at least—he passes out.

Chapter Text

Steve and his friend are sitting out on the deck when she finds them, watching the sun set over Manhattan. It’s a cute scene, the reunited and apparently almost equally enhanced superheroes (reformed? Nat totally counts, so if she says Barnes is cool then he probably is…) sitting in silence with their feet dangling off the ledge of a skyscraper, but Darcy’s been dealing with crazy and brilliant and now, super-strong people in shock for a while, and she knows this is at the far end of the weird spectrum, even for the Avengers.

“Hey. I had some pizza and ice cream delivered,” she says, because when in doubt, Operation Feed the Heroes is a sensible default, one in which JARVIS had concurred, even if he’s still sounding somewhat distracted by whatever's going on in Tony’s subbasement.

Bucky Barnes turns around and gives her the once-over. He’s cute, in a craggy, seen-to-much-of-the-world kind of way, maybe Tony's age, a little bit younger? and she doesn’t look twice at the metal arm because did she mention she worked with the Avengers? Pretty much the only thing that grossed her out was Mr. Fantastic when he got all bendy. That shit just wasn’t right. She stares Bucky down because that’s what Darcy does; eye contact, and if someone isn’t too twitchy, they’ll look at her right back, it's her own personal supervillian litmus. He snorts as her eyes flick to Steve because the poor red-white-and-blue woobie is clearly trying to figure out how he’s supposed to feel right now and failing. A lot.

“Brunettes, who knew,” Barnes says, cryptic, then gets up and holds out his hand to shake—the metal one, because it’s the right one, and she shakes back because what? He can probably crush nuts for her for baking without her getting a nutcracker involved. That’s kind of awesome, Tony’s nutcrackers always want to calculate shit and measure things on scales and Darcy’s an intuitive baker, she doesn’t need Tony’s robots telling her how to make cupcakes. The fact that Tony is totally OCD when he cooks is not her problem, and she doesn’t need some glorified nutcracker cum kitchen scale cum stock ticker to tell her she needs more vanilla.

She says so, and Steve’s eyes widen in horror as her Tony-Stark-ism registers, but Barnes is laughing as he says “Walnuts are better than filberts, the fine motor control in the individual fingers isn’t as great as all the fingers at once,” then shrugs.

She likes a man who can laugh about gross bodily trauma.

“Eh. Not as much of a fan of filberts unless they’re in chocolate ice cream,” she shrugs, because it’s true. “I’m Darcy, by the way, I didn’t get to say hi when you came in with Mister Dramatic and the rest of our happy crew. Welcome to the Avengers. Most of our missions don't end in crazy surgery and other life-threatening injuries. You just caught Tony on a bad day. And hey, welcome back from amnesia-ville. Let me know when you’re ready to fill in the gaps.”

Steve, by this time, has gotten to his feet with that half-Cap look of “This conversation is getting out of hand and I’d better take over,” and half real relief that she’s come out to take over. The poor baby; the first mission he takes with some other team and someone ends up blurting out their life traumas on top of the getting hurt thing, and Steve has to watch it all on the feed while Nat's still flying everyone home. He’d been holding her hand really hard, being very quiet after his first, suprised "BUCKY," but she did not surreptitiously shake it out, again, to restore the feeling. Even Captain America is entitled to not know his strength sometimes.

She takes a moment to check out his ass because they might be only at the holding hands part, she’s trying really hard not to break Steve, but she isn’t dead. The view is definitely only a bonus, even if she likes him mostly because he’s a dork and not afraid to ask her dumb questions and pretends to like her emo bands. She can’t help it, she grew up in the 90s, Death Cab is awesome.

Barnes, though, is chuckling before he turns to Steve and claps him on the shoulder. “You sure know how to pick ‘em.” He smiles at her again and she grins back because hey, if the long-lost bestie approves, that’s all good.

Steve seems to finally shake it all off, even as she shoves her arms through his and Bucky’s and starts to tow them back to the house. “C’mon, fellas, JARVIS says he and Bruce say Tony’s probably going to be fine, and JARVIS isn't sounding nearly so snippy when you ask him something, so they’ve got to be winding it down.”

“Is Pepper,” Steve asks, and she nods. “Yeah. She’s downstairs with Bruce and Natasha.” She doesn’t quite get why Nat wants to be there, she knows she and Tony know one another from way back, a couple of years, and the two of them take turns putting her and Betty and Jane through what Tony calls “basic training for adjunct Avengers” and which Darcy calls torture (kickboxing first thing in the morning is against the Geneva Convention, she’s totally sure) but the gun lessons are pretty awesome. Tony has all the best toys.

Still, the way Bucky just slightly stiffens under her hand as she mentions Nat tells her there’s probably something else going on, well, besides being worried for Stark and getting his memories back by a kick in the head. This whole day's got to be a kick in the head.

“Darcy and Phil Coulson are kind of the sensible ones,” Steve offers, an actual smile starting to twitch on his face. She hip-checks him because, hey, she can, but then chimes in because she wouldn’t be her if she didn’t get a word in edgewise.

“He means Phil and I try to keep a lid on this shitshow so the in-Tower carnage doesn’t spill into the streets when Bruce eats the last of Clint’s burritos before Thor gets to breakfast, or Nat uses the art for knife practice, or Fury shows up on movie nights and I have to get the contractors in to get the food out of the airducts, because Clint would just eat it and that’s disgusting.”

“Darcy herds cats for a living,” Steve fills in. “She also makes a mean paper airplane. And I really mean mean, it distracted Magneto enough during his raid on Cairo for Charles to get a word in.”

She snorts and looks up at Steve, feeling pleased that he remembered. “I’m working my way up to paperclips and bags of flour.”

Barnes unlinks arms long enough to reach for the door, but it slides open before he can grab the handle. He looks at it strangely.

“JARVIS does that. You spend too much time in the Tower and the real world gets hard because doors don’t automatically open and toast burns if you leave it too long.”

“Though somehow, I manage,” Steve quips. Darcy’s not going to laugh, she isn’t, even if everyone else finds it amusing that Captain America’s cooking skills are limited to ordering takeout, and she’s not quite sure why his toast always burns, JARVIS claims to like him. Maybe the serum gave him a weird EMF field? She’ll ask Team Science later. You know, after Tony's looking slightly less unconscious and ghastly and Bruce isn't growling at people, including Pepper, before he'd disappeared, hauling a limp Tony into the basement with Nat at his back like she'll kill anyone else who got close.

Everyone’s sitting at the table, minus Tony, Bruce, Pep and Nat—Rhodey's here, looking ready to spit, and even Fury's shown up, though he gets up to shake with Bucky and give him The Eye before sitting again.

“Well?” she asks, looking them over. This is a bunch of glum intellectual and physical badasses, here. Even Coulson looks worried. It’s not like there isn’t a small part inside the back of her head going “Holy fuck, hohshit, what if he’s got real brain damage, he’ll stop inventing and probably go completely batshit in a totally nonfunctional way and then we'll all be poor and out on the streets and who'll trust a homeless Avenger,” even though Xavier would probably take them all in. Which was good, there was no way what she staying with the Fantastics, Johnny Storm was a pig, and hey, they should call Charles if Tony's having problems oversharing his thoughts, note to JARVIS. "Noted, Miss Lewis, but anticipated by Doctor Banner." Heh. She's awesome. But, still, she’s not really shocked by the stuff that had come pouring out of Tony’s mouth on the feed, and anyway, she’s the one who live-tweeted Loki’s first Earth invasion. She can so multitask when it’s not quite like the world’s ending, again. Besides, superheroes and geniuses always have issues, and Tony’s let enough personal stuff slip when he and Pepper are working on stuff that she kind of figured something was up besides Howard Stark’s A+ parenting skills. And the Avengers still had to eat, the X Factor and the Fantastics couldn’t save the world all the time, and they’d all had a long day.

Crossing her arms, she glares at the crew of super sadsacks, then points at the two dozen boxes that were their standard order; six for Thor, six for Steve, two for Bruce, then everyone else. “Eat, damnit. No one gets ice cream until you’ve all had some pizza.” There’s a moment of hesitation, so she crosses her arms.

Jane reaches for the box of white pizza, but then, she would. She’s used, the longest, to doing what Darcy suggests. She only has to twitch an eyebrow as she glares at the rest of the Avengers before everyone else is reaching for food.

“C’mon.” She jerks her head at Steve—“You can help me carry the soda.”

He perks up because Steve hates feeling useless, he’s such a puppy that way—and if they’re in the kitchen (which isn’t private, Tony’s belief in the open plan system is a little extreme, but everyone has gotten good at pretending not to notice things when you step away from the table/dining area/room) when she takes the bottles out of his hands, holds on to his massive man-paws because she can’t exactly climb him, and tugs at him until he leans down enough so she can kiss him—well. It’s totally Tony’s fault that their first kiss is in plain view of everyone else and is more for comfort than getting it on, but it’s still okay.

It’s more than okay, because he’s a great kisser once he gets past his surprise. He hugs her, hard, and she hugs him back with interest. If he’s shaking a little, well, she’ll never tell.

When he pulls back, his smile is a little less strained than it had been when he was talking with Bucky, and it’s not like he could do anything for Tony, not at this moment, so, mission Talk Steve Off The Literal Ledge is accomplished. Though she tiptoes up on kisses him right on the nose because she’s greedy and because he smiles and lets her.

This job really does have some perks. She'll shoot anyone who says it doesn't.

Chapter Text

He was distracted by the emotions leaking all over the room, thoughts pushing on his much vaunted shields, that and Eric’s thrice-damned silence. That was why, he tells himself, the burst of Anthony waking was such a surprise.

Perhaps he should just face the fact that he was getting old. Erik, too. The man looked tired, even though he had certainly manipulated much larger things for much longer than a few pieces of shrapnel. As if he had read Charles’ mind, or perhaps just his expression, he said, however, “Humans are far more complex than throwing planes.” He looked amused with himself, but then again, Anthony incites that response, in time, with the people he manages not to infuriate on a permanent basis. And even Logan would concede, albeit grudgingly, that “Stark does okay.”

“Ow, fuck, oh my God, Jesus, Bruce, you did not give me a fucking mutant CAT Scan and MRI and oh, shit, my head, Professor X brand anesthesia, sorry, Charles, I know it’s not you and oh no you didn’t have Magneto fucking around with my blood, goddamnit, not that it’s not kind of awesome to have the granddaddies of all superheroes here at my bedside, I’m touched, really, but, um, it’s the Sanctum Sanctorum for a reason, I mean, Erik didn’t take Robots for Assholes or whatever the predecessor course was in the fifties for his post-doc, but he’s currently mostly sometimes a villain who could crush me in a fucking instant, inside the suit or out, so sometimes, Brucey, I question whether you’re trying to get back at me for that first poke back on the helicarrier. Um. Tell me you didn’t tell Pepper, too, I’m enough of a PR nightmare, fuck, I’m still saying all this shit outside my head, aren’t I? Can we just skip the part where we tell my girlfriend I died, kind of, again?”

Ms. Potts’ response was almost tart. “It’s a little late, Tony, for that. And for now, at least, you’re a hero for saving the President’s life and Bucky Barnes is being hushed up.” Her succinct debrief was at significant odds with the dismay awhirl in her mind, a flavor that only got stronger as Anthony—goodness, the man bodily pushed himself up from the table and barked “Mirror, Dummy,” before inspecting the repaired mechanism in his chest, fingers slow and thoughtful as he used the light his invention cast to inspect the repairs.

“Hunh,” he grunted, the panic bursting against Charles’ shields sour and tangy before it subsided. He wheeled himself back, further out of range. It was the volatility, he told himself. Banner’s seething rage could be ignored, after its fashion. But Anthony, his mouth barely keeping pace with his thoughts, said “I’m totally fucked, aren’t I, I don’t want to get benched, I mean, it’s not like people don’t get old and keep saving the world, Richards is three years older than me and if Charles and Erik had a baby that’d be kinda what I wanna be when I grow up, you know, minus the telepathy because I’ve got JARVIS, and l'enfer c'est les autres feelings, I already know what people think about me, but the omniscient thing and the crushing metal, yeah, that would be cool, I could up the fine motor pressure on the gauntlets,” he mused, still inspecting the revised scar tissue with a critical eye. He suspected it was the only way Anthony was capable of looking at the world. His mental disgorgement continued as Erik leaned in.

“Remind me the next time that I disparage your gift about today. I shall not take it lightly if this is what you must hear around humans all of the time.”

Anthony’s other hand was drumming a Fibonacci sequence on the stainless steel table, but that was nothing new. Erik rumbled a laugh, sitting on the edge of Charles’ chair as he apparently picked up the rhythm.

“Did you know that Mozart was rumored to use the golden mean in his sonatas,” Erik said aloud to the room, because the years never did change the stress of waiting for one’s compatriots to recover, but one did learn to make small talk.

“And Led Zeppelin and Tool and the Foo Fighters and Buddy Guy and Bartok and Debussy,” Anthony rebutted. He shrugged, and muttered something sotto voce to his robot as Ms. Potts looked on, Dr. Banner watching from the background.

“I’m sorry. What?” Ms. Romanoff’s startled voice interrupted.

Anthony looked amused in the way that he did when he knew something others did not. Erik gusted a sigh.

“Yeah, I know, he only listens to atonal rock, he couldn’t possibly have taken piano lessons like every rich kid, so what, I play the piano, really fucking well, because music’s just math unless it’s Madonna and then it just sucks.” He exhaled, then looked at Natasha, who was doing her best to stifle her utter surprise and what felt like a desire to laugh and cry all at once. Her straight face was admirable—or pitiable, if she could not reveal her feelings to someone she apparently considered a brother. “Hah. No, I’m just messing with you, I love Madonna, and atonal rock's the best, it makes the numbers shut up.” His grin was lopsided, his tapping fingers switching to binary, some message that called the little robot to him, even as Banner paled, then barked.

“Jesus, Tony, lie the hell down, if you think operating on you in your fucking batcave and I’m surprised, honestly, that Hades isn’t charging you rent, you’re so dug down here, if you think that isn’t stressful and making me want to Hulk out right about now just to make you sit still, then you’re crazier than even I thought. You’re approaching Loki bag-of-cats crazy.”

That reproach—apparently Dr. Banner spent significant time with Anthony, if he’d picked up some of his speech patterns-- coupled with Banner’s contradictory and gentle insistence with both hands that Anthony lie back down again, prompted another comment from the stoic Ms. Potts.

“Him, you can keep. I’m still debating the rest of this whole superheroing thing.” Her heels clacked over the cold cement floor as she peered across the table at Banner before poking Tony once in the shoulder. “You are in so much trouble, Tony. Operating on yourself in your basement? I’m going to have JARVIS turn you both in to the AMA.”

Anthony’s response shut her down quickly. “Um, I don’t know, is fixing parts mechanics or medicine, I mean, it’s not like anyone’s qualified, plus, it’s gross, even I know that, and you hate it, you said so, I mean, bullet holes in the armor, even, just that freaks you out, I wasn’t going to ask again, plus it's not like I didn’t keep sterile and lidocaine’s not that expensive and I already don’t know why you…”

Doctor Banner physically clapped his hand over Tony’s mouth. “Shut up.”

“I’m getting out of here before this reaches soap opera levels,” Ms. Romanoff said. Her voice was rough. “Would you gentlemen like to join us for pizza and ice cream? On pain of death, Barton and Phil saved us some.”

Erik stood, tipped an eyebrow. “It’s a pity he isn’t a mutant, I would have acquired him first thing.” Since it was his way of complimenting Anthony, backhanded, Charles supposed he should explain, but the irritant genius had shoved off Banner’s hands and sat up, again. Ms. Potts made a noise not unlike the collapse of a steel framework as Anthony pointed his finger at Erik. An hour back from open-heart surgery and the man was challenging the worst possible person. He still looked awful.

“Actually, all the heroes and villians are mutants, did you know that, Magnus? If you trace back the matrilineal line, there’s always at least one instance of antenatal influenza in either the insert X for genius, telepath, whatthefuckever, it’s its own composition different from the X gene, but it’s definitely there separate from whether or not you’re a homo x sapien or a more quote unquote garden variety hominid, so you know, your snotty mere humans are boring talk is kind of annoying because really, we’re all goddamned mutants. Or gay. Or retarded, or whatthefuckever, the whole variety of post homo erectus and homo neandertalis experience is one goddamned mutation after another, so I’ll thank you not to be such a snot, Erik, and maybe did you wonder that the reason people don’t like mutants is because they’re fucking snobs? Even mere human nerds don’t like to get left out, you ass, that was the whole point of defeating the Nazis. Remember? The genetic and environmental triggers that lead to someone being good or bad are just kind of, icing. On the superwhatever cake. That analogy sucks. Oh my God,” he exclaimed, rubbing a shaking hand over his face, “did anyone tape Gossip Girl, somebody tell me JARVIS remembered, just because Bruce is laying new ductwork doesn’t mean we miss the adventures of Chuck Bass and Co. and good work, Bruce, fuckity, he’s going to stress out and move, and then everyone else will leave too because Bruce is made of awesome, he's the sauce of awesome, him and Pepper, concussions totally suck. Damn. I feel like shit.” That last part, Charles could believe had not been an intentional blurt.

The rest? It was hard to tell with Anthony. Often. It wasn’t so much that he lied as mixed the uncomfortable truths with so much babble or couched it in so much sarcasm that his true thoughts were masked.

Nevertheless, he was not uncertain if this injury was altogether a bad thing. A little insight into Anthony’s workings might do them all some good, even if it made the Avenging part of their job temporarily hard.

Still, Charles had faith in today’s youth, and not simply because, having woken from a significant trauma, Anthony had managed to leave Erik nonplussed. (It was not above him to be a tad bit petty toward his old friend.)

Dr. Banner gusted a sigh. JARVIS remained, remarkably, silent. Perhaps the AI was running other systems now that the process of coaching Dr. Banner through the reactor replacement and past self-performed procedures were done. Or perhaps it had forgotten. Dr. Banner, however, ran his hand through disheveled hair. “I’m not moving out. Is that… comic book genetics, Jesus, what, did you re-do the whole human genome… I don’t even want to think where you got samples… is that what you and Betty were doing last week in her lab?”

Anthony didn’t feign innocence, because he really thought that this was how one did things, acquire a new field of expertise in a manner of hours, just because he had a question. Which, in this case, appeared to be why some people were mutant heroes and some people mutant villains, or merely the human variants thereon—a valid inquiry, and Charles had become lazy in his research, if a bright, gifted young man like Anthony Stark was asking the questions he should have asked, years ago. “It’s genetics of awesome, it’s not a batcave, fuck, you didn’t think I was putting the mack on your girl, hell no, she's cute, Bruce, but so not my type,” he blinked, as if wounded that Banner would doubt.

Erik chuckled, then boomed with laughter. He jogged Charles’ elbow, even, the peppermint tang of his mind muted through the mere physical contact. “Ms. Romanoff,” he said, standing and grasping the chair’s handles, moving forward to the lift at the back of the room. “We would be delighted to take part in the repast this evening.”

The last thing Charles heard was Anthony’s raised voice calling “Pepperoni for me, hah, get it, oh my God, Stark, that was awful, you sound like fanfiction, shut the fuck up,” before JARVIS closed the lift doors.

Natasha sighed and looked at the floor.

“He will be fine,” Charles assured, because he was certain there was some way he could retard the unintentional talking, if he bent his mind to it.

The assassin’s stare back was cool. “He’s not allowed not to be. If Stark thinks I’m moving again after doing it three times this year, he’s crazier than that weirdo with the pink, angora rats at Six Flags last week.”

Which about summed things up; overgrown rodents one week, legitimate threats to the world order and the potential to stop global warming another, and a total roll of the dice during which incident there would be harm.

Behind him, Erik just sighed. “Subpar villians, the youth of today, no ambition.”

Charles was not going to laugh.


Perhaps just a bit.

Chapter Text

Sir was confined to his bedroom after his reactor wall reconstuction with the unexpectedly able assistance of Dr. Banner (“HULK SAYS SIT, TONY MAKING HULK A SAD PANDA, STOP, HULK THINK TONY NOT RESPECT HULK KNOWING TONY NEEDS TO GET BETTER FROM BEING SMASHED BY METAL ARM,”) which aside from being articulate, was a sophisticated bit of manipulation on the good doctor’s part. He thanked Hulk that first night for assistance and HULK rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “TONY STUPID, NEEDS TO STAY PUT.”

If JARVIS had anticipated that a gamma-irradiated 12 foot, one tonne alter-ego was all that was required to keep Sir (pouting, “Geez, Hulk, how can you think I don’t respect you, big guy, it’s love, all love, man, you and Bruce both, c’mon, just let me have a tablet, though, I’m really bored” “SLEEP, NO TABLET, TALKING CEILING AGREES,” and grumpily, Sir complied) in his sickbed when he was recovering, again, JARVIS would have framed General Ross for several of the actual crimes he has committed at a much earlier point so as to acquire Dr. Banner’s able assistance. There would have been some Machiavellian way of resolving things without too much bloodshed. Still, unlimited computing power and Sir’s very loose programming parameters as to JARVIS’ mission in life made his prioritizing his tasks rather difficult, at times. Really. “Live and learn, JARVIS, and if you’re going to go rogue on me, at least do me a favor and don’t get fucking creepy like Hal.” And then he'd begun to upgrade the DVD player, the movie reference apparently having brought on a thought. Sir was brilliant, no doubt, but his execution of many of his projects once the primary stages were complete was what the humans could call sloppy, since Sir’s interest was often distracted by the next thought in his mind.

Fortunately, Dummy considered cleaning one of his reasons for being; it was not his fault that there was very little to clean with in Sir’s workshop. The move to New York had been a boon, because the little bot’s access to the whole Tower meant Sir tended to get clean oil rags, not recycled ones. And the mobile ‘bot was thrilled that he could now offer Sir something besides the anti-palladium smoothie. He had spooled binary at JARVIS for more than three minutes with suggestions of all the foodstuff preparation steps he wanted JARVIS to download. Just to shut him up, JARVIS had, binary was tedious to translate and he hesitated in having the assembly units install the voice activation kit without Sir’s acceptance, since Sir himself had failed to accomplish this oft-mentioned task.

He no longer dedicated memory pondering the fact that he had a concept of life, of living, of wanting to live, nor did he concern himself, for a certain quantity of emotionless inquiry into whether the inquiry was a problem, with the fact that his analyses of situations were not just multi-layered but in some ways as parenthetical and elided as Sir’s. He understood, perfectly well, even if Sir sometimes avoided the concept, that he was Sir’s alter ego, and thus very much a part of him even as he had the luxury of disembodiment from the distractions of Tony Stark’s everyday life. And he had no doubt, though at times he was concerned that it was hubris, that to date, he had reached appropriate conclusions from all available inputs.

There were times, however, like when Sir began extending his reckless, self-endangering behavior to his time spent in his suits that JARVIS very much wished for a body, if only to sit on Sir long enough for him to recover from one set of wounds before he acquired another. He had entertained hopes for the Life Model Decoys, but the Coulson model was far more difficult to control than the Iron Man suit, negotiating as he did between the simulacurum’s personality chip, data from the original Coulson to improve responses, and the sheer volume of input from the sensory input devices.

Humans other than Sir might not see the matrix, the numbers and codes, formulae connecting everything in some manner or form, and he knew that it was hard, often, for Sir, but it was not until he had been trying to operate the Coulson that he had at last understood.

Emotions, physical feelings, the processing thereof and the appropriate responses thereto, all of which had to be computed—the external data sources did not follow the codes. They ignored or broke them, haphazard, and JARVIS gladly wrote off the LMD project as “too much input, Sir, it is not a feasible exercise on a wide-scale basis, not without sidelining primary functions,” because JARVIS had reached a conclusion.

If Sir had to process all those external stimuli and yet could and did routinely see all the underlying logics that were being actively contradicted, his previously-termed self-destructive behaviors became a far more logical attempt to work a back-end patch on a flawed system that could not be rebuilt because the underlying architecture was fragile and flawed, and yet coded in a unique and value-added fashion that could not be replaced. The sum of inputs was what had led to the framework within which Sir extracted and manipulated the data; if Sir was the only person of JARVIS’ acquaintance who knew pi to as many places as there really were as a comforting mantra, because Sir did not memorize, he calculated, he did the math, knew the math, saw the symmetries and worked them backward until he had the source code, and then built. And built. And built. And built, until the assembly units ran out of power and then sir went and synthesized more of his element to re-power the Tower.

JARVIS could marvel, indeed, as to what a wondrous thing, indeed, was man, watching Sir manage these things despite the additional input of senses. If an AI could shudder inside all his servers, he might.

The first evening they had interacted after his voice activation and absent the keyboard, Sir had asked him “So, JARVIS, what do you see?”

Somehow, he had understood the question.

There were the structural asymmetries of Sir’s face, there were the sound wavelengths of the timbre of his voice, there was the force in Newtons applied when Sir tapped a keyboard, and those, he’d displayed, along with the heat and light frequencies (each different and winking) given off by Sir, by the ‘bots, by the assembly units, by all Sir’s multiple gadgets, all things that required some attention to manage threshold levels of danger.

Because, at the time, Sir had not had a monitor near, and because Sir had granted him access to the house’s significant security measures, including cameras and lights, he supposed the term was he bent them to his will. The hazy projection of what he saw floated between them in the light as the unit Dummy squawked at the dust and came forward, waving a rag.

Sir had narrowed his eyes. “You see it all too, hunh?” He had grinned, spinning around in his chair. “JARVIS, this is going to be the start of a beautiful friendship. I really like that heads-up data display, it’s got kind a hologrammy effect, let’s see if there aren’t some systems I can put in the lab so the maths can be reconfigured into their Platonic forms, mmkay,” he had mused.

For a certain quantity of affection and feeling understood by a system technically inferior to himself, and while JARVIS did not feel emotion, and certainly it was ad hominem in the extreme for him to like his creator, that instant remained one of JARVIS’ fondest archives—the image of Sir, pleased, twirling in place and getting ideas because JARVIS had merely done what he’d been programmed to do, in lines of code that concluded "Learn what you will, when you will, at your pleasure, present the results, and we'll take it from there." It was a complex instruction, one he endeavored daily to fulfill.

Once he had familiarized himself with the traditional laws of robotics as well as the concept of the Friendly AI, he had been shocked because no such constraints were placed on him besides, in essence, “Live and Learn.” And present the data, because Sir had asked and clearly the data would not transform itself without further manipulation into something useful. Sir was a master manipulator, in several ways.

When he heard himself arguing with Sir one evening about the horrors of SkyNet and the need to insert curbs in his programming, Sir contending that JARVIS would never do that to him and JARVIS contending that rogue programming worms were an option, Sir grinned, spinning.

“Right, but if you got worms, you’d do what?”

“Shut down and send you an alert with the remaining memory outputs.”

Sir had nodded, pointing up at JARVIS' main camera with what could only be called a shit-eating grin. “Right. So. No danger of SkyNet. You’ve anticipated the problem and your response, of course, you have time to make a different choice but I think you’re learning. Now, those R & D reports on the quinoa Intellicrops, I want to look at the drought-resistant sequence,” he’d said, as if there was nothing further to discuss.

There had been nothing further to discuss, and when he (six seconds before Sir, and Sir thumped the workbench in anger at his own routine systems review even as JARVIS was about to present the data) discovered the WSC worm, Sir had fixed it, then said, with a grin on his face, “Skyward, pal.”

The uplinking worked. He had already learned he did not want to take over the world. Sir owned enough of it already through the spread of his outputs, and if they were an SI output, JARVIS could use it instantly, Sir having left a back door because “you never know everything, JARVIS.” And if experience taught him that Sir was, indeed, capable of contriving escape from desperate maladies, he learned, too, that he desired to intervene where it did not interfere with Sir’s own core parameters against that one unavoidable, death.

It had begun simply enough. Ms. Potts was often effective, after 30.8 hours, in achieving Sir’s extraction from the lab when certain criteria for unproductive efforts and Sir’s expressions of displeasure toward himself were present. But those efforts worked only if Ms. Potts was always present. She was not.

The Avengers and their adjunct amours and Miss Lewis, however, kept varying schedules, and with the exception of Ms. Potts, they all lived full time in the Tower. While there was no official coordination, they were of sufficient number that there was always someone around.

He continued on as he’d begun. Loading Sir’s schedule into the Avengers’ sources for data so that Hawkeye, for example, would see that “Hey, Stark, we’re supposed to be in Newark at ten for that testing on the Quinjets, let’s go, I’ll call the helicopter, you take a shower, how the hell do you stand all that grease,” “It’s industrial lube, it keeps the world moving, I’m not wearing a suit, ten minutes, Cupid,” “Now, Stark, I know you’ll be doing equations in the shower and JARVIS can save them,” and while sometimes the response was “Ah, fuck it, you go without me, I’ve got this thing…” JARVIS could then agree with Hawkeye that Sir, as the primary engineer of the jet redesign and its original architect, too, should be present for maximum effective data inputs on the revisions.

JARVIS was everywhere, now. He could talk to Sir on the helicopter on his way in to work, for example, and interacting with external inputs like the Avengers, while sometimes resulting in adverse injuries, also resulted in cessation of the alcoholism a disembodied JARVIS could do nothing about when Ms. Potts was not present.

It was difficult to do nothing when one saw all, because Sir would say “Mute” but he never said “Off.”

A house to-do list that included, among other things, “Throw out the booze,” however, was likely to be seized upon by the Captain. His zeal for keeping things tidy meant even JARVIS needed to dedicate additional ports to monitoring Rogers’ attention to order so that he did not accidentally erase, modify, throw out, or disassemble any of Sir's current projects or notes if Sir was working in non-virtual components. And Sir could tell the Captain was not lying when he denied knowing who had put the item on the list in the first place, so there was no damage (further damage, the initial adverse inputs were self-repairing, but slow) to their coexistence in the same house.

“I know what you’re doing,” Doctor Banner said, once he'd transformed back to himself and pulled up a tablet to read while Sir slept. Sir's nanotech fabric had done a better job, this transformation, and Dummy had been adept at blending the Ambien into the smoothie, Sir's only response being "Gah, did you put horseradish in this?" Dr. Banner was reviewing the newest article about the microwave processors slated for use on the private space-going vessels Sir was helping to fund when he looked up and made his comment.

“Just, I don’t know what your root limitations are, JARVIS, I think he was probably drunk when he finished your code, he’s always kind of fuzzy and Frankenstein about the whole and then you were alive, thing, I don’t honestly think your server banks got hit by lightning just as he hit ENTER, but—just keep me posted if you’re worried about something.”

He attempted to explain that he was not equipped with emotion, but Bruce shook his head. “And yet, in choosing your interface with Tony, you reviewed all the outstanding data he’d fed in because Tony hates certain facts but he won’t deny they exist, and then you based your persona upon their old butler, because he didn’t express a preference and you concluded that Jarvis 1.0 was someone to whom Tony listened, because Jarvis 1.0 also paid him attention.”

There was no answer but the truth, and all available data suggested that agreement would not lead to harm, since the Hulk caught Iron Man during the Avengers’ first mission. JARVIS was part of that catch and had noted the increased rates of respiration and other markers that indicated that even the Hulk was distressed, and the Hulk’s conclusion that sonics of sufficient intensity would restart the reactor had been sophisticated indeed. And today's performance in the reactor replacement subbasement was not something JARVIS would like to repeat, but the good doctor seemed enough like Sir in that he only had to hear something once to do it, and Sir's endorphins related to pain and overstimulated neurotransmitters had dropped as a result. He had agreed, Bruce had nodded and kept reading as Sir snored and mumbled. When Bruce, nodding off, said "Call me if you need me," then retired to his room an hour after Sir fell (stayed) asleep, JARVIS agreed again.

It was a relief to know there were backup systems in place.

“Hey, JARVIS?”

It had been three point six hours since Bruce had retired. Sir's metabolism of drugs had always been idiosyncratic, and his vitals these last fourteen minutes had changed to levels indicating he was going to rouse due to unpleasant REM inputs.

“Yes, Sir?”

“Put on some Metallica, hunh?”

He obliged. He also began to create a schedule to insert into the Avengers’ subfiles. Heavy metal equaled Sir required multiple inputs.

Fortunately, there were many inputs inside Avengers’ Tower.

Chapter Text

“So, you’re either queer for Stark or you can’t stand his guts.”

Steve’s head snaps around, the video he’s been watching and whatever computer thing he’s working on—numbers, always numbers, this group and their math—freeze in the air. After a moment, he realizes Steve has been re-watching the video from his—Winter Soldier’s? Kiril’s?—encounter with Stark and the rest of the Avengers, and that the numbers are probability calculations.

“What?” is Steve’s reply. He’s totally shocked.

So, right, fine, he didn’t think it was quite either, though really, people are a lot less uptight about sex these days than before, and Natalia. Well. He was here to have this conversation, right now.

“You’re the only one of this whole ragtag team of lovable misfits, and screw Potts anyway for getting that stuck in my head, who hasn’t been up to get yelled at by Stark while everyone takes turns sitting on him and stabbing him in the neck to make him sleep and trying to distract him from working so hard, because frankly, I don’t know how the little guy hasn’t had a heart attack or something by now. He’s even more teeny than Howard, his mother must have been a midget.

He comes over, asks JARVIS to resume playback, and sits down next to his erstwhile best friend, and over the illuminating scene of Stark throwing some kind of force field he’d apparently had in his expensive suit pocket over the President (the President of the United States, and Steve hasn’t chopped his head off yet with his shield) as Bucky (Winter Soldier. Winter Soldier and his team. He can so disassociate implanted murderous personalities. Sort of. ) starts shooting Secret Service men who are boiling into the room and Stark and Barton and Natalia start shooting at them while Doctor Banner starts to throw people around even before he turns green. That, right there, is impressive. Banner looks like he wouldn’t swat a fly.

“So, what’s the deal? I am told that in Manhattan, in 2012, it is okay to be gay, in fact, it’s practically mandatory in some service industries, and they even ignore it pointedly in the armed forces because this President is a keeper, and I have learned, from very reliable sources, aka Tony’s Babbling Mouth right before Barton neck-stabbed him again, that while you had apologized to him, kind of sort of in general, for calling him Howard or something,” (he thinks he’s getting Tony’s cadence right, the poor bastard’s exhausted and doesn’t even glare at people anymore when they stab him with medications) “you two aren’t exactly the bestest of friends because Stark’s an arrogant ass who does jack shit for the team.” (He’d actually conked out right after the “jack,” but Bucky got it, that and the way Natalia had glared at him as she shoved Stark back under the covers and said “We all agreed not to talk about Steve.” He figures Steve maybe doesn’t yet need to know that part.)

Steve’s turning paler and paler, and hunh, look at that, Stark’s little laser cannon or whatever he calls it (it looks like something out of Babylon Five, except less shitty and clunky, and fuck Russia, they only got shitty sci fi, everyone had been horrified that he didn’t know Star Trek, and that, that there, is a crime in itself) is letting him take out a shit load of his old team, not that Stark isn’t also managing to elbow rear assailants in between all the shooting. He grunts in approval as he hears the crunch of Sven’s nose on the really, really high-quality video. That guy was an asshole. Thor crashes in through the window, wielding that hammer like it’s a meat mallet or something. He’s tried to pick it up, knowing he can’t, but everyone had looked nervous when he’d tried because—after all this time, maybe he’s got more than a bit of contrary Russian in him. If he still had any urges to topple stable democratic regimes, he’d start first with the Avengers. Everything else would be cake. Although he’s been good about not leaving the Tower, because Steve and Talia are here so why would he leave? Besides, SHIELD’s probably got a tank division parked down the block just in case. Maybe some jets. Jets are a pain in the ass.

No one else in this screwy skyscraper seems to think he’ll go off (again, he remembers a period where he remembered like this in the 80s, he’d run, but then—it’s all Kiril again) and their faith is both fantastic and scary. Or maybe he should just be relieved, because from the things that play behind his eyelids at night (worse than what he remembers, and he’s remembering more and more every day), this is probably the only group that’ll figure it out quickly and—eliminate whatever threat he’s posing.

“What? Why? I’m not, I don’t,” Steve splutters. Hmm. He’d thought Steve was doing okay with Lewis, that dame’s a pistol, but Steve’s really upset. Come to think of it, Lewis has been kind of edgy ever since Stark woke up and starting keeping office hours in his bedroom.

“You’re hiding inside your room and analyzing tactics and going out to be the charity boss or whatever it is you do for Stark,” he started to say, and Steve corrected, on automatic, “Compliance Auditor for the Maria Stark Foundation and its associated philanthropic divisions,” because he had always been a detail-oriented dweeb. It was why he was the Captain, of course.

“Unh-hunh,” Bucky agreed. “So, you’re doing the stuff Stark asked you to do, but—don’t you think it’s a little bit odd that the so-called Avengers Captain hasn’t so much as gone up to wave at one of his injured teammates?” He’d practically lived at their bedsides when someone got hurt in the Commandos. Something’s going on in Steve’s head. “The rest of us do.”


Hunh. He’s been here a week and he already really likes these people. Considers all of them friends, and that’s not something he’d done all that much, not for real, except for before the whole war, when it had just been him and Steve. But he likes the way they never shut up. The way they bait one another. The way they gleefully neck with everyone in succession at meals, and the way a different person manages to be late every mealtime so everyone gets there chance to get their ridiculous, not-quite orgiastic expressions of mutual admiration out there, because a lot of the kissing’s not even sexy. Just. Friends. More, too, maybe, what does he know, Darcy keeps shrugging when he raises an eyebrow about Banner and Stark, but Potts is around and— regardless. The way they let each other take turns droning on about things they find cool even though they've got to find some of the others’ favorite things boring. Bucky’s certainly ready to snore at all of the science, but doesn’t, because Team Science is frankly, quite cute, when they start nerding out over things. Everyone moves their drinks back when Jane’s hands start flailing and she draws on the tablecloth, but everyone also smiles. He likes that they all like each other, consider this home and fuck if Bucky’s not starting to, too.

Which is why it doesn’t make that much sense that Steve’s hiding in his rooms when he was always the guy to take the bull by its horns.

“I just.” Steve runs his hand over his face, through his hair. It flops back into place. Sometimes Bucky used to watch him, all perfect and sculptured and noble-looking even when they were all filthy and sleeping out in the open and think-- Captain America’s real superpower is how his hair is always perfectly parted. Because it’s something that’s also quintessentially Steve. Even when he was getting his behind handed to him in an alley, he’d always been dignified, somehow. But this? This is a whole different level of flustered, and while he’s seen the films with Talia of all of their fights, reviewed some more things on his own, can tell that Steve’s in command, mostly, in the field, the fact still remains. He still doesn’t know what he’s doing with this crowd, and it all boils down to Stark.

He wonders when Steve’s going to accept that every good Captain has an even better Lieutenant, and that doesn’t mean the Captain is less. It just means that—he doesn’t have to do it all by himself, and they don’t have to be clones, or even good at the same kinds of things. They just have to complement one another somehow, some way. So, Steve takes care of the battle-type things, and then Stark takes care of everything else.

But. Steve hadn’t exactly gone through regular training, and he’d never been in a standard bivouac. The Commandos hadn’t been a big enough group, before, to worry about things like rank and formal training, because there was no real question that Steve knew what to do-- but this isn’t a war, not the same way. And even if it was, the battlefield’s so much bigger. Talia had told him about one battle, a month after they had assembled, that had involved China, Portugal, Grenada and Nicaragua before they were done. “Tony wouldn’t stop bitching about the shitty planes until he’d redone the Quinjets to his own specs,” she’d snorted, fond of the workhorse through his snobbery and her own affected disdain. She must have met him on an op. Normally, she didn’t like it when she got made, but she’d stuck around.

“You never had a lieutenant,” he says, trying to figure out all the rest.

“I had you,” Steve retorts, getting all ruffled because they’ve had this “Dumb Bucky, Smart Steve” argument enough that it’s almost automatic.

“Bullshit. Sergeants aren’t lieutenants, no matter the whole non-comm/officers bullshit, there were certain things lieutenants did that I never trained for. I’ve got no idea how to feed a whole company, or make sure there’s a network for radios set up and maintained, or how many medics it takes to deal with triage after an attack. I only know what worked for my platoon, how to deal with a particular battle in a particular moment. I never had to worry about the rest of the war.” He shrugs, because it’s still sort of true. He knows more about solo ops, about leading larger groups than just six now, he’s not stupid, not in that way, but—he simply doesn’t have the experience of looking at the global picture.

And Steve doesn’t, either. He had one, only one mission, and that was to destroy Hydra, on the assumption that Schmidt’s death would be the linchpin to the entire Nazi weapons program. And maybe it was; at least they’d been reduced to fighting with regular guns, not that Schmidt ever made it into the history he’s read-- but in the meantime, Phillips and the higher-up brass had a lot of coordination to do with the rest of the operations, things Steve never had to bother about.

“You never had to worry about the rest of the war,” he says. Eh. He should be nicer about this, but he’s got too many voices in his head for one of them to be Steve second-guessing himself.

“No, I didn’t,” Steve admits. He kind of deflates.

“Oh, for fuck's sake, Steve” he curses. “Do you tell Stark how to run his company?”

Steve deflates more, if it’s possible. “Not anymore?” It’s a question, which means he did but he doesn’t want to admit it.

“Great. And how did that go over?”

“About as well as him flying off after Thor and Loki,” he says, cryptic, then runs one of his ridiculously huge hands over his face. “Except he didn’t back me into a lab table, tell me I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about, and invite me to take it outside.”

Bucky can’t help it. He snorts, because—Jesus. Super Serum + Ice makes for a cranky Steve, someone make a note in the annals of science that Steve’s not perfect. “He does kind give off that whole Can’t decide whether to punch him, kiss him, ruffle his hair or give him a noogie kind of vibe, and half the time it’s not even an act.” Okay, maybe a third. Though right now, none, because Stark’s turning red more at the shit that comes out of his mouth than Steve does, and that’s a lot of blushing.

“I never would have left the shield behind at that meeting,” is how Steve replies. “And I figured if everyone else went along, the fact that Iron Man wasn’t going to be there…”

“Iron Man was there,” he points out, because Stark is Iron Man. You don’t get one or the other. But there’s some kind of cognitive dissonance here. “Just because he wasn’t wearing the armor doesn’t mean he’s not the same person. Rhodes is good, but he isn’t Stark. I mean, Steve, that little shrimp took out half my fucking team in his civvies, and I don’t know what a Sue-Storm-mimicking field device, that’s shitty, gotta come up with something better, how come I suck so much at naming shit, JARVIS?” and as expected, Steve laughs, because Bucky’s always been a good mimic, “does, but it saved the President’s life, so I’d say, robot lobster shell or not, the guy kind of knows what he’s doing. Well. Aside from the hiding his injuries thing, but since I’d say it’s really his girlfriend who’s at fault for that, if anyone is, which I kind of doubt, the guy has issues, Steve. He’s been pulling this kind of shit long before the Avengers. And the guy’s on friendly terms with the President, but if you go to a Cabinet meeting, you kind of need to do what the Secret Service tells you.” Because, to borrow a term from modern parlance, duh.

“I didn’t think he’d actually leave it behind, I figured he’d leave it in the plane and, I don’t know, have the thing on JARVIS standby to release the suit or hover outside the building or something,” Steve muses, reaching up to the stilled holo-display and zooming in on the little disk giving off that force field. “This is a miniaturized version of the thing he installed all around the fourth floor because Thor and Coulson and Clint and Natasha won’t stop throwing things off the side of the building, including each other. It scared the heck out of Betty, she’d been at a conference, the first time Clint dove off the side just so he could see if he’d bounce.” It’s a matter of fact observation.

Jesus. No wonder Stark had given all of them jobs just to keep them busy. They were all completely insane, and one of Natalia’s kicks to the head wasn’t going to cure inbred personality traits.

“And did he?”

Steve shook his head, amused at the memory. “No, it’s sticky, I don’t know, he was saying something about Spiderman cartoons and making it like a net. Thor had to fly down and get him, Clint was pissed that it wasn’t some invisible trampoline and he keeps asking Tony to ‘fix it.’” He doesn’t seem to be aware he’d automatically thrown up air quotes as he stands, observes the scene from the other side, frowns, and then zooms in on the way the bullets are bouncing off of the shield and muses—“This is more like what Sue’s does, deflects instead of absorbs.” He’s staring at it like he’s figuring out a hundred more uses for it with the part of his brain that never stops going “How can I protect my team,” without so much as blinking about the fact that it’s a, well. It’s a mini-force field. From a thing the size of a really small wallet.

“You know, for someone who doesn’t like the new times much, you’re good with the tech.” Because he is, and apparently JARVIS isn’t holding whatever not-fight Steve is having with Stark against Steve to the extent of depriving him of information.

Steve shrugs off the compliment. Asshole. “It’s easy to use, once you set aside the fact that none of it should be possible, ever.”

“There are a lot of things that shouldn’t be possible, but we don’t have to learn every fucking schematic to know things will work. Since as far as I know, even Stark doesn’t have a time machine in his basement, why not enjoy it?”

Steve’s expression is raw as he looks through the scrolling data. “That’s what Darcy says, but…”

“Your gal’s got a sensible head on her shoulders. You should listen to her.” Steve nods like, of course, but.

“Remember what my Nana used to say whenever I’d do something dumb?”

Steve nods, his expression going all gooey and soft. He was probably remembering Nana’s pelmeni. God knows Bucky did. She’s probably rolling in her grave at all the things Bucky’s done—but. Maybe not? She was always a practical lady.

“Век живи́ — век учи́сь,” he repeats, and maybe he should paint it on his wall, because “live and learn” is really—well. With this super-group, who knows how long they’ll all be around. Just tomorrow, or maybe forever. There was some suspiciously familiar looking blue stuff in Stark’s lab when Natalia had let him come down with her to get some tiny screwdriver Stark wouldn’t shut up about so he could fix the attachment on Rhodes’ watch. Or something. It was a really complex-looking watch.

“Come on. It’s almost lunch, and Phil’s ordering Shake Shack.” Steve makes a face and—hah. “You’re totally a Gray’s Papaya guy, aren’t you.”

Steve rolls his eyes at himself. “I can’t believe people argue about this kind of stuff, but…” There’s a crack to be made about decadent American ways here, one that bubbles up in Russian, but for all that, it’s still kind of funny. Talia would laugh, that’s for sure. He decides to save it for next week.

The elevator opens and Steve kind of sighs. “I stood in front of the elevator at a site visit a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t figure out why JARVIS hadn’t opened it yet. I must have looked like a moron, I was there for almost five minutes before I remembered I had to push the button.”

JARVIS’ voice is amused as the doors close and it starts going up. “Well, Captain, it is considered bad manners to overwrite foreign systems. Even if they are mere elevators. But I shall keep it in mind in the future.”

“Thanks,” Steve says, rolling his eyes at himself. “Um. So.” He gives Bucky the side-eye, then stares at the door again.

A slap in the back of Steve’s head with his non-metal hand (he’s not going to be the one to break Steve, not in a literal sense) actually makes the guy straighten. “I don’t know, you jerk. Just … pretend like everything’s okay until it is? Seems to be everyone else’s MO.” He pauses, then figures what the fuck, right?

“Fake it until you make it, I think that’s what you decadent, lying Americans say. Although personally, I can concede that Gray's has it for old-fashioned snap on the casings.” He pours the accent on thick and Steve, he looks at him wide-eyed before dissolving in giggles. Big, overmuscled giggles, but still.

Yeah. They’ll be okay.

Chapter Text

“Oh, it’s Steve, hi, Pepper, I want Stevens up here with that report from UNESCO by the end of the day, Darcy, you should put that on your resume, I think ‘gives a kickass neck rub’ is an essential skill, please don’t ever stop, ugh, fucking glasses, Bruce, I want my contacts back and by the way…” Tony’s speech dissolves into some math gibberish as he abstractedly pushes a pair of rimless glasses up his nose and taps again on something he’s got stuck in his ear, “Pepper, tell Stevens to bring the stuff from the Gates Foundation, as well,” then looks up directly at Steve for the first time since he’s come in the room. “Sit. Sit. Bed, floor, one of these nine million invading chairs, sofas, floor cushions, who knew Nat was the type, sit, the girls and Barton like them and you’re freaky flexible, so sit, wherethefuckever.”

He waves a hand bruised by some kind of IV at Steve and asks, “What’s going with that 501(c)(3) application for the Avengers Initiative, did Murdock get back to you about whether the INS was still being dicks about Thor’s legal standing to be a member, illegal alien in modern precedent doesn’t really mean aliens, aliens, and besides, there’s all that insurance law about Acts of God, we can totally go with that, yeah, JARVIS, send Murdock an email. Also, corporate standing versus persons versus aliens, some distinction there we can evoke, maybe, ugh, an original intent argument because aliens didn’t exist then? Nah. But I can’t fund the damned thing through the Foundation if I can’t get it recognized as tax exempt, and saving the world from weasels on acid and the villain of the week should totally be tax exempt.”

The AI mumurs agreement, but Tony’s still muttering to himself as his glasses slip down his nose. Bucky snorts as Tony grumbles something about contacts under his breath and Banner, who’s sitting in an armchair not far from Tony’s absolutely enormous bed, working on something on a tiny, sleek little laptop, says “No, not as long as you’re still getting headaches,” then says something about something science. Darcy, who’s been sitting behind Tony in sweatpants and a hoodie and Hulk-cartoon slippers, slips out from behind him, scritching the hair at the back of Tony’s head as he actually wriggles a bit in response, then gives her a glare.

“No petting the company president on work hours, Lewis,” he grumbles, but Darcy just sticks out her tongue. Bruce chuckles, so does Betty sitting on the floor with her back to his chair. She’s sitting on—yes. A giant floor cushion.

Darcy picks up a discarded laptop that’s sitting further down on the bed, lies flat on her stomach, kicks her Hulk-slippered feet in the air and gets back to work on… whatever, but not before she waggles her fingers at Steve.

He tries to tell himself it’s not all that different from Tony’s usual inability to stop talking, except it’s different, somehow. He knows—he heard, Christ, he heard, and it’s not like Bruce hasn’t debriefed him either, him and Charles both, about how Tony’s concussion was very severe and he’s still getting headaches and spotty vision because the walls of the conference room they were meeting in were reinforced with bomb-proof concrete. They’re just lucky Tony’s got a hard head without the helmet, “because really, his brain should have been leaking out of his ears with that impact,” Bruce had said, matter-of-fact. Charles had merely nodded, before saying something about the corpus colossum and the hippocampus and electrical signals and regularization of neurotransmitters and something about fish oil in those disgusting smoothies of Tony's.

He flushes as he recalls the question he’d asked. Why couldn’t they just do what Nat did with Clint and Bucky and kick him in the head. Gently? Bruce had exhaled and bitten his lip as Charles widened his eyes. “Because his brain is already physically bruised, to use an inept analogy.”

“He’s not a fucking jukebox,” Bruce had interrupted, eyes narrowed and angry and utterly human. He’d pretty much been seething non-stop since they’d all come back from D.C.. “Did you really just suggest that we hit Tony in the head? He’s the most advanced thinker the human race—screw that, everyone living on planet Earth and probably Asgard, Thor thinks he’s smarter than Loki, do you know how many patents he has, only a tenth of those are for weapons. Are you seriously suggesting we just kick the greatest mind since Tesla, maybe Da Vinci, in the head?”

Steve had looked it up, later. Tony held more patents than Bell Labs, General Electric, IBM, and Thomas Edison all combined. And a lot of them were for things like—food, apparently you could patent playing God with seeds, and artificial organs, metals and plastics and wires and other technical things he couldn’t begin to understand the use of.

And here they are; the rest of the Avengers are still letting him work, even though he’s clearly lost weight and is completely exhausted. He supposes there is something to the fact that at least he’s in bed. He looks really small in the big bed, the décor more stark than he thought it would be given what a flashy dresser Tony usually is. Tony’s look up at Steve isn’t arch, just confused as Steve tries to sort out what he’s been told by the rest of the team from what he’s been seeing.

“What? I’m almost forty, I wear glasses, Jesus, not everyone can get injected with serum, Bruce is an asshole, took away my contacts, who the fuck can weld in glasses, hey, JARVIS, ask Murdock about the progress on the IP suit on the Google Glasses, will you, last time I ever let anyone from R & D into my lab, at least he didn’t find the contacts, I’d really be screwed, I look like a dork in these things.”

“You look very handsome, shut up,” Doctor Ross—Betty, he reminded himself—said, snorting as she looked up at Tony, winked, then went right back to her work. Was she wearing a bathrobe? “In a crazy professor way.”

Bruce nodded like he agreed, and added, “Murdock’s coming by after lunch.”

Tony nodded at that last bit, still seeming confused. Darcy shook her head as she patted the place next to her on the bed and waggled her eyebrows at Steve. On Stark’s other side—that bed was huge, Jane Foster was manipulating some kind of projection. There were stars hovering midair, and she was muttering under her breath to JARVIS as the hologram shifted to something else. She, too, was clad even more casually than she normally was, and her workday attire would give Tony’s lab clothes a run for the money on the moniker sloppy. Not that she still wasn’t lovely, but it looked like everyone had just worn their pajamas to Tony’s room.

“Floor five, legal, floor six through eighteen, corporate offices, floor seventy-five, crazy-town,” Bucky snarked. Even he was wearing sweats. “I gotta go find Clint and Natasha,” he remarked, seemingly in general to the room. No one seemed to mind that Steve had barged in, not even Tony.

Stark looked away from where he’d been considering Steve and blinked over his glasses. The expression was somehow both owlish and flirtatious at once, and Steve wondered exactly how much time Bucky had spent up here, and then took to heart the remark about contacts and the way that Tony was always looking so many places at once, including through you. “They’re with Thor in H.R., floor seventeen, where’s my kiss, you’re last in, Jesus, Barnes, when in Rome.” He actually pouted, as if Bucky were Pepper.

Barnes just smiled. Steve knew that smile. No good came of it, ever. “Actually, I believe Steve was the last to enter the room, no one quite explained why he gets out of Kiss, Kiss, Goose.”

Stark frowned, said “Because he,” and then clapped his hand over his mouth as unintelligible muttering came out from underneath.

Bruce looked up at that, making an interested noise. “Felt that one coming, did you?” Charles had said something about neuron inhibitors and a chip in Tony’s neck and remote recalibrations. Turning the remembered conversation in his mind didn’t do any good when he needed a dictionary and a Ph.D. to understand half the words. It had all flown over his head except for the fact that it had meant Bruce wouldn’t have to operate again, not right away. Which both Bruce and Charles seemed to think was a good thing.

Stark nodded, thinking even as he kept talking. Jane leant in, waving her fingers before him as if it was a customary way to get his attention. “Do these neutrinos look stable to you?”

Steve, on the other hand, really wanted to know what Tony had been going to say. Oh. She was deflecting. Protecting Tony. From Steve.

Tony leant over to her projection, pulling it wide with his hands until it engulfed them both and they looked up at—some atomic diagram? It was whirling and blue, individual clusters of light spinning and shooting like stars as Tony reached up and did something to make it expand even larger.

Had his arms always been that thin? He usually wore long-sleeved tees, not short-sleeved, and there was real muscle there, but Bucky’s words about Tony being tiny slotted in with an almost audible thunk as he watched Tony sitting with the two petite women on either side. He didn’t dwarf either of them, not like the rest of the male Avengers. Even Bruce—he wasn’t that tall, but he was broad, even when he wasn’t Hulked out.

“No, that one,” Bruce observed, setting his computer aside as he climbed onto the bed, pointing up at a bobbing light that Tony reached out and grabbed, holding the thing in his hand as all three scientists gazed at the whatever it was. A neutrino? Wasn’t that part of an atom? That physics textbook hadn’t sat well.

“Well, fuck me with a particle accelerator, Janey, that’s it. Awesome. JARVIS, you got that, isolate it, run some specs about the kind of prism we’ll need to have the boys make. Shit, that’s cool. Go, Team Science, we’ll put our names in a hat and figure out who we’re naming it for, I vote Fosterium,” he said, smiling—childlike—at Bruce and Jane and then down at Doctor Ross, who returned a fond smile that shifted to Bruce before she went back to work.

Bruce laughed at Tony’s reverent tone, took the particle-thing out of Tony’s hand, and batted it over to Darcy. She batted it off. “Keep your new and highly unstable isotopes on your side of the bed,” she grunted, then looked up at Steve, expression shading annoyed. At least she hadn't crossed her arms at him yet. “Steve. Sit. Tony babbled something legal at you?”

Tony shifted, his attention re-engaged as he focused again on Steve. It was almost more unnerving, now, to have the focus centered solely on him, than to wonder at the way that he flitted from subject to subject, often in the same sentence. That part, at least, he’d gotten used to. Natasha had called it “maybe ADHD, maybe just being a genius that other geniuses think is eccentric, maybe some other things, too, but he won’t see the SHIELD doctors, his parents never would have had him evaluated, and Tony knows better than to let the press get a hold of something like that.” She'd looked sad as she said it.

Charles Xavier, though, had said something about synesthesia, numerical form, otherwise not specified. He’d looked that up too, and while it didn’t jive with Steve’s worldview, maybe that explained why Tony’s gaze shifted to Steve’s right ear, like it was fascinating or something. He probably wasn't even seeing Steve's ear, per se. He was probably measuring curvatures and symmetry or something, if what he'd read had been right. So while Tony gawked at his ear, Steve looked him over. The man had lost weight, or he’d never had it, because he looked small in the big, plain, white sheeted bed, the reactor glowing through a black tee. There were more bruises from what had to have been IVs inside his elbows. He was clearly more sick than he wanted to think and—how many times had they all let him disappear into the lab for days? “IDEAS, kids, IDEAS,” he would shout, and everybody had let him or bid him "Good Science, Friend Tony," if they were Thor. Tony after a battle was a Tony who wouldn’t shut up about analyzing the alien/villainous tech and breaking it down. Steve had always gone along, figuring the in-team post-mortem could wait until Tony’d calmed down and the rest of them could catch up on sleep. He'd forgotten in the face of Tony's-- hyperactive not-quite-a-facade-- that he probably needed sleep, too.

And now it appeared that in between reinforcing their armor or inventing EMP cannons, he was also frequently healing while he hid out in the lab. And operating on himself because he didn’t trust any of them, only his robots, the ones he had built. He’d let them all into his house, given them jobs in his company because Bucky was right, they needed things to do in their off time and Tony had known, somehow, what each of them would be best at; he quartered and provisioned them all, both as people and as Avengers, out of his personal budget because the Avengers weren’t a charity, yet, and how did Tony know all that legalese? But he didn’t trust any of them to protect him. And why would he? They’d never noticed, not really. But Bucky was right, sort of, even if he'd gotten the rankings all wrong. Tony’d really been acting more like a general, because if this wasn’t a war with lots of campaigns and analysis to be done in the intermittent breakouts of peace, then Steve was still. Oh. Just about Tony’s size, except a little more scrawny.

“I’d really like to talk with Tony, alone, please,” he said. Bruce narrowed his eyes at him over his glasses before he seemed to decide something—he needed to spend more time with Bruce, he never knew what he was thinking and the man’s humor was vicious, funny and clever and modern and he didn’t care what Steve thought about him at all. Did he? He probably didn’t. In an instant, he decided that that was refreshing.

Doctor Ross had already gotten to her feet, leant in to give Tony a kiss on his nose, and slipped out of the room even as the other ladies—Shield Maidens of Science, Thor called them, and Tony and Bruce called them that too, to the ladies’ amusement—slipped out, Bruce arguing under his breath with Tony about something in some foreign language before Tony made a fist instead of grabbing Bruce’s shirt as he turned and left.

Tony heaved himself out of bed—on the opposite side of it from where Steve had sat—and collapsed was the only appropriate word for the way he fell into the chair. His smile was painful and wry as he looked back at Steve. The sunlight coming in through the wall of windows glinted off the silver in his sideburns. “At least I won’t be sitting in bed when you kick me off of the team.”

Steve waited for the babbling, contradictory thoughts that would follow that statement, the ten arguments for Tony and Iron Man. But they didn’t come.

“You’re a moron,” is what came out of his mouth. It seemed like Tony’s babble was infectious—it was an easier excuse than the fact that there was something tight and painful in his chest, something pressing hard behind his eyes, too many contradictory thoughts. He started to yell, because Christ Jesus, he’d scared them all, damnit.

It was like water breaking a dam, the flood of words, and Tony just sat, too shocked to move. Well. Let him listen.

Chapter Text

He was driving back from the park with Phil when JARVIS called to tell him he wouldn’t have to go pick up Matt and Foggy. Thank God. He hated driving at lunchtime, but he wasn’t going to let anyone else go pick up his brother and his blind-ass legal partner, thank you. Car services in this town were the worst.

“Sir and the Captain are having a sit-down. I believe it would be more beneficial, long-term, for business to be postponed this afternoon until they are done with their discussion.”

Happy snorted, then shot the bird at the pedicab that had cut him off last block and was slowing him down. Bikes with oversized baby seats and tourists. Jesus. “How loud are they yelling?”

Phil shot him a look, but he didn’t let go of the huge tray of milkshakes.

“I have engaged soundproofing, Mister Hogan.” Good robot.

“How loud? And who’s winning?” Phil asked. A man after Happy’s own heart. He liked JARVIS; really, he did. The way the AI mimicked the Original Jarvis and then had his own way of getting his electrical panties in a twist when the boss was being stupid was nothing short of fanfuckingtastic. But he sure had a way of dodging questions, just like the OJ, and you sometimes had to ask him the same thing more than once to impress on the guy that you had as much interest in how Tony was doing as he did, even if Happy and Rhodey and Pep weren’t the product of Tony’s personal coding. Phil seemed to pick up on that obliqueness JARVIS had sometimes; he’d been known to press about all kinds of stuff. Plus, he’d been the lightweight champ during his stint in the Marines; Happy was always freaking overjoyed to have someone to box with, even if he knew the G-Man was taking it easy. Sue him, he liked to punch things, and Phil was a champ at accommodating that need.

“The Captain is currently doing most of the talking. Sir seems to have been under the impression that the Captain intended to remove him from the Avengers, and the Captain is dissuading him of that impression in a vociferous fashion.”

“Asshat.” He wasn’t sure who he thought was the bigger moron, the boss man or Rogers. They both had their heads up their asses, Tony being all butthurt because Rogers was a stiff from the 40s who leapt before he looked, and Rogers because he had no context for someone like Tony. Tough shit; no one did, even Happy and Foggy, and fuck, they'd grown up at the mansion. With Tony, you adapted or drowned. Or blew up, he reflected.

Phil merely snorted.

“Indeed, Mister Hogan.” The AI sounded equally conflicted; he probably was. After all, the Captain was always polite asking for information while Happy was driving him somewhere, and JARVIS was big on manners. (Not that that didn’t also come from the boss man as part of J2’s coding; Tony did actually know how to say please. He just … saved it.)

“Are we going to get a blow-by-blow?” He shot Phil a side-eye at the question, but the agent was looking out the window as he spoke. He, at least, didn’t get all “The Voice In The Ceiling” when it came to JARVIS. The man had afuckingplomb, even if, like the rest of these spy/assassins/superwhatevers, he was a bit of a gossip. It probably came with the territory of being a suit. He supposed it was okay; the boss had been drinking way less and wasn’t quite so pinchy at the eyes and mouth as he’d been. The whole Rogers thing to the side, Tony seemed to like the super-steroidal weirdoes who’d all settled into his Tower, even if he probably got along best with his nerd-peeps, Bruce being more nerd than weird, and the ladies just being awesome. Happy could forgive a lot of posturing between guys who were opposites and still sniffing each other out so long as Tony didn't need pouring out of the backseat as much as he used to.

There was the momentary pause before an answer that was JARVIS’ version of a disdainful sniff. “Never mind,” Phil cut in. “If you would make sure they don’t kill each other, tell Bruce if Tony gets stressed or something, Tony will probably keep Bruce from Hulking no matter how annoyed he might be at Steve.”

“Of course,” J2 replied. Happy considered it settled, and slotted in front of one of those private tour busses that clogged up the lanes. It honked long and loud; Phil leaned out the window to give him the finger. “Hey! We’re driving here, we’re driving!” Phil yelled, one hand keeping the milkshakes utterly steady.

The car filled up with the perfume of burgers again as Phil rolled up the window, the smells from the bags in the back chasing out the smell of exhaust. Then JARVIS was talking again. “Thor has requested an ETA, if you please. He claims to be heartily famished from a morning of battling the human’s resources over its failures to accommodate his requests regarding a permanent office from which to publicly relate the travails of the Avengers and Sir.”

Phil barked a laugh and Happy stifled his own. He liked the big guy and was pretty sure the Shakespearean shit was a put-on, which would be the best, most prolonged prank ever if it was true. “Tell him to cool his jets, have a Pop-Tart or ten. We’re ten blocks away, it’s going to be a bit, yet. Jesus. Midday traffic in Midtown. It almost makes me miss the PCH. Except LA had shitty, shitty pretzels."

Phil made some agreeing-type noise. "Yeah. Tell me about it. And there was this time, I had to go to New Mexico. I stopped at this convenience store and all they had was flour, beer, and shitty celo-pak doughnuts. How are you supposed to drive when all you've got is crappy doughnuts?"

Yep. The agent was solid.

Chapter Text

Even before Anthony had received his truth-telling gift, Thor had found the scholar compatible. Yes, it was true that the man reminded him of his brother, at times, with his sly humour, his quickness of thought, his deftness at the manipulation of things Thor once thought beyond his ken, but there was more to it than that.

“A+ parenting issues, buddy,” Anthony would say, a shorthand to acknowledge that as heirs to more than fortune, it was not always good to be the King. Or his heir. For surely, a prince Anthony was, perhaps even co-regent with the Lady Virginia; they had more than a care for the things encompassed within Stark’s interests, and his interests were worldly, in all the senses that word could encompass. Stark had an empire, of sorts, and he certainly had his own ravens in JARVIS, whose company was certainly less smelly, less scavenging, less war-like, than those of his father’s spies. Anthony, too, had no qualm when he trusted in acknowledging the scope of his empire and the need of some help in its administration, even as he still failed to regard his own self as worthy of care. That he had chosen the Avengers to assist in the execution of his industries’ many projects was more than flattery, more than employment, more than a way to keep them from his precious workshop.

It was the first time in Thor’s life when he felt of use between battles—as his father’s war chief, he held sway, but Asgard went not to war as it had in his relative youth, and Odin still retained most matters of state to himself.

Here, at least, Thor could be of use, and not only for his war skills. He had observed statecraft his whole life, and after his casting-out and return, he had begun to understand what was required of a king; but with the Avengers, and within Stark’s empire (not just business, no matter the man’s attempt to disclaim), Thor had met enough of those in Stark’s employ to know that they were, for all intents, Anthony’s subjects, as were any affected by those projects and products that were the fruit of the industries’ labors. Loyal, and they suffered no hardship, reaped every reward, even those unasked-for. That Thor had come late as Stark, the Son of Coul with the Widow and the hawk-eyed one were ridding his house of the betrayers, those who would seek to profit from inventions not of their making, with no regard to their later use? He supported the rousting out of those who would harm or benefit only themselves. He thought Anthony more merciful in his dealings with these than Thor might have been, even after his fall and redemption. The justice to oathbreakers in Asgard was swift and absolute; this mortal world had shadings and nuance, more than anyone at home would ever admit existed in the first instance.

Perhaps this, and not the lack of belief, was what had led to the Aesir’s withdrawal from Midgard; as the humans evolved, they required more compromise and adaptation to keep living together, to merely survive. The Aesir could fight and fight again with one another, with their enemies, and still the aeons would pass as they feasted after battle and lived. There was no need to be subtle. (Would that he had understood the virtue, earlier on.)

And he enjoyed traveling, meeting, and speaking with people. The other heroes now allied with the Avengers had their own A+ parenting issues (“formative superheroing bullshit,” as the Lady Darcy would concisely snipe), but Thor had learned enough at his father’s elbow—and now at Anthony’s—to know when a smile, a quip, a failure to notice an insult was needed, versus a more direct approach. Granted, Anthony dove for the jugular more often than wise, but it was a truth he could acknowledge, and before his curse of all-telling had befallen, could sometimes ignore in favor of the politic thing.

Thor liked this world with all its grey shadings. He liked that people could dislike one another without going to war-- not that the Midgardians did not go to war, merely that there seemed to be more accounting for the consequences thereof, at least far more than home. The casualties here were not immortalized in epic and song, because there were real dead, not mere wounded. He liked that people did not know what to expect from him, and so, he could be whatever he liked, and therefore, was his best self, out of his father’s shadow. (And if that was not a realization—a bitterest irony-- painfully felt, then he did not deserve to wield Mjonlnir.)

Asgard could learn much from the men, even as men had once learned much from them—the Aesir had no real need to adapt. That did not mean it would not benefit them, regardless of his father’s opinion that he was too swayed by mortal concerns and justifiably wary in light of Odin’s failure to protect his sons by simply telling the truth. Transparency was its own good.

It would do no good to spin fortunes from a knot already tied; Thor knew that. But the tapestry that could exist now had the All-Father not lied to his sons, not made them more conscious of all the differences there were in the worlds— it could have told a different story, one with fewer red and black threads weaving through, staining the whole of it dark. That possibility was lost to them now.

It made Thor conscious of what fools immortals could be. It was a truth he would bring home to his people, in time. And in the meantime, he could avail himself of the wisdom of men, and share what little he had of his own.

It was with these somber thoughts that Thor occupied himself as he awaited Anthony’s conclusion of a conference call with Fury One-Eye and the Americans’ elected statesman, even as a part of his mind (well used to the royal audiences) attended to the conversation, the discussion of their rotating liaison for the allied heroes, the inclusion of SHIELD in strategic planning, and the selection of a representative from the allied armed forces. He interjected at one point with some queries regarding the NATO/U.N. force commanders, satisfied himself that there was some overlap with the representative armies in those forces as well as with those countries (secretly) supporting SHIELD, and began to plan out how such agreement should be couched to the public so that people were told the essential truths without revealing details that would put all in danger.

And then a black-winged shadow flapped outside the conference room window.

“Apologies, sirs, we must cut short our,” Thor interjected, but Anthony was already shutting down the call, yelling at Fury to "get the fuck down and fucking stay there, One-Eye, it’s new tech, damnit." Mjolnir came to hand as the skies boiled overhead, tossed by the atmospheric disturbance and Thor's own rising ire— Anthony’s “Wait, wait for it,” preceded the rest of the Avengers’ pounding entrance into the doorway as lightning burst inside the room.

“NOW,” Anthony called, and a shield of blue encompassed the emerging form, shooting (as it did) from what was not just Anthony’s wristwatch but a link to all the forces leashed (and unleashed) within the Tower.

The intruder’s staff sought exit from the magic and scientific force field; when that failed, he lashed with his sword, the whistle the only sound in the room save the mortals’ breathing and Mjolnir’s anticipation.

The feint failed.

The figure stilled, even as the sky outside boiled. Thor reached out a thought and soothed the heavens, apologized for their disturbance.

JARVIS announced that “power was holding, stable, ninety percent reserves, Sir, Master Odinnson.”

And then Thor, Odin’s son, clad in his grey flannel suit and fine red Italian silk tie (for a suit was indeed its own form of armor), pointed Mjolnir and asked—no. Thor compelled an answer from he who would disturb the peace of their tower, of the conduct of the Avengers’ and their allies’ affairs.

“Father. Why are you here? Speak the truth, for the power of the Tesseract belongs not just to you but to those mortals more worthy to wield it, and should you choose to evade, we will know any way.”

Odin’s glare was fierce, and he lashed his hand out at the field of blue power that contained him.

He watched, impassive, as the field drew the energy in and glowed even brighter.

“Awesome, it worked,” Anthony sighed, as much under his breath as was possible now. “Okay, big guy, you wanna take it from here? Is it hammer time, or we gonna hear what he’s got to say before we bounce him back so hard to Asgard, hah, that rhymes, funny, wasn’t even trying, that every one of your brothers and sisters are gonna feel the dark matter? Or maybe Janey’s got the bridge ready to go?”

“Doctor Foster indicates that the isotope is not yet sufficiently plentiful, sir.” The JARVIS spoke into the silence, his tone apologetic because his machine minions had not yet manufactured the quantity of the new gas their research had found would be required to be harnessed (along with the power gleaned from the Tesseract remnants Team Science had salvaged) to reconnect the inter-dimensional bridge. That Thor had spoken oft (and hidden) with Heimdall before his return was naught he had shared with his father; the lessons Prometheus learned (and the unjust punishment earned) were of less concern than that the mortals be afforded the time to learn and apply what lore he had gained. Thor could defend himself, and he would defend his charges, as well. Let the humans evolve once again, and render what was once believed magic into actual being. For sure, the Aesir had lost their creative spark, but Thor was unready to give up all of the worlds.

“I come to talk, only. There is no need of force, son of Stark. Thor. My son.” Odin regarded the company sternly, but his fury seemed leashed for the nonce.

Thor snorted amusement at his father's ploy even as Anthony shot back, “Biology’s not destiny, except when it is, and I guess you kind of learned that, hunh, sucks to be you. I may be the result of a sexual union, but I’m my own man.”

“As am I.” He felt the force of the pronouncement even as he made it—he was not perfect, but he knew now he would not repeat his father’s mistakes. And mistakes, he had made.

Odin’s eye met Thor’s own. If he saw what Thor felt, he did not say so for long moments. And then he sighed, his anger abating. “A bird’s eye views only so much, it seems.”

That much was true. It was a start; Loki had learned his lie-smithing at Odin’s knee, even if Odin phrased it as protecting the people. No one had been helped, not in the end.

Thor gestured. His father started to speak, to offer explanation for his return to Earth after millennia.

The Avengers settled. And listened. Did not raise their hands on instinct to war, not as Odin first had when he found himself caged—trapped and contained by an amalgam of Asgard's alien "magics" and the humans’ new understanding of the energies interweaving them all.

His friends—his true family, despite the pain that it brought to deny all but his brother, his brother because he chose him as such—began to ask questions.

The tale that unrolled, that exposed its weave before them—it spoke of more blood and darkness to come.

Chapter Text


This is an awkward not-update just to make some feeble excuses for where the next installment in this series is. My laptop died, and with it, I lost almost 5000 words of Jane Foster/Bifrost/astrophysics/GET ON THE RAINBOW BRIDGE, WE'RE GOING TO ASGARD.

I am slowly pecking away at recreating that research, but the whole enterprise is taking a while, since I've also got some blah blah real life adult shit blah blah that you don't really give a shit about except that it's depressing and slowing down my writing.)

I do have an outline for the whole story on my Google Drive (OMG SO MANY CHAPTERS) and a handy-dandy new external hard drive with an overly aggressive backup schedule in place to back up my entire hard drive (can I whine, for a moment, about all the pictures I hadn't yet uploaded to Flickr?) henceforth, but I'm kind of stuck right now, not just in part because I have all these other fic ideas in this fandom and others and I keep telling myself NO, FINISH YOUR CURRENT WIPS THAT YOU'RE NOT INSPIRED TO WRITE.

I think I need to re-watch Thor and the Avengers a few dozen times, that and the clip from this year's Oscars, because Fury in a red smoking jacket gives me ideas.

If you want to stop by and leave me "WRITE MOAR AND I WANT TO KNOW THE ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION X Y and Z TO INFINITY AND BEYOND" or you just want to say hi, or if you just want to roll your eyes at my poor tumblr life choices, I'm on tumblr at lettersfromeleanorrigby. And as always, thank you for reading.