"Seriously, I don't want to go to some stupid aquarium," Tony grumbled as Pepper adjusted his tie, "I don't care how 'special' they think their new acquirement is."
"You're going, Tony."
"Why, so I can pretend to fawn over a rainbow-colored shark or some other bullshit? I don't even like fish," Tony complained, "They smell gross."
"You had sushi for dinner last night."
"Well, are they serving me this rainbow-colored shark? Because in that case-"
"No sushi jokes," Pepper cinched his tie, pulling it dangerously close to choking level, "They will not appreciate them, and it will only cause me trouble."
"Got it," Tony wheezed, "Nix the sushi jokes."
"I don't see why you're making such a fuss," Pepper released her grip, "The others will be there too. Complain all you want, I know you like them."
'Like' was a funny word. True, Tony did appreciate their help saving the world from time to time, but it's not like he and the other so-called Avengers were friends or anything. They never saw each other outside of saving the world, and even then, things were tense. They didn't have a glue, anything that really connected them to one another; they were all sort of lone rangers, not really used to working together. They had no leader, just Coulson-the unkillable bastard had lived and the one-eyed asshole had lied, of course-calling out locations and problem areas through the com link and Hawkeye making comments about strays and patterns he noticed.
After the New York Thing, the Avengers had gone their separate ways. Fury had given them two months off the radar, and had meant to give them six; then some Dr. Doom lunatic had launched an attack on the city and they'd been called to reform the team. They did save the world, and had been doing so since, but their teamwork was sloppy at best. They worked when they needed to, when the world was resting on their shoulders, but they lacked anything sort of organization or leadership. They were all too independent in one way or another. Bruce could be found running around Tony's R&D candyland every once in a while, but even they never actually hung out much.
This was going to be the Avengers first public appearance as a team, a whole four months after the New York Thing, and it was going to be weird. It was going to be weird, because even though they were showing up and presenting themselves to the world as a team, they really weren't one. They rarely saw each other, they bickered when they did, and only worked together when the people were going to die if they didn't. Every once in a while the world needed them, they suited up, saved the day, caught a bite to eat, then they went their separate ways. That was it.
But, hey, day in the life of a superhero, right?
"I barely know them," Tony grouched to Pepper, but there was no real bite to his words.
"Maybe. But they're good for you. You try to go it alone too often, it's good that you have backup," Pepper nodded at last, dusting off the shoulders of his suit, "There. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
"That's all, Miss Potts," Tony replied somewhat cheekily.
They'd tried the relationship thing, and it hadn't worked. Pepper didn't have it in her to just sit around and watch him fly off to what might be his death. She'd told him she could be his boss and run interference with the company and mange his heroics, or she could be there for him as a girlfriend, but that she didn't have the heart to keep doing both.
For the briefest of moments, he'd considered retaking control of StarkIndustries. He could almost see his life like that, like it had been; balancing CEO responsibilities and Iron Man missions, with Pepper there by his side. The key word, however, was almost. More than a moment's thought told him it wasn't the life he wanted, and a glance to Pepper told him it wasn't the life she wanted, either. They'd broken up, clean and simple. They just didn't work together as a couple, and Tony found he was okay with that. There had been a few weeks where things had been a little shaky, a little awkward between them. But she was still his boss, and after a few weeks, his friend again too.
Tony spent the ride out to Long Island complaining to Happy, who took it in stride. The gala was being held someplace called Atlantis Marine World, out east of New York City. They had some special new exhibit that would "open your eyes to the magic still left in the world", or some other bullshit, and had invited the Avengers to the opening. Fury had decided they'd turned down enough invitations lately, that it was time to boost their public approval.
Tony met up with the others once he got there, shaking hands with Natasha and Coulson, exchanging good-natured insults with Clint, accepting Thor's bone-breaking hug, good-naturedly poking Bruce once or twice before giving the guy a friendly hug as well. They dispersed and mingled for a half hour or so before they were all ushered towards where the new exhibit was going to be presented.
Atlantis: A Brave New World was the wavering banner, and underneath it was a large, covered tank. It was larger than any even Tony had seen, and he was quite the master of extravagance. The lid of the tank was something like reinforced steel, and Tony had to wonder what the hell they could be trying to keep in there.
Someone came up to the podium to speak, rattling off some speech about the miracles the world still had to offer, all the scientific discoveries that were yet to be made, and how they hoped that this new exhibit would inspire a more fantastical set of mind. Tony zoned out for a while, only catches bits and pieces of it, but the moment they pulled back the large cloth draping the tank, Tony's breath caught in his chest. The tank itself was wonderfully landscaped, filled with rocky ruins, a vibrant coral reef, and plenty of brightly colored fish, but that wasn't what had Tony Stark speechless.
What had Tony Stark speechless was the, for lack of a better word, merman.
He was…gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. His face was open and honest, with a chiseled jaw and soft blonde hair. His body was like that of a Greek god, impossibly toned and utterly perfect. He swam forward, his sculpted arms jettisoning him through the water and to the front of the tank in two clean, easy strokes. His tail flickered behind him, clear fins ribboning, cerulean scales shimmering over what was clearly muscle. He examined them all cautiously, bright blue eyes that matched his scales blinking curiously. He locked eyes with Tony, and Tony's world stopped spinning completely.
For a moment, they were the only two people in the room. Tony almost stopped breathing as the merman's eyes searched his, and he could feel his arc reactor racing, spinning faster and brighter than before to keep up with his racing pulse. He could almost imagine his heart, his real heart, the one most people seemed to forget he had, crawling up out of his chest and running away with the merman forever. Or maybe he could just take the merman and run away. He could do that.
Oh yes, Tony thought absently, pushing through the crowd as if led by an invisible force, I could definitely do that.
Then someone bumped into him roughly, and Tony was jostled enough to lose eye contact for just a moment. With that, the merman was gone, nothing but a trail of bubbles in his wake as he swam off into a rocky castle structure and disappeared.
The audience was…less than impressed.
"That's interesting, I suppose."
"Mutant sharks invaded last week, do you think it's related?"
"Maybe one of the Isgardians brought it with them?"
"Isgard? Isn't it Ozgard?"
People continued talking behind him, but Tony didn't hear them. He was too busy pushing forward, pressing his way through the crowd until he was at the very front, up against the glass. He couldn't see the merman anywhere, and he resisted the strangely strong urge to knock on the glass. Okay, so maybe now that he'd had a moment to think about it, stealing the merman and running away wasn't such a good plan, but…
Still. He had to do something.
"Thor, you didn't tell me you had mermaids on Asgard," Clint commented, elbowing the large god.
"I have never seen such a creature. Though I believe a more proper term would be merman, would it not? The creature did not seem to be a maiden."
"No, he didn't," Tony murmured, "Have you ever seen anything like him?"
"Not in my time," Thor shook his head, and Clint laughed.
"Hell, the way our lives go? His relatives'll be invading next week looking for him. Best get ready, I'd bet money on it."
"No," the word slipped out before Tony could think about it, "They can't have him."
"Aw, got a little undersea crush there, Stark?" Clint teased.
"Kinky," Natasha commented dryly, joining the group, "Though I'm not entirely sure if it's even possible."
"Shut up, I do not," Tony huffed, "I just think he's…gorgeous, is all."
"From what I saw before he swam off, he did seem to be," Natasha shrugged in general agreement.
"I agree," Bruce joined them as well, rubbing a thumb over his other hand like he did when he had an idea, "And I must admit I'd love a peek at his DNA."
"That settles it then, I'm buying him," Tony declared, grateful for an easy excuse.
"You really think they'll let you just waltz in and buy their brand new exhibit?" Natasha raised a doubting eyebrow at Tony, who just laughed.
"Now, when have I ever not been able to buy what I wanted?"
Tony wasn't able to buy what he wanted, and he was pissed.
"But Coulsooon!" Tony whined as the agent steered him away from the curator's office, "You don't get it! I need him!"
"Does this have anything to do with why I heard Agent Romanov telling someone you had a fish fetish earlier?" Coulson's eyes narrowed, then he shuddered, "I take it back, I don't want to know."
"It's not a fetish," Tony huffed, "And I didn't mean it like that!"
"Sure you didn't," Coulson just rolled his eyes, "Look, I don't want to hear anything more about this, you hear me Stark? Let them have their exhibit, we don't need any more 'eccentric billionaire superhero flaunts riches' headlines."
"Okay, so maybe I didn't really need that statue, but-"
"It was a public monument, Tony."
"And see, you're right, I admit that. I see the error of my ways, I do. But I need him-"
"If I let you buy him, the press will just have a field day turning it into some sort of sordid, kinky sex scandal."
"No, c'mon, you know I haven't had one of those since my crazy twenties, I'm all mature and shit now."
Coulson fixed him with a knowing glare.
"Alright, jeez, maybe it was a couple months ago, but I'm done now, really! Reformed and all that."
"You're going to kill me, Tony."
"Is that a yes?"
"No that's not a yes?"
"You are not buying the merman."
"Well, now you're just being rude."
Coulson refused to budge, and for a day or so Tony managed to put the merman to the back of his mind, though never for long. After three days, he couldn't manage to think about anything else; every time he closed his eyes, all he could see was the merman, the shimmer of his scales, the cut of his muscles, the open, earnest look in his eyes…
Okay, he couldn't take it anymore.
Under the cover of darkness, Tony hopped in his favorite Maserati and plugged 'Atlantis Marine World' into the GPS. A couple of broken speeding laws later, Tony was pulling to a screeching halt in the aquarium's abandoned parking lot. Tony hacked his way into the system-which, for the record, was insultingly easy-and let himself into the building. The lights came on as he walked, and by the time he reached the exhibit, the merman had clearly heard someone coming and disappeared again. Tony walked up anyway, pressing a hand to the glass gently.
"Hey there," Tony murmured, and though his voice was quiet, it echoed in the empty room, "Remember me?"
There was silence a long moment, before a blonde head cautiously peeked out from behind the rocks. Ten minutes ago, Tony would have sworn up and down that on opening day, the merman had looked straight at him and that they had a real connection…but now he was hesitating. Had he been imagining things?
"I wasn't going to come," Tony confessed, "I mean, I was actually flat out instructed not to, but I never really took orders very well anyway, and I couldn't stop thinking about you, so I just…hopped in the car and came. On a whim, really. And I know how silly that all sounds, and I'm pretty sure this is vaguely illegal, but I just…I couldn't get you out of my head. I'm sure you don't even remember me, probably didn't even see me that night, I just had to-"
In a shimmery flash, the merman was up by glass with him, placing his hand against Tony's, a concerned look on his face. He was trying to tell Tony something with those wide eyes of his, and Tony made a hopeful guess.
"You…you remember me?"
The merman nodded, a giddy, wide smile breaking out across his face.
God he was gorgeous.
"You can hear me, then?" Tony couldn't help but mimic the his infectious smile, and the merman nodded, the gills on his neck flickering happily, "Interesting. Do you have any way to talk?"
The merman's smile faltered, and he suddenly looked disheartened. Tony regretting saying anything at all.
"No, hey, you don't have to, I don't mind," Tony backtracked, "I mean, I talk way too much anyway, more than enough for two people. Merpeople? Are you a merman? Or do you prefer siren or something? I'm not really sure what the correct phrasing here is, I don't want to offend you or anything, I really wish I knew your name, that would be so much easier than thinking of you as 'the merman', though really, it's not like I know any other mermen, so it sort of works I guess, but-"
The merman's lips quirked at Tony's incessant rambling, and he flicked his tail to the small sign in the corner.
Gill, Homo Pesci .
"Gill?" Tony snorted, then quickly covered his mouth, "Sorry. Is that your actual name, or…?"
The merman snorted back at him, a raised eyebrow expressing exactly how he felt about the name he'd been given.
"Okay, good, because I'm sorry, but that is ridiculous."
The merman gave him an appreciative smile, clearly grateful someone shared his opinion. Tony clapped his hands together, an idea coming to him.
"Do you know the same alphabet we do, the whole 'A, B, C' shtick?"
The merman nodded hesitantly, waving a hand as if to tell Tony to run through the whole thing to he could make sure. Tony obliged, all the way through to Z, and the merman nodded more assuredly.
"You wanna spell your name out for me then, 'Gill'?" Tony tapped on the glass with a grin.
The merman's eyes widened and he beamed excitedly, shaking his head a little as if to ask himself why he hadn't thought of that.
"Hate to brag, but I am a genius," Tony winked, and the merman just smiled and very, very carefully wrote on the glass.
S. T. E. V. E. N.
"Steven," Tony smiled softly, "Old-fashioned. I like it."
Steven looked ready to burst with happiness, and he made a waving sort of hand gesture at Tony.
Steven nodded with a roll of his eyes as if to say, well, yes. Duh.
"Oh. I never told you my name, did I?" Tony realized with a laugh, then, declared, "Just call me…Mystery!"
Tony wiggled his fingers at the tank, doing his best super villain voice. Steven just chuckled, biting his lip to keep from laughing at Tony's dramatics.
"Hey, I'm mysterious," Tony huffed, in spite of the small smile that wouldn't leave his face, "I'm super mysterious. I'm the most mysterious mystery there ever was."
Steven just gave him a skeptical smile.
"Well. Have it your way, then, call me Tony," Tony shrugged, and Steven gave him an appreciative smile, "I still think Mystery is better. Actually, if you ask the press, Disaster might be more appropriate."
Steven raised a questioning eyebrow.
"I'm Tony Stark, I, uh…my father was a weapons contractor, and he built this huge business, StarkIndustries. And I know that makes it sound like I'm spoiled or something, and, okay, I kind of am, but it wasn't all fun and games, y'know? Sure, I grew up in a mansion and all that, but my parents didn't really…they didn't really have much time for me when I was a kid, and then they died, so…"
Steven's eyes went soft, clearly telling him he didn't have to say any more if he didn't want to. It was for perhaps that reason Tony didn't mind.
"It's fine," Tony waved him off, "Talking to you is…it's fine. They uh, they died when I was 17, car accident. When I turned 21 I became CEO of the company for a while, then someone tried to kill me. They almost did," Tony tapped his arc reactor, "But I built this and the Iron Man suit, and it saved my life. I gave up being boss, now it's my friend Pepper who runs the company and I just put in the brain power. I'm too busy with the Avengers, anyway."
Steven quirked his head in question.
"They're my…well, they're sort of my friends. I don't really have a whole lot of those, so that's nice. Growing up rich and famous isn't really all it's cracked up to be, y'know? Most friends you make are on your payroll. Anyway," Tony shook the thought off, "They're great. You probably caught a glimpse of them at the opening? Clint Barton's the idiot with short blonde hair, Natasha Romanov's the dangerously gorgeous woman with hair like fire, and they're both master assassins."
Steven's face looked mighty impressed, and Tony grinned.
"I know, right? In the field, Clint goes by Hawkeye cause he's freakishly good with arrows, and Natasha goes by Black Widow cause she's deadly as sin. The scientist-looking guy with curly black hair and glasses? That's Dr. Bruce Banner. He was exposed to too much gamma radiation, so now he turns into this giant green rage monster of destruction when you piss him off, which, considering his life? Isn't exactly hard to do. Then there's Thor, the Norwegian looking guy with blonde hair past his shoulders. He's a god. No, seriously. God of thunder, Thor Odinson, kid you not. Got the giant hammer and everything, and let me tell you, man does that guy love his hammer."
Tony talked more about the Avengers for a while, which seemed to fascinate Steven. He told Steven all about his Iron Man armor about all the things it could do, and Steven went to the trouble to write out bring it next time on the glass which made Tony smile, because he couldn't help but love the fact that that meant there would be a next time. He talked about what the outside world was like, about electricity and cars and the craziness of New York City. He asked Steven questions too, but they couldn't have much conversation that way since Steven's answers were limited by how long it took him to write them out. Through mostly guesswork with Steven answering yes or no, Tony learned that Steven had been taken from his home, captured by fishermen off the coast working for the aquarium. When Tony tried to ask more about his past, Steven had started to write something longer, then shook his head and simply wrote too long. When Tony had said he didn't mind at all, Steven had just smiled and wrote I want to hear about you. Well, let it never be said that Tony turned down gorgeous mermen who wanted to hear him talk.
It was almost sunrise when Tony realized oh, hey, he kind of had to leave before he was caught and arrested.
"Jesus it's early," Tony shook his head, the all-nighter catching up to him in a rush, "I can't believe I talked that long, I'm so sorry."
Steven started to shake his head with a smile, but Tony kept talking.
"Really, I didn't mean to bore you or anything, if you want me to stop talking, I don't know, knock on the glass or something next time, I just…I can get pretty lonely sometimes, so it was…it was nice. Talking to you, I mean. And you're trapped in here, alone, and…that probably gets pretty lonely too, yeah?"
Steven paused briefly, then gave a small, quiet nod.
"I could…I could keep visiting you, if you wanted?"
Tony held his breath, impossibly hopeful, and he wasn't disappointed. Steven did a happy little spin in the water, before pressing both hands against the glass and nodding eagerly.
"That's a yes, then?" Tony laughed, and Steven ducked his head, an embarrassed smile on his lips and hope in his perfectly azure eyes as he looked at Tony through blonde lashes.
This man is going to be the end of me, Tony mused to himself, Funny, I can't really bring myself to mind.
"No need to bat your lashes at me, pretty boy, I couldn't stay away if you begged me to," Tony winked, and Steven huffed a little at the pretty boy comment, puffing up his chest, "And sticking out that gorgeous chest isn't a very good way to defy the pretty boy comment."
Steven quirked his head, mimicked tugging on a shirt, then gestured curiously to Tony, who had to admit he was caught off guard.
"What, you want me shirtless?"
Steven gestured to himself, as if to say, well, aren't you supposed to be? Then he shrugged, running a hand over his bare abs absent-mindedly, clearly unaware of the particularly wonderful things he was doing-really, had been doing all night-to certain areas of Tony's body.
"Trying to get me topless on the first date, are we? You're aware we landfolk generally keep our shirts on, yeah?" Tony made a point not to follow Steve's hand, instead watching his face. Steven looked almost confused by this new piece of information, "Yeah. All day. I know, weird, I think everyone should run around naked too, but no one listens to me. Please, feel free to never change though, I am perfectly happy having those delicious muscles of yours on permanent display."
Steven tried to shoot him a smirk, but a light blush accompanied it.
"Aw, is my irresistible charm getting to you, Gills?" Tony grinned, and Steven just huffed at the nickname.
Before Tony could say any more, however, he heard a noise down the hall.
"Shit, okay, I'm definitely not supposed to be here right now," Tony started to run off, then caught sight of Steven, who was flicking his tail anxiously, swimming after Tony with confusion and worry in his eyes. His heart all but melted.
"Oh, please don't look at me like that. I'll be back," Tony murmured, keeping quiet to avoid getting caught. Then, he pressed his hand to the glass, fingers spread wide, "I promise."
Uncertainty was clear in Steven's eyes, but he pressed his own, larger hand to Tony's through the glass.
"I promise, Steven," Tony repeated once more, before sprinting off and out of sight.