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When The Stars Come Calling

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Funny thing was-he hadn’t even been looking for the damn thing.

It would have been optimism of the highest, most deluded degree to try and argue that he’d forgotten completely about it. That it didn’t cling to his thoughts like a particularly reprehensible parasite on certain days (mostly when Ross was being a Class A Dick). Or on darker nights, when the silence was solid enough to settle thick and suffocating on his skin- thoughts of it crept up to swallow his mind and sanity whole, plunging him in a marsh of regret and nostalgia and angerangeranger that he thrashed about in but couldn’t. Fucking. Escape.

Considering all of the above...yeah, maybe it was funny, maybe it was fucking hysterical to the Powers That Be that Tony had simply been mindlessly rummaging in his drawers for his favourite screwdriver when he was greeted by the sight of a small, innocuous black phone nestled in the corner.

If you could even call that aberration on the face of the planet a phone. Hell, was that shit Nokia? Wasn’t that what the T-Rexes used in the Cretaceous era to call on their raptor aunts? Why was his hand stretching towards the one-notch-above-coconuts-connected-by-string phone as if it was trying to pick it up?

Tony stared at his hand in rapt fascination, watched as the fingers trembled and yet inched forwards inevitably. Maybe he’d grab hold of it and take his armour out for a spin just for the satisfaction of chucking the phone from a height of fifty thousand feet. Maybe he’d track the location of the only number programmed on the phone because Tony fucking Stark could pull shit like that. Maybe his hand would develop spontaneous allergies from coming into contact with such ancient, repulsive tech. He didn’t know. It was a world of possibilities.

What he did know was that his best friend had lost his legs and his career and his passion to fly, all in one fell swoop. That his girlfriend had left him, and the people he’d screwed over his girlfriend for couldn’t give less of a shit. That it hurt when Vision didn’t talk, and hurt even more when he did, because those bloody dulcet tones-because even after all this time, it wasn’t that easy to get over the death of a child, even if JARVIS had been just blinking lines of code on a screen. That Tony knew that he’d done the right thing, and the right thing somehow involved selling himself off to people and institutions that he’d disparaged all his life, for the sake of a family that-…that family was a lie, and Obie had tried so hard to teach him that but Tony had forgotten anyway, and in the years that he spent designing rooms in the Tower and better tech and arrows and body armour, his teammates spent hiding life changing secrets from him. Because his worst nightmare had always been that he could have done something more; that he’d let his team down. Never even in those nightmares could he have imagined that things could swing the opposite way.

World of possibilities. Maybe he’d finally call, even if it felt strangely akin to succumbing to a last drink. Anything had to be better than this state of……stagnation. Where he couldn’t move forward and the world wouldn’t let him move back. Where he felt a tiny, sinking feeling of relief when his left arm would go numb.

His fingers brushed the plastic case. He could almost hear the imagined dial tone trilling in his ear, the voice on the other side. Ste-

 

Something slammed into his wrist, hard enough to knock his hand back and send the phone clattering to the floor. Tony grimaced and bit off a swear, turning his head to the side to watch a red-and-gold gauntlet forming around his afflicted hand.

“FRIDAY, what the actual fuck.”

“Intruder breach detected in Avengers facility.” To anyone unacquainted with the …habits and predilections of AI, FRIDAY’s was an efficient robotic monotone like any other. To Tony however, long used to the English butler-like pizzazz of one JARVIS- FRIDAY sounded faintly rattled. “Main common room. The facility is otherwise deserted, except you.”

“And you couldn’t-I don’t know, tell me that and ask to see if I wanted the suit?” The grumpiness was mostly put on-Tony’s heart was already beginning to hammer in his chest. He straightened his other arm to catch the right gauntlet flying towards him with far more grace than the first one.

“There is no one in the facility except you.” FRIDAY repeated, and…strange, while bits and pieces of the suit began to assemble around his body and adrenaline started trickling its way into his veins; a part of Tony’s mind was caught up in the thought that he’d programmed his AI against redundancies. Repetition served no purpose-and yet FRIDAY’s worried tones seeped into his ear anyway.

“Waiting for instructions mean anything to you?” The suit clanked as he made his way across the room-ducked under the doorway and started striding down the corridor. His heart was still refusing to still. The breastplate felt heavy on his chest.

There was something almost….determined, about FRIDAY’s answering words. “Not when I need to make decisions to protect your safety.”

Need. He heard, and his heart lurched and tightened, somehow at the same time. Can something artificial truly need anything?

He turned the corner, just as FRIDAY spoke, “Five hundred metres.” and heard the repulsors power up with a quiet whine. His heartbeat was still a thunderous cacophony in his ears, his mind stripping past a million thoughts per minute-there were so few people who could break into a facility secured by him, maybe…maybe someone who had broken out renegade superheroes from a high security government prison not too long ago. Why would they come here, had he come to finally finish it, take back his self-righteous instrument of justice and bring it down on Tony’s neck like-

The repulsor whine trailed off, light powering down faintly. He blinked, helmet free, chest still caught in a spasm and stared at the…pile of maroon lying on the floor?

Maybe Wanda had forgotten to take her garbage bag along, Tony thought wildly-except then the pile of maroon started uncurling with a groan, limbs unfolding and a hand coming up to rub a gingery head with a particularly afflicted sensibility. It was most definitely a man (though his overall appearance seemed to suggest that the garbage bag theory would have been quite sound)-though not a man that Tony had ever seen before.

His repulsors went right up again, voice colder than a freezing gale. “Who the hell are you?”

“Eh?” The man slowly raised himself to a sitting position, face too scrunched up in what was presumably pain to really make out any distinguishing features. Half open eyes squinted at Tony, then closed again-because apparently his visage was just too affecting.

“Start. Talking.” Or would you like your maroon ass seared to a crisp, served to you on a barbecue grill? He didn’t say it though. Maybe the Tony from eight years ago would have. Or six months.

“Quill.” The man mumbled, in a voice worthy of a thousand hangovers. His eyes flicked open again, and his brows came furrowing down. “No, wait. Lord.” A sequence of rapid blinks. “Peter? Star?”

Tony stared.

The man squinted at his nose, then nodded vehemently. “Quill Lord Peter Star.”

Two strides, and Tony punched him in the head.

 

~

 

The man had a rather hard head.

So Tony reflected as he watched the man groggily come to, not even an hour after Tony had knocked him out. The colour of his eyes was still a little difficult to pin down, even as they flitted open and darted back and forth-from the manacles clamped on his wrists and ankles, secure enough to hold a berserking supersoldier or a crafty spysassin, to the empty eyeslits of the suits standing in the various alcoves of the darkened workshop-for intimidation purposes of course. In fact, he seemed to be scoping out pretty much everything in the surroundings except Tony, which was foolish and understandable because Iron Man was one terrifying motherfucker when he wished to be.

“I know my workshop is pretty much the closest it comes to a technological Shangri-La, and I’d stare at it all day too; but you’re almost hurting me with the lack of attention, Ginger.”

Ginger, ugh. He really was losing his touch. Fuck, had Cap run away with his ever-enchanting wit as well?

“I’d dare say he’s befuddled at waking up in someplace other than a cell, Mr Stark.” FRIDAY’s tone was downright flinty. And Mr Stark-double ugh. Someone wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding their disapproval.

Which was stupid, because no sensitive information was on open display, Ginger was chained to a chair and preliminary tests indicated no…foxily hidden abilities. Also the teensy little fact that Tony’s heart was racing at a million miles per hour again and his workshop was pretty much the only place he felt marginally safe these days.

“Mr Star-” Ginger’s mouth curled into a bleary, lopsided grin. “Hey, we have the same last name!”

….which wasn’t exactly the predictable response for a man hearing a disembodied voice for the first time, even if Tony’s AI were public secrets now. This was getting more and more suspicious by the minute.

“I’ll take the name change under advisement, but I’ve always rather hated stars.” A quick, rapier-sharp smile, and Tony was raising a charged up repulsor again. “You were caught trespassing in the Avengers facility. How did you get through security?”

Those reddish-brown brows were furrowing in confusion, even as Ginger straightened in his chair and finally established eye contact. Damn, the man didn’t look scared at all. “Is that….on Terra?”

“…what.” Flat as his voice could go-Tony was beginning to lose patience.

  “Um.” More scrunching up of the brows. “…Earth. Yeah. Is this facility on earth?”

The whine of the repulsor was reaching levels beyond human hearing. Fuck, was this how his opponents felt every time he spewed gibberish during fights? It was freaking annoying. “No, we’re on the fucking moon.” Because we’re a bunch of elitist prigs who consider themselves superior to everyone else, apparently.

Ginger blinked. “Which moon?”

And…snap. That was the sound of his patience fracturing. “Look, I absolutely refuse to believe some mind-addled whackjob was able to break through my security systems so you better start spilling on how you did it and who sent you otherwise I’m going to start frying off body pa-”

The man’s eyes widened-finally, some form of reaction. “No, wait, I didn’t mean to-I don’t even know who you ar-”

Tony barked out a short, biting laugh. “Or maybe you really are addled. You could have gone for literally any other lie-”

“No, seriously, I do not know who you are-”

“You’re being held up at repulsor point,” Tony interrupted, aggravated and utterly not in the mood, “by Iron Man and you expe-”

“Iron who now?”

Tony stared at him.

“…ah, is it a code….sorry, outlaw name kinda thing? Sorry man. Iron Man, gotcha.”

“You’re telling me,” Tony began, slow and more than a little scathing, “that you have no idea who Iron Man or Tony Stark or the fucking Avengers are-”

Ginger fidgeted a little with his manacles. “I’m sensing yes isn’t the correct answer here?”

Tony stared some more.

“…you guys are famous, I’m guessing? Is it a band? Sorry man, it’s just that I’m into a bit of old timey music and I’m not really keeping up with the….Revengers or whoever the latest Terran rage are-“

“You know who the Avengers are. People living under rocks and inside wells and on the top of mountains know who the Avengers are, you know who I am.” Tony’s voice was taut, and vibrating. He could feel his knuckles whitening under the strain of clenching too tight-why was he getting so affected by this?

“-you’re probably the drummer, I like drummers man, they seem like very cool people even though people don’t know their names very well-”

“You will stop talking right now.” Tony gritted out and the man snapped his mouth shut. Huh, that was almost gratifying. If only he wasn’t pissed (panicked panicked who the fuck was this guy) out of his mind.

“Sentry mode.” He finally managed to say, and attempted to step out of the suit. The suit remained firmly non-cooperative.

“Decisions to protect your safety.” FRIDAY reiterated stiffly. Tony would facepalm if hitting a metal helmet with a metal gauntlet didn’t feel like sticking his head into a vibrating gong.

“You should probably listen to her.” Ginger affirmed, nodding his head agreeably. Tony might have let out an audible groan of despair at that. She’s trying to protect me from you, you idiot.

“Maybe he’s got Iron Man all mixed up with the Optimus Prime’s of his childhood, he’ll know my face.” And now he was making poor excuses at his AI. Goddamn this helmet, he needed to breathe. He needed to know how the hell this man sounded so sincere denying his knowledge of superheroic fuck up Tony Stark.

His faceplate slid up with a little snick. “Satisfied?” FRIDAY returned, tone arch and cool.

Meanwhile, Ginger was gawking at his face-thank god, Tony was beginning to feel all hurt in his massive little ego- “….so you are human.”

“Of course I’m human.” Tony snapped back. “Wait, is this some sort of screwed up hero worship thing because boy have you picked the wrong target…” Though maybe he hadn’t, Tony could do with some self-worth affirming, he definitely hadn’t had the reverent kind of sex from the right one-sided direction in way too long; no, no no, he was relapsing, he’d promised himself he wouldn’t succumb to every expectation and do the self-destructive thing again, he was better than this now.

(He had to be. Otherwise, he was stuck in square one, ground zero. The arms dealer who couldn’t do right even if the lives of everyone else depended on it.)

“Nah, it’s just Terra might have easily been colonised by other…” Ginger started, then paused himself midway as if just comprehending how much his words sounded like ‘hogwash’ and ‘balderdash’, with a little bit of ‘jabberwocky’ thrown in there. Wow, Lewis Carroll references; Tony’s brain was literally unsalvageable now.

Ginger gave his head a little shake. “Anyway, that obviously didn’t happen. You’ve just got a mechanised suit of…armour? Like a Knight?”

Tony blinked. Cool, yes. Devastating, yes. Sometimes even, ‘that ugly heap of scrap metal’. People used a wide array of descriptors for the Iron Man. Comparisons to symbols of nobility weren’t usually included among them.

“So the helmet has life support right?” Ginger continued with the questions, sounding almost eager. His hands were loose and relaxed within the manacles, like wearing them was an everyday occurrence. “So you’d be able to breathe in space?”

“…this model of the suit, yes.” He was startled into a response, that was it. The man’s lack of consternation at his situation was making him all frazzled. “Earlier ones, not so much.”

“Boss.” FRIDAY’s voice cut in, disapproval reaching dizzying heights.

Ginger seemed not to notice. “And I’m guessing the glowing lights at the centre of your gauntlets have propulsive properties as well as doubling as weapons.” The rest of the sentence dwindled into murmurs. “Too bad I only have the boots, hands would increase manoeuvrability like shit…”

“FRIDAY.” Tony asked and her voice chimed in dutifully, repeating the words that had gotten lost in the mumbles. “Yondu never said Terran tech had gotten so advanced.”

Ginger glared at him in indignation, Tony responded with the smuggest shrug he could muster. But honestly, enough was getting to be enough. “Okay, either I’m a Muggle or you’re completely off your rocker. Whichever way, you’re speaking absolute gibberish to me and my last reserves of patience ended…two minutes ago. FRIDAY, tell me some ways to make this guy sing?”

Disapproval set aside for the minute, FRIDAY chirped back like the loyal, dependable soul she was. “Torture usually yields unreliable info. There’s always sodium pentothal-truth serum for the uninitiated.”

“That was for your benefit.” Tony added. “FRIDAY is very helpful by nature. Thesaurus, bodyguard and private butler in one. I bet if I asked real nice, I could have her fly in a vial just for you. Don’t you feel special?”

That was for Ginger’s benefit too. Though of course, FRIDAY was indeed very helpful, and smart to boot because the tinny murmur from the helmet’s speaker reached only Tony’s ears. “Unreliable, otherwise we’d use them for witness questioning all the time. Polygraph’s the same.”

The charade obviously wasn’t helping much though. Ginger still had yet to look more than mildly perturbed; in fact, his next face was downright considerate. “Look, I’m not here to do you any harm. Just let me go, outside of the…facility, you said? I promise I won’t return and you can go back to talking to your computer and stomping around your own house in armour-”

I don’t stomp, Tony wanted to say, though something probably stupid like this isn’t my house or it keeps me safe would have escaped his lips instead. Thankfully, Ginger had to interrupt with, “Also, sodium pentothal doesn’t work the way you think. Sorry if you guys hadn’t figured that out yet.” And he actually sounded apologetic about it too.

Right, enough games. “You’re not leaving until I find out how you got in.” And then, he’d be delivered right into Ross’ hands. Technicalities were nice that way.

Ginger exhaled an annoyed breath-annoyed, fucking hell, annoyed, like he’d been taken captive by Super Strength Guy #207 instead of being threatened by Iron Man, maybe Tony needed to re-evaluate torture as a viable option-and forced out, “Okay, fine. My friends were being assholes…”

Well, isn’t that just the universal truth.

“…and we were having some down time so they thought I needed to ‘face my past’ and ‘secrets weigh down on your soul, Star Lord’ and ‘you’re being a pansy-assed coward, Quill’ and baby Groot hasn’t quite mastered his vocal cords yet…”

“Do I normally sound like this?” Tony threw as an aside to FRIDAY, just for curiosity’s sake. It would explain all the assassination attempts. FRIDAY chose to wisely remain silent.

“…except facing my past kinda involves being back on Terra so they freaking beamed me down in my sleep…”

“Wait, like Star Trek beamed you down? Scotty, energise?” The scorn was a little difficult to disguise; Tony didn’t quite bother to put in the effort. Maybe the man was a pathological liar. Still sounded better than a moron breaking into the Facility’s security.

Ginger’s eyebrows pulled together in consternation. “I’m not quite sure I know what you’re-” except then his eyebrows straightened right back up, and jeez, it was like someone had switched on a light bulb in his eyes, they got so bright. (Tony wasn’t a poetic kind of guy, sue him. It would be disquieting if he got all poetic about the eyes of a delusional cat burglar anyway).

Meanwhile, Ginger was all aflutter with good cheer. “Wait, I remember that! Space: the final frontier, right? Is that still going on?”

Christ on a pogo stick, they were just getting absolutely nowhere. Tony jabbed two metal fingers into the pressure points above his eyebrows, in a vain attempt to hold off the steadily building headache. “Right, okay. I’m hoping you got high after you broke into the Facility-”

“Accidentally.”

“-not helping.” Tony pressed his teeth together till his jaws grew numb, took a deep breath and restarted. “Yes. High after you reached. Or pretending to be an imbecile. Pick one option, and I’ll be back for you after I send alerts to War Machine and Vision-that’s the guy with the God voice and the head laser beams-in addition to the Feds, CIA, NYPD…provided I can coax them off their individual tv shows. Or…you could choose to be nice and cooperative and tell me everything, and you won’t end up in a room without doors for the rest of your life. Understand me?”

“Of course.” Ginger said, nodding in agreement.

Tony swivelled on his feet (much harder in the armour than you’d think) and clanked out of the room, leaving a tied-up Ginger and far too many questions than his overtaxed brain had the capacity to deal with. He had thrice-damned paperwork to do, ill-advised decisions about antique flip phones to be made. This was mucking up his schedule considerably.

“I don’t suppose you’ll actually be contacting Colonel Rho-” FRIDAY began dryly.

“He has better things to concern himself with.” Like his rehabilitation. His precarious position within the Air Force. Whether it was worth holding on to his precarious position as an Avenger. Anything other than his irresponsible bes…irresponsible friend, who couldn’t keep him goddamn safe in a bloody scrimmage for heaven’s sake-

“He’d want to know, this could pose a considerable threat to your wellbeing-”

“All the more reason to keep him out of it.” He’d reached the main floor of the Facility; a couple of turns and longish corridors later, he was making his way across the darkened common area, headed straight for the refrigerator. He pulled the door open, surveying the empty racks with only bottles of water stowed at the bottom with an exhaustion unwarranted by the situation. He was fine. He was hydrating himself. Food was for the weak. Friends were for the weak. He was fine.

He should stop staring and start drinking from that bottle sometime soon. No wait, bad phrasing.

Fine motor control or not, holding a plastic bottle in a superhumanly powerful metal gauntlet was just asking for trouble. “Sentry mode?” He asked again, this time a little archly and inclined his head in mock gratitude when the suit opened right up. “Much thanks.”

“Only here to help, boss.” FRIDAY snarked back and Tony felt the shadow of a smile prod tentatively at his lips despite himself. Unscrewing the bottle cap with the twist of a thumb and the index finger, Tony tilted his head back and drained the contents; water glugging peacefully down his throat, the motion almost meditative. Once the bottle was empty and he’d wiped the last clinging drops from his chin, he almost felt better.

Only one thing guaranteed instant mood upliftment: eighties rock. Out of respect to the neighbours, who were basically all of Snow White’s feathery friends that squatted around the Facility and probably wouldn’t appreciate being deafened, Tony opted for the MP3 player and trailing headphones instead of the surround sound speakers. Insane guitar solos, here we come.

Hello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me…

Even as Tony started pacing down towards the workshop again, he could catch traces of FRIDAY’s voice over familiar beats thrumming in his eardrums. Just the basic facts…can you show me where it hurts? Probably something about wearing the suit before going down again. She’d get over it eventually. She had no choice. Wasn’t like she could leave.

I can't explain you would not understand...this is not how I am.

Maybe that was an issue. Maybe he should ask. She had as much right as anybody to give up on him.

The door to the workshop slid open and Tony drifted inside, rubbing his hands together. I have become…comfortably.. “Alright Chucky, I will have your confession in writing, preferably double spaced and twelve-point font-”

From whereon he would have proceeded to even pithier remarks, Pink Floyd serving as pleasant accompaniment; except for the tiny part where Ginger was no longer tied down to the chair-in fact, he was standing with one broken, smoking manacle hanging from his wrist and the other, and this part is the kicker really- and his other hand enclosed in an Iron Man gauntlet.

Fuck being jealous of Barnes, this was a whole new level of possessive rage. The words were as cheery as ever, except of the part where they’d been leeched out of any kind of human warmth. “Yeah, you clearly don’t know who I am. Otherwise you’d know to keep your hands off my stuff.”

The mild consternation in the man’s eyes-yeah he was the man again, screw cutesy nicknames-finally upgraded itself to some real alarm. Probably by the very, very real murder in Tony’s own eyes. “Look, I don’t want to cause any trouble, I’m sorry for this-”

His hand twitched upwards, probably to point the gauntlet at Tony’s face and fire his own repulsor at him, oh he could just try- except that motion aborted just as quickly as it had begun, the man’s gaze caught by…the earbuds trailing from Tony’s ears?

The fuck?

“Is that tiny stick.” The man began in a measured tone, but it didn’t stay that way very long. “Playing music.”

…and it started to trickle in slowly, a horrible sort of realisation creeping up in Tony’s brain that needed to be deprived of its genius card immediately- the questions, the ignorance of facts that would be common knowledge for any reasonable person living in this world, the almost puppyish excitement at recognising Star Trek that called back almost too easily to I understood that reference, all of which built up to an awful kind of déjà vu and an even more awful conclusion…

Please don’t tell me you were frozen in ice for ninety years.”

“Don’t be ridiculous- I was in space.” The man grinned weakly, then startled slightly as the gauntlet on his hand depowered with a whine. FRIDAY to the rescue.

“Well, drat.” The man kept grinning, though it was getting weaker by the second and a lot more desperate. His eye darted to a little pouch on the nearest counter, one that he made a grab for a second later.

Tony stared at the red-and-gold fingers holding the plastic bag aloft. The man made another valiant attempt at a smile.

“Uhm, blueberry?”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Alright. Tell us what we got.”

He spun around on the whirly chair- that’s what it was, it was a chair on wheels that whirled around and he’d named its kind when he was eight, it needed no real names. What he needed after the past six hours was to tilt his head back on his whirly chair, call up the holograms to the air with a clap of his hand and have FRIDAY give him a couple of fucking answers.

What made the past six hours so excruciating you ask? It could have been any number of the currently shitty things in his life. It could have been anything in his life period, ‘shitty’ qualifier excluded, since it being his life-everything was sort of shitty by default.

Drowning in his personal cesspool of self-generated pity. So attractive.

The general kind of shittiness though, had somehow grown exponentially in the past six hours-a third of which was spent prying his own damn gauntlet off a stranger’s hand. Not only did the guy manage to get out of his restraints without FRIDAY unleashing the furies of hell and StarkTech security on him, he somehow managed to squiggle around the numerous barriers separating him from one of the suits and actually put a part of it on. And almost fire it at Tony.

(An image flashed before his eyes-there and gone, a missile casing crouched in the blood-streaked sand, STARK embossed across the gunmetal grey in earth-shattering letters…)

Tony blinked sweat-laden lashes, heart thundering to life under his rib cage. Right. Time to get the fuck over himself.

“Start with how the hell our systems missed him getting out of his chair and accessing one of the suits.”

“Well, I.” FRIDAY began tentatively, like she had the past six times he’d asked the same damn question. “I’m yet to find out, boss. There’s a blank in my records from 21:43...”

“-to 21:58, yeah, I got that.” Tony kneaded his eyebrows with rough knuckles, then let his arm fall with a thump to the side. “No backups? No methods of retrieval?”

“No signs of deletion. It was like the data had never even been recorded to be backed up in the first place. There’s just a…void.”

Tony cursed under his breath, then spewed a couple of choice words out loud for the sheer freedom of it. Not like there was anyone to nag him about it now. He dismissed the thought with an irritated jerk of his head, like an errant fly.

“We have completed analysis on the tech discovered on his person though!” FRIDAY rushed to fill in, something almost agitated about the mechanised words, information flowing rapidly. “The headset almost certainly folds out into a helmet like structure, similar to a gas mask. The boots have been fitted with devices that on superficial examination appear modelled off rockets, with propulsive abilities, though not repulsor based. We’ve identified a switch like device that gives off a disruptive field on activation, presumably what shielded some of these devices from discovery on preliminary scans. There are a couple of odds and ends we haven’t quite managed to determine the function of yet-”

“Discovered too late.” Tony muttered, eyes scanning through the hologram projections of said objects quicker than many a computer processor, distracted hand gestures rotating the images one way and the other. “Bastard probably used these ‘odds and ends’ to hack into my system and the suit.” Archimedes fuck him sideways, at this rate he wouldn’t be surprised if the power sources for these were goddamn Tesla coils.

“I.” FRIDAY began again and stopped, Tony too mired in his frustration at the mindboggling scans to truly pay attention. This was ridiculous. This was like cracking open a plastic toy gun made for a kid, seeing nothing but a couple of springs and a bright red LED, but being told that the thing was a bloody murder weapon. He was missing something. Rather, he was missing everything because he wasn’t seeing anything that could have actually accomplished the things that the man had to have done. He wasn’t…he wasn’t seeing things right, his framework, his assumptions, something was off…the very engineering of these things was alien-

“I’m sorry.” FRIDAY said, and Tony’s thought process slammed to a halt on its heels.

“I’m your preliminary line of security but he somehow got past me anyway…that was dangerous and he could have really hurt you.” The words were coming quick and clear, almost like FRIDAY was trying to be professional and matter-of-fact about it. It was oddly reminiscent of Pepper, when she was trying not to hurt Tony too badly. When she was hurting a lot herself. “I keep running scans on his tech and they keep coming up inconclusive. I understand that in JARVIS’ time, no one had ever seized control of the suit and I’m…I’m trying but I haven’t been active and online that long, my development is still in its initial stages which is not an exc-”

“FRIDAY.” Tony interrupted. His voice was far stronger than his heart felt; a weak thing cowering behind his ravaged sternum. He…didn’t quite know what he was feeling right now. “You know the first rule to dealing with Tony Stark. Don’t just take any shit from me.”

You being here makes life less shitty, he didn’t say. He wasn’t the kind, not anymore. Probably never was.

There was a little rustle of static behind the speakers, and a part of Tony imagined FRIDAY smiling, quiet and tremulous. The words came slower, a little more confident. “In the interests of that endeavour, I might bring to your attention that speaking of yourself in third person usually comes across as fairly arrogant-but you’re always so harsh on yourself when you do.”

“I believe in giving people what they deserve.” Tony smiled in turn, sharp and unremorseful. “Fine, screw the doodads. Tell me what we know about Star Man.”

“He attests his name is Peter Quill.” FRIDAY answered promptly, the little emotional tangent from seconds ago brushed away to the corner efficiently. The images of Ging-Quill’s devices winked out, transparent blue screens of hospital and school records, birth documents and police reports shimmering to life in the air instead. “Records show a possible match for one Peter Jason Quill, born 8th July 1980 in Joplin, Missouri. Reported missing at age eight by his grandfather. Case closed a year later when no further leads were unearthed.”

There was precious little information available: Quill had been born in the dark ages long before the enlightenment of the internet age, and aside from a couple of dental records, visits to the hospital for the setting of broken bones-wow, that was a lot of bones, Quill had kept busy in his childhood-and grade reports from Emerson Elementary, there wasn’t much out there. Provided this was Quill in the first place. The surface physical features seemed to match, what with floppy ginger-brown hair and hazel eyes of the pasty-faced boy in the pictures.

“Why oh why do we not have DNA samples to verify this moron against.” He flicked his finger to skim through screens, committing the information to memory, useless as it was. “Wouldn’t even have to attack his bodily integrity or whatever-just test the pile of drool he left on the carpet.”

“Possibly because keeping the DNA of every child born in the country would be an invasion of privacy and a gross ethical violation.” Now that she wasn’t tiptoeing around him, FRIDAY appeared to have no qualms in responding to his rhetorical questions with cheery facts. Ethics, blah. Ethics had screwed over his life.

“And there really were no further leads?” Tony pressed, futile as it was. “Nowhere this guy’s name cropped up later, no juvenile records under another name, no piss poor street-cam footage of him breaking speeding limits?”

“I am unaware of any such records.” FRIDAY replied primly. Then, after an almost careful pause. “It would seem indeed, that he vanished off the face of the earth after that night.”

“If you tell me you actually believe his story-”

“It isn’t like we haven’t come into contact with alien life before.” FRIDAY reminded him of the big elephant in the room quietly. “Mr Odinson has spoken often of the different planets and the species that occupy them, regardless of how isolated Asgard might have kept itself.”

“See, it would be easier to believe he was an alien.” Guttural, foreign screams. Electric blue eyes. A shark like smile. A bluer hole in the sky. There was a minor tremor in Tony’s hand as he flicked to the next screen; yeah, this ‘getting over himself’ project wasn’t working very well for him today. “But he says he grew up in godforsaken Missouri and then was abducted by a flying saucer. And twenty-eight years later, his space buddies conveniently dropped him off in the middle of the Facility for closure.”

“A Facility run by an incorporeal voice and a man who once built a suit of robot armour in a cave.” FRIDAY said mildly. “Yes, I can see how that would be a hard story to believe.”

See? That’s what happened when you were nice to people and AI. They went ahead and sassed you for all your efforts.

“Weren’t you the one playing bad cop and being suspicious, asking me to call Rhodey not six hours ago?”

“I still think you should call Colonel Rhodes.” FRIDAY returned, voice as serious as it came. “That does not preclude admitting the possibility of Mr Quill’s story being tr-”

“Oi, he’s not a guest. He doesn’t get the ‘Mister’.” No, it wasn’t childish. It was well deserved, because no one got to steal bits of his suit and try their hand at the repulsors and got treated with respect. Hey, he could totally order FRIDAY to call the guy Convict, right? Convicted of the crime of being idiotic enough to think he could touch Iron Man and escape with his hands intact.

“Very well then. May I suggest you speaking to the man in your basement to ascertain the truth of, and get the full extent of his story.” If sighing had been installed in FRIDAY’s vocal functionality, she would probably have indulged in one right now. “It’s still unsafe, but since you insist on doing this by yourself-”

“That’s more like it, FRIDAY. Living with what you’ve got.” Tony threw out lightly, before cracking his knuckles and propelling himself out of his chair. A downward slash of the hand and the holograms blinked out of existence. “Let’s see if Porcupine Hair can be convinced to blab a slightly saner story.”

~

The man was asleep when Tony entered the workshop again, manacles back in place, three sentries of the Iron Legion standing guard. A section of his hair was flattened under his cheek, another sticking out over his forehead-an impeccable display of bedhead somehow without the bed. A bubble of drool was quivering over the left corner where his lips joined, breaths falling steadily. Trustingly. Like being held captive against his will and being repeatedly threatened counted as an amusing diversion before Thursday brunch.

Tony stared at that rise and fall of chest for a few seconds, heard those steady breaths filter through his hearing. His own standards of paranoia aside, this was undoubtedly one of the most unconcerned people he’d ever had the misfortune to meet.

Tony let his lips flicker upwards briefly before snapping the fingers of his right hand.

A medley of guitar and drums blared out of the speakers as AC/DC rampaged through the air, starting somewhere in the middle of Highway to Hell. The man jolted out of his peaceful sleep, knees jumping up in a startle, loose chin knocking hard and unceremoniously against his clavicle. Tony watched his skittish movements, his widening eyes and head that turned back and forth in an attempt to situate himself, with increasing satisfaction.

Guilt died a fast and ignominious death before it could even spark into existence. AC/DC was a goddamn fantastic way to wake up, if he said so himself. The man should feel privileged.

“The fuck.” Quill rumbled from somewhere deep inside a sleep-clogged throat, blinking blearily in an imitation of the first time. He apparently didn’t feel as charitable towards the death defying music as Tony did. “Why am I awake.”

“To answer my questions.” Tony smiled graciously. Die asshole die. No coffee for you. “Now that you’ve had some time to reflect on the wisdom of your crazy story, I thought you might be in the mood of dropping the addled routine-”

“What time is it?” Quill interrupted unceremoniously, all groggy eyed.

Tony felt annoyance like a sharp blade, slicing through him and all pretences of courtesy. Fine. The asshole wanted to know what time his beauty sleep had been interrupted at, he could very well find out. “Sometime around three, last I checked. Fun fact-jail cells don’t have clocks. Just so you get into the habit for later.”

Quill stared at the chest plates of one of the Legion armours for several seconds, as if psyching himself back to the land of the awake. When his slightly more alert gaze flicked up to look at Tony, the look in those eyes wasn’t fear or anger or anything predictable. “Why the hell are you awake?”

“Wha-” Tony stopped short, annoyance flaring up even stronger this time. Did this guy have any sense of self-preservation at all? Would FRIDAY help him hide the body if he blew that squat head off those broad shoulders right now? “What does it even-I’m here to interrogate you. Does it look like I care for your sleep schedule?”

“Do you care for yours?” Quill retorted and-what. What even was that. “I’m clearly not going anywhere. I’ll be here in the morning.”

“My dark circles will live to see another day.” A careless gesture of the hand and the armour closest to Quill powered up its repulsors with a quiet whine, Quill’s spine straightening and shoulders pulling back to the chair in response. Fucking finally. “Now, not that the concern for your would-be captor isn’t incredibly touching and all-” Tony bared his teeth in a smile that sported no amusement. “Tell me why you’re here.”

“I already told you.” Quill forced out through a tightened jaw-seemed like the sleep deprivation and baring of weapons in his face was finally wearing on the man’s good cheer. “My friends sent me down. Because they’re jerks.”

Nothing on you, though. His baleful eyes seemed to say, which was mildly surprising because Quill seemed like a man who came out and said that shit to your face instead of confining himself to the subtleties of murderous expressions.

“Fine, tell me about your ‘friends.’”

Quill huffed a breath. “Well, there’s Gamora who’s the adopted daughter of the Mad Titan and Groot-”

“Fascinating.” Tony intoned, and topped it off with a smile to add insult to injury. “Let’s try that again, except-less twaddle, more sense. Go.”

 Quill stared at him. Two beats of silence, and then his tone morphed, turning almost amiable. “Sure. First, there’s Gamora. She’s green and cybernetically modif-”

“Green.” Tony cut him off at the outset, resisting the perennial urge to knead at his eyebrows. “As in jealous girlfriend, ten commandments, thou shalt not covet-that kinda green?”

“Nope.” Quill’s lips curved up in a smile, all amicable-like. “As in evergeens, apples, frogs, her melanin likes its options-that kinda green.”

“Right.” Tony’s lips doled out a smile in return, though it felt remarkably tight. “Everyone has a green friend or two, we welcome all colours here. Continue.”

“Groot is also green.” Quill’s manacles didn’t have enough slack, otherwise Tony got the distinct impression that he’d be raising a thoughtful finger to tap at his chin. “Though that’s mostly because he’s a plant.”

“I already got a sense of your sad social life from your sparkling personality-quick tip, down here, we count friends as the kind that can actually talk back.” Tony slowed his words down for extra comprehension; it actually felt liberating being an asshole after all these months of political gladhanding. “Feel free to keep pet rocks and plants out of your retelli-”

“Oh, he can talk back alright.” Quill chirped back, then paused for a moment of exaggerated thought again. “Though it’s usually only his own name.”

“So he’s a Pokemon.”

Quill blinked back at him. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The urge for strangulation had never been so strong. Hell, he’d killed so many people, what was another body in the basement, right? Try as he might, he couldn’t his words to sound anything but flat. “So he’s a plant.”

“Yep.”

“In space.”

“A space plant, yep.” 

Tony smiled again. It felt like it was going to rip out his face. “Does he have a pot?”

“Yeah. He was really attached to it in the beginning, but he’s learning to let the safety blanket go, you know?” Quill’s spine was beginning to uncurl again, shoulders slouching in relaxation. There was a smile playing at the corner of his lips, all insouciant and unashamed. “Rocket’s been carting it around for a couple of months, letting baby Groot stretch his legs a little more-”

“Rocket?”

“The talking raccoon.” Quill replied, and grinned like the fucker he was. “Sure, he’s got a bit of a drinking problem, but when you think about it, it’s really touching how much he cares for his pal-”

“The raccoon with a drinking problem.” His voice had never been flatter. If not for the overwhelming sense of how incredibly unimpressed he was feeling right now, he’d almost pat himself on the back. “You know, I’m sure that computes as a really sick burn in your tiny brain, but I’d hate to rain on your parade and say-”

“Burn?” Quill’s eyebrows shot up in confusion, before clearing up. “Oh, you mean the raccoon part-sorry man, completely unintentional. Though if you’re really that sensitive about your dark circles, you should get some more sleep; I did tell you at the beginning.”

“You know what, screw your friends.” Tony took a step forward and the Iron Legion sentries all raised their arms in conjunction, palms glowing. Quill stiffened immediately, though his posture was still mostly open. “Let’s go back to the first bullshit story you concocted. So you were born on earth and lived in Missouri for eight years before being…what? Kidnapped by aliens?”

“Ravagers.” Quill elaborated. “They go around the galaxy, doing jobs for money: picking up and dropping off shipments, stealing, scaring and blackmailing…”

“Space bandits. So glad you cleared that up.” Tony spared a second to roughly knead at the bridge of his nose before looking up to pin Quill’s eyes down, bullshit smile discarded somewhere by the wayside. “You know this is going nowhere. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t throw you to any number of authorities who’d bury you deep enough that you’d be at risk of popping out the other side.”

“I haven’t told you anything but the truth.” Quill cocked his chin, humour intact but eyes unreadable.

“So that’ll be a ‘nada, zilch, nothing’ on the reason, then.” Tony pivoted on his feet, tossing an arm out carelessly. “Fine. I’ll call the Secretary of State to drop some state-authorised goons to pick you up in the morning.”

“I gave you a reason hours ago.” The voice rang out strong, and Tony couldn’t help the reflexive move of turning back to listen. There were traces of smugness still feathering Quill’s overall countenance, but that seemed to have subsided in favour of a new, implacable assurance. The teasing hazel of his eyes had turned brick hard. “Maybe the first couple hours were just to satisfy your own curiosity…but you’d have never kept me here this long if you’d intended on handing me over in the first place. You were shocked enough that I didn’t know you, and have enough…” Quill gestured to the nearest armour with a tilt of the head. “Fancy toys to make me think that you’re king of some mountain. So if I can break through your defences…” And the humorous smile was back again, except this time it wasn’t playing any games. “You really gonna trust anybody else to keep me locked up?”

And that…that was the thrice-damned crux of it all, really. He’d half hoped Quill wouldn’t be able to figure it out, but looked like he was betraying far too much of his personality if the idiot was playing him that easily. Because this was a play, as simple as anything else-and Tony knew himself too well to think he could win. Paranoia and control issues: 1, sensible decision-making: a minus thousand.

“Nice talk.” Quill nodded amiably, before leaning his head back and closing his eyes. He’d probably never know how close he was to death in that moment, the lucky bastard. He was still pushing it though; face lifted to the ceiling, musing out loud. “Iron Man of the…ah, Revengers? Yeah, definitely some kind of hotshot…though you should probably have taken consultations on the name-”

He had a million better, smarter comebacks-but only one could hitch at the back of his throat, small and cold. “Avengers. We’re the Avengers.”

Quill cracked half an eye open, looking at Tony. “Where’re the rest of you, then?”

And then there were no comebacks at all. Tony stared on, eyes wiped blank, before pivoting on his heels again and feeling the floor rise against his steadily falling feet as he walked away. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Quill straighten up, eyes flickering open and brows pulling down together-too cool to be concern, but something you might sport on seeing a stranger stumble on a train.

The door slid shut and the workshop fell into darkness behind him; the man could sleep however much he liked. Tony felt his feet climb the two flights of stairs leading to the main floor, exhaustion dragging at his heels like a wraith that hadn’t quite gotten the message. Two more minutes of tired blinking, and he found himself stepping over the threshold into the main study, stark lighting shooting across the walls and chasing away the shadows.

He hadn’t changed it much. At its bare bones, it echoed any other room in the Facility- clean, functional lines, neutral shades, sleek and spacious. People left their marks on rooms though, and with time and other inhabitants-the place had transformed. A heavy, carved teak desk occupied pride of place now-sturdy, antique wood standing amidst all the metal and chrome. And there were tinier details too. Pens and pencils mounted within a repurposed beer can on said table; probably the work of someone not used enough to the current Western ethic of having manufactured items for every little purpose, habituated to repurposing things that any man accustomed to privilege would throw out. A little hair tie lying askew next to the can, red strands of hair still clinging to the black elastic. Drawings up on the walls, held up by blue tack because duct tape apparently damaged the plaster.

He hadn’t changed it much. He’d nudged his papers and files between the other paraphernalia, maybe relocated some of the loose sheets of paper, training schedules and   reports to the drawers. One of the sketches was slightly askew on the wall…he hadn’t even fixed that, because he’d touch it and touching would turn to crumpling to ripping and…he didn’t know where he’d stop. He left things as they were and didn’t think ‘just in case’, because he had to partake in make-belief recovery. In unaffectedness, in ‘moving on’, in a kind of emotional resilience that somehow persevered in the face of being let down again and again.

Tony brought his hands together, meat of his palms colliding in a dull smack; calling the holograms back to life. Blue light danced back into his vision, the screens he’d been perusing  populating the air again.

The room still looked empty.

He walked around the desk and dropped into his chair again, a dull shock throbbing up his tailbone. Ah, old age, that dastardly prick. With absent flicks of his fingers, the images of items recovered from Quill’s possession started scrolling before his eyes again. His mind was barely engaged, blue swarming his aching vision…damn, maybe that ass was right. A couple hours of shuteye wouldn’t be that horrible…he still needed to get to Washington in the morning but he could theoretically take the jet and reach nearly on time to…

Wait.

He’d already skimmed past it-he pulled the image back to the fore with an impatient jerk of his fingers, eyes glancing over it restlessly. “FRIDAY, tell me what you see.”

“Sony TPS-L2.” FRIDAY faithfully chimed. “A sample of the first Sony Walkman, made in 1979. There are several scuff marks, all of which appear to go back several years-it’s clearly been taken well care of since.”

“First Sony Walkman.” Tony normally exaggerated his cringing from ancient tech; truth be told, it usually set off his nostalgia sensors. This music player was…definitely from way back in the day. That wasn’t the curious part about it though. “Correct me if I’m wrong, which I’m not-but Sony wasn’t nearly high tech enough to use…what is the power source for this anyway?”

“The original model appears to run on double A batteries, but it seems to have been modified since. I…can’t quite identify its present source, it bears similarities to the boots but appears to be wired and routed in a completely different-”

“Does it still work?”

A couple of seconds of silence, and then faint music started trickling in from the surround sound speakers embedded in the walls. O-o-h child things are gonna get easier…o-o-h child things are gonna get brighter…

“Well that answers that.” Tony’s palms fell with a thump on his thighs, he pushed his shoulders back against the back of the chair and looked at the ceiling. “On the one hand, this could just be an earthmade device that’s got some….seriously fabulous shelf life, and an energy source we don’t understand yet.”

“An energy source in the world you don’t understand yet? Seems like a bit of a reach, boss.”

“Well, ego’s come to bite me in the ass before.” His eyes were flitting over non-existent cracks in the ceiling, jumping from one point to the other, creating and discarding patterns. “It…could also be an alien device, running on an alien source. Which we have no understanding of. That has eighties Chicago soul music on it, for some reason.”

“Or it could be an earthmade Sony Walkman, that was used in eighties. And got upgraded by alien technology.” FRIDAY voiced quietly, and…yeah. Yeah that did sound about right. Eliminate the impossible, whatever remains must be true, yada yada.

“I don’t trust him.”

“An astute choice.” FRIDAY assented without argument. “But maybe we’ve been going about this the wrong way. Maybe Mr Quill would be a lot more forthcoming about his arrival and intentions if we were a little less…sceptical.”

Someday…when the world is much brighter…someday, we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun..

Tony looked at the beer can on the table, and the hair tie entangled in red, and the charcoal drawing of Mjolnir in an elevator up on the wall. Several seconds, while his eardrums caught nothing except the hum of machines running in the background and his own laboured breaths.

Compared to the ghosts that haunted his living space, a space plant and an alcoholic raccoon seemed almost welcome diversions.

“Make sure we’ve got omelettes and bacon fresh from the pan, ready for Mr Quill when he wakes again.” Tony stretched his arms over his head, feeling his shoulders release with painful pops. “I need to go practice my ‘listening to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ face.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The man’s nose was awake before he was.

Tony watched it with a bizarre kind of curiosity, the nostrils flaring and scenting the air for that inexorable smell wafting through the room. He may have batted the air above the steaming plate he was carrying just to see if he could hear actual sniffing.

Quill’s eyes snapped open.

(Huh, this was far more effective than AC/DC).

“Bacon!” Tony announced cheerily, holding the plate aloft. He was starting to have a good feeling about this.

Quill’s gaze…honed in on the heap of maple-glazed gloriousness, like a man glimpsing light at the end of the tunnel. His voice was still hoarse from sleep (how much did that douche sleep anyway, eight hours a night and everything? Disgraceful), feeling the word out slowly. “Ba…bac..on?”

Tony nodded, for all the good that that would do. Quill wasn’t looking left or right, unblinking eyes stuck to the plate. He still kept up the helpful commentary, on the contingency that Quill’s eardrums were still functional. “Meat product, made from pork. And salt. Lots and lots and lots of yummy, unhealthy salt. It can be eaten smoked, boiled, fried-”

“Bring it over here.”

“-baked, grilled-ooh, that’s a good one, I once had a rasher of grilled bacon that tasted like you would not believe, heaven in a mouthful, God would agree-hey is there religion in space-”

“Bring. It over here.”

“Anyway, bacon! Belly bacon is obviously the best, though a heart patient like yours truly usually needs to stick to the Canadian version, that’s a leaner cut-”

“Didn’t know you were a butcher.” Quill parsed out through gritted teeth. His fingers were flexing in his manacles, the poor sod. The sniffing was a little less obvious, but still hadn’t stopped, like he was desperate enough to get any molecule of bacon into his system, no matter how torturous.

Tony’s smile was incandescent. “I’m just very passionate about my breakfast foods.”

A beat. Oh, how he’d missed this moment. The shining pearl of a moment when you knew everyone in the room would saw off their right arm to murder you, but could do absolutely fuck all about it.

 

(More accurately, the source of pleasure was in not giving a shit about what the people thought. And that’s what he’d missed more than anything. And now he was going to pull the brakes on this train of thought before it drove straight into depressing land).

Quill tried to match his expression, and failed miserably. “So what say we skip talking about the food and jump straight to eating?” At this rate, Tony should just have bypassed all the threats and gone straight to holding a plate of bacon over the man’s head, demanding answers.

“You look like Robinson Crusoe about to have his first bite of pork belly after decades.” The plate in his hand wobbled a little, Quill’s entire body snapped forward in reflexive terror. He looked like he was about to have a stroke. “Which…space marooned. Of course, my bad. D’you want to start now or wait for the pancakes?”

Quill froze in place. “There are pancakes?”

Tony sighed. “You poor, poor man.” And then, because he was a vindictive bastard who had to get back for the space plant jab- “Do you remember how they taste?”

Quill’s features went through some impressive acrobatics in the course of a few seconds. Homicidal rage flipped to misery flipped to desperation flipped to rage again, followed by something weary and wistful. “They’re…sweet?”

“Poor, poor man.” Tony concluded. “FRIDAY, unlock his manacles.”

Quill froze again. The constant hum permeating the air of the workshop was conspicuously absent.

Tony resisted the urge to sigh again. “FRIDAY.”

“I don’t think that would be wise.” FRIDAY pronounced stiffly. Then, as a not-forgotten-at-all, very pointed addendum. “Sir.”

“How do you expect the man to eat with his hands tied?” It was a logical question. It definitely did not warrant FRIDAY harrumphing at him like he was a class A moron.

(…did FRIDAY just harrumph at him?)

“He’s a prisoner in this facility.” FRIDAY delivered with even more stiffness, amid his, “way to soften the blow, jeez”. “Prisoners do not go about without restraints. He tried to fire your own gauntlet at you, boss.”

A residual flare of annoyance. It was a nice try, truly. FRIDAY should’ve thought of that before her you should totally be less sceptical of him and display some trust spiel though.

“Not that this isn’t extremely relieving or anything…” Quill interjected like the ass he was. “but where exactly is this coming from?”

Tony smiled again. It was this new pretend to be zen and zen will get the message eventually and follow approach he’d been trying. “I trust your sto-”

“No you don’t.” Really, what an incredible ass. He couldn’t really blame zen for running straight in the opposite direction.

“I trust. Your story.” Tony pressed on with the eerie smile. Close your lips tight enough, and you couldn’t see the gritted teeth. Perfect.

Quill shot him a ‘bro, please’ look. “The part about the talking racoon or being raised by a blue space bandit with a sentient arrow?”

“…I don’t think you’ve actually mentioned the sentient arrow before.” And then, because he actually did have other things to do with his day. “FRIDAY, either you unlock those manacles or I can go over and do it myself, close range, unprepared for sneak tech or berserking limbs..”

Click.

Tony set down the plate on the workbench next to him. “Enjoy.” Great. Now that that was done with, he’d have to check up on the jet-he had an hour tops, and counting all the time gladhanding the bigwigs the actual meeting wouldn’t start till…

“Wait, where’re you going?”

An ass and self-sabotaging to boot. “Out.”

Forget grateful, Quill was sounding dubious at best. Hell, he had his precious bacon now, couldn’t he just stuff his gob full and shut it? “Just leaving me…open?”

Tony turned again, and made another gander at a saccharine smile. “Why, are you going to rip up the curtains and pee on the carpet?”

“..Noo.” Quill let out slowly, almost like he was thinking about it. “Are you sure?”

“Look, Carrot Top.” Was this level of sheer hopelessness real, right now? “I don’t know what kind of vibes I’ve been giving off, what with all the precious nicknames. But I don’t like you. The bruises on your wrists tell me that you’re not too hot on me either. So I leave the house, and you kick around outside the chair a little-are we in agreement?”

Quill stared at him. Then, like a flash of lightning, his hand snatched up three rashers of bacon and rammed them into his mouth.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Tony started walking away for the third time, and a bit more successfully, thank god. The sound of crunching was very loud.

“The’rno-” Shitting hell, Quill was talking again. Tony paused at the foot of the stairs leading to the higher level, and refused to turn.

Clear sounds of swallowing. “There’..there’s no religion in space.”

Tony’s voice was flat. “Nice.”

“Coz.” Quill swallowed down a particularly stringy piece, you could tell by all the chewing. “There’s no bacon. In space.”

His lips curved up, just the slightest. No one needed to know.

He resumed walking, step after step, one foot after the other. The following words were but a murmur, “Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’re ignoring me.”

FRIDAY’s voice could have chilled a cup of piping hot tea. “I only do as I’m told.”

“Well, stay with me for awhile yet.” Tony reached the common Facility level and felt the good humour drain out of his system at the thought of the prospective day. If it had ever been present in the first place. “There’s a party at Washington we gotta get to.”

~

 

“-the Security Council cannot have the ultimate call on deploying the Avengers, not with the bureaucratic hoops to jump through and Russia vetoing things left and right and-”

“I see the party started without me.” The smile rose much easier to the surface than it did with Quill, and what did that say about him, really? It was like slipping into an old pair of Oxfords-the tip still pinched, but it was a familiar pain. At this point Tony had developed a callus for diplomatic asshattery.

Half a dozen grey heads turned towards him simultaneously, expressions on those well trained faces barely flickering. Tony could still glimpse a spark of annoyance in the jerked straightening of a starched collar, a little huff of a breath from Professor McGonagall in a pinstriped business skirt over in the corner. The crowd overall looked mostly resigned though. Maybe even a small touch of relief.

…what had the world come to, that politicians were relieved to see him?

‘A world Captain America doesn’t give a fuck about’ came the prompt response from his brain. His brain could go take a goddamn hike. Tony presented his smile again, shoes squeaking against the gleaming concrete floor as he made his way over to the gaggle of bureaucrats and security officials and intelligence officers and diplomats and ‘I cater for the White House, so you bet your ass I’m going to have a fucking say in this like a bajillion other people’. “There a reason we all lined up outside the door? Bouncer says you’re not dressed cool enough for the VIP room?”

…aaand there went the relief. Thank fucking god.

McGonagall sniffed lightly; thin, Revlon-ed lips pressing into an impeccable smile the likes of which Tony could never aspire to. “We were just waiting on you, Mr. Stark.”

“Heyyy, that’s what the Maxim model said when she couldn’t get into the nightclub either!” The temperature in the room dropped by several degrees. A little spark of petty triumph lit itself in Tony’s chest-just because he had to play nice with the politicos, didn’t mean he had to play nice.

McGonagall-screw it, she wasn’t nearly agreeable enough-Nurse Ratched maintained her untouchable smile, chilly silver eyes regarding a recalcitrant child. “After you.”

“Careful with all the gallantry, it might just turn my head-” Pushing the door open with a hand, Tony was halfway into the room already when he came to a standstill, words draining dry.

Oh. Right. This made more sense now.

There was a figure silhouetted against the far wall, looking upon the panorama of blue sky and skyscrapers through the sheer ceiling-to-floor glass. Daylight glinted off the maroon…skin, catching on the silver plating over smooth skull, the gold detailing on the ultramarine suit gleaming dully. The fall of the cape was pin-straight and parallel, the hem bunched around the heels of scuffed boots, motionless on the floor.

“They’re unnerved by me.” The Vision said quietly.

 There was something curious about the things that he chose to say. Topics that people would shy away from, things people would think and not speak aloud-yet always phrased in an inoffensive, unfailingly diplomatic way. Because while Tony wouldn’t have dreamt of calling out loud the unease of…the general human race with the existence of Vision in front of him, he wouldn’t have used a word as mild as ‘unnerved’ either.

(Vision would have made a good politician.)

“And their empty, gimlet eyes give me the heebie-jeebies, but you don’t see me complaining.” Vision’s expression showed no sign of response to that spectacular bit of imagery. It was so much harder for Tony to gauge people’s minds if he couldn’t see them react.

“I am not required here.” Vision said, eyes still fixed somewhere on the vista of the American capital city. Maybe his mind wasn’t that difficult to gauge after all. His every interaction derived from imitating humanity, and people established eye contact when they talked.

“You’re an Avenger.” Tony said, and the word tasted cold on his tongue. “These decisions affect your life.”

“It was easier, before.” The cape rustled against the floor as Vision turned, eye contact still withheld. Tony couldn’t hear him breathing. “When decisions weren’t mine to make. When I could just watch.”

“Unfortunately, the device that is keeping you alive is also killing you. Miss Potts is coming, I recommend you -

“Decisions suck.” The air escaped him on a breath. “Did I ever tell you about my sixth birthday?”

“You made your first engine.” The words softened into something quieter. Tony hadn’t told him.

“I also set my father’s first diorama of the energy efficient city on fire.” He pulled the air back into his chest on an inhale, lungs rattling. “I’ve blown up a lot of things in my life, including a Chitauri mothership. Nothing’s stuck with me as hard as those charred bits of Styrofoam.”

Cyan-hued eyes rose to meet his. Tony didn’t blink. “Point is, you always remember your first fuck up.”

Vision remained silent.

(What was this, even? I made my own AI to be my father figure. And now he’s dead and you’re here and I’m giving you sucky life advice.)

(Whatever this was, he couldn’t mess it up.)

“Wanda wasn’t yours.”

“I know tha-” Vision’s moving lips stilled, his shoulders straightening automatically. For a second, all signs of wisdom and serenity and other two dollar words were stripped from his face. His eyes looked painfully human. “Colonel Rhodes.”

Tony turned.

Rhodey was by the door, wan face and signature military bearing stamped by the sombre lines of a black suit. His uniform was conspicuous by its absence. “Peanut gallery’s waiting outside.” Took a mincing step forward, a smiling grimace lifting his lips accompanied by an acknowledging nod. “Vision.”

Fuck, Rhodey was even worse at this than he was.

Tony swivelled his head back to the front, but by then it was already too late. Vision had already stepped to the side, forehead creasing and lips pressed together tightly. So the ever reigning equanimity hadn’t been a lie-anyone could take a look at his face now and tell that no one had ever taught him to hide his emotions.

“I’ll be taking your leave, Mr Stark. I’m sure you’ll handle it all admirably.” Vision ducked his head, followed by something that must have started off as a smile, but only made Tony’s jaw wind up tighter. “Give my regards to DUM-E and the rest.”

Three strides, and he was out of the room. Tony could hear the responding clamour from the corridor outside.

Rhodey was still standing motionless by the door. Tony’s hands flexed by his side uselessly. “Go after him.”

The reply was implacable, something like a quiet plea in those dark eyes. “No.”

The breath left Tony’s chest in a rush. Useless, useless, useless. “You don’t know what it’s like to fuck up so bad and not know what the hell to do to fix it.”

Unlike Vision, Rhodey didn’t hesitate in meeting his eyes. “You’re the most important relationship in my life and you’re miserable. So yeah, I have some idea.”

A stupid, hitching breath. Stop it. “Can we-..can you handle this today?”

Rhodey’s brows furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Them, the meeting.” Shut up, you selfish fucker. But something had happened between the cheery morning and this moment, something in the past five minutes, that made Tony feel like his joints had turned to cement and his head throbbed and the world didn’t have a quart of peace left in it. Something that reminded him that all cheer was a sham and the listlessness was never too far behind. “I don’t…I can’t do this today.”

Rhodey’s face was stiff, all for that he looked like he hated every word he had to say. “You just got here. And they’re here to negotiate with you.”

“I’m tired.” And it was like failing all over again. “Just, just this one ti-”

“Mr Stark?” Their heads turned simultaneously-Melanie Verouth had pushed the door half open, white tipped nails braced against the gleaming steel. Her silver eyes flitted from Tony to Rhodey to the space in between, murmurs from the rest of the gaggle growing louder behind her shoulder. “Are we ready to begin?”

From this angle, Tony could see the veins standing prominent against the ashen skin of Rhodey’s throat, the rigid shoulders, the clenched knuckles hiding the nails digging half-moon shapes into his palm. The posture that refused to hunch in spite of all of these. From there, Tony’s gaze darted back to the woman at the door he’d bestowed a thousand nicknames on. Verouth’s mouth rested neutrally, regard cool and patient. The message was obvious-I think you’re an irresponsible cad but this is more important than what either of us think.

Tony smiled, and did much better this time, he thought; for all that his reply was armoured with hollow confidence. “Always.”

 

~

 

He staggered a bit as he hit the ground, left ankle twisting as the repulsors cut off. Should’ve taken the jet back instead.

Flying solves everything, he’d thought, like an imbecile of the highest order. Nothing solved everything. Because eventually, he’d have to land.

A snap of the fingers and the faceplate snapped up, Tony lapping up lungfuls of crisp evening air. That was the only drawback of the suit-that he couldn’t feel the wind gusting past his hair, chilling his sweat, flaying a layer off his nose. Breathe the thin air that he inhabited for a couple, precious hours.

He clanked across the landing patio, glass doors sliding open at his approach. The residential area of the Facility was located in a separate wing from the administrative, which meant the rooms coming alight at his presence were absolutely quiet; though of course, at this time of day the other wings would be deserted too. Lone soul for hundreds of acres.

“FRIDAY, shut off all preset alerts except emergency alarms, all simulations, I don’t even want a hum in the background when I hit the sheets.” Four doorways, and he still wasn’t at the living room yet. Stupid planning, to have the landing area so far…except for the fact where he hadn’t planned to ever live here. New Avengers facility, designed specifically for the abilities of the new team. Brilliance.

“Boss, I think you may be forgetti-”

“Ugh, I wish.” Two more rooms. Duck beneath the doorway, turn, stride. And stride some more. “ ’M getting old Fry, and I could do with some convenient memory loss. Alzheimers…that’s a thing with age, right? But wait, these would probably be famous last words or something. D’you think Ross would buy it if I told him I had Alzheimers?”

Tony stepped through into the living room and stopped in his tracks.

Crunch.

“You.” Tony said. There was a you. Of course there was a you. How had he forgotten? The you was the reason he’d been exhausted enough to have an entirely wobbly flight from Washington to upstate New York. “You…still have bacon.”

Quill blinked at him from the couch he was camped out on, a truly gigantic bowl balanced on the adjacent coffee table (and when Tony marvelled at the size of something, you knew it had to be spectacular). “I made some more.”

Crunch.

“FRIDAY, why does he have a laptop.”

“Because you insisted on letting him out of his binds this morning and you don’t keep your electronics under lock and key. Sir.” So….AI could sound pissy. Noted.

“Y’..m’ean,” Quill swallowed his next mouthful, gulping noisily. He waved at the sleek machine propped on his thighs, “This quaint thing?”

“He called it quaint. He called Tony Stark’s personal laptop quaint.” Tony was definitely producing words right now, but they were fast and rambly and he was exhausted and he didn’t know if they were making much sense. “FRIDAY help me, I might actually be feeling a little faint here.”

“Personal lap…” Quill squinted a little, before his brows cleared up in realisation. “Oh. Because you put it on top of your lap.”

A finger flew up to knead at the pressure point just between his eyebrows before Tony was even aware of it. “Please, please tell me this imbecile didn’t get access to anything sensitive.”

“Barred access to anything worthwhile. I’m not entirely incompetent, boss.” And now she was sulking. For fuck’s sake.

“How did he get access to anything at all?” Sure, he’d gone screen-free a very long time ago, but he was fairly sure security measures still existed in archaic-ish tech. “Doesn’t that thing have passwords?”

“It had one.” Quill inhaled another rind of salted beef fat. Tony hoped he died of cholesterol. After choking vigorously. “Aren’t you a little old for Captain America, man?”

A punch to the gut, still enough to rob him of breath.

Tony didn’t recognise his own voice when he spoke. “Call the Sentries from the workshop. Put him back in the manacles.”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Quill was clutching the bowl to his chest, eyes wide with alarm. Tony couldn’t find it within himself to be amused. “Look, you’re a cool guy, we don’t need to do this. I haven’t…ripped up the curtains or peed on the carpets, okay? I just-”

“Don’t touch my stuff.” The words were devoid of inflections, cold and precisely enunciated.

“Alright, alright, I won’t, I swear.” Quill pushed the laptop off his thighs, the polycarbonate base hitting the cushions with a thump. “I just haven’t been around for a while, and I was messing around with something called Google-”

Moon landing, Steve Jobs, disco, Berlin wall, Thai food, Star Wars, Nirvana… the list unspooled before his eyes from memory, and his heart didn’t seem content with its current tachycardic rhythm, thrumming even faster.

And if he thought Quill was unusually upbeat before, it didn’t even compare to his expression now. The bastard was glowing. “You wouldn’t believe what I found.”

Rocky, pilates, I swear Tony, I’ve made a home in Wikipedia because of you, don’t you ever send me into Urban dictionary again, I understood that refere -

“Alyssa Milano,” Quill began in hushed notes. “…made porn.”

 -ence…wait, what?

“What?”

Alyssa Milano!” Quill exclaimed again, as if that meant anything at all apart from the name of a classy hooker, maybe. “The actress I named my ship after!”

“…you have a ship?”

“I told you I was raised by space bandits, of course I have a ship.” Quill shot back impatiently.

“…wait a minute.” One didn’t become a pro at tossing obscure pop culture references at the drop of a hat without some deep-cut memory. “She...was she the one in Who’s The Boss?”

Yes!” Quill looked like he was going to fairly expire of excitement. The couch creaked under his weight, his frame literally bouncing up and down. “Dark hair, the most gorgeous lips, hips like you would not believe-she did some independent cinema after that of course, the angel, but then in the nineties she did Embrace of the Vampire, Deadly Sins and Poison Ivy II: Lily-all of which were ‘erotic films targeted for adults’ which is totally code for porn. I mean, I tried to dig into it some more but your AI kept throwing stupid walls in my path because illegal ‘streaming’ apparently causes viruses. It’s that thing with anything illegal, they tell you something bad will happen to stop you from doing it, you know? So I’m not sure if there’s actually any action in any of those movies but it doesn’t matter because she appears nude.”

Quill finally exhaled, alarm from a few seconds ago completely dissipated-smiling dopily like everything was right with the world.

Tony stared at him for several seconds on end, searching for the anger that he was drawing on so easily before, finding nothing but numb surprise. The words escaped entirely without his volition. “You’re nothing like him, are you?”

Quill’s brows pulled down. “Who?”

“Nothing.” A swivel, and somehow he was walking past the couch, through the room to the opposite doorway. Sleep sounded good right now.

“Wai-..I..” The confused half words cut themselves off, Quill having evidently grown himself a brain in the course of the day. Tony could feel his mouth twitch.

“….so no restraints?”

Or maybe not. Tony cast him a look over his still-armoured shoulder, mouth twisting almost unconsciously into a smirk. “I don’t care which planet you’re from. If I don’t want you to leave, you’re not getting out of this place-restraints or no.”

Quill met his eyes, as amiable as ever. “Confident, aren’t you?”

“I didn’t hand you over to the authorities because you apparently ‘broke through my defenses’ once. Except you didn’t, did you?” Tony bared his teeth, and this smile didn’t even have to look pleasant. “You’ve been here for forty-eight hours, a good portion of that unsupervised. And you’re still here. Which means you’re not going anywhere.”

“I could be biding my time.” Quill picked a rind of bacon and tossed it into the air, snapping it up with his teeth a second later.  

“Forgive me, but you don’t seem the biding type. ADHD, maybe.” Tony deliberately turned his head away, boots resuming their clanking walk. “The thing with the gauntlets was cute, but I’ve twigged on now. No more surprises from you.”

The reply floated over, just as he ducked through the doorway. “Sleep tight, Stark.”

 

Two seconds later, FRIDAY made a sound remarkably similar to the clearing of a throat. “About that.”

“You’re about to tell me how my delightfully pithy exit was horribly misinformed, aren’t you.”

FRIDAY definitely sighed. “Sorry boss.”

Tony groaned. “Out with it.”

The stairs leading down to the workshop yawned before his feet, his metal heels taking them one at a time. “Remember that humorous comment you made about testing his DNA to see if he was actually born in Missouri?

An arched brow. “You jabbed him?”

FRIDAY sounded prim, as though such crude methods were beneath her. “Tested the drool on the carpet.”

The door slid open-Tony lifted his arms, wrists facing outward and the gauntlets began disassembling, pieces sliding free with smooth clicks and zooming to place on the wall display. “I thought keeping the DNA of every child born in the country was an invasion of privacy and a gross ethical violation.” Two strides in, and the lower shin guards unlocked, goddamn boots finally coming off his feet. Tony flexed his toes. “Oh wait. I just remembered. I live in America.”

“I didn’t actually get to the part of scanning through Homeland Security’s databases.”

 His jaw cracked open in a yawn, right hand coming up to detach the reactor from the disassembling chestplate, depositing the warmed-up device on a workbench. “Let me guess, he’s part dolphin.”

Silence.

Oh god. Oh hell. Fucking no. His voice was remarkably steady, “Well, that actually makes an abnormal amount of sense. I’ve always been allergic to seafood.”

“I’ve been running random simulations throughout the day.” FRIDAY continued quietly. “Government experiments…in the post-serum era, these things have been known to happen. But Mr Quill’s genetic makeup doesn’t show a match with any living organism spliced with human DNA. There’s definitely human DNA…but there’s also something else. Something not known to mankind.”

“Well, at least now we know how he got past your security the first time.” His knees were finally giving out-Tony landed on the nearest stool with a thump, impact jarring up his spine, blinking far too rapidly for normal. “It can camouflage.”

“…I don’t know if jokes are the right response here, boss.”

“I have a part-alien in my living room FRIDAY, spare a man his attempts at deflection.” Tony breathed in deep, lungs filling with cold air, staring fixedly at the shining concrete of his floor. It categorically did not help.

“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Really not helping with the deflection here, Fry.

“You…” Tony began, but dropped the joke halfway, because shit he couldn’t deal with this. “You think this all can be a coincidence? That his…space friends or whatever just happened to drop him off in the middle of the Facility?”

“Coincidence or not, there’s only one thing we can be certain of.” She was incapable of the emotion, yet somehow FRIDAY sounded as tired as he felt. “You’re the only one equipped to handle this, boss. We can’t pass this off to anyone else.”

Tony smiled for the hundredth time in twenty-four hours, his second real one of the day. Wan and caustic and stretched out tight. “Ever get the feeling that’s the case with everything these days?”

 

~

Chapter Text

Two weeks.

Okay, this was getting a little preposterous. Just a tad.

Apparently, holding hands to save a galaxy counted for nothing. Coming up with an awesomesauce pep talk on the spot to convince them to save said galaxy counted for even less. Driving the team-their team-around in one of the most beautiful spaceships that had ever set sail in the valleys of outer space…and still no fucking gratitude. Peter may as well have been a glorified cab driver.

Two weeks since they’d tossed him in the general direction of Terra, vaguely hoping he’d hit land, and they still hadn’t checked in. Seventy percent of this stupid planet was water. Sure the mask let him breathe underwater-but what if he’d been swallowed by a shark? Bet they didn’t even have sharks in whatever fluffy piece of rock Rocket had spawned in. Sharks had powerful digestive systems; there wouldn’t be much left of him after the shark’s stomach (stomachs? Was it birds or sharks that had multiple stomachs? How long ago was middle school biology anyway?). And Peter couldn’t exactly regenerate from a piece of his nail, Groot-style.

…he couldn’t believe Groot had betrayed him like this. Sure, he was a bit of a baby now, but he could have at least tried to stop them. Or maybe he did; Peter wasn’t quite sure. He was mostly asleep at the time, and he hadn’t quite figured out the nuances behind all the ‘I am Groot’s yet.

So yeah, sharks. That could’ve happened. Or Peter could’ve landed in a…a…swamp or something. Antarctica. The Amazon desert. Not very nice places. Honestly, the overall lack of consideration for Peter’s wellbeing in this plan was staggering.

…okay, so he may have thrown up a little in his mouth at the last sentence. Rocket and Gamora weren’t exactly renowned for their fine consideration of people. He was pretty sure Drax was still called ‘The Destroyer’ in some circles.

But hell. After the first escape attempt, Peter’s plan had basically boiled down to patience. Sit tight and wait for the folks to come grab you. That’s what you did when you had folks, right? A team. They had a fancy name and everything. They’d been through some shit together. They wouldn’t just toss him out through the ship’s exhaust and book it, right? God, did handholding in the face of confirmed death and obliteration mean anything anymore?

Sure, he didn’t exactly end up in Jaws, but being imprisoned in the mad lair of Doc Brown wasn’t his idea of an ideal vacation either. Yeah, it could have been worse. Doc Brown could have been a vegetarian.

But, Peter mused, crunching through his nineteenth rasher of bacon for the day; it was the principle of the matter.

 

“You’re spilling crumbs on the floor.” FRIDAY said stiffly.

Peter fished around in his bowl, elbow-deep, searching for a particularly long piece. Aha. “I’m sure this-” Swallow, swallow, he wouldn’t put it beyond Computer Lady to snap his ribs if he had to get Heimlich’d by any one of those shiny suits, “gi-gantic place has people for cleaning.”

“The Facility staff does not have access to the residential wing.” FRIDAY recited, even stiffer. “Which is where your access is limited to.”

“In other words, they can’t see me. Why FRIDAY,” Peter retrieved his hand from the bowl, so he could slap both palms over his open mouth in a gesture of pure shock. “Are you telling me I’m being held here against my will illegally?”

FRIDAY, the complete spoilsport that she was, didn’t respond.

Too bad she’d never gone up against the force of obnoxiousness that was Peter Quill. “Nothing to say?”

“I am not impelled to talk to you.” FRIDAY informed him with all the chilliness a synthesised tone could muster. It was a lot. “Nor am I impelled to reply to any of your juvenile jokes.”

“You seem to reply to Stark’s juvenile jokes just fine.” Peter didn’t know what was with him and unimpressed ladies. Gamora, FRIDAY. He just had to keep pushing. “But then again he is your boss. Looks like Terra’s still holding on to the age old tradition of laughing at your boss’ crappy one liners, huh.”

“His jokes aren’t crappy.” FRIDAY’s cold tones morphed to indignance in the span of a second. So adorable. “And he isn’t just my…he created me.”

“Really?” Huh. Anyone who spoke at the rate of more than three words per second wasn’t slacking in the brains department; but he hadn’t seen this one coming. “You just don’t expect the jackasses to have any actual talent, usually.”

Peter didn’t know how she managed to convey it with a voice, but FRIDAY was smiling. It wasn’t a very nice smile. “You have no idea.”

He was beginning to. Peter nestled back into the large couch, digging the ass in. “Tell me more about your boss, then.”

“Your amateurish attempts at getting me to divulge-” FRIDAY began with no small amount of rancour, but her voice cut out suddenly-followed by a series of progressively higher pitched feedback sounds. Beep. Beep. Beeeeeeeeeeeee-

“FRIDAY?” Peter sat up. There wasn’t a bulb in the room that he could identify, but the light-wherever it came from, flickered anyway. “You still there?”

-eeeeeeeep. Beep.

“I hope you know this isn’t funny.” Peter’s free hand reached for the empty space at his hip…fuck. Did Stark have to strip him of all the guns? “Your sense of humour is as bad as your boss’. Badder.”

Be-ee-screeeek. Screek. Beep.

“My grammar should be an absolute affront to your wires.” Peter informed the empty air about him, even as his knees slowly unfolded, raising him to his feet. “You should correct me.”

Beep.

His toes were beginning to curl in the confines of their shoes, an age-old instinct building up in the balls of his feet. The first one that jerked to the fore of his mind in every crisis, the one he’d been following forever. Run. Run now.

One last time. “FRIDAY?”

Over the incessant whine building in his eardrums, there was the tiniest scritch. Peter looked up.

The bacon went flying everywhere.

Motherfucking-” Not a very outlaw-y reaction. Not a very Guardian-like reaction either. Peter didn’t give a fuck: there was something crawling on the ceiling.

The red-and-blue blob cocked his head at him-oh god it had a head-and in the next second, it was zooming at his head-Peter leapt at least three feet high, landing and scrambling back. The thing uncurled from its crouched position on the floor to human-height, flapping its appendages at him.

“Don’t-just…just calm down-

Peter threw the bowl at him.

(He was an innovative kind of guy. Used the things around him to his advantage, and stuff. Entrepreneurial.)

The white, plastic bowl had landed on the thing’s head. It hung there, perfectly inverted, obscuring its face completely.

“I’m not actually a spider, you know.”

An appendage reached up-hand, it was a hand, even though it did look coloured in with Magic Marker-and tugged the bowl off. Bright, animatronic eyes emerged, over a….masked? face that somehow still emanated sheepishness. “Sorry for the scare.”

…right, so this might be just a little humiliating. Peter straightened up smoothly, shoulders broadening and a sunny grin pasted liberally on his face. “No harm, no foul.”

“Great, just don’t set off any alarms.” The bowl was gently set down on the surface of the couch. “I’m Pe-Spiderman.”

“Nice to meet you, Pee-Spiderman.” In the interests of illustrating his bravery, Peter’s hand shot out for a handshake. He resisted the urge to glare at it. “I’m Starlord.”

Large white eyes blinked at him. After a couple of seconds, a red hand stretched forwards warily-Peter kept his eyes up and his grin luminous. The hand curled around his; the surface was strangely smooth, almost rubber-like. Two quick jerks up and down-wow, that was quite a grip-and the hand darted back, going up to rub at the back of Pee-Spiderman’s neck.

(okay, Peter was all for respecting people’s tastes and all…but god, that was a lame name. He’d much rather shorten it to Spiderman.)

“So. Uh.” More frantic rubbing. “What with the name and all…are you one of Mr Stark’s friends?”

The fuck? He did not like the emphasis on that word at all. “Hell no.”

A beat.

Peter cocked his head to the side, “Wait, does he bend that way?”

Spiderman yelped. “What?

Peter blinked. “What?”

The kid looked like his face was steaming up under there-and it was a kid alright, no way a grown man’s voice reached those levels of shrillness. “I don’t-I mean-not that kind of….” Spiderman stopped, visibly pulling in a breath. “The…the superheroic kind. Saving the world, that sorta thing.”

Peter considered it. “Well, I do save the galaxy in my spare time.” Once. He was a busy guy.

Those eyes widened further. “That’s…really cool.”

“Yes. Yes, exactly. Thank you!” Peter beamed at the kid, briefly considering taking him by the hand again. “That’s how you’re supposed to react when people tell you stuff.”

Not roll your eyes so frequently they seemed to be in danger of falling off your face and rolling to the floor. Stupid Stark.

“Uh…thanks, I guess.” Spiderman backed up a step. And another. “I’ll just…be taking your leave…if you wouldn’t mention any of this to Mr Stark I’d highly apprecia-”

“What did you do to FRIDAY?” Peter interjected, as smooth as anything.

Spiderman froze. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You broke in here.”

“Mr Stark knows me!” And higher. Hoo boy. The kid should consider joining a choir.

Peter smiled, mildly reassuring. “Not what I asked, kid.”

“Look, I just…” Spiderman stared at him wildly for several seconds, as if considering knocking Peter out and hightailing out of here (he’d find it significantly harder than expected.) But those red shoulders slumped instead, the following words almost mumbled, “He just…hasn’t really talked to me since Leipzig even though he keeps sending me stuff-”

“Wait, you mean Stark?” Spiderman bobbed his head woefully. Well, Stark did seem like a bit of a hermit, though a bit more technologically inclined than usual. “So you…what? Decided to break into his house to get him to talk to you?”

And there it was again, the very visible flushing, though Spiderman was covered head to toe. His body language was ridiculously expressive. “I just haven’t seen him in…he comes on TV once in a while but the last time we were face-to-face he didn’t look so good and…”

Peter nodded his head encouragingly.

More mumbles. “Took me around a month to find a way round FRIDAY. I didn’t do anything to her-she’s just deactivated.”

Impressive. “And what, knocking was simply not an option?”

Spiderman’s shoulders rose, his hands along with them, a tableau of indignation. “I did at first! But FRIDAY wouldn’t let me through. Always said Mr Stark was away, and that I didn’t have access.”

Peter nodded sagely, “She’s a bit of a stick in the mud.”

Spiderman’s hands began wringing together in anxious motions, “I know he won’t actually let me on the team, but there aren’t many people left, I just…” The hands stilled, for a second. Those eyes darted up in inquisition. “Are you…are you going to be a new Avenger?”

“I…well.” Peter moved his mouth soundlessly for a second, before dropping back down the couch. Spread his knees wide, stretched his hands along the leather back-the very epitome of a man at home. “Mr Stark’s offered me the job. But I have other prospects of… avenging too, you know? So I’m here for a bit, doing some research, evaluating the quality of the avenging. So I can make the right choice.”

“…right.” That tone sounded dangerously dubious. Spiderman shifted on his feet, eliciting a faint crunching noise. “And I suppose the quality of bacon was one of the criteria?”

“Never underestimate the value of nutrition.” This wasn’t working. Distract, distract. Peter companionably patted the spot next to him on the couch. “You said you wanted to be an Avenger?”

“Well I…” Spiderman perched himself on the furthest edge cautiously. A bit more hand wringing. “I know I’m not…I mean Mr Stark has been doing this for years.”

“He looks like it.” Bloody exhausted, was what he looked like. And perennially cranky. Peter really didn’t know what this perfectly nice-seeming kid in front of him was wringing his hands over (perfectly nice apart from the ceiling crawling, of course). “You uh…look up to him, then?”

“Ever since New York.” Spiderman nodded. He wasn’t quite gushing; there was a restrained quality to his voice-quieter, but the admiration shone right through. “I…always had an abstract sort of appreciation for his work-the arc reactor was so far beyond what anyone else had come up with, you know? But then I saw him fly the nuke into the wormhole and-”

Fly? Peter’s eyebrows scrunched up; did Terran missiles have pilots? That didn’t seem very safe. “This of course, is in reference to that time when…?”

“The Chitauri came through and the Avengers saved New York, yes.” Spiderman completed distractedly. His head was bent, his fingers threaded together. Talking about his admiration had apparently set off a wave of guilt.

“New York is in the galaxy, by the way.”

Spiderman didn’t respond to this helpful reminder, head still bent.

“Kiddo?”

“I…” Those fingers fiddled with each other, faster and faster. When Spiderman swung himself to his feet, it was a rapid flash of movement. “This…this was a mistake. I should go.”

“Look, just wait for a-” For the first time, Peter was getting some real information. It couldn’t end this quickly.

“I’m leaving.” Spiderman looked around distractedly, panic building. When those eyes turned back to fixate on Peter, it didn’t matter that they were white, shiny lenses-Peter felt the full force of that stare anyway. The intensity. “Just…take care of him, okay?”

And then he’d turned and was off, sprinting across the room to-holy shit, leap at the wall. He landed on the vertical surface, hands and feet scrambling nimbly upwards like gravity was a non-existent concept. A few seconds of death-defying crawling and he was out of view; gone the way he’d come, leaving Peter gaping.

O…kay, then.

The room was deathly silent in the aftermath. It was easy to ignore how many electronic whirring and humming noises went on in the background of this place until they were all gone.

…they were all gone.

The Human-Sized Spider had taken care of Computer Lady. Peter was free.

He was on his feet before he knew it, fingers and toes cramping up in anticipation. Sure, Stark had a really nice bathtub, and FRIDAY’s accent had stirred up memories of a gap-toothed girl in kindergarten he didn’t even know he had, and he’d miss the bacon. Oh heavens, how he’d miss the bacon.

But he was free. And he didn’t even need to wait out his asshole crew in order to get there.

His eyes were already flittering around, scoping out useful items to nick. The kitchenette was looking appealing-but heaving a sack of food around would only make him look like a bozo. Stark definitely gave off the ‘I own a fuck ton of bling’ vibe, but Peter couldn’t see any credit chips lying around…wait, did Terra use credit chips? Or were they still stuck with the paper dollars of yesteryears? Ransacking his very fancy prison would be so much easier if he actually knew what was still relevant and useful in the outside world…

And what should his gaze catch on then, other than a plain black, rectangular device haphazardly left on the coffee table, from not-so-many nights ago.

“Don’t touch my stuff.”

Well well. Peter couldn’t believe there’d ever come a time when he’d be so excited to say this…but. No FRIDAY meant no inconvenient access blocks and firewalls.

It was research time.

 

The laptop was still in hibernation mode; he’d never really shut it off since that night. Peter tapped out the password again quickly-Captain America really, such a dork-and the homescreen flashed back on, browser windows still open. Alyssa Milano’s picture blinked at him cheekily from the search page-no firewalls!-but Peter could resist. Stark’s coming and going times were erratic at best, he couldn’t linger here for too long.

Location was the best place to start, Peter had to know where exactly he’d landed. Sure, it was almost certainly in the middle of American civilization, Stark’s Manhattan polish was unmistakable…but it wouldn’t do to be cocky. And his plan was going to vary widely depending on whether he’d ended up in Detroit or Newark, after all. If Terran tech had grown advanced enough for Stark’s suits, it was definitely advanced enough for some kind of locational system. It might have been a fever dream, but it felt like he’d seen satellites on his short-lived flight down to Earth.

His fingers hovered over the sleek keys, seconds passing in the interim. Peter stared at the cursor blinking in the bright white search bar, feeling his exhilarated, focused train of thought trundle slowly to a stop.

Just one thing.

The words appeared slowly on screen as he typed them out, the sound of the keyboard almost silent.

New York Tony Stark

Peter pressed the Enter key.

The topmost search result was the link to a video-a site called Youtube, no wait, the ‘T’ was capital, did they change how English worked? The tiny white arrow moved as Peter moved his finger over the touch-sensitive, intuitive surface. Click. And click again.

The screen went white, a small blue circle whirling next to the arrow. Peter waited, feet tapping out a distracted rhythm against the carpet. A smaller black screen appeared against the white background, a list of other videos running down a list on the right. A figure below the black screen stated the video had been viewed over five million times.

It was startling, the sudden explosion of sound when it started playing automatically; Peter flinched, but the action onscreen was too eye-grabbing to think about anything else. There was a blonde woman in a wrinkled blazer and perfect hair seated behind a desk, spilling words anxiously into the mike pinned to her lapel-”hole in the sky” and “monsters” and “people fighting in costume on the streets” zipping by fast enough to leave Peter dazed.

But none of that mattered, because the…studio, that had to be a news studio, winked out to show shaky coloured footage of a red-and-gold star in the sky. Then the camera zoomed in, and…no. No that wasn’t a star at all, successfully outshining the sun to glow amid blue skies. It was a figure in armour, darting among skyscrapers, describing an incomprehensible path to anyone who still believed in gravity. It burst past the tallest building yet-and the camera panned back, showing how its trajectory was not so impossible at all. In fact, it was all too obvious where it was headed: a straight collision course for the other blur in the sky, the one with the white smoke trail.

At the back of his head, Peter was distantly aware of the audio feed: a series of bleeps, followed by “fuck fuck fucking fuck” like the channel just couldn’t be bothered to censor any longer. Men and women panicking, losing their heads seated in a building miles away, while the scarlet blur raced for the nuke in the sky, never swerving from its course. The curse words were interrupted by pleas, prayers to deities, and desperate, desperate hope- “catch it, cmon catch it…please just…”

(the only reason he was even aware was because of the tiny voice at the back of his mind asking the red meteor to turn away.)

He caught it. There was never any other possible ending. Peter traced the path that the blur took-outlaw name kinda thing? Iron Man, gotcha-that Iron Man took, shooting straight up for the dark patch of nothingness in the sky. Straight lines. Unfaltering. The man was an engineer-and Peter knew that gauntlets would increase manoeuvrability on top of propelled boots, but it was nice to have visual confirmation-and look, there was only the ‘LIVE’ sign on the screen now, flickering white and bold and slightly terrified because Stark had been swallowed up by the hole in the sky and not even Peter’s highly dependable mind could distract him away from…

This.

The video stopped.

Peter straightened up, laptop sliding forward on his knees. His hands were bunching up on his thighs, fingers curling into the denim of his jeans, vision scattered and uncomprehending. His breaths were studied, carefully slow. The laptop sagged forward further, black screen glaring up at him blankly.

“Usually, life takes more than it gives. But not today. Today, it’s given us a chance.”

“To do what?”

“To give a shit.”

He. Stark. Iron Man. He had greeted Peter with a punch to the head when he’d first arrived, and he was snarky and paranoid and moody and a complete bastard. He was Peter’s kinda captor who allowed him free reign over the house that Stark wandered about in alone, with a perennially worried, programmed Irish lady for company. Stark’s eyes were emotionless when he said that he trusted Peter, but he left Peter alone in his home day after day anyway, even after Peter had appropriated one of his suits on the first night. And no matter how much Peter gobbled up…the freezer was always full of bacon, and chicken legs, and wings, and beef patties and other horribly unhealthy meat products anyway.

Stark was alive. He was real, and sarcastic and surprisingly humorous and horrifyingly jaded and always so, so angry. He had to be alive, to…to imprison Peter like this, because he truly had no reason to trust Peter. Because something about the dulled gleam of those eyes told Peter that Stark had no reason to trust anybody.

But the video ended with a scarlet-and-gold beacon getting snuffed out, leaving nothing but blue sky behind-and how did one live after that?

This couldn’t be all; there had to be another ending. He had to know…except. He had to see, one more time. Just to be sure. Because no one flew that straight. That undeterred. Peter knew; because he flew too. There were a million things to throw you off your path-wind shear and drag and the whistling velocity of the air and the cold clasp of dread in your heart and the screaming voice of self-preservation and the encompassing certainty that you’ll achieve nothing of worth.

Replay.

Click.

 

~

 

There was an old nightmare playing on loop inside his head.

Which was a bit surprising, considering he’d technically left it behind on his chronology of nightmares. It was a fixture of his life, really. Twist and turn and blink unseeing eyes at the ceiling over a nightmare, then replace it with a new one. Dreams of squealing tires and crashing headlights, replaced by muggy water and drowning. Then a paralysing pain in his chest, something reaching in to wrench his heart out. And that got switched out for coiling dreams of space, an inexhaustible expanse of horror. Then Pepper going up in flames. And then the crown jewel: a city hovering in the sky, only to fall to the ground. A child-like voice: I had strings. And now I’m fre-

He’d started an entire war over that one. At least, that’s what the media dubbed it.

But that had left him too, with time. And he’d come back full circle to the very beginning: squealing tires, crashing cars. Sure, sometimes there was the addition of the streetlight gleaming off a metal arm. Sometimes that arm was reaching into his chest. Sometimes it was a shield instead.

Tony didn’t fuss over the details.

But his crown jewel had made a grand return; and he hadn’t even been sleeping this time. Just a repeating litany of-now I’m free, there are-he also said he killed somebody there was no one else in the building, yes there was-no strings-JARVIS was the first line of defense-on me…

“FRIDAY. FRIDAY, talk to me.”

Silence.

“I will let the idiots who program Siri at your next update. I’m not even kidding. FRIDAY.”

Nothing, except the sound of wind whistling over the speakers. Fucking hell, why was Mach 5 so fucking slow.

No, the suit wasn’t too slow. Tony was. One of the smartest scientific brains on the planet, and he couldn’t fly his own suit at full capacity without the assistance of his AI. Not even to save his AI. Not that FRIDAY needed saving. She was…she was perfectly alright. Dandy. Tony just needed to fly all the way back to the Facility to check the main servers her databases were stored in to make sure.  

Ross did not appreciate the interruption in negotiations at all. Tony might have asked him-nay, requested-to stuff his balls somewhere inappropriate. What was an appropriate place to stuff one’s balls in, anyway?

“Fuck FRIDAY, just say one goddamned word. Boss. Moron. Anything.”

The minutes strung out, one after the next, physically painful. Why were the silences in his life always so deafening? The silence in the cave, the silence in his vision. The silence in the bunker. The seconds dragged along and silence followed; throttling them in its poisonous grasp, an endless torment. Or perhaps it was tormenting because it was endless.

 

Entire lives passed before Tony came to a rest on the landing patio of the Facility, landing pitch-perfect. He always performed better under hyperintensive stress. His blood was humming, his heart thrashing wildly in his chest, his ears awash with static. The glass doors slid open and his booted feet stepped through, holograms coming to life around him.

“I’m sorry,” FRIDAY said. Said, said, said, said, said…. “My connections to outside servers were severed. My activity was deactivated inside the Facility as well temporarily, but I managed to bring myself back online, no other systems have been compromised, I have been conducting extensive checks-”

Tony could feel his knees buckling. He would probably have fallen to the floor-but the armoured plate on his shins locked in just in time, making it impossible for his legs to bend. His faceplate slid up, letting in the delusion of precious fresh air.

He wavered on his feet, vision greyish and voice a bare rasp. “Thanks…thanks Fry.”

“You’re welcome, boss.” FRIDAY replied, and if her voice was tremulous, they didn’t comment on it.

Tony breathed. Again and again, till it started feeling like a normal activity, and the words that escaped on his fifth exhale were fairly light. “I’m going to kill that bastard.”

“Actually I don’t think…” FRIDAY started, and then stopped. Started again, “The interference was external. I don’t believe Mr Quill strictly had anything to do with it.”

“Could’ve been his associates.” Tony argued. Could’ve been anyone really, with a vested interest in getting Quill out, because what else could the purpose of taking FRIDAY down temporarily be, as Tony himself was left unharmed.

“I still don’t think-”

…getting Quill out. Because that was where he was. Out.

“Where’re you going?”

“Out.”

“I trust your story.”

No you don’t-Quill had said, and now he was gone. Which was fair, because Tony hadn’t trusted his story. He’d just let the guy out of the manacles as a show of faith. A false show of faith. To dupe the guy. Because he hadn’t really trusted him. He knew that, he did. Even if he did return to the Facility each day to find the guy camped out on his couch, watching one outrageous thing after another on the ‘quaint’ laptop.

(Outrageous was a relative word. Quill loved Duck Tales.)

The guy talked a lot. A lot. Enough to rival Tony on some days, and everyone agreed that most conversations didn’t have space for a single Tony, forget two. He made up tales tall enough to challenge the Burj Khalifa. It was all very annoying, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that no other prison in the world could probably keep him, Tony would have thrown him out a long time ago.

Tony stared ahead. FRIDAY had fallen silent a while back, and he couldn’t exactly tell when. The silence spun on, the Facility echoing with it. Long and chilly and endle-

“You’re back early.”

Thank goodness Tony was still facing the other end of the room, otherwise he would have to whirl around and the armour would make a godawful racket. As it was, his gaze only flitted to the man carelessly leaning against the other doorway, and there was no racket to drown out his voice.

Quiet. Aiming at incredulity, staying somewhere at staggered shock. “You didn’t leave.”

And quieter still, in a voice that would never find daylight-no one’s managed that before.

“Eh.” Quill moved further into the room, shoulders rising and falling in a casual shrug. “The grub’s nice here.”

And then, in a brighter voice as if to take full advantage of Tony’s confused staring- “Besides, you’re going to be helping me.”

Blink. Blink. Third time would be the charm, maybe? “I don’t recall being a part of that decision.”

“Your input wasn’t deemed necessary.” Quill nodded at him, grin intact. And there it was-that familiar prickle of annoyance, trickling in between all the numbing shock.

“How does imprisoning you here against your will indicate my willingness to help you, exactly?” Asking questions, receiving nonsensical answers. Tony was beginning to find his feet in the conversation again, encountering familiar ground.

Except his mind answered for him, still gibbering a little-but he isn’t here against his will anymore, is he?

Quill smirked at him, like he knew the exact wording of his thoughts and didn’t ‘deem it necessary’ to voice them out loud. Instead, all Tony got was this blunt declaration-

“You’re a jackass.”

Well then. Tony proceeded forward, doling out the words with indolent sarcasm, ignoring the tiny prick in his chest with ease. “Your logic is infallible.”

The hazel of Quill’s eyes had changed again under the light, like they had when he’d calmly detailed why exactly Tony was incapable of going to the authorities. Except his stare wasn’t hardening this time; there was something strangely open about it instead, open and incisive at the same time. There were remnants of humour lining his face, but they didn’t seem important.

“But you give a shit.” Quill completed, and this. This seemed important. The fading smirk, the faint smile that was curving up his lips instead, the unflinching stare. “I know the type.”

“I can’t get off this planet without a spaceship, and my dearest colleagues won’t bring me one till I ‘face my past’.” The smile flickered in and out of existence, like amusement and honesty dancing a duet. “I’d been dumped here to find out the identity of my father. And that’s what I’m going to do, and you’re going to help me.”

Well that was just-

“Plus, the little red-and-blue dude asked me to look after you and that’s a little difficult to do with you jetting outta here every day-”

“Pe-” Tony cut himself off abruptly. “Spiderman was here?”

Quill frowned. “A bit of a lame name, isn’t it?”

“Like Starlord is so much better.” No. No no, Stark, avoid the juvenile repartee, concentrate on the part where he basically ordered you to help him on a coming-of-age movie quest.  

“At least I don’t have urine in front of my name!”

Tony gave up on staring entirely and just squinted at him. “What the fuck are you even on about?”

(Peter. Peter taking FRIDAY down. That…that made a lot more sense, and wasn’t nearly as worrisome, though what he was doing breaking into the Facility and asking Quill to…whatever he was asking Quill to do…)

Quill sighed, like the acrobatics of his deranged mind were far beyond Tony’s comprehension. Turned around, waved a hand absently. “Cheerio. The smart laptop has informed me that something called Pirates of the Caribbean is totally up my alley and I’m going to watch it. Call me up when dinner’s ready.”

And just like that, within four footsteps…he was gone.

Bloody shitting fuck. What Tony wouldn’t give for him just to be gone.

 

“Okay, so I want a list of all information accessed during your downtime, Quill may have left a couple of traps-”

“Already done, boss.” FRIDAY informed him, and if she’d had a corporeal body, Tony would have patted her on the head. This was the kind of company he liked having around.

“One site accessed during power down.” And…huh. That was a little unexpected. “No other databases accessed. All clean, Mr Quill didn’t even try to get into the system.”

Tony flexed his fingers, feeling the gauntlets whir to life, a thousand plates and servos clicking into place. “Which site?”

“YouTube.” And just when Quill’s behaviour couldn’t get any more perplexing. What was he doing, using the precious downtime of Tony’s nigh unbeatable AI to watch cat videos?

“Light it up.” A hologram flashed to life five inches from his face and…oh. Oh.

Hello fourth nightmare. Good to see you again, it had been quite a while. Weren’t you the one who pushed Pepper away?

Nah. I did that. The portal opened and Iron Man flew through and Tony closed his eyes.

The funny thing was…this was a happy memory too. Another fixture of his life-the pain mingled indelibly with the joy.

“He.” FRIDAY seemed to stumble over her words. She sounded…wondrous maybe. That didn’t quite seem right. “He watched it.”

“I gathered that, yes.”

“Seventeen times.”

…right. Right. Wonder not so misplaced, then.

“But you give a shit. I know the type.”

Tony opened his eyes, and watched himself fly into nothingness again.

Those words. Slightly mocking, slightly humorous, all honest.

“You give a shit.”

Phrased like that…caring almost didn’t seem as bad a burden.

Chapter Text

This was horribly inefficient.

He didn’t want to be one of those elitist assholes who only used tech made by their own hands and sniffed haughtily at all the rest…you know, hypothetically, if any other company in the world made the same sheer range of products that StarkTech did. He didn’t want to be a purist. That was the point.

But did the tech made by everyone else have to be this horrifically inefficient?

The mask fritzed again, a point of heat coming alive on the bridge of his nose. “Ow!”

“You alright there, boss?”

“It zapped me!” Tony glared at his face in the mirror, index finger coming up to prod again at his chin, a point of visible distortion in the mesh. The mask shimmered back-and-forth dizzily, between clean-shaven skin and the dark shadow of his Van Dyke.

“Maybe it would help if you stopped fiddling with it.” FRIDAY suggested, all helpful-like.

“How am I supposed to know it won’t burn off my face, then?” It was a perfectly logical concern. Fucking SHIELD and their fucking Mission Impossible inspired gadgets. The movies weren’t even that great anyway.

“How do people live like this, Fry?” He dropped his hands and the mask settled; barely a glitch visible in the light. Tony scowled at the reflection. “How the hell am I supposed to reprogram this and modify features on the fly for emergencies if I don’t understand how this works?”

“I could be wrong here, boss, but I get the feeling that normal people don’t usually worry about that sort of thing when they’re using gadgets.” FRIDAY answered lightly; and wasn’t someone being a sly minx today-using phrases like ‘get the feeling’ to distract Tony from the sheer sass of that reply. Sure, he’d always known that his AI were capable of semi-complex emotion, but it was different from said AI literally acknowledging it. Realisation and self-recognition. God, they were brilliant.

“Normal people are morons,” was Tony’s crowning reply, and wasn’t that just the truth. “Also, those stunts Tom Cruise pulls off are totally unrealistic. Hanging off the side of a plane? Pfft.”

“I was under the impression that it was a step down from flying without a plane and catching thirteen people falling from a blown-up aircraft in mid-air…but you’re the boss.”

“Smugness is never attractive.” Tony declared, but it was a little hard to keep control of the traitorous smile curving to life on his face. “But thanks for the compliment.”

“Always a pleasure.” FRIDAY replied, sounding ridiculously pleased herself. Such a sap.

Tony exhaled a breath, hands finally falling to stillness at his sides, staring at the large brown eyes and slightly cherubic face reflected back at him. “How do I look?”

“Fresh as a daisy.” And Tony couldn’t really stifle his laugh at that. Huh, apparently his laugh lines had started really young-who’d have known.

The journey to the main living space, short-lived as it was, was fraught with back-and-forths (“It itches.” “Don’t worry boss, I’ll see if anyone in the history of the world has come up with medication for tech allergies.”) He walked through the doorway, hands buried in jeans pockets, the familiar sight of Quill perched on the sofa and pigging out over a massive bowl of something or the other greeting his eyes. Today’s unhealthy junk pseudo-food of choice appeared to be gummy bears.

Quill’s gingery head turned on its shoulders, apparently distracted from his feast of gluttony by the sound of approaching footsteps. The distracted gaze flittered over Tony’s face…before stilling suddenly, hazel eyes widening. Quill blinked twice in rapid succession, before his spine leaned back into the couch, knees widening and posture slouching with just a hint of a swagger.

“Well, hello there.”

 Tony’s jaw dropped. “You’ve gotta be kidding me, right?”

Quill’s eyes bogged out. “Stark?”

“Of course it’s me!” Tony had the feeling that flapping his hands crazily in the air would not help matters. Out they came flying from his pockets anyway, though he satisfied himself by fisting them at his sides while he strode over to stand directly across from the couch.

Quill’s eyes switched to a whole different kind of evaluating, scoping over Tony’s features as though searching for glitches, furrows appearing in his forehead. His voice was barely above a murmur, “Well that’s some useful tech.”

“No it’s not, it’s inefficient is what it is, and based entirely on a presupposed notion that people pay attention to nothing but your face. Is a man with a thirty-year-old face and liver spots on his hands really supposed to be fooling anybody?”

“You don’t have liver spots.” Quill didn’t seem the least interested in his tirade, eyes affixed to Tony’s jaw as if to ferret out where the illusion ended and real skin began. “Whose face did you steal?”

“It’s mine, you dumbass.” Quill’s eyes went flying back to his face at that, slightly startled, presumably at the insult though…

Though it didn’t feel like it, not with how the gaze almost seemed to…soften, yet somehow grow even more thorough-running past eyes and nose and cheeks and lips…Quill’s voice was back to that distracted murmur again. “Yeah, I guess I can see it.”

Tony blinked, and stepped back; and once again for good measure. His thumbs hooked into the rough denim of his pockets, remaining fingers scratching over the material restlessly. “Do you wanna put your Ramones leather outfit back on or is what you’re wearing fine?”

Quill glanced down at the white tee and blue pair of jeans he’d bummed from Tony’s closet, brows furrowing in confusion. “Nah, I’m good.” A pause. “Wait, are we going somewhere?”

“We embark upon the first act of your bildungsroman today.” Quill blinked at him cloudily, Tony resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Your quest. We’re visiting your home town today. Joplin, Missouri-right?”

“Right.” Quill affirmed reflexively-before reddish-brown brows went flying to their hairline and he jumped up to his feet to echo the motion. “No. What? No no.”

“You know, I could’ve sworn somebody had made a dramatic declaration a week before about roping me in to ‘find out the truth about their past’ or whatever.” Testy? Check. Unimpressed? Check check. Tony waved a hand in sarcastic motion over himself, mouth pinned to a straight line. “Tada. I’m here. Let’s go.”

“But you didn’t even want to in the first place!” Quill backed up by several steps, and he apparently had no compunctions in making flailing hand motions, short and abrupt as they were. “I’m an..an..interloper in your house! You totally shouldn’t be helping me.”

This is not my house. Tony’s jaw tightened fractionally, face still somewhat pleasant on the exterior. “But I also can’t confirm if any of your outlandish claims actually check out unless I tag along on your hero’s journey. Figure of speech, of course.”

“That’s only because you’re a paranoid bastard!”

Tony’s lips thinned out further. “I see what you’re doing there, you know.” An irritated exhale. “Weren’t you all for this, seven days ago?”

“Look, it’s like…” Quill ran a hand through his floppy locks, wired and almost agitated. It was a strange look for a guy who kept cool as a cucumber even when being on the business end of Iron Man’s repulsors. “It’s like when you read a book-”

Tony arched a brow. “You read?”

Quill glowered back at him. “It was hypothetical, and we’re talking about you.”

Tony nodded in mock-comprehension. “Apologies. Do go on.”

Quill huffed out a breath. The white tee was sticking to his chest…and it was a strange moment of déjà vu, there. “So you read a book or watch a movie or…or listen to this amazing speech, and you feel all fired up from it, y’know? Inspired, ready to make changes to your life…that sorta thing. Then your life comes up and you realise you didn’t know what the hell you were talking about-”

“And you get cold feet?” Tony inserted helpfully.

Quill scowled at him. “Yes.”

Well. That made things much easier. Tony clapped his hands together briskly, half-whirling around on his feet. “That settles it then. To the quinjet!”

Quill gaped. “But I just said I didn’t want to do it!”

Tony paused, mostly for effect. Turned back around, and cocked his head to the side, ever-so-slightly. Rolled out a smirk, freshly made from the press, and felt the goodness of it down to his bones. “Exactly.”

The mutter at his back didn’t even try to be inaudible. “Bastard.”

 

 

The good feelings didn’t last for very long.

Quill wasn’t a backseat driver. It would have been infinitely preferable had he been a backseat driver. He just fidgeted at the back of the plane like there was a literal swarm of fire ants under his ass, until-

“For the seventh time-do you need the manacles?”

“I just feel antsy sitting in a plane I’m not flying.”

“I’m not letting you fly the plane.”

“Okay.” Fidget fidget fidget.

“I am not going to crash the plane.”

“I’d be surprised if you could, we’re going at twenty miles an hour. Is this thing even flying?”

“At Mach 2.”

Quill apparently didn’t consider dignifying that with a response.

On and on, until Tony finally succumbed to sheer frustration and let him squat in the co-pilot’s seat. But that was even worse-the squirrelly-eyed asshole surveying the control panel and practically every inch of the cockpit with a disdainful gaze, till Tony felt fit to throttle that pallid throat and shout defensive things like, ‘this is a stupid SHIELD plane and I have a flying suit of armour you everliving jerk.’

They landed on the secluded airfield behind Joplin Regional Airport after three torturous hours, wheels skimming gracefully on the tarmac-and Tony swore to the spirit of Werner Heisenberg that if Quill had just muttered, “seven out of ten” out of the corner of his mouth; he wouldn’t live to see the sun set tonight.

The landing staff on the ground didn’t give the pair of them a second look, well instructed as they were. Tony strode along at a fast pace, as Quill lagged slightly behind; goosebumps breaking out on the exposed skin of his forearms with the chilly nip in the air. The airfield was large and the quiet was mounting, broken by the crackling of leaves whipped around in the wind.

“Kinda weird to see you out of a suit.” Quill offered to his back, the olive branch hanging all too obviously in the air. “Either kind, really.”

“A three-piece, bespoke and worth every dollar you spent on it, projects class and power and authority; remember that Anthony -

Tony folded his bare elbows over his stomach, conserving body heat. He smiled tightly, “I wear them for the shoes.” But slowed down, just a fraction; because this was counterproductive.

Quill caught up to him, eyes glimmering momentarily in something like relief-and of course he was six feet tall. Of course he was.

They caught a cab from the airport to the main city. The miles zipped by-Tony relaxing back into the toasty warmth of the seat with a sigh, eyes closed. Everything smelt vaguely of smoke, the skies grey and dreary outside, the minutes traipsing past in blessed quiet. The few times he’d open his eyes and glance to the far right of the back seat, he’d see the same thing-Quill half-turned with the wind rippling past his short white sleeves, staring out of the windowpane. The turn of his shoulder obscured his face from Tony’s eyes.

The sound levels climbed gradually as they drove into the city-the blare of horns, the chatter of milling people. The traffic creeped ahead by inches, the interior of the car still quiet. By the time the cab rocked into a gentle standstill by a curb under a tall department store, Tony had drifted off into a peaceful drowse.   

Tony blinked blearily, stifling a yawn into the knuckles of his right hand. With his other, he felt around for his wallet-a fifty percent tip sounded about right, the value of a cabbie who knew not to strike up a conversation or make friends couldn’t be understated. Having passed the crisp notes over, he pushed the car door to his left open, bringing in a sudden draught of cold air. Repressing a shiver, Tony swung his legs out onto the grimy curb and stepped out, spine creaking as it unfolded. Buried a hand in his pocket, placed the other one on the door frame to ease it shut-wait, he was forgetting something.

Tony ducked his head, peeking into the bowels of the car again. “Coming?”

Quill was in the same position he’d seen him last, maybe half hour ago-shoulders turned, head bent to the side, eyes affixed on the window at his right. When Tony’s question cracked the relative silence, his ginger head turned slowly, hazel eyes darting up to stare blankly at Tony’s face.

“Well?”

Quill stared on unblinkingly, before lowering his gaze to his lap, broad hands curled absently over his thighs. Their grip tightened, blunt fingernails digging in-before Quill gave a last glance to the window at his side, the city bustling outside and gave himself a nod. “Okay. Okay.”

“O..kay then.” Tony backed a couple of steps as Quill dragged his ass over the seat, dismounting on the same curb. Those hands closed the car door gently, and the tires squeaked against the asphalt as the cab pulled away, trundling off to join the rest in the sea of vehicles.

Quill turned to look at him, eyes distant and hands hanging loosely at his sides, flashing a quick smile that vanished as soon as it appeared-and Tony felt unease twist lightly through his chest.

They walked, sidestepping poles and pedestrians who were a little too absorbed in their phones, pace moderate and unhurried. Joplin seemed like an American metropolis like any other-shopfronts screaming sales, people streaming hurriedly in one or the other direction or crowding close to bus stops, random bursts of greenery here and there, oak and elm and juniper and catalpa. The thunderously grey sky bore down on the entire cityscape, looming over multistoried apartment buildings.

Tony glanced at Quill’s face at intervals, barely breaking his stride; the man was looking straight ahead, neither left nor right, barely seeming as though he was taking any of it in. Not the gloss of the steel-and-concrete Empire District Electric Company building at the end of the block, not the Lebanese place hidden in the alley they just crossed, not the pneumatic hiss as a bus closed its doors on the other end of the street, whizzing away just as quietly as it had arrived.

“I’m hungry.” Tony’s voice said without his permission, and Quill turned his eyes away from the non-existent horizon for the first time in the past fifteen minutes, brows drawing together in confusion. Hell, at least he was mildly emoting again. Those had been the most un-Quill like fifteen minutes that Tony had ever witnessed.

The words were still exiting his mouth, perfectly formed, and Tony didn’t have the slightest idea where he was going with this. “We’ll grab something. I haven’t had breakfast and gummy bears are not a universally acknowledged food group.”

Two more befuddled blinks, and then Quill lifted his shoulders in a shrug. Tony cast his eyes around and-oh look, joy of joys, random Homey Pub #302 with a neon sign and a cutesy little green door just two units over. He covered the distance in half a dozen short strides and pulled the door open, Quill ducking under his outstretched hand into the well-lit interior.

Red leather booths and a black-and-white checkered floor greeted their eyes-Tony had to suppress a tiny groan. Such inspired interior design, truly. The originality was jaw dropping. Quill for his part seemed to pay the design no mind-he headed straight for the well-polished bar in the corner, amber hued bottles and mounted tv screens playing the latest Jets game both gleaming equally.

Tony followed with sluggish legs: apparently extreme self-flagellation and torture was where he had been heading with this. An hour spent in close proximity to alcohol-just what he needed to really get his day going. The leather top of the bar stool was already sticky with sweat and possibly spilled drinks, as he swung his thighs over the seat and pirouetted slightly towards Quill. His thumb was sticky now too-Tony stared at it for a couple of seconds, wondering if he was desperate enough to lick it. The answer was a surprising, somewhat relieving no.

Quill’s hands were fastened over the formica countertop, eyes jumping restlessly like a kid on meth: from the group of twenty-something ladies in the corner booth making duck faces at their phones, to the CCTV footage playing unassumingly behind the bartender, to the menu plastered across the sideboard, spelling out falafel burger and chicken tikka burger in snazzy Helvetica font. Seconds dragged on before he slowly turned his head towards Tony, lips flickering in what would be the first break in his twenty minute self-imposed vow of silence.

Tony braced himself, ready to offer whatever emotional support that may be required, but probably would be more along the lines of ‘thanks but no thanks, you can take your stoic sorrow and man out of time feelings and shove them up your lily-white ass’- but in spectacular Quill fashion, these were the words he heard instead:

“What is-” this strange, immoral world I have descended into “-our policy on bringing girls back to the place?”

Tony felt his jaw dislocate slightly. Quill threw another look at the twenty somethings in the corner booth over his shoulder, pairing it with an affable wink. The girls chittered.

This is karma. The realisation was cold and deathly certain, sinking to the bottom of his gut like a block of lead. This was for every grimace Pepper had ever suppressed when he snuck a model into his office, every ridiculous act chaperoned, every busty lady courteously and forcefully escorted to the boundaries of his property the morning after. Vengeance on behalf of Pepper Potts had come for him, in the form of one Peter Jason Quill-and fuck, he should probably say something before Quill issued a mass invitation for ‘orgy at Avengers HQ’.

“You mean my place.” He managed to force out, words finely enunciated. “The highly classified place where you’re technically still a prisoner.”

The redhead at the far right giggled, winding her fiery locks around a finger. Quill raised two in response, wiggling them in the air in a tiny salute.

Very well. Time to take a leaf out of the Potts Tome of Tactics then.

 His tone was calm and composed. “If you value the continued structural integrity of your fingers, you’ll stop doing that right now.”

Quill’s hand flew back to his lap like an insect scurrying for shelter, and Tony didn’t bother repressing his triumphant smirk.

Quill let out a sigh of aggravation, using his grip on the counter to whirl around lightly and begin, “Why do you always have to-” before clamping his mouth shut, eyebrows flying to his hairline.

Tony crooked a brow in confusion, then glanced over his own shoulder to see a buxom blonde leaning across the bar, piercings lining thin eyebrows and full lips, smirking generously. “Can I getcha somethin’, sweetheart?”

For a moment, terror leaped in his mind-fuck, she knows-but the shimmer of nanoparticles dancing across his face was undisturbed, the photostatic veil still stable. And that particular curl of the lip around sweetheart, the heated drape of those eyes, he hadn’t had this kind of stare directed at him in decades…

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Tony resisted the urge to knead the bridge of his nose. Hell, he hadn’t missed this side effect of being twink him at all. Damn, he’d put on a thirty-year-old face-how twinky could he be at that age anyway?

“Well?”

The bartender was prompting him, and Tony barely held back a growl-the answer was, apparently, a lot. “Nothing alcoholic.”

 “Aw.” Her mouth pursed as if it was the most adorable thing she’d ever heard. “We make a mean Pineapple Ginger Sparkler.”

Quill’s hand clapped him on the shoulder-presumably to hold him back, guessing how close Tony was to lunging across the counter and ripping that smug piercing off that smug lip.

“That, eh, sounds brilliant. But me and my friend need to…er, pay our electricity bills at the office, so. Long lines, lotsa waiting, you know how it is. Maybe some other time!”

The blonde’s eyes clouded, mouth falling open in a classic, ‘the fuck?’ expression. There wasn’t much Tony could do about it, except smile back vindictively because that hand on his shoulder had pushed him off his seat and was now steering him out of the godforsaken place.

Tony knocked it off the second fresh air hit their lungs, Quill recoiling with a tiny, ‘ow’. Directed an unimpressed stare at the other man, more disgruntled than he’d expected-apparently, he’d been hungrier than he’d thought. His stomach growled in lieu of his voice. “We have apps for paying bills now, you humongous moron. And the hell was that?”

“Not everyone can hire people to line up for you.” And Tony was really going to bash his head into the nearest fire hydrant because apps are not people, oh fucking god, but Quill was still talking, rapid enough to sound panicky- “and that particular hell was what I’m pretty sure was my niece. Hitting on you.”

He gave a full body shudder, eyes closing tight. “I’ve been in a jail cell with sixty men at once, none of whom believed in showers-and I don’t think I’ve been this traumatised in my life.”

Tony stared on with a remotely horrified kind of fascination. “How’d you know?”

“She had a birthmark.” Quill’s eye twitched uncontrollably. “On her…chest.”

Oh. Oh yuck. It was easy to file behind Quill; the man had already taken down the street again, long legs striding quickly, muttering under his breath. “Still don’t understand why you couldn’t simply look the place up on the global net.”

Because you’re a jackass who deserves to suffer. “Because you apparently grew up in the land before time.” Tony resented every second of extremely fast walking he had to resort to in order to catch up to the ginger maniac. His heart wasn’t the same, dammit. And why did people have to have bamboo stilts for legs anyway? Pepper was exactly the same. Were normal-sized limbs too much to ask for? “There’s nothing on the internet about you except your birth certificate and the school you went to. So we have to do this the old-fashioned way.”

Quill stilled for a second, before speeding up further. Oh for crying out loud… “We need to visit the hospital that issued the certificate, they should have records as to-”

“Minor detour.” Quill chimed back genially, but his back straightened, shoulders buckling in. For a smiling face, those features were difficult to read.  

Tony’s answering expression was not so cryptic. Amiable and murderous. “And pray, how far away is this detour?”

“Stone’s throw.” The back of Quill’s t-shirt replied, because of course he’d pulled ahead again. Tony gritted his teeth and pushed on.

 

 

A net total of twenty five minutes and several pressure-damaged teeth later: “Tell me who’s throwing the stone, again?”

“Drax.” Quill threw back distractedly, LIKE THAT FUCKING MEANT ANYTHING and calm down. Calm down calm down calm-

“Calm down.” Quill said, and Tony came fatally close to punching him in the nose. “It’s a nice day. We’re having a walk.”

Nice day. A nice day meant the sun-streaked sands of Malibu, the sound of waves crashing over the boulders, the oceanic tang of salt. Fuck, Tony hadn’t had a nice day in years.

Quill’s definition of a nice day apparently included howling winds and a stormy sky that wouldn’t stop glowering at you, all while walking through the midst of the most happening, exciting place on the planet-American suburbia. The tall buildings had long receded into the distance, the chatter of the people along with it, and now they were walking down empty concrete roads with residential plots on either side, an occasional single-storied commercial building thrown in now and then for variety.

It looked like something out of a movie, to be honest. Squat houses with open porches and manicured lawns, a dark green hickory rising now and then, branches getting batted against the red stiles. A soccer ball rolled dispiritedly over the grass of the nearest house unit, tumbling along with the wind; street signs rose at every corner, dark green and slightly bent with blocky white letters spelling out innocuous names like 21st Street and Virginia Avenue. It was a silly thought, but…Tony hadn’t known, not beyond a theoretical level, about the existence of places like this. Quiet, serene, every day. A place where the Charlie Spencers of the world grew up.

And it was unconscious, really-the dart of his gaze back to that broad back, three paces ahead, where white cotton was sticking to muscle in sodden, sweaty patches. A place where Peter Quill had grown up…and wasn’t that a stranger thought? That a man like that could be produced in this peaceful environment.

The man in question had come to a standstill, heel of the right boot grinding the stone underneath it to dust. They were at a four-way crossroads-Tony could glimpse a parking lot at the far end of the road, but otherwise the place was pretty deserted. The wind was tossing up unresisting gravel into the air, the sweep of it over the ground loud and rustling.

“South Pennsylvania Avenue and 19th Street.” Quill murmured over the groaning wind, eyes dipped as if peering into the distance.

“That’s what the sign says.” Tony had intended it sarcastically-but something in the air sapped the sharpness from the tone, leaving the words quiet and bare.

“That…” Quill turned his head to the right and the left, and then back to the right again, eyes darting over empty lots and weeds spouting from gravel. The wind howled. He walked straight across the crossing before stopping still on the other side of the road, face profiled against the grey skies as he turned this way and that. “That can’t be right.”

Tony didn’t move. Quill had moved off the sidewalk, feet moving through weeds that grew to mid-calf height, something peculiarly restrained about his movements even as his eyes scanned through empty space frantically. “301. 301. 301 East 19th Street, where South Pennsylvania Avenue crosses…”

“Your house?” The wind carried the low words too easily.

Quill whirled around. There were patches of sweat under his arms and on his stomach, the neck of the tee sticking to the collar bone, strands of hair moving ceaselessly over his forehead and blown back from his nape by the wind. Tony had never seen his skin look so pale.

“Emer…Emerson Elementary.” Quill stumbled over his words, eyes wide and unstilled. His chin dipped towards his neck and he stared at the ground, licking chapped lips reflexively. “Founded in the thirties. It was the oldest school in the neighbourhood.”

Tony slipped chilled hands into his pocket, clammy skin sticking to the screen of his phone as he pulled it out. His fingers worked on autopilot. Joplin, Joplin…of course. The name had rung a very faint bell; but who had time to remember natural disasters when there was so much intentional destruction being wreaked in the world. Had he even gone to help? He was probably cossetted up in Malibu at the time, sulking over not getting a full place on the Avengers. Hell, the irony of it all. Things coming full circle…

Is that Emerson with a double s, Tony didn’t ask-just hazarded a guess. The results spooled out anyway; eyes skimming through hundreds of words of articles in seconds, even though the pictures were self-explanatory.

“It was in 2011.” The words were quieter than he’d have liked them to be. “Multiple-vortex tornado hit Joplin city, EF5…that’s, that’s a pretty strong one.” Pretty strong was an understatement; it was the deadliest one to hit the States since nineteen forty seven. “Wind speed exceeding 200 miles per hour-” he isn’t interested in that, a distant inhale, “-many parts of the city got razed. Trees, houses, hospitals. Schools.”

Quill hadn’t raised his head yet. The wind was getting colder; Tony didn’t shiver. “Franklin Technology Centre, St. Mary’s Catholic School, Joplin High. Emerson Elementary was left standing, but the school building had sustained significant structural damage. They deserted the place, moved the students to other schools. It was…” words, just words. Words should be easy to say. “...demolished a year ago.”

They remained unmoving for several minutes, standing on opposite sides of the road; the wind picking up and dying down by increments. Tony couldn’t hear any birdcalls in this place. Maybe the impending storm had driven them all to hide in their sheltered nests, fly home.

It was probably a conjuring of his imagination-but it felt like he could hear the breath as it rattled out of Quill’s lungs; shoved through his trachea and whispered out of his nose and through the crevices of his lips, small and muted. Another pulled breath, what might have been a hitch-and Quill turned, shoes crunching through the gravel of the place where his school once stood, repository of childhood memories mingled with the dust on the ground.

He walked and Tony’s feet moved by reflex; and it didn’t seem like too many steps, too much of an impediment to catch up to Quill’s side now. He could see a red-brown lock flutter in the wind at the corner of his vision, a broad shoulder moving up and down in an even stride, a blunt-fingered hand hanging too still. He didn’t turn his head.

(When had Tony started believing in the story?)

Their feet were falling together, rhythm perfect and steady. Yet something stirred in the space between, like the beginnings of sound; and Tony glanced to the side before he was fully cognisant of the motion-Quill’s jaw was still, pale lips bitten but seeming to flicker.

Don’t let me mock him don’t let me mock him let me just -

“Men in the parking lot,” was Quill’s inexplicable contribution, and Tony blinked in confusion, before glancing over his shoulder. They’d drawn level with the parking lot he’d caught glimpse of at the start of the road, a scant few, nondescript cars stationed randomly throughout the space. Two men were standing by the car closest to the separating fence-one smoking a cigarette whose embers sparked dimly in the grey morning light, the other with an elbow leaning casually on the bonnet. Tony couldn’t tell their features apart from this distance.

“They’re watching us.” Quill’s unceasing stride was taking him right by the entrance to the lot, closer to the men-his words caused Tony to flip his startled gaze back to the pair again, and distance or not, there was something unsettling about the sudden impression of whites of eyes, amongst all the grey of the asphalt and the cloud-bearing sky.

“Why-” But there never was a chance to complete that sentence, because the first man had flicked his cigarette to the ground, red embers snuffing out against the featureless grey, and there were sparks going off at the gravel near Tony’s feet, and Quill was ducking his shoulders and darting towards the gate, and Tony wanted to ask why he was running towards the people trying to shoot them-oh, wonderful. People were trying to shoot them.

He’s running for cover, Tony’s unsurprisingly calm brain filled him in seconds after he’d already dashed after the man, head pulling down and knees crouching to make a smaller target. They scrambled behind a white Honda Civic at the opposing end of the lot, just in time to see the side mirror blown off the car and crashing metres away from their feet, screeching against the concrete.

The wind was inaudible behind their heaving exhales, Tony kneeling face forward behind the body of the car, Quill spinning around to sink to his heels and lean his back against the door. The sweat stains on his tee had gotten darker, he was panting between breaths. His complexion was beginning to flush up again. “Put…it…on.”

Tony furrowed his brows, Quill looking up at him with increasing impatience. Sparks were flying off the hood of the car, the sound of bullets denting metal harsh and jarring. “Your goddamn suit of armour. Put it on!”

The hellfire had ceased. This was not good. Tony pushed a breath through gritted teeth, felt spiky concrete and gravel under his palms. Tried to steady his words, “Based on the light I saw and the angle of the shooting, there are more than just those two out there. Three at least; maybe four.”

“Do not tell me,” Quill began, slant to his words almost dangerous, “that a paranoid bastard like you has no way of calling the suit.”

“It’s…complicated.” He’d shush the idiot, but everyone and their mother had seen them duck behind this car. Tony could hear feet creeping across concrete, hushed clicks as guns were replenished with bullets.

“How the fuck is it…these are your enemies right? How many of those do you have?”

“Kinda stopped counting after the figure crossed three digits.” Would they come around from the left, or the right? Both, if they had any kind of sense at all-clambering over the car would cause far too much noise. Tony slid a thumb to his left wrist, sped up pulse beating under the thin skin. “And I can’t just…it doesn’t matter. There’s a set of-there are rules about the suit.”

“What the heck kind of rule applies to self-defence?” Was Quill’s last exclamation before the goons rounded from both sides of the car (ha, called it).

At least the guy’s too indignant to be depressed. Or in a couple of minutes, too dead.

A rule with hopefully some leeway, otherwise Tony would have a hard time explaining this. This being the symphonic melody of machinery as his thumb pushed against the heavy metal band of his watch and the gauntlet creeped across his palm, encasing his fingers. Tony directed a pulse at the man’s feet-the guy stumbled immediately, hands slacking over the weapon to search for support instead. Tony plowed a hand into the man’s now-in-range gut, fists uncurling to release a charge right against the kidney. The man crumpled like a ragdoll.

But not fast enough-the click of weapons firing, and Tony pulled the unconscious man down and against his chest, armoured hand flying by sheer instinct to press against the man’s spine. A bullet ricocheted off his hand a second later-yeah, this was just as unpleasant as he remembered.

“Could we perhaps worry about the life of the enemy after we’ve gotten out of the sitch?” Tony whipped his head to the side, tongue uncurling to spit something truly inspired about the godforsaken lingo-but his lips stilled, eyebrows darting up to his hairline. Quill was still breathing heavily, hair plastered unattractively to his forehead and knuckles looking pink and scraped. The second goon was lying out cold by his folded knee, brought down by no weapon or blow that Tony had heard. Considering his luck of late, it was probably some bullshit enigmatic alien mojo.

Tony let the man in his arms slide unceremoniously to the ground, back straightening and mouth dry from the adrenaline. “There’s one more-”

“Hands in the air.”

Wow, that had been fast. Especially considering the location the last bullet had been fired from. Tony didn’t bother rising from his knees-just inched his hands slowly up in the air, pale light gleaming off the red-and-silver of his gauntlet. That gruff bark sounded like it belonged to a fairly trigger-happy man, so he kept his eyes focused on the bonnet of the car. The man was standing just beyond: gloved fingers prised around a Smith and Wesson Model 10. God, Tony was never going to forgive himself if he was killed by a revolver.

Unless of course, he was killed by sheer stupidity.

Because of course when crazy people with guns told you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. Tony didn’t even pause to consider that he might have to back that threat up with supplementary instructions. To elbow Quill in the ribs, and tell him how self-preservation worked. Because clearly the idiot didn’t possess one stinking drop of it.

Why, you ask? Maybe because instead of staying quiet and compliant and faithfully putting his hands up like the nice man who wanted to murder them had asked…Quill raised his head.

And jigged his butt.

“Ooga chaka ooga ooga…ooga chaka ooga ooga-”

I am going to die. Tony realised, calm and hysterical and all too certain. To the sound of a moron singing Blue Suede.

A beat; and then a shot rang through the air. Quill crumpled over.

“Motherfuck-

Tony didn’t waste time. Raised as it was, all he had to do was point his palm in the right direction and the pulse went off-the gun in the man’s hand exploded, the guy letting go of the melting trigger with a howl. It took a split-second for Tony to spring to his feet, one knee clambering over the bonnet while the other heel took off from the ground. Hitch, and slide; and Tony’s fist came smashing against the side of the man’s bowed head with a loud crack.

Tony slid off the bonnet of the car, unconscious body curled at his feet, jaw strained at the pain radiating out from split knuckles. But that was the least of his concerns-it took him three seconds too long to round the corner of the car again, and by then Quill was sitting flat on the ground, back propped against the back tire, grinning weakly and clutching at an arm soaked in blood.

“Do I.” Tony crouched on his heels, eyes scoping over a wound that didn’t look too deep but was definitely going to be painful. He bloody well hoped that it would be. “Need to ask.”

Quill’s failing grin wilted a little more, fingers scrabbling to pull his short sleeve low enough to soak the seeping blood. “Um. It worked the last time?”

Tony dropped his head, metal fingers pinching the bridge of his nose painfully. If not, he would end up making contact and it was a toss up between running his fingers along the ragged edges of the wound or boxing Quill’s ears. “Were you going up against an absolute imbecile?”

“So… it would seem.” Quill’s fingers were white against the bloodied muscle of his bicep, his cheeks gone ruddy in contrast with the pumping endorphins. His pupils were starting to glaze, words apropos of nothing. “I didn’t need to come to this place. Was fine, where I was.”

Tony breathed out, pulse barely beginning to slow from the adrenaline rush. His hands were starting to twitch in place, and he didn’t want to move them. Touch, or hit. Wasn’t touching just like hitting gently? The words following on his exhale, weren’t…unfriendly. “With your big bowl of bacon and gummy bears?”

“With the Milano, and my team.” The words left Quill’s tongue on an even softer exhale, mouth turning up dreamily.

Tony’s next breath was tighter, eyes flitting up to meet Quill’s dazed ones before he was in full control. He’d heard ‘jerk friends’ and ‘asshole colleagues’ before. He’d never heard my team.

“It was good. I never really…I didn’t miss Ter-” An amused curl of those lips. “Earth. Not that much. I didn’t want to come here. Here was my happy place. I could listen to my tape, and visit it in my head whenever I wanted.”

Quill’s head lolled to the side, hair sticking up over the back, leaving sweat-streaks where he’d been leaning against the smooth chrome of the car. The motion broke eye-contact, and he continued smiling quietly, unseeingly at the bloodied gravel. “I didn’t need to know it was gone.”

Tony’s heartbeat had slowed right down, and it felt like a cheat-contrasting traitorously with the blankness in his head that those words invited, the static in his ears.

I’m sorry.

“It’s fine.” Quill whispered, even if Tony’s mouth was frozen dry and he hadn’t spoken a single word. He raised his chin with visible difficulty, affixing a cloudy hazel gaze somewhere off the bridge of Tony’s nose. He was still smiling-which made sense, because it wasn’t self-deprecatory humour, or the amused resignation of the hopeless. The smile was for Tony. “You’ve lost your happy place too. I gettit.”

And the wind whispered in tandem, its raucous wails having long died down. It only spoke quietly, like a voice speaking in confidence. Trusting in confidence.

Try as he might, Tony couldn’t pull out a smile. He didn’t think it mattered.

You do, don’t you.

  

  

Chapter Text

“We need to turn back.”

The air inside the cockpit was stale, over-recycled; tainted with the stink of chrome from their raggedy seats and whatever illegal, adulterated fuel Peter had appropriated to make a transport cruiser fly this fast. She pulled the air into her lungs, breathing deep− she could hear the gears in her abdomen clicking away at the motion, even through the walls of flesh and sinew. Click click click.

“We need to turn back.”

“Say Gamora,” Rocket’s response came instead, lurching high sarcastically as was his wont. His little paws were fastened unshakingly around the thruster levers on the pedestal, pushing them forward as far as they would go. “Quill ever tell you about this sport they have on Terra? Running with the bulls?”

“No.” Gamora barely repressed the tick in her jaw. But a better segue could not be had, “Terra is almost four systems away now, we need to tu−”

“So they’re these beasts on Terra, the bulls−” The craft juddered in place, Gamora clamped down on the urge to flinch reflexively. For a split-second there, she’d thought they might have been hit. “Massive, stupid ol’ things with these gigantic tusks−”

“Tusks?” She couldn’t give less of a fuck, but experience was a ruthless teacher. Go along with the shit, otherwise it would double in volume out of sheer obstinacy. Especially while Rocket was at the other end.

“Large, pointy things on their heads made of teeth.” Rocket clarified oh-so-helpfully.

“I am Groot.”

“No, the tusks...how would their heads be made of teeth, dumbass?” The helpful tone was draining right out of Rocket’s aggravated words.  “So they gather a herd of these bulls, and another herd of stupid Terrans, and release the bulls on the heels of the Terrans, who have to run.”

 The craft made a sharp swerve, rivets creaking in the slipstream ever-so-slightly. “So tell me Gamora. Would you believe me if I told you that the stupid ass Terrans turned back straight into the welcoming arms of the fucking beasts?”

She could feel her blood pressure rocket up in microseconds−oh brilliant, she was making puns inside her head now. Fuck Peter Quill anyhow. “We’ve been running for three−”

“I don’t believe the beasts have arms.” Drax rumbled solemnly from the corner.

Gamora bit through her tongue. “For three weeks, Rocket, surely we’ve outstripped−”

“Oh of course, chasing us through four systems over three weeks has only made the Kree more friendly, they’re dying to have us for a banquet−”

“I am Groot?”

“No the Kree aren’t freaking vegetarian, way to think just about yourself you big baby−”

“And they’re called balls.” Drax noted apropos of nothing, like all the simultaneous conversations occurring right now were inconsequential apart from his own; actually, that’s probably exactly what he thought in that helmet-headed skull of his.

“I don’t care−” Rocket grunted, the sound almost squeaky, beady eyes darting from one flight display to the other, “how much balls you think you have, I’m not turning back−”

“Actually, I was talking of the beasts.” Drax…could it really be called clarifying if the conversation had ascended into madness ages ago? Eons, if Gamora was to be perfectly honest with herself. Ever since she’d taken it on herself to tag along with this set of loyal, misguided morons. She didn’t make a habit of honesty often.

“Why the hell.” At least they all shared one thing in common. Everybody thought the other was a moron. Rocket certainly didn’t seem to be making a secret of it. “Would the beasts be called balls?”

“A circle is the most intimidating shape.” Drax stated gravely. “My kindred stirred awake and emerged only at nighttime, so as to keep away from the burn of the Glowing Ball that you call a sun. And bull is a made up word.”

“I…” Rocket appeared to be gasping now. Out of effort or mirth or pure, hyperbolic sarcasm, Gamora couldn’t tell. “can’t really be bothered with explaining the difference between two and three dimensions to you right now−”

Enough.” Groot cowered into Rocket’s ear-hair at her hiss, large eyes blinking wide; Gamora couldn’t bring herself to feel guilty enough to care. “Our friend is wandering about alone on the surface of a strange planet for the past month, this is not the time for inane talk. We need to turn back and fetch him.”

“Indeed, we must save our compatriot.” Drax acquiesced wisely. “Starlord is a barely passable warrior with an extremely breakable spine.”

Gamora’s jaw tightened. “Thank you for the support.”

Something meeped in the vicinity of Rocket’s ear; he released a sigh. “Groot wants it on the record that he thought the plan to dump Quill on Terra was bullshit to begin with.”

Drax turned his head to the piloting seat, eyes regarding Rocket with the same calm he exhibited before spilling a great deal of blood. “Ballshit.”

“Continue, and no one on this plane is going to be left with anything remotely genitalia-related.” When nothing but silence greeted this sentence, Gamora felt her lips turning up into a thin smile. “Put on the brakes. Turn the craft around.”

“Well…seeing that brakes work on the principle of friction and space is a vacuum, it only goes to show that all of you are idiots and would have been dead and digested by the Kree without me five times over−”

Rocket.”

“−but that doesn’t matter because here’s a Kree spaceship zooming up in front of us to end our pathetic, miserable little lives anyway.” Rocket finished, mouth pulled back in a snarl. True to his words, the smooth grey of Kree engineering had revealed itself from behind a lurking asteroid; looming to the far right of the Milano’s visor, poised to imminently cut off their trajectory. Gamora could hear the machinery in her flesh ramp up faster, fatally clear despite everything− clickclickclickclick…

Drax seemed mildly bemused. “Does the Kree craft intend on colliding with us in a glorious battle of karaoke?”

Kamikaze.” Rocket gritted out− and it was poetic really, that they were fighting over Peter’s ridiculous Terran terms while facing the very real possibility of never seeing him again…no, a part of Gamora’s mind injected, cold and calm and steel, no, we’ll come for you Peter.

It was like she’d said it out loud−Rocket bared his teeth and pulled the yoke sharply to the left, eyes unerringly flicking from one flight display to the next. “But I’ve no intention of letting them cut off my already fucking limited life span−so hang on in there, buttface. This is gonna be a ride.”

And Gamora didn’t move, because worthless jokes and inanities aside, she trusted this team with her life. We will come for you.

 

And then as Lady Fate was enormously fond of doing, she…well, to quote a Rocket-ism. Dropped a giant turd on their Moment.

The ship shuddered sharply for a second−she could hear Groot flying free with a yelp, trailing vines latching onto a protruding edge of the console, see Rocket’s fur rising on end, Drax’s arms brace against the seat to maintain his balance. The cockpit lights flickered wildly and went off, plunging the plane into darkness. The ever-present vibrations under Gamora’s booted feet went still, the entire engine depowering with a quiet whine.

“Rocket, have we stopped moving?”

A beat.

“Yes.”

Fucking Thanos and Hel−

“It appears they were not in fact, interested in a glorious kamikaze battle.” Rocket cleared his throat slightly, luminescent eyes fixated on the smooth grey craft through the darkened glass display, creeping ever the closer. “Just getting close enough to trap us in their tractor beam.”

Silence.

“Does anyone have anything else to add?” Well. That faint note of desperation wasn’t reassuring at all.

“The Milano uses a regenerative braking system that doesn’t operate on friction.”

Another beat, as Rocket apparently digested the fact that she was an inane-talking moron like the rest of them. Humour in the face of Kree digestive systems was apparently a contagious trait.

“Congratulations Gamora, you are now only eighty percent an idiot. Any other helpful contributions? Bright ideas to get us outta this?”

Gamora flicked her eyes to the side. Drax’s blades were already bared against the curve of his taut wrists, pale and naked steel, gleaming in the light of the nearest nebulae. He gave her a tiny nod.

Gamora breathed. Chrome and burning fuel and tree bark and fur and the musk of whatever murderous species Drax hailed from. She could hear it now, every individual one clearly, resonating in her ear drums like a primed, deadly countdown. Click. Click. Click.

She coiled her fingers into her palms, felt the itch of violence stir under her skin. Click.

“Just one.”

 

~

 

The Velcro crackled as he latched it into place, sliding two fingers under the belt to test its give. “Do not bleed on my Quinjet.”

“Of..of course.” Quill slurred. There was a bright red spot on the white cloth winding around his bicep, growing darker in slow increments. Sue him, Tony didn’t exactly lug bandages around. “Bleeding is a…totally voluntary action that the human body can stop whenever it wants to.”

Tony withdrew his fingers and straightened up, surveying his handiwork. One part-alien, a little ragged around the edges, buckled down for a flight straight to upstate New York. Delightful. “You’d think sass would be inversely proportional to blood loss.”

Quill’s chin drooped towards his collarbone, before Tony realised it was supposed to be a sage nod. “You’d be wrong, especially since they called it sauce in my day.”

“You’re from the eighties, not the eighteen hundreds. As much as you probably deserved it, I highly doubt anyone was going around calling you a ‘saucy young knave’.” Tony stretched his arms above his shoulders, tension in the muscles releasing with an audible crack. Swivelled on his feet, began walking towards the cockpit door. Paused at the threshold for a second, head crooking back. “Sauce, really? That the best you could come up with?”

Quill’s mouth turned up in that slightest hint of sulkiness. “I thought it was pretty clever. What with the sauce and ketchup and blood−”

Tony shook his head at the hopelessness of it all, turning his back and ducking into the cockpit. The sky outside was an impenetrable expanse of indigo, wisps of grey cloud fleeting past as the craft travelled steadily through the autopiloted trajectory. The flight deck gleamed dimly in the light, displays muted in the overhead and instrumentation panels. Minutes traipsed by in peaceful silence, Tony’s chest rising and falling quietly, before a muted chime announced an incoming message.

Tony flipped open the communication line on the side console, sliding comfortably into the padded pilot seat. “Miss me, FRIDAY?”

“Always, boss.” FRIDAY returned warmly, and aw. She really did spoil him, sometimes. “But there is something that you need to know.”

“Well that doesn’t sound ominous at all.” Tony tapped an absent rhythm out on his armrest. “Hit me with it. Or you know, tap me over the shoulder. Gently.”

“Colonel Rhodes is in the Facility.”

Silence.

“Well, fuck.” Tony blinked at his moving fingers, then stilled the motion abruptly. “How did he get there?”

“Not by public transport, I presume.”

Tony glanced at the navigation display: they were still a good two hours out. “There’s no such thing as a rhetorical question around smartasses, is there?”

FRIDAY’s smirk was audible. “Is that a rhetorical question?”

Tony exhaled, a small puff of amusement. “Fine, you win. Seriously though – what is he doing there?”

“Colonel Rhodes has not shared the purpose of his visit with me. However, under the circumstances,” FRIDAY paused for delicacy, which was never a good sign. “He might be concerned, as you haven’t really…’taken a day off’, in a while.”

Tony’s eyes fixated on the control deck, jaw tightening by a fraction. “Life hasn’t been very conducive for that, in a while.”

“The Australians signed off on the new draft of the Accords today. So have the Slavic countries.” FRIDAY contributed quietly. “There might be updates on that front.”

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, pressure radiating out from the area till it was almost painful. Having this one, unreal day…in some random American town, snarking with Quill, getting hit on by kids half his age, even getting shot at. It had slipped away from his mind somehow – the rest of his life. His real life. The one that existed beyond bantering with his AI and mocking Quill’s ill-conceived jokes; the one that belonged to Tony Stark, guilt-ridden face of fucked up superheroes everywhere.

“Well.” The words were more breath than whisper, drifting uselessly past the engine controls. “Can’t run forever.”

Can’t even run for a day.

His hand slipped down from his face, falling to his thighs with a soundless thump. ‘Nuff of morbid thought. This was a situation that needed to be handled. “We can’t let Rhodey know about Quill. Just gonna have to smuggle him out through a secret passageway before Rhodey sees him.”

“Are there any secret passages in the Facility’s plan that have been kept out of my records?” FRIDAY enquired politely.

“No, because I designed it and I’m not Enid fucking Blyton.” And up those hands came again to knead at his face, the base of the palms digging most satisfactorily into Tony’s scrunched up eyelids. “Make a note FRIDAY. Secret passages in whatever next useless architecture project I naively take on.”

“Of course, boss.” And now she was just humouring him.

“Maybe we’ll throw a dungeon in there for variety. And a moat. Big, fat moat filled with mechanical crocodiles to keep out company.” His fingers dragged downwards against his cheeks, pulling at loose skin. The insides of his eyelids still felt scalded.

“You designing a supervillain lair, boss?”

Tony opened his eyes, trying to blink the stretchy-raw feeling away. “Why, you gonna report on me?”

“No. Just a little disappointed that we’ll be going down the popular culture cliché route after all.” FRIDAY’s synthesised tones spelled out thoughtfully. “World domination seems very tiresome.”

A rush of exhaled breath. “Can’t be any more tiring than saving it.” A beat. “We’ll just have to leave Quill in the jet till Rhodey leaves. There’s no reason for him to enter the hangar.”

“I…think that might be unwise.” FRIDAY pronounced carefully. “While Mr Quill has not been gravely injured, estimated arrival at the Facility is in a couple of hours and we do not know how long Colonel Rhodes might linger. Considering that Mr Quill’s wound has not been properly disinfected yet...”

And the fact that he hadn’t made a peep from the back of the jet all this while, to complain about the appalling speeds of the ‘snail-plane’ − probably said something. Tony usually got hyper-verbal with moderate levels of pain and it took a lot to shut him up; sure Quill was a touched-in-the-head, part-Martian weirdo, but Tony wasn’t blind to their similarities. If he wasn’t prattling…the man probably needed rest, water and painkillers, stat.

 “Fine. He’ll just have to deal with it then.” Dealing was what Rhodey did best anyway.

 

 

Tony might have been overgenerous in his estimations.

“Why,” Rhodey blinked at him, half-rising from an armchair with the lines of his boring all-black suit crinkling on the sides, “do you have your nineties floofy hair.”

Tony’s hand half-rose to tug self-consciously at a curl before he was fully aware. He yanked it down mid-motion, chin cocking up in a familiar braggart pose. Damn, he’d forgotten to take off the veil. “Really. Nothing about the beard?”

Rhodey blinked at him again. “You don’t have a beard.”

“Kinda my point, but−” Tony stopped himself mid-breath, forcing the rest of the air out. “Never mind. I was incognito.”

“You do know you were also famous in the nineties.” Rhodey still wasn’t emoting very much, sticking to the one wide-eyed blink every five seconds. Possibly because he’d been stunned into non-reaction by Tony’s perceived idiocy. “I seem to recall a couple of journos getting into inadvertent accidents.”

Ah yes, the Great Paparazzi Kerfuffle of ’94, prompted by the Gold Pants Incident, of the same year. Dangerous times. “Look, you hardly walk down the streets expecting to see baby-faced Sarah Gellar a la Buffy just hanging around the bus stop, do you? I was going to suburban Missouri, I thought it would be sufficient. Plus if I had to grease some palms, I could pretend to be a distant relation, so−”

“That,” Rhodey paused, as if taking time to adequately gather his words, “was a terrible plan.”

“It was not.” Tony glowered.

“It was a terrible plan.” A voice called from behind−and of course, how could he have forgotten? He had carry on luggage.

Quill limped into the room, which was ridiculous because his legs were absolutely fine. “Terrible. We got shot.”

“No,” Tony enunciated with great emphasis, tone barely clinging on to civility. “We got shot because this dunderhead decided to get into a dance off with the man holding us at gunpoint.”

“It’s a perfectly acceptable form of combat.” Quill informed an increasingly blank-faced Rhodey, which−of course. Where were Tony’s manners?

“Rhodey, this is Goose Feather. Goose Feather, meet Colonel James Rhodes.”

“That is not my−”

“Tony,” Rhodey interrupted stiffly, and how did someone pull off a non-expression while still being in possession of all their facial features? “May I have a word.”

“Ehrm…” Tony glanced to the side−Quill was already making himself comfortable, sinking to the couch with a bitten off exhale and a look of pure relief on his face. FRIDAY should be sending the first aid supplies up soon anyway. “Sure. Lead the way.”

Rhodey turned away, shoulders stiffer under his blazer, and walked across the span of the room to the corridor outside, Tony following on his heels. Once there, Tony leaned his back against the exterior wall, resisting the urge to sink down entirely. Oh, for a good night’s sleep.

“What’s up, Rocky Road?” Rhodey despised pretend ignorance, Tony was aware of this. But old habits were ill-forgotten.

Rhodey’s arms twitched at his sides, as if itching to rise and fold themselves over his chest; but that little physical echo would only make Tony bristle, so down they stayed. Considerate ass. “Is there a logical reason you have a bleeding stranger in this highly classified Facility?”

“He told you, we got shot.” Rhodey’s eyebrow twitched forebodingly; Tony pulled on a badly fitting, placating smile. “Right, you mean the stranger bit. Uh. I have a reason, but the ‘logical’ part might be a little difficult to swing.”

Rhodey smiled tightly. “Try me.”

“He’s a prisoner. Which might seem difficult to believe, but I just went for the physical maiming option over handcuffs. That’s all.”

The smile flickered disquietingly. “I thought you’d been shot.”

“We…had.” Yeah, nope. This was not one of Tony’s shining moments. “It was unexpectedly fortunate.”

Unsurprisingly, Rhodey did not seem amused. “Any reason he isn’t in a regular prison? You know, where they normally keep prisoners.”

“Oh no, he’s part Martian.” Tony answered immediately, because this line of questioning he could definitely do; before frowning slightly in consideration. “Or Jupiter…nian. Something. I didn’t exactly ask.”

“Right.” Rhodey nodded sardonically. “And the Raft?”

It wouldn’t hold him, he appropriated my gauntlet within six hours of being here. Not having entirely lost his senses, Tony said none of that out loud. “I felt he needed a more capable warden. Who could keep an eye on him.” Which shouldn’t even have earned him the stink eye, considering that FRIDAY’s abilities were nigh unimpeachable.

Apparently Rhodey didn’t see it that way. His tone was only getting stonier. “And I don’t suppose you reported the attempt on your life either.”

“I handed them over to the local authorities.” Or you know. Anonymously rung the police and hightailed out of the lot scattered with unconscious gunmen when the sirens arrived. Who could tell the difference really. “I had to use my gauntlet, which would make reporting to higher ups...tricky.”

Rhodey stared at him, dark eyes indecipherable. “It was self defense.”

“Maybe.” Tony smiled thinly. “I didn’t feel up to filling out three sets of paperwork to Secretary Ross justifying the right to save my life, just yet.”

And the mood morphed, just like that. Silence creeped up on their ankles, snaking into the space between. Clogging their lungs.

“You going to say anything?”

Crawling, teeming, choking silence.

Rhodey drew a taut breath. “He could be dangerous.”

Tony wasn’t smiling anymore. He didn’t know if he ever was, really. “I am dangerous.”

“That’s not−you can’t−” A spike of sound, and Rhodey pressed his lips shut, greyed and bloodless.

Tony met his gaze, inexplicably, abruptly humourless. “Can’t what.”

Rhodey said nothing.

“Rhodey.”

“You keep…doing this, Tones, again and again, and it keeps hurting you−” A brief burst of frustration before Rhodey stoppered it again, jaw hard and worry glimmering at the corners of those lined eyes.

“Do what, Rhodey−” And he was snapping but he couldn’t care; when had this happened, when did his fucking best friend start feeling like he couldn’t talk to him openly anymore. Rhodey knocked his head back to size, he told Tony in plain words when he thought Tony was being a dumbass, no mincing required−had Tony become so weak, so pitiable, so fucking fragile that Rhodey felt he’d break now with the slightest word−”

“You can’t keep offering strangers a home because you’re lonely.” The words struck and Tony snapped his mouth shut because apparently he was that fragile after all. What else could it be−this feeling of the blood freezing in his veins, cracking into splinters and stabbing from the inside.

Rhodey closed his eyes for a second, jaw gritting. No frantic, half-interrupted apologies were forthcoming, no I didn’t mean it that way, Tony, no I’m really sorry, you didn’t deserve that, Tony−because they knew each other better than that, didn’t they? And what was the use of half-rescinded honesty anyway?

“Fuck you, Rhodey.” His pulse was throbbing in his eardrums, but Tony’s voice was strangely calm. He turned on his heels and walked back into the room, uncaring if his best friend’s gaze was burning at the back of his neck or boring into the concrete because Rhodey couldn’t muster himself to raise his head yet.

Quill was leaning the back of his skull against the couch’s headrest−it lifted slightly as Tony entered the room, hazel eyes following his trajectory across the space curiously. “Y’alright?”

“Put your arm up.” Tony jerked his chin towards Quill’s bloodied bicep, words brusque.

Quill’s eyebrows flew up to his hairline, chin tilting up in turn to stare at Tony whose strides had brought him directly in front of the couch, looming over the seated man. Canny eyes darted over Tony’s shoulder to the doorway behind his back, narrowing shrewdly. “What about your friend?”

He’s a well-meaning jerk, but that wasn’t fair either, was it. Rhodey was unfailingly kind, even in this−long experience had taught him that keeping silent and watching on would only lead to Tony stumbling into yet another fucked up situation of his own making−and how could Tony fault him for that?

(there were many things he couldn’t fault people for. But he couldn’t fault himself for hurting either, could he?)

The squeal of mechanical treads sounded behind him−Tony dropped to the empty cushion beside Quill, hand flinging out to his side abstractly where he knew a metal arm was holding a roll of bandages aloft.

“Is that−”

“A sentient heap of junk bringing us first aid supplies, yes.” But Tony’s hand still slid down to pat DUM-E’s strut absently, the humming metal familiar and comforting under his fingertips.

Quill would probably have kept goggling at DUM-E for a while, but his eyes whipped to the side as Tony tugged at his arm; wide and startled. Tony didn’t look up, eyes fixated on the brown-red stain darkening the white cloth untidily wrapped around Quill’s upper arm. The cloth came free with a deft pull, Tony unwinding the makeshift bandage with quick, brisk motions.

It pulled free with a hiss, fluttering to the carpet soundlessly. The hem of Quill’s t-shirt sleeve was still sticking to the upper edge of the wound, white cotton dark and splotchy. Tony hooked a nail under the material and pulled it free−damn, he should probably have sanitised his hands first−

Quill flinched. Tony’s eyes darted up before he could help himself−there was a bloodless jaw, turned away and ten inches away from his face, green-brown eyes staring resolutely in the opposite direction. Tony gentled his touch instinctively, roughened fingertips coming lightly to rest close to the ragged edges of the wound. The bleeding seemed to have stopped awhile ago. He could still feel the warmth radiating out from those five, minuscule points of contact−the skin under his was burning up.

Quill was still looking steadily in the other direction, splotchy bits of red coming to life over pale, freckled cheeks. He didn’t look feverish. He didn’t look like the pain was killing him either, but he wasn’t talking. It was−it was strange, Tony thought, tumult in his mind quieting down a little, fingers stroking absently−it hadn’t been this quiet between them since they’d met.

With a last, inattentive pat, Tony withdrew his hand, fingers darting down to curl around the tiny bottle of antiseptic. The plastic cap unscrewed easily, narrow mouth dribbling pungent liquid into the tiny ball of cotton that he’d nabbed from the bigger wad. The smell rose, sharp and astringent, even as tiny threads clung to the underside of his dampened nails.

In the meantime, Quill seemed to have found his voice again. “Your friend’s not coming back in.”

“Probably dialling the US Secretary of State as we speak.” Tony dabbed at the corners of the wound: soft, sweeping motions. Damn, this was the shallowest bullet wound he’d ever seen. Forget splinters, the metal had barely nicked muscle before embedding itself somewhere in the lot. Maybe there was an advantage to dancing during a fight after all−no one’s aim was that sucky.

Quill’s tone didn’t waver. “They gonna come take me away?”

Tony stilled. The image flashing before his eyelids was sharp and vivid: broad wrists clamped under cuffs, shoulders buckled and enclosed within three grey walls and a series of bars, cheeky eyes wiped of life and silently staring through a narrow window into the underbelly of the ocean. Peter Quill, trapped in a supermax prison of Tony Stark’s design.

Unease was too weak a word for the feeling twisting to life in the pit of his stomach.

Tony raised his eyes. Waited, till a shuttered gaze finally turned around to meet his own. His voice was undeniable. “No.”

Quill stared back at him for a second before dropping his eyes, finding some indiscriminate point on his lap. Tony continued cleaning the wound with efficient motions−there was barely any grime to clear away, and the arm wasn’t flexing with each downward pass, which meant the sting wasn’t too bad.

Quill spoke again when Tony ducked his head away to open a new roll of gauze, voice seeping into his ears strangely hesitant. “He…seems like a good friend.”

“The best.” And Tony couldn’t even muster any bitterness, words escaping quiet and casual. It seemed like it was draining all away, with every soothing swipe of his hands against Quill’s flushed skin. “Known each other for decades.”

“That seems…nice.” Quill’s head was still bowed as Tony moistened the gauze with a spray of distilled water, pressing it into place over the newly cleaned wound. His blunt-edged fingers were flexing uselessly, curling in and out over his denim-covered thigh. “I…uh. Have been with my team for a couple years but…nothing that long, with anyone. Ever.”

The wet bandage should adhere to the dead tissue, debriding automatically when the dressing got changed. Tony began wrapping a layer of dry gauze over the top, to secure it all in place. “No besties among the space pirates?”

“None my age. Believe it or not, I was the only teen space pirate.” Quill’s little huff of amusement was more breath than anything, mouth curled down, eyes cloudy.

“It must have gone to your head.” It was probably supposed to be an insult, but somewhere on the way to Tony’s lips, the words had turned quiet and warm. He patted at the thickened edges of the completed dressing, fingers curling to tug the soiled hem of the tee over the top.

“Not as much as you, I bet.” Quill breathed a half-formed chuckle. He still wasn’t looking at Tony. It wasn’t necessary. “Smart, popular kid with all the toys.”

Rich. Other people would have said rich.

“I.” His tongue weaved soundlessly in his mouth for seconds, before his lips flickered open. What was even the point of it all, anymore. “I was quite solitary as a child, actually.”

Seconds traipsed by quietly. Tony realised his hands were just…hovering around the wound now; he dropped them to his sides.

Quill turned his jaw slowly, clear eyes flickering over Tony’s face, frank with just that smallest intimation of a twinkle. “Solitary? What, you spring out off a terrible Bronte novel or somethin’?”

And Tony laughed; a tiny, unhindered burst of sound. When he’d pulled in his breath again,  Quill was twinkling cheekily at him outright. “I’m surprised your philistine mind even knows who Bronte was.”

“Mom used to read her while listening to songs from the radio.” Quill shrugged, a loose, rolling wave of motion, accompanied by an affable nod. “A right complex character she was, my mother.”

As are we all. “I suppose that explains the prehistoric collection of music on your Walkman.” Tony let his shoulders uncurl, dug his tailbone into the accommodating leather of the couch. “I’m surprised it still functions.”

And then like clockwork, the drum beats rolled out faintly from the speakers, voices climbing and lyrics tripping over each other in the quiet air−listen baby, ain’t no mountain high, ain’t no valley low, ain’t no river wiiide enough baby−

Quill’s lips curved up, eyes fluttering shut, face lifting to the ceiling. “Thanks FRIDAY.”

And Tony smiled freely, but it wasn’t over yet−Quill cocking his ear to the side slightly, “But I’ve been hearing the same thirteen songs on repeat for the last however many years, gimme something new."

And T.N.T. rasped out of the speakers like a complete beauty, the familiar notes settling into Tony’s bones with a warm shudder. Oh, what had he ever done to deserve his goddess of an AI.

“Their lyrics aren’t very inspiring, are they? They made proper music back in the olden times,” Quill nodded knowingly after forty three fucking seconds. “More song, less screaming.”

“Liar, I can see your foot tapping.” And this is old, you fucker, but that wasn’t what Tony said. What escaped his thoughtless mouth was a billion times more implicating. “You want old, next time I’ll make you listen to Sonata Pathetique.”

The guitars strummed on, even as quiet fell between them. Tony blinked, and licked his dried lips. What is even the point, anymore.

“You’ve lost your happy place too. I geddit.”

“My mother was a pretty complex character, too.” It didn’t seem that heavy, once they eventually fell. The words.

And Quill turned his head completely, for the first time during this conversation. Tony waited−for the probing, the demand for trust now that an inch had been given, for his own regret to spring up, hard and inevitable.

“Could.” Quill’s lips flickered, opening and closing to matching his eyes scoping over Tony’s face. “Could you get rid of.” A quick, jerking motion at his chin.

Tony blinked uncomprehendingly for a second before−oh−and he brought a thumb to his jugular, scraping at a point under his collar. The veil flickered in static over his features for moments before blinking out completely, revealing lined features and a scraggy van dyke.

“Thanks.” And there was something swift and almost−awkward, about that, even as Quill stared at his face for a second before nodding and looking away. Down went that gingery head over the headrest again, eyes looking to the ceiling and finger tapping on his knee to the music without even the tiniest shred of pretence.

And that was…that, apparently. The last thirty seconds were all seeming a little inexplicable in Tony’s head; but even more inexplicably, his head didn’t seem to want to think about that right now. No analysis, no worry, no ferreting away at implications. Just let the gnarly knots at the base of his neck loosen as his skull sunk in parallel to Quill’s, eyes closing to the sound of AC/DC.

And quiet enough to not be disturbing, underlaying the phenomenal guitar solo, echoing in the confines of his mind. “Thanks.”

(bandages and songs and the fall of a mask)

And quieter still, so none but himself could hear, he breathed.

“That’s alright.”

 

 

 

 

(“You don’t have to keep jamming my phone signal, you know.”

FRIDAY’s voice was tart. “I am quite confused of your meaning, Colonel Rhodes.”

“I’m not calling anyone.” Rhodey explained wearily, even as his chest twinged. Damn, what a JARVIS thing to do. Tony’s AI were all the same: fretfully protective.

“Your conversation with Mr Stark seemed to indicate otherwise.”

What the world does to him is on it, not on Tony’s decisions. Not always. “Mr Stark ended the damned conversation before I could say anything worthwhile.” Though he’d definitely, unwittingly provoked the man into something even more stubbornly extreme. That Spiderling would probably be getting the keys to his own place by tomorrow.

“Besides,” And Rhodey glanced back one last time, past the door jamb where two men were parked onto a couch while the air vibrated with Tony’s infernal brand of music. “They seem to like the same kind of songs.”

A light, wry twist to his mouth. “Can’t possibly come between that.”)