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"This is an all-encompassing no. It means a refusal and it also means that I don't want to hear an explanation that you believe will sway me from said refusal." Tony crosses his arms, gives Pepper a narrow-eyed look and she looks unimpressed with him, which is pretty par for the course if he's going to be honest.

"So we should just get to the part where I ignore you and let you know that you have no choice?" Pepper asks archly.

"I'm not sure I like it when you point out to me that my free will is an illusion," Tony grumbles. "Okay, fine. Why are there a bunch of Avengers in my foyer with bags?"

"Director Fury and by extension Phil, have gotten worried about the level of bickering between you guys when on task. They think if you live in closer proximity, it might mean that petty squabbles get resolved before you hit the battlefield." Pepper pulls a cute little face when she says battle field, like she can't believe this is her life.

"There's already proximity," Tony protests. "They're all in my tower."

"They each have a floor, and these days you're always here. If Mohammed won't come to the mountain-"

"Ugh, don't," Tony grunts. Natasha is glaring at him like she can hear what they're saying which he's pretty sure she can. She leans over and whispers something to Clint, who then glares at him too. Fantastic. There's a woman standing off to the side of the group that Tony didn't notice at first. She's wearing a beige suit so it's no wonder he looked right over her. "Who's that?"

"That's your therapist," Pepper says.

"I already have one."

"Your team therapist," she corrects. "She works with a number of SHIELD units, helps keep them harmonious."

"Are you serious?" Tony says, gaping a little. The woman is holding a bag that's got a smiling sun on it and Tony's instincts tell him to fear it, to fear whatever is inside the happy little bag.

Steve approaches, because he's always the person that does. "Are you just going to make us stand in the hallway all day or what?" he asks, because Steve is also a lot ruder than people think when he's not playing nice for the cameras. It's actually something Tony secretly likes about the guy. Strip away the toothpaste smile and waving hand for the crowds and Steve is a bit of a surly old man, which is kinda appropriate.

"Pick a wing, go nuts," Tony says, flailing a hand.

"Excuse me," Beige woman says. She's stealthy like Natasha, Tony didn't even see her approach. "I think the issue with the tower was that you were so spread out. It defeats the purpose of the move if you continue to do so."

"Are you suggesting I get a bunch of bunk beds in here and squeeze us all into one room?" Tony scoffs and the woman just looks at him. "No, wait-"

"Of course not," the woman says, and Tony is able to be relieved for a whole ten seconds before she says, "Miss Romanov will be allowed to stay in an adjoining room."


"Miss Potts," the woman says, turning to Pepper and completely dismissing Tony's presence. He's kind of used to that, but she's also ignoring Steve which people just don't do. "Are you able to instruct the household AI to close off sections of the mansion?"

"Sure," Pepper says, looking far too pleased by the prospect.

"No, she can't," Tony interrupts.

"I can actually. I have the override code."

"That's for emergencies. This isn't an emergency."

"It's an emergency of unity," the woman says and what?

"Look, lady-"

"Doctor Barrow."

"Seriously? You want to go with that?"

"It's my name," she says, nonplussed.

"Okay, Doc-"

"-tor Barrow," she insists and Tony flails his hands.

"Whatever. You can't force us to-"

"I can, actually," Doctor Barrow interrupts. "You're all currently suspended and I’ll need to sign off on you before it’s lifted."

Natasha confirms Tony's suspicions of super-hearing by rushing over. "What?" She looks murderous and generally that would give a person pause, but Doctor Barrow just digs a manila folder out of a beaten-up briefcase she has at her feet and holds it out. "I am to observe, take you through exercises and then monitor any restricted active duty when I deem it is time to road test what you've learned. You will be functioning in a reduced capacity until I complete these final evaluations."

"I've never needed anyone's sign off to take the suit out."

"That might well be true, but the longer you resist the process, the longer your fellow team mates who are not so unhampered will be reduced to sitting, what's the phrase? Cooling their heels."

Natasha's murderous gaze swings Tony's way. "Embrace the process," she growls through her teeth.

Tony looks around the loose circle that's formed. Natasha and Clint look severely pissed. They have the best reason because they really are reliant on SHIELD for what they do. Tony knows Bruce would be happy hiding himself in a lab somewhere and not worrying about being an Avenger but it's important to their two resident super spies and, by the looks of him, Steve as well.

“Why does Thor get out of this?” he asks. The large Asgardian is conspicuous in his absence.

"Yeah, exactly how did big n' tall get out of this?" Clint asks.

"He's... indisposed," Doctor Barrow says and for a moment her whole face twitches. Tony squeezes his eyes shut, digs his thumbs into the sockets.

"You okay?" Bruce asks, leaning into him.

"Yeah, I..." Tony opens his eyes and Doctor Barrow looks normal and serene. Tony hates that some of his nightmares are leaking into his waking hours. For a moment Doctor Barrow had looked a little alien but Tony figures that when you don't sleep and you've only recently ridden a nuclear device into another dimension, you're prone to seeing things. "I'm good," he assures Bruce, patting him on the knee.

Bruce looks unconvinced, but he drops it.

"Fine," Tony huffs. "I call top bunk though."


They're kept out of one of the larger bedrooms for most of the day as Pepper sees about having Jarvis close down parts of the mansion and Doctor Barrow sets about refitting it to become the doom room from hell. With the restrictions, they're left with just the central kitchen, one bathroom, the larger bedroom that is currently being fitted with bunk beds and Natasha's bedroom which is a smaller adjoining room to that, plus the sunken living room. The workshop is available to Tony, but only at set hours of the day and only if he asks for permission and that almost makes him call the whole thing off.

Natasha giving him death glares makes him agree, albeit grudgingly.

He designed Jarvis so it won't take long to override the restrictions anyway.

They’re called into the living room, but given their lack of options, most of them were already in there. Tony can see everyone coping, or not coping, in different ways. Bruce is a little edgy, Natasha quietly seething and Clint looks about ready to start literally climbing the walls, possibly the furniture too. The only one that looks relaxed about the whole thing is Steve.

The happy little bag is back in Doctor Barrow’s hand when she appears. She’s got a professional smile on as she sets the bag down. She nods when she sees everyone has clustered together instead of being spread out but Tony sees it as them all having a common enemy rather than any real progress towards bonding.

She sits, digs into the bag and starts taking out small boxes. “No way!” Clint says, darting forward with his hands out. At Barrow’s arch look, he backs up though, tucking his arms in close to his body defensively. Tony’s puzzled about Clint’s initial enthusiasm until Barrow starts turning the small boxes around and he can see what’s in them.

“Action figures?” Tony says, incredulous. He tries to make like he’s unimpressed but secretly he wants to snatch the Iron Man figure and run away with it. It’s unbelievably cool to have an action figure of himself and he hadn’t known they were even in the works. “Wait, oh my God, is that a Coulson doll?”

“It’s just a prototype line. Only the more recognizable figures will be released to the market. The public relations department thought including an agent in the line to be gifted to staff would be good for morale.” Barrow picks up each of the figures, excluding Thor and Coulson, and hands them out to the corresponding people.

Tony doesn’t want to lose points by ripping into his packaging immediately, but apparently Clint and Natasha have no such compunction. It’s maybe thirty seconds before Natasha is using a knife she produces from lord knows where to cut through the annoying wire ties to free her small doppelganger from her plastic and cardboard imprisonment. She and Clint immediately start a kind of sword fight with their figures and within a few minutes Natasha’s figure has Clint’s bow and arrows.

Tony steals a glance at Steve and sees him just turning the box over in his hands, then reading the back with a very studious frown. “Can I see yours?” Tony asks and Steve looks up at him, seemingly surprised before he hands his box over. Tony trades and Steve offers a small smile when he’s trusted with handling Iron Man.

Bruce has put his down on the floor and isn’t looking at it. Tony got a glimpse of it as it was being passed over and it was big, green and angry looking. Tony supposes that was necessary since a figure of Bruce in a rumpled suit and glasses probably wouldn’t sell well, but he can understand Bruce’s discomfort.

Barrow is watching them and Tony figures it’s some kind of test. She writes something when Tony and Steve trade, when Natasha steals Clint’s weapons and the way Bruce looks like he wants to nudge his figure away with his foot, or possibly crush it underneath.

“Communication is very important in a team,” Barrows says. “You don’t always have the opportunity to communicate verbally though. While you are in possession of your figures, you are allowed to speak, but I will take them away at random times and you will need to find another way to communicate with your team members.”

“What’s to stop us talking when you’re not around?” Bruce asks. Tony throws a glance at him over his shoulder and Bruce is looking more than a little pissed. Bruce loses most of his ability to verbalize when he’s the other guy and Tony can imagine that someone revoking his speaking privileges when he’s regular, family-friendly sized Bruce is crossing a line.

“Mr. Stark’s mansion is a good location for this exercise because the areas you’ve been restricted to are monitored. You can talk if you wish but any breach will mean I am in your lives longer. I don’t think any of you want that.”

Bruce pulls a face but subsides.


“This isn’t so bad, right?” Steve says, unloading his duffel onto his bed. He’s taken the lower bunk to Clint’s upper while Tony is above Bruce. The door between their temporary bedroom and Natasha’s is currently open and Clint is lounging on Natasha’s bed while Natasha has stolen his, hanging half off the bunk with her red hair a curtain that Steve has to brush aside as he busies himself remaking his bed to his old codger satisfaction. “Reminds me of when I and the boys-”

“Gawd, spare us the ol’ war stories Captain Rogers,” Tony groans. He’s lying face down on his own bed, wondering if maybe he can stay there until this is all over. He’ll attend whatever torture disguised as therapy Barrow has in store for them but other than that, he’s going to hibernate until the end. He’ll make a blanket fort and use his Stark pad to order food in.

It’ll be brilliant.

“Sorry for trying to share,” Steve grumbles. “Natasha, do you really need to do that?” Tony lifts his head enough that he can see Natasha is pummeling Steve lightly on the back while he’s curled over straightening his blanket. Tony figures he won’t be happy until he can bounce a coin off it or whatever.

“It’s more of a want,” Natasha muses. A small, decorative pillow sails out of Natasha’s room and beans her on the back of the head. Tony’s amazed Clint was able to throw a pillow in a curve. The guy’s unnatural. Natasha squawks in outrage, flips off the top bunk and thumps into the adjoining room. There’s an oof and then the sounds of a fairly evenly matched tussle.

Steve stands for a moment, is watching through the doorway and looks almost... wistful.

“Go on then,” Tony sighs. “Reminds you of when you and the boys what?”

Steve looks at Tony, annoyed. “Don’t patronise me.”

“I’m not,” Tony says, throws his own pillow at Bruce which falls embarrassingly short when Bruce snorts.

“Look, I know you guys see me like Grandpa Simpson or something-”

“Did you just make a relevant pop culture reference?” Tony exclaims.

“See? Like that!”

“Tony,” Bruce sighs.

“What? I’m not doing anything.”

“What do you think we’re going to have to do to convince this woman that we’re a functioning team?” Clint calls out from the other room. He sounds a little strangled and Tony peels himself off his bed and crosses to the doorway to confirm that it’s because Natasha has him in a headlock, with her thighs.

He just loves her.

“Replace us with people who get along?” Bruce huffs.

“We get along,” Steve says, then slumps when everyone gives him incredulous stares. “Well, we have in the past. We just need to figure out what went wrong.”

“How about we make a deal, hm?” Tony says. “Do the therapy, play nice, get this Doctor and Fury out of our collective asses.”

“No arguing,” Steve says, levelling a finger at Tony.

“No arguing,” he agrees.

“No arguing!” Clint and Natasha call from her room.

“Bruce?” Steve prods.

“Fine, no arguing. Not that I do, with you guys. Just myself mostly.”


That particular resolution lasts a whole six hours, then there’s damage, bruised egos and Clint and Natasha not talking to each other.

They lose their speech privileges so it’s kind of moot anyway.

“I thought they were the ones that actually got along,” Bruce says as Natasha pointedly kicks closed the door between their rooms and Clint storms into the living area and there’s the sounds of him mercilessly killing things electronically.

“What can you say about scary, assassin siblings. They tend to throw down,” Tony says, then has to duck when Natasha’s door opens and a knife misses his head by a few inches. Natasha huffs and disappears again and Tony turns to yank the knife out of the wall and read the note that is attached to it. “We’re not related, you ass,” he reads.

“Think that counts as progress towards non-verbal communication?” Bruce says, not even looking up from his science journal.


“I understand we’ve had a shaky first day,” Doctor Barrow says.

They’re clustered in the living room for group talk therapy. Natasha and Clint had their figures handed back to them, but Clint’s has since gone missing and he’s seething. Tony doesn’t really want to get in the middle of whatever Clint and Natasha are arguing about so when the Hawkeye figure fell into his bowl when he poured himself Captain Crunch earlier, he just tossed Hawkeye back in the box, closed the lid and slid the box to the back of the cupboard.

“Big personalities, yada,” Tony says with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“Do you think that’s all this is?” Barrow asks him.

“Natasha and Clint are single spies, not battalions,” he says. “Bruce spent the last few years staying away from people altogether and it’s been well documented that I don’t play well with others.”

“What about Captain Rogers?”

“He’s right there. You can ask him.”

“I’m asking you,” Barrows says and Steve looks askance at Tony, obviously interested.

“He wants it to work. He wants it to work so badly that he’s trying too hard. We’re never going to be...” Tony swallows, pulls a face at Steve. “We’re never going to be them.”

“Do you really think that’s what I’m expecting?” Steve asks, looking surprised.

“I think you spent a long time with people you trusted who followed your orders without question. We’re a big disappointment.”

“You’re not-”

“I... we all see it on your face,” Tony says.

“I’m frustrated, that’s all,” Steve says. “You take chances. You all take chances and you risk not only your lives but the lives of everyone around you.”

“Here we go,” Tony grumbles.

“Just last week, if you’d stayed where you were supposed to, we wouldn’t-”

“Don’t start that,” Tony snaps. “I went where I was needed.”

“Your suit has limitations.”

“Don’t you mean I have limitations.”

“Of course you do.”

“Right, so-”

“Uh,” Clint interrupts. “I don’t remember signing up for couple’s therapy. Especially since I’m not part of the couple.”

“Specialist Barton is correct, we’re straying from our objective,” Barrow says. “Although I do think you would both benefit from some counselling separate from the team.”

“Finally,” Natasha says.

“Are we done for today? I think we’re done for today,” Tony says. “I think I’m due some workshop time.”

“Running away from-” Barrow starts to say but Tony just gives her a hard look and she must realize that pushing him more will only get him to bury down further into himself because she sighs and says, “Right, perhaps a break would be a good idea.”


Tony comes back to the dorm room, he can’t help but call it that in his mind, when everyone else is asleep. He’s as quiet as possible, but he thinks he wakes Steve because Steve makes a noise from his bed. Tony’s about to apologize when he notices that Steve’s eyes are closed, his fists clenched in his sheets and he’s sweat-slicked and frowning.

Tony crosses to him, uncurls one of Steve’s hands and sandwiches it with his own. He knows it’s probably stupid, that Steve might be someone that lashes out in his sleep, but at the gentle touch Steve blinks awake, looking confused before recognition sweeps over his face.

Or at least, Tony thought it was recognition but then Steve says, “Oh, hey Howard. Are you okay? I had the weirdest dream and you... you were...”

Tony doesn’t know why, can’t really explain it to himself later, but instead of correcting Steve, he just pries one of his hands free to smooth the hair back from Steve’s temple, says, “Sure, pal. I’m alright. You can rest.”

Steve’s brow smooths out, the traces of the nightmare slipping away from his features and then he’s rolling over, his body relaxing back into sleep.


“You lost Iron Man?” Clint asks when he sits down next to Tony the next morning who is trying to drown himself in his own coffee mug. Barrow had appeared like a scary ninja and had pilfered his action figure before he’d had his first coffee of the day which was playing dirty so far as Tony’s concerned.

Tony pulls his Stark phone out of the pocket of his robe, brings up the voice simulation app and types quickly. You found Hawkeye? his phone says in an annoyingly chirpy girl’s voice and Tony quickly pulls up the voice options as Clint hoots with laughter. Tony grins when he finds a suitable replacement voice. Don’t laugh, fool.

“Mr T? Really?” Clint says, grinning.

What’s it to you, sucka?

“That’s actually kind of appropriate,” Bruce says, slumping into the chair next to Tony. “A-Team, Avengers.”

Clint groans as Natasha emerges from her room, dressed in an Elmo t-shirt and daring anyone to say anything about it with a raised eyebrow. “I think he’s more Murdoch than Mr T.”

I’m totally Face, sucka

“Steve is Face,” Clint disagrees. “If we ever had to go undercover he could woo all the ladies with those baby blues, probably most of the men too.”

“Am I supposed to understand this conversation?” Steve asks. Tony silently appreciates the soft, sleep-rumpled Steve Rogers. Barrow might have been onto something because even though they did all live in the tower, Tony’s never gotten to see Steve with bed-head and that might give him pause the next time he feels the urge to needle Steve about being an uptight jerk.

“I think an A-Team viewing is in order,” Clint says, clapping his hands and rubbing them together.

“Can we watch the new one?” Natasha asks.

“Ugh, heathen,” Clint grunts and Tony’s pleasantly surprised to note that at some point over the last day they’d worked out whatever they had been arguing about. Natasha had given up the location of the Hawkeye doll and had even allowed him to hide her Black Widow and then bet fifty dollars on her finding it within an hour.

She found it in six minutes flat and Clint had looked hilariously outraged.

“I don’t care, as long as I get to understand whether I should be offended or not,” Steve says.


“What is it about bad guys and giant robotic stuff?” Tony asks into comms. It had been all well and good to put the Avengers on stand-down, but there really were certain occasions that required their special kind of skills, and a giant, robotic squid with lasers at the end of each tentacle warranted temporarily breaking them out of lockdown.

“Apparently they feel the need to compensate for something,” Natasha says. She’s on the ground with Steve, herding civilians while Tony drops Clint high enough to be useful and Bruce paces below, waiting to see if they’re going to need him.

The giant robot squid is currently oozing its way up the side of an office building, pausing every now and again to punch through a window and feel around inside. The building was evacuated by a SHIELD ground crew but the squid doesn’t seem to know that and is checking for itself.

“How many therapy points do you think it’ll be worth if we do this without bickering?” Tony ponders and he hears Steve huff in the comms, an impatient noise.

“How about we don’t worry about that right now and instead concentrate on the matter at hand?”

“Cap, that sounds a little argumentative,” Tony scolds. “Remember our deal.”

“If you wouldn’t intentionally bait me-”

“Iron Man, watch-!” Clint starts to say and that’s when the squid flicks out a tentacle which is longer than it should have been, extendable tentacles, how is that at all fair, and grabs Tony by the ankle. He stops, too suddenly to keep a grip on Clint and Clint gets flung outwards. Tony hears Bruce swear down below and then there’s a streak of green hurtling upwards, snatching Clint out of the air and depositing him on a lower roof.

“Thanks,” Tony says, but the squid still has a grip on him and then he’s being whipped around and slammed against the side of the building. The impact jars his whole body and scrambles his systems for a second. If Jarvis were able to sound panicked, he probably would be right now but instead he’s calm as always as he announces damage.

“Iron Man, status!” Steve barks.

“Rung my bell a little,” Tony says, ignores Jarvis trying to correct that assessment. “All good otherwise.” The squid let him go when it body slammed him and Tony punches inwards, manages to get the rest of the way through the wall he’d been smacked against and skids along the office floor into a filing cabinet. “Ow.”

The squid doesn’t seem to be done with him, is oozing through the hole he made in that weird way that real squids do, impossibly large creature squeezing into a space it shouldn't fit and Tony might just have nightmares about this one. He gets up, shoots repulsors at the thing but his targeting system is off and the shot goes wide. The squid slinks over him, wraps around and Tony is suddenly reminded of those youtube videos he saw of octopi opening jars, doesn’t particularly want to find out if this thing can separate his head from his body in the same fashion.

“Iron Man, can you divert power to shields?” Clint calls and Tony knows what that means, that Clint has a shot and means to take it, possibly with something explosive.

“Go for it,” Tony says.

“Sir, I’d advise against-” Jarvis starts to protest.

“Hawkeye, if you have a shot-”

“That’s not your call, Iron Man,” Steve interrupts.

“It’s my call when I have a tentacle wrapped around my head, Cap!” Tony yells, impatient.

"Can you divert power to shields, because Jarvis is telling me that you currently can't."

"Traitor!" Tony yells, incensed and Jarvis sounds blithely unaffected as he continues to list damage and recommendations against concussive force being directed in Tony's immediate vicinity. "Hawkeye, you shoot this damn thing now because it's getting ready to take my helmet off with my head still in it."

"Clint, don't-" Steve starts to protest, but there must be something in Tony's voice that tells Clint how dire his circumstances are becoming, he can actually feel his neck creaking, because there's a muffled whump and then Tony's thrown clear of the squid-bot although not the tentacle wrapped around him still.

Tony sits up slowly, and a few seconds must have passed because the suit has opened up around him like a flower and Steve is leaning over him, anger and concern both plain on his features. "-ony!" Steve's voice snaps in like a tuned radio and Tony winces.

"I'm fine," he huffs, waves Steve off when he tries to make him stay still and pulls himself gently out of the suit. He looks down at it with a groan, because it's not simply a case of banging the dings out this time. He might have to do a total overhaul. Parts of it are crushed and the helmet is misshapen to a degree that Tony's surprised his head isn't pudding.

Clint appears in the smashed in window, skidding to a halt and Tony's pretty sure that the Hulk just threw him up onto the floor with him. That suspicion is confirmed when Clint leans back out the window and yells, "Thanks, big guy!"

There's a cheerful sounding roar from down below. Hulk is never happier than when he gets to chuck one of them somewhere. Tony suspects Clint lets him do it even when it's not necessary just to please him.

"Hey, everyone alive?" Clint asks, coming over and probably noting the way Steve is silently fuming and Tony's kicking at his suit disconsolately.

"I would appreciate it if you wouldn't take orders from the member of the team known for self-sacrificing bull---," Steve grates and Clint frowns at him.

"Who would that be?" he asks and Tony mutters touche which makes Steve glare at him harder.

Coulson appears, not through the window but one of the doors leading into the open-plan office they're currently standing in and raises an eyebrow at them. "So, couldn't pretend to get along for even one op, huh?"

"Don't you start," Steve says, levelling a finger at Coulson, who holds up his hands.


"Either I have a concussion or there's a seven foot green woman with rows of piranha-like teeth standing in my living room," Tony says.

"That's Doctor Barrow," Bruce says from beside him, clutching the blanket he's wrapped in closer around himself.

"Ah, head injury it is then," Tony sighs, tries not to flinch away when the monster-version of Doctor Barrow approaches him. Bruce looks completely unconcerned so Tony pastes on a smile and when Doctor Barrow reaches him and touches a hand to his shoulder, she snaps back into being a small woman in a boring suit. "Okay, better."

"Medical?" Bruce suggests.

"I'll have Jarvis monitor me in the workshop," Tony says, then hesitates. "That is, if I'm allowed a little me time?"

"I think that would be fine," Doctor Barrow agrees. "Director Fury wanted me to remind you about the Fundraiser tonight though. The whole team is expected."

"I thought we were benched," Tony says, complaint thick in his tone.

"From missions, yes. Not from your PR duties. I know the team's feelings about them and removing them from your schedule would not be a motivating punishment but would be the opposite, hmm?"

"Alright," Tony grumbles.

Jarvis gives Tony a two hour warning because he knows it will take Tony an hour to pull his head out of whatever he's doing. Tony wanders back up to his room, huffs at the suit already laid out for him and wonders what kind elf did that. He showers, dresses quickly and then tucks the Iron Man figure in his top pocket in lieu of a pocket square on his jacket.

"That's a little gauche," Steve remarks when Tony emerges to the others waiting for him in the living room. Natasha looks devastating in a red dress with a high slit, Bruce looks uncomfortable and Clint looks like he'd rather be anywhere else than forced into a tie. Steve is infuriatingly debonair as usual and Tony knows exactly what he needs to complete the look.

Steve slaps at Tony when he digs into Steve's jacket, but Tony won't be swayed. He yanks the Captain America from Steve's inside pocket, then secures it the same way as his. He turns and smiles when Clint and then Bruce do the same.

"Where's yours?" Tony asks Natasha.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" she replies, raising an eyebrow.

"You have an action figure thigh holster?" Tony guesses and Natasha smirks, pushes the slit in her dress sideways enough that they can see the tops of her bare legs. "Interesting," he laughs.


They tend to cluster together when they're in public. Steve is gracious but anyone who knows him can see that he's uncomfortable with the attention, you have to keep an eye on Clint and Natasha to make sure they don't disappear into thin air and you have to keep an eye on Bruce, period.

Steve is the leader on the battlefield, but Tony's the one trusted to be on point when their opponents are the rich and famous.

"Twenty thousand a plate," Clint huffs, knocking into Tony's shoulder. "Better be damn gold filigree and you get to take it home."

"You're not paying," Tony points out. "In fact, the twenty large is for your esteemed company."

"My ass," Clint snorts and Tony smiles at him.

"Any marriage proposals tonight?" Bruce asks from Tony's other side, obviously trying to spot Steve through the crowd. They made a deal where they were all allowed to start drinking when Steve received his first proposal for the night and it never takes long. Women, and quite a few men see that forties hair cut and aw gosh smile and fling themselves in Steve's direction. If only they knew what a delightfully grumpy old man he was.

"Speaking of which, bugle," Clint says with a nudge to Tony's ribs.

Tony immediately cranes around. Bugle is their code word for Steve being propositioned. It happens enough that they need a code word which will always be hilarious to Tony, not that it happens but that Steve needs rescuing because he's too polite to get out of the situations himself without some serious embarrassment.

Tony finally spots the evening's lion to Steve's gazelle. The woman has short black hair, a sparkly red dress and Steve pinned against a wall. She has a hand resting on his chest and is leaning into him, not noticing that he's well and truly leaning away, as much as the wall at his back will allow.

"Maybe he..." Tony starts to say, because he has to admit that it's pretty presumptuous of them to think that Steve never wants to be left alone in these situations.

"C'mon, man, he's thrown panicked glances this way eight times already," Clint says. "He might as well have help me written on his forehead."

"Why am I always on salvage duty?" Tony grumbles and Clint claps him on the shoulder, a little too hard which makes Tony stumble and scowl.

"Because you can pry Steve out from under these socialites without insulting anyone. Do you really want me to go over there?"

"No," Tony relents, eels his way through the press of people, expertly dodging numerous attempts to get his attention. Tony can traverse a crowd untouched like no one's business, thinks maybe he should start teaching lessons to his more socially awkward compatriots. Tony tries not to be too amused that Clint was set upon by a group of over enthusiastic young ladies and men as soon as he'd cleared the area.

He fetches up against Steve, jostling him a little and managing to dislodge the woman's hand. She looks surprised and Steve's face is open with relief before he shuts it down, pasting the cool professional soldier expression over the top.

"Sweetheart, I'm a little..." Tony makes a show of breathing wetly against Steve and leaning on him, playing the drunk card which is always the quickest escape route out of awkward social situations.

"Oh god, Tony, really?" Steve huffs, sounding exasperated but also the tiniest bit fond which Tony blinks at.

"I think I need some air. Would you mind escorting me so I don't land on my face in the middle of the punch?"

"Fine," Steve says and the woman gives him a look that says she could just eat him alive, but she's also stepping back, giving them some room so Tony counts it as a win. Steve gets a firm shoulder under Tony and guides him toward balcony doors. Tony plays up stumbling and gripping at Steve. "Honestly," he grits out as they break into the cool air of the evening, the balcony thankfully deserted.

Steve props Tony up against the stone railing and Tony smirks at him, pulls himself upright and adjusts his tie with a little flourish. "And the Academy Award goes to," Tony says, taking a little bow.

"Ugh, why?" Steve groans, smacking a hand over his face.

"I wasn't willing to watch that woman climb you like a tree. My delicate sensibilities couldn't handle it."

"I didn't need rescuing," Steve says.

"Your words say no, but your eyes screamed save me, Tony, you big strong man, you."

"You're impossible."

"You love it," Tony says, turns when Steve is completely silent. He's blushing and staring at his feet when Tony does and he opens his mouth but that's when Natasha pushes open the doors, glaring at them so hard Tony's surprised they don't both immediately combust on the spot.

"Oh no, you're not getting away with hiding out here and leaving Clint, Bruce and I to the sharks," she says, crooking a finger at the both of them. "I swear Bruce is starting to look a little green behind his ears if you know what I mean."

"If you cared for me at all, you'd distract her while I made a run for it," Tony whines but instead of answering, Steve just hooks an arm around Tony's neck and tows him back inside.


Steve sits down opposite Tony and frowns at the kitchen table. He's clutching a Stark Industries coffee mug and looking a little bleary. "Why have you got everyone's toys?"

Tony looks down at the array of action figures in front of him. "I felt bad about Coulson and Thor still stuck in their boxes so I got them out. Then it just looked weird with only the three of us. Bruce is working and Clint and Natasha are sparring so they left their figures here.

"You're... playing with them?"

"I'm making battle configurations," Tony denies and Steve raises an eyebrow.

"I don't remember there being a battle that requires Hulk holding a cocktail umbrella and I'm pretty sure Natasha can't lift Mjolnir or that a cookie makes a very good shield."

"Well, I didn't have yours on hand. I had to improvise."

"Why is Clint in your martini glass?"

"Under vodka surveillance?" Tony tries. "He's secretly a giant lush?"

Steve surprises Tony by digging his Captain America out of his pocket and setting him on the table next to Iron Man. Tony immediately pilfers the shield and tucks it under Coulson's arm and then takes a picture. "I'm sending this to the real Coulson. We'll be able to feel his nerdgasm from here."

Steve laughs, stealing a cookie from the plate set in front of Tony. Sometimes, when Clint's having a bad night, he'll get up and bake. Tony had heard he and Natasha at about four in the morning when he'd been stumbling blearily back from the workshop and had steered clear, not wanting to intrude on the gentle sounds of their voices or Clint moving about the kitchen.

"What are you doing?" Steve asks, when Tony picks up Captain America, raises one of his arms and sets him down again, doing the same to Iron Man.

"I'm making you high five me. The real you always leaves me hanging."

"It's just a weird thing to do," Steve says.

"Ugh, I just figured the high five was something that was always around."

"Nah, I looked it up. Started in the seventies apparently. Missed me by three decades."

"You looked it up? You're so weird."

"Just imagine," Steve says, picking up Thor and mussing his hair. "That you go to sleep one day and wake up the next and the world has completely changed on you. Technology has advanced, but not in the way your movies, books and comics told you it would, people sometimes sound like they're talking a completely different language and everyone you've ever known..."

"Steve, I didn't mean anything by that. Sometimes I just say things."

"I know," Steve sighs.

They both move the figures around for a few moments and eat cookies, then Tony interrupts the silence when it starts to get uncomfortable by saying, "I think I know why."

"Why what?"

"Why we stopped working. You said it yourself, everyone you've ever known is gone. We're an entire team made up of people with abandonment issues and we're used to everything we care about disappearing. What if this started to work, like, really work? It'd only be a matter of time before we lost this too."

"Tony, I don't..." Steve starts to say, but then his expression softens and he rubs a thumb over his brow. "You think we're all afraid to care about this?"

"I know we are. I think we're fucking terrified."

They look at each for a few heavy beats, then Steve says, "Don't swear."

"Oh my God, you swear all the time. Don't think I haven't heard you."

They're laughing when Bruce appears, holding a sheaf of papers.


"Where is Thor?" Clint asks. They're gathered in the living room, trying to pick a movie. Thor is usually the one that resolves the arguments by making them all do a short re-enactment of what they want to see and then choosing based on their descriptions since he has no frame of reference and therefore no real bias.

"Off site," Bruce says, not looking up from his book. He rarely picks something and Tony suspects it's so that when he does he automatically wins. Bruce is completely devious.

"He probably heard about the stand-down and is staying clear till we're done," Tony says, but as he does, he thinks about that. They're supposed to be a team, and while Thor is definitely unique, he also needs to work in conjunction with them. It seems a little odd that the ambush therapy didn't happen when he was with them only the week before.

"We were getting the job done. The only person suffering because of our bickering was Phil on comms," Clint grumbles. "Why does the Director care so much if we're all a big, happy family."

"It has been endangering missions that we're out of step," Steve says and while that's true, it's more than a little odd that Fury would go to such lengths, especially installing a SHIELD therapist with them.

Tony's twirling his Iron Man in his fingers and he frowns at it, holds it up and says, "Jarvis, do me a solid and analyse this would you?"

"Tony, what-?" Steve starts to say.

"I am unable, Sir," Jarvis says smoothly.

Tony frowns. "Clarify... unable?"

"I cannot carry out that command. Would you like me to run a self-diagnostic?" Jarvis asks as the others bring out their own action figures and look at them dubiously.

"Tony?" Natasha says, one eyebrow raised. Tony taps at his chin, then stands.

"Jarvis, please revoke Doctor Barrow's access privileges to the mansion."

"I have no one of that name recorded, sir."

"What?" Steve says, also standing, squeezing his Captain America in a fist.

"Someone punch me," Tony says.

"Awesome," Clint crows, getting up immediately but Steve gives him a stern look and he subsides, looking disappointed.

"Tony, what are you thinking?" Steve asks instead.

"I'm thinking that I got clocked pretty good fighting that giant robot squid monster and even though Jarvis scanned me and I didn't show any sign of concussion, I still saw Doctor Barrow as a nasty green monster when I got back here until she touched me. Then she looked normal again."

"Tony, you can't think-" Natasha starts to say but Tony glances at her and she pulls a face, obviously remembering how they rescued Clint from Loki’s mental hold.

"What was it called? Cerebral recalibration?"

"I'll hit you," Bruce volunteers and when Tony looks hurt for a second, Bruce just shrugs. "I'm the only one that won't enjoy it."

"I wouldn't enjoy hitting Tony," Steve grumbles.

"No, you just might accidentally punch my head off," Tony snorts. Steve looks like he's going to argue for a second, but then he pulls a fair enough face.

"We need a control," Natasha says. "Someone without a long history of alcoholism and head injuries." She turns, puts herself in front of Clint and he cracks his knuckles.

"This is just not right," Steve groans as Clint catches Natasha with a solid left hook. She rolls with it, shakes her head a little then thumbs the blood off the corner of her mouth. She looks at Bruce pointedly and he grimaces, but then approaches Tony.

"Try not to-" Tony starts to say and that's when Bruce punches him.


"It's deep in the code," Tony says. Steve is standing behind him, looking interested even though there's no chance he knows what he's looking at. Tony doesn't mind explaining to Steve because he's always been a good sounding board. He might not understand most of what Tony's saying, but he always manages to ask pertinent questions anyway.

"Only you can do that?"

"Yes," Tony says. "Although why would I? I basically gave Doctor Barrow free reign and blocked any attempts to scan her or the toys."

"Fury brought her in. She must have some way to plant suggestions and then make us forget after."

"True," Tony says and there's a clattering sound, Natasha and Clint appearing at the bottom of the stairs.

"Oh yeah, Doctor Barrow's not human," Natasha says. "Clint asked her to mediate a session with us and I had to sit there while she asked us about our feelings through enormous fangs."

"So what do we do?" Clint asks. He's sporting a fairly spectacular shiner so he'd obviously demanded to be recalibrated also. "Do we confront her?"

"We don't know if she's the only one here, what she is or where she came from. We also don't know where Thor is and it's very possible that she's responsible for his disappearance," Steve says.

"Jarvis, that feel better?" Tony prompts. He'd stripped the malicious code he'd himself implanted and ran a repair.

"Yes, sir. I can imagine what I have been feeling for the last little while is what humans do when they are sure they have left the oven on when leaving the house. There was an awareness but I was not able to pursue it."

"I'll figure out a way to guard against that in the future," Tony says. "Now, scan," he adds, pointing at the Iron Man figure on the workbench.

"Unknown materials, sir, transmitting to an unknown location."

"Transmitting?" Steve asks, reaching for the figure, looking like he wants to grind it under his boot that very moment.

"Ah!" Tony snaps, snatching it off him. "Unknown materials, might be booby-trapped."

"Wait, but if it's transmitting-" Clint starts to say and that's when Doctor Barrow comes through the roof of the workshop, roaring.

"Holy cow!" Steve manages, then turns to Tony, says a little desperately, "You're going to need to punch me because that still looks like Doctor Barrow destroying your workshop."

Tony grins and Steve sighs. "Try not to enjoy it too much."


"I apologize for not being here sooner," Thor says. They're sitting in the sunken living room in the mansion, nursing various wounds. Doctor Barrow had proved a little difficult to subdue but they had managed eventually. Tony thinks it a little funny that she'd been pressing for better teamwork and that's what they'd used to bind her.

"You didn't know what was going on," Steve says, patting Thor on the shoulder. The Asgardian looks disgruntled and apologetic with himself and on behalf of them.

"I should have been more suspicious of the Thraxian delegation. They were delaying our negotiations to ensure I did not return and discover their spy."

"We discovered. The discovering was taken care of," Tony says. He has a tumbler full of water with ice and he's holding it against his temple. He caught a chunk of flying metal to his head that fortunately didn't break the skin.

"What did she want, exactly?" Natasha asks.

"Many heard of Loki's defeat at the hands of the Midgardian defenders. The Thraxians are warriors, conquerors. They saw a challenge worthy of them, but they are also, much like my brother, tricksters and manipulators. They gather information before an invasion, ensure that the odds are in their favor. They wished to learn as much of your powers and weaknesses before they challenged you."

"They have their intel," Steve says. "They sacrificed their spy."

"They did indeed. When they learned she was compromised, they would have ordered she attack so she could not be taken prisoner. I am glad that you were able to do so regardless."

"So, imminent attack?" Steve says and Thor looks thoughtful.

"Not immediately, no. You were able to discover their deception. That will give them pause."

They're all quiet for a moment, contemplating that. The only sounds are downstairs where workmen have started the cleanup of the workshop that did not fare well in the fight. Tony was able to salvage the bots and he's left the cosmetic clean up to paid professionals.

"She wasn't wrong," Natasha muses. Clint's head is on her knee and the way she's mussing his hair, he's going to look like a startled hedgehog when he sits up which Tony is looking forward to. "We need to work on..."

"Stuff, yeah," Tony says. "We will. I think in a weird way she helped." Tony glances sideways at Steve who ducks his face, but he's smiling. The urge to pick at Steve just because he's Steve is less, mostly non-existent now. Tony thinks they've come to an understanding.

Coulson appears, carrying a box and looking pleased with himself. "Director Fury sends his apologies," Coulson says, waggling the box.

"That better not be what I think it is," Clint says, sitting up and yep, startled hedgehog. He notices Tony smirking at him and pats at his hair, annoyed.

"These will be released in the next few months," he says, setting the box down and digging smaller boxes out of it. Bruce looks uncomfortable, actually gets up and tries to flee the room but Coulson catches his elbow. "I think you'll like yours, even though marketing doesn't think it will sell well," he says, handing over a box.

Bruce looks down and then he's laughing. When the others give him puzzled looks, he turns his box around. There's Bruce, in all his normal, pink glory, wearing a suit, glasses and with mussed hair.


"Tony, have you... again?" Steve says, question turning into a complaint when he spots Tony in the kitchen. Tony has his Iron Man figure and it’s holding the Captain America shield. "You all make fun yet all seem determined to steal my shield at every opportunity."

"I was thinking of making one for the suit," Tony says. "Out of pure energy though. Pretty badass, right? I just wanted to check the dimensions."

"You can just play with these guys. You don't have to make up excuses," Steve says, smirking.

"Shut up," Tony grumbles, setting aside Iron Man and handing the shield back over. Steve makes the tiny thing disappear into a pocket and then he's picking up Tony's hand.

"Steve, what-?" he starts to ask, but then Steve smacks Tony's hand with his own.

"Is that right?" he asks.

"Yeah, just, maybe a little more gently?" Tony says, shaking his hand out and Steve snorts, then they're both laughing. They subside when Steve catches Tony's hand again, kisses his knuckles. "Uh, better," Tony gets out, sounding a little strangled.

Steve leans forward then, kisses Tony on the corner of the mouth.

"Much better," Tony all but purrs and they're laughing again, Tony with an arm hooked around Steve's neck and Steve with his hands fisted in the shirt material at Tony's hips.