"Our final tests were successful," Tony says as he and Bruce join Pepper in the kitchen for breakfast.
"I can see that," she says, eyeing their dripping forms up and down. "I hope you don't make the staff clean that up."
"We'll take care of it," Bruce says.
"We will?" Tony glances at him, and makes a face. Bruce shrugs, so Tony says, "Yeah, okay, I guess we will."
Bruce smiles. "You mean the robots will."
"Well, yeah. Same difference. And then we can get to work on installing it for public use."
"No, Tony." Pepper puts her coffee mug down and picks up her briefcase. Bruce grabs his tea and sidles away. Coward.
"But--" Tony's not used to hearing it from her as often anymore. It still sucks.
"The liability alone," she says, shaking her head. "We're lucky we got anyone to insure us at all after," she gestures with her briefcase and her phone, "everything. I'm not sure I feel comfortable--"
"I know that. Of course, I know that. But I have it all figured out. Safety measures and all. And anyway, it's not for--"
Pepper finally looks up from her phone. "Are you going to be my doubles partner at the Boys and Girls Club Charity Tennis Tournament?"
"I thought--Oh. Right." Phil had done it last year, but he's in no shape for it now. "If I find you a partner, will you at least consider it?" He gives her the puppy eyes she swears don't work on her, but they do. They always do.
Her expression softens. "Fine, but you better not send Dummy."
"Dammit." He gives her a little you got me grin.
She grins in return, and it lights up her whole face. It's amazing to him that it still feels so good to know he's the one making her smile that way. "I know he's your favorite, but he's a terrible tennis player." She kisses him and hustles off to run his company so he never has to show up at the office again.
"He's not my favorite," he calls after her, but they both know that's not true either.
"Who's not your favorite?" Steve asks.
Tony jumps, startled. "What? Oh, Dummy. Also, he's a terrible tennis player."
"Your robot plays tennis?" Steve fills himself out a cup of coffee and tops Tony's mug off as well.
"No. That's the problem. But hey, I bet you do."
"Stickball was more my speed," Steve says, stirring milk into his coffee. If he were anyone else, Tony would say the look on his face is sly, but he's pretty sure Captain America doesn't do sly. "Tennis was for rich kids."
"In both cases, you're hitting a ball with a thing. How much different could it be?" Tony asks, ignoring the dig. He holds up a hand. "Don't answer that. Pepper needs a doubles partner for a charity event. I don't play tennis. Last year, she took Phil."
"But obviously that's not going to happen this year," Steve says. "When is it?"
"Next Sunday, eleven am."
Steve swallows a mouthful of coffee and nods. "Okay, I'll do it, but you need to help me out first."
Tony blinks, surprised. "I'd have thought the warm fuzzies of virtue would be their own reward."
"Not this time, Tony." He huffs a small laugh. "The Little League team I coach is going to the playoffs, but my assistant coach has a family obligation she can't get out of."
"You lead a team of fractious superheroes, but you need an assistant coach for a Little League team?"
Steve gives him a rueful half-smile. "Mainly her job is to corral the parents. They have a tendency to get," he pauses, as if searching for the right word, "belligerent."
Tony nods. "I'll make sure you've got someone there. Which is where, exactly?"
"The ball field behind the Home Depot on Cropsey Avenue."
Tony waves a hand. "I'm sure Happy knows where it is. Not a problem." He claps Steve on the shoulder. "Pleasure doing business with you, Cap."
"Just don't send Dummy."
He finds Thor lounging in front of the television later; Darcy had gotten him addicted to the Real Housewives, and now they can't pry him away when Bravo runs a marathon.
"You know those shows are totally Loki's fault," Tony says.
"They do have a whiff of his mischief about them," Thor answers. He's been a lot less volatile lately on the subject of his crazy brother, probably because Loki's still locked up tight in whatever Asgardian prison their old man had built for him.
That subject exhausted, or at least discussed in as much detail as Tony feels the need to get into, he rattles off his spiel. "So, I need a favor. Well, actually Steve needs the favor, and I said I'd help him, but I can't. I have a thing, and Steve's thing is in Brooklyn, which I make it a point to only visit twice a year except in cases of emergency and I've already been this year, so I can't. And you'd be a lot better at dealing with belligerent parents than I would be, so Happy's gonna drive you out to the ballpark behind the Home Depot on Cropsey Avenue on Wednesday to help Steve out with his Little Leaguers, okay?"
Thor blinks at him once, and then again, slowly, like a big cat that's trying to decide if he's a big enough nuisance to swat, or if he'll just go away if ignored. Thor, of course, knows that Tony just gets more annoying if he's ignored, so he's probably just trying to figure out what Tony's actually asking.
"The good captain needs my help with his team of champions?"
"Well, they're not champions yet," Tony says, "but, you know, they're on the way."
"I would like to learn more about this Midgardian sport that Steven enjoys so much. I will do you this favor."
"Great." Tony pats him on the arm and starts to get up, but he's not fast enough.
"But I should like a favor from you in return, Tony."
"Of course you do." Tony sits back down on the arm of the couch. "What can I do for you, Thor?"
"I should like to spar with the Hulk, if Dr. Banner would allow it. I feel there is much to learn about our large, green ally, if he only allowed us the opportunity. And perhaps in working together, he would come to feel more comfortable in our presence."
"And not punch you out every time he sees you, right?"
Thor nods regally. "That, too."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Dr. Banner listens to you. You are, as Darcy says, bee eff eff."
Tony huffs a soft laugh. "Something like that, yeah. Okay. Deal. I'll talk to Bruce and report back. You meet Happy in the garage on Wednesday afternoon at two."
"Excellent, friend Tony. We have a deal." Thor spits on his palm and holds it out, smiling eagerly. "I have seen this on your television shows. It's a way to seal an oath without shedding blood," he explains when Tony doesn't take his hand.
"Okay, you have got to stop watching Little Rascals as if it were a documentary," Tony replies, not unkindly. "People over the age of twelve don't actually do that."
"I see." Thor takes a tissue from the box on the coffee table and wipes his hand clean. "I did think it a bit unhygienic, but so much of Midgard is."
"I hear you, buddy. Believe me, I hear you."
Bruce is easy enough to find--he's back in the lab, hunched over his computer. He looks up, blinking, and takes his glasses off when Tony comes in.
"So here's the deal," Tony says before Bruce can say anything. "In order to get Pepper to agree to implement our special project, I had to get her a tennis partner, but in order to get her a tennis partner, I had to get Steve an assistant coach, and to get Steve an assistant coach, I kind of sort of told Thor I would ask you to let the other guy come out to play so he and Thor could beat each other up. All in a spirit of cooperation and team bonding. And somewhere away from civilians or buildings or, you know, breakable things. Of course." He leans against the counter and puts on his most charming smile. "What do you say?"
"You know I volunteer at a senior center down on Delancey Street, right?"
"You've mentioned it once or twice," Tony says warily. Usually when trying to convince one of the other Avengers to help out. Steve's the only one who's been suckered into it more than once, but maybe he likes it. After all, some of those people are probably his age.
"They're having a party on Saturday. I need another chaperone."
Tony shakes his head and makes a scoffing noise. "Bruce--"
Bruce nods in acknowledgement of his unspoken point. This is what Tony likes about him. Well, one of the things. "Someone who won't pour vodka in the punch bowl or start a game of naked Crisco twister that can only end in heart attacks and broken hips."
"What kind of party is it?"
"Not your kind of party." Tony waits, and Bruce pulls a yellow flyer out from his notebook. "It's a Summer Hoedown."
"So not Natasha, then."
Bruce grimaces. "Probably not."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Also, no robots."
"You people are all bigoted against my robots."
"Your robots are adorable, Tony, but I don't want any of them pinching Mrs. Gelberson's ass."
"Hmph. She might like it. You don't know."
"I'd rather not find out."
"Coward," Tony calls back over his shoulder, already on the move to make this happen.
Hunting down Clint requires Jarvis and then waiting. Tony is exceptionally bad at waiting. He puts on the armor and spends the time searching out a spot for Thor's sparring session with the Hulk. He's back at the tower, texting Pepper to let her know they need to buy eighty acres up near Saugerties, when Jarvis lets him know that Clint's arrived.
Tony meets him at the elevator. "You're from Iowa, right?"
"They have hoedowns there, right? Or hootenannies?"
"What?" Clint glares at him with eyes that are red-rimmed and watering. The tote bag in his arms barks and Tony takes a step back.
"Just what are you bringing into my home, Barton?"
Clint shoves the thing at him and Tony steps back again before he has to take it. "Darcy's puppy. She's going away for three days on some field trip with Jane and needed someone to dog-sit."
"And you're allergic."
"You really are a genius, huh?" It's punctuated with a sneeze.
"If I can get someone to take over for you, will you do me a favor?"
"Does it involve anything illegal?"
"At this point, do you really care?" Clint just stares at him with streaming eyes. "Fine, no, okay, it does not. It involves helping Banner chaperone the old people prom."
Clint looks like he's going to say no, but then he sneezes again, hard enough to make Tony wince in sympathy. "Yes, fine, I'll do it. Take the little hellhound away now, please."
"Put the bag down."
Clint looks at him like he's crazy but does what Tony says. "There are some dog biscuits and a couple of chew toys in here," he's saying when the puppy makes a run for it. "You better go after it now, because I'm not gonna be the one who tells Darcy her dog got blown up by one of your robots."
"My robots would not do that," Tony says, and he's ninety-nine percent convinced that's true.
"Uh huh," Clint says, raising a skeptical eyebrow. "When is the old people prom?"
"Saturday at seven," Tony calls, grabbing the bag and heading down the hall after the puppy. He hopes it doesn't piss on anything important before he gets to it.
He turns one corner and then another and stops dead in his tracks. Natasha has the puppy in her arms and is actually cooing at it. Tony's brain, as brilliant as it is, rebels for a few seconds at what he's seeing.
"Um," he says, thinking furiously, "you can keep it for the next three days if you want. It's Darcy's but it needs a sitter while she's gone."
"And Clint's allergic." Of course, Natasha would know that.
"Okay," she says.
Tony puts the bag of supplies down, surprised by her easy agreement but not inclined to question it. "I'll just leave this here, then."
"One more thing," Natasha says just when Tony thinks he's free. He should have known better. "I need a favor."
Tony sighs theatrically and turns back to face her. "What is it?"
She shifts the puppy in her arms and pulls a slip of paper out of her pocket. "I need access to these files."
Tony wrinkles his nose in distaste but takes it. He looks at the list of names and numbers--the first few follow SHIELD naming conventions, though he hasn't run across anything with a similar prefix yet, which doesn't really mean anything, because he's only really paid attention to the past few years of files--but the others are unfamiliar. Some are in Cyrillic. "I can get you the SHIELD stuff, no problem. But these others--I might need a little more information."
"The second set come from the Kronas Corporation," she says.
"Are you asking me to commit industrial espionage, Ms. Romanoff? Not that I wouldn't, for you, but Pepper might have other ideas."
Natasha doesn't smile. "Not exactly. These files are related to a program that Department X ran in the fifties," she says. "You may have heard of them."
Tony nods. He's read her file. "They were in charge of the Red Room."
"Yes. Among other things. Kronas bought some of the weaponry after the USSR fell and various factions began selling off their arsenal. I've been tracking some of these weapons for years, Tony." She grimaces. "It's nothing Stark Industries would be interested in reproducing."
There's something in her voice that stops him from pressing for more information. "Okay," he says, "but if I get in trouble with Pepper, I'm totally blaming you."
Natasha does smile now, though it's small and tight. "I'm okay with that."
"Okay, cool. I'll have everything sent to your personal email, extra double secret encrypted."
That makes her smile widen a little. "Thanks. And tell Clint to take some Benadryl before his eyes swell shut. He's such a baby when that happens."
"Yeah, I'll get right on that. Jarvis?"
"Already taken care of, sir."
"Okay, then, we've got some hacking to do." He tucks the piece of paper into his pocket and heads back to the lab. Hacking, and then convincing Pepper to let the special project proceed now that everyone else has what they need.
one week later
"Jarvis, remind everyone that we're supposed to be assembling on the roof now. Naked." Bruce gives Tony a look, so he says, "Make it in their bathing suits."
He turns to Pepper. "I still think olive oil--"
"No, Tony," she says, but she's laughing while she says it. She's wearing a yellow bikini top and has a red sarong wrapped around her hips. He always likes it when she wears his colors. "This is supposed to be fun. Not fuel for your ridiculous fantasy life."
"Can't it be both?" Tony says.
"And this," she gestures at the setup, which is amazing, if he does say so himself, "isn't enough for that?"
"You know me, Potts. I always want more. Especially after everything I had to do to get you to agree to this."
Pepper makes a soft scoffing noise. "As if you didn't love every minute of it."
"More what?" Thor asks, walking out onto the roof deck. He's wearing board shorts and sunglasses, and for once, Tony's glad he met Jane and Darcy when he came to earth, because he can only imagine the banana hammock Thor might have shown up in if he'd landed somewhere else first.
"Sunscreen," Pepper says, clapping her hand over Tony's mouth. Her skin already smells like Coppertone, so he doesn't bother with licking. It never tastes as good as it smells.
"Yes," Thor says, "you should protect your fair skin against the burning rays of the sun, my lady Pepper. Though your freckles are most enchanting." He kisses Pepper's free hand while Tony makes gagging sounds behind the one still covering his mouth.
The others arrive behind Thor. Darcy raises her arms over her head and whoops when she sees the setup, which makes her tits bounce, and they're all mesmerized for a few seconds before Steve says, "What's going on?"
"Slip'n'slide!" Darcy says, stealing Tony's thunder. He glares at her and she sticks her tongue out at him.
"Not just any slip'n'slide," he says. "The slickest, slipperiest slip'n'slide this side of, well, there was that time at MIT that Rhodey and I used Astroglide instead of water, so probably that."
"It's a sheet of plastic," Steve says.
"You just have to ruin everything, don't you? You are such a ruiner," Tony says. "Why do you hate fun?"
"I don't hate fun," Steve replies, not even rising to the bait anymore, which Tony finds simultaneously good, because maybe he's finally loosened up a little, and sad, because it means Tony's going to have to find another way to annoy him. "I just don't get what's fun about a sheet of plastic."
Tony huffs at this insult to his state of the art slip'n'slide. "It's not plastic. It's an experimental polymer that lowers the drag coefficient to near zero when it's wet. Bruce and I are in the process of patenting it."
Jane looks like she wants to discuss that, and Darcy mutters, "Fun now, Jane. Science later."
"Science is fun."
"Science is fun," Tony repeats. "Allow me to demonstrate. Jarvis, the water please."
He waits for the surface to get slick and then takes a running start and throws himself down onto it (ass-first so he doesn't bang up the arc reactor). He slides the full length without stopping until he hits the inflatable pool at the end.
"That does look like fun," Steve says, and Tony has to scramble out of the way as Captain America comes careening down at him at full speed. Steve lands in the pool with a splash and grins. "Wow, that's the bees' knees." He jumps up and out of the pool and shakes himself off like a dog. "I wish we'd thought of it when I was a kid. When we couldn't go to the beach, we used to open the fire hydrants. And not with one of those spray caps, either."
"Isn't that illegal?" Pepper asks as Clint takes his turn, arms up over his head like a little kid.
Steve blushes and scratches the back of his neck. "I suppose it is."
"Ha!" Tony says. "I knew you couldn't always be the boring paragon of virtue you appear to be."
"Yeah, that's right up there with stealing the Lindbergh baby," Bruce says before he dives headfirst down the slip'n'slide. He lands in the pool with a splash and rises up, grinning.
Thor follows after him with a shouted, "Avengers assemble!" and they exchange high fives at the other end. Their throwdown yesterday at the newly christened Stark Nature Preserve up in Ulster County had proved to be everything Thor said it would. Tony thinks they're planning to do it again soon. He hopes so, if it makes Bruce this loose-limbed and smiley.
Natasha takes her turn, and then she and Clint produce water guns from somewhere and start shooting at the rest of them. Darcy shrieks in what Tony supposes is glee and goes sliding down the plastic, almost losing her bathing suit top in the process and giving them all a show.
Then Pepper starts arming everyone else with water guns.
"Are we teaming up?" Steve asks. "Clint? Natasha?"
"It's every woman for herself, Cap," Natasha says, letting him have it with two little plastic pistols.
He lets out an indignant, "Hey!" and shoots her right back.
"But you're on my team, right, Pep?" Tony says.
Pepper turns, laughing, and sprays him right in the belly. "Didn't you hear Natasha? Every woman for herself!"
Tony catches the water gun Bruce tosses him and shoots her right back, laughing as she shouts when the cold water hits her skin. He thinks of all the favors he's traded and all the negotiations he went through with Pepper to make this happen, and decides that the whole exercise has been more than worth it.