“That’s the fourth one this year and it’s May,” Natasha Romanov remarked to her colleague, Clint Barton. “Is he looking for Mary Poppins or something?”
Clint took a bite of his sandwich and showed her his phone.
WhatsApp Chat: #PathwaysSeniorStaffNoTony
Darcy: I swear to God, if we don’t find him a nanny soon I’ll light him on fire.
Wanda: He’s gone through every single ideal candidate that the agency sent him! What are we supposed to do?!
Barnes: I can ask Steve.
Nat looked at Clint, her eyebrows touching her hairline. “He’s willing to introduce us to his precious?”
Clint nodded with a glint in his eye and went to type.
Clint: You’re going to ask your boyfriend to be a manny?
Barnes: Fuck off. He’s an early childhood therapist and has like every damn license you need to take care of a three-year-old, even with Stark’s crazy standards. Plus, he told me he’s looking for a side hustle.
Clint: A side hustle? Is he about to start selling me skincare products through Facebook?
Darcy: I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your adult acne, Barton.
Wanda: Also, Peter is a delight - It’s Tony that’s the problem.
Nat smirked and opened the StarkChat app on her own phone.
Nat: James, get Darcy his resume and arrange an interview. This isn’t a side hustle, though, this is a FT gig.
Darcy: Yeah, with benefits and it’s a live-in.
Clint: That’ll put a strain on the relationship.
Barnes: For the last fucking time, not my boyfriend. Best friend. Jesus, Clint! Stop gaybaiting.
Barnes: He’d probably be down for that – would just need some cover with Peter for when he’s with clients for a little while before he passes them off to someone else at his agency, and one of us should be able to do that.
WhatsApp kept pinging in the background as the other members of the team kept going, but in the safety of their office, Nat and Clint started talking about the implications of this. “We’ve known Barnes for… two years?” Nat said.
“About that, yeah.”
“And how many times have we asked him to bring Steve to company parties?” Nat raised an eyebrow.
“God, hundreds? I’m actually more convinced the guy is Barnes’ imaginary friend.”
“And now he just offers up Steve as a hire?”
Clint nodded. “Fucking weird.”
Nat tapped her chin in thought. “There’s something we don’t know. And I don’t like not knowing things.”
“No shit, Tasha,” Clint snorted. The pair had been friends for most of their adult lives after being sent on a particularly unfortunate blind date in college. When Tony had hired Nat, he’d asked if she’d known anyone else who could be part of their big, audacious vision and Clint had immediately sprung to mind.
“Shit,” Natasha looked at her watch. “Bank of America will be here in twenty.”
The pair scrambled from their office to head to the conference room. As the Director of Operations for Pathways Futures, Nat was in all corporate pitch meetings so that she could answer the functional questions necessary after Tony schmoozed the potential investors. As Deputy Director of Environmental Resources, Clint was in there to make sure that whatever technological innovation Tony promised off the top of his head actually got executed and was, in fact, environmentally sound. The downside of working for a genius was that he could do that – improvise perfectly. The upside was that he could do that – improvise perfectly.
The only other members of the upper management team that would be there were Darcy – as Tony’s PA – and Barnes, as VP of Communications. Therefore, Nat was sure the speculation about Steve was running in at least four separate WhatsApp groups while she did her job - and the others pretended to - for a little while.
“Everyone, thank you so much for coming,” Tony started a while later after all the pleasantries had been exchanged and the officials from BoA had taken their seats. “I know some of you are familiar with what we do here, but I’d like to start from the beginning so we’re all on the same page.” Tony clicked a few buttons and slides began to appear.
“When I was 32, my wife was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that, as it turned out, didn’t exist before humans started pumping carcinogens and other fun things into the air and rapidly speeding up the rate of climate change. Pepper was, well, my anchor, as cheesy as that sounds to some, and I felt a little lost. I’d spent my life learning how to build weapons and planes and other things that, the more I researched, the more I realized had contributed to this problem that was now killing Pepper, and… well let’s just say that 2015 was a seminal year in our lives.
“Our son was about four months when she was diagnosed,” the slide flipped to Tony holding a very tiny Peter.
“We thought for a while it was birth complications, actually, but no, instead it was a type of cancer so rare it barely has a name, much less any funding, and everything changed. After about four months of throwing a temper tantrum, Pepper sat me down and, quite frankly, gave me the talking to I deserved.” This was the part of the presentation where Nat always watched her boss carefully. He was a pro, no doubt, and could paper over any emotion with a socially acceptable face or mannerism, but for whatever reason, mentioning this conversation always made him crack just the tiniest bit. He had never told any of his team the details, but they could guess. Even knowing Pepper only through Tony’s memories, they could guess.
On this morning, however, Tony only needed a quick breath before continuing. “After that, I started taking a long hard look at my company’s product lines, shutting down some and reformatting others, and eventually made the decision to end Stark Industries’ weapons line completely. At the same time, I started Pathways Futures and that’s where you all come in.
“As you can imagine, green technology isn’t nearly as profitable as things that kill people, and they are also heaps more expensive to do R&D on. Additionally, since we all destroyed the planet, I figure we could all be a part of fixing it. What I bring to the table is the brain power – I have four hundred scientists, engineers, inventors, dreamers, doers, and other sundry geniuses at my disposal and even when they’re working on something massive, they’re always looking for the next big thing. What you bring to the table is cash.”
The folks around the table chuckled as Tony flashed a genial smile and continued. “The Stark family has had a relationship with the Bank of America for three generations, in whatever form you were in at the time, and so I know you’re the best ones to embark with us on this new future. We want to start an endowed scholarship fund for under-resourced students with an interest in STEM. It’ll start when they’re in the U.S. equivalent of the beginning of high school – so Year 10 over in Europe, for example – and start by sending them to camps in the summer to meet other kids to collaborate with. Obviously, full paid scholarships to college that includes room and board and books and all of that, and then a full year’s salary after to give them room to breathe a little. My team has all the specifics for you, and if I know you guys, you’ll want Nat to go over every penny, which is fine and why she’s here, but let me finish with this first.
“We have an incredible opportunity to turn the tide of the hell we’ve wrought, even with the technology that already exists. Incredible strides have been made in the last few years that I’ve been paying attention, but we all know there is so much farther to go. My kid doesn’t deserve to drown in the blood I have on my hands, so whaddya say?”
Nat saw Tony exhale quickly. He’d done his job - she was sure of it, she had watched them all taking notes. But Tony never believes us when we say he’s good at this. He only believes the numbers.
“I’d say,” the president of the bank said slowly from her seat, “that you sold us at scholarships, because that’s a direction we’d like to start going anyway. We do have some detail questions and points of interest to negotiate, but you and I have known each other long enough, Mr. Stark, for me to know that those interest you about as much as how your engines work interests me.”
Tony laughed and nodded, turning the meeting over to Nat. While she got set up, he made small talk with a few of the other people in the room. As he shook the CFO’s hand, the man mentioned how much Pepper was missed and Tony had to grit his teeth to keep the genial expression on his face.
“How much longer does Pepper get to be someone everyone pretended to know?” Tony muttered to Darcy as they walked the hall down to Tony’s office.
“I’d say something quippy here, boss, but my legitimate guess is forever, and I can tell you’re a bit worn around the edges, so imma get you a smoothie and why don’t you go talk to your bots about your feelings?”
Tony smiled wearily and wandered down the hall to his workshop, loosening his tie as he went. There weren’t a lot of holdovers from his old life – besides Peter, Happy, and Jarvis – but when he’d transitioned from the owner of the world’s largest weapons manufacturer to owner of the world’s newest rag-tag bunch of do-gooders, the bots had come too.
“DUM-E,” Tony called as he entered. “Let’s work on that wind turbine engine. Jarvis, pull up the blueprints from yesterday and enlarge them to 400%, Butterfingers, be cool, your girlfriend is coming in with a smoothie and I don’t want you to embarrass yourself like last time. Also, Jarvis, any update on Peter?”
“Master Peter is happily enjoying an apparent snack. Mr. Hogan is with him and has inquired as to when you would like to be collected for dinner. Master Peter has a surprise for you.”
Tony bit his lip in a smile. According to everyone who worked with Peter, his favorite part of his day was “picking Dad up from work”, ie: riding the elevator from their penthouse to wherever Tony was in the building at the time. Yesterday’s ‘surprise’ from his son had been an elaborate cosplay of a knight who fought dragons by throwing flour on them. It was adorable, and an absolute pain in the ass to clean up. “Okay, J, my main man, put on AC/DC at 40% volume and set a timer for 5pm. Tell Happy to come for me at 6. Also, I’m sure Darcy will, but let them know where I am and ask Nat to send you her report.”
“As you wish, Sir.”
As Tony immersed himself in work – which was the only thing that really let him think any more – he muttered out loud. “Happy is fine as a temporary thing, I mean, I trust the guy with my life, so of course I trust him with Peter’s, but Peter is perpetual motion and is, frankly, exhausting, and I can tell I’m pushing Happy to the end of his rope and that’s not where I want him. So, we need to find someone who isn’t… so fucking fussy.
“That last lady, Felicity what’s-her-nuts, she was making Peter this… Butterfingers, stop that… she was making him into this little perfectly behaved soldier and while Pep always had drama with my manners - DUM-E, I swear I’m selling you for parts, don’t, thank you - she wouldn’t want our kid to be a fucking automaton, I mean, honestly Jarvis, she had him referring to me as ‘sir’.”
“I know, Sir,” Jarvis intoned, with a hint of sarcasm that made Tony’s mouth flash into a grin. “Would you like me to source adequate replacements?”
“Barnes mentioned something about a friend of his who’s looking for work that might be a good fit, so look into that for me?”
“U, what about this makes you think I need a blanket, for crying out loud. Butterfingers! Stop touching that. Jesus Christ, it’s a wonder I put up with any of you.”
DUM-E nearly crumpled at that and Tony’s heart twinged. “DUM-E, hey, hey, look at me, that was too harsh. I apologize. Now get me the Phillips head and try to remember what the fuck that means.” Pepper had admonished him more than once to be gentler with his bots, and he tried, he really did, but they would test the patience of Job himself.
The familiar cadence of Darcy’s walk caught Tony’s attention as she delivered his lunch and a quick kiss to Butterfingers - who Tony had not programmed with the ability to blush, but somehow managed it regardless - “Boss, we’ve all signed up for a rota to help with Peter until you can interview Barnes’ pal. You really can’t skip the thing tomorrow.”
“I can skip whatever I want.”
“Yeah, no,” Darcy smirked. “Do you remember what tomorrow is?”
“National Peanut Butter Day?”
“You’re testifying before Congress for increased STEM funding.”
“It’s still National Peanut Butter Day, right?”
Darcy huffed through a grin. “You are infuriating.”
“One of my many talents,” he grinned at her as she rolled her eyes and took her leave.
“All right, boys, double time, Dad’s got a field trip tomorrow.”
“Jarvis?” Nat said as she collapsed back into her office chair. She felt like she had run a marathon.
“Yes, Ms. Romanov?”
“Any requests from the boss man?”
“Sir has asked for the report to be sent directly to his inbox.”
She smiled sadly - she desperately wished he'd take a break, but knew that was a pipe dream - and nodded. “I’ll work on it now and he’ll have it by day’s end. But you can tell him we won.”
Nat pulled up the working document she had on the meeting and started filling in more answers and some anecdotes that would help her remember what wording would be best for certain people. She added dates for contract deadlines to the company calendar, noting quick thumbs ups from Darcy and Wanda on the Slack channel, and then lost herself in her work for a few hours.
Nat had bounced around New York quite a bit before she found this job at Pathways. A few banks, some venture capital firms, and then she got a call from a headhunter that blew her away.
“My name is Maria Hill and I work for Shield Recruitment. Your name was given to me by Laura in Matt Murdock’s office as someone who may be perfect for a vacancy I’m looking to fill.”
“Is it in finance?”
“No, ma’am. It’s a Director of Operations position at a new tech start-up.”
“I don’t know anything about tech,” Nat protested, increasingly confused as to why her college roommate would recommend her for this.
“The owner of the company specifically wants someone without tech experience. The requirements are actually simple,” Maria continued. “You need to be able to manage a lot of quote ‘man-children who forget to eat when they’re busy’ end quote and keep track of a quote ‘cyclone of chaos that is the boss’ end quote. Laura tells me you’re the best ringleader she’s ever met and can make people behave with a crook of your eyebrow, therefore I can assure you that you are perfect for this position.”
“Can I ask what the company’s called?”
“I can send you a secure PDF explaining everything if you’re interested,” Maria replied. “But I’ll be honest, Ms. Romanov, I’ve been in recruitment for a long time and I’ve never seen a job spec like this. I’d take the interview.”
Nat blinked a few times in thought. It wasn’t like her current job was her favorite or anything. “Um, sure.”
She’d been shocked when the brief was for Pathways, and even more shocked when she met Tony, who had forgotten her interview entirely and had to be dragged from the workshop, and therefore attended her interview in sweatpants and an old Ramones shirt she could swear hadn’t been washed in a good while. Every logical bone in her body told her to run until he told her about Peter.
“Listen, Natasha, I trust Matt and Matt says I need you. I know I’m a mess, I know this thing might fall on its face, but I need to introduce you to someone.” Tony dug out his phone and flipped to a picture of a painfully adorable child with round brown eyes and a smile that could melt ice in Alaska.
“This is Peter and he is the only reason I manage to get out of bed each morning. When I do get out of bed, I really need someone to kick my ass and remind me that everything we do is for this kid and millions like him who have never done a damn thing to inherit the clusterfuck we’re going to give to them, and the millions more to come who may end up living in the opening scene of Wall-E unless we do something about it now. Laura and Matt tell me you are the goddamn queen of keeping people in line and I basically invented ADHD, so could you come over here and help me herd all the cats?”
She found herself accepting the job on the spot and while she’d had about four near meltdowns since she started, she hadn’t regretted saying ‘yes’ to Tony for a minute. She was his first hire and, at the time, Pepper had only been gone for a few months. There’d been so many meetings where she or Tony were wrestling 13-month-old Peter or getting him to eat, or running around after him as they plotted and strategized and she combed the city for more cats to herd.
Clint was an easy sell to Tony.
“He’s always been an outdoorsy guy – worked as a park ranger through college – and goes hunting and uses the whole animal, that kind of shit. I’d imagine he’ll need some further training, but –“ Tony cut her off. “What did I tell you?” “Find the people we want to work with and you’ll train them to do anything they need.” Tony nodded and shifted the conked out toddler occupying his arms. “People who have skills are a dime a damn dozen. This work is going to take our whole souls, I need people who we actually like, who have the sleeves-rolled-up, hands-dirty attitude and I need folks who like to be part of a team. We only have room for one prima-donna around here and I look the best in a tiara.”
After Clint had come James, who’d been recommended by Tony’s best friend Rhodey, who’d heard through a friend of a friend about a vet named James Buchanan Barnes, whose charm was only rivaled by Tony’s and who’d come back from Iraq missing an arm and gaining a deep respect for the planet. Darcy had been the easiest hire – she was one of Peter’s day care workers and she snapped at Tony one day for sending Peter in without his snack. Tony texted Nat from the car park and told her to do whatever it took to hire one Darcy Lewis and her attack dog personality. Then came Wanda, who brought her brother Pietro, and the Norwegian exchange student whose name was Alec but everyone called Thor, and on and on it went.
Four years in, their team was established but always growing as a new idea or new challenge sprung out of nowhere. Nat hadn’t slept more than four or five hours in years, kept changes of clothes in her office because ‘home’ was a relative concept, and probably relied on protein shakes as food far too often, but she had also never been happier. Now to just figure out why Barnes was willing to finally introduce them to Steve.
“You’re serious,” Becca raised an eyebrow as she wiped down the counter.
“He needs a job,” Bucky replied, calmly sipping the iced coffee he had procured while her back was turned.
“He hates Stark.”
“He doesn’t know Stark,” Bucky retorted. “He knows that I work a lot and he got pissed right after I started when Stark needed me to cancel that vacation Steve and I had planned. Steve got his hackles up about him overworking me, and well, you know Steve.”
Becca smiled affectionately. “Once Steve decides someone is a bully, then that’s the end of it.”
Bucky nodded. “Tony is actually the best boss I could hope to have. Steve’s being his typical illogical and stubborn self about it all, but I can promise you that once he meets Peter, he’ll take the job.”
“The kid is that cute?”
“The kid is exactly the kind of kid Steve dreams of working with,” Bucky said. “Can I have a cookie, too?”
“You gonna stay and help me wash dishes? The washer is out again.”
“Want me to look at it?”
Becca waved her hand. “Maybe, yeah, but right now grab a mop and explain about the kid.”
He did just that. “He’s clearly smart and curious, but he has trouble connecting his words to his ideas. He’s been to a few specialists but they all start talking about how something must be wrong with Peter and Tony flips his shit at the idea of ‘wrong’. It’s not limiting how he communicates with us really, but I also have a feeling that’s because we’ve just learned to speak Peter. The last few nannies all tried to turn him into a fucking Von Trapp child, and that made Peter just shut down and stop speaking all together, which made Tony-”
“Let me guess, the man flipped his shit?”
“Got it one,” Bucky confirmed. “Steve’s wanted to help students with hearing and speech difficulties since he was… what… ten? When we met that kid whose brother died because he couldn’t hear the alarm? And now he’s got an opportunity to do it one on one?”
“You’re shit at getting under the tables, focus please,” Becca added more soap to the bucket Bucky was using. “So, pro to this. Steve is so burned out we may as well be calling him ‘toast’, and I think he’s completely broke because he’s been coming here far too often lately for someone who really doesn’t like coffee.”
Becca nodded. She ran a cozy coffee shop down the street from Bucky and Steve’s apartment, which also happened to be three blocks over from where they had all grown up. Perks & Pastry had been her dream since a Starbucks opened in the neighborhood and forced one of the smaller shops out of business. Bucky thought the greatest day of his life was when that same Starbucks closed just two years after P&P opened.
“So you’re giving him the stale shit?”
“He’ll take it from me if it’s a day old, but not if it’s fresh. I gave him a quiche yesterday that I intentionally burned the crust on, because that way he’ll at least get the eggs and spinach.”
“I had no idea it was that bad,” Bucky said quietly.
Becca snorted. “He makes 35k in New York and has, what, six figures in loans still? Plus, have you met a cause that Steve Rogers won’t give money to? Just last week, he paid for Serena’s kids to go to camp. How did you not think he was broke?”
Bucky made a face and a mental note to add student loan payoff to Steve’s contract when he finally offered it to him. “I can guarantee Tony will double that,” Bucky said, “and our office always has food.”
“Cons,” Becca continued. “He’s a stubborn asshat who listens to reason almost never.”
“Well then it’s lucky for all of us that I speak fluent asshat,” Bucky replied. “Floors to your satisfaction, your highness?”
Becca gave them a once over and nodded. “Tool box is in its normal place, I think it’s the motor thingy again. And when are you going to tell Captain Asshat about this?”
“Tomorrow night,” Bucky replied and made his way back to the kitchen. “It’s 7:30 and he had that Saperstein kid today, so he’ll be on edge right now.”
“Oh, the one with the nightmare mom?”
“Well,” Becca huffed her bangs out of her face. “Good luck with both my dishwasher and my favorite blondie. I gotta go get Dana from ballet, can you lock up?”
“Yeah,” Bucky called from the kitchen. “Go get my niece, I’ll see you later.” As Bucky fiddled with the ‘motor thingy’ - which was a timing belt that had been on the fritz for months - he let himself practice the conversation with Steve. He knew he was right, that working with Peter was the best path forward for Steve both personally and professionally, but Steve hated being managed or coddled, so caution was in order. By the time he got the dishwasher functional again, it was 8:15 and he had a plan.
WhatsApp Chat: #BrotherhoodofTooManySisters
Bucky: Pal, you eat yet?
Steve: Nah, just in the door. Becca had any leftovers?
Bucky: Not anything with substance. I’ll get take out. You want cashew chicken?
Steve: Nah, I’ll find something here.
Bucky: Cool, I’ll throw in an egg roll.
Bucky: I am walking right by Mama Foo’s, and she makes your favorite. It would literally be rude for me to not procure cashew chicken.
Steve: I mean, if it showed up, I’d probably eat it.
Bucky: That’s the spirit of gratitude that warms my heart.
Steve threw his phone down on the couch and ran his fingers through his shaggy hair. God, I need a haircut. He thought back to the revelations of the day and let himself sink deeper into the cushions.
“Steve, I’m just so sorry,” Jenna had tears in her eyes as she delivered the news. “We’ve tried everything.”
“I know, Jenna, I’m not mad,” Steve smiled softly. I’m just fucking petrified.
“Clearly, if you want a reference ever, like until the end of time, I will give you a glowing one,” Jenna continued. “I have enough money to give you four weeks pay here, but I’d encourage you to increase your freelancing work as soon as possible.”
“I’ll do just that, Jenna,” Steve managed a smile. Their agency losing its main government funding was devastating, and while Steve wasn’t quite sure how he was going to make ends meet anymore, he was more terrified for the kids. “But what happens to all the kids now?”
Jenna grimaced. “I have no idea, beyond the obvious that they simply won’t get these services any longer.”
His beard was oily and itchy from the way he’d been pulling on it - one of his nervous ticks - and Bucky was going to be home any minute with dinner and that special talent he had to see through all of Steve’s bullshit. Steve had been working as the main art therapist at Brooklyn’s largest Head Start program for about four years, and he’d loved every minute until about six months ago. He’d never loved the paycheck, nor any of the bureaucratic hoops they were all forced to jump through, but the work with the clients had been enough to let him see past those negatives. But recently, he was just exhausted.
Jenna’s news was terrible for his financial state, but, if he was honest, he was ready for a change of scenery. Having to make that change with a proverbial gun to your head was different than making it at his leisure, though. Which is what he had been doing. Which is why he knew there were no jobs in the area that he was qualified for that would pay his rent. He decided to take a quick shower before Bucky brought home dinner that Steve again couldn’t pay for. He’d always done his best thinking in the shower and he hoped today would be no different.
The first time he’d learned what an art therapist was, he was eleven years old and went to one himself. His dad had just left and his mom was barely getting out of bed, and he was just so angry all the time. Thankfully, he had already demonstrated talents in art and so the teacher at his middle school made some contacts and introduced him to Miss Sally. Miss Sally changed Steve’s life.
He was still, according to Bucky, a punk after that, but much less of an unhinged one. He still hated bullies and got in too many fights, but the art helped him learn to pick his battles. So when they had a career day during sophomore year, Steve had marched straight to the “therapist” table and told them he wanted to do art therapy. He double majored in social work and visual arts for undergrad before going on to get his masters in social work and then getting his clinical license. Helping children and teenagers was absolutely, absolutely, his calling and he knew it. And he knew how lucky that made him. It did not, however, make him rich or even close to financially comfortable.
And then… then there was the proverbial elephant in every room. Steve had known he was gay since he was 15. For some folks, it was a slow revelation, but not for Steve. It had been as simple as a conversation with Bucky after Alicia Hinson asked Steve to the Sadie Hawkins Dance.
“Stevie, this is not hard,” Bucky replied as he slapped (too much) cologne on before the pair left for school one morning. “She’s a good girl, and her tits ain’t bad, and it’s not like she’ll be the worst to spend a night with.”
Steve paused. “I don’t care about her tits.”
“Okay, well, I don’t have a response for that,” Bucky - a keen connoisseur of tits - responded.
“I don’t care about any tits,” Steve said, a tone of slow finality settling into his voice. “I don’t really care about girls.”
“Huh,” Bucky replied. “You known for a while?”
“Nope, just this minute.”
“Well, let’s not ever tell Leesh it was her tits that turned you,” Bucky smirked, but brought himself up at Steve’s face. “What is your brain doing?”
“Is this, are we?”
“Pal, womb to tomb, no matter who you put your dick in,” Bucky responded immediately. “Womb. To. Tomb. Got it?”
Steve nodded. “No one else, not now.”
“Our secret, I promise.”
He’d known at that point that he wanted to be someone else’s Miss Sally and he started paying attention to how many out gay men were teaching his classes in college, or working in the places he did his internships, or were at National Association of Social Worker conferences and the answer was always enough to confirm his feeling to stay in the closet.
“And now we’re back to square one,” Steve sighed and shut off the water. He heard Bucky yell that dinner was on the table and that Steve should get your ass out here before I eat the extra egg roll.
“Hands off the deep fried dough,” Steve replied after he threw some clothes on.
“I’ve a quare hunger,” Bucky said in one of the world’s worst Irish accents when he used the word to mean ‘extreme’. “Had to fix Becca’s dishwasher again.”
“Why doesn’t she just replace it?”
“I think because making me and you wash dishes brings her some kind of sadistic joy,” Bucky replied, dishing out their food.
“Sisters are great. Thanks for forcing some on me,” Steve replied.
“Happy to be of service, pal.”