So one of the unexpected consequences-slash-bonuses of Tony Stark having to learn to play with others is that he now gets to have conversations like this:
"Hi Tony, how are you?" Nat says.
"Fine," says Tony into the crackling phone line. "Several thousand feet in the air over Greece, actually, which I think you already knew. How's the mission?"
"Annoying," says Natasha. "We're in a barn outside of Split on the Croatian Adriatic coast being incompetently tortured - shut up, asshole, you should have been cutting my fingers off three hours ago - anyway, can you come and pick us up? We drove the Jeep off a cliff. There's an airstrip..."
Tony lays his arms on the table and puts his head in them and tries really really hard not to laugh out loud. Jarvis is already running a trace on the call.
"You drove the Jeep off a cliff?"
"It was awesome." He can almost see her face as she says it.
"It was really pretty when it blew," shouts Clint in the background.
"Psychopath," says Tony.
"They always are, honey," says Nat. Which of them she's talking to is unclear. Probably both, knowing Tasha.
"Why don't you ever let me come along for these things?" Tony whines.
Tasha sighs. "Tony, we've talked about this - when Pepper signs your permission slip I'll think about it, not before."
Tony's chewing on his knuckles to keep himself from laughing. "OK. OK. Fine. You're a tyrant, but whatever. Meet you at the airstrip, maybe an hour?"
"See you there," says Nat. In the background, something crashes, someone screams, Clint says, "Asshole - those are my favourite boots," and Tony collapses helplessly. Nat gusts a sigh into the telephone - her boys, really? sigh - and hangs up.
An hour and a half later Tony leans in the door of the plane and tries really hard not to start laughing again. Nat's on the tarmac with her boot on the neck of someone's minion; Clint is standing on the grass a hundred meters away, phone trapped between cheek and shoulder so he can gesture with both hands, it must be Coulson, only Coulson makes him do that.
"Drove a Jeep off a cliff?"
"It's a thrilling tale," Tasha deadpans.
Tony whimpers in the back of his throat. This is just too awesome for words.
"Look, I'm stuck in frigging Dusseldorf," says Bruce. "There's been excessive delays and an orgy of rebookings. I'm not going anywhere for another forty-eight hours at least."
"Well, you've got just under twenty-seven," says Tony. "Then it's your girlfriend's birthday party, which you should really be back in New York for because they appreciate that sort of gesture, I have been reliably informed of this by Pepper."
"She'll understand," says Bruce. "I've done worse." There's a long pause, underlain by the distant hum of voices and footsteps surrounding him in Dusseldorf airport. "Erm."
"Yeah," says Tony. "I mean. I'm just sayin'."
"OK," says Bruce. "I'm not - this'll still work. I can get to Frankfurt, and there's gotta be a flight there. Just, um, get back to NY and distract Betty till I get there. She's already annoyed this conference clashed with that thing in Ohio for Nasa. You're her boss, invent a new project."
"I told you scientific conferences in Germany never end well," says Tony darkly.
"There was nothing wrong with the conference," says Bruce distractedly. "Except that I met a couple people I haven't seen in ten years and told about six different and wildly contradictory lies about what I've been doing in the meantime and an ignorant kid with a week's worth of scraggly blond beard and a stick up his ass told me I was supporting the capitalist fascist kyriarchy by working for Stark Industries. Oh wait, that was the keynote speaker. Hey, can you get Jarvis to book me the flights?"
"You know what?" says Tony, laughing helplessly. "I'm still in London, I'm just gonna come and get you."
(Then there's the time he and Rhodey were coming back from the Nato thing in Oslo and Thor landed on the roof of the plane. Actually though, the less said about that the better, because Rhodey had met Tony's-friend-Thor before but not Thor-the-actual-God-of-Thunder, and they had a conversation about weather patterns and cabin pressure and the advisability of hitching rides on the outside of planes that was hilarious for anyone who wasn't a participant, so just Tony really, who had the added advantage of knowing that if the plane crashed Thor could get them home regardless.
Well, he thinks Thor could. Maybe he should check that sometime, just in case.)
The call comes at three-fifty-one a.m. precisely. Tony knows this because Pepper's alarm clock is the first thing he sees when he opens his eyes.
"Sarah?" Pepper says sleepily. She crawled across Tony's back to reach her phone and is now lying on top of him, all her warm skin pressed against his, her chin digging into his shoulder-blade. Tony shifts underneath her and mashes his face into the pillow again. "Are you OK? How's Vienna?"
Murmur of a voice on the other end of the line.
"How many of you?" asks Pepper. Wide awake, brisk, business-voiced Pepper. Tony swallows a groan and starts mentally shaking off his comfortable languor. "OK. When? And where? Yes. Email - no, it'll be on the news. Have you still got your passport? Good. No - no, sweetie, it's OK. I'll be there. I will. I'll come and get you. Just you hang in there, all right? Just hang on. I'm on my way."
Not brisk anymore: gentle, comforting, encouraging. She gets out of bed and starts hunting for her clothes. "Did you tell your parents? Do you want me to? OK, OK, not till I'm with you, OK. I know, I know. I'm on my way, Sarah, you just need to wait for me. Is that all right? Yeah. Try and sleep, OK? Try and sleep till I get there. You too. I'll be as quick as I can, Sarah."
Tony waits until she hangs up before he follows her out of bed and catches her anxious hands in his. "What's happened?"
"There was a train crash," says Pepper. She's white to the lips now. "In Hungary, near the Austrian border. They were taking a sleeper from Vienna. She's got a broken leg, head wound..."
"Hey," says Tony, and wraps his hands around her shoulders gently. "Deep breaths. She's OK. Lemme sort the jet out while you shower. Shower, you'll feel better."
"You don't have to come."
"Hey, I need you to focus on your little sister, Potts, not start with the crazy talk."
It's not exactly difficult, after Iron Man shows up to help at the crash site, for the media to work out where the donations come from, and they're making so much fuss over Tony that Pepper Potts' arrival at a Hungarian hopsital demanding to see her sister goes almost entirely unnoticed.
He and Steve fly home from England in silence. Steve sits and stares out of the window, or at his own hands; Tony can still smell the roses he brought to Peggy Carter's grave, and fresh-cut grass, and the rich, rainy smell of soil and damp bark.
Finally, Steve says, "Thanks for that." His voice is hoarse but steady.
"You're welcome," says Tony quietly.
"I don't care," says Maria, marching out of the elevator. "Yessir. I understand that. But in your own words, sir, it's a stupid-ass decision - nosir. I don't intend anything but to carry out my orders, sir. Sir, I don't need a team, what would I need another team for, we've had this conversation. Sir, I'll contact you when I land."
She hangs up, looking round for the first time and finding herself in a ring of doughnut boxes and empty beer bottles. Opposite her, the Avengers are piled onto Tony's couch.
"Um," says Clint.
Maria turns to the TV.
"OK," she says. "By a show of hands, please. How many of you people have seen this movie more than once?"
"Look, all I'm here for is to understand the context behind the Jack Dawson jokes," says Steve.
"So you wanna pull up a beer?" asks Nat. "The boat's just started sinking, you haven't missed any of the good bits."
"Actually," says Maria, "I need a lift. To Scotland. Without anyone knowing."
Tony grins. "And a team for when you get there?"
"Teams are good," says Maria, straight-faced. "I like teams."
"But what about the damn jokes?" says Steve, exasperated.
"He dies," says Maria. "Jack freezes to death in the ocean after the boat's sunk."
There's a silence. Several people on the couch shuffle guiltily.
"OK, I am not watching another minute of this movie," says Steve.
"I did tell you you were being douchebags," says Bruce to Tony and Clint.
"And now we all understand why," says Thor. "Scotland is a place in Europe, is it not?"
"It'll be fun," says Maria brightly, convinced she's lying through her teeth.
In hindsight, she wasn't at all.
"California?" says Coulson as the jet leaves Charles-de-Gaulle. "What about debriefing Fury?"
"Fury can kiss my pretty floral bonnet," says Tony. "I've got tickets to Comic Con. Whadda you think, is it a cheap cop-out if I go in the Iron Man suit, or will no one even notice?"
Phil almost forgets himself so far as to grin in public.