Disclamer: Marvel owns the Avengers, Mattel, Sony/Tristar, Foundation Imaging and Mainframe Entertainment all have various shares in Max Steel. I own a computer that is in the process of going senile. This story follows onto “Working Lunch” and takes a sharp right out of Marvel Canon after Cap 2. No Ultron, no Civil War, and Tony gets to keep the character development from Iron Man 3, damn it. As said in “Working Lunch,” this story also ignores Max Steel Season 3. Because yeah. Rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for language and Tony Stark.
While she wouldn’t consider it the highlight of her month, Rachel did rather enjoy her periodic visits to Stark Industries. It got her out of the office and away from the mounds of paperwork that came with being Director of Operations, for one thing. She’d known going into the position that it would be administrative work for the most part, especially in view of recent events. The revelation that Jean Mairot had been a mole, quite likely for a very long time, had cast a new light on many of his behaviors, including his fondness for occasionally engaging in field work “to keep his perspective.” Rachel knew she wouldn’t be allowed nearly so much leeway, even she was one of only five people Smith trusted completely. But there was so much paperwork, and sometimes, reading it made her… nostalgic, that was a good term. She didn’t really regret her choice, but sometimes she missed the field.
There were other reasons she enjoyed the trip, of course. They usually met in New York, and it was always nice to be able to spend some time in the city. Being out on the West Coast was a very different experience, after all. Beyond that, she quite liked Pepper Potts, as they had a great deal in common. The other woman was intelligent, funny, and had long experience working in a field full of hidebound old men. Plus she knew exactly what it was like to try and ride herd on someone with more power than sense. Trying to manage Tony Stark would probably be like trying to handle a version of Max that had Berto’s intelligence. Rachel shuddered. Max was smart enough to get himself in and out of trouble as it was. Rachel didn’t want to see what would happen if he’d had access to something like powered armor.
… And she really had to stop tempting fate, she mused, because the devil she’d been speaking of was standing directly beside the stairs up to the N-Tek Cessna that sat waiting on the tarmac to take her to New York. Dressed in civilian clothes for once, he was talking to the pilot, but it didn’t seem to be anything important, because he looked in her direction at the first sound of her heels on the hard surface.
“Mr. Steel,” she greeted him coolly, trying not to give any indication of the way those blue eyes still made her stomach flutter. “What brings you out here today?”
“Smith’s orders,” he replied, smiling wryly. “After SHIELD imploded, there’s enough of a power vacuum going on that he doesn’t want you at Avengers Tower without backup. Apparently the terror at the thought of Kat meeting the Black Widow narrowly edged out his misgivings about me near Iron Man and Hawkeye, so here I am.”
Good heavens, Smith must be exceedingly worried, Rachel mused. All right, if the man was walking back his long-standing ban on putting Max Steel anywhere within two miles of Earth’s premier superhero team, he was set enough on the decision that arguing wouldn’t get her anywhere. She shrugged.
“As you say. Ready to board?”
He shook his head. “You go on, I’m gonna finish up helping Todd with the preflight. Just in case.”
… Just in case of what? She devoutly hoped that it was simply a case of Max’s usual paranoia and not that he… or Smith… knew something they weren’t telling her. If there was an actual threat against her, and they’d not seen fit to inform her, she was going to… well, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do, but it wouldn’t be pretty. And Kat would more than likely be willing to help.
She’d gotten through another couple of reports when he joined her, securing the plane’s door behind him. Setting aside the tablet she’d been working on, she gave him a bit of a smirk.
“Did you remember to pack spare clothes?” she asked. “I usually go out to dinner and do some shopping on these trips, as it’s easier on the pilot to come back the following day.”
He grinned. “Go-bag is always packed, and I brought along a parachute, an airboard, and a flare, just in case of rocket launchers.”
Rachel snorted. “You’re never going to let anyone forget that stunt, are you?”
“You mean that time I was right and all the rest of N-Tek was wrong? What would give you that idea, Rachel?”
“Don’t gloat, Max, it’s unbecoming.” They smirked at each other for a second, the events of the recent past falling away into the dynamic they’d shared during their partnership. Before things could become awkward, or worse, not awkward enough, Rachel pulled back.
“So, as we’ll have a few hours in the air, Mr. Steel, this is as good a time as any to go over your recent after-action reports. I notice your recounting of your recent trip to Southeast Asia is a bit… light on details. Specifically about the damage to your official vehicle?”
Max groaned. “Okay, first and foremost, I did not intentionally ram the giant squid, I just didn’t have enough time to dodge when that guy dropped it onto the road.”
“Pardon me, Ms. Potts,” JARVIS announced, “but Ms. Leeds from N-Tek has arrived. She and her companion are on their way up now.”
Tony blinked a bit, looking over at Pepper, who’d been reading something on her tablet. The two of them had been hanging out in the lounge on this particular lab floor, mostly because Pepper had needed time away from her desk, her phone, and whatever jackass had decided today was a good day to be utterly humiliated when he tried to bully her into doing what he wanted.
Tony was working really hard on being a good boyfriend, or at least not an ambulatory piece of shit, but apparently part of that skillset was the ability to enjoy being around the other person without necessarily having to interact, or perform. Which, working on holographic plans while Pepper noodled away in the corner? He could do that in his sleep. And probably had. He’d mostly gotten over the worst of the paranoia-- it helped that his girlfriend and CEO could now breathe fire and punch somewhere in Captain America’s weight class-- but having Pepper at the edges of his awareness where he knew she was safe? Still extremely reassuring.
“Thank you, JARVIS,” Pepper responded, setting the tablet aside. She looked pleased by the news, and Tony tried to remember if he’d met this particular person before.
“Leeds. Oh, right, Rachel Leeds, the Brit with the good left hook,” he exclaimed. He hadn’t been the recipient of said hook, that had been an incredibly stupid purse-snatcher who’d apparently not realized that Avengers Tower was probably not a good place to assault people for money. It had been a beautiful sight, though. Pepper snickered.
“That was surprisingly diplomatic of you,” she commented. And yeah, okay, Tony’s first thoughts had been closer to ‘dishy blonde.’ The woman had legs up to her neck and her business suits were perfectly tailored. But he liked Rachel. The woman took no shit from anybody, rolled her eyes when Tony flirted with her, and most importantly, made Pepper smile. Making the effort not to be a jackass was totally worth it.
He frowned. “Wonder who she brought with her? I don’t think she’s ever had company when she’s showed up before. JARVIS?”
“I don’t recognize him, sir,” the AI replied, flashing up a holographic picture. Young, brown hair, blue eyes, dressed in a blue t-shirt and black jeans. No visible weapons, but he was standing a step behind his companion in what was definitely a bodyguard’s flanking position.
The elevator chimed its arrival, and the picture winked out as Rachel and her entourage stepped into the lounge. The kid’s eyes flickered from Pepper to Tony to the windows, doors, and ventilation shafts in the kind of practiced movement Tony’d seen Happy do and Natasha do better. So, most likely an agent, possibly a bodyguard. Interesting.
“Rachel, hello,” Pepper said warmly, as Tony turned his attention back to the suit plans before him. He didn’t bother to power down the holographic emitters, there wasn’t anything particularly sensitive on these, and without some idea of what the parts were already, the suit basically looked like a bunch of little fiddly bits.
“Hello, Pepper. It’s good to see you again,” Rachel replied. “And you too, I suppose, Mr. Stark. May I introduce you to my assistant, Max Steel?”
“Security, actually,” the kid replied. “Or ‘minder’ if you’re feeling British. It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Potts.”
Tony tuned out the rest of the pleasantries, focusing on the images before him. Even so, he noticed as the kid-- Steel-- moved carefully into his field of view before approaching closer.
“I’ve got this one question I’ve been dying to ask you,” the kid said, scanning the plans.
“Shoot,” Tony replied, not looking up from his work. He’d expected a question about the Battle of New York, or what Captain America was like, or possibly about one of Tony’s past encounters with various Playmates. Honestly, he wasn’t entirely sure what he’d expected, but it wasn’t what he got.
“What the hell are you using for inertial compensation?” the kid demanded. “I’ve taken hits like that, you ought to look like chopped ham!”
Snorting, Tony shrugged. “The suit has a layer of impact gel as a lining, you know,” he pointed out, giving the other a sidelong glance.
His gaze was met by a pair of sardonic blue eyes, as Steel cocked an eyebrow at him. “Yeees, and that spreads out the impact, keeping you from being a mess of bruises and cracked bones when you take the thing off. It doesn’t do a thing against shear forces, though. Your internal organs ought to be paste by now.”
Interesting, the only other person who’d had the right blend of science and fight background to figure that one out was Bruce. Turning, Tony gave the kid his full attention for once.
“Conformal magnetic field applied to the metal surfaces. It gives them an energy envelope with kinetic redistribution properties, creating an edge-shedding effect.”
Tony could see the wheels turning as Steel translated the technobabble, and then he yelped loudly enough to distract Rachel and Pepper from their conversation.
“YOU MADE SIMULATED VIBRANIUM?”
The smile he’d been fighting turned into a full-fledged grin. “Well, it requires a power source along the lines of an Arc Reactor to use and if the power fails, you’re screwed, so Wakanda won’t be sending me a cease and desist letter any time soon. But yeah, I did. You got that pretty fast, are you sure you’re a bodyguard?”
“Engineering major, plus I’ve taken a Materials Science course or two,” Steel replied absently, and Tony revised his opinion of the kid’s age downward a few years. A grad would say he was an engineer, or at least refer to it as a degree. “Major” meant that he was still most likely an undergrad. Which was weird, he was pretty sure most major intelligence agencies didn’t take active students, and definitely required recruits to be over 21. If Steel was hot shit enough to be bodyguarding the agency’s second in command, he was either a non-trad, which didn’t seem likely, or… Well. Then again, how old was Natasha when Fury took her onboard? Sometimes exceptions got made.
Shaking himself out of his deliberations, Tony focused on the kid again. “Engineering, huh? What kind?”
“Mech. E, mostly, some electrical. Computers are really not my bag.”
“You know, this is the prototype production floor. I could give you a tour, if you wanted.”
Steel shook his head, regret obvious. “Sorry, security work. I’ll take a raincheck, though.”
“Actually,” Rachel broke in, “Pepper and I were about to head up to her office. Given that we will be discussing things like contracts, supply lines, delivery schedules, and possibly shoes, you’d be bored out of your mind, which wouldn’t be good for anyone. Stay here, and I’ll collect you on my way out of the building.”
“Rachel, my assignment is to guard you, I can’t do that from a completely different floor.”
“Your assignment is to act as my security detail, not bodyguard per se. This is a secure building, and should something manage to make it past every line of defense installed to break into the CEO’s office with malice aforethought, I assure you that Pepper and I can hold it off long enough for you and Mr. Stark to arrive as reinforcements.”
Clearly torn, the kid looked over at Tony, who nodded. “Seriously, I can be suited and have us both up in Pep’s office in five minutes flat. We’d have to replace some windows, but we’d probably have to do that anyway.”
Steel sighed. “Okay, fine. But if you get kidnapped by another giant wasp-bot, I reserve the right to say ‘I told you so.’”
The kid had been invisible-- Clint would swear that on a stack of Bibles, if anyone should ever ask. I mean, obviously not invisible, invisible, nobody could do that yet that Clint had heard, with the exception of Loki, and that was that Asgardian super-science-slash-magic shit. But tucked away in like the only part of the lab not visible from the service duct. It wasn’t that Clint had forgotten to check sight lines when he’d heard Tony rambling away in the lab below him, no way. Tony talked to himself all the time, and sounded perfectly normal, so Clint hadn’t really thought anything of opening the access panel and swinging himself down into the lab. Stark had thoughtfully rebuilt the top parts of the tower to accommodate all of their little eccentricities, including Clint’s love of tight spaces and hidden paths, so occasionally Clint liked to show his appreciation by using them to scare the shit out of people.
It wasn’t until he’d made his landing in the middle of the tile floor that he’d registered the second person there, leaning in one of the corners of the room with arms casually folded over his chest, listening to Tony explain something about the auto-fabrication systems in the lab. Well, he had been. As soon as Clint touched down, the kid was dropping into a combat stance, even as Tony raised a hand.
“Whoa, whoa, time out, Wyatt Earp, this isn’t Tombstone,” Tony announced. “It’s fine, we’re all friends here. Max Steel, Clint Barton. Clint Barton, Max Steel. He’s with N-Tek, Clint, you might have heard of them.”
Clint blinked, sizing the kid up a bit more as the two of them relaxed. “Um… yeah, UN anti-terrorism, right? You guys report to the UN Security Council… Does that make you our evil twins?”
“Excuse me?” Tony shot back. “Whose bosses threw a nuke at New York? I’d say that tilts the ‘evil twin’ thing in your direction, Barton.”
… And if Tony was mentioning the nuke without wincing, he was definitely doing better on the anxiety front. Good-- PTSD was a bitch, as Clint knew from entirely too much experience. Over in the corner, Steel grinned.
“Yeah, that’s us. Listen, if you need something, I can clear out. I’ll just go up and hang out outside the CEO’s office ‘til Rachel and Pepper finish their meeting.”
Clint shook his head. “No, it’s nothing, I just…” He blew out a breath. Tony obviously liked this kid, or he wouldn’t be in one of the labs. That definitely bought him at least a little trust where Clint was concerned.
“Did… do you ever have one of those days where you need something to drown out the silence in your own head?” he continued, rubbing the back of his neck. It wasn’t screaming, not anymore. That had mostly died down now, with time, and therapy, and a very, very quiet message from Fury that a certain experimental shot in the dark had born fruit. But sometimes his brain just… stopped, and that wasn’t necessarily any better.
“Ugh. Do I ever,” Steel replied, rubbing absently at his chest. “I usually go surfing. Kind of hard around here, though.”
“Yeah. I blew through about a hundred targets on the range, but… it wasn’t helping. So I figured if I wanted meaningless noise, Stark was always a good choice.”
Tony snorted. “I’d be offended, if we didn’t know it was true. Pull up a chair. Or a lab bench or something, we’re mostly just shooting the shit.”
Seeing Steel nod, Clint hauled himself up to sit on a cleared space on one of the lab tables, as Tony opened a cabinet along one wall, revealing a mini-fridge packed with bottles in various colors.
“The man’s a fucking squirrel,” Clint explained, noticing Steel’s incredulous look.
“It makes it easier to eat when Pepper and JARVIS nag me to,” Stark replied. “What’s your poison, gentlemen? I have Molson, water, iced tea, and Mexican Coke, because Rogers refuses to drink the stuff made with corn syrup.”
“Give me a Molson,” Clint replied. One thing you could always say about Stark, the man had good taste in beer.
Steel shook his head. “Coke for me, please. Even if I wasn’t on duty, it takes Everclear to even get me buzzed, and I’m sure as hell not drinking beer for the taste.”
“Duty?” Clint asked.
“Security detail, but my principal ditched me for CEO talk with Ms. Potts, so here I am,” the kid replied, taking the bottle Tony handed him.
“Speaking of,” Tony waggled his eyebrows, “Rachel? You seem pretty close with your boss.”
The kid grimaced. “We used to be partners. And maybe something more, but… I fucked it up. And then she got a promotion, and while N-Tek doesn’t have frat regs, chain of command is something else again. So…” He twisted the top off his bottle and took a long swallow.
Clint winced, popping the top off his beer and taking a drink. That sounded a bit familiar, though only a bit. He hadn’t really fucked it up, except by not doing anything, but sometimes that was all it took, after all.
“Ahh. Well, hell, swing by New York sometime when you’re not working. We can go out, you and Cap can be our designated drivers, and I can introduce you to some nice girls. Or guys, for that matter,” Tony declared, and Clint believed it. If even half the rumors were true, Tony Stark’s little black book covered a wide variety of genders, preferences, and zip codes.
“For the record? Either, but… my last two relationships with women flamed out kind of spectacularly, and as for guys… well, that one never really even got off the ground. So I’m kind of taking a break from the whole dating scene for a while. I’m a little too messed up right now to even think of inflicting on somebody else.”
Clint made a face. “Oh boy, don’t I know that one. The only woman in my life right now is Nat, and she’s… well, Nat.” There weren’t really words to describe that relationship, except in what it wasn’t. He loved her like hell, but she wasn’t his sister or his girlfriend or anything he could really name. Yeah, they’d had sex once or twice, once she’d trusted him enough to ask and he’d been sure it wasn’t the same kind of fucked up quid pro quo she’d been surviving on for years. But that was its own thing, hormones and trust issues and the fact that nobody else got them the way they got each other.
Shaking himself out of his thoughts, Clint continued. “And as for guys… yeah, ‘not getting off the ground’ is a pretty good way of putting it. I hadn’t thought of an actual hiatus, but maybe you’re onto something there.”
“You guys realize the only relationship I’ve had, with any gender, is Pepper,” Tony commented, taking a sip of his own Coke. “One-night stands, sure. One-week stands, occasionally. Actual attempts at sharing? Please, I’m Tony Stark. … There was a guy once, but that one managed to flame out spectacularly while still on the ground, so, I may be slightly gun-shy.” The expression on Tony’s face suggested this wasn’t something he was interested in talking about further.
“You know,” he said thoughtfully, wiggling his bottle, “I think technically Pepper’s my boss, too. I knew I should have read those contracts before I signed them.”
Steel rolled his eyes, and Clint manfully hid his snicker by taking another swig of beer. It was nice to see that the kid wasn’t buying Tony’s bullshit either. The three of them drank in silence for a while, then Tony looked up.
“Well. Here’s to a trio of world-saving fuck-ups, hey? We may be a mess, but at least we have style. And company.”
Clint and Steel exchanged glances, and then raised their bottles in acknowledgement. If nothing else, it was a place to start.