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St Potts School for Recovering Killers

Thor begins baking.

It starts with spritz cookies, or the Asgardian mother-cookie that devolved into spritz. Although Thor deflects, you can tell that no one is pronouncing the real name properly, but he graciously calls them spritz and pesters everyone to try them.

Which is difficult for a few reasons. The first is incredulity.

“You bake?” Clint shakes his head to dislodge his right eyebrow from his hairline, “No, I don’t believe this. Baking is the chemistry of cooking, it’s finicky.”

“It was a task set by my father for just that reason, to teach me patience and precision.” Thor explains. “But it turns out I have a natural affinity for it since I understand how flour responds to the endless fluctuations of humidity and air pressure.”

The second reason was because Thor had broken three different cookie presses, and had finally just used a freezer bag with the tip cut off to drop the cookies. His squiggles and loops aimed for the Avengers’ iconic symbols, but came out, depending on how hard he’d squeezed, looking like snakes and dog turds.

Tony eyes the cookie pile in his hand dubiously. “Isn’t it a bit early for Yule logs?”

“Try ‘em before you say another word.” In fact Clint has a wrapped plate of them stashed against his chest, under his coat. “Did you flavor these with almond?”

“Well-spotted!”

Tony gapes, “You’ve got a palate? I’ve seen you pair little chocolate donuts and grapefruit soda.”

“I like to mix things up.”

“Is that one of my plates? Are you hoarding my china in your hidey hole? How can you eat that many cookies and maintain your birdlike figure?”

Clint’s eyes flick to the cookie in Tony’s hand, “Eat it or I will.”

“This is good. I want our wards to feel welcome in their new home.” Thor grins, dropping another couple dozen onto a cookie sheet. He’s wearing a denim apron with gold puffy paint letters saying Tortes or GTFO.

~*~

Early on, a meeting of the Lozen Trust Board begins with a slide simply stating: Trust Kids.

“This is what we're calling them. It can be shortened down to kids,” Pepper concedes, “but I think it sets the proper tone, and that’s what Khadijah says they’ve chosen.” Khadijah was the kids’ ambassador, a seventeen year old who looked more like an up-and-comer from SI Legal than a student, especially after hanging out with Pepper working on the Trust implementation.

“This means the nicknames have to stop.” Pepper continues, eyeing her way around the conference table of Avengers, tutors and reps from the Maria Stark Foundation. “Spiderlings, baby assassins, GNats, Wednesdays--these kids deserve a clean break. This needs to be a safe place for them.”

The Trust provided therapeutic services and oversight for the children rescued from the Lozen Academy in Denton, TX. The Red Room remix. In the months since then some had chosen to transfer to reputable boarding schools, a few had distant family that had taken them in, and a handful did a stint in the tower to shore up their educational gaps and score letters of recommendation, ditching the Trust like a spent rocket stage.

That left an even dozen in the tower, most of them in the messy throes of puberty made even more awkward by the various levels of enhancement, and light to moderate brainwashing they were still shaking off.

Each one of the team finds his or her own way to make the tower a welcoming place.

What they don’t know is that when it’s just Pepper and Tony, Pepper herself refers to the whole enterprise, Trust and Avengers, as St. Potts’ School for Recovering Killers.

~*~

Khadijah had come to the tower on the church bus, and had been their designated spokesperson from the moment she walked up to Reception. She was slim and serious, short natural hair pieced out into twists streaming back from her face, grace personified despite twenty-six straight hours on the road from Denton, TX.

She’d asked to pass a message along to Captain Steve Rogers, which normally would go through a few different filters before getting to him, but Tony had set a flag on those requests the day before, and Pepper had come down right away.

She noted the young woman’s ragged poise, the steel underneath, and how anxiety had given an ashy cast to her complexion. Khadijah’s grip was firm, her hand cold despite the summer heat, “A mutual acquaintance asked me to tell Captain Rogers, ‘beloved junkyard dogs’.”

“We were hoping you’d come.” Pepper had added her second hand to the handshake and given her warmest smile. God, this was their chaperone, their best approximation of an adult--these were babies. “Is it just you?”

“For now.” Khadijah had gone up to Pepper’s corner office where they spoke for hours about the Maria Stark Foundation, the Lozen Trust that had been put together for the students, the philosophy that had been hammered out from a dozen different points of view about what these kids would need, might want. Khadijah warmed slowly, and took a lot in without giving much back.

They broke for an hour, and when Khadijah came back for a dinner meeting she brought another young woman with her. They looked improbable standing next to each other, a tall stack of chocolate cookies beside a short shot of milk.

It was Peyton’s turn to be the quiet one, a silent Eastern European cherub with a bow mouth and huge hazel eyes that saw everything. This time around Khadijah brought it, negotiating hard for as much autonomy as possible, occasionally consulting with Peyton who looked things up on a tablet so new some of the clingfilm was still attached to the back. Pepper did not ask where they’d gotten it. This is when Pepper really met Khadijah, eager and incisive, unafraid to ask for clarification or a pause to familiarize herself with anything from a business term to case law precedent.

Pepper in turn pressed for concrete responsibilities and consequences--she had a whole tower of leases to consider, after all, as well as the thorny security implications.

By the time Tony and the rest returned from Texas the next morning, Pepper and Khadijah had forged a tentative alliance, and a bus full of kids and their surprising amount of gear had been emptied up into the Trust floor. Khadijah had become the de facto liaison between the medical and educational staff, the oversight board and the girls. Her ability to code switch among those different people, to move between eager compliance and firm resolution with any party, to be the chameleon and the buffer...it was Natalie Rushman all over again in Pepper’s view.

~*~

Natasha understands the impulse to give fair warning, and she doesn’t disagree, but she thinks Bruce is going overboard with making it a whole presentation for the Trust girls. Ultimately it’s his story, and he gets to choose how to tell it, but that doesn’t mean she won’t razz him about it. The fact that it comes up when Clint’s there is just a bonus.

She pours Clint a mug from the bottom bulb of her vacuum coffeemaker, and sits beside him at the counter facing the cooking area.

“It’s not a slideshow.” Bruce corrects, half ignoring them as he puts away clean dishes. “It’s informed consent.”

Clint’s response is darkly amused, “Giving them a primer on doing your worst? We could each make one. Amazing Tales of Tricks and Terror! Ride the bad judgment train along with us. Y’pays y’money, y’takes y’chances.”

Bruce levels him a look, “None of you look like a sixth grade science teacher and can cause an international incident by defying the known laws of physics.”

“One of them garroted their science teacher,” Clint reminds them, “nearly took the woman’s head off.”

Sadness flashes over Bruce’s face, but leaves an expression of even harder resolution. He corrals the clean measuring beakers into sets of descending size, tucked into each other like matryoshka dolls. He puts their little efficient kitchenette to rights with a measured precision that she finds calming.

“You want to scare them,” she says. It’s not condemnation, but the resigned twist of her tone suggests that she doesn't approve, like she knows something he doesn’t.

“I want them prepared.”

“You want them wary.”

“Yes.”

She sighs and picks up the large bore syringe barrel and sights along it. “And this is gonna help? Looking at you like an experiment?”

“We’re all experiments. And sometimes they go wrong.”

There’s a long moment of silence that stretches out until she puts it down, and he slips it into the proper drawer along with its plunger. “They know that already, Bruce. First hand.”

“I’m gonna run it like a lab,” he explains, slotting dirty dishes into the machine in a precise and arcane pattern she’s stopped trying to decipher. “Give them cell lines, let them see radiation damage occurring under the atomic force microscope.”

It’s eighth grade science with post-doc equipment, and a theoretical framework that’s his alone.

He wants the girls to have full knowledge of what he is, not just what they’ve found on the internet – glorified one way or another, skewing towards heroic or plastered with horror. He’s acknowledged that both have elements of truth. The older ones can make their own judgments, and the younger ones deserve to be guided in the right direction.

“Okay, I have to ask.” Clint sets his mug down on the black marble counter top. “I know you’ve explained why your kitchen looks like a chem lab--”

“Tony said he found an interior designer who ‘shares his sense of fun’.”

“--but that does not explain all the fucking labware.”

Bruce points to Natasha, who sips at her coffee. “Ask Ms. Molecular Mixology.”

She shrugs. “Making weird caviar is fun.” Clint gives her a wary look. “It’s not like you don’t have strange hobbies.”

“True,” Clint shakes his head and raises his mug, “but it’s you having hobbies at all that weirds me out a little.”

~*~

Clint’s contribution to welcoming the Trust kids is proposing a Movie Night, because it amuses Clint to do things un-ironically that most of his colleagues did in college. Pepper, surprisingly, is his main supporter in this.

“Film Appreciation, we can add it to the list of educational seminars.” Surrounded by science and military types, Pepper is looking for any assistance in pushing a more liberal arts curriculum. “I love this idea. We can all take turns choosing, it will also help the kids get to know us, make a connection.”

“Sure,” Clint hedges, “But I’m only sitting through Citizen Kane if it’s honestly someone’s favorite movie.”

Clint takes the first turn because it’s his idea--and, Natasha knows, because he doesn’t have much time left before the baby arrives. He’s already referencing a long undercover mission stateside, no real danger, but the possibility of useful intel. There are tense negotiations with Pepper about what constitutes worthwhile cinema to share in the name of film appreciation. She has to liaise with the education board after all, and she’s really set on accreditation.

“No ape sidekicks, no Burt Reynolds.” Clint stares through her, but she not only remains cool, she adds, “No spaghetti westerns.”

“I draw the line,” Maria pipes up from the other end of the conference table where she’d been absorbed in a report on her tablet, “Sergio Leone was a genius--Two Mules for Sister Sara is a classic for a reason. Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, the ocarina on the soundtrack...”

Pepper’s brow scrunches in the middle, but Clint explains, “We both grew up watching a lot of cheap local TV.”

“That’s why I’m not participating.” Maria sips from her mug.

“You’re going to let it be mostly men picking the movies?”

“You want to help me justify the cinematic merits of The Satanic Rites of Dracula?”

“Question withdrawn.”

Clint ends up choosing The Jerk. Which he tries to pass off as a documentary from his childhood.

The conversation pit in the Avengers common area is packed, more couches brought in to accommodate the crowd, all of the Trust kids showing up if only for recon of that floor of the tower and to gather intel on this bizarre group of adults who’ve inexplicably decided to invest an obvious amount of resources and, weirdly, some attention to their welfare.

About twenty minutes in a voice, still cracking into contralto, interjects, “This is not a documentary!”

“JARVIS, lights to dim, pause movie.” Tony stands up. “Who's calling bullshit on Barton?”

A sea of unblinking eyes stare back at him for a long moment, then one hand shoots up.

“I see at least one person is treating this like an actual class. Your name, kid?”

“Peyton.”

“Extra credit for Peyton.” Tony sits down, “JARVIS, resume flick.”

Afterward Clint ambles up to stand in front of the screen and gives the Trust kids the longest speech anyone’s ever heard from him, except maybe Natasha. But she’d been shocky and unresponsive at the time, years ago in Albania, so it’s not like she expects soliloquy to ever be a normal response from him.

“Yeah, so this is not technically a documentary of my childhood,” he begins, acknowledging with a nod the person who gives a raspberry, “But you know what? You watch that movie, and you’re looking at what it looked like. Movies are made in a place in time. I slept under those worn quilts and scratchy satin-edged blankets. I did my homework lit by those pot-bellied ceramic lamps. I rode in those cars, without seat belts. I know most of those scenes smell like old second hand smoke. I’ve worked in a traveling carnival, and run for my life from gunfire, and really fucked things up and had to start over. I’ve been saved by the strangest people, by the weird connections I made with them without thinking, sometimes in spite of being a fucked-up broken person just faking it. So yeah, if I say this is my bildungsroman, then it damned well is. Your story is your own to tell as you like.”

Clint gestures to Pepper and sits back down, and to her credit she smoothly brings the group around to discussion of the cinematic and cultural.

Bruce, thumb and forefinger thoughtfully stroking his lower lip, muses quietly, “I...had not expected that.”

Natasha leans her shoulder against his, “Clint is full of surprises.”

Movie night becomes more tensely negotiated than just about any other aspect of the Trust curriculum, as they hew to personal taste and meaning, which vary incredibly. There’s more suggestions for John Waters and musicals than one would expect, and Tony is still lobbying for the Kill Bill duology, so it can get dicey trying to vet a film through both Pepper and Clint.

One night as they unwind Bruce asks Natasha if she had to choose something to represent her youth, what it would be. She smiles sharply and says with a wink, “Battle Royale.”

“The Bond flick?”

“You’re thinking Casino Royale,” She’s already cuing it up, “This is Battle Royale.”

It turns out to be a Japanese film about high schoolers forced by the government into a battle of last one standing as a means of cowing the populace. There’s a countdown as the kids die off by murder, accident, suicide and misunderstanding, the emotions just as gritty as the realistic blood staining the clothes.

Natasha’s still convinced it’s a love story. Bruce...finds himself reluctantly agreeing.

Natasha takes on the Trust kids' physical training, which had been a huge component at the academy in Denton. She knows movement is a major outlet for a lot of them to work out energy and conflict and aggression, and that there won’t be a shortage of any of those things as they work through a ton of transitions all at once.

She runs it more like a gym and a studio, moving the focus away from sparring and broadening it to include foreign concepts like fun, stress relief, self care and artistic expression. There’s a lap pool in the tower that Khadijah uses before dawn. Steve is teaching three of the kids to jitter. She takes a group of eight out into the city on parkour runs, quickly handing it over to Peyton as the chaperone when she sees the young woman’s ability to track them all and bring them back safe.

Natasha takes Georgia, Dominique, Aisha and Mellie to the ballet studio with her and sets up classes for them with the owner. When Natasha’s in residence she brings Ameena to her own adult ballet class on Thursday mornings.

It means going to the Trust floor and rousting her out of bed at 6:30 a.m. in a battle of wills, and listening to her gripe all the way there. Once she hits the studio, Ameena dances with more intensity than a lot of people fight for their life, and seems calmer and clearer on the way back.

They don’t talk much as they make their way back to the tower, but Natasha knows that if Ameena really didn’t want to go with her, she wouldn’t. The girl may resent her presence, her influence, but she’s not rejecting it. Natasha can live with being the one Ameena pushes against in order to figure out what she needs.

When it’s still light in the mornings, Bruce occasionally meets them both on their walk, tea in hand for her and coffee for Ameena. His presence makes the whole thing stranger and easier. Ameena will chat idly with him, enough to mention combinations they’d worked through in class, or a part of the curriculum she finds pointless, or just comment on the people they pass in the street.

Five of the kids still want to spar, but she takes heart that aside from Ameena, it’s the four worst fighters of the dozen. She thinks they stick with it exactly because they’re bad at it, because now they can be bad at it, it’s safe to fail when the consequence is ending up slammed onto the mat out of breath and not buried in the wet clay of the back forty.

Three in her sparring class have started a band. Ameena is not the only one who clearly still needs the physical outlet of art and war.



Bruce Banner’s Punch & Broody Show

The dozen Trust kids file out of the elevator on Sublevel Seven, past a large unmarked cargo bay door, through the outer door of the Radiation Lab, and into the leaded glass shielded inner sanctum of the lab proper.

Bruce lays out his past for the girls in clean terms. Experimentation, mutation, aberration. He tells them what he is. Or rather, what he believes himself to be.

They all look at cells under a microscope, don lead aprons and crowd around the lead-shielded workstation to bombard them with x-rays, then circle back to microscopy to watch most of them die, watch a few transform. They run a quick sequencing and Bruce puts the results up on a holoscreen side by side with the control, genes blacked out and false-colored like a highly redacted document. Trinh asks a series of follow-up questions, starting innocuously but leading toward the pathway he took to decide on gamma radiation protection as a field of interest, and how that led to work on the super soldier serum. Bruce gives her some office hours and moves on to the AV portion of his presentation.

The rest of them look vaguely bored, even as he calls up selected footage and they watch him destroy parts of New York.

Natasha sits in on the lecture, grim, but doesn’t interrupt. It’s his fairy tale, even if he wants to turn gold back into flax.

“You’ve all dealt with a lot,” he concludes when it’s done. “I wanted you to know what was possible. Before you decide to stay.”

Ameena raises her hand. “Does it hurt?” She’s still limping a little from the gunshot, even enhanced, a shattered tibia takes time, but there’s no empathy in her tone. “When that happens?”

“Yeah,” Bruce says, folding his arms. Natasha knows he's choosing to count emotional pain, that he feels the damage he's done to people's lives like a gut wound, something terribly wrong piercing through the center. “It does hurt.”

They remain unfazed. They’ve already seen people transformed into monsters.

The coup d’etat they pulled off, the sweep of law enforcement officials storming their nightmare of a school, the tornado from hell, and a harried processing through several child welfare agencies had been far more of an upheaval to them than the prospect of living with a potential Hulk.

They don’t have any questions.

Afterward Bruce lays on the couch in their suite, feet up on the arm because it’s a terrible couch to stretch out on. One hand rests on his chest with glasses caught delicately in his fingertips, the other forearm flung up over his eyes. "That could have gone better."

"I think Trinh took the wrong kind of notes."

He flings his glasses back on the table and presses his palms into his eye sockets, releasing a low groan that escalates into a bared-teeth shout of frustration.

She gives him a moment. He’s being melodramatic, but it's a rare self-indulgence, and on top of that he's letting her see. She curls up on the fluffy accent rug next to the couch, propping her chin on her fist. Doesn't hurt to enjoy the view.

“I think I failed to convey the magnitude of the situation.”

Her snort of laughter is enough to get him to stop the swooning drama and look at her.

She digs her elbow into his side. “Maybe they’re just not scared."

“They should be,” he says, glaring a little.

“In their world, monsters are silent, secret things from quiet places,” she says. “And you make a lot of noise.”

He reaches down to stroke along her cheek, glide along her arm.

“Maybe,” she offers, “they think he’s not so bad.”

“You know that’s a lie.”

She sets her jaw, but he avoids her expression by rubbing his brow bone.

“For today, can we agree to disagree?”

She wants to say no, wants to push this, elects to tug at him to join her, “Let’s just fight about it down here,” she says. “That couch is hell on your back.”

He swings his leg over and sits up, meeting her halfway. She drapes her elbows across his knees. The look on his face is hard to take, the stubborn retention of self-loathing like it’s something precious she’s trying to take away from him.

She smooths her hands on his thighs, “Come on.”

The rug is ridiculous, thick woolly pile in a charcoal color that Natasha suspects was meant as a visual pun on Bruce’s chest hair. She will never understand Tony’s odd preoccupation there, but the rug is thick and soft like someone took a mammoth to a fine salon before skinning and preserving its hide. It’s where she’d like him sprawled out with his head in her lap so she can work her fingers against his scalp, smooth his brow, and if nothing else, physically ease that look from his face.

But he won’t be coaxed. “I don’t want to fight about it on the rug, either.”

She draws herself up like coming out of a pool, folding her knees underneath her, and slides her hands toward center. It’s an offering, an appeasement, a kind of truce.

His eyes soften like he’s seeing her again instead of the misunderstanding that’s killing him. He leans down and the kiss is gentle like a sob, and she lets it happen for a long moment, lets him indulge in the bittersweet feeling before she wraps her hand around his nape and kneels up, pulling his head back with a handful of his hair.

She presses him back against the cushions and he lets her, shifting down and spreading his knees. She keeps her hand in his hair, pulling hard enough to sting and he closes his eyes. Okay, so they won’t talk about it. Instead she slowly unbuttons his shirt, scrapes her nails down his chest and belly at the edge of cruel.

It’s not like they don’t know how to bicker and resolve, they share a suite and diverging pieces of the same mission, none of that would work if they didn't know how to talk things out, compromise, apologize, see from each other's point of view.

But sometimes she sees things about him, extends trust that Bruce can't even comprehend, much less feel good about. That’s okay for now.

She can’t join him in condemning himself, but she can choose not to push acceptance when he's not ready. Instead she pushes him physically, pinning him and giving him more teeth than he tends to like, even when she takes him in her mouth, but he just groans, head thrown back where she’d put it. His fingers skim her cheek, so gentle and shaky they almost don’t connect with her skin. She slides her hand into his pants and clutches his balls, scrape of her fingernails on his inner thigh.

She pulls off abruptly and he freezes, mouth parted and brow crumpled like at the edge of comprehension.

She turns and bites the meat of his thumb, teeth and soft tongue and then hard enough to bruise, and he’s loud now, something broken free by the whipsaw of soft and vicious, unrelenting. She goes back to his cock, suckling emphatically as her hand continues to roll his balls.

He digs into the cushions and twitches run through his belly and legs.

She rises, bringing a knee up onto the couch between his thighs and letting her hot wet hand wring him closer. She hovers her mouth over his, pressing his bottom lip into the serrated edge of her top teeth with her tongue.

His lips are cool from panting, the rest of him so hot the scent of his skin rises up like she’s set incense to smolder. He whines and lurches beneath her as she brings him over, pumping in her grip as he spatters them both. She kisses him, warms his tongue with hers, and eases her fingers when he twitches, but offers the occasional thumb swipe, watching from above as he takes it.

He is lovely like this, wrecked by her hand. Heartbreakingly so.

She gives him some pain along with the pleasure, as if the pain is what sweetens the medicine of someone really seeing him, and caring for him, cherishing him anyway.

~*~

The church bus is the first sore spot. An ancient twenty-seater the exact shade of light blue to clash most with both the generous spattering of rust and the swaths of primer orange bondo, it was stenciled St. Miriam of the Reeds Youth Choir.

Tony asks JARVIS to get rid of it, and the request is routed to the upper floor concierge office. Devon, in his crisp suit and tie, goes down to the secure parking lot on Sublevel Six to see if any of the paperwork is in the glove box, looking up full-service scrap yards on his phone.

The ensuing incident works it’s way back up the chain to JARVIS.

Which is how Tony ends up facing off in SubSix parking with Luzviminda, who’s armed with a socket wrench and adamant that NO ONE is taking her bus.

Tony holds his hands out, palms open. He wonders if she’s been sleeping in it, if that’s where she feels safe, six levels underground in the shitty bus she drove in, tucked under the plaid stadium blanket he sees folded on one of the bench seats. “Tell me about the bus.”

Luz tosses and catches the socket wrench in a well-worn pattern as she thinks; half-spin, half-spin, quick full spin. She opens the driver’s side door and reaches in, pulling out a thick manual and a well-thumbed quad-ruled notebook. She thumps them on the hood of the bus, loosening grains of rust, and indicates that Tony should take them. “Look ‘em over. Maybe I’ll pop the hood next time.”

“You need help fixing something? I’ve got way nicer toys up in the garage…” Tony has started flipping through the manual, a standard Chilton’s for the make and model, but heavily edited and annotated. He shoves the Chilton’s under one arm to look at the notebook, which is amateurish in drawing style and violates several conventions of technical drafting, but in the same way as the Principia Mathematica. “Holy fucking shit.”

The slow blink only makes Luz appear more stone-faced. “No one takes my bus.”

~*~


He is alone for six months before he connects the name Bucky with who he was and who he has become. It feels strange, and removed, like a name he pulled out of a hat. But he hears Steve saying it, and it had felt like he was waking from a nightmare, and so he keeps the moniker in his head. He’s so many things and so many names, and he’s not sure he is Bucky, but it feels better than anything has in so, so long. And right now, he’s just trying to get by. Maybe make contact. Maybe not. It’s hard to know. Everything is still foggy. When he’s close to Steve, things are clear, but they don’t stay that way.

At first he worked in the wholesale flower district, but it was too close to what had become Avenger’s Tower. While he wanted to keep an eye on Steve, needed to, he also needed to retain some of the anonymity of New York.

He knows that if anything, Steve can probably spot him easier in a crowd. There’s still a disconnect in his mind between the Steve he grew up with and the muscle man he’s become, some of the movements and habits he used to think of as Steve turned out to be Asthma or Weak Heart instead. Steve’s a sentence translated, and it still throws him off.

Though he’s changed just as much, Steve grew up looking at him, just a shade older, taller, stronger, more at ease. Steve’s drawn him, cartooned him, sketched his movements, mixed improbable contrasting colors to replicate the brown of his hair even before the government dialed up his photographic memory. Steve could spot him a mile away by the curl of his lip or the way he reaches for his wallet to buy a soda.

So he put a little more distance between them for breathing room, taking a job at a produce wholesaler instead, graveyard shift so he can sometimes spot Steve running in the morning as he comes home from work.

~*~

Steve insists that the Trust recruit top-field political science professors for tutoring, heading off to universities around the city to make the pitch himself.

He’s acutely aware of the vulnerabilities of having to rely solely on what you’re told, by people who don’t disclose they have dogs in the fight. If anything he errs on flooding the kids with resources and information, since he’d been asking everyone he met the last few years for their take on the last seventy years of human endeavor. He works his way methodically through his notebook of lists, like a penguin coming ashore and regurgitating half-digested cultural milestones down tiny chick gullets.

For the most part, the kids who stay work the program with the same bared-teeth motivation that helped them survive before. Natasha had been right that these are clever kids who can see opportunities and exploit them.

They’re also flexing a lot of personal freedoms that had been quashed and distorted, and the band is just the start. The Trust floor of the tower is not for the uninitiated.

“It looks like an IKEA’s been turned into the Milk Bar from Clockwork Orange.” Tony’s not even sure himself if he’s bitching or perversely proud of how they’d transformed the clean modern sweep of the central common area that their suites and other rooms open onto into a labyrinth of personalized nooks, workspaces and juxtaposed oddities.

Pepper assures him that it’s all within the lease, and didn’t he go to MIT, hasn’t he seen a college dorm before?

“I was fourteen, a lot of things looked normal to me then.”