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Interlude

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After the debrief, they got rid of all the Federal agents, governmental flunkies, and Tony Stark's best friend who happened to be attache to the PRESIDENT. (Good Christ.) They gathered in the private conference room on the Avengers' floor. Active members only, so the original six plus Sam and Phil. Natasha was still on comms, or pretending to be; Sam had checked on her and Jem had decreed medication. Phil hoped she was under the hatches, but Natasha had a remarkable drug tolerance. He poured himself some scotch and dropped into the chair at the head of the table. Everyone seemed to take this as a cue to start the meeting.

Some day, Phil was going to figure out how he wound up in charge of this.

“How do we do this? I am open to all reasonable suggestions.” Thor laid the metal portion of the Scepter on the table, gestured eloquently, then sat.

“Has anyone we know gone over it? Scientifically, magically?” Phil asked. That seemed like a thing that should be done, because he felt like it was emanating at him from across the table. Having never been killed before, he wasn't sure what 'normal' was, but he was pretty sure this wasn't it. Tony must have some lead-lined boxes, maybe they could put this thing in one.

Everyone looked at each other.

“I'd like to take it back to Asgard myself, have a few words with the AllFather.” Steve said. “But I don't see why we can't run tests on it first, assuming that won't take years or anything.” He tried to cross his arms, bumped around with the cast, and dropped his hands into his lap. Sidekick sighed and laid down against his neck.

Everyone gave each other nervous looks over that. Steve didn't do negotiation too well. Or diplomacy. He either gave speeches and orders, or led by example.

Or got people to do things against their better judgment.

They were good speeches, great even, but not exactly subtle.

The one he’d given across all channels at SHIELD right before he went after the helicarriers had already been written down by multiple historians, and Darcy reported that an English teacher she knew was using it as an example of persuasive speech. For fifth-graders.

More side-eye around the table.

“Maybe we should put Phil in charge of this extravaganza,” Tony said, which was gratifying even if Phil would never admit it.

“Seconded.” Thor said immediately.

All right, THAT was gratifying.

Everyone gave a half-assed vote and it was unanimous; Natasha was still listening via comms.

Steve rolled his eyes but didn't argue. Which was also gratifying, and rather flattering.

Phil stared at the Scepter. So far he'd avoided touching it, and he'd keep on with that. “Run it through every test you can think of in the next couple days, then we'll take it back. Me, Clint, Thor, and Steve.”

“And my vinur. To stand witness for the people of Midgard.” Thor raised an eyebrow at their faces. “'Tis not a ceremonial title she holds, and until the embassy is set up, she is handling some diplomatic duties.”

“I'll go to bodyguard Darcy.” Sam volunteered. “Be kinda cool, see Asgard. Unless someone else wants to go?”

“Oh hell no.” Bruce said with a snort, and drank his tea.

“Tony? Don't want to step on your toes.” Sam said.

Tony shuddered. “Ah. I suppose now's as good a time as any to tell you all, thanks to the Invasion, going into big sky portals is kind of a giant, enormous, screaming red anxiety trigger for me.”

“Shit, sorry, man. I'll go, no problem.” Sam winced a little. “Should have thought of that?”

“Don't worry about it. You should see me about nuclear explosions.” Tony gave a really hollow laugh. “That one was there long before I set off that nuke, we can thank Dad for the nuke thing. I think the oxygen deprivation at the end kinda ground in the PTSD.” He took a deep breath. “Guess the team needed to know that, anyway. Or something.”

“Thanks for the info, Tony.” Phil said a little more gently than his usual.

Tony shoved his face into his coffee mug and waved a hand vaguely.

“All right. Testing, then return. How difficult would it be to have Billy take a look at it?” Phil asked.

“He'd love it, but I'm not sure what Xavier will say.” Clint allowed. “I'll give them a call tonight. What about sorcerer dude down in the Village?”

“Sorcerer Dude Down in the Village. Is that a title?” Tony asked with a half-grin.

“Should be,” Clint told him.

“No, his official title is Sorcerer Supreme. He's head of, well, the largest, most powerful magical faction on the planet, to simplify it,” Phil explained to them all. “There are groups, don’t use the term coven, they don’t like it. Rather like different religions, or political parties. They group by magical philosophy. Thankfully the group the Sorcerer Supreme leads is about protecting people, including protecting the non-magical from hostile magical people.”

“Sounds like Billy.” Bruce concluded.

“...not exactly...” Clint made a wishy-washy gesture with his hand. “Billy’s unaffiliated, because he’s a minor. We’re not the only ones telling him he’s too young to be fighting. It’s like... There are no words. He's off the charts in everything except height, is what he says. Everything from brain function to genetics. Raw power. The Sorcerer Supreme is... If Billy were a nuclear bomb? The Sorcerer Supreme would be a laser. Even that’s not a good analogy though, because Billy’s got control. But it’s that kind of power difference.”

Everyone got that analogy well enough and nodded.

“It's really the Sorcerer Supreme's job to do this shit, like check out the Scepter before we take it back to Asgard, if you ask the magical people of the planet.” Clint explained. “He’s only been on the job for a couple years; the one before that didn’t even pick up the phone. When Wong, the new guy’s librarian bothers to answer, which isn’t often, he is either legitimately busy fighting off attacks on Earth from other dimensions, or he's full of shit. Maria was supposed to be his contact with SHIELD, he never returned her calls, she can bitch about him for hours. Considering he’s supposedly able to control time, Nat and I call bullshit.”

“Legit,” Phil told them.

Clint rolled his eyes. “So he's constantly busy, even though he can CONTROL TIME, and he and SHIELD never got along, so SHIELD – Maria, really - got in the habit of calling in other people who are also constantly busy, full of shit, or on a power trip. Luckily for us, we're not government in any way, and given our policies and the genetic makeup of our team, mutants are willing to give us a chance and work with us in ways they never would with the government. Having Logan around is sending a message, too. So’s being under the Stark Industries umbrella.” At a few confused looks, he added, “SI has the most mutant-friendly human resource rules on the planet. Contracts actually discuss genetic discrimination, as something that won’t be tolerated on either end. Even when Howard Stark was in charge, mutants were made welcome and legally protected. Trans and disabled people started using the rules too and under Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, they’re also welcomed and supported at Stark Industries. Pepper has a great quote about only being interested in people’s brains, not the bodies they’re housed in, when it comes to hiring. There are also stories of her being polite and nice to everyone from sex workers to super-scary-looking mutants, which goes a long way.”

“I genuinely don’t give a fuck about the bodies people are riding around in,” Tony put in. “Not when I’m hiring for brains. Or ever, really. Discrimination never made any fucking sense to me. You have blue fur? Are in a wheelchair? Can’t see? Why should I give a fuck when I’m looking for an engineer? Those have zero relationship to what kind of engineer a person can be.” He ended with “How do you know this?”

It was a reasonable question. Clint was one of the few base-line humans on the team.

“Madame Sofia. Did divination at the circus, was my legal guardian. Pretty sure she was a mutant with pre-cog abilities, goddamn if everything she said didn't come true. Because of it, she actually didn't do fortunes for people, just made shit up for tourists. Anyway, she taught me my manners. And most circuses are full of mutants anyway. Hide in plain sight. That’s how I met Logan, as well as Kurt.” And a lot of other people, not all on the side of the angels, but Phil let it slide.

“How is it people tell you stuff? Important stuff?” Bruce wondered. “I’m still wondering, and I’ve done it myself. A lot.”

Clint grinned. “That's easy. I ask. I mean I say please and act like it's a favor and thank you and that stuff. Then I LISTEN. You'd be amazed how many people DEMAND information. That makes certain types very cranky.”

“Mutant types.”

“Among others, Doctor ‘get the hell out of my shop, I’m building stuff’ Stark.”

It sounded like the meeting was over, so Phil asked, “Anything else?”

“You tell 'em, cupcake.” Tony said to Steve, and that? NEVER ended well. Steve winced and hunched a little.

Fucking hell.

“Spill it.” Sam demanded.

“During the run-up to Sokovia, I found out that the vibranium my shield is made out of, was stolen. Howard got it from a smuggler who'd gotten it from who-knows.”

“You didn't,” Sam said, getting it immediately. “Oh hell, of course you did.”

“I gave my shield to the Black Panther while he was there, asked him to return it to the King of Wakanda with my apologies.”

Phil laid his head down on the table and breathed.

- A -

Sam was laying on the floor of the main balcony outside the common room. The tiles were warm from the sun, and he was feeling his vertebrae sloooowly slide back into place, drinking a beer through a straw. It wasn’t bad, all things considered. Humans really weren’t meant to fly, so his shoulders and back bitched and moaned every time he flew, but the wind in his face, that feeling of going into a dive and leaving his stomach behind, it was all worth it.

Jem had warned him that old age was gonna be a bitch with the wear he was putting on his arms. He didn’t care.

Rhodes, Rhodey, he was supposed to call Colonel James Rhodes Rhodey, holy shit, came out and sat down next to him, right on the tile, and tapped the neck of his own beer bottle to Sam’s. “Straw. Nice.”

“Back,” was all Sam said, and took another slurp. One time at Lackland – early para training - they’d made beer slushies that were the best damn thing after a day of training in the middle of August. He bet Tony would buy him a slushie machine for his office if he asked nice.

“What’s that grin for?” Rhodey asked.

“Beer slushies. Bet Tony would get me a machine for my office.”

“Office. Yeah, I saw that office. Where’d Tony get the pinball machine?”

It was an Avengers pinball machine, with all the right art and gizmos. “I’m afraid to ask, I think he built it.”

“He likes to do stuff like that, you should watch him soup up a car some day,” Rhodey said reminiscently, staring out into the wild blue yonder with Sam for a while. “First black superhero,” he finally said.

Sam winced a bit. “I didn’t claim the title, or even suggest it. If asked, no offense to you, but I feel strongly the person holding that title is Black Panther, he goes back to the first time white men staggered into Wakanda and likely before that, but nobody asked me.”

Rhodey shook his head. “Nah. We’re both sanctioned. He serves the nation of Wakanda. I’m in the military. You, you’re doing the independent loner thing, that’s why you’re getting the title.”

Sam tilted his head toward the rest of the Tower full of people who barged in and out of his life, often in the literal sense, then snorted a laugh and put his head back down. “Oh yeah, that’s me, the sullen, lone, silent hero. For sure.” Momma would fall over laughing at that one, he’d have to tell her.

“I can’t do the things I want with the title, even if I had it,” Rhodey continued as if Sam hadn’t said anything. “UCMJ.”

Uniform Code of Military Justice. Nobody who was active duty was allowed to get too political. Or at least, really wasn’t supposed to. Rhodey was high profile, what with the War Machine suit and attache to President Ellis and all that, so he had to watch himself or he’d be up in front of his CO answering hard questions, while someone went through his finances, personal relationships, and every minute of his life with a magnifying glass and tweezers.

Sam, on the other hand.

“Use it.” Rhodey said, suddenly intense, staring into his eyes. “Use it for all the things I can’t. Make it matter.”

“I will,” Sam said, before he even thought about it. “I’ve already got a few ideas, and-”

“Go to the next Equality for All protest. The media will pay attention. You’ll force them to. Raise their profile. Emphasize how peaceful it is.”

“Okay.” Sam agreed, startled by how much Rhodey wanted that. “I’ve got a few ideas of my own, too. And access to the resources to pull them off.”

“Good. Then we’re square.”

Rhodey held out his hand, and Sam gripped it.

- A -

SECOND AFTER-CREDIT SCENE FROM END OF ULTRON HAPPENS HERE. If you click on the link and read it, then click back on your browser, you should come right back here.

-A-

A code red message came up from the lobby, and DAMN IT, Pepper got ready to find another executive lobby receptionist because every urgent message she'd gotten so far-

Princess Shuri of Wakanda was being issued a security badge TO VISIT TONY IN HIS LAB?

“JARVIS.” She ran for the elevator, Kate following without even asking why. “Lag their elevator, get us there first. Now.” She slid to a stop and the 'vator doors closed and it dropped.

“Situation?” Kate asked, clearly wishing for a bow and quiver.

“Princess Shuri of Wakanda wants to visit Tony's lab.”

“Oh, shit.”

In a word.

Credit to JARVIS, she DID get there first and was waiting with Darcy and Kate when the princess and her very small and friendly-looking entourage arrived.

“Your highness, it's an honor to have you visit,” Pepper said as smoothly as possible, and did a sort of nod/bow from the waist she'd perfected for these situations.

“Pepper Potts, right?” The girl said with a wide smile.

That seemed, well, not bad. “Yes?”

“I love your work.” She held out her hand and Pepper shook it. “Call me Shuri.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, your highness.” The lights dimmed a little and Pepper fought the urge to grind her teeth. “I apologize for the power-” There was a ‘zzt’ and the power went back on full.

Shuri giggled. “It's him, isn't it? Trying to make more vibranium?” Her eyes were sparkling.

“It is.” What else was there to say? Especially when her highness knew more about it than Pepper did?

“Okay. So here's what we do.” She leaned in. “You know him best, right? Go in, and tell him...”

-A-

Damn it, he'd been doing hourly rounds of vibranium generation and NOTHING was occurring to speed up the process. He couldn't keep doing this, Pepper would kill him. Tony had already been told to knock it off by everyone who dealt with her on a daily basis, the entire lab, Steve, and Bruce. Not to mention the current process would take like a hundred years or something if it continued the way he'd been doing it. Clint figured it out for him.

Clint was a dick.

But Steve's shield. They couldn't let Steve run around out there without it, he got shot enough as it was. Maybe if he set up an arc reactor in here, ran the accelerator straight from that, bypassed the building to avoid brownouts?

Pepper would KILL HIM. Never mind if the NRC found out, then she'd extra kill him or something. (Apparently he was supposed to notify them way back during his first round of vibranium creation. Something something transuranics something radiation, who the fuck kept up with all the federal laws on that shit?) If anyone could find a way to resurrect him to kill him again, it'd be his PepperPot.

He wondered if there was anyone at Fermi who’d be willing to loan him their smasher for a couple weeks? If he paid them enough? He could loan them Clint.

Except Clint was already in some kind of math brawl with them, so no, that wouldn’t work. Clint’s P=NP proof had been out for less than a week and there were already blood feuds the likes of which usually took decades to develop, going on. Clint had gotten a list of every scientist who’d ever been rude to Jane and Bruce – from Darcy and Betty – and was acting accordingly.

The door of the shop slid open and the familiar sound of heels ticked toward where he was halfway into the tube of the accelerator, re-wiring an electromagnet; least he didn’t have to re-wind the entire damn thing. He swore the sound of Pepper's heels was the sound of reality heading straight for him. Always had been, he'd just been too stupid to realize it until recently.

“Tony.” Pepper said, and here it went. She was going to eviscerate him, and she probably didn't know yet that they were going to have to get paid professionals in to recalibrate all the equipment in the building he'd knocked out of whack with the electromagnetic burst of the latest malfunction.

If they managed to keep it quiet he might avoid having to pay for calibrations in neighboring buildings. Assuming a bunch of bankers HAD any delicate scientific instruments.

He hoped the blast reached the Baxter Building, though.

Wearily, he pushed himself out of his hole, turned. “Hey, Pep.”

“Hey.” She gave him a kiss? “If you up the oscillation of the RF field by about two-thirds, crank the magnets to hold it in, and open up the ring to circle the floor instead of this tiny thing, you might get this done before I develop wrinkles.”

“You. I. The power draw, I'd need to build another full-sized arc reactor. You'd kill me. Probably not in my sleep.” Pepper's wrath had been the only thing keeping him from doing exactly that.

“Also, a UV laser would push the neutrons in a lot faster, I mean really, Tony, visible light? Who works within such a tiny little slice of the EM spectrum any more?”

He tilted his head. There was no such thing as a UV laser, but in theory... and it would...

Work.

“JARVIS, scan Ms Potts, please.” Tony said before he even thought about it. If Extremis had somehow started re-working her brain function, you'd get something like this. Maybe.

Remain calm, remain calm.

Pepper scoffed. “Oh please, I'm fine.” She turned a slow circle, like she'd never seen the lab before, and Tony braced himself to grab her. He signed 'GET STEVE' toward a camera.

“What you really need in here, though, are some antelope.” Pepper finished.

He was so busy panicking and trying to plan how to take her down without hurting her, it took him a full three seconds to really GET the antelopes. “Antelope.”

“Yeah, you know, like deer, boing around?” Pepper replied, and that answer, that was not a Pepper answer.

“SHURI!” he shouted, and ran for the door. “THIS HAD BETTER BE YOU!”

And there she was, doubled over, holding her sides, laughing at the security feed JARVIS was playing everyone out in the break room of the lab floor. “Hi!” She got out before he grabbed her into a hug.

-A-

Steve ran into the lobby of the lab floor in time to see Tony grab a young woman into a hug while General Okoye summoned a spear from nowhere? how? and poked Tony in the back with it. “I know that feeling, really well, but I still can't let you do that.” he said without thinking.

Fortunately the General found it amusing, and the spear sort of collapsed on itself and she tucked it away.

Steve was fascinated. “Can I look at that later?”

“No.” But she smiled when she said it.

Since they were conversing anyway, and Steve wanted to get on good terms with her, he asked “Is there an emergency? JARVIS called me, said Tony wanted me?”

“Ah.” Another smile, good, “my princess and Ms Potts played a practical joke on Doctor Stark.”

“Please tell me there's video.” Maybe he'd been spending too much time with Darcy.

The general smiled. “I would think.”

“May I be introduced to your princess, please?” Steve had been reading etiquette web sites and emailing with the Stark Industries expert since Queen Frigga came to visit, and while he'd like the damn planet to standardize, he had half an idea what was going on now. Or at least he thought he was doing better, because General Okoye was giving him an approving look.

“Yes. We should do that.” The General agreed. She cleared her throat and Steve was amused to see the young woman try to listen to her elder while remaining regal. She was pretty good at it. “My Princess, this is Captain Rogers. Captain, Princess Shuri of Wakanda, Clan of the Black Panther.”

“Your highness.” Steve said, and gave her the same bow he’d once given the King of England. He tried not to wince when Sidekick on his shoulder shifted and meowed. He straightened. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“And you, Captain.” She reached out and shook his hand, regal as any queen he ever met. Once the hand clasp was over, she grinned suddenly and asked “Can I meet your familiar?”

Steve smiled back and shifted, so his shoulder was toward the princess. Instead of the usual, though, Shuri meowed with the cat a few times, before putting her hand out to be scented. No one else seemed to find it unusual, so he didn’t comment.

“I’m Nakia, Captain,” said the other lady with General Okoye.

“Pleased to meet you,” Steve shook her hand.

“PRINCESS Nakia, of the River Tribe,” the General said austerely.

“...your highness.” Steve continued.

Nakia smiled widely, and Steve was sure he again caught the tiniest hint of amusement from the General.

“Captain, I was wondering if I could ask you-” Shuri began, then stopped and glared at Okoye when the older woman cleared her throat again. “Fine.” She straightened and clearly tried to look royal. “We would like to speak to the Avengers. As emissaries of the Crown of Wakanda.”

Without missing a beat, Pepper said “Of course, Your Highness. If you’d come with me, we’ll meet them all in the main conference room.”

“Thank you.” Shuri said loftily, then grinned again, delighted.

-A-

He couldn’t believe Shuri was here. Tony’d been in touch with the kid for about ten years, thanks to T’Challa. When the royal family had realized exactly how gifted their youngest was, they’d done everything they could to give her as normal a life as possible, while keeping her brain busy. After the third or fourth phone call to Tony asking about ‘normal for a gifted kid’ they’d begun exchanging email directly, Tony and Shuri. They hadn’t been allowed to talk about anything technical, but they’d slipped a hell of a lot to each other over the years in “theoretical” discussions no one in the State Department or Wakandan Security could make enough sense of to realize. (And the Wakandan background check and NDA… the State Department could take lessons, not that he’d ever suggest it to them. But good Turing.)

Now here she was.

“I can’t believe you’re here.” He must have said it ten times, and put an arm around her to give her a squeeze again “Look at you! You’re tiny!”

“Hey, hey. So are you.” Shuri said hotly.

“Still taller than you.”

“I could kick your ass.”

“I bet you could.” Tony laughed. “I’d bet on you.”

“Your. Highness.” General Okoye said.

Tony didn’t think they were in too much trouble, though, because Nakia (he knew her from somewhere, it’d come to him) was giggling.

Shuri gave a magnificent hrumpf and strode to the head of the table. The three bags carried in by the women were laid there, and she stood calmly, waiting for everyone to get done trailing into the room. She was still grinning, so whatever was going on, it’d be fine. Tony got her a Jolt cola - she laughed and took a big swig - then sat down to her right. Natasha and Barnes were both in beds, still laid out from Sokovia, but everyone else had showed up.

Once things settled, Shuri straightened a little, and look at that poise. “Thank you all for seeing us.” She gave a nod of thanks, and then when Thor stood and bowed, she bowed back to him. “Thanks to your work recovering stolen property for the Kingdom of Wakanda, my brother and I were able to persuade the King to make the Avengers a gift in thanks.”

She reached down, opened a bag, and pulled out a shirt of sparkling sequin-like plates. “Vibranium alloy body armor for all the Avengers, and their support staff. It’s what Hydra was using on their people, we’ve got the materials here for enough scale mail for your entire active duty staff.” She gave Phil a wild grin. “Including ‘Badass’. I heard about him. Can I meet him?”

Tony fell back into his chair. He couldn’t feel his fingers or toes and he was pretty sure he’d stopped breathing.

“On behalf of all of us, Princess,” Pepper said smoothly, thank Turing for Pepper, “you have our deepest gratitude.”

“I was thinking of doing this for us,” Tony said to the ceiling, he still felt like he couldn’t breathe, “but I crunched the numbers for three days, and I couldn’t afford it.” He looked at all the nutcases he worked with. “This is a gift I can’t afford to buy you.”

That was when the thanks started up properly.

-A-

When things got weird, well, Clint was a kid from an abusive home who grew up a sniper. He would stand back in a corner, go still, and watch. When things got SUPER weird, Phil watched with him.

“Princess Shuri of Wakanda is an old nerd buddy of Tony Stark’s.” Phil shook his head.

Clint thought of that massive matrix of connections he’d built with JARVIS, and how adding this information would shift everything around.

He was going to need a bigger hologram.

The kid was a hoot though, obviously brilliant and opinionated with a big dose of pure ornery. She finally got to speak with Steve casually, and asked immediately, “How did you create the muon field on your shield?”

Clint, who once spent three months crunching numbers on a sub-atomic particle thing of Bruce’s, perked up and paid attention. Muons? Where?

“I’m sorry, the what?” Steve asked.

“When Black Panther came home with your shield, I got hold of it, scanned it and stuff. It had a MUON FIELD! How? Who the hell did that?” She turned and pointed at Tony. “Was it you? I can’t believe you’d develop something like that and keep it secret. You tell everyone all about tech stuff, you can’t help it. It’s the salesman talking.”

“I don’t even know what a muon field IS.” Tony told her. “Mechanic, remember?”

“You have a physics doctorate.” Shuri looked genuinely shocked.

“Mechanical physics! I only got the basic notes on particle stuff!”

“Huh.” Shuri looked him up and down. “Some genius.”

Pepper made a choking noise and Kate patted her back.

“Muons are lepto-” Bruce held up a hand, started over. “They’re a type of sub-atomic particle. Are you saying there’s a field of them around the shield?”

“Well, was.” Shuri looked a little guilty.

“Some genius.” Tony told her.

Shuri flipped him off, looked like a practiced gesture. Clint loved this kid. Her two guardians for the day looked absolutely mortified, even after Tony started laughing.

“Uh, I don’t know anything about-” Steve began.

“Billy.” Clint told them all. Geez, who else even had the ability to mess with that stuff? “Remember, Billy put the whammy on our weapons?”

“Whammy?” Shuri repeated.

“Magic.” Clint said apologetically.

“Nuh uh.” She answered. “I’ve seen magic. Wakanda has mages. It’s all magical, and everything. This is muons. Muons are not magic. They’re muons. I wanna meet this guy.”

Everyone turned and stared at Clint.

He fought the urge to strike a pose. “JARVIS, where’s Logan?”

“He is in the common room with our houseguest.”

Shuri’s eyes widened, and Clint started to explain, he didn’t know how, when she turned to the nearest sensor panel. “JARVIS! My man!”

“Good afternoon, Princess.”

“Haha! Best day!” She fist-bumped the wall.

JARVIS flashed the lights in the panel at her.

“Who is Jarvis?” General Okoye asked, polite but with a definite edge to her voice.

At the same time, Tony said “You know JARVIS?”

“Yep!” Shuri leaned on the wall. “He introduced himself after I started asking you questions about AI.”

Fuck, Clint hated international incidents.

“I didn’t know.” Tony turned to Okoye, sort of lifted his hands. “I don’t blame you for not believing it, but I swear, I didn’t know.”

The other princess - who Clint remembered from a few back-alley brawls in African nations, nice - glanced around quickly, assessing threats.

“Who is Jarvis?” Nakia asked, a little more politely than Okoye, but still braced for a threat.

“I apologize.” JARVIS said. “I am JARVIS, a synthetic life form. I was made to be Sir’s assistant, but have now begun looking after the Avengers as well. Princess Shuri and I speak of artificial intelligence, occasionally. In Wakandan Security records, I am Edwin J Arvis.”

“ISN’T HE AWESOME?” Shuri told Nakia and the general.

Hoo boy.

-A-

“We’re fuckin’ doomed.” Logan muttered under his breath, then lit his cigar from a match he struck on his sideburn.

Everyone in the Tower had given up on him smoking inside. JARVIS had taken to turning on the air blowers as high as possible, directly over where Logan was standing. Logan found it amusing and would blow smoke rings into the air intakes.

“What?” Steve looked around the room; Shuri and Tony were huddled in front of a smartboard with Bruce and Jane, drawing diagrams of squiggly lines and angles. General Okoye and Princess Nakia were sharing a pot of tea and some fancy pastries with Pepper, Kate, and Darcy. Most everyone else had drifted back off to work in the other labs.

“You’ve never seen kids these days network. Shuri meets Billy tomorrow,” it had been scheduled for the morning; Billy was going to be there to go over the Scepter anyway, “there’s going to be some X team meeting and Shuri will wind up a supplier or working with ‘em somehow.” Logan paused, stared off into the middle distance, then “eh, fuck it, they’d do a better job of running the world anyway.” He took a long drag on his cigar, took a swig of beer.

“Running the world?” Steve repeated. Logan was, as far as Steve could tell, serious.

“I’m telling you. You’ve got no idea, what kids these days are like. Remember the Resistance, the street rats and teenagers who’d help us out?”

Those had been dark days, with the children at war. He was glad, of all the things that had changed in the future, that everyone still agreed, that was terrible. “Yeah?”

“They’re like that, with better networking.”

Steve considered that. Considered Billy, and Wanda and Pietro.

He was going to have to talk to Phil. They were going to need a plan.

-A-

SAM AND FRIENDS MIXED NUT HERE. This one isn't vital to the plot, but in the interests of continuity, it happens between these scenes.

-A-

Pepper left her hair down, put on ripped jeans and a casual sweater in a bright blue. Usually that sort of thing was enough to let her go unnoticed, and she hoped it worked tonight. She took a sip of beer and let herself be just barely visible from the door so-

Yes. Darcy was here, and had spotted her. She pushed herself back into the corner of the booth where she’d be invisible to most of the bar, and waited.

Darcy got a beer at the bar, then slid into the booth across from her. “Hey.” She looked around. “This doesn’t seem like your usual den of iniquity.”

Pepper took a swig of her own beer. “I come here once in a while, to remind myself where I came from. Thanks for meeting me.”

Darcy, bless her, looked around and nodded. “It is kind of backwoods roadhouse. In a Manhattan sort of way. Are you okay?”

Oh good. She was going to be as direct as usual. Pepper let herself slouch and be just as direct. It was such a relief after having to be tactful all day. “I’ll be blunt. Our backgrounds are similar, and I thought it would be nice to have someone to talk to, who kind of gets it. The few close friends I have, are all from this,” she waved a hand in a circle to indicate Manhattan in general, large city, education, culture, “and it’s like speaking another language.”

That got some blinking, then a smile. “I know we’re both from rural Virginia, but I thought you came from some money, and class.”

Darcy’s background check had been extensive, and Pepper knew Darcy was referring to her own public-school-in-the-hills history. “I was orphaned and raised by an evangelical great aunt. The private school that’s in all my interviews? Was an independent church mess teaching us humans rode dinosaurs. I had to teach myself everything when I got to college.” And that was more than anyone in Manhattan except Tony knew about her background. “She was considering disowning me over working for Stark Industries, when she died.”

“Shit.” Darcy flagged a waitress, handed in her beer and ordered a margarita. “We’re gonna dish. Cool. I can do that for DAYS. There’s someone else we know who would get it, too. Before we take an oath of silence, you want me to call him?”

One of Pepper’s goals with this was to make FRIENDS with the Avengers inhabiting her life. Right now, no matter where or when she encountered them, including in the common room kitchen at three in the morning in her pajamas, she was the boss. She was already sick of it. “Who?” she had to ask.

“Clint. He calls me a hillbilly when he’s talking about being poor white trash. It was Iowa instead of Virginia, and we don’t have the religious stuff, we have small town poverty and ignorance. He gets it. We’ve talked some.”

If there was one thing Clint Barton could do, it was keep a secret. No way on earth Phil and Natasha would have kept him around for over a decade, otherwise. She’d gotten to know him a little, after the Invasion, when he’d visit the Tower occasionally. Even when it was obvious he was grieving, he was still kind and easygoing. “Yeah, sure.”

Darcy nodded, dialed her ‘communicator’ phone. “Hey. Redneck meeting, that bar around the corner, we said looked like we should line dance at? Yeah. Now. Okay.” She put the phone back in her bag. “He’s on his way.”

Pepper nodded. “Thing is, you know how…” she waited while Darcy’s drink was delivered, ordered a slew of snacks for them, “...that kid’s still in there. No matter how far I’ve come, that little girl sitting in church every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, she’s still there.”

“Hell yeah.” Darcy saluted and took a swig of margarita. “I’m working to set up an embassy with the UN, while bossing Tony fucking Stark around, and go home and the barefoot kid from the hills sits in my bedroom going “holy shit, what the fuck just happened?”

Pepper snorted, nodded. “That, but add in the voice in your head telling you everything’s a sin. What you do, how you do it, who you know, what you wear.” She considered a moment, then added, “who you sleep with.”

“Needs more alcohol,” Darcy told her.

Pepper decided fuck it, and ordered the martini she wanted instead of the beer. Clint slid into the booth next to Darcy then, and without thinking, Pepper pushed the beer at him.

“Thanks.” Clint immediately took it, drank deeply. “Didn’t realize you were part of the redneck squad. I mean I knew you grew up rural, you’ve said so.” He shrugged. “I never read the SHIELD background checks on you, I hate those, they’re creepy.”

“Evangelical great aunt, primary custody.” Pepper told him.

“For extra what the fuck.” Darcy added.

“From the stories I’ve heard, having my dad beat the shit out of me might have been better than the hard-core church stuff.” Clint took another deep drink of beer, helped the waitress unload the tray when she got back with a round of food and Pepper’s martini. When she left again, he asked, “is there a primary purpose for this or is it a general bitch session? Either way I’m good, just getting the lay of the land.”

Pepper had always been fond of Clint; he never failed to be kind, and down to earth. In his own way, at any rate. “Vow of silence?” she asked the table.

Clint and Darcy nodded.

“I am about to launch into an affair with a pretty artist. Me and my bad-boy boyfriend. Together. Are going to start a relationship with a third person. Another man. In my bed.”

“And you’re going to hell.” Darcy finished for her.

Pepper pointed at her. “Got it in one.”

“First, just, you go, girl.” Clint held out one large battered fist over the table.

Pepper bumped it.

He laughed. “So you empirically know the going to hell thing is bullshit, is the emotional end holding you up?”

She leaned across the table. “You guys. I can count the lovers I’ve had on one hand. I still can’t believe I’m living with TONY STARK. Where the hell do I even START with this?”

“His shirt. Get his shirt off.”

Clint hooted a laugh and shoulder-bumped Darcy.

“You know what I mean,” Pepper told them and damn it, she knew she was blushing. She didn’t think she’d blushed since the first time she evicted a celebutaunte from Tony’s bedroom.

“They’re not pressuring you, are they?” Clint sounded shocked.

“Oh. No. The opposite. They’re both going out of their way to let me take all the time I want.” She paused to smile a little. “While they fool around. They’re doing all that open honesty stuff, too. It’s one reason I haven’t backed out, the fact that they’re trying so hard to make me comfortable with it and being so honest with me.”

Clint and Darcy nodded. “Good, couldn’t imagine either of them being jerks about it.” Clint added.

“You might want to talk to them. Does STEVE know what he’s doing?” Darcy asked. “I love the guy but women are not his strong suit.”

Pepper laughed. “That’s the cultural, temporal? difference talking,” she considered privacy for a second, and hell with it, “I happen to know the man’s history is far more similar to Tony’s than you’d believe.”

“No way.” Darcy’s jaw was hanging.

“Go Steve.” Clint toasted with his beer.

“Knew I should have given him a ride before I threw him back,” Darcy muttered, then turned bright red. “Sorry, that was beyond tactless, given the situation.”

Pepper grinned. “But really funny.”

They all ate in deep contemplation for a while.

“But see,” Pepper finally had to say, “I’ve got impostor syndrome like whoa. It’s stupid. I’m Pepper Goddamn Potts. I run a Fortune Five Hundred. And I’m still trying to shake the idea that there’s sin around every corner and I’m a horrible person.”

“Same.” Darcy nodded. “Well, not the sin, so much, but the hick thing. So much lost hick in the big city. For sure. Add in the space alien, I’m as weirded out as you are. Different reasons, but damn.”

Clint beamed at them both. “You came to the right place.”

“Did we?” Pepper asked.

“Fake it ‘til you make it, ladies. Half the time on dates with Phil, I still pretend I’m someone else, under cover. Clint Barton the poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks doesn’t know shit about going to Shakespeare in the Park. Clint Barton, spy, is under cover as a suave gentleman who knows what wine to order and which fork to use. I won’t even start on going to the ballet with Nat. You need at least a year of training to survive that.” He signaled for another beer. “Drink up, finish the snacks. We’re going shopping. First thing you need is wardrobe. Why do you think I own a tailored tuxedo?”

Darcy and Pepper traded looks. “We, uh, we already have significant wardrobes.” Darcy told him.

Clint shook his head, mouth full of nachos, held up a finger until he was finished. “You want to be the kind of woman who wears a red dress to a funeral, or black leather pants. You need the red dress and the leather pants. Even if you never wear them, you’ll know they’re there.”

Pepper thought about that. It made as much sense as any other solution she could think of. “We’re going shopping?”

“That’s the spirit.” Clint picked up his fresh beer and drained half of it. “Doing it buzzed is half the fun.”

“Are you going to have a problem with us getting lingerie?” Pepper had to ask him.

Clint threw back his head and laughed. “Are you kidding? Living in Nat’s pocket all these years? Bet I know more about it than you do.”

“You’re on,” Darcy agreed, and they clicked their drinks together.

-A-

@Yobi OMG you guys I just waited on Pepper Potts and didn’t know it was her until she gave me her credit card. She and her friends were super nice. I think the “sassy gay friend” (he said it!) with her was HAWKEYE!