Tony stared up at the huge, intimidating, wrought-iron gate with disdain. It was so big, so imposing, that he could barely see the uppermost towers of Rogers Mansion beyond. With a sigh, adjusting the briefcase in his hand, he tried the rusty bell again, unsure why he was surprised that he didn’t seem to be getting a reply.
Rogers Mansion, and the proprietor thereof, Mr. Steven G. Rogers, had a reputation for being… a little out there. With his mansion set miles upstate of New York, Tony’s accountancy firm generally didn’t hear from the estate at all for months and months on end, because God knew Rogers had enough money to literally do whatever he wanted with it, but every once in a while one of them would be summoned. Usually, Pepper or Rhodey came (Tony tended to deal with clients of the young, blond and female variety), but both of them were otherwise occupied with business this time, so the responsibility had fallen to him.
Only, he couldn’t get through the damn gate.
Grumbling to himself, Tony unbuttoned his suit jacket and reached inside to pull the letter Rogers had sent to them out, hoping it would offer him some clues as to how to actually reach him. Not for the first time, he shook his head in wonder at the fact that it was a hand-written letter. Who produced hand-written letters in the twenty-first century, honestly?
Dearest Stark & Co.
I realise my accounts must look a little different to the last time Miss Potts and I spoke; I recently built a conference room under the lake situated at the back of the mansion, and, as you can probably tell, it cost a pretty penny.
I’m writing in regards to another potential payment. As my accountants, I assumed you would be the best to ask – would it be ethical to buy a university? One of the good ones, of course. I’m currently locked in a battle of wit and daring with the gentleman who owns the mansion next door, and this purchase would definitely help my case. That, and education for all, etc etc.
Feel free to drop by any time so we can discuss this further. Someone will be around to let you in.
What a fucking fruit loop.
“Hello?” Tony called out in a last ditch effort, gearing up for the very real possibility that he might have to scale the gate himself. He momentarily considered just giving up and trying to reach Rogers on the phone from back at the office, but just the thought of Pepper’s unimpressed stare had him reconsidering.
His hands were just closing around the first knobs, preparing to climb, when there was an echoing groan, a rumble, and then the gate was creaking open. Feeling somehow more on edge than he had when the gate was firmly closed, Tony stepped back and let the metal inch forwards, creating a gap just big enough for him to slither through. Rolling his eyes, he sucked in his gut, pushed his briefcase through first, and then ducked through into the grounds.
For what it was worth, Rogers Mansion really was breathtaking. Idyllic, quiet, with turn of the century architecture and immaculately kept, sweeping grounds, Tony really had to give it to Rogers – sometimes, money did buy everything. Setting off up the path, Tony took a deep breath, feeling more calm and collected now he had made it. He would get this meeting over with quickly, tell Rogers the pros and cons of what he was proposing, hopefully get him to see some sense, and he’d be back in his own bed in the city by the end of the day.
The path was lined on either side with huge, hulking bushes artfully cut into the shape of animals – and eagle, hawk, spider, etc. He admired them as he passed, but didn’t slow down; the faster he got this meeting done with, the faster he could go home.
Someone – Rogers, he assumed – had dragged what looked like a stuffed, to scale replica of a panda out to stand between two of the bushes, and Tony frowned a little as he passed it. Odd. He had almost put it behind him completely, however, when he heard it giggle. Spinning on the spot, he jerked in surprise as he watched the thing seemingly come to life, waving at him jovially. Raising a bemused hand, Tony waved back, not really sure what else to do, when -
When the panda pulled its own head off.
Huffing out a relieved sigh, Tony realised it was a woman in a costume. Damn, but that had been convincing. Feeling a little foolish, he took a short step towards her, watching cautiously as she flipped her dark hair out of her eyes.
“Hi, yeah, um… Tony Stark,” he introduced himself, deciding against holding his hand out. “I’m Mr. Rogers’ accountant? Here for a meeting?”
“I’m Jane,” the woman replied in a dreamy voice, “and he should be around somewhere.”
“Right…” Tony nodded, a little bemused. “Okay, I… do you live here full time? Only, I don’t think Rogers put anything about a spouse or girlfriend on his tax forms -”
But Jane just giggled again, as though Tony were the funniest thing she’d seen all day, and then turned on the spot and ran off without even waiting for him to finish his sentence.
“Right…” Tony repeated, back to feeling ill at ease. “That’s… okay. Bye, Jane.”
Not sure what was going on, and not really feeling any better about his situation, Tony had no choice but to continue on up the path and hope that that weird encounter wasn’t going to foreshadow the rest of his visit.
That thought immediately flew straight out of his mind when, as he finally got to the huge front doors, he was met by a guy in a pair of daisy dukes, purple bow-tie, matching mohawk, and not much else.
Tony didn’t know what he’d done to deserve this.
“Steven Rogers?” he asked weakly, not even believing the words as they left his mouth.
“Nope,” the guy replied with a shake of his head, sending his mohawk corkscrewing back and forth. Tony was momentarily struck by how the guy could possibly keep it up while it was still so malleable. “I’m Clint – butler, marksman and all-round little shit. Who the hell are you?”
“You’re… you’re a butler, and you speak to guests like that?” Tony asked, somehow not really surprised. Sighing, he continued, “I’m Tony Stark, Mr. Rogers’ accountant. I’m supposed to meet with him today?”
“He didn’t say we were having guests,” Clint frowned, but then shrugged his shoulders. “Oh well! Come on in.”
“You… really?” Tony asked, a little surprised. “So even though your boss said you’re not expecting anyone, you, the butler, are gonna let the stranger into his house? That’s… great, okay, I’m coming in.”
“You miss that bit when I said I was an expert marksman?” Clint smirked. “You think I can’t take a little twink like you down nice and easy?”
Tony laughed, couldn’t help himself, because sure, his suit was tailored and made him look trim, but he was anything but a twink.
“You’re all crazy here, aren’t you?” he asked, still grinning. Hell, he could feel himself starting to go a little insane already himself.
“Cap doesn’t like the word crazy,” Clint replied, taking a step backwards to allow Tony past him. “Eccentric is probably a better word.”
“Of course,” Tony sighed, though he didn’t believe him. Tony was a little eccentric – these people were definitely crazy. “I don’t suppose you know where your eccentric boss is by any chance?”
“Sure,” Clint replied easily, pointing to a door off the entrance hall. “You wanna go through there, take your first left, second right, up two flights of stairs, belay the third… though i’m not sure if you still have to climb the walls up there. Oh well, Peter usually manages it when he comes over. You’ll find it, don’t worry.”
“Find what?” Tony asked in a bit of a panic, trying to remember the instructions he’d just been given. When he turned back to Clint, however, he found the butler had mysteriously disappeared.
Yep, definitely crazy.
He was lost. He was definitely, without a doubt, one hundred percent lost, and he was also probably going to die in in this creepy old mansion without anyone having realised he was even there, because it had gotten to the point already where he was questioning whether Clint and Jane had actually been real people.
He hadn’t had to climb any walls yet – that he did know. Was that a bad thing? He had thought Clint was kidding, but now, lost like he was, he was starting to think otherwise -
An explosion boomed somewhere off to his left, and he froze in place, not knowing whether to stay where he was or run for the hills. Particles of dust and rubble rained down on him from the stone ceiling above, but… it didn’t look like the whole place was going to crumble -
“It’s okay!” a male voice called from nearby, though Tony couldn’t really tell from which door it originated. “It’s all under control! Just sciencing!”
For a moment, Tony seriously considered seeking out the source of the voice, if for no other reason than to make sure this wasn’t all some huge fever dream, but ultimately decided against it. He could hear noises coming from the archway at the end of the corridor, and so, hoping he was heading in the right direction, he set off again.
The room beyond the archway was vast, more of a second entrance hall than an actual room, with a grand, open staircase leading to a second floor right in the middle of it. Tony wandered across the room slowly, taking in the suits of armour mounted on small plinths and abstract paintings on the walls. He was torn – on the one hand, he could try the stairs and see where that got him, or on the other, there were a few doors leading from this room that he could also try.
In the end, his decision was made for him when, coming to an instant, complete halt, he realised, with growing horror, that there appeared to be a live lion snoozing on the stairs.
“Shit,” he whimpered before he could stop himself, and, as if he were in some sick dream, the lion’s head jerked up and it stared at him lazily.
Tony’s heart was hammering in his chest. He was sure Pepper or Rhodey would have mentioned a fucking live lion to him if they had known about it, but then again, maybe this was someone’s idea of a sick joke? What was he supposed to do now? The lion seemed quite docile, but maybe that was just because he wasn’t moving? What would happen if he turned tail and ran – would it leave him be, or would it chase after him? And what about if he called out for help? Would the voice of whomever he had heard earlier be able to get to him before the lion could?Fuck, this was bad. Tony really, really didn’t want to have to go bare knuckles on alion -
The lion roared, and it was a very close call that Tony didn’t actually shit his pants. Throwing caution to the wind, he turned tail and started to run, planning to not stop until his legs physically buckled.
“Frigga!” came a booming, authoritative voice from the stairs behind him. Cursing his inquisitive nature for probably getting him killed, Tony came skidding to a stop in the archway and looked back over his shoulder.
A man stood looming over both Tony and the lion from the stairs, white suit immaculate on his well-sculpted body. His hair was the colour of the sun on a cold winter’s day, his eyes the colour of the clearest sky. Miraculously, at the sound of the man’s voice, the lion had stopped in its tracks, dropping down onto its belly in submission. Tony felt himself instantly relaxing in the man’s presence.
Tilting his head up towards the floor above, the man called out, quite calmly, “Thor? Frigga has escaped again and is looking for you.”
Tony waited in silence with bated breath, for once in his life not really sure what to say or do. Then, after a pregnant pause, another voice replied, muffled, from somewhere nearby, “Goddamn it, woman, not again! I just showered!”
At the sound of the second voice, the lion’s head perked up again, and the man on the stairs smiled warmly at her. “Do you hear where he is? Go find him.”
And the lion went. Slinking along, it passed the man on the stairs, and he didn’t even bat an eyelid as the thing brushed possessively up against his side. Tony, for what it was worth, was beginning to think that maybe he’d had an aneurysm, and this was all some kind of brain injury induced dream.
“You must be Mister Stark,” the man hummed, drawing Tony’s attention back to him. “Clint mentioned you had arrived. I’m Mister Rogers.”
“Clint…” Tony almost choked on his own spit. So that dastardly butler had sent him on a wild goose chase around a creepy mansion when he had known all along where Rogers had been? “You need some new staff.”
“I don’t think so,” Rogers replied with a charming grin. “Would you like to follow me? It’s likely Frigga will escape again, and she didn’t seem to have taken a liking to you like she usually does with guests. My office is this way.”
And, without another word, without waiting for Tony to agree to follow him, Rogers had turned around and climbed back up the stairs again. Not wanting to be alone anywhere where the lion could potentially catch him again, Tony jerked forwards and followed, making sure to keep in pace with Rogers the whole way to his office.
There were voices already coming from the room by the time they actually got to it (and Tony only realised they were in the right place because Rogers had mounted a plaque on the door with the word study etched skilfully into it), and he braced himself for more of what would surely be an unpleasant surprise. When Rogers did open the door, however, it was to two seemingly regular-looking people lounging around inside.
“Bucky!” Rogers called as he paced forwards towards the couple, obviously overjoyed. “Natasha! You’re back!”
“Just this second, as it happens,” a man replied, sweeping his long, lanky hair out of his face so he could see Rogers as he hugged him.
“You won’t believe the things we saw,” a woman – Natasha, Tony assumed – added, patting Rogers’ shoulder as he pulled away from Bucky.
“And you’ll have to tell me all about it,” Rogers promised with a nod. “But at present I have some urgent business matters to attend to. I’ll come find you when we’re done, all right?”
“We’ll probably be in our room,” Natasha told him, ushering Bucky to the door.
“Yeah, and knock before you just barge in this time -”
The rest of Bucky’s sentence was cut off as Natasha closed the door with a firm snap behind them.
Silence echoed around the cluttered space for a few moments, and Tony took the opportunity to really look around. Every wall was lined with book shelves, and not an inch of space hadn’t been taken up by first editions. A large, proud writing desk stood in the centre of the room, the dark wood shining dully. A tall glass cabinet sat next to it, filled with all manner of interesting, creepy things; Tony spotted what looked like a cat’s skull, as well as a jar of pickled onions.
At least, he hoped they were onions.
“Why don’t you take a seat, Mister Stark?” Rogers suggested just before Tony could take a step closer to examine the pickles.
“Sure,” he replied instead, heading over to a comfortable looking chair opposite Rogers’ own at the desk.
“Actually -” Rogers started, catching Tony’s elbow just before he could sit down. “I don’t think George would be too happy if you sat on him, do you?”
Tony glanced down at the seat, heart hammering a little faster, and then let out a somewhat hysterical laugh. “You named a chair George?”
“God, no,” Rogers laughed, stepping around the desk again to tug Tony away from the chair. “George is Clint’s chameleon.”
“He’s…” But even as Tony watched, Rogers ducked down and seemed to scoop up a part of the chair. Only, on closer inspection, it was, in fact, a tiny chameleon that had taken on the colour of the chair cushion. As Tony continued to watch, George slowly changed to the colour of Rogers’ hands instead.
“We’re actually really proud of him,” Steve hummed gently, watching George with interest. “When Natasha first brought him back from the rainforest, we weren’t certain he was going to make it. He had been abandoned by his mother too early, and he was so tiny – barely bigger than a fingernail. He couldn’t change colours, and we were scared for him, but he seems to be doing pretty well now, huh?”
Despite the absurdity of the situation, Tony found himself leaning in a little to get a better look at the tiny chameleon. He was sort of cute, in a is-probably-very-slimy kind of way, and he could see why Rogers and his companions might get attached to the little guy.
“Clint?” Rogers called out suddenly, startling Tony so badly that he almost fell off his own feet.
As though he had been waiting outside the door for an occasion just such as this (and, having come to know a little more about the mansion since arriving, Tony was willing to bet he probably had been), Clint burst through the door not seconds later, an inquisitive expression on his face.
Tony was really starting to question the professionalism of that butler.
“I found George,” Rogers replied, sinking down into his seat behind his desk. Taking that as his cue, Tony dropped down into his, too (but not before discreetly checking to make sure there weren’t any more small animals hiding nearby).
“He must have escaped yesterday when me and Sam were jousting down the corridor on your desk chairs,” Clint replied nonchalantly, striding across the room towards Rogers. Then, in an act that made Tony actually bark aloud with confusion, Clint plonked himself down right on Rogers’ lap, as though it were no big deal. “Thanks, Uncle Steve.”
“Uncle?” Tony found himself asking weakly, if for no other reason than he would have to change Rogers’ living situation on his next tax reform.
“He only calls me that when he wants something,” Rogers replied as he shoved Clint off him, as though that explanation made the situation any better. “What do you want this time, Clint?”
“We need a slide,” Clint replied seriously. “There are too many sets of stairs in this place. We need a slide, and it needs to be yellow and twisty, and it needs to lead into a ball pit at the end.”
Tony let out a bark of laughter, honestly assuming that Clint was kidding, but chuckled his way to an awkward stop once he realised Rogers wasn’t joining in with him.
“A couple of slides…” Rogers hummed, gently passing George the chameleon off onto Clint’s shoulder, “doesn’t seem like a bad idea. We could have one in each of the main stairways, and one down into the kitchen. Okay, why don’t you go and find Bruce, see if he can help you design them?”
Clint cheered and thrust his fists up in the air in triumph. “Thank you!”
“You’re welcome,” Rogers replied with a grin. “Now, I have some business to attend to with Mister Stark, so if you don’t mind -?”
“Right, on it, Cap,” Clint saluted, then darted for the door and closed it behind him on the way out.
Tony didn’t really know what to say.
“He came to us from a circus,” Rogers murmured, and then smiled when Tony stared at him blankly. “Clint. He ran away from a circus when he was a teenager, ended up wandering through my grounds.”
“So you decided to take him in?” Tony asked, for want of a better question.
“Well, I certainly have the room,” Rogers replied, smile still in place.
It was a nice smile, Tony decided.
“You know, I was actually going to talk to you about that,” Tony cleared his throat as he placed his briefcase on the desk in front of him. “You aren’t in trouble or anything, but you’re supposed to declare all the residents who live full time in your residence to the government. You have to pay a mansion tax, you see, for additional bedrooms not being used, so you’re actually missing out on a considerable amount of money by not declaring.”
“I see,” Rogers nodded his head amicably. “Well, let’s see. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, though they only live here while they’re not adventuring around the world. Then there’s Sam – he’s my music man. If you happen to see him around, you should ask him about the Trouble Man soundtrack.”
“I’ll make sure to do that,” Tony replied distractedly, too busy jotting down all the names on a scrap of paper he had pulled from his briefcase.
“There’s Clint, obviously, who you’ve already met,” Rogers continued, “and there’s also Thor and Jane -”
“I met her, too,” Tony burst out, almost dropping his pen at the mere memory. “She was wearing a panda suit out on the lawn. Scared me half to death.”
“Ah, she does that sometimes,” Rogers nodded. “She has a strange sense of humour.”
“You’re telling me,” Tony mumbled, jotting more names down. “And… Thor, did you say?”
“Yes,” Rogers nodded. “He owns Frigga, who you also met.”
Tony just shuddered in response. He thought for a moment about asking whether the lion had actually been legally imported, but decided he didn’t want to know the answer.
“Jane is an ethnologist,” Rogers told him. “She met Thor on one of her trips.”
“There’s Bruce and Betty, too,” Rogers went on, almost as an afterthought, “though they tend to keep to the labs. They’re scientists.”
Tony thought back to the explosion he had heard earlier, and realised it suddenly made a little more sense. Horrible, terrifying sense.
“Is that everyone?” he forced himself to ask, not sure that he actually wanted the answer.
“Yes,” Rogers replied. “And there’s me, of course. I live here.”
“Right,” Tony nodded, a little smile coming, unbidden, to his lips. Rogers was actually kind of sweet. “I’ll get that filed for you next time tax return season comes around.”
“So, uh…” Tony started, pulling out the letter that Rogers had originally sent to the company. “You have some things you’d like to discuss?”
“Yes,” Rogers nodded. “I want to buy a university. Harvard or MIT or somewhere like that.”
“Right,” Tony sighed, setting his pen down. “You see, the problem is that you can’t actually buy a university.”
“Why not?” Rogers asked, tiny dimples appearing on his brow as he frowned. “If it’s a case of money -”
“This time, unfortunately, it isn’t,” Tony shook his head. “Universities aren’t owned by a single person. There are education authorities, and then there are boards of governors, a dean, etcetera, but there isn’t a single person who owns the school. Students pay an annual tuition and board fee to keep the school running and its staff working, and there are usually a number of outside donations made, as well.”
“So… I can’t buy a university?” Rogers sighed. “What about if I bought a plot of land big enough to build a new university?”
Tony sighed again, and shrugged. “I mean, that may be more do-able, but still probably not achievable. You’d have to petition to the education boards, and I’m not really sure on the procedure of new colleges being built -”
“Dammit!” Rogers snapped, banging his hands down on the table. Tony jumped, surprised.
“Sir, if you could just calm down,” he placated, holding his hands up defensively. “I just… I need to understand why you need this in the first place. Your letter makes it out as a dare, but there aren’t any neighbours for hundreds of miles around here, and it’s really not a sound investment -”
“Everyone has a story here,” Rogers cut over him quietly, and Tony closed his mouth quickly. “Don’t think I’m not aware that the rest of the world thinks we’re a little crazy, that we’re odd. I understand that, but everyone here has a story. Clint was beaten as a child; Bruce, too. Thor’s brother went insane and killed a bunch of people; Sam lost a friend in Afghanistan. Bucky lost his arm in the same war, and Natasha has been used as a weapon so many times she’s lost count. Betty ran away from an army general father who wanted Bruce dead. Jane had her research into other cultures destroyed.
“I was part of an unprecedented army incident. That’s where the money comes from,” Rogers continued quietly. “Despite our pasts, some of us made it to university – Bruce, Jane. The majority of us didn’t, not for lack of trying, but lack of funding, lack of accessibility, lack of opportunity.
“I want there to be a university that is open for all,” he finished on barely a whisper. “I want all year round housing for people who can’t go home, or who don’t have a home to go to. I want courses that can be taken via Skype, so that people fighting overseas can still get an education for when they get back. I want access for the disabled, both physically and mentally. I want people to be able to learn at their own speed, and not worry about the cost. I want a place where people can besafe.”
Tony was speechless, literally left without a single word in his head. How was he supposed to respond to that? He had come here with the intention of trying to talk Rogers out of it, but after that speech, after his own college experience with his dad when he was just fifteen years old, he found he actually wanted nothing more than to help Rogers achieve his dream. But -
“I still don’t think it’s possible,” he sighed, and then held his hand up when Rogers started to snap again. “But there are a number of things we can do, okay? This isn’t necessarily an all or nothing situation.”
“You can really help?” Rogers asked, a small, intimate smile breaking out across his face.
“I have a story, too,” Tony replied quietly, and then quickly looked away to save himself some embarrassment. He pulled out his laptop, prepared to do a little research. “You got a plug socket for this?”
But Rogers just looked at him like he was speaking another language.
“Right, of course not, don’t know what I was thinking,” he mumbled, tucking his power cable back into his briefcase and praying that the battery held out for them. “Okay, so let’s see what we can find here.”
He researched for a little while, shooting emails off to lawyer friends as well as Pepper and Rhodey, respectfully, and got a couple of interesting replies. While he was doing this and trawling the internet – good job he’d brought his portable USB connection – Rogers paced up and down the room, twirling an American flag painted frisbee between his hands as he went. He was very well built – had Tony mentioned that? The seams of his upper sleeves stretched taught over his bulging biceps, and his broad shoulders tapered down to a trim, tiny waist that even women would die for.
Tony quickly cleared his throat and made himself turn back to his laptop, ignoring how his cheeks felt a little warmer than they had before. Old buildings like this had insulation packed into the walls - that was the explanation.
A few minutes later and he was clearing his throat again, this time to get Rogers’ attention. “I’ve found a way. It’s not perfect, but it could work.”
While Rogers sat down, Tony gathered his thoughts a little and then span the laptop to face him.
“Okay, so the best way to do this would be through outside donations,” he explained, pointing to an article he’d brought up. “We can speak to some colleges of your choice and set up a series of scholarship programmes for under-privileged kids. There’d be a whole bunch of them – a couple million going towards paying for housing, another couple million for disabled students.
“I actually have an undergraduate degree in computer engineering, and I still have quite a few contacts,” he hummed, opening another window for Rogers to see. “It’d be pretty simple and easy to get some colleges set up with an armed force overseas programme, and if it takes off, no doubt other colleges will follow suit.”
“You really think they’ll go for it?” Rogers asked, eyes practically sparkling with hope.
“I’ll shoot off an email to the Dean at MIT,” Tony mused, already pulling his laptop back to get a start on it. “He’s a friend of the family. I’m sure we can get some trial runs going over there.”
“Thank you,” Rogers murmured, and Tony glanced over his laptop to look at him. He looked overwhelmingly happy. “Thank you.”
“That’s okay,” Tony replied with a shy smile.
Maybe it hadn’t been such a bad idea to come here after all.