Pepper's Me Time
It took a very special, very specific kind of person to deal with the Avengers on a regular basis, but Phil Coulson supposed that Pepper Potts had a lot of experience with extreme personalities. It was probably why they got along so well. He liked Pepper, because she made things easier, and God knew they both appreciated the value of someone who made things easier.
At the moment, however...
"What do you mean, he's out?" Pepper asked, and Phil held up a calming hand. "Out of the closet or something, right? Because so help me God, if Justin Hammer got paroled -- "
"Hammer has friends in very high places," Phil replied. "It was a pardon."
"Are you kidding me?" Pepper asked. "That asshat got pardoned?"
"And some international governments are getting some very shiny new weapon designs," Phil said. "There's nothing we can do. We weren't even notified until he was out."
"So why are you here in my office? Are you going looking for him?" Pepper asked. "Even if you find him you can't arrest him, right?" Phil regarded her for a moment, and she frowned. "Ohhh, no."
"He's made threats against you in the past -- "
"He was being arrested!"
" -- and now he's out, and those threats he made to your face weren't the only ones," Phil finished. "He's gone to ground somewhere, and we don't know where. We have concerns."
"Come on, you know how sleazeballs like him are, they're all talk," Pepper said.
"I'd agree with you, but a few years ago someone very much like him built a flying robot suit and started independently taking out terrorist camps."
"Tony's not -- "
"I know," Phil said. "But you see my point. Whether or not these threats are credible, we're going to take them very seriously. You're the head of a large corporation with important ties to SHIELD, and you have personal connections to some very dangerous, unstable people."
Pepper frowned. "Who?"
"The Avengers," Phil said drily. "Look, you can refuse to accommodate protective detail, but we'll just assign a covert one. And..." he shook his head, offering her his phone. "This is a partial report on Hammer's threats against the CEO of Stark Industries."
Pepper looked down. "I'd like to gut that bitch from chin to cu -- oh my God."
"I'm guessing he was being extra-artistic for the fellow prisoner he was talking to, but I'm not going to bet your life on it," Phil replied. "So you can accept the security detail, or we can do this covertly, which is more difficult, and that puts your life in unnecessary danger. Those are your options, Pepper."
"I don't want strange SHIELD agents on my detail. I deal in a lot of classified information."
"No strangers. It'll be Clint, Natasha, and myself in eight-hour shifts."
Pepper nodded. "I want you during working hours."
"Convenient," Phil drawled.
"Tony's not going to react well to this."
"One more reason to put security in place before he finds out," Phil replied.
"I don't suppose it's legal to wind him up and send him out to find Hammer?" she asked with a half-smile.
"We're putting him and Captain Rogers on a team to track Hammer down. If we kept him off, he'd just do it on his own. At least this way there are controls in place."
"You have a high opinion of Steve's ability to control Tony."
"It's something. Anything that lessens the likelihood of Iron Man committing unprovoked homicide -- "
"I think we could argue he was provoked. He's provocable."
Phil spread his hands. "Well, I won't weep over Hammer's body if it happens. In the meantime..."
Pepper sighed. "Okay." She looked down, then back up at Phil. "I should be worried, shouldn't I?"
"Not with us here," Phil said smoothly. "Clint and Natasha take the job very seriously."
"I take you very seriously."
That got him a smile. "Thank you, Phil. When do we start?"
"Right now. I'll call for Natasha to relieve me at two, and Clint will relieve her at ten tonight. I'll be with you from six to two every day."
"That's not so bad. Natasha does professional very well."
"I think she enjoys it," Phil said with a smile. "I'm going to go do a check of the office and then stand quietly against a wall and watch you work."
"That's good, because my lunch meeting is here," she replied, turning to her keyboard. A few taps signalled her assistant to send the Senator in -- Phil had checked her calendar while he was prepping for the op -- and with him came Natasha in her best Bland Administrator suit, carrying two trays.
"Lunch is clean," Natasha murmured as she passed.
"Keep an eye on her until I get back," Phil replied.
"You got it."
He returned from a security check of the office just as the Senator was leaving; Natasha wasn't in evidence, but that didn't mean she wasn't watching. Pepper nodded to him as he took up a position near the door, with clear sightlines of all entries and exits.
At the worst of times Pepper still exuded professionalism and competence, and Phil had known from his initial research years ago that she was an intelligent woman capable of handling a temperamental genius like Stark. Watching her run Stark Industries was watching Pepper at her best: half politician, half salesman, never quite letting the other guy get the upper hand. It wasn't particularly polite to listen, but Phil was very good at keeping secrets, and he listened more to how she worked than what she was working on. She was aggressive, intimidating, and unwilling to bow to the demands of anyone if it didn't give SI an advantage. And she never stopped moving. She dragged him to a hospital board of directors meeting and then to a contract consultation with Legal; when he changed out with Natasha, she was in the middle of her weekly visit to Research (which he heard later ended in an epic battle with Tony when he found out about Hammer).
"She's a whirlwind," Phil told Clint, over dinner.
"Glad I get to mostly watch them sleep, then," Clint said with a grin.
"No voyeurism, Agent Barton."
"Promise I'll be the soul of discretion."
"Mm," Phil answered noncommittally. "Call me at six."
When he arrived the following morning, he found Clint quietly drinking coffee with Pepper; Clint gave him the all-clear signal and a brief report while Pepper rose from the table and went to a chair near the high glass wall that looked out over Manhattan, settling herself comfortably. Phil watched as she closed her eyes.
She sat very still, more still than he'd ever seen her, more still than he'd ever seen anyone except perhaps Clint. The only evidence that she wasn't a store-window model was the slow rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. Five minutes passed, then ten; a chime sounded after fifteen, and she inhaled, opening her eyes. She stood, smoothed out a wrinkle in her suit, and shot him a smile as she began putting on her shoes.
"Do I look ridiculous?" she asked.
"Not at all," he replied. "I'm curious, though."
Pepper adjusted the strap on her heel and nodded. "It's the secret of my success."
"Not exactly. Just...for fifteen minutes, every day, I get to do nothing at all. Bad days, I get to look forward to tomorrow's fifteen minutes. Good days, I start out well-rested and things get better from there." She picked up her phone and StarkPad. "You should have seen me when Tony was my boss, not my boyfriend. I needed thirty then." She paused. "When he was gone, I cut it down to five. Too much to do."
"Fifteen sounds like a good medium."
She nodded. "A little peace goes a long way. So!" she added, smiling brightly. "Time to go have a conference call with France. Busy day, chop chop."
"I'll try to keep up," he replied, following her to the elevator.
They emerged onto Pepper's executive office floor just in time for Iron Man to burst through the window.
His helmet was dented all along one side, and there were bullet marks on the armor. Outside, a chopper was hovering; Captain Rogers, in full regalia, was descending a rope ladder dangling from it. As they watched, he jumped lightly to the balcony and climbed through the broken window, joining Stark on the glass-covered carpet and pulling his cowl back.
Justin Hammer was tucked securely under Stark's left arm, dry-heaving, his hands bound behind him. His hair was wildly askew and shot through with dried blood. He was wearing a shredded and soot-stained tracksuit, and one of his shoulders was very clearly dislocated.
"Brought you a present, light of my life," Stark said, lifting the visor of the helmet with a creak. "Hey, Agent."
"Stark," Phil said neutrally as Hammer vomited on the carpet. "Is there a reason Mr. Hammer isn't in SHIELD custody?"
"Tony's like a cat," Pepper said. "Bringing me beheaded squirrels and mangled birds."
"Aw, Pep, don't tell me you didn't want to see him thoroughly humiliated before we brought him in," Stark replied, dumping Hammer on the floor. "By the way, he assaulted two officers of the federal government, so you can re-arrest him," he added to Phil.
At that moment, the viewscreen in the corner flickered to life. Two women in suits peered through the camera nervously.
"This is my life," Pepper sighed, as one of them said something rapid and clearly horrified in French. Pepper turned and spoke back to them, calmly, while Hammer threw up again. Captain Rogers put a trash can from the desk under his head.
"That's it, get it all out, you sack of bile," Stark said, while Pepper continued in French. "You'd think prison would make him harder, but I guess they don't accelerate you at multiple Gs between weekly showers," he added to Captain Rogers, who nodded sagely.
The screen flickered off again, but Pepper was already turning to Stark.
"I have ten minutes before I have to be back on the call with France. Steve, put Hammer somewhere safe. Tony, don't you dare push him down any stairs on the way."
"I could," Captain Rogers offered.
"No," Pepper said. "On your way out, please tell Laura to call janitorial and then the glass company, and ask her to get someone from Legal up here."
Hammer lunged for her before any of them could stop him, but he was clearly still feeling the effects of Tony's transport, and before he reached her he dropped to his knees again, clutching his head.
"Bitch," he snarled venomously.
Pepper slapped him so hard Hammer's neck audibly cracked.
Stark placed a gauntleted hand on Hammer's dislocated shoulder.
"Apologize to the lady," Captain Rogers said. Hammer swore, and Stark squeezed. "Apologize."
"I'm sorry!" Hammer gritted out. Stark let him go only reluctantly.
"Come on, Hammer," Captain Rogers continued, picking him up like a sack of potatoes. "Let's go find some stairs not to throw you down. Tony, you have to have some kind of holding cell around here."
"I've got something that'll work," Stark said, following them out. "Love you, Pepper! Totally slaying your enemies for you!"
"Only mildly unsettling, Tony!" she called back.
And then it was just Phil and Pepper, standing in the glass-strewn office that smelled faintly of bile. Pepper shook out her hand and straightened her sleeves.
"Those fifteen minutes make perfect sense," Phil remarked.
Phil Coulson Doesn't Need A Hammer
One of the many reasons Clint liked being assigned to the Extreme Threat Control division of SHIELD (aside from being a member of ETC, which made him laugh every time) was that Extreme Threat Control was Phil Coulson's division, and they got all the really freaky shit. Clint liked the variety, felt at home with the unexpected, and thoroughly enjoyed Coulson's mild-mannered, no-nonsense method of totally dominating his enemies.
New Mexico was a perfect example. In the chopper en route to the meeting site, a small town with some truly disturbing weather patterns and a potential UFO crash, he heard Coulson radio in a report: he'd neutralized two hostile civilians in the act of armed robbery of a gas station.
"Sorry, did you say a bag of flour?" Mission Command asked, as Coulson dictated his incident report.
"Affirmative," Coulson answered pleasantly. "Local LEOs will handle, but I'd like an agent to monitor the police band and possibly do some cleanup. Security tapes should be confiscated."
"This should be fun," Clint remarked.
"Stay off the official line unless you have a useful contribution to make, Agent Barton," Coulson ordered.
"Sir, yes sir. Mission Command, this is Agent Barton. I'd like to suggest we stock up on ballistic flour."
"Denied, Agent Barton," the commander replied, sounding amused. "Ballistic flour only recommended for agents with a level seven rating and above."
"You clowns had better have some intel when I get there, because if you have time to mock my combat techniques you have time to do your jobs," Coulson replied. "I'm off radio except for emergencies, rendezvous at oh eight hundred."
"Copy rendezvous, Mission Command out."
By the time they'd met up with Coulson, run the locals off the crash site, and located Jane Foster's equipment, a temporary base was already going up around the hammer. Clint loafed around, checking sightlines, while the rest of the team unpacked the heavy machinery, set up the fence, and began building the scaffolding. Coulson was in the middle of the action, sand already scuffing his nice black shoes, giving orders and sending agents scurrying to obey.
"Let's get at least four levels up over this thing, but keep the top open," he was saying, pacing around the hammer, pointing out where he wanted access doors to the site. Half a dozen agents and a heavy crane had already tried to shift the hammer with no luck; their linguistics expert back at HQ said the inscription on the side of it read Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor. Apparently Thors were thin on the ground in New Mexico.
Clint had tried, covertly, because what little kid hadn't dreamed of pulling a sword from a stone and being crowned king? No dice.
They were alone now, Sitwell off supervising the construction, but Coulson was still talking, standing next to the hammer. Clint watched as he took a step and shifted his weight to turn, indicating where the armory should be -- "Barton, are you listening?" -- and then stumbled on a loose flake of stone. He staggered, but didn't quite lose his footing, and as he righted himself his arm bumped the handle of the hammer.
And it moved.
Clint blinked, glancing from Coulson to the hammer and back. Coulson shook his shoulders out, startled, and looked straight at Clint.
"Did that just...?" Clint asked.
Very carefully, Coulson put out his hand and nudged the handle. It shifted again, and dust rained down from the column of dirt on which it stood.
"You try," Coulson said, sounding like a kid daring a friend to steal a candy bar. Clint eyeballed him, but reached out and grasped the handle. He pulled hard, the muscles in his arms cording and bulging, but it stayed firmly embedded in the soil. He let go, shrugging.
Coulson lifted the hammer slightly, like it weighed nothing at all, and let it fall again.
"Looks like the hammer chose you, boss," Clint said, awed but going for sardonic.
"That's not how this works," Coulson said quietly, stepping back. "Let's start getting set up."
"But sir -- "
"I didn't touch it, and you saw nothing," Coulson continued, in the same mild, even tone he always used.
"Yes, sir," Clint said, because he knew when he was being given an order. "I'll go tell the guys to start putting up the scaffolding, huh?"
"And get the sensors in here. I don't want anyone else touching this until we're recording everything."
Clint didn't bring it up again until after the mission was over, and they were decompressing in one of the town's two dingy little bars (most of the agents assigned to the mission were in the other).
"You could have picked it up," he said, and Coulson regarded him across the table. "When things started to go south. You could have picked up the hammer."
"Wasn't my responsibility," Coulson replied.
"Bullshit. When ops go bad it's everyone's responsibility, you taught me that."
"Not this time. It wasn't meant for me. There's a difference between having the power to do something and using that power. Knowing how to use it, too. It wouldn't have ended well for me. Or for anyone else in this town, I think."
"Power corrupts?" Clint asked, skeptical. "I thought the point was that only someone who was worthy..."
"Sometimes being worthy means knowing when to say no."
"What would you have done with it?"
"Terrible things, I think," Coulson said, and took another pull of his beer. "It's where it belongs now, that's all that matters. Besides, I don't need a hammer to make trouble," he added, smiling.
"I don't believe you do," Clint agreed.
"Good. Get some rest," Coulson added, standing and gathering up the empty bottles. "Long trip back tomorrow, escorting the Tesseract to headquarters. I need you sharp and on point."
"Sure," Clint said, standing too. "What are you going to do?"
Coulson glanced at the empty bottles in his hand. "Have another beer, and contemplate a very near miss."
"See you in the morning, sir."
"Bright and early," Coulson agreed.
You Look Strangely Familiar
"Take a picture, it'll last longer," Clint said, and Steve realized he'd been staring again.
He didn't mean to. Hadn't meant to. And he thought he'd been pretty subtle. He was beginning to think he was off his nut anyway, but he couldn't help it. Something about Clint Barton gave him a jolt, every time -- always had, since the first day they'd met, when Clint was fresh from having his head turned inside-out by Loki.
Maybe it was just that he wore his hair short and neat, like men had in the Army. Or he just happened to look like someone Steve knew and couldn't yet place.
Or the ice really had done a number on his brain.
"Sorry," he said, looking down at his book again.
"It's fine, I'm just joshing," Clint said, giving him a friendly smile. "Something bugging you?"
Steve set his book aside, mouth twisting in a half-frown. "You just look awfully familiar, that's all. I know, it's nuts -- it's not like we could have met before."
Clint looked almost...guilty.
"Did...we?" Steve asked, willing to look foolish if it meant he could figure out that look. Stranger things had happened.
"Well, no, not 'zactly," Clint said. He kicked his legs off the chair they were draped over and stood up, rubbing the back of his head. He looked so familiar. "But I think maybe I can explain."
Steve spread his hands. "Please. It's been driving me nuts."
"It's a family thing," Clint blurted.
"Are you someone's...grandson?" Steve asked. "Someone I knew? I didn't even think of that."
"Look, let me preface this by saying that my old man wasn't a nice guy. I didn't like him. Happiest day of my life was the day he died," Clint said. "And I know you don't get why I'm saying this yet but you will, okay, just...okay. He got in trouble with the law when he was young, moved out west, got in trouble some more, and by the time he was out they weren't exactly handing out jobs to ex-cons."
Steve leaned forward, frowning. Clint was talking awfully fast.
"He knocked up a teenage girl and married her -- yeah, we were that kind of family," Clint added. "He was forty when I was born. He was already a nasty, mean old bastard who took it out on his wife and kids."
"Clint, why...?" Steve asked, worried. "This is pretty personal stuff..."
"It's fine, SHIELD put me in therapy for years," Clint said, waving it off. "But the point is what he ran away from, the first time he got in trouble, was New York. Left New York, moved to the midwest, changed his name to Barton, tried to leave it behind. Didn't take. But he -- his birth name was Andrew Barnes."
Steve blinked at him.
"He was James Barnes' younger brother," Clint added, and it was suddenly clear -- the jaw line, the nose, those were both pure Barnes. Bucky's parents were the kind of people who had way more kids than they could afford: Bucky the oldest, three daughters, two more sons, and the youngest, Andrew, born during the war. Steve had held Andrew in his arms when he was over at Bucky's parents' place once, and his ma said "Here, make yourself useful" and dumped the kid on Steve.
"Bucky Barnes was my uncle. Would have been," Clint said. "Sorry about that. Couldn't really ever find a good time to tell you."
Steve stood up slowly, stepping closer to the other man. "You're a Barnes."
"Well, no, I'm a Barton. We're the trash side of the family," Clint said ruefully.
"You're a Barnes," Steve said firmly. "Means you're family. I owe your grandparents a debt or three. Your uncle, too."
"Listen, Cap, it's not a big deal. I never even knew them."
"It is to me. Every little piece I get back..." Steve shook his head. "Knew I was right to trust you."
Clint leaned in a little, almost hesitantly, and Steve opened his arms, wrapped him in a hug and pulled that familiar dark head down to his shoulder.
"From now on you and me, we stick together," he said, and Clint nodded. Steve released him, but kept one arm around his shoulders. "Good. Now, let me tell you some stories about your uncle Bucky..."
My Name Is Roger Crown
It wasn't a secret that Steve was taking college classes in his spare time. After all, he more than qualified for the GI Bill, and he had a lot of catching up to do. He didn't seem concerned about it, even talked openly about some of his courses. Particularly with Thor, who could also use a little specific instruction in twenty-first century Midgard.
Natasha couldn't really figure out what Steve's mission was, though. One quarter he'd be taking History Of The Cold War (she'd offered to proof his papers, which were excruciatingly earnest but factually impeccable), and the next quarter it'd be Organic Chemistry, and then Intro to Psychology or English Literature or some other random thing. The only constant was art classes, one or two at all times -- and, after the first two quarters, Computer Science.
He picked up Twitter with uncanny speed, even if for the first few months SHIELD insisted on clearing all his tweets before they went out.
Still, he didn't really seem to use the internet much. It took him a while to adjust to digital maps and email, to the point where Tony ordered JARVIS to let Steve know when he had mail because otherwise he'd never check it.
So she was surprised to find him in the penthouse media room one day, watching a documentary on the sixties and working on one of the big Stark digital panels they usually used at SHIELD for drafting or design. He had a stylus in his hand and a look of concentration on his face.
"Are you drawing?" she asked, subtly trying to get a look at the screen.
"Oh! Yes," he answered, blanking it before she could see what was on it. "Just doodling."
He was lying, she could tell -- he was usually pretty bad at it -- but she let it go. "I didn't think you went in for digital."
"One of the guys in my art class suggested it," he said. "We were doing watercolors," he added, with a downward twist of his mouth to show what he thought of watercolors. "Computer's -- well, it's not really easier, but it's faster? And I don't get stuck with my mistakes. I can just erase 'em."
"How's it coming?" she asked, settling on the couch.
"Okay, I guess." He looked at her over the edge of the screen, shyly. "Hey, could I draw you?"
"Sure," she said. "Want me to pose?"
"No, just sit there and hold still," he replied, turning to face her fully. "That's fine."
Natasha was very good at sitting still. She kept her eyes on the documentary and after ten minutes he cleared his throat and turned the screen around. "Here you go."
She took it and studied it, pleased. "You're really good."
"Thanks. It was the one thing I was good at, y'know. Before the Serum," he said, flushing. "I was...klutzy, and little, but I could always draw."
"Well, it's nice you still do," she said, tapping the drawing. "Can I have a copy?"
"Sure. Uh, JARVIS, print a copy for Natasha?" Steve said.
"Of course, Captain. Agent Romanoff, your printout is in the telecom center."
"I'll pick it up when the movie's over," she said, handing the screen back to Steve. "So, hippies, huh?" she asked, gesturing at the documentary.
"None of the women are wearing..." Steve lowered his voice. "Underthings. On top."
Natasha patted his arm. "I'm sure they'll explain that sooner or later."
She sat out the rest of the documentary with him, amused by his reactions to things like Free Love, and then sauntered down to the telecom room while Steve queued up Good Morning, Vietnam.
When she reached the printer, she found two sheets of paper waiting; one was a tabloid-sized copy of his sketch of her, all spidery lines and flattering sharp angles, marked PAGE 1 OF 2. The other, PAGE 2 OF 2, was a regular-sized sheet of paper with more drawings on it -- it looked like JARVIS had taken Steve's broad command literally, and printed both of the pages he was working on. She gazed down at page two, intrigued.
Across the top, in painstakingly ruled letters, was the word "DECADE". Underneath was a man in a blocky suit -- fifties style, she thought -- tipping a fedora at the viewer. It looked like the cover of a comic book.
Natasha took both pages -- no need to embarrass Steve by leaving the one she obviously wasn't meant to see, and she was a spy, after all -- and went down to her own apartment in the Tower. She sat down at her desk, opened Google, and typed in 'decade comic book'. The first hit that came up seemed to be what she was looking for.
She opened the page, and her eyes narrowed.
DECADE was apparently an indie webcomic in the comic book style. Every few weeks a new 'issue' was released, with ten or fifteen pages in an ongoing story. Some pages were colored, some weren't; some were just cleaned-up scans of pencil sketches, but they told a complete story.
It was enthralling. The hero was just known as The Captain, and at the start he was a soldier in World War II, chasing down Nazi scientists near the end of the war. In the very first issue he got zapped with an experimental ray that caused him to jump through time, spending a year in every decade he moved through. At first he'd been sent to the distant future, the year 2245, and then he'd jumped back to the forties, but very late, after the war, and then to the fifties, where he was currently spending his time working as a Cold War spy. In the very latest issue, he was only a week away from the next jump, which comments in the website's forum seemed to speculate would be to the sixties.
Natasha clicked the About - FAQ tab, and got the answer she'd been looking for. Well, he had said he'd been learning to build websites in his Computer Science class...
Roger Crown is a part-time artist studying on the GI Bill in New York City.
Are you a time traveller?
Shucks, no. I'm just in school where I'm taking a lot of history courses, and this comic is my way of working through it all.
Do you work in comics commercially?
Not yet! I have a day job, but it gives me a lot of spare time (between bouts of frantic, insane activity!) so I just draw for fun. Between work and school I need some downtime and DECADE is what I do. I wouldn't mind working in comics but I guess my work doesn't really allow for things like deadlines and rewrites. Besides, there are plenty of talented people who need those jobs more than I do.
I have a great idea for a story!
Good! You should write it. (Sorry, I don't do commissions -- learned that one the hard way!)
What kinds of comics do you like?
I read a lot of Batman and Superman. Also I like some of the independent comics like Powers, but sometimes they get kind of graphic. I don't like a lot of blood and guts.
But if you're on the GI Bill, does that mean you were a soldier?
Yes, I served in the Army for a few years. I was in active combat but that's pretty much why I don't like gore.
Is The Captain based on you?
Yes and no. Some parts are me, but he's much more brash. I mostly based him on a mixture of two friends of mine, James and Anthony. The loudmouth parts are mostly James and the brainy parts are Anthony. The rest is me.
What will happen to the Captain next?
You'll have to wait and find out!
At the bottom of the FAQ was a line: Like the comic? Don't like the comic? Have a question? Email me! email@example.com.
Natasha sat back, considering. She clicked the link, and it opened an email window from her official SHIELD email address.
Great comic! But it needs more women. Any time you want a reference to draw from, you know where to find me.
She sent it, and then went to hang up the picture he'd drawn of her on her wall.
The next time he saw her, he gave her a rueful smile, but didn't mention it, and he didn't reply to the email. A few weeks later, when The Captain finally did make the jump to the sixties -- 1963, to be precise, he was clearly aiming at the Kennedy assassination -- 'Roger Crown' introduced a new character: a fellow time-traveller from the future named Agent Roberts. She had short red hair and a tattoo of a black scarab on her arm.
Natasha smiled, printed out the page where The Captain met Agent Nancy Roberts, folded it in half, and wrote Atta boy on the back. She slipped it into Steve's gym bag when he wasn't looking.
Nora Ridge, Tomb Raider
It wasn't that Tony didn't mean to eavesdrop. Tony loved eavesdropping. It was really the only way you learned anything interesting. Most of the time he preferred to do it digitally, but he had boundaries; this was Stark Tower, and while he might surveil the hell out of the businesses on the lower floors, it wasn't like he had cameras on people in their own homes. Inside the Tower, all his eavesdropping was -- for lack of a better word -- analog.
Even with all his passion for snooping, however, he knew he shouldn't be hearing this.
He was on Bruce's balcony, taking a break from a marathon LET'S DO MATH IT'S FUN session, when he heard Coulson's voice. It was low and even more soothing than normal, drifting up from the balcony below, Natasha's balcony. Just the right combination of an updraft and a curved wall along one edge, and he could pick out words.
"...knew this might happen someday, solnyshko," Coulson said. "I know we thought we'd have more time to prepare."
"We thought I'd have more time to choose," Natasha said. She sounded more...well, more emotional than Tony had ever heard her. Upset -- not angry upset, he decided, cocking one ear to try and hear better. Sad upset. The kind of upset she'd kill him for witnessing.
Still, he didn't stop listening.
"The nature of the work is unpredictable," Coulson said.
"It's not that. If I had to miss one summer for a job that would be all right, but I can't go back now. Not ever."
"You know I couldn't, Coulson. They'd all stare at me. It'd be too...they'd know I lied to them. They'd think I was spying on them."
"I'm sure they're not happy to lose their best translator."
Tony heard Natasha sigh deeply. "So nobody wins."
"Well, you did save the world."
"Yeah. I guess so." Now she just sounded bitter. "My cover's blown. What do I do?"
"I know you loved Italy -- "
"It wasn't Italy. It was the dig. We were really making progress, we were learning things. I didn't take Latin to be a better spy -- nobody learns Latin to be a spy. I took it so I could keep one normal thing in my life."
"Only you would think an excavation in high summer in the Mediterranean was normal, Tasha," Coulson answered.
"I liked being the random grad student nobody cared about," Natasha said. "I liked being ordinary."
"Well, you're one of the smartest women in the country, surely we can find some kind of solution to this."
Tony took out his phone and quietly began searching for female grad students with the initials NR on summer digs in Italy.
"No," Natasha was saying, as Tony scrolled through university directories and field school reports. "I just need to mourn it and move on. Find something new. Things won't be normal now. Like you said. We knew it might happen."
"Tasha," Coulson repeated, voice for once emotional, full of regret.
"It's all right. Beats being dead at the bottom of a well in Somalia, da?"
"That's not much of a criteria for a happy life. Almost anything beats being dead at the bottom of a well in Somalia."
There she was. Nora Ridge -- the most normal, unexotic name she could think of, probably -- graduate student at some university he'd never heard of and which might not exist. Spent the last five summers off-and-on excavating pre-Republican Roman tombs. Listed "Trying to crack Linear-A" as a hobby.
Natasha was a secret history dork. The Latin should have tipped him off.
Tony grinned gleefully and switched to a new browser window. Five minutes -- the balcony below was silent -- and he had blown a chunk of this month's Stark Industries revenue. Honestly, he'd had his eye on that little package for a while, mostly because Tony only wanted what was really hard to get.
"Bruce, keep the calculator warm for me. Business to attend to," he said, ducking inside and heading for the elevator.
"Something up?" Bruce called, chewing on the end of a lightboard stylus.
"You'll mess up your teeth that way," Tony replied, stepping into the elevator. "BRB, I swear."
Bruce held up a hand in acknowledgement as the doors shut with a ding. They didn't need to ding, but Tony liked the ding.
When he walked into Natasha's apartment -- without knocking, which, okay, was a little violation-of-privacy-ish -- he could see through the glass wall looking onto the balcony that she and Coulson were sitting on a couch they had presumably moved out there. Natasha's head was tipped on his shoulder, and one of his hands was resting on her head. Tony knocked on the glass, and Natasha bolted upright.
"Don't you ask before invading?" she demanded, turning around.
"Asking is boring," he said, pushing the door open. Coulson looked up at him, his usual I'm just a mild bureaucrat mask on.
"What do you want, Stark?" Natasha demanded.
"Well, first, to know why you're hanging out on a sofa on your balcony with Coulson, but not really, because that'd be weird. But actually, you speak Latin, right? Or, whatever, read it? Pep says nobody speaks Latin because it's a dead language."
Natasha looked murderous.
"You do, right? You do Latin," Tony continued blithely.
"Is there a point buried here somewhere?" Coulson asked.
"I just bought a thing. It's a...thing," Tony said, offering her his phone. She looked down at it, eyes widening.
"You bought the Qumran Articles?" she demanded, looking up at him. "Those have been locked up for years!"
"Yeah, I heard the guy who found them sucks and won't translate them because some other archaeologist dicked him over and nobody'll give him grant money," Tony said. "Academics, huh? Cutthroat assholes. Give me aliens any day."
"You bought the Qumran Articles?" her voice rose slightly.
"Um, yes. Money talks," Tony replied. "So are you going to translate them for me or what?"
Natasha looked at Coulson, who shrugged and said, "Bog dal, bog i vzyal."
"Gesundheit," Tony told him.
"You can't just roll them out and go at it," Natasha said. "You need a lab and equipment -- preservation expertise -- "
"Welcome to Stark Tower," Tony said. "We have labs. I can get you assistants."
"Why are you so interested?" Natasha demanded.
"I'm not. I just bought a thing and you know I hate half-assed incomplete projects." Tony shoved his phone back in his pocket and shrugged. He gave her the sideways smile he had perfected on women when he was fourteen. Probably wouldn't work on Natasha, but you never knew your luck.
It wasn't about the dig, he knew that, he got that. It wasn't really even about history. It was about feeling normal. In a lab with a bunch of rotting old papyrus and a couple of assistants, you could at least simulate normal, he thought.
Natasha crossed her arms. "I get my name on any papers published about it and translation credit."
"Uh, yeah," Tony agreed.
"And when we're done they go on exhibit. A tour," she added. "And then to Israel for permanent display."
"I will publish an exhibit catalogue and give it away free to orphans. What do you want from me?" Tony asked, giving her a little attitude. "Yes or no, Schliemann?"
Natasha glanced at Coulson again. He shrugged.
"Fine," she said. "But only because you'll mess it up otherwise."
"Which is why I came to you, Jesus, does nobody listen to me? Anyway, JARVIS, email her the shipping information. I'm going to go play Let's Unravel The Universe with Bruce."
As he left, he heard Natasha make the most undignified noise he'd ever heard her make, and say urgently, "I'm going to translate the Qumran Articles!"
"I told you something would work out," Coulson said serenely.
He Cleans Up Nice
"Did you know Tony could do this?" Bruce asked Steve in an undertone.
"Do what?" Steve asked, leaning in.
"Wear...normal clothes and...have...hair..." Bruce gestured at his own head, then nodded at Tony, who was sitting at the boardroom table.
"Have hair?" Steve asked, eyebrows crinkling. "He...he normally does, doesn't he?"
Bruce had known who Tony Stark was, of course, before...well, back before. They hadn't traveled in the same circles, but they were both government contractors, though Bruce was more the "sit in a lab" type while Tony was the "swan in and out while blowing things up" type. He'd heard his name but never met him, and then he'd been on the run.
The Tony that Bruce now knew personally was the guy who'd wander into his lab and fix his math or demand Bruce's presence in the workshop to fix his math, which usually ended up with them playing a modified game of baseball with the 'bots. (Butterfingers pitched a mean curveball.) Tony wore rock band shirts or grease-smeared tank tops and his hair was usually on end from either sleeping or running his hands through it in distracted thought, or matted and sweaty from fighting in the armor.
Tony was not a man Bruce thought of as 'put together', was his point. More like 'held together' by coffee and sarcasm and rivets.
When Tony had walked into the conference room this morning, Bruce had barely recognized him. Supposedly, two neighbor nations of Latveria were considering a trade agreement, but that was liable to bring Viktor von Doom down on their heads, and Viktor von Doom was, in Bruce's professional opinion, a crazy fuck. So it made sense that the ambassadors would want to meet in the States, where they could request an American military peacekeeping presence after the treaty was announced. Steve had been authorized to present the Army's offer, and Tony had volunteered to broker the treaty.
Which was weird, because Tony was not someone Bruce thought of as a diplomat, either.
Yet there he was, sitting at the table between the ambassadors, joking and laughing at their jokes, frowning occasionally in concentration as he helped them hammer out the treaty. He was wearing what had to be a ten thousand dollar suit, pristine and clearly tailored, and his hair was slicked down neatly. He looked like a Wall Street tycoon, not a mad scientist.
Bruce still wasn't sure why he was there himself.
"I just didn't know he owned a hairbrush," Bruce said, trying to explain his confusion.
"He probably breaks it out for affairs of state," Steve agreed.
"And he's in a suit."
"Haven't you ever seen Tony in a suit before?"
"Well, no," Bruce said, frowning. "Have you?"
"Sure. I mean, in magazines mostly, when they do pictures of him at parties. I know I've only been around for a couple of months, but he's on the news in a suit all the time. And every time we have a mission the news re-runs that footage of him at the press conference. You know, the I am Iron Man thing," Steve said.
"The what now?"
"No offense, Bruce, but maybe you should get out more," Steve said kindly.
"I don't watch the news. It makes me angry."
"Oh. Well, forget I said anything then."
"Already forgotten." Bruce turned back to Tony, who was keying something into a StarkPad. Tony looked up and grinned.
"Bruce! Come over here," he called, and Bruce glanced at Steve, who shrugged. "Come, come over, meet the ambassadors. This is Ambassador Kzharin, and Ambassador Tomivan. Boys, Bruce Banner."
One of the man looked at him and grinned. "The Hulk!"
Bruce sighed inwardly. "Very nice to meet you, Ambassadors."
Kzharin said something in what sounded like German. Tony replied, and Bruce blinked.
"The Ambassador wanted to ask for your autograph," Tony said. "I told him not until I got his on the treaty." He handed the StarkPad to Kzharin, who put a stylus to the screen and signed with a flourish, then handed it to Tomivan, who signed as well. Tony tossed Bruce a pen.
"For my daughter," Kzharin said, holding out an autograph book. "Big fan. Her name is Miya."
Bruce wrote 'To Miya', then signed his name while Tony said something else in a foreign language. Suddenly the men were standing up, shaking hands with Tony and with each other.
"Cap, you want to show the Ambassadors out?" Tony said, and Steve took custody of them, leading them away. Tony stretched and then adjusted his cuffs, the little gold AES cufflinks glittering. "Well, good day's work."
"You look, uh, presentable," Bruce said.
"I try," Tony said drily.
"Did you seriously just broker a trade treaty using my autograph as incentive?"
"Whatever gets the job done," Tony said, cocking his head. "You know that this is what I do when I'm not blowing things up, right? I mean, since Iron Man. This is my...fourth -- no, fifth treaty in the last four years. I'm not shitting about that privatizing world peace thing."
"How?" Bruce asked, following him towards the door. "I like you and all, but the first time we met you called me a rage monster and the second time you stabbed me with an electric prod."
"You're not in control of a small nation," Tony answered. "Look, I was raised in that world. I might not love it, but I know how to work it. I was negotiating contracts with the US military when I was twenty-two. Compared to that, this is popcorn."
Tony shrugged, sliding out of his jacket as they walked down the hallway of the forty-ninth floor of Stark Tower. He worked a cufflink out with one hand. "Sure. I made a commitment to making things right when I stopped selling arms. This is part of that, and it's not so hard." He fiddled the other cufflink out, then undid the buckle on the Submariner watch on his left wrist and shoved it all in his pockets as they got into the elevator. "Hold this."
"Steve seemed to think it wasn't that strange, seeing you in a suit," Bruce remarked, accepting the jacket while Tony started unbuttoning his crisp linen shirt.
"Mmh," Tony answered, pulling the still half-buttoned shirt over his head. Underneath he had on a plain white undershirt, the arc reactor glowing gently through it. "He gets more of Public Tony than you do. It's the steady, horrifying diet of pop culture they keep trying to feed him to get him up to speed."
"Public Tony, huh?" Bruce asked, accepting the shirt as well. They got off the elevator and Tony stopped outside the doorway to his workshop. He stepped out of his shoes, taking the clothing back from Bruce before entering.
"Sure. That's the life," Tony replied, leading him inside. He walked over to a shelf and set the clothing on it, taking down a pair of ratty, oil-slicked khakis. Bruce looked away politely while he changed. "There's more to armor than gold-titanium alloy, y'know. Prada works just as well in some situations. Public Tony tends to need style more than substance."
"So which one of you is real?" Bruce asked, as Tony laced up his workboots. Tony gave him a blank look, settling a pair of goggles over his hair, mussing it up.
"They both are," he said. "So are we going to do some work here or what?"
Bruce grinned. "Sure. Work it is."
Tony called up the propulsion specs they'd been working on and started poking at them, Bruce on the other side.
"I like this one best," Tony finally said.
"This one. Of me. They're all real, but I like this one best," Tony said.
"Well, me too," Bruce agreed.
"Well, good," Tony said, and went back to work.
Smoke Em If You Got Em
Thor was not an early riser by inclination, but he was currently experiencing something Tony called 'jet lag' which seemed to force the issue.
They had come to this place, "Malibu", because Tony missed the Lady Pepper, his affianced; the rest of them had, as Steve put it, 'bummed along' because apparently Malibu was very pleasant. Thor couldn't disagree -- it was warm and smelled of the ocean. But this jet lag was not so pleasant; he knew that it was barely dawn, but his body seemed to believe it was much closer to mid-day.
He was just rummaging in Tony's larder for something to eat -- the box of "Lucky Charms" looked promising, an auspicious start to the day -- when he glanced out the window and saw a man in black leaving the garage, looking as furtive as it was possible for a man to look with a large...thing...under one arm.
Thor took action. Nobody robbed the house of the Iron Man, at least not while Thor drew breath.
He burst through the front door, Mjolnir already swinging, and took off to land just behind the man, bellowing, "HOLD, VILLAIN!"
The man flinched and turned --
"YOU SHALL NOT STEAL THE...LARGE COLOURFUL PLANK OF TONY ST -- Bruce?" Thor asked, suddenly baffled. Bruce was standing there, breathing heavily, one hand clenched to his chest.
This close, he could see the suit Bruce wore was much like the fitted body-suits the SHIELD agents affected, with a zipper down the front, but softer-looking. The large plank under his arm had a strange protrusion, and was painted bright purple.
"Jesus Christ, Thor," Bruce gasped.
"I'm sorry, my friend! I took you for a thief," Thor said, still eying the plank curiously. "I thought you were making off with that...plank."
"Surfboard. It's a surfboard," Bruce said, his breathing evening out. "It's Tony's -- or, well, maybe it came with the house. I'm just borrowing it." He jerked his thumb at the ocean beyond. "Thought I'd get out early. The tide's coming in, and JARVIS says the waves are spectacular."
"The waves?" Thor asked skeptically.
"Yeah, I -- you don't know what surfing is, do you?" Bruce asked.
"Oh, well, it's like...there's a lot of physics...but...like...boating...without a boat," Bruce finished. "Uh. It's hard to explain. It's a kind of sport."
"I have a great interest in physics," Thor ventured. He did; he liked listening to Tony talk about it, liked seeing the world through the eyes of Midgardians.
"You want to come see? It's nice out, I don't mind the company," Bruce offered.
"Thank you, Bruce! I would like to see this," Thor agreed, and began walking down the path to the beach.
"Hey," Bruce said, jogging to catch up, "you don't want to put on some clothes?"
Thor gestured to the plain white shirt and sleep pants he wore, decorated with frolicking yellow dogs that his Jane had told him were named 'Pluto'. "Am I not sufficiently covered?"
"Ah. No, I guess you're fine," Bruce said, shuffling a little as the path grew steeper.
It was a relatively short walk, and it didn't take long for them to reach a tall fence with a gate set in it. Bruce was just unlocking the gate, punching in the electronic code, when a large car full of people pulled up. Thor noticed they had similar surfboards on the roof of their car.
"Hey!" the driver called, leaning out the open window. "This your beach?"
"Nah," Bruce called back. "Belongs to the mansion up the hill."
"Oh, the Stark place? Think he'd let us come in if we asked?"
"He won't be up for hours, but he's a pal of mine. You want to come in and catch a few waves?" Bruce asked, smiling amiably. "Just don't text a million of your buddies and invite them over, huh?"
"Thanks, man!" the driver replied, pulling the car up next to the fence, and soon Thor was following half a dozen men and women through the gate, each carrying one of the boards, some with strange bags or small rugs as well. They dumped most of their belongings on the sand well back from the tide line, and then all of them were shedding shoes and some of their clothes and running into the water like madmen, throwing their surfboards down and climbing onto them when the water grew deep. Thor watched in amazement as they paddled far out to where the waves were largest and then --
Bruce was the first on his feet. The board skimmed along the edge of the wave like it was flying, and there was Bruce, crouched on top of it, riding it like a trick rider on horseback. When he saw Thor staring, mouth agape, he waved, and that did something to the board; he lost his balance and the water crashed down over him.
Thor readied Mjolnir, prepared to soar out and pluck Bruce from the brutal surf, but after a moment he bobbed to the surface, laughing, and shook water out of his hair.
The others were doing much the same, speeding over the water with seeming ease, and surely this was some Midgardian magic; as Thor watched, Bruce floated into another wave and clambered up, paddling with his arms until he could stand again.
There didn't seem to be any purpose to the sport, no points to win, no competition except for who could go the furthest. Eventually he sat down on the sand and just watched the patterns of people flying through the water, occasionally crashing down and resurfacing. After a while, Bruce drifted back towards the shore and emerged, shaking like a dog before running up to plant his board in the sand and settle down.
"This is a wonder," Thor said. Some of the others were still out there; some were coming up the beach to throw themselves down nearby.
"It's pretty great," Bruce agreed. "Impressed?"
"Is he English?" one of them whispered to Bruce. She was a fair young woman, with many warrior-like piercings in her face.
"He's not from around here," Bruce replied.
"How did you learn it?" Thor asked earnestly.
"Oh, while I was uh....traveling," Bruce said, with a sidelong look at the woman who was clearly listening in, "I lived near the beach a lot. I picked it up. It's fun."
"It seems to require much skill."
"Not that much. You want to try it out, big guy?" the woman asked, pointing to the others.
"I do not have one of your suits," Thor said.
"Well, honey, nobody's hurt from a little skin surfing," she said. Bruce covered his face with one hand, shaking his head, but he was laughing, Thor could tell.
"You perform this sport naked, as well?" he asked, pleased.
"You can," she said, giving him a long look. Thor shrugged, stood up, and started to strip. The woman took a small white twist of paper out of a case, lit one end, and then passed it to Bruce, who tucked it between his lips while he strapped the surfboard tether to Thor's ankle. Thor left them chatting on the beach while he splashed out into the water, and the others of this peculiar tribe helpfully showed him how to "catch a wave".
Three hours later, Thor "caught" one final wave, standing proudly naked as he flew over the water, and then crashed down into it, heading for shore. Tony had apparently found them, and he was sitting with Bruce, sharing one of the 'colas' everyone on Midgard seemed to drink. Another little twist of paper was being passed around, sweet-smelling smoke rising into the air.
"Undies, big guy," one of the others said, throwing them at Thor. He smiled and pulled them on.
"I knew you were a hippie," Tony was saying to Bruce. "I knew it, I knew it."
"Shh, don't let my secret out," Bruce replied.
"I bet I was right, you totally have a big bag of weed you've been bogarting!"
"Leave off friend Bruce, for he has introduced me to this great sport of 'surfing'," Thor said sternly. He held up his hand in the solemn salute of the surfer, a raised fist with pinky and thumb extended, and slowly rotated his hand from side to side. Bruce collapsed into laughter, head resting on Tony's shoulder.
Thor basked in the sun and in their obvious good fortune in coming to Malibu and meeting the Tribe of Surf, for these did seem to be Bruce's own people.
The Panties Incident Started It
Pepper had come up with the concept of the micromeeting back when she had been Tony's PA, and it had worked well for them: the idea of stripping a meeting down to its most basic components, setting aside anything that was going to take longer than two minutes to hash out, and going in with the attitude that small talk was not encouraged. It wasn't meant to be a way of doing things at Stark Industries, just a way of dealing with things when schedules got overwhelming.
It was exceptionally useful for the Avengers, however. Their weekly meeting, which once would have taken two hours, ninety minutes of that probably Tony and Steve butting heads -- Tony claimed they were friends now, and Steve did too, but Pepper found their combative form of male bonding exhausting -- now took thirty minutes. Tony didn't trash his lab afterward, Steve didn't spend the afternoon punching things, and the rest of them got to get the hell on with their lives.
"Good meeting," Steve said, standing up. "Any final business?"
"Just one," Natasha said. "My laundry came back from the service without any underwear a few days ago. I'm not complaining, I'm just asking if anyone has it and can they please pass it along."
"Ah! I was wondering if it was simply a gift from the washerwomen," Thor said, and everyone looked at him. "Your underwear is in my possession."
"A gift?" Pepper asked.
"Who knows what tributes Midgardians find fit for a prince of Asgard?"
"Thor," Steve said with a sigh, "give Natasha back her...clothes."
"I will have them laundered and returned to you forthwith," Thor said, and everyone -- Tony already at the door, Steve standing to leave, Clint and Natasha half out of their seats, Pepper herself gathering up her phone and computer -- froze.
"Why would they need washing again?" Tony asked.
"Ohh, can of worms," Bruce groaned.
"I believed they were a gift! I wore them," Thor said.
"You...wore Natasha's...things," Steve repeated.
"A trifle constricting," Thor admitted, "but the fabric is fine indeed. Soft weave fit to support a warrior's glory. The lace is most decorative."
"Don't ask it," Pepper said sharply to Clint.
"I have to ask," Clint said.
"Areyouwearingthemrightnow?" Clint blurted.
"Of course. Would you care to see?" Thor said, reaching for his belt. Everyone protested, and Steve covered his eyes. "I don't understand your reactions. Have I broken some Midgardian taboo? I assure you it was accidental."
"You know what, Thor?" Natasha said, patting him on the arm. Pepper saw her sneak in a squeeze. "Keep them."
"May I, truly?"
"Sure. I'll buy some more," she said, and left. The rest of them stood there awkwardly.
"You talk to him," Steve said to Tony, following Natasha out.
"Why me?" Tony demanded.
"I don't have conversations about undergarments!" Steve yelled from the hallway.
Later that evening, though, tangled up together on the couch while Tony lazily toyed with old projects and Pepper finished up her work for the day, Tony said, "You know, Thor kind of had a point."
"How much have you had to drink?" she asked, tipping her head back to smile upside-down at him.
"I mean it. He didn't see any reason he shouldn't wear women's underwear, and honestly, it's not like anything could make the god of thunder less powerful; less manly, maybe, but gender in our society is a stupid construct anyway. And it's not a sex thing for him, but even if it were, it's not like he'd care. Why should he? That man walks among us entirely and completely without shame, but what's he got to be ashamed of? Everyone has kinks."
"Tony, you already live your life totally unafraid of getting ripped limb from limb," Pepper said. "If you decide on a Thor-inspired, no-shame-driven lifestyle, you and I are going to have issues."
Still, she supposed that what Tony said wasn't untrue, and in the following weeks she kept her eye on Thor, who was still exploring all Midgard had to offer. There was a fight over the No Flying While In Kilts rule, and another over the No Justin Bieber In Stark Tower rule -- "But he is a comely elf with tremendous skill!" -- and then there was the Of Course You May Kiss Me incident (Coulson was quick to clarify that SHIELD was not against Thor kissing men, but rather any of the Avengers kissing fans who might be deranged stalkers, or people who were not their significant others).
After a while, even Pepper was starting to come around to his way of thinking. Thor went through life unhampered by concern over what anyone else would think of anything he did off the battlefield, and he seemed pretty happy about it.
"Don't you get tired of it?" she asked Thor finally, after he'd spent a solid hour, post-battle, chatting with fans at the security barrier and showing off the silver bows on his underwear.
"Tired of what?" he asked.
"Being so...out there, all the time. Isn't there anything you keep back just for you?" she asked. "Our lives are so public already."
"I am a prince," he said. "Midgard is not my kingdom but it is my protectorate. A prince can have no shame or secrets from his people. If I have secrets, they can be used against me. If I have none, what harm can anyone do to me?"
"My brother's madness has its roots in the secret our father kept from us," Thor said. "When I am king of Asgard, I will not make his mistakes. Probably my own," he allowed, "but I believe your beloved is fond of saying that nobody is perfect."
"He usually adds 'except him'," Pepper said, grinning. Thor matched it.
"It is often so. And I believe Director Fury is summoning us," he said. "Fare thee well, Lady Pepper."
"You know, I think you might not be wrong about Thor," Pepper said to Tony that afternoon, while he nursed a bruised shoulder and Butterfingers and Dummy hammered dents out of the armor in the background.
"Yeah?" Tony asked.
"I don't know. It works for him, anyhow," she said.
"No fear, no shame," he replied, pouncing on her, pinning her to the table. "Hey. Ever had sex with a billionaire genius in his top-secret laboratory?"
"Not in front of the robots, dear," she said, and Tony laughed.