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ten times as long (to put yourselves back together)

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After the dust clears the clean up work begins. Including at the New Avengers Facility – or rather the New, New, New Avengers Facility if anyone’s counting the times parts of it have had to be rebuilt – where the Head Gardener finds that he has a problem.

Not with the clearing up as such, even if it takes more time and effort to fix something than to break it as Matías thinks the saying goes, because he’s certainly grateful about the world saving. And not with the fires from where the alien space ship crash-landed, because he hired Lindy from the Netherlands last year and she’s great with tulips but she’s excellent at fire damage. Or even with the large Asgardian circle patterns, which are really quite nice but just don’t fit with the rest of the grounds’ design and have to go. No, it’s the small, seemingly innocent plant that he discovers a few days later growing just outside the entrance to the residential building.

The problem is that he has no idea what kind of plant it is. Even after searching his books and trawling the Internet.

Maybe some people wouldn’t see it as something to be worried about, but Matías has a cousin who has a friend who knows a guy who worked at this place in Westchester where the lawn came alive, so yeah, no, he’s not touching that. He’s the Head Gardner for the New Avengers Facility where a specialist in fire damage is someone he needed to hire and alien blood is fertilizing the roses. No way is he messing with the unknown plant life.

Instead he cautiously, carefully ties a piece of red string around one of the spikey branches sticking out of the top to mark it, so he can point it out later to someone more equipped to deal with this kind of thing.

He could swear that as he finishes tying a bow it rustles its branches and lets out a quietly pleased sound, but most likely it’s just the wind.

 

“So, what you’re telling me is that this is a completely unknown form of plant and you’re worried because maybe aliens left it here or something?”

“Yes, Mr Stark.”

Tony sighs and tucks the fingers of his free hand into the sling wrapped around his other arm, trying to stop himself from reaching up to scratch at the horribly itchy places where healing burn marks and scrapes meet facial hair.

“And at what time would anyone have decided to plant… You know what, never mind.” He tilts his head. “Was it you who added the little hair bow?”

He can almost see a square-ish head with branch bedhead sitting on top of a slim, tree-trunk body, and the two branches sprouting from either side of the trunk could be the arms with tiny twig fingers…

The plant blinks open wide eyes and wood cracks into a toothless smile of sleepy pleasure.

“Okay,” says Tony slowly. “Okay. So. Alien tree.”

 

“You forgot your tree,” is how Tony greets the Guardians of the Galaxy – which isn’t an egotistical team name at all – when they finally pick up his call. Which he makes on a kind of Universal Skype device that Rocket threw together because apparently Earth technology is pathetic, and which Tony plans to improve on because no fucking way is a Stark accepting that. It’s on his to-do list.

“Nooo, we have our tree,” says the human one, although he doesn’t look entirely certain about it. He leans back in the pilot’s chair of their spaceship, twists his head around, and shouts behind him, “We have our tree, right?”

“I am Groot,” intones a deep voice in the background.

“Yeah, we’re good.”

“Did you have more than one?” Tony asks, and later he’ll be ashamed of how desperately that comes out. Just a little bit.

“Nope.” Quill grins widely.

“Well then what the hell am I supposed to do with this one?”

One of the Avengers’ gardeners had dug the strange tree out with a large spade, well underneath its roots, and lowered it into the largest mixing bowl that Tony had been able to find in the kitchen, which he now lifts up and presents to the screen.

“Aww, he’s cute. Hey little guy!”

Quill waves.

The tree waves back.

“No,” Tony says flatly. “Really. What the hell?”

“Plants like water and sunlight,” says Quill’s much more welcome teammate Gamora, and not just because she’s prettier to look at, leaning in over Peter’s shoulder. “And they like company. Talking to them helps them to grow.”

“You like plants now?” Peter smiles at her and tilts his head so his lips are almost-not-quite brushing her cheek. She doesn’t move away. Encouraged he tries, “We could go somewhere with plants.”

Tony cuts the connection, because little trees don’t need to see that.

Some people just don’t know how to flirt.

 

Which means Tony is left holding a baby possibly-alien tree. It’s that kind of day.

Week.

Month.

Fuck this year.

 

James tries to forgive Tony for it when he finds him slumped on the sofa with his legs stretched out in front of him and a glass of whisky in his hand, because to be fair Tony’s been holding it together pretty well.

He remembers what Tony was like after he flew a nuke into space and now he’s been up there again. They all have. And faced a lot worse than nukes.

And now Tony has that look in his eyes, that expression of I don’t know what to do. Which James knows from experience leads to Tony doing something, because he can never settle for doing nothing, even if he doesn’t know the best ‘something’ to do. And before you know it you have new armour that somehow reads brain signals, and muscle memory from the last functioning nerve endings you have above the useless parts of you, so that you can still fly – and fight the good fight.

Or a coffee machine that’s been upgraded to so high-tech no one can work out how to use it anymore and an un-caffeinated Clint is walking into walls.

So yeah, he’s concerned when he asks, “Tony?”

“Stud muffin,” Tony replies, but it’s half-hearted. He catches James’ eye and sighs before waving his glass in the direction of the coffee table. “Rhodey, meet alien tree. Alien tree, Rhodey.”

There aren’t any trees on the coffee table. Just a large bowl of dirt.

But it turns out that there is one on the bar, balancing precariously on little root legs as it clings to the lip of the open whisky decanter and helps itself.

They manage to get it away from the alcohol, but then it totters around the room making high pitched trilling noises, like some kind of strange bird, waving its arms around its head. They have the devil’s own time following it around and trying to make sure it doesn’t hurt itself until it finally wears itself out and, for all intents and purposes falls asleep planted back in the mixing bowl.

James tells himself he’s had weirder evenings.

 

Don’t give the tree alcohol, Rhodey adds to the whiteboard that hangs on the corridor wall, next to the entrance for the kitchen and common area.

“I keep meaning to throw that out. It doesn’t match the décor and something that old school is – god, it hurts my eyes – frankly it’s an insult to Friday,” Tony says, leaning against the wall and slipping his hands into his pockets. He can’t remember where his sling went, but then most of the time he forgets that he needs one so surely it balances out.

“Still pissed that you were outvoted on that one, huh?”

Rhodey wipes the dusty marker pen on his t-shirt before putting it back on top of the board.

“Sure,” Tony drawls, “whatever, I love democracy.”

One Person Being, One Vote is at the top of the board, surprisingly not in Steve’s handwriting. Don’t give people heart attacks by sneaking up on them, I’m not making any more arc reactors is a bit further down in Tony’s blocky engineer’s script. If you break it you help fix it. This is a no judgement zone for insomniacs. Replace the goddamn toilet roll when it runs out.

He’s not sure who’s responsible for that last one. He just knows it’s been the last for a long while. And now it’s not.

“Sure, whatever,” Rhodey says, a mocking echo. “Homes have House Rules, Tony. Deal with it.”

 

So it turns out that the Sokovia Accords aren’t legal, what with the UN not being able to finish their signing party because of the whole explosion thing but also because the Accords never made it to the Senate for consent, meaning they have no legal effect in the US. When Tony had asked the legal team at Stark Industries earmarked for Avengers business to look into it they’d had a field day.

Which isn’t to say that there might not be some trouble over the money spent, manpower deployed, and property destroyed in the immediate aftermath of said UN signing party, or all the death and destruction since, but the Avengers did just help to save the universe and that should earn some points in their favour.

Then there’s the wrongful arrest and imprisonment, because locking people up in the Raft – on the Raft? – without legal reason is, funnily enough, illegal. In exchange for SI’s army of lawyers generously not doing anything about that there’s been a general amnesty and all those who refused to sign the Accords or ran afoul of them are no longer on any US wanted lists and everyone can just carry on like the whole mess never happened.

Except it did.

And Tony’s still considering just a little bit of suing. In case Wanda wants a college fund or something.

 

Barnes turns up first – because of course the one Tony’s least looking forward to seeing arrives first – delivered personally by T’Challa in his private Panther Jet.

Tony and Barnes, here’s how that goes: Steve doesn’t have time for Tony anymore because he’s busy running around after his murderous ex-best buddy who, it then turns out, murdered Tony’s parents and, it also turns out, Tony’s maybe really not over that. So sue him. Then Steve defends the Winter Fucking Solider because he’s his friend, like that means he can’t also be a dick. And Tony would know, okay, because he was Steve’s friend and has also been a dick. (See: Merchant of Death. See: Iron Man killing people. See: Ultron. Although in his defence, see: good intentions.) Fine, okay, Barnes was a brainwashed Hydra pet for most of it, but he was a soldier before that; he’s not squeaky clean.

Then shit goes down in Wakanda and Barnes gets woken up from his self-inflicted deep freeze because the power’s out – the power that’s tied to vibranium and yeah, Tony gets that it was more complicated than that and it was the cause of said power outage that caused the crazy in Wakanda, but still – and Barnes decides that he’d can’t just sit on the side lines, so he makes himself useful.

And then there’s the aliens. And space travel. And a whole lot more shit. Infinity Stones and the Quantum Realm. And somewhere in there Barnes kills people who were trying to kill Tony and maybe Tony kills a few people who were trying kill Barnes, because yeah, sure, sometimes you end up on the same team as people you don’t like.

Then it’s over and Tony’s back on Earth with Rhodey tying up loose ends with military organisations and putting out political fires. Bucky heads back to Wakanda and other people go their separate ways. Meanwhile Steve, who stays behind with a few others to deal with the Intergalactic politics, gets chatting with the mystical Doctor they acquired during their alien adventure who says he can work some magic on Barnes’ brain. Said Doctor lives in the US, so it’s back to the States for James Buchanan Barnes. And it makes sense for the rest of them to regroup in the same place, because they should probably discuss what happens now and hey, they have their own New Avengers Facility just sitting there empty.

And then Barnes is standing in the doorway and he doesn’t look like the Winter Solider, or the guy in the run trying to keep his head down, or even the guy in the middle of a war in space. He looks a bit rough around the edges and the backpack that seems to be the entirety of his luggage is old and scruffy, but he looks more put together than Tony has ever seen him and there’s a smirk on his face.

And now it’s just awkward.

“Your Highness,” Tony says, because avoidance for the win. “How’s the kingdom?”

“Recovering, much like the rest of the world,” T’Challa replies from where he stands behind Barnes, ever the diplomat when not wearing his mask. “We are grateful for Stark Industries’ assistance with a temporary replacement for our power supply whilst we are repairing own.”

Standing in-between them Bucky, unable to move forward because Tony’s in the way, rolls his eyes at the pair of them talking over his shoulder. Tony ignores it.

“Thank Pepper,” Tony says dismissively. “She’s the big CEO, running the company and making the decisions.”

“Yes.” T’Challa smiles. “I have.”

“Well then.” Tony snatches at something else to say and fails.

“Come on,” says Barnes in the pause. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“You’re hilarious,” Tony informs him.

“Are you going to invite him in?”

Barnes indicates T’Challa with a thumb over his shoulder like he’s trying to hitch a ride. It’s the metal hand, but very different from the last model. That Tony blew apart. It looks like a slimmer design, from what he can see with the wrist upwards being covered by Barnes’ jacket, and the fingers and thumb are flat on the bottom and curved on top, like pincers or tweezers. Tony catches himself staring and quickly looks away.

“I’m afraid I must decline,” says the Wakandan King, sounding far too amused for Tony’s liking, “and return to my own country. Until next time.” He dips his chin in a nod, turns, and walks away back to his jet.

“Let’s not and say we did,” Tony calls after him, because no, he doesn’t want to think about next times thank you very much. Then, for a lack of anything else to do, he steps aside to finally let Barnes in, pretending like every instinct isn’t screaming at him that this is a bad idea.

Which is when Rhodey shows up with the tree, tucked under his arm in the mixing bowl.

The tree that holds out a twiggy hand for a high five. Because James Rhodes, that’s why. Tony does not know what his obsession is, but small child, robot, foreign official, and apparently even the alien tree, Rhodey will teach it to high five.

Barnes reaches out and gently taps the index finger of his flesh hand against the tree’s, no hesitation, and his smirk briefly stretches into a grin before defaulting back again.

“I’ll show you to a room, so you can dump your stuff, and give you the tour,” says Rhodey with a welcoming smile.

Tony knows he’s doing it so that Tony doesn’t have to – or in case he doesn’t at all. He should be grateful. Instead as they walk off Tony feels like grabbing Rhodey and yelling something pathetic at Barnes like, back off, this one’s mine.

He settles for ordering Friday to keep a close eye on Barnes. Just in case.

 

“This won’t remove or undo what has been done to you,” Stephen Strange tells Barnes. “Magic is not a cure. But it can erase the connection between those specific words and the actions they trigger. Magic understands the power of words.”

“You can stop someone making me be the Solider. But I’ll still have the…skillset.”

“Essentially, yes.”

“Disclaimer noted, Doc.”

“What’re you a Doctor of, anyway?” asks Tony from where he’s leaning against the kitchen counter, watching them both.

Barnes is seated on one of the kitchen stools, posture relaxed, and Strange sits cross-legged in front of him. Cross-legged and floating in mid-air at Barnes’ eyelevel whilst he creates an overlay of Barnes’ head that looks like the magical equivalent of Tony’s hologram system.

“Medicine,” Strange replies absently, engrossed in his work.

“You might just be the weirdest person I’ve met all week.” There’s quiet for a moment and then Tony mock-gasps. “Wait, but if you’re not a Doctor of magic then are you even qualified for this kind of operation?”

He doesn’t get any reaction from Strange for that, which is annoying, but Barnes’ lets out a snort of amusement, which is somewhat disturbing.

“Well when you’re done there’s someone else you can take a look at,” says Tony, pointing down at the alien tree on the counter in front of him.

It sways backwards, almost bending in half, beams up at Tony, and points its own finger upwards in a mini mirror image. Tony moves his hand behind its head and, with a light touch, encourages it upright again. He doesn’t like to see it bending like that. Even if it doesn’t act anything like Tony expects a tree to act he can’t help worrying that if it bends to far it might snap something.

Strange casts his hand out and part of his magical working flows in Tony’s direction and settles in front of the tree momentarily before winking out of existence.

“It isn’t magical in nature,” Strange states, “at least no more than any plant or living thing. Not my area I’m afraid.”

“But it’s a tree person,” Tony complains.

“Yes,” says Strange. “Good luck with that.”

 

“Your friend’s here, it’s awkward, you’re the one who was so keen on finding the guy, come deal with him.”

“I am.”

Steve sounds tired. ‘Fuck this year’ kind of tired. Tony’s glad it’s not just him.

“Hey,” says Tony, surprised he’s not been asked to leave a message. “Glad to be back on Earth?”

He’s called Steve using the crappy mobile Steve mailed to him years ago. Even though they’ve seen each other in person since, fought together, spoke on comms, and Friday has all manner of contact details stored for Steve, Tony’d still reached for the mobile. Maybe because Steve’s not back, not yet, not really.

But for Steve to get a signal he has to be back on the right planet at least.

“Yes,” says Steve, “but I don’t know if… “ He sighs. “We’ve done as much as we can for now. There’s just so much to do.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

Tony scrubs his free hand over his head, wincing when something twinges and realising that’s probably the arm that should maybe still be in a sling.

“Tony. Bruce went back with Thor.”

That hurts. Tony’s glad Steve doesn’t lie to him ‘for his own good’ anymore and he guesses he can’t begrudge Bruce. It must be great for him in space where a Hulk is far from the most dangerous thing wandering around, where he could smash Asgardians all day and no one would get broken, and where there’s all kinds of new science to learn. But it hurts.

Thor has his own world to get back to, T’Challa has a kingdom, people have their places to be, but Tony had thought maybe he’d get to keep Bruce. Or that at least he’d come back. Not run away to space.

There’s Rhodey, because there’s always Rhodey, but they’re not always on the same page, and there’s Peter, but he’s still just a kid. And everyone else... People are work.

“I can’t do this,” Tony confesses. It just slips out, and maybe that’s why he called using this phone, the one they’ve been using for difficult conversations and things they never otherwise say.

“Do what, Tony?” says Steve calmly.

“Be here. Make the team again. I’m just. I should go. I have a million and one other things I should be doing anyway, a billion and one, and – ”

“And yet you always come back to being an Avenger. You said you can’t give it up.”

“I’m a mechanic,” Tony bites out. “Things go wrong, I fix them. But people. People aren’t… I can’t do this.”

And Steve says, “Seems to me you already are.”

 

Clint arrives on crutches – because of course – and with butterfly stitches on his cheek and chin. Tony very deliberately does not rush over to help him through the door, because Clint hates that. Instead he watches as Clint deftly navigates getting himself and his nondescript black holdall inside, sadly well practised at getting around whilst injured.

The driver of the yellow cab that dropped him off honks his horn before leaving and the guy in the passenger seat wearing a red spandex bodysuit, complete with mask, leans his entire upper body out of the window to wave goodbye.

Tony decides it’s probably best not to ask what that’s about, although he’s irritated that Clint had insisted on making his own way here from the hospital when Happy or Tony himself could have picked him up. He’d thought Natasha or someone had already offered, not that Clint was getting a taxi.

“Hey,” says Tony. “And when do we get the pleasure of the other ex-SHIELD assassin?”

Clint looks puzzled. “I thought Nat was already here.”

At which point Natasha appears from the left and Tony has to pretend that she didn’t just give him a heart attack.

She picks up Clint’s holdall and his face morphs through the expressions of indignant I can do the thing myself to the resigned you’re not going to let me do the thing myself and the grudging I guess that makes my life easy anyway but don’t expect me to thank you. Natasha, the only person Clint will accept help from when he’s like this, just waits with one eyebrow raised until Clint accepts that her way is the way it’s going to be.

“There’s a new house rule,” are her welcoming words.

“Yeah?” Clint prompts.

“Do not give alcohol to the tree.”

It’s a statement, not a question, but Tony likes to think he knows her well enough that he can tell when she’s fishing for information. Natasha acts like she knows everything, which means not asking questions that would give away her lack of knowing. Or at least she acts like that in front of people she doesn’t trust enough to be herself around and Tony guesses that includes him again.

At least she isn’t doing the thing where she’s being someone else in a Natasha skin.

Tony pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes, feeling a headache brewing.

“Because we don’t, okay?” he says. “No giving alcohol to the tree. We have a tree now, possibly alien definitely not magic possibly tree. Also the old rules still apply, stop sneaking or I’m getting you a bell.”

Clint smirks.

“I missed the crazy.”

“You bring the crazy,” says Natasha and Clint breaks into a full grin.

 

Natasha takes the phone after Clint’s done talking to Laura and the kids, because Laura’s always accepted Natasha’s assurances of Clint’s health more than his own – for good reason, to be fair – and of course Cooper, Lila, and Nathaniel want to hear from Auntie Nat and to tell her all about their own adventures.

“He managed to get here without breaking anything else.”

Clint turns sideways and stretches out full-length on the sofa, wriggling to get comfortable before resting his head in Natasha’s lap and going limp. Her free hand goes to his head and he smiles as she starts playing with his hair.

“No, he’s not seen all of the team yet, but I swear the entire children’s ward have been at it.”

She’s talking about his cast. Clint hates casts, but he figures if he can give other people a moment of fun in drawing on the damn things then that’s not nothing.

“Umm-hm.”

He closes his eyes. Everything still aches, but it’s almost background noise now and he’s got Natasha to watch his back; he thinks he might finally get some sleep.

“Another six to eight weeks with the cast and then he can have a brace,” Natasha says and, “No, he hasn’t found the dick pic yet.”

“The what?” Clint demands, scrunching his face up. “Seriously, I have a dick on my cast?”

Natasha doesn’t respond, just carries on talking with Laura, but when he shifts to sit up – to the check the cast he still has to wear for six to eight weeks for a dick pic so he cover it up or something – she shifts her hand to his chest and presses down, keeping him in place.

“Come on, not classy,” Clint grumbles as he settles down again. “Think of the kids.”

 

Tony can’t stop looking at Barnes’ arm.

The metal one, obviously.

He’s still not caught a glimpse of the shoulder socket, but Barnes walks around in short sleeves enough that he’s seen most of it and it does look like the hand – a slimmer design than before and much more modern, something that wouldn’t look out of place in a modern sci-fi film, with most of it covered by a dark metal but exposed at the joints, and Tony doesn’t know if that was the Wakandan’s choice or Barnes’.

He knows it’s not quite complete. He can tell, but yeah, also he’s heard Barnes’ talking about it. That they’d been working on a new arm for him and then the power went and this is the version that he got. Tony’s impressed, but he wants to make it better, finish it. The Wakandans may be superior in this area - Tony’s spent years working on exoskeleton designs thanks to Iron Man, but not prosthetics or replacement parts, and there’s something that Stark Industries is lacking and could work with – but it itches that they had to stop where they did when he can see the outline for where they intended more, the potential.

“Quit staring and just ask,” Barnes tells him, amused, so he does.

The downside, he thinks that afternoon in his workshop, is that the arm comes with Barnes attached.

“Steve ever tell you that we saw Howard crash a car that was supposed to fly?”

“I’m not Howard,” Tony says tightly.

“Yeah, I know.”

And Barnes is the one who bought up Howard, he’s the one who keeps pushing, so Tony glues his eyes to the section of the arm that he’s currently working on and says, “So about you remembering things. Remembering ‘all of them’.”

Barnes goes completely and utterly still and for a moment Tony thinks he’s broken him, or that he’s about to go all Winter Murder, it’s a toss-up. So he races ahead with, “Does that include remembering who gave the orders?”

It’s quiet for a moment, but the worst of the tension has fled the room and it’s less the quiet of an assassin waiting to strike and more the quiet of a person pulling themself back together.

“Why?” Barnes says eventually. “You want to do some avenging?”

Tony doesn’t know what he wants. Closure maybe, if that’s a real thing.

“They’re dead,” Barnes says, staring straight ahead at the wall.

Tony swallows, mouth dry, and forces himself to ask, “My parents, the people who ordered them killed, or all of the above?”

“All of them,” is the toneless reply.

And that’s that conversation had.

He breathes out.

 

Tony tends to have the tree in the workshop when he’s down there, unless Rhodey has borrowed it for a bit, so Barnes sees a lot of it when Tony’s working on the arm and one day announces that he’s decided to liberate it from the land of loud music – although Tony could swear he’s caught the little guy dancing. Barnes has been okay with the tree so far, and with the bots, so Tony takes a deep breath and lets him tree-sit.

Barnes treats tree-sitting seriously. He does research and speaks to the gardeners. He’s the one to get the tree a proper pot, one that’s the right size. As an added bonus, the pot is much easier to carry around than the mixing bowl.

 

“Oh so you’re the one who set fire to my maple.”

They’d just been joking about how much damage they’ve done to the Facility themselves in the past before aliens happened when one of the gardeners, who’d been quietly talking with Bucky about books or something, all polite and normal-like, rounds on Clint, glaring at him like she means to set him on fire.

“Um, I was creating a diversion?” Clint tries.

 

Some comedian adds Fire bad. Tree pretty, to the House Rules.

 

When Bucky uses Tony’s communication system to contact the Guardians he gets Drax and asks for Rocket.

“You’re friends with…” He frowns, not wanting to say ‘tree’ in case it’s insulting, like he’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to refer to Rocket as a ‘racoon’. “The tall guy?”

“Groot?” Rocket supplies, folding his thin arms. “Yeah, we’re friends.”

“I wanted to ask your advice,” Bucky says. “About our…little guy.”

He lifts up his left arm, which the tree is clinging to. The shape of the arm is just right for it to wrap its roots around and it seems to enjoy climbing up to sit on Bucky’s shoulder. Sometimes it’ll then use his hair to get on top of his head. He figures it must like the higher view.

“And don’t joke,” he adds firmly.

“Who, me?” says Rocket, sounding indignant.

“You told me you needed my arm to save the universe.”

“Oh that was hilarious!” He throws back his head and laughs, mouth so wide that Bucky could count his teeth if he wanted. “Did you see Rogers’ face? Oh, you humans. It’s an arm. What’s it gonna do except be arm-like and where’s the use in that? Ha!”

Bucky rubs the palm of the hand not currently being used by a tree as a jungle gym over his face and sighs.

“It really wasn’t funny.”

“Okay, sure, whatever you say.” Rocket wipes the fur dry at the sides of his eyes with a delicate claw and comes closer to the screen. Bucky obligingly lifts the tree so Rocket can get a good look at it. “Yeah, so if he’s anything like Groot he’ll grow slow at that size. Once he reaches full growth he’ll stay that way, unless he does something stupid and you need to regrow him.”

“Regrow?”

“Yeah, when idiots get bits of themselves blown off - ”

“I am Groot!” shouts a deep voice from somewhere off-screen.

“Well I wouldn’t have been in that situation, would I, if you hadn’t - ”

“What else?” Bucky interrupts.

“He should drink water, but he’ll probably drink anything. Sunlight when he can get it, or a UV lamp if that’s a problem. Carry him around with you, he’ll appreciate the company and the change of scenery.”

“You keep saying ‘he’,” says Bucky, frowning. “How can you tell?”

“Well,” says Rocket, “you see the top notch? Directly below the pre-vertebrated spinal column with the class C cusp?”

He’s not easy to read, but – “You’re teasing me,” Bucky says. “Groot told you.”

“Nah.” He cackles. “I’m just messing with you. Your little sapling, it’ll let you know when it’s big enough to know itself. You’ll have an ‘I am Groot’ moment and you’ll never look back.”

“How did you learn to understand him?” Bucky asks curiously.

“How do you think?” Rocket rolls his eyes. “I’m a genius.”

He switches off, the screen goes dark, and Bucky leans back in his chair, listening to the tree perched on his shoulder humming softly and waiting for his most recent watcher to come out. The rest of them have been far less subtle about checking on him.

“Does Stark know you’re using his things?” Natasha asks as she emerges from the shadows.

Bucky shrugs. “Probably.”

She comes to perch on the edge of the desk, just out of arm’s reach.

“So I hear you’re fixed now.”

“No. But I can’t be used.”

Natasha looks like she wants to contest that, but she lets it go and instead asks, “And do you remember me now?”

“Should I?”

She tilts her head to one side and smiles, a small, strange thing. “You shot me once.”

He doesn’t apologise. He’s shot a lot of people and worse than that.

“That’s more than anyone else has managed to do since I was a girl.” She studies him for a moment, looking for some kind of reaction and he mustn’t have had the right one because she just nods, once, like something is settled between them and tells him, “Don’t worry about it.”

He hadn’t been.

He’d thought that if she’d been bothered enough by it for it to be a problem then she would have already killed him by now.

 

Wanda leaves her seatbelt fastened when the car comes to a stop outside the New Avengers Facility. It’s not a conscious decision, it’s just that her hands feel heavy in her lap and she can’t summon the will to lift them. In a minute, she thinks. In a minute.

She isn’t sure how she feels about being back here. She might not stay. It doesn’t feel like home, if it ever did, but then the only place that has became rubble years ago.

In the driver’s seat Hope puts the handbrake on and finishes off her bottle of water, tilting it up to get the last few mouthfuls.

Wanda tightens her grip on the envelope she’s been holding onto for the last few hours in frustration, hearing paper crunch. She’s ashamed of herself, of the sick feeling in her stomach and her inability to just open the door and get out.

She turns her head to look out of the window, avoiding Hope. Hope who’s a businesswoman and a superhero, who’s smart and trained in martial arts, who never seems intimidated by anyone or anything; and then here’s Wanda, who doesn’t even have a driving licence and had to be brought back here by someone else.

“So what’s in the envelope?” Hope asks, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel.

“Citizenship papers.” Wanda swallows. “But they do not mean that I belong.”

“They don’t tell you where to belong, you tell them.”

“What ‘they’?”

Hope shrugs. “All of them.”

 

It’s easier than she thinks, once she gets inside. There are hugs from Clint, a real smile from Natasha, Tony asks if she’s thought about college at all, and Bucky introduces her to a tiny tree person who gives her a high five. She has to take a step back then, moving closer to where Hope is leaning against the wall, feeling unsteady because surely it can’t be this easy. Not after everything she’s done.

They give her space and Wanda can’t tell if that’s from fear.

Clint crouches down and holds his fingers out to the tree on the coffee table and he smiles as tiny twigs wrap themselves around the tip of his pinky.

“You’re thinking sentimental things,” Natasha accuses him.

“Yeah, you caught me.”

Wanda knows he’s thinking about how tiny his kids’ fingers used to be, and Nathaniel’s fingers, and how big Nathaniel’s going to be the next time he sees him. Then Clint looks up and measures Wanda with his eyes, taking in every bruise, the smudges under her eyes, the slight shake in her hands that she just can’t control, and he smiles at her the same way.

 

“No, but do alien trees even have genders?” says Hope and dinner descends into a full-blown debate.

Is the tree a he, or a she, or some other gender entirely, and is gender an entirely human concept? Is it right to refer to it as a tree, when it isn’t, or an alien, when alien just means foreign? Should they give it a name? What if it already has a name? What about where it comes from? Is it a US Citizen? Do they even have the right to raise it? And won’t they be raising it in a human culture, isn’t that wrong? What about choice and how can they tell if it’s trying to communicate, maybe they just don’t understand what it’s trying to say?

They argue, but it’s not the end of the world, so there’s that.

 

“Mr Stark, we’ve spent months on the Sokovia Accords, but we need more time. And now the Avengers are gathering again on US soil we need to ensure that there are no complications. Then there’s the fact that the entire planet was nearly destroyed by aliens and I have no idea what the legal impact of that is going to be. I mean can they even issue legislation that could be enforced wherever Doctor Banner and Thor have gone, and would Thor even be subject to it?”

Tony watches the Head of Legal glaring at him on the video call holoscreen he currently has hovering at eye level whilst he works on his latest gauntlet circuitry. It’s a good glare.

“And now you want me to look into the citizenship of a tree?”

“An alien tree. Because alien trees should have rights too, or something, just in case.”

“An alien tree,” Vivienne repeats flatly.

“It was planted here, so it was born here, we guess. Look, you sorted out citizenship for Wanda in the end. I have every faith in your abilities.”

The thing is that he can see the fascination taking over her face. It’s why she’s in charge of Stark Legal – the more complicated the case, the more Tony’s fucked up, the more interested she gets. She loves rising to the challenge and kicking its ass.

“Leave it with me,” she says. “But no promises.”

 

Vision is the first of the last group to arrive. He walks through the wall into Tony’s workshop, wearing something obviously copied from an off world culture that morphs into jeans and a dark green sweater as he crosses the room.

It’s been some time now since Tony saw him last and with that space he can see why people might be afraid of how easily Vision uses his powers, but at the same time he hates that Vision feels he has to modify himself because of that fear, to tone himself down. To put on jeans.

“Captain Rogers asked me to relay that he and his team are on their way with an estimated arrival time of two hours and thirty-five minutes,” he says.

“That’s what mobile phones are for,” Tony says, putting down his blowtorch and pushing up his safety goggles to rest on his forehead.

“I’m afraid,” Vision says ruefully, “I was feeling somewhat impatient and took the excuse to arrive sooner myself.”

Which. No.

“You don’t need to do that.” He yanks the goggles off and drops them on the bench, feeling better for the small measure of violence. “You can just. Don’t be sorry for what you can do.”

“Mr Stark?”

“I need to apologise to you,” Tony says. “I thought… I’m used to sharing space with robots and AIs and I thought that was okay, treating you the same, but you’re not. You’re not an AI. You’re not JARVIS. You’re something – someone new.”

He turns to face Vision.

“You don’t need to wear jeans and dressing gowns, when you can create whatever clothes you want,” he says.

“I like dressing gowns,” says Vision, bemused.

“Okay. Just. You don’t have to wear or do or be anything, okay? Good. Great. Glad we had this conversation.”

He grits his teeth and turns back to his workbench.

“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” says Vision.

“No?” Tony grips the edge of the bench, feels it digging into his palms. “Why did you come back here? Why not leave, with Wanda or someone else? Don’t you have better places to be? There’s a whole universe out there!”

He waves a hand through the air, a swoosh of possibilities, ignoring the red line on his palm that’s already starting to fade.

“I believe I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

“Great,” mutters Tony. “Well that makes one of us.”

 

“What was their decision?” Wanda asks when he finds her in the small roof garden on top of the residential building watching the sunset.

“Well, I am still here,” Vision says, spreading his arms wide in an attempt to be humorous.

“Behave or I’ll put you through the floor again.”

Vision examines her face and concludes, “You’re joking.”

Wanda lets the corners of her lips curve upwards. “Clint and Natasha joke about these things.”

“And you admire them.”

“They are comfortable with who they are.”

“Then what should I threaten you with? My cooking?” Vision finds himself smiling as he comes to sit next to her on the grass. It’s a pleasant change.

“Viz.” Wanda takes his hand and laces their fingers together. “Tell me.”

“There are concerns that Thanos, or others, could use the Mind Stone to locate the rest of the Infinity Stones. That although they are now beyond his reach they will never truly be lost in the Quantum Realm, certainly not while one Stone remains.”

“But if they take it from you,” Wanda says quietly, “what would happen to you?”

“I do not know.”

He looks down at their joined hands.

“There are concerns,” he says, “that no one should be responsible for this kind of power. And about Earth in particular being home to the last remaining Stone.”

“That’s ridiculous! They will send the humans back home like children who have stayed up too late when without us, without what we did…” Wanda blinks back tears and breathes in hard through her nose. “Scott and Hope with the Quantum Realm idea, the two of us containing the Stones, what we did.”

“We saved the universe,” Vision says softly.

“But it is not over.”

“No. I do not think this kind of fight ever really is.” He carefully squeezes her hand. “If they come for me…”

“We would protect you,” Wanda says, surety in her voice.

“I am not convinced that you should.”

“Well what do you know.” She squeezes his hand in return, but much tighter. “All the options in existence and you wear a dressing gown.”

“I do not understand the problem with my dressing gown.”

 

“He has Legal looking into the citizenship of a tree,” says Pepper, her voice steeped in exasperation. “I mean this is why we split Legal, so that the Avengers would have a dedicated team for the stranger requests, but still. A tree, James.”

James forces himself to maintain a straight face, knowing she’ll hear it at the other end of the phone if he gives in to amusement.

“It’s a cute tree.”

“Really,” Pepper says tonelessly and James can’t help but chuckle. “How is he?”

“He’s…getting there.” James leans back until he’s lying flat on the gym mat. “We’re all getting there. You could come visit you know, you’re more than welcome.”

“No, I just…” He imagines her fiddling with a pen or some stupid desk ornament in the pause. “I don’t think that would be a good idea. And how are you?”

“Getting there, just like everyone else.” James wipes the sweat from his forehead with the back of his other hand and tucks his chin in to stare down his body at the useless legs encased in their exoskeleton shell. “Pepper, you know what, I’ll speak to you later, okay?”

“Sure.”

She hangs up and James tosses his phone back in his gym bag. He’s no Hawkeye, but it drops in no problem. He’s still got arms.

“You worried about going back out? In the armour?” Bucky clarifies from one of the treadmills.

James didn’t even hear him come in. He does a sit up so that he’s not having this conversation lying down like some kind of invalid.

“I already did that,” he says.

“You were needed. It’s not the same.”

Bucky turns the speed up higher on his machine and James gets the message, that he can stop talking now if he wants. That’s one of Sam’s tricks.

“I’ve flown a lot and I’ve always known it might be my last time. Nothing’s changed.” James breathes in, once, twice. Out. “Never had to worry about not being able to do the job before though.”

Bucky just runs for a few minutes, no sound but the thud of his gym shoes, before he says, “This time, this arm I have. It’s removable.”

“What, all of it?” James asks.

“The shoulder socket’s permanent, but the rest, yeah.”

James stretches his arms while he thinks about that.

“So, what, sometimes you just take it off?”

“Yeah,” Bucky replies on an exhale.

“How’s that work out for you?”

“Balance issues,” he says, fitting the words to the rhythm of his run. “And buttonhooks.”

“Buttonhooks,” James repeats.

“Best or worst invention ever, jury’s out.”

James looks down at his legs again. “Sometimes,” he confesses, “they’re just…heavy.”

“So sometimes take them off.”

 

“Wait, all that time you spent in Tony’s workshop when he was sorting your arm,” says James, mopping up the sweat on his arms and neck with a towel. “You never told him it was removable and you didn’t have to be there?”

Bucky, barely sweating at all the dick, feigns a dramatic, over the top realisation. “Huh. Must have slipped my mind.”

 

“Security breach,” Tony calls out during their impromptu movie night as Steve and Sam walk in with Scott and Carol following behind.

“Tony,” Steve says in greeting, still sounding worn out.

“Hey Steve,” says Barnes.

Steve’s answering, “Bucky,” has a whole lot of emotion behind it that Tony decides not to examine too closely, because he’s about had it with feelings lately, thanks all the same.

Bucky abandons the sofa and wraps his arms around his friend.

“Oh, well, if that’s how we’re playing it,” says Scott, walking over to where Hope has claimed an armchair.

She raises her eyebrows and asks, “So who’s kissing who this time?”

Scott’s answer is the deed itself, very thoroughly done.

“I feel like I should be taking notes,” says Tony. “Steve, you should definitely be taking notes.”

“You alright?” Steve asks Bucky, completely ignoring the tongue action going on.

“Had Hydra’s triggers magicked out of me, so I’m better, I guess.” He rolls his shoulders in a shrug. “It’s still there, what they did to me. But it’s mine now.”

“And that’s a new arm?”

“Wakandan and Stark collaboration.”

Barnes takes a step back and flexes his left arm, demonstrating.

“He needed an upgrade,” says Tony, even though Steve knows him too well by now and can probably guess it’s just Tony trying to fix things.

“Okay,” says Sam, “is no one going to mention the tree on his head? Because there’s a goddamn miniature tree growing out of his head. And it’s humming. Just to point that out.”

“It’s the Star Wars theme,” Barnes says helpfully, who does indeed have the baby alien tree perched on top of his head in one of its favourite non-pot places to be.

“I hate you, have I told you that recently?”

“I can see the tree, Sam,” says Steve, his face relaxing into a smile.

“Come on,” says Clint, “that’s not the weirdest friend any of us has brought home. At least two of us came with assassins.”

“I resemble that remark,” says Natasha sounding suspiciously cheerful.

“I didn’t bring it home,” Tony complains. “It was growing by the front door.”

“You people are weird,” Carol says, still standing by the entrance with her arms crossed and feet planted a shoulder width apart. “You know that right?”

“Problem, Captain?” Rhodey asks with a smirk.

“I have alien DNA, we just helped save the universe from a large blue guy who wanted to complete his shiny rock collection, and now here’s a singing tree. Sitting on a guy’s head. Whole new brand of crazy, Rhodes.”

Rhodey grins the grin of someone who has come to accept the craziness of living with the Avengers, who kind of missed it when things went quiet, and who now gets to introduce it to a friend, and replies, “Beer’s in the fridge.”

 

“Wow,” says Scott, “what a lovely building that I have certainly never been to before.”

Steve gets that furrowed brow that means he knows he’s missing something.

Sam sighs. “You can shut up now.”

 

The room – his room – is exactly as Steve left it. Military neat, not just because old habits (and the yelling of Drill Sergeants) die hard, but because Sarah Rogers taught her son about taking pride in looking after your home.

Only there’s no dust. There should be, unless someone’s been in here and then they’d be places where the dust was disturbed. But there’s no dust and – when he leans in to check – the bedding smalls freshly laundered. Which means that Tony’s had the cleaners in. It’s a nice gesture, that he thought to do that, even if it’s not the same as the personal touch (and even though it could be seen as a breach of privacy, but Tony doesn’t think like that Steve’s learning).

And on the bed, almost precisely in the centre, is something familiar that he didn’t really expect to see again. Repainted and polished so that it shines like new.

He hears someone coming down the corridor and turns in time to see Tony reach the doorway, dressed for a day in the workshop with a small plant pot tucked under his arm. Inside the baby tree appears to be asleep.

“You left a bunch of your stuff here,” Tony says, not meeting his eyes and lounging against the open door in a pose of studied casualness. “I’ve got no use for it.”

“Thank you, Tony.”

Tony’s eyes rove over the room, looking everywhere but at Steve. He rubs the back of his head with his free hand and then winces, and Steve sighs because that probably means that arm should be in a sling.

“How’s Peter?” he asks, deliberately changing the conversation.

“Yeah, he’s good. He comes over every so often and we feed him. Kid’s a bottomless pit.”

Steve grins.

“So. Apparently Natasha’s getting a teambuilding thing going in the training centre,” Tony says, adjusting his grip on the plant pot. “Want to come and see how truly awful and out of practise we’ve all become?”

“Was it some other team who just saved the universe?” Steve asks mildly as he follows Tony out and then speeds up a little until he can walk alongside him.

“Well, we had help.” Tony finally catches his eye, face solemn. “And you know it’s not done, right?

“It never is,” Steve says, and it’s a relief to be on the same page but he also mourns a little for the Tony of the original Avengers who thought they could ‘win the war and go home’.

 

The scene inside the training room is an organised chaos that, after Steve studies it for a moment, resolves into capture the flag.

Natasha, armed with water pistols, is in the thick of it with Hope and her martial arts skills backing her up. Wanda and Vision are standing near their team’s flag and attacking with water balloons from a distance – and there’s definitely some powers use going on there to make those balloons travel as far as they do before splashing down, which is technically against the no powers, just-for-fun game rules, but no seems to care. Meanwhile Clint is sitting on the upper walkway – apparently tied to the railing in case he forgets about his injuries and tries to join in – firing Nerf arrows into the mess below with great enjoyment.

The other team of Rhodes, Carol, Sam, Bucky, and Scott might at first glace appear to have the advantage, being primarily hand-to-hand combatants or ex-military and none of them injured. But Scott is lying flat out on the floor looking dazed – Steve suspects Hope is to blame for that one – Sam appears to prefer hitting Bucky with his Super Soaker rather than anyone he’s supposed to be aiming at, meaning Bucky is under fire from all sides, and Rhodes has elected to stand out of the way and guard their flag, shaking his head at the lot of them.

“Damn, I chose the wrong side,” Carol shouts before charging Wanda and Vision and getting drenched before she even gets halfway.

“Feel free to defect,” says Natasha, laughing at the outraged cries that provokes from Carol’s team.

At which point a familiar red and blue blur swings past, plucking both flags from where they’re strung up, and landing neatly next to Tony and Steve.

“This is a no powers practise,” Steve says in his Captain America voice. “That wasn’t fair.”

“Um,” Peter looks over at Wanda and Vision, who are outright manipulating the water now without the use of balloons or containers, and then back at Steve. “Okay,” he says slowly and holds up the flags. “You want me to put them back?”

“No surrender,” Scott screams, clambering to his feet, and Clint lands a Nerf arrow right in his mouth.

Bucky steals one of Natasha’s water pistols and promptly turns it on Sam. Carol appears to be doing the breaststroke in a giant bubble of water eight metres above the ground. And Natasha and Hope are turning their attentions on Rhodes.

“Nah,” says Tony, slinging an arm around the teenager’s shoulders. “I think we’re good.”

In the pot under his other arm the probably alien baby tree happily squeaks out three words, inaudible under the din.

 

“I’m just thinking,” says Rocket, disassembling his latest acquisition and laying out the pieces on the floor in the ship’s cargo hold. “Not that I want to make any speciest assumptions here or anything, but that little tree does look a lot like a little Groot.”

“I am Groot,” is the proud response.

“He’s yours?” Rocket slaps a palm over his eyes and groans. “Whad’ya mean he’s yours?”

Groot beams, bright as a three-sun sunrise.

“What, like an offshoot, or you pollenated, or – No, y’know what, I don’t wanna know.” He goes back to neatly organising his components. “Still,” he mutters. “If he’s yours. Why’d you give him away for?”

“I am Groot,” his friend says seriously. “I am Groot. I am Groot.”

“But you did alright up here, didn’t you? You had soil in your pot and we have the UV lamps and we land pretty often.” Rocket rubs his hands on his shins, abruptly worried that maybe he did something wrong when Groot was regrowing.

“I am Groot,” Groot says softly and tucks a small, yellow flower behind Rocket’s ear.

“Yeah, I guess. New Groots need the good stuff, huh?” He snorts. “The Avengers though?”

“I am Groot.”

 

Matías is in the middle of planting some colourful flowers around the border of the residential facility to brighten things up when he turns back to his wheelbarrow of compost and finds a small tree sat on top, roots wriggling gleefully in the compost, little face tilted up to the sun and smiling. It looks so happy to be where it is that Matías hasn’t the heart to move it.

He doesn’t want to damage it though, and it’s getting big enough that there’s not much of the barrow’s contents he’d easily be able to access without maybe hitting a root.

It’s okay though, he can take a break. He can take his time.

“Found yourself a good spot there then, have you?” he says, amused, as he sits down in the grass and tilts his own face towards the sun. “Well okay then.”