Chapter 1: A Little Grease On the Palms of Your Hands
There's a little brown bird on Tony Stark's shoulder, just beneath his ear: She keeps her head tucked into the side of his neck and occasionally gives the room the tiniest cheep of displeasure. She would rather be building. She is the reason Stark ever sees light of day, and she is the reason there is a garden outside every workshop in every house that Stark owns. She spent three months tucked into a crevice in a cave in Afghanistan, shivering. Stark has never told anyone her name.
She cheeps, now, one black-glazed bird eye turned on Coulson, and his own Tesevina jumps up onto the sofa next to Stark (very carefully not touching him, And why would I? He's trouble.), rolling around and knocking a pillow onto the floor, before she places her front paws on the back of the sofa and glares at Stark's daemon.
Pepper Potts watches the whole thing, eyes darting back and forth from one individual to the next, her cheetah Aldran ficking his tail back and forth from his seat across the room.
"Don't mind her," Coulson says, with deadpan even calm. "She occasionally lacks dignity."
In Kuwait sixteen years ago, he had been in command of four men whose daemons had settled as two shepherds, a doberman, and a malamute. They had all looked ridiculous, walking in perfect formation behind Coulson's pug, but they had followed.
What does that say about you? Tess replies. She circles twice in the sofa and sits with her head cocked and her ears askew, now glaring at Stark.
Hush, Coulson tells her.
"I cannot take your alibi seriously," Stark says.
"You don't have to," Coulson says. "You just have to read it, and walk away. Verbatim."
Stark looks thoughtful, for a second, but not at Coulson. His daemon climbs up his hair with a fluttering of wings and tiny claws until she's perched on top of his head and pecks him, hard.
"She isn't wrong, whatever she just said," Ms. Potts says. They had their back-and-forth earlier, and Coulson is certain it was no less than a continuation of something else gone before.
"Was that necessary?" Stark asks.
The bird pecks him again.
"Okay, all right, you win, fine. I give up, I surrender. You want verbatim, I can do verbatim. Me and Pepper, on the yacht." He points Aldran, addressing Ms. Potts' daemon directly, "You were there, you can confirm."
"And fifty of your closest friends," Ms. Potts adds.
Tess growls, and Stark sighs, points back and forth between Coulson and his daemon. When he speaks next, it's over the top of Tess's head. "These two do not believe in fun, and I do not blieve I can take them seriously, either — "
"You don't have to," Coulson replies. He retrieves his sunglasses and slides them on. Tess jumps down from the sofa and sits at his feet, ready to go.
"You're up," Ms. Potts says. Aldran stands and stretches, then butts his head into the back of Stark's knees. The two of them exchange a look. The four, if Coulson is completely honest, and Coulson looks away and coughs. The moment breaks.
He informs Fury he needs to be on a plane the second Stark goes off book.
Chapter 2: A Little Lie Inside Your Pocket
Natasha's daemon is a palm cockatoo: He once severed a man's thumb with his beak, and when he screamed, it was not entirely from pain.
Dear Theoreticalpixy, this is all your fault.
Natasha is fifteen when her daemon settles, older than the rest of the trainees by almost a full year. She looks at him and says, "You are going to get very cold here, you know."
He takes the webbing between her thumb and forefinger in his beak, testing the give of the flesh, pressing into it with his hot, dry bird tongue. He says, We can move.
She will learn, later, that Nikolai — Nik — has no compunction about shredding flesh or snapping bone in this new form, red and glossy black, one he has never taken before. Now, he raises his crest and presses his forehead into her palm for reassurance.
They can leave, if they want to.
It is the first time such a thought has been given to her, and Natasha takes it for herself (for them) and holds it close.