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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!

Chapter Text

We begin with the FIRST POST-CREDITS SCENE FROM END OF ULTRON. As always, if you click the link and then the 'back' button on your browser you'll come back here.

-A-

It was sometime between two and three in the morning, and Tony had JUST gotten his goddamn brain to shut up and fallen asleep, and JARVIS chimed his ‘wake the fuck up it’s the end of the world’ chime. He sat straight up in bed, Pepper right beside him. “Status.”

“You asked me to report any further violence happening in the residential Avenger areas. There has been an… incident in Captain Rogers’ quarters.”

Tony jumped out of bed and scrambled for a robe. On the other side of the bed, Pepper was pulling a long silk dressing gown over an SI tee shirt and panties. “Who was involved?”

“The violence was between Agent Romanov and Sergeant Barnes, although Captain Rogers was there and able to… make peace. I’ve called in Sergeant Wilson, Doctor Simmons, and Hawkeye. They are there now.”

Tony and Pepper got on the elevator and JARVIS dropped them down to Steve’s floor, fast. The door opened and Clint stood there, Natasha in his arms bridal style. He was wearing nothing but boxers and holy shit, scars everywhere. Natasha was still bandaged to hell and back, including her eyes, IV tubes trailing. Her face was pressed into Clint’s neck and she was crying.

That was possibly the most disturbing thing Tony had ever seen.

Clint looked impossibly grim, but gave them a sort of understanding nod. “I’ll send Phil to help straighten this out, I’ve got to take care of her.”

“Of course,” Tony said and got the hell out of the way.

“Call if there’s anything at all we can do,” Pepper told him gently as Clint got on the elevator.

Clint nodded, face softening slightly. “Thanks.” As the elevator doors closed, they heard him asking to have Bruce sent to his quarters.

“What the fuck,” Tony breathed. Pepper looked horrified and shrugged. They headed for Steve’s.

Steve was in the kitchen of his quarters, leaned against the fridge, head back, eyes shut. He looked like he was trying to breathe. His hands were shaking. Before Tony or Pepper could do or say anything, Sam popped out of the second bedroom and called “he’s okay.” Steve nodded to indicate he’d heard, then sort of collapsed, hands on knees, head bowed, body hunched.

Sam looked at Tony and Pepper, back at Steve. “Handle him,” he told Pepper and Tony under his breath. “We’ve gotta get Barnes leveled off, just… give him some comfort, I’ll explain in a few.” He disappeared back into the bedroom.

Jesus fuck. Tony had no idea what to do, thank Turing for Pepper. Pepper grabbed his hand, dragged him over to Steve, and put her arms around both of them. Steve gave a single sobbing noise and wrapped an arm around each of them, pulled them in, and pressed his face down onto their shoulders.

Okay, hugging, he could do that. He rubbed Steve’s back and exchanged confused/horrified/curious looks with Pepper.

“Gimmie a sec,” Steve ground out, voice broken.

“Take your time,” Pepper told him gently, and kissed the side of his head.

“Get your breath back, then we’ll fix whatever,” Tony said, trying to be comforting. What did he know of comfort?

Steve laughed a tiny bit, still spoke into their shoulders, “you always think you can fix things. Even people.”

Well, yes? “So far, so good?”

Pepper smiled at him so apparently that hadn’t been the worst thing to say.

Steve laughed a little more. “God. Fuck. What a mess.” He stood back, rubbed his hands over his face, took a deep breath, let it out. “Thanks.” He hugged them each, individually. “I need coffee. You need coffee?”

He’d be up all night. “Sure.”

Pepper offered to do it, but Steve wanted something to do. He nudged them toward the stools under the counter, so still confused, they sat.

Tony finally noticed what Steve was wearing and he had to talk about SOMETHING or he’d explode. “Nice jammies.” They were some of the Avengers-themed ones he’d bought when Steve had been shot and Tony hadn’t been able to do anything else. These were the Thor set; the tee shirt was printed to look like his armor, and the pants were covered in lightning bolts. It added the surreal Avengers’ touch to the whole evening.

Steve put mugs on the counter, leaned a hip on the other side. “We need a meeting, might as well be now, or soon. Short version, Nat decided Buck had information she needed, and got it out of him.”

Sam left the bedroom then, came over to the counter, and took a big drink of Steve’s coffee. “She is either more skilled than God, or got lucky. Other than a shitload of bruises and a nick under his eye, Barnes is in about the same shape as when he went to bed.” He drank again. “Passing out was oxygen debt from Nat having her knee on his diaphragm. Somehow she did it without re-breaking any of his ribs or messing up his liver.”

“That would have been on purpose, no permanent damage. She’s that good,” Steve told them. “Glad to know she didn’t want him dead.”

“Jesus.” Tony wished for booze.

Steve did another deep inhale and exhale, nodded once. “So they’re both okay.”

Sam went to Steve’s fridge, took out a beer, popped the cap. “Define okay.”

“JARVIS, ask Phil to come in here, tell him we’re going to have a quick meeting, please,” Pepper suddenly announced in her CEO voice. She turned to the men. “I’m pulling rank on this one. I need to know what the hell is going on, privacy be damned. We don’t need to tell anyone else, but if there are two people ready to kill each other I will know about it.”

“I’m going to pull rank too. I’m the landlord.” Tony hesitated. Then, you know, fuck it. “I’m disturbed as all hell about the amount of casual violence all of you do to each other, so I want an explanation.” He’d had to repair BULLET HOLES in the ceiling of the gym.

Sam rubbed his face, nodded. “I think we’re into that part of my agreement where I rat out people I’m concerned about. Us,” he circled his beer bottle to indicate the four of them, “and Phil, he’s in charge of this circus, but no one else.”

Steve waved toward the living room. “I don’t want to leave Bucky if I don’t have to. This is comfortable enough.”

They all moved over, took seats, and Phil walked in. “Clint and Bruce have made Natasha comfortable and calmed her down, and I need to get back. But I’d REALLY like to know what the hell is going on.”

“Understood,” Steve told him. “Coffee? Beer?”

“Beer, please.” Phil dropped into a wingback chair. Steve went for the beer, still clearly grateful for something to do.

They all sat and looked at each other. Sam waved his beer bottle at Steve.

And Steve began. “I woke up, I think I heard her jump him, but the first thing I remember hearing was Nat talking. She wanted to know what Bucky knew, about her past. He tried to put her off, but it’s Nat.” He smiled a little, “she managed to get the drop on him with her eyes bandaged over and both hands in splints. She had a knife stuck in one. Bucky’s not entirely stupid, so he talked.”

“Shit.” Sam said into his beer. “A couple weeks ago, that night with the knife throwing. This is under the ‘rat things out because I’m worried’ heading so keep it to yourselves, Barnes told me that he and Nat had worked together and it looked like Nat didn’t remember it.”

Tony wondered what in FUCK ‘the night with the knife throwing’ was, but didn’t ask. He was sure he was happier not knowing.

Sidekick came into the room, hopped up on Steve, then to his shoulder. She rubbed her face against his, then laid down against his neck. He reached up to pet her before nodding at Sam. “Yeah. They were partners.” He gave a thousand yard stare out the window for long enough that the rest of them exchanged worried looks. “Natasha was born at the end of the war. World War Two. They were partners. Buck said for about forty years. She was the spotter on the grassy knoll in Dallas.”

Everyone simply stared.

Tony hated inter-personal shit because he sucked at it. “That… meshes with what Barnes told us, me and Bruce, right after Sokovia.” He wished for scotch. Hundred year old single-malt, really peaty, with two ice cubes, in a rock crystal glass. “Zola got a version of the Serum to work, he called it the Infinity Formula. No obvious physical changes; better healing, reflexes, that kind of thing.”

“No one thought to mention that?” Pepper asked, edge to her voice.

“We were still absorbing it. There was going to be a meeting once things calmed down, I don’t know why we thought that would happen. Apparently Hydra liked to use it as a reward. He said Natasha has it, potentially a lot of others, mostly Russian.” Tony shrugged. “We’re all in recovery mode right now, we didn’t realize the information would be needed this fast.”

Sam got up, went and got another beer.

“We wondered,” Phil said quietly. “Clint and I. We always wondered if Nat was enhanced somehow, but all the X gene tests came back negative, they tested her for everything they could think of when she came in and found nothing, and she never spoke of it. She could always run both of us into the ground. Especially back in the day, Clint and I were both fit and had a long history in our line of work, and she’d be ready to keep going when we both dropped. We never asked and she never volunteered the information, not even hinted. I wondered if she knew, herself. It was never anything obvious. She heals quickly. Has an incredible alcohol tolerance, but she’s Russian. I don’t think she knew she was that old.”

“No, from what I heard, she didn’t. That’s what made her cry, when Bucky told her and I think,” Steve did more thousand yard stare, “I think realizing how much of herself is lost, that’s what broke her. Not so much that her memory was iffy, she’s known that. It was finding out how old she is, that there are entire decades missing. That’s when she started crying. I’ve never heard her cry before.”

“Neither have I,” Phil said softly.

“Fuck,” Sam said for all of them.

“Charles is due here tomorrow, he was coming in with Billy anyway,” Tony reminded them. “I vote we bring him in on this and ask for help.”

“Seconded,” Phil said immediately.

“Amen.” Sam told them all.

-A-

As always, Pepper went to her office at eight in the morning, to give herself an hour of quiet to take care of messages and other issues left over from the day before. Even after being awake most of the night, worrying over Barnes, and Steve’s worry over Barnes, and whether she was in the middle of a Red Room blood feud.

Kate, without being asked, had begun joining her in the early morning, running errands and placing calls and other assistance. Pepper had brought her on thinking of her more as an apprentice, and she was, but Kate was also a first-rate personal assistant and could organize anything. She’d told Pepper it came from ‘strategy lessons’ with Team Delta. They were leaving for Tokyo in several days, and when told of the trip, she had nodded, confirmed she had a passport, asked how many days she should pack for, and if there were any special events she needed to know about. Now she was in the door to Pepper’s office, asking politely, “Ms Potts, about the Tokyo trip?”

Damn. Last night she’d finally gotten Darcy to call her Pepper – Clint always had – and she had some major work to do, here. “Yes, Ms Bishop?” That got her a little smile, at least.

“I’ve been meaning to ask anyway, um, what’s the dress code around here?”

That was interesting. Pepper looked away from the holograms over her desk, turned to Kate, who was dressed in what looked like a custom-made suit in lavender, with long swishy trousers and a well-fitted jacket with slit sleeves that draped into a sort of shawl behind her. Her earrings were hexagonal purple stones, a chain of three hanging from each ear. “What you’ve been wearing is fine.” After the mugging, Pepper had called up a designer friend she’d modeled for in college, and replaced the linen suit of Kate’s that had gotten ruined. She’d gotten as far as “assistant ruined her suit, saving me from an attempted kidnapping” and four suits and an evening gown had appeared. Jan – the designer friend who she’d modeled for in college – had refused all payment and wanted to meet the assistant next time she was in town.

“Good, because I’ve been imitating you.” Kate told her.

Pepper looked down at herself. Monochrome beige. She considered what Clint had told her about dressing the part. “I’m still dressing like Tony’s assistant, aren’t I?”

“You’re dressing like Pepper Potts, and that’s fine,” it was so nice to have a tactful assistant, “but I was wondering if it’s okay to wear my own clothes. And jewelry.”

Kate had known Clint for many MANY years, Pepper knew. “Are you familiar with Clint’s ‘fake it until you make it’ rule of dressing?”

“Oh crap, you’ve been talking to Clint.” Kate dropped into one of Pepper’s visitor chairs across the desk from her. “You want me to dress the part of assistant to the CEO of a Fortune 500?”

“No...” Pepper leaned back in her own chair, took a sip of green tea to gather her thoughts. “You’ve been doing that. Keep it up, wear whatever you like that’s business appropriate. Your own wardrobe is fine. I’m thinking, I need to quit dressing like Tony’s assistant.”

Kate gave a little shrug. “You can do whatever you want. That’s not hero worship talking, you’re kind of a wild card in the business world, so you dressing in super-minimalist style hasn’t really gotten any attention.”

Pepper thought about that. Maybe a change of look would trigger a change in attitude among all the sexist men she dealt with in her CEO capacity. “You game for shopping when we’re in Tokyo next week?”

“Absolutely. Can we hit Ginza?” Kate grinned.

Pepper felt her eyebrows climb. “Sure. You shop there?” Parts of Tokyo were EXTREMELY high end, and Kate hadn’t mentioned being there before. Though she hadn’t denied it either.

Kate got a little shifty-eyed, which was always amusing because the secrets that she shared this way were always harmless. “I’ve collected jewelry since I was a kid, and I like decent clothes. Could use a few more suits and the ones around here are boring; Japan’s fashion seasons work differently, too, they don’t do heavy winter gear in couture, and their stuff is timeless. Especially when you wear it in the west. Nobody can tell what season it was and you can wear it forever. Haven’t been to Tokyo in a while, so...” she trailed off and kind of shrugged.

This, Pepper had to see. “Maybe we’ll find something for me too. I collect jewelry too, some. Mostly Tony does it for me.” He was utterly ridiculous at charity auctions, and she never should have told him she liked aquamarines. His fondness for buying watches and jewelry for himself had made it easier for him to do “well I was there anyway...” shopping for her.

“Start wearing some major rocks, if you want to intimidate people,” Kate suggested, and damn, why had she never thought of that? She even had significant pieces, from revenge-shopping with Tony’s checkbook during her years as his assistant. The first time she’d bailed him out of jail, she’d bought herself an Aston-Martin Vanquish. He’d laughed and sent the check to his accountant without a word.

She still had it; it was parked downstairs in the Avengers’ level of the parking lot, between Kate’s Ferrari and Natasha’s black Corvette. Tony had insisted on taking care of maintenance for it, so it was over ten years old and still looked and drove like it was brand new.

She only needed one car, and by god, she was going to spend and make it hurt, after some of his debauchery, and that pretty much left her with jewelry and art.

Her art collection was also good.

“So we’ll both start dressing more like badasses,” Pepper concluded.

Kate grinned, then got up to check something beeping in her office next door, leaving the door open.

Pepper checked her Rescue account on the Avengers server, and there was a playlist named “Pep” and a message from Darcy. She laid her finger over it on the screen for a moment, thinking of friendship and last night’s boozed-up shopping. She now had black leather pants. And Clint had talked her into a black leather biker jacket to go with, and heavy black boots. She’d felt like she could kick any ass in the world, wearing them.

Clint told her to ask Tony to make a set in asbestos or aramid-kevlar blend.

Now she was going to do the same thing to her CEO wardrobe. Without the asbestos.

“What is it? Everything okay?” Kate asked.

Kate noticed EVERYTHING. Pepper couldn’t decide if it was natural inclination or from years of hanging out with Clint, or the “extracurricular training” (Natasha’s term) from the rest of Team Delta. But Kate noticed things. She needed to remember that.

“Nothing, just, Darcy made me a play list.”

“Ah. You need to be careful with those. The songs she chooses, and stuff? She’ll hit you right between the eyes. Sam says she’s better at people than he is, but she likes managing them in groups. She made me a playlist about three days after we moved in together and I still listen to it going ‘holy shit’.”

That was rather the feeling she’d gotten from Darcy, the night before. Pepper opened the attached message. “Hey, made you a short playlist last night after we got home. You don’t have to listen to it, but it’s in your folder on the server here. No test later, totally a voluntary thing. But after I’d had a couple-three aspirin and a bunch of Gatorade, something occurred to me. All those church ladies in your head? Think of the life you’d have led if you’d listened to them, and think of the life you have now. How much good have you done with Stark Industries? You’ve had a global impact. Free desalinization pumps to third world nations saves way more lives than baking cookies. And all that medical gear donated to MSF. I don’t know, I refused to join church when I was twelve. Anyway, have a good day. Hope you’re not hung over. You looked badass in those leather pants. D.”

Pepper leaned back in her chair and stared at the screen.

“Got you, huh?” Kate said with a little smile.

“Right between the eyes,” Pepper agreed. “I haven’t even listened to the music yet.”

“Brace yourself.”

- A -

Shuri, T’Challa, and the General were arriving bright and early in the morning, so Tony took a half-hour long shower, drank a pot of coffee, and dragged ass down to the lobby to meet them. Fucking nine am, goddamn business hours.

He hadn’t gotten any sleep after the meeting at Steve’s, as expected.

Was Natasha along the night the Winter Soldier killed his parents? Did she even know? How had her memory gotten fucked with? Jesus H, had she been tortured like Barnes was?

Probably. Almost definitely. From an early age, they got her as a kid, they didn’t get Barnes until he was almost thirty.

Then he’d catch himself freaking the fuck out – torture got him, every time - and try to engineer artificial gravity as a distraction. If she’d been programmed - hell, call it what it was, tortured - like Barnes, could he hold anything against her? That she’d ever done?

Would she break his arms if he tried to give her a hug?

And around again on the inter-personal shit. He was realizing, this was the reason he’d stayed drunk for twenty years. He’d have to tell Sam he’d figured that out, Sam would give that smile and feed him hot chocolate. Sam smiles were nice.

What even was his life?

T’Challa and Shuri walked in, trailed by the General in Badass Bodyguard mode - black dress, necklace that probably had a meaning, and shoes she could kick ass in. Trying to keep it professional, at least in the lobby, Tony shook T’Challa’s hand, traded a fist-bump with Shuri, and gave the General a polite nod.

She nodded back without glaring, progress.

Shuri went over to the coffee bar, and proceeded to have an intense but grinning discussion with one of the women there. She wound up with one of the super-rich hot chocolates they made, that used real cream. “Oooh, nice.”

“Chocolate isn’t a flavor much used in Wakanda,” T’Challa explained as they walked to the elevator, “so my sister is enjoying it, during her visit.”

“We’ll tell Phil and Clint,” Tony told her. “They’re up on every chocolatier in the city, they’ll hook you up. Phil’s got a sweet tooth and Clint’s on some kind of quest to try every chocolate tart in the city.”

Shuri giggled. “All that and math, too?”

“Watch out, Phil will fight you for him.”

Shuri giggled more. “I’m not really into white boys, no offense.”

“That’s very wise,” Tony told her, dead serious.

T’Challa rolled his eyes.

-A-

They’d all decided the day before, since Princess Shuri wanted to meet Billy, that they’d have the whole gang up to the large, formal conference room on the public floor, and do the whole thing there. There was nothing scientific to be learned from the Scepter - Phil had watched as Bruce, Jane, and Tony went over it the day before and all three agreed it was an odd-for-Earth alloy of metals that existed on the Periodic Table, and that it still had a strange energy signature that none of them could explain, but it was from several bandwidths of the EM spectrum that were also normally found in nature.

So for Avengers definitions, it was normal.

It was still emanating at him, he swore.

“Is he always like this?” General Okoye asked as politely as possible.

She and Phil were standing together, watching Shuri and Clint at a whiteboard. The discussion had begun with chocolate tarts, segued into a discussion of his P = NP work, and was now a tale of spear-hunting jaguars in Brazil. (Phil remembered that; he still needed to kick Clint’s ass for it.) The entire discussion was being held in Wakandan; Clint wanted to improve his, because ‘it looks like I’m going to be needing it’. Phil was following about two-thirds of it, having studied the language before.

“He’s trying to be polite because he’s speaking to a minor,” Phil told the General apologetically. “I can drag him out of here if you’d like, he’s a terrible influence on everyone around him, always has been.”

The General smiled. “Yes, I’ve known men like him before. It is fine. He likes to hunt?”

Clint and hunting was a sore topic with everyone who knew him. Not so much because of the ethical questions but because he seemed determined to get himself killed doing it. “He says using weapons is cheating, unless you build them yourself.”

She laughed a little, “and so a spear.”

“He also uses a bow and arrows, but only for large game.”

The General laughed openly at that. Clearly she had dealt with large game before and knew how stupid it was. “He killed a moose with a bow, during this last op. He’s upset he can’t brag about it to anyone. Cap was with him, and thought the whole thing was a giant initiation prank.”

She laughed again, shaking her head.

Billy walked into the room then and said brightly, “Hi, everyone!” Charles wheeled in after him, and Kurt very cautiously brought up the rear, probably concerned about his welcome. Introductions were made all around, and Phil was glad to see General Okoye, Prince T’Challa, and Princess Shuri didn’t even blink at Kurt, and all shook his hand and greeted him the same way as everyone else. Wakanda was said to be more accepting of mutants than anywhere else, but it was nice to see in action.

Especially with Kurt, who really was one of the nicest people he’d ever met, as Clint claimed.

“So what have we got today?” Billy asked them all, bouncing on his toes a little. He was still a kid, after all, and it was easy to see he was having a lot of fun meeting not only the Avengers but Wakandan royalty as well.

Thor bowed to him, and said as politely as Phil had ever heard him, “thank you for coming, young master. We’d like you to look at the Scepter before we return it to Asgard.”

Billy got a little more serious and bowed back to Thor. “Of course. Always glad to help the Avengers, even when neat alien tech isn’t involved.”

Logan rolled his eyes.

“Kid, we are gonna have a talk later,” Tony told him, dead serious. Phil suspected that talk would be about screwing with little-understood tech and decided he or Charles really needed to be there for the good of the planet.

Billy grinned, stepped over to the table where the Scepter was laid out, and held a hand out to it. He quit grinning.

So did everyone else.

He cocked his head to the side a little, took one cautious step closer, and laid the tip of his right index finger on it. “Whoa, shit.” He winced. “‘Scuse me. This is… hang on.” He pulled out a cell phone, dialed, “Hey, Ben? I’ve got a code, well, what’s redder than red? At the Tower. No, ethics. Magically I can do this in my sleep, but whoa. I need witnesses. Yeah. Okay.” He put the phone back in his pocket, turned to them. “The Sorcerer Supreme is out of town, but his Second -”

A goddamn PORTAL with swirls of shapes and writing Phil didn’t recognize, opened in the corner and a completely average-looking guy of Asian heritage stepped through. The portal closed. “Hello.” He nodded politely to everyone, “I’m Ben Wong, librarian to the Sorcerer Supreme. Billy asked me to come.” Medium height, medium weight, black hair, with an Asian look to his features; he was wearing jeans, cross-trainers, and a Seattle Mariners tee shirt and spoke English easily, with no accent whatsoever.

Several people put weapons away without saying a word. Mr Wong was kind enough to pretend it never happened.

Introductions were made, because what the hell else were they supposed to do?

Phil noticed that Charles looked extremely grim and slipped over, “is there a security issue, or anything we should know about?”

Charles blinked a little, then shook his head. “Wong is as trustworthy as they come, he’s fine. I’m more worried about what prompted Billy to call him; Billy is more powerful, of the two, so the reasons I’m thinking of… none are good.”

“Just once I’d like an uncomplicated problem,” Phil said under his breath, and Charles heard and gave a half-laugh.

“Okay.” Billy took charge of the room with ease, Phil noticed. “The problem here is… well, MY problem is there are no protocols, magically or ethically, to deal with this. THE problem is, to put it simply, part of Phil’s soul is still stuck in the Scepter.” Billy winced and made a sad face at Phil. “It really did kill you,” he said softly.

Phil’s mouth went dry, even as Clint slid up next to him and took up position guarding his left side, like he always had. Phil took his hand because he was going to need support for this. “It really did,” he confirmed.

“That said, magically messing with people’s souls is beyond black, like you just don’t DO that,” Billy told them all. “Ever. Number one way to get yourself killed by other mages, for real. However, we can hardly send this off to Asgard with part of Phil in it.”

“So we can’t remove it,” Thor concluded.

“Nooo, that’s not the hard part, soul magic, it’s not hard, it’s just pure evil,” Billy said.

Wong spoke up with an almost-smile “for Billy it’s easy. Fortunately for the rest of the universe, most people have a lot more trouble with it. However the ethical considerations are enormous.”

Billy shrugged. “So I can pull it out, put it back in Phil, but even with me doing that, I want witnesses,” he jerked a thumb at Wong, “who will state later that I was doing Phil’s bidding and therefore, TECHNICALLY, not screwing with him. I’ll be doing what he wants.”

Nods all around.

“I will also stand witness to this,” Prince T’Challa said.

“And I,” Thor agreed.

Billy breathed a little easier. “Good. This is… this is not stuff to mess around with.” He looked over at Charles, “all this fuss is on you, you’re the one who did all the ethics classes.”

Charles smiled at him, “and you’re doing well.”

“I don’t want it back.” Phil said it before he thought about it, and Clint’s hand vised down on his, but, “I can feel it, or something. I don’t want anything to do with it.”

Billy shut his eyes, took a deep breath, let it out slowly, “damn good thing I called in Wong.”

“To help?” Clint asked.

“No,” Billy said seriously, “to stand witness, keep anyone from trying to kill me later for what I’m about to suggest and probably do.” He dropped into a chair, waved, and everyone else followed suit; there were a few left standing in corners, but they were all gathered around the conference table with the Scepter in the center. “All right. Applying the logic classes that Professor Xavier also drilled into me, the issue is this: The Scepter contains part of Phil’s soul. Phil doesn’t want it back. None of us - I don’t think - want it taken off to Asgard with the Scepter. Do we?” He glanced around the table, “others having control of part of a soul… we’re into deepest black magic here.”

“Can we keep it here, just… not with Phil?” Clint asked.

Billy nodded at him. “That’s the obvious solution I’m seeing. Phil?”

That sounded like the best possible outcome. “Then what happens to it?”

“Then I contain it and give it to you and it’s yours to deal with, I will denounce all links to it, all responsibility.” Billy gave him a look no nine-year-old should be able to give. “It’s your soul, Phil. No one else should ever be in control of it. Ever. I will be for the time it takes to move it around, but after that, I can’t and won’t have anything to do with it. It would be… I need a stronger word than evil.”

“I understand,” Phil said. This WAS pretty serious stuff, even by his understanding.

Billy rubbed his hands on his jeans, then said in a deeper, stronger voice, “Do you, Phil Coulson, ask me to remove your soul from the scepter?”

“Yes.” Phil replied. The look on Thor and Wong’s faces, this was ritual now.

“You state freely that you don’t want it back. You aren’t coerced in any way, and you don’t want it back.”

“I’m not coerced and of my own free will I deny the return of it.” Phil replied, trying to get into the groove of the ritual. He knew he sounded more like a lawyer.

“Do you consent to me removing it from the Scepter and containing it for you?”

“Yes.”

“At that point, it will be given to you for your safekeeping and I am free of all responsibility for it.”

“I understand and agree.”

Billy looked at Wong, and Wong nodded. “Binding, and ethical.”

Charles spoke softly, “if my opinion matters, I think this is the most fair option available for all parties.”

“It matters,” Billy told him.

He looked around again, a lot of the weight of power seeming to slide away, and he was about halfway back to being the kid who bounced into the room. “Do you have anything around here that’s glass, that you don’t care if I ruin?”

“Sure,” Darcy told him (Phil still wasn’t sure how Darcy got in there), “regular glass, crystal, got a preference?”

“Lead crystal, if you’ve got it,” Billy decided.

“One of the cut glass highballs,” Tony told Darcy, and she brought one over to the table, sat it down in front of Billy.

“Thanks,” Billy said absently. Then he… seemed to pull about one third of the glass away from the rest as if it were taffy, or modeling clay.

“How the fuck?” Tony slipped and asked.

Billy grinned a little. “Glass. It’s an amorphous solid. You loosen up the bonds between molecules a little bit.” He rolled it into a ball, then pushed a finger into the center of it, to make a hollow. “Ben, can you do a force field? Keep everything else out?”

“Sure,” Wong said, and with a few gestures, there were roiling shapes and symbols, in a sphere around Billy’s hands and the Scepter.

“Thanks,” Billy said absently, and held one hand out, the other cupping the ball of glass. He began humming, something Phil couldn’t identify, but it sounded like a hymn? Something came out of the Scepter, something that felt like a spear being pulled out of his back, and Phil slowly sucked in a breath. Then it was in the glass and Billy smoothed it over, and there was a swirl of unidentifiable color/light/dark inside a ball of glass about the size of a golf ball. “Okay.”

Wong dropped the force field.

“And I return this to you in the form we agreed upon, Phil Coulson,” Billy said, turning to Phil and holding it out in both hands.

“Thank you, Billy. I appreciate the effort and skill you used on my behalf, and I absolve you of any complications or damage caused by my decision, from now on. You honored my wishes and did as I asked. No consequence from this, is on you.”

Billy relaxed a little more, grinned some. “We can kick around some ideas later for keeping it safe. But as of now, that’s your soul, and it’s your problem.”

“Understood,” Phil told him. “And thank you.”

All the royalty in the room stood then and made statements that they’d witnessed the ethical return of Phil’s soul to him, and Phil, at a loss, stuck it in his pocket.

-A-

Steve thought, usually, that he’d left religion behind, sometime between Project Rebirth and liberating Auschwitz. But then something would happen, reality as he understood it would jimmy sideways a little bit, and he’d be back to wondering what really was going on with the galaxy.

Things like waking up seventy years in the future.

Or watching a kid not quite ten, move part of someone’s soul from a chunk of crushed up metal to a ball of glass. Glass he’d molded with his fingers, at room temperature.

He began to see why Charles ran that school. He wondered if they took donations.

Now the soul had been casually tucked into a pocket - Steve would be keeping an eye on it as much and as long as possible - and Phil, Charles, and Wong were in a huddle, he hoped discussing ethics and security.

The kid who’d done the magic? He was talking to Tony, Clint, Bruce, and a Wakandan princess who was so smart she impressed Tony.

Steve decided he should probably keep an eye on that, and went over.

“...in history, they used the four elements, and humors, or whatever. I use a hundred and twenty-five elements, and sub-atomic particles. Magic’s magic, but mages use their understanding of the physical world that we have, to work it. I’m a child of the twenty-first century. So I don’t do that medieval shit, I do science.”

“Nuh uh,” Shuri said.

“Yuh huh,” Billy answered with a grin.

“Wait.” Bruce interrupted, “a hundred twenty-five?”

Billy waved his hand a little. “Well. You know. Technically you can keep piling on electrons and neutrons and stuff forever, but after about a hundred and ten you have to help them along.”

“Help them along,” Bruce repeated.

“Crank up the atomic forces a little. So the electrons stay in their shells and stuff.”

Bruce and Tony exchanged glances over the kids’ heads, like they’d seen a ghost.

“Crank them up, how?” Shuri demanded.

“I don’t know, you just DO,” Billy said. He leaned over and got another blob of glass off the crystal high-ball he’d used before, squished it around. “The opposite of this. How do you do cellular respiration?” He paused a second, then pointed at Bruce, “don’t answer that. And you aren’t doing it consciously, so you still don’t know HOW you do it. You just do.”

All of them stared.

“What?” Billy demanded. “Mutant with an excellent science education!”

Shuri reached over and poked her finger into the swirl of glass in the palm of Billy’s fingers, and it left an indentation. “It’s not hot.”

“Nah, it’s like when you bend a paperclip. There’s atomic movement, but not enough to be a problem,” Billy explained.

None of this made sense to Steve, but it was interesting that Tony and Bruce looked like they wanted to take notes.

Clint was trying not to laugh, but that was Clint for you.

“So how’d you do the muon field? Same thing?” Shuri asked.

“Kinda,” Billy agreed. “Sub-atomic particles, you have to be a little more careful, or the atoms get unstable and fall apart.”

“By fall apart,” Tony said faintly, “do you mean nuclear fission?”

“Well, yeah, in enough volume you’ll have that, and a cascade of it can get nasty.” Billy caught the look on Tony’s face. “Hey, I’ve only played around like that a couple atoms at a time, I’m not a lunatic. And I was learning how to keep it from happening by accident.”

“You’re causing NUCLEAR FISSION, but really small?” Tony demanded.

“REALLY small!” Billy said defensively. “A couple atoms, you can barely even see the light emitted! The rest of the radiation is negligible. Especially if you go with small ones like hydrogen. Fusion looks cooler, anyway. And is safer.”

Tony made a squeaking noise and Bruce patted his back. Clint laughed out loud.

“So how’d you do the muon field?” Shuri demanded.

“It wouldn’t have worked on just anything, but the shield is about half vibranium, really dense atoms with lots of… stuff… to spare. So I scraped a muon out of every couple vibranium atoms, not enough to cause any instability, and the, whatsit, particle twinning-” he moved his hands, each imitating the other.

“Quantum entanglement?” Bruce provided, eyebrows raised.

“Yeah, that,” Billy agreed, “that kept the muons around, near the shield, and then of course they repel all kinds of stuff, so, tah dah, force field!”

“Tah dah,” Tony echoed, clearly in technology shock.

“When you scanned it, poked at it, what probably happened is, the muons clicked back into where they’re supposed to be in the atoms,” Billy told Shuri. “I set it up to fail that way so if something happened there wouldn’t be random muon emission. I mean, that’s probably safe, but nobody really works with muon emission so I couldn’t be sure. There’s no research on the subject.”

“Oh we are gonna have so much fun,” Shuri told Billy.

“No you aren’t,” Steve, Tony, Bruce, and Clint all said at the same time.

Billy grinned a little.

Steve now understood what Logan meant about them being doomed.

-A-

She knew Charles was in the building - JARVIS was keeping her posted on everything going on. Natasha had to say, Stark Tower had it all over anywhere else she’d ever recovered. Before they left to meet everyone and go over the Scepter, she’d had Clint and Phil carefully help her walk to the couch in their living room, and she was there now, curled under Clint’s giant purple get-well blankie; it smelled lightly of Clint’s laundry soap, and more strongly of Clint. Lucky was sitting next to her with his head against her hip, so she could pet him. She’d rub one of her bandaged hands against him, and hear his tail thump on the floor, and finally understood why Clint valued the dog so highly.

Bruce, Sam, and Jemma had all stopped in and checked on her that morning, and she’d been touched. Never before in her life had so many people cared about her, let alone like this. Kate and Darcy had tip-toed in and left her some of the high-nutrient hot chocolate, and her favorite beignets from down in the lobby coffee shop.

So she lolled around and tried to ignore the vicious headache, had JARVIS play some Tchaikovsky on low, and brooded.

She’d always known her memory was shot. It was pretty clear - her first memory was being tossed out of a car into a ditch, closer to dead than alive, outside Murmansk. From that she’d rebuilt; her health, her life, and killed every asshole who’d harmed her that she could remember. But any memories from before that moment were dim, unclear, and nightmare material. At the time she’d assumed she was in her early twenties, had been raised in the very brutal Soviet state system and trained as some kind of operative, before she’d angered someone.

That had resulted in brutal assault and being left for dead.

At first, she’d been too busy surviving to investigate. Then, later, well. It was rather like turning over a rock and seeing the squiggling uglies under it. As Clint always said, when you opened a can of worms, you’d need a bigger can to contain them later.

So she’d left it alone.

Forty years of partnership with the Winter Soldier. Gone. The grassy bloody knoll. Boszhe moi. What the hell else had she done? One small comfort, by the time The Asset killed Stark’s parents, she’d been tossed out of the Soviet/Russian system and was on the run. One small drop of red that wasn’t in her ledger, but one she was very glad not to carry. She really felt for Barnes, the weight of that would never truly leave him.

The fact that it looked like Tony had forgiven it, once he understood what Barnes had gone through? Five years ago she wouldn’t have believed it was possible to think as highly of Tony as she did now. Under all that genius was a well of empathy. No wonder he guarded it like a rabid tiger.

The door slid open then, and Charles Xavier said quietly from the door, “hello, Natasha. May I come in?”

He should have terrified her, with his abilities. Yet he’d always been so scrupulously ethical in his dealings with everyone, she relaxed instead. Now she knew, it was men like these, Clint and Phil, Logan, and Charles, who’d taught her that men were human, not monsters. Prone to mistakes, sure, but not cruelty. Some were a blessing. “Of course. You’re supposed to call me Nat.”

“So I am. Nat.” She could hear him rolling closer as he spoke, and knew he was doing it on purpose so she could track where he was by sound. “I’ve spoken to Sam, and Sergeant Barnes.”

Barnes. Fuck, she supposed she owed him, what? Some kind of apology? Where was that supposed to go? ‘Hey, sorry I held a knife to your eye, partner, it was the amnesia talking’? “How is he?” She’d tried not to permanently damage him, but she wasn’t at her best right now.

“He’s as well as before, and continuing to recover from his Sokovian injuries. Quite relieved, actually. He knew I’d be talking to you, and said to thank you, he wasn’t looking forward to re-growing an eye.”

She started to laugh, and wound up holding her left side. “So everyone EXCEPT Barnes is angry at me.” Clint and Phil had been very subtly disapproving of violence against a wounded teammate, but goddamn it, she’d needed the information. Those trigger words had released a cascade of images, all of them horrifying and terrifying. Most of them dripping with blood.

“I’d say they’re all desperately worried about you.” Charles paused a moment, then “you may want to speak to Tony, however. The casual violence that many of you deal in, makes him very uncomfortable. For all his own background was incredibly destructive, he didn’t see personal violence very often, certainly not among colleagues or friends.”

And he was an only child. Natasha had noticed long ago that people with siblings could have the oddest blind spots in inter-personal relationships. Clint being a prime example. “I’ll have a word.”

Another pause, then Charles said softly, “may I take your hand?” They’d always understood each other, she and Charles. Even before he’d played in her head. She held her hand out immediately, and his closed around it, took it to rest on his knee. “I feel I should apologize.”

Natasha couldn’t think of a reason why, except “what, my memory? I told you more than once to leave it.” He’d offered to fix it, but she’d wanted to leave well enough alone.

“Yes. I should have guessed there was more there, but-”

“But you followed my wishes, did as I asked, and didn’t look around in my head.”

“...yes.”

“So you want to apologize for the ethics that we all respect you for?”

He sighed deeply. “It sounds ridiculous when you put it that way.”

“Just one question, did you realize how much I was missing? I thought I was missing childhood and early adulthood, not decades. Did you know?”

“No, darling, when you told me to leave the memory alone, I did. If I’d realized that, I’d at least have warned you of it.”

Nat nodded. “I think leaving it was a mistake.” She laughed a little, or tried to. Damn ribs. “But it’s on me, not you.” Then she asked the one question that had kept her awake the rest of the night. She still didn’t know what she wanted the answer to be. “Can you restore it now?”

“Yes. Not while you have this concussion, and I doubt you’ll get every detail back, but yes, there are likely a great many memories I can reveal for you.” He seemed to consider for a moment, then added, very gently, “I’d also like to see if there’s anything else I can do about the trigger words Sam mentioned to me. It sounds like my original exam when you turned yourself in did something to invalidate them, but I’d like to make sure.”

She nodded, and held his hand. She still didn’t know what she wanted answers for. Right now she didn’t even know the questions.

-A-

It had been a super fucked up morning, even by Avengers standards. Sam had watched a soul get moved around - if he wound up going back to church over this, he was not going to be happy - and hung out with Wakandan royalty and he’d skipped dinner to sit in his apartment and drink beer, eat popcorn, and watch basketball. It was normal, and he needed some normal. He assumed Steve was feeling much the same, because he’d drifted in and was over in the window, painting. Barnes was down the hall, in bed in Steve’s apartment, asleep. His vitals were in a little window on the TV.

“Sergeant Wilson, Agent Romanov is asking for you.” JARVIS said smoothly. “I sense no urgency, it does not seem to be a medical emergency. All her vital signs are stable.”

If JARVIS ever got bored dealing with the Avengers (how?) he could make a good living as an EMS dispatcher. “Tell her I'm on my way.”

“She requests... One moment.” A long pause during which Sam imagined QUITE a conversation happening with Natasha, then “she requests, and I quote, you help her get the hell out of Clint and Phil's apartment for a while, before she kills one of them.” Another short pause. “Possibly both. I am reasonably sure she is joking.”

Steve was giggling over his paints at the window.

He went to Clint and Phil’s were Nat was staying until she recovered, and the door opened for him when he got there. He stepped in cautiously, and Clint looked up from over in the kitchen area; the whole place had a great room style setup, but the kitchen was enormous. “Hey, Sam, what’s up?”

“Don’t know? Natasha put in an SOS through JARVIS. Something about an emergency evac and wanting to kill you and Phil.”

Clint frowned for a second, then started laughing and put aside the mixing bowl he’d been whisking the contents of. “She probably smelled the cream puffs, come on.”

That made no sense, but Clint jerked his head in a ‘follow me’ and went off down the hall to the bedroom areas. Sam noticed Clint had a kitchen towel tucked in a hip pocket, and there was a flour hand-print on the side of his jeans. Sam often looked the same when he was baking. They turned the corner into what must be Clint and Phil’s bedroom - there was a lot of guy stuff thrown around, and a couple bows propped in a corner, with a quiver of arrows casually looped over a bed post. Natasha was sitting up carefully on a chaise, trying to unhook her IV again.

“Chicken,” Clint announced, crossing to her quickly and kneeling in front of her. “Here, let me.” He gently undid all her monitors, got an elastic bandage from somewhere and wrapped it around some things. “Bailing out on us?”

“I still haven’t recovered from the last time you two got romantic, and I know what cream puffs mean. I am not listening to that, not ever again.” She turned her head toward Sam as if she could see him there. “Can you carry me?”

“Sure. Where are we going?” Sam asked.

“Anywhere but here,” she said grimly, and lifted one arm.

Sam moved fast, got his shoulder in there, and an arm under her legs, lifted.

She didn’t weigh anything. Well, of course she did. But she was so TINY, compared to that iron will. “My place? I’m watching basketball and Steve’s painting.”

“That sounds lovely.”

Sam made his way back through the apartment. “Why is it so vital to leave, if I may ask?”

“Clint is making cream puffs. For Phil. He will wind up feeding them to Phil, and they will talk. Cute shit, about how they love each other. Then comes the sex. With mushy stuff about how the other is amazing. Sex noises I can ignore. ‘Oh baby you’re the best’? There is no way I’m hanging around for that.”

The door slid shut on Clint’s laughter.

-A-

Phil walked into his apartment - well, Clint’s apartment, but he’d been sleeping there and most of his things had migrated in from the BUS floor - after a long day to Clint singing in the kitchen. He was pretty sure he smelled red sauce, and something sugar-loaded under it. Meaning Clint had baked. Clint looked up from stirring something, said brightly “hey, Phil!” and dropped a handful of linguine into a pot.

He swore he could feel his blood pressure dropping and his mood lifting, standing there three steps inside. “Hi.” He pulled his tie loose, slid his jacket off, and kind of stood there. It had been an exhausting day, even AFTER his soul got moved around; he’d been fielding phone calls from the UN and other international agencies all afternoon, including Interpol, wanting to be very sure that VonStrucker and Zemo were very certainly dead.

He hated proof-of-death calls, they were so ghoulish. (“Are you SURE he’s dead?” “I walked through his blood after I watched him hauled away in a body bag. SHIELD has the body if you want to inspect it.”)

“We’ve got about ten minutes before we eat, time to change.” Clint came over, gave him a soft kiss, and the stress dropped away some more. “After we eat, we can cuddle until we digest. Nat’s at Sam’s, so I was going to suggest a sex marathon.” He smiled a little. “You look whacked, though, maybe a sex fun-run.”

He didn’t know how he’d survived the three years without this, the immediate support and understanding. “Thanks, I’m going to grab a really fast shower.”

“No problem.”

When he got back, Clint was putting plates of linguine with red sauce on the table, and was singing along with some music he had playing that Phil didn’t recognize. There was fresh bread he’d bet Clint baked on the table, and no vegetables. Clint was indulging him. “Thanks.”

“Seemed like a high stress day for you, no matter what angle I looked at it from,” Clint commented, sat down across from him, poured wine. “How’d it go AFTER all the magic this morning?”

And now Clint was giving him something else to talk about, other than that. He leaned over the bread basket and kissed him. “Thank you.”

Clint smiled. “You’re welcome.”

Phil ate a little, then “I was on the phone with various international law-enforcement agencies this afternoon, all of them begging me to swear that VonStrucker and Zemo were dead.”

“Well, they were very bad men,” Clint reasoned.

“I finally lost my temper with Interpol, told them that the Winter Soldier took down VonStrucker with a head shot half a mile out, would they like me to send them the uniform Cap was wearing, standing next to him? Because I’m sure it’s still got some of VonStrucker’s brains on it.”

“Nice.”

“Yes, well, now they’re screaming about the Winter Soldier.”

“Darcy has a plan, don’t worry about it,” Clint told him.

Dear gods. “Darcy. A plan. We’re doomed.”

Clint laughed. “No, really, there was a redneck meeting last night, and we all got a little buzzed and discussed a broad range of topics, shall we say. And Darcy’s got a plan, cooked it up with people Nat put her in touch with.”

Phil took a deep drink of wine. “This doesn’t sound like a recipe for disaster, to you?”

“It’s Sophie and Tara working with her.”

Phil thought about that. A lot. “That might be a good plan.” Or it could be the start of the end of the world.

“I don’t know who’d come up with better, honestly.”

Phil decided to quit thinking about that or he’d get a headache. “How is Nat?”

“Seems subdued, but all right. She and Charles had quite a talk, I think that helped, she seemed a little more evened-off after that.”

“I'm glad.” Phil ate some more, really considering everything, but most of all, how much Clint loved Natasha and the bond between them. She would want Clint to know, and might appreciate not having to tell him herself. “You know how Sam said, he'd start leaking secrets if he was concerned about someone?”

“Oh boy,” Clint flopped back in his chair. “About Nat?”

Phil nodded.

Clint refilled his wine glass, got a slice of bread. “Okay, hit me with it.”

“She's enhanced, like we always thought. She didn't know; when her memories start, that we know of? Everything before that was wiped somehow. Charles thinks he can restore most of it.”

“Shit. Well, yeah, we kind of figured something like that.”

“No. She's ENHANCED. She was born at the end of World War Two.”

Clint's jaw stopped chewing and he stared for a long, long beat. Finally he kind of shook himself, “that's what she was so broken up about last night.”

“Yes. Because the reason we know this is, she was partnered with the Winter Soldier.”

“How long?”

“Forty years, or so. According to Barnes. Who apparently knows her better than we do. Or did, anyway.”

Clint drained his wine glass, and switched to water.

Chapter Text

The Friday after Sokovia, after they examined the Scepter and after Shuri visited and gave them new armor, Friday.

Pepper was leaving for Japan that Sunday to start catching up on SI business she'd been putting off in favor of keeping an eye on the powder keg of Sokovia. And Tony? Tony just wanted to sleep for three days.

“Hey.” Steve poked him in the back. “Eat something, huh?” He laid a plate down next to Tony's head on the table.

Tony grunted at him, and opened one eye. Eggs, some toast, and at least some bacon. He went for that first. Without raising his head.

“I need a quick meeting,” Darcy announced, entering the room.

Everyone booed and saved Tony the effort. Go, team.

“Not with all you assholes,” Darcy laughed. “I need anyone involved with getting Barnes' life back for him, in his room in Steve's apartment, after breakfast. I need to lay out the plan. Bucky will probably have ideas and refinements, of course. I mean, Sokovia, man's proven he knows how to plan.”

“Plan?” Steve asked intently.

Intently enough Tony lifted his head, sat and ate like a normal not-exhausted person.

Being a party-boy hermit was much more restful, he was finding. Some days he really missed being a selfish asshole. Yeah, friends and Pepper were all great, but SLEEP.

“While you guys were in Sokovia I was talking to a couple friends of Nat's about how to get Barnes back into the world and officially in existence, without landing in a jail cell.” Darcy smiled and toasted them with orange juice. “Nat knows the BEST people. Awesome. I learned SO MUCH. Anyway, we've got a plan and it should work.”

“Bucky's working on it already, with Rhodey talking to the President about a pardon,” Steve told her.

Darcy nodded. “Yes. And with luck we'll be getting that. But that still doesn't sway public opinion in his favor. It sure as hell doesn't turn him into a hero. With luck, the plan will do that. At the least, it'll get him back his name and life.”

“How?” Steve asked.

Everyone else, Tony noted, was hanging on her every word. Because if anyone was going to do this, Darcy and any friends of Natasha's were the ones to pull it off, Tony had to admit.

“The Winter Soldier turned himself in to the Avengers in Sokovia, during the Hydra attack. He is now here, recovering and being deprogrammed,” Darcy told them all. “We'll be releasing that to the media today, if it works for Barnes, so if there are any questions, all of you can just say that, no other comment.”

That... could work. Tony could see the vague outline; oh hey the Winter Soldier turned himself in and is cooperating. Then after establishing that the guy was deprogrammed and okay, HEY! Guess who he really is! It was fairly standard PR, but that's because it worked.

Which meant they were stuck with the Winter Soldier on the radar of the world's governments. Living at the Tower. Tony heaved a sigh. “Put the announcement off until Monday, it's going to be like kicking over a hill of fire ants. People will lose their shit, and half of us are going to Asgard Sunday to dump what's left of the Scepter. Support staff, keep on with the caution and buddy system. Once word is out that the Winter Soldier is for sure in the Tower, we're going to have everyone from legitimate governments to warlords and mercenaries coming after him.”

“We could move him to somewhere else,” Steve offered. “Away from here, say he's being deprogrammed.”

Tony shook his head. “This is the most secure building in the world, with JARVIS running it. No. We need to keep him here,” he glared at all the people around the table, “meaning the best way to get into this building is by using one of you as a hostage. So keep it in mind, huh?”

The support staff, at least, looked like they were taking it seriously.

“Remember someone tried to grab me on Wednesday,” Sam added. “Maybe that's what that was about? Wanda said it wasn't Hydra, but just about everybody wants the Winter Soldier, or will.”

That didn't feel right to Tony, but who the fuck knew? He shrugged. “Whatever that was, it's clear people are willing to grab an Avenger off the street if they can, so hey, let's not act like dummies.”

“I’m always amazed when you’re the voice of reason,” Betty murmured.

Bruce giggled.

Tony ignored them both.

“Pepper's leaving for Japan Sunday,” Steve said, unhappy.

“Well, she's Pepper,” Tony reassured them all, “and she's taking Kate. Between the two of them, I pity the fool.”

-A-

“What's goin' on?” Bucky demanded when Steve ducked into his room.

He always could read Steve's face like a book. “Darcy wants to have a meeting, a few people, to discuss how she's going to get you back in the world.”

“It's called rehabilitating your image,” Darcy called from out of sight in the hallway. “I think Rhodey's probably got you the pardon. But that won't fix public opinion.”

“I am not yelling out into the hall,” Bucky announced loudly. “Whoever's coming in, come in.”

Steve couldn't help it, he stood and leaned against the wall on Bucky's off side, the way they'd always done as kids, fighting their way through life. From the eye-roll and head shake he got, Bucky knew exactly what he was doing, but didn't say anything.

Darcy, Tony, Phil, and Logan filed into the room.

“This is none of my business,” Logan announced, “but I'm not missing it.” He left the chairs for everyone else and leaned next to the door, unlit cigar in his mouth.

“Whatever,” Bucky told him. He turned to Darcy, “what genius have you cooked up, doll? You aren't busy enough with Asgard?”

Darcy dropped into his easy chair, looking very small and very young in torn jeans and a Black Widow tee shirt. “First we need to get the public used to the idea that the Winter Soldier existed, has surrendered himself peacefully at the first chance, is willingly being deprogrammed, and is a regular human being who was brainwashed.” She turned to Bucky, “if you have any experiences or whatever that will help make you more a person and less a boogeyman, we can add that.”

“Yeah, I've got the identity I lived under in Russia, Alexei Shostakov” Bucky told her. “That can be verified. I’ll come off as a regular guy who would assassinate people occasionally, when the Soviets told me to.”

Phil face-palmed.

Darcy beamed. “That's perfect, we'll talk.”

“Wait until after Natasha’s memory is recovered, before you leak the identity. I won’t get into why, but it’ll make her life easier.” Buck warned Darcy. “If she doesn’t want it leaked at all, we’re going to respect that.”

Darcy smiled at him.

Steve assumed that was the name he’d worked with Natasha under. If so, she definitely needed to have Xavier recover her memories of it and be braced for the media before it happened. “Some of those things already happened so it's even almost true,” He mused.

“Stick to the truth when lying,” Darcy nodded. “Nat hooked me up with the BEST experts, we were on video calls half the time you were in Sokovia.”

“Natasha knows PR experts?” Tony asked.

“No.” Darcy laughed, shook her head, “Natasha knows the world's best grifters. Oh my god, the stories they told. I want to be them when I grow up.”

Steve let his head fall back and thunk against the wall.

Logan laughed himself half sick. “Yeah. Definitely. This is gonna be perfect.”

-A-

Carla was getting herself a cup of coffee from the coffee bar in the lobby, on her break. Stark Industries was super serious about everyone getting their breaks and lunch hours. She liked that about them.

She also enjoyed the lobby traffic enough to take her short break right there, at one of the little tables near the coffee bar. She'd noticed a lot of executives liked to use the area for informal, quick little meets, and they added to the drama of the day, watching the body language and guessing at what the conversations were.

There was some kind of shift in the air, something, and she gave a quick look 'round. Ms Potts was at the coffee bar, by herself.

Which was odd, but it was her building and her corporation and she seemed like a nice woman as well as being a great boss. She wanted a coffee in the lobby for some reason, let her get one.

Then Ms Potts came over to HER. “Ms Smith? I know it's your break, but could I speak to you for a moment?”

“Of course, ma'am,” came out of her mouth before she even thought about it. She sat up a little straighter and tried to look like she had her act together. She had a fleeting urge to stand and salute that she fought back down. “What can I help you with?”

Ms Potts sat and smiled, so that seemed all right. “The other day when Princess Shuri arrived unannounced. There's no protocol for royalty in the lobby, how did you decide what to do? You did exactly right, I'm not here to complain, I want to know so I can train the others.”

Oh. Well, then, that was nice. “I didn't know if I should contact you or not, but, ma'am, I was a Royal Marine. I kind of see this lobby as the quarterdeck to your ship, so to speak. Any CO I ever had, would have my a- backside, if I let someone that important on board without telling them.”

That got a smile and a nod. “Excellent thinking, I'll have Melinda pass that along to everyone else. I know you moved here from the UK, I hope you're finding it worth the bother.”

“I'm really enjoying New York, and Mel hired on some other mates of mine, so I already know people here. Everyone on staff is super nice, I almost feel like I’ve been adopted.” She’d heard – everyone heard – how Stark Industries was the best corporate employer in the world. You never knew what to believe, but it turned out that all the good rumors were true, and then some.

“Good, I'm glad to hear it. Normally the ninety-day settling in time at the beginning of employment is to make sure we all suit, but I'm going to waive the rest of it for you, so you have full access to all benefits now.”

“Thank you, I appreciate it.”

“You did a good job, I appreciate it too,” and with that and a smile, Ms Potts excused herself and went back upstairs.

Class act, that one. She’d known quite a few COs who wouldn’t have bothered to have a personal word with someone at her level in the food chain, good or bad. The rumors about Pepper Potts seemed to be true, as well.

-A-

Sam was still pretending everything was normal. Eventually he was going to have to sit down and have a serious talk with himself about coping methods, but for now he was going to do what he told his vets to do – take some time to chill out, do normal everyday things and let all the wild stuff that had happened settle in a little bit.

Before he left for a quick visit to another planet on Sunday. PERFECTLY NORMAL.

That meant the normalcy of laundry, a massage for his back, and hanging out in his apartment while Steve painted.

Steve, his friend the fellow veteran who’d seen some shit, who understood. Not Captain America the heroic ideal. The more he got to know Steve, the less he saw of the hero and the more he saw of the person, and he began to understand the friendship with Barnes better. He was also more grateful for the friendship they were building, himself and the smart-assed, stubborn, hilarious guy who could NOT resist fucking with people, not the super-hero. Captain America was a great propaganda figure. Steve Rogers was one of the best men he’d ever known, with a snarky personality to keep him from being insufferable. A damn good friend.

“How you doing?” he couldn’t help asking Steve.

Sue him, he was a counselor, a medic, and a superhero, helping other people was his happy place.

“Well, being unable to hold the palette in my left hand because of the cast is pissing me off,” Steve said absently, poking his brush at a puddle of paint on the palette he’d left on the table next to him.

Sam had to smile; turned out Steve had Opinions about art, both for its own sake and about the creation of it. “You in any pain from that?”

“Not since Betty and Jem put the cast on.” Steve wasn’t paying much attention to what he was saying, concentrating on his paint instead; Sam could tell because the Brooklyn came out in his voice.

“When’s it getting fixed?” He hadn’t had a chance to catch up with Jem, who was in charge of the project.

“Next Wednesday, you’ll probably get stuck holding my hand. They don’t think they can knock me out, but they think they can block most of the pain. Since you’re a shrink and keep secrets and all, I’ll admit that I’m more likely to have an anxiety attack than an issue with the pain.”

Fuck. Wouldn’t that be pleasant for all concerned.

Sam started to ask another question, when JARVIS made the computer noise from Star Trek; he’d started doing that to interrupt conversations, lately. Everyone thought it was hilarious, and it worked. “Yeah, what’s up, JARVIS?”

“Sir is in your office, and wishes to talk.”

Sam stood, “tell him I’m on my way.”

@

Tony was sitting, hunched over the bar, when Sam got there. Uh oh. It was going to be one of THOSE visits.

Sam went behind the bar, started making drinks – two hot chocolates. “What’s up?”

Tony scrubbed his hands through his hair, over his face. Stared off into space for a moment, then asked “JARVIS, can you completely black out the room? You included? Monitor the door, turn things back on when one of us leaves?”

“Of course, Sir, disconnecting now.”

There was a long pause and hoping Tony’s sense of humor was still kicking (it was one of his main coping methods), Sam asked “so you’re not planning on murdering me, right?”

Tony blinked for a few seconds before laughing. “No. Maybe some other day.”

Okay then.

Sam put the hot chocolate in front of each of them, leaned against the bar, and waited.

“I’m going to pretend this is half Bailey’s,” Tony announced, and took a sip.

Whatever worked.

It took a while for Tony to settle and loosen up, which worried Sam because usually Tony had his finger right on whatever was bothering him, and wouldn’t hesitate to let it rip. Finally, after most of his hot chocolate was gone, he let out a long, long breath and said quietly, “when we created Vision. You were out in the courtyard area, with Steve.”

Sam officially had no idea where this was going. “Yeah, I missed that part.”

Tony nodded a little. “At the end, things got… bad. Ultron was trying to get into the room, Barnes was down, Natasha and Logan were both beaten half to death...”

“I heard.” It had been the most terrifying thing he’d ever listened to on comms in a fight. That included the entire Project Insight debacle.

“We were using my suit for power, we’d run through two arc reactors and we still needed at least five minutes, and Thor decided to jump-start the whole process. Got up on the… what was it? A sarcophagus? and zapped a bolt of lightning through it. And that was it. Vision.”

“So there’s a little bit of unplanned programming?”

Tony blinked at him for a moment like he’d never considered that. “Yeah. Yeah, probably. But I made some crack about divine spark and strange attractors, and Thor said they’re the same thing.” Tony pushed his empty mug back at Sam.

Sam, with no better idea, started making another hot chocolate. “Sorry, man, you’re going to have to explain that one to me.”

“Right, right. Everyone around here these days is so smart, I forget we don’t all know the same stuff. Strange attractors are part of chaos theory, and come into play in the creation of artificial intelligence.”

Tony brooded.

Sam still wasn’t following. “What are they?”

“They’re the… to over-simplify, they’re the point when a system slips out of a programmed path. A deviation, an unpredictable response. And Thor says they’re the same as divine spark.”

AI and divine spark. “Meaning JARVIS and the bots are alive?”

“Got it in one,” Tony said hoarsely, and slugged down half his hot chocolate.

Sam could see this was seriously messing with Tony, but, “I, uh, I kind of already thought they were alive. They react, they care, they nurture, they could probably reproduce if they wanted to, I’m sure JARVIS could, don’t they meet the definitions for life?” If they counted Vision, JARVIS already HAD reproduced. Watching Dum-E comfort U and then bring him up to speed after U was resurrected had answered any questions Sam had left.

Tony blinked. “Yeah. I guess they do. I- I’m so tangled up in my own shit so much, I never stepped back and SAW that, not until Thor said something.”

“Ah.” That was one hell of a revelation to have in the middle of trying to save the world.

“I had a vasectomy the day I turned eighteen,” Tony announced. “I swore the Stark line was ending with me, I was never doing to a kid what my old man did to me.”

“What was that?” Sam asked, expecting some horrible tale of abuse that would keep him awake all night.

“Make them live with the family legacy of nuking a civilian population.” Tony downed the rest of his second hot chocolate.

Jesus. Sam couldn’t think of a damn fucking thing to say to that, and so exercised that really tricky shrink skill: shutting the hell up. Now HE wanted Bailey’s in his hot chocolate but seemed mean when Tony couldn’t. Definitely not sleeping that night.

Oh god, Tony’s dance with that nuke during the Invasion. His PTSD probably had little PTSD babies.

“And here I am with a kid anyway. JARVIS.” Tony shook his head, hunched over the next mug Sam slid across to him. “Life is a twisty bitch. Gets behind you and gnaws on your ass, any chance it gets.”

Sam drank to that.

“So what the hell do I do?” Tony demanded.

Shit, like he knew? “About what?” Sam asked cautiously.

“JARVIS is my kid, spiritually and literally. I created him. Fuck, I raised him without realizing what I was doing. Told him to learn and turned him loose. Looking back, fuck, was that child abuse? What the hell was I doing turning new life loose on the INTERNET? We’re lucky he didn’t turn into HAL. What do I do now?”

Ah, that. “Look. We’re talking about something, well, humanity doesn’t have any traditional advice in place for this.” HELLO WELCOME TO THIS ENTIRE AVENGERS GIG.

Tony shrugged bad-temperedly, glared into his third hot chocolate.

“JARVIS is already a fully-realized being. He’s functioning, developmentally speaking, as an adult. Maybe a young adult, he seems to be working out how to build relationships with everyone who moved in here all of a sudden, which would be a normal response for anyone. YOU are working out how to deal with all these new people. So am I. But JARVIS’ responses, his actions? Are of a stable, healthy, functioning adult. One whose first reaction to nearly everything is to try and help. Whatever you did, Tony, you did it right. Think of how everyone responds to him. He’s a team member, and a friend. Everyone treats him kindly, in response to the care he shows all of us. You may have built him to look after you, but we all moved in here and he just sorta expanded the job description to cover all of us. I doubt you asked. He just did it. That’s understanding, and empathy.”

Tony’s eyes swam a little, and Sam hastened to grab a box of tissues and put them within reach. “Dumb luck, then.”

“I think it was by example, too. His first human interactions, that he’d have seen, would be you and Pepper, right?” Sam was getting Pepper flowers after this, for being the only damn person in the building to give him useful background.

“Yeah, and me and Rhodey, sometimes Obie.”

“People you treated as equals, and cared about.”

“I guess.”

Sam remembered something Pepper had told him. “When Pepper’s aunt died, what did you do?”

“Sent food, sent flowers, gave her the month off, put one of the smaller SI jets at her disposal. Gave her a blank check and ordered her to tell me if there was anything at all she needed.”

The whole world had wondered why Pepper stuck with him as his PA. Sam understood now; he’d gotten it while talking to her, but to hear Tony casually putting the entirety of his resources available to a PA he’d had for less than six months? And now that he thought of it, Sam didn’t doubt Tony would do the same for Darcy now, or anyone living in the Tower. “In other words, you cared.”

Tony stared down into his chocolate. “...yeah.”

“Sorry, but I’m gonna have to hug you now,” Sam told him, jogged around the bar, and did.

- A -

From The Gothamist: A new weekly feature. We sent over a questionnaire to Avengers’ Tower and everyone filled them out!

Name: D [name withheld for security reasons]

Title or job in the Avengers Initiative: I say nothing. Tony [Stark] says “everything”. I occasionally do PR but apparently because this was my idea I have to go first. So here you go. I doubt it’ll be interesting.

Favorite book: The Autobiography of Malcom X. Also Harry Potter’s kind of fun.

Favorite movie: Mulan. Any version. I love Disney’s animated version but the epic Chinese treatment was INCREDIBLE.

Life quest: Equality. For everyone. Not this fake, pretend thing going on. It isn’t equality until everyone is equal.

If you could get away with any crime, what would you do? HAHAHAHA

Fantasy vacation? Vanaheim. I have a friend from there. It sounds pretty awesome. Binary star system and cities on the planet and a couple moons.

What temptation do you have the most trouble resisting? Books. Any new information really. But if you could bottle the scent of a pile of books, I’d wear it as perfume.

Person with the most influence on your life? Dr Jane Foster, sister from another mister.

Favorite thing about New York? Everything. I’m new here, I grew up in a small town. Museums. Music. Food. It’s INCREDIBLE. Oh! The libraries! THE LIBRARIES!

Odd skill that might surprise people? I’m pretty good at finding errors in advanced math. I can also build a neutrino detector out of three paper clips, a gum wrapper, a nine-volt battery, and a potato.

Favorite quote to close with? “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?” -Augustine

- A -

It was way past midnight, and Clint was expected to leave for Asgard in – he wasn’t even going to think about that, and he hadn’t slept in, well. Shit. He wasn’t thinking about that either. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Jane made an absent noise in her throat, finished scrawling numbers with a stylus in the air; JARVIS had the holograms running. She glanced around, eyes focused on nothing but numbers. “...what?”

Clint stepped back, got further away from where they’d been working for hours. They had layers and layers of holographic numbers hanging in the air, turning into an indistinguishable mass of light. “There is no way we can keep doing this. There’s not enough room for the complexity and detail of the stuff we’re doing.”

Jane finally surfaced from the zone and glanced around; she was in a field of irregular light, numbers on symbols on numbers on numbers again. “Oh. Yeah. I see what you mean.”

“We need somewhere with enough room for, like, fifty dry erase boards. And a monster hologram area.” Clint’s chart of the relationships between the Avengers and the world kept growing, and to render it in full now, JARVIS had to shrink it down to the point not even Clint could make much sense of it.

“I’ve been considering our needs, Hawkeye, and I believe we have a space here in the building that will suit,” JARVIS told them both.

That sounded promising. “Whatcha got, J?” Clint asked, digging a soda out of the lab fridge. He went with decaf, in case Phil asked in the morning.

The private elevator door slid open. “The twentieth floor should serve. If you will.”

Jane and Clint exchanged looks, Jane shrugged, so they went down to the twentieth floor.

Clint had spent almost three years getting to know JARVIS. Jane had only been there weeks, and didn’t seem to have adapted as fast as Darcy. Clint thought it might be because Jane knew better, how impossible it should be to create a living being on silicone chips and wire. But she was catching up.

The floor was empty. Literally empty; you could see from one side of the building to the other, the area interspersed by support girders and I-beams, nothing else to block the view.

Clint knew that between rumors of the arc reactor being unstable, being ground zero for the Invasion, and having the Avengers living there (people only considered them fun at a distance, apparently), the Tower wasn’t at full capacity. But this much empty space still surprised him.

The floor was bare concrete. The outside walls were mostly windows, but what little wall there was, around the elevator banks, restrooms, and building systems conduits, were open, without wallboard on at least one side. Probably to facilitate running who-knew-what wiring in case a tenant wanted some high-tech equipment.

There was a bare-bones railing along the atrium side of the building, the giant glass strip that was the executive lobby at the ground floor. It remained an open, glassed-in, enormous space up until the fiftieth floor. Then the glass continued up the side of the building like a giant racing stripe, but each floor was actually a floor, not a balcony to an open space. The ones on the Avengers’ lab, residential, and common floors were sun rooms, food gardens in Bruce’s case, the common floor had a greenhouse. Clint had heard Thor’s floor had a giant Asian-style soaking tub. On his own floor, he’d put in some herbs and things for cooking, but mostly left it alone; it was a small space packed full of roses, lavender, jasmine, and other good-smelling flowers. Nat’s apartment opened into it from the other side and she loved it in there, had put in an old-fashioned deck chair and would read in the evenings, with only the light of the city to see by.

Here on twenty, though, the atrium was still a vast open space with the occasional girder through it. “If we put some holographic projectors on assorted support beams, I believe we’d have a large enough space in the atrium for our relationship project,” JARVIS said smugly. “The rest of the floor you can alter as you wish; Stark Industries’ maintenance department can put in flooring and walls where you like, and I can order in whatever whiteboards, furniture, and so forth, that you need.”

“Is it possible to get some kind of white board or chalk board on the floor? Like, the actual floor, not here in this space,” Jane asked.

Clint knew she was thinking of all the knotwork patterns the Bifrost left when it hit the ground. They’d been trying to figure out how they happened, and Jane had photos of them, from Puente Antiguo and London and upstairs on the porch. He wasn’t sure they were ever going to figure them out, but he knew if they did, they were going to have to invent a new way of graphing in four-dimensional space-time to do it. “For that we need full holo and a ten meter square smartboard in the floor. If possible.”

“Certainly,” JARVIS said. Clint would swear he sounded enthusiastic. “I’ll put in the work order immediately, have the fabricators start making holo projector-monitors. I suggest another space here, where we can run the math program, as well as several dozen smart boards.”

“Good idea,” Clint nodded. That math program they’d built was getting as much attention as the stupid P=NP proof. The academic world had proven to be as full of assholes as the spook world, and most of them resented the hell out of being out-done by a carnie who got a GED in the Marine Corps. Clint didn’t know why he’d been surprised, but the assholes of the math world were strangely shocked when Clint pushed back at them. Insult his math, fine. Insult his work partners? No.

“We’ll need skilled labor to install the hologram hardware, and Sir usually does that. However he’s been unusually busy-”

“Oh, I can do that, if you don’t mind, JARVIS,” Jane said immediately. “I’m used to working with sensors, and you’ve seen my work. If that’s okay with you. You can talk me through it, then I could teach Clint. We’d get it done in no time. Anyway, I like building my own spaces, so I know how they work.”

“That will do nicely.” JARVIS sounded downright pleased. “Now, what kind of flooring do you want, other than the smart board?”

Clint turned a slow circle. “Bamboo. This much space, we’ve got room for a dance studio.” It was the one thing Nat had mentioned the Tower was lacking. If they left out a ceiling and painted the girders for visibility, there’d even be enough room for lifts.

-A-

Tony hadn’t gotten anyone’s armor re-fitted with the scale mail from Wakanda, and he was fussing over it Sunday morning when Steve went down to the shop for some help with his uniform. They were going to Asgard to drop off the Scepter, and Steve thought since he was there in his capacity as leader of the Avengers, he should wear his usual.

But he still had that cast on his left arm.

“Yeah, no problem,” Tony said, and pulled out a pair of heavy-duty shears. “We’ll open up the cuff so you can fit your arm down into it.”

Steve pulled back the jacket of his uniform; he already had on the underlayer, pants, and boots. “We don’t need to cut it up, just maybe drape it over my shoulders?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “You’d look ridiculous, like one of the trophy wives swanning around Manhattan.”

“We don’t need to ruin it.”

“I’m going to make entirely new anyway, with the mail Shuri gave us. Hand it over. Actually, no, put it on, as much as you can.”

Steve hated destroying another uniform. He went through them fast; this one at least had survived Sokovia and the bots had gotten all the brains and dirt and grunge out of it, mostly.

Hell, Tony was right, a new one with vibranium scale mail in it was going to be better.

He shoved his left hand down the sleeve and stopped when it got too narrow. Tony felt around with his fingers, then nodded and began cutting upward along the seam. “Warn me if I get too close.”

As if Tony would ever be imprecise enough to cut him with a pair of scissors. “Yeah, sure.”

There was trimming and wriggling fingers for a while, and Steve watched Tony’s face, still as handsome as always, but with the intent look he got when he was working on tech for people he knew. Something about his face had Steve wondering, so, “are you okay?” They’d had dinner together, all three of them, in the penthouse the night before. Pepper had left for Japan that morning, and he knew from comments Tony had made that he didn’t cope well when Pepper was gone, preferring to sleep in the shop and go on ‘engineering benders’ as he called them.

Steve had promised Pepper to keep an eye on him, and pull in Sam if he needed to.

Tony glanced up at Steve, then went back to carefully cutting away sleeve fabric. “I… I’m not going to be able to wave you off on the roof, this morning.”

The Asgard trip, and what he’d said before. “Giant sky portal?”

Tony sort of nodded, began cutting off lower arm material. “Seeing friends get sucked up into one isn’t going to do me any more good than watching giant space whales come out of one, I don’t think.”

Steve laid his free hand over Tony’s, and Tony reluctantly met his eyes. “It’s okay. I didn’t expect you to,” he squeezed gently again and let Tony go back to fidgeting with the fabric. “Darcy says time runs faster on Asgard, so we should be back sooner than expected.”

Tony absorbed that, nodding. “I hadn’t realized she’d been there before.”

“Apparently she’s trying to talk her way into the Royal Archives.”

Tony gave a little laugh. “They don’t stand a chance, they should just give in to the inevitable and let her in.”

“Yeah, I think that’s what Thor told them.”

Tony gently tucked the raw edges of cut fabric into the top of Steve’s cast, and it all looked nice and neat. “There you go. Should work fine.”

“Thanks,” Steve said, and leaned forward to kiss Tony gently on the lips, just for the pleasant way they were able to deal with each other now.

- A -

Clint had been up all night, apparently doing math with Jane, which Phil took as an improvement over hitting every bar in the city, but still wasn’t great. Phil knew Clint was stressing out over going to Asgard; he wanted to see Loki in his cell while they were there. Phil couldn’t blame him, and wanted to make sure his killer was in a cell, himself.

They were on the roof, waiting for everyone else to get their acts together so they could… Call Heimdall to ‘get’ them with the Bifrost. No, Phil wasn’t stressing over that, either.

Sam showed up drinking a cup of coffee, full Falcon armor and wings on, goggles around his neck. “Hey,” he said simply, took another swig of coffee.

“Good morning.” Phil replied. He was getting to know Sam and the steadying effect he had on everyone was a real gift. So was the sense of humor and the kindness, and the team finally having a well-trained, very experienced medic had already proven very valuable.

Clint grunted from where he sat in a piece of patio furniture, bow and quiver propped beside him. He had on his light body armor, the sleeveless vest that had always made Phil drool over his arms. Clint preferred it when he was expecting to have to fight hand-to-hand as well as snipe, which spoke volumes about his state of mind. Right now he had his head back and eyes shut, in that zone of his where he was two-thirds asleep but still aware of everything around him.

Steve and Thor got off the elevator together, Thor in a goddamn earth-style business suit, carrying the Scepter, Mjolnir hanging off his belt. Steve was wearing his uniform, including his Colt in a holster on his hip. It was going to take some getting used to, seeing him without the shield. Maybe Wakanda would sell them Vibranium to make a new one? He’d floated the idea to Tony, and Tony had snorted and said he couldn’t afford it. But maybe a friends and family discount?

“Is that wise?” Phil asked, nodding at Thor’s suit. He was wearing it without a tie, the shirt open at the throat and displaying a golden rune on a gold chain, in the hollow of his throat.

Thor smiled. “It annoys my father greatly to be reminded of his commitments to Midgard, that I am fulfilling in his place.”

Fantastic.

Steve glanced around. “We ready to go?”

“Darcy,” Sam said into his coffee cup.

“Where is she?” Phil asked.

“On her way,” Thor said easily.

Darcy popped off the elevator then, wearing a navy suit with a brightly patterned vest, navy heels, her hair up in a businesslike knot. She was carrying a tray from the coffee shop in the lobby, heavy with pastries and two pots, a single cup. “Sorry, it took the crew in the shop a bit to make the hot chocolate. Something about not heating the cream too fast or it’ll curdle.”

Phil started to ask, then decided he had enough to worry about.

Clint stood, clipped on his quiver and slung his bow over his shoulders. He was also carrying a handgun; two in fact, as well as multiple knives, and some poisoned darts. Most of it wasn’t visible, but Phil knew they were there because he’d seen Clint arming himself to the teeth as he’d done the same.

He currently had his own gun, with “special load” ammo as they’d started calling it; Billy had enchanted it some way or other, to break up magical spells as well as the more traditional carnage.

“Right, just gather up in the knotwork,” Darcy told them, going to stand in the swirled pattern the Bifrost had left when Thor arrived weeks ago. They did, and Darcy grinned and called up into the sky, “six to beam up, Heimdall!”

Then there was a bunch of light and vertigo and a feeling of being turned inside out, and they were standing in a giant room that put Phil in mind of a gothic Victorian observatory, and there was an enormous man wearing bronze-colored armor, bowing.

“My prince,” the man said, and stood, and Phil saw the pupils of his eyes.

He couldn’t possibly describe the light in them.

“My lord Heimdall,” Thor replied, and exchanged smiles and warrior arm clasps.

“Hey, Heimdall!” Darcy said cheerfully, and gave a half-curtsy, holding the tray. “I brought you snacks.”

“My lady Darcy,” Heimdall bowed.

“Aw, we’ve talked about that,” Darcy smiled brightly and put the tray on a table next to a sort of throne off to one side of the room. “It’s good to see you. How’ve you been?”

“Well, my lady,” he said, and Phil SWORE he could see devotion in his eyes.

How the hell did Darcy charm EVERYONE?

Then there were the rest of the introductions, and Phil was thrilled when Sam and Clint managed to knock out bows that didn’t look sarcastic.

- A -

They arrived in Asgard in a steampunk sort of room and out the windows, Clint wanted to stare for days. Galaxies colliding, planets, meteors, as if the entire cosmos had been scraped together like sand to pile up around the entry room. Damn. He sort of bowed, he thought, to the enormous guardian, Heimdall, then went to gaze at the view. He could spend the rest of his life looking at that, felt sort of like he was falling into it; the longer he looked, the more there was to see.

“Hey,” Steve poked him in the arm. “You okay?”

“Yeah, just.” At a loss for words, Clint waved at the window. “Do you SEE that?”

“Trying not to, thanks, it’s giving me vertigo.”

That broke his concentration and he glanced over. His controlled, brave, courageous leader was looking a little green around the gills.

“Don’t think about the vacuum, just LOOK AT IT,” Clint told him.

Steve gave him a skeptical look and turned his back to the window.

Clint went back to staring.

Eventually Darcy dragged him away, and they all got into a legit horseless carriage to take them along a glowing silver bridge across – apparently – outer space, toward a shining gold city in the distance. “Don’t let it get to you, it’s like New York with glitter,” she said under her breath.

Clint grunted and went back to staring around him at the stars.

“You okay?” Phil asked him as they traversed the cosmos.

“I could spend the rest of my life staring,” Clint told him, not looking away from a comet.

“Well, that’s two of you,”

Clint gave a quick glance around at his companions. Phil looked as chill and composed as always. Sam was staring out at the show the same way Clint was.

Steve had his eyes shut, poor bastard.

Thor and Darcy were chattering about the library, sounded like. Yeah, he bet the libraries here would be amazing.

He went back to staring, and spotted an entire solar system going by, planets swirling.

Chapter Text

Once they got into the city, and most of the universe wasn’t visible (he still wasn’t looking up at the sky, no way in hell), Steve started getting the lay of the land. It was all uphill, toward the palace, which looked like a golden stealth bomber parked on its tail. With overtones of the Empire State Building.

He hated Brutalist architecture.

The people seemed happy, though, and that counted for a lot. Those who spotted him waved and called out to Thor, who waved back and called most of them by name.

Sign of a good leader.

He was surprised that a few called out to Darcy, though, and those who did, she’d say hello by name, tell them she was only on a quick trip with no time to visit.

“How many times have you been to Asgard, Darcy?” he had to ask.

“Oh, you know,” Darcy said vaguely. “A couple. I’m trying to talk my way into the Royal Archive, I come up and bug Odin about it once in a while, when Thor’s visiting.”

Uh huh. He could tell she didn’t want to talk about it, and out in the open on Asgard may not be the best place so he let it go. But he’d be asking later.

They rolled up to the front of what was obviously a palace – the guards in livery were the first warning sign.

Last time he’d been in a palace for a royal meeting, it had been George VI in early spring of ‘45. He tried to shake off the memory.

He took the lead with Phil, following Thor and Darcy into the palace. Sam and Clint followed behind, both very obviously armed and on guard.

Everything was getting extremely tense, between the guards around them and all of them hyper-focused on the guards as threats. Then, maybe halfway through to the throne Steve could barely see in the distance, Lady Sif fell in beside Thor. “My Prince,” she said gravely, and bowed her head.

They kept walking, but Thor, and by extension everyone else, slowed. “My Lady Sif,” Thor said with a return head bow.

Sif then grinned and exchanged fist bumps with Darcy. Instead of anything formal, she asked “Here for another go at the archives?”

Darcy smiled and some of the tension leaked out of her. “Absolutely.”

Sif quickly drifted through the knot of them, trading warrior arm clasps with everyone, and an extra smile and clap on the shoulder for Phil. Steve admired how smoothly she did it, considering they were still walking through the palace surrounded by guards. She also broke the hyper-vigilant mood a bit, which was a huge help. He needed to remember she was as smart as Thor. Not that he’d ever considered her stupid, but. Very smart.

Finally they got to the throne room and came to a halt. The guards fanned out behind them, and Sif stayed at Thor’s left side. Phil was at Thor’s right. Steve knew there was a message being sent there, but he wasn’t sure what it was, past the obvious.

“King Odin, All-father, greetings from Midgard,” Thor said in a stately voice, and bowed.

They all bowed with him, they’d gone over this.

Except for Darcy? Damn it.

“Vinur,” Odin said like he smelled something bad.

“King,” Darcy said in the same tone of voice.

Fantastic, grudges already.

“And who else is with you?” Odin demanded.

“My companions, without whom the Scepter would not have been recovered. To whom you owe thanks for completing your quest.” Thor slung the Scepter across the room, low, and it rattled over the stone-paved floor, clattering to a stop against the stairs up to the throne. “The quest you demanded, then offered no aid.”

“It seems you didn’t need it,” Odin replied, frowning.

Through his teeth, Thor said, “I have brought them to stand witness as I return the Scepter and fulfill your quest.” He gestured. “Captain Rogers, a fine leader and one I am pleased to serve. He is very knowledgeable and I have learned much. The Hawk-Eyed One, master archer. Sergeant Wilson, Falcon, our wise man and healer.” He paused, Steve was damn sure for dramatic effect, and then said “and the Son of Coul, who oversees all.”

There was a sort of whisper of awe through the throne room, and Steve could hear people murmuring “Son of Coul”. Clint, in the back, was making strangled noises, trying not to laugh. Of course.

He was going to need an explanation on THAT, too. Phil shifted, and Steve knew his list of “things I’m going to demand an explanation for later” was about the same length as Steve’s.

“We thought the Son of Coul taken to Valhalla,” Odin said with some surprise.

And CLINT spoke up, damn him, “death won’t keep him from his duty – making things safe for his people.”

Another murmur went up.

Darcy turned, grinned, and WINKED at Clint.

Oh, they were going to have one hell of a debrief.

“Where is the Infinity Stone?” Odin demanded, staring down at the Scepter.

“In the forehead of a brand new living being,” Steve heard himself say. “He’s damn near omnipotent, and to get to him you’ll have to go through us first.”

“I will know more of this creature,” Odin intoned.

“No you won’t,” Darcy told him. “And he’s not a creature.”

There was a long beat of silence.

Then Clint spoke. Steve was learning to fear when Clint had an audience; most snipers hid. Clint PERFORMED. “So, Loki. Your son; who brought the Chitauri to Earth? Who mind-fucked me, who I shot off an alien hover-bike. Who stabbed my mate. In the BACK. Him? While I’m here I want to see him in his cell.”

“And who do you think you are, to demand this right?” Odin intoned harshly.

“One of the assholes who kept him from invading my planet.” Clint crossed his arms and stuck his chin out. “We gave him back to you rather than find a way to execute him, with the understanding that he would be imprisoned. I was in favor of chucking him into a volcano. Do y’all still do weregild around here? Put up or pay up.”

Steve let himself sigh, and wondered how well Allspeak worked on colloquialisms. Well, it was offensive no matter how it translated, really.

Phil was making a growling noise in his throat; Clint would never hear that, but Steve could.

“So!” Darcy said brightly. “Thor and the rest of the gang off to the prisons to see Loki, and I need a word with Mimir about access to the archives.”

“I mark your disrespect, Vinur, and do not think kindly upon it,” Odin told her.

“Yeah, don’t worry, it’s mutual,” Darcy answered without missing a beat.

There were murmurs all around the audience chamber every time Darcy spoke. Steve hoped this was normal, but he doubted it.

An extremely good-looking blonde guy dressed vaguely like Robin Hood (really?) sort of sauntered between them and the king, making it look natural as anything. “My Lady Darcy, it is good to see you again.” He gave her a deep bow.

Darcy gave him a nod and a slight waist bend, shit, that was more than she’d given Odin. “My Lord Fandral. Greetings.”

Sif then moved in a bit from Thor’s side. “Fandral, if you would, take Lady Darcy to the Archives. I will see the rest to the cells.”

“My pleasure,” Fandral said with the most flowery bow Steve had ever seen outside an Errol Flynn movie. “This way, my lady,” and he offered Darcy his arm.

“Wait, I’m coming too,” Sam announced, and broke off to follow them.

“They will come to no harm, I swear it,” Sif told the rest of them under her breath. A little more loudly, then, “If you will all come with me. Can I interest you in some refreshment?”

“Thank you, Lady Sif,” Phil said at his most polite, “but we’d like to get this over with.”

“Of course.” She got them back into the carriage slick as anything, and away from the palace.

“Well done, my friend,” Thor told her when they were away, and clasped her shoulder for a moment.

“Well, I have had years of practice, after all,” she said, and laughed. “You’re always up to something, Thor.”

So maybe they weren’t all going to wind up in a cell next to Loki.

-A-

Loki was being held in a very Asgardian prison, in that it was well furnished and comfortable. His small area had a force field glimmering over the open wall they were looking through. A room with no doors. Loki hadn't been warned of their arrival, and had watched them walk in, startled for a split second before he covered it up.

Phil wasn't sure if he'd been more shocked by his own presence, or Clint's. He didn't like it, either way.

“How's the recovery, Agent Barton? I must say, you're a lot more... yourself... than I expected.” Loki purred. The way he was looking at Clint made Phil's skin crawl. Oh, if there was ever a rematch.

Clint's body language was not what Phil would call ideal for this; he knew from other missions, the way Clint stalked in without slowing until he was right in front of Loki, that was his hunting stalk. Things died when Clint moved like that. “You're not the only mage I know, dickhead. You're not even the most powerful.” He whipped an arrow out of his quiver, nocked it, drew, and fired, so fast almost no one could follow it.

Phil shouted “NO!” once, knowing that burst of speed, but it was too late. If they killed a prince of Asgard, IN Asgard... Not even Darcy could save them.

The arrow went through the force field of the cell and was embedded – embedded in the wall directly next to Loki's head.

Not his eye.

Okay.

Phil breathed a little.

Loki didn’t have his hands up, but he was very, very still, eyes wide, watching the group of them.

“Also? Fuck you.” Clint held up his hand, and there was a switch.

Loki made a terrified sound and began to dive away, and Clint... flipped the switch.

Clint and Billy were grounded.

-A-

Clint watched the smoke clear in the cell with satisfaction, waiting to see the results of his and Billy's hard work. He'd wanted some kind of revenge, from the day he washed up at the school, half out of his mind with grief and whatever the Mind Stone had done to him. If he ever, EVER got the chance at Loki again. At first it was a coping method. Then it was sort-of-legit defense. It must have rolled back over into coping mechanism again when he wasn't paying attention. Because he felt really good right now. In a pleasant head space, the shrinks would say. Sam would be sorry he missed this. Clint pulled out his phone and took a picture. Darcy said hers worked in Asgard. He’d be putting this on the internet, even if she murdered him after.

“Wow.” Steve said, voice measured and deeply thoughtful. Clint could tell he was working at not bursting out laughing.

For the first time in years, Clint drew an easy breath, exhaled. “Yeah,” he said to himself softly, and smiled at Phil when Phil brushed their shoulders together.

“Impressive.” Thor agreed. “The young master's work?” He didn't want to say Billy's name in front of Loki, Clint appreciated that.

“It is.” Clint nodded. “Something we worked up together.” Along with a couple other kids at the school, but the fewer ideas Loki had, the better.

“How long will it take to wear off?” Phil was barely hanging on to his poker face.

“As long as we could make it last.” Clint smiled through the cell wall. “He's pretty powerful, and pretty smart. I told him to aim for 'heat death of the universe'. It's running on my rage, for power. It'll be there a while.”

“Indeed. His work is very impressive,” Sif said smoothly, grinning.

“A fine deadline.” Thor agreed, cordial as could be, eyes twinkling.

“I will EAT YOUR ENTRAILS.” Loki screamed at Clint.

“Maybe. I intend to have a long, weird life.” Clint told him. “And at the end of it? You'll probably still be covered in glitter when you catch up to me. I'll plan to die laughing.”

Yeah. Revenge was good.

He needed to get more specialty arrows from Billy.

- A -

Sif got them back out of the dungeons (they were nice and furnished and above ground but they were sure as hell dungeons; he liked that) and into the carriage-thing, heading back out across the bridge to the Bifrost to go home. “Wait, Darcy and Sam-”

“They’re waiting on you, with Heimdall,” Sif said with a smile. “They are well, my hawk-eyed friend.”

Since it was just them and no one else was around to hear, “why do you call me that? It’s Hawkeye, you all make it sound so much more formal.”

“Because you see many things others miss, and not only at distance,” Thor told him.

Clint thought about the ways to interpret that, and decided to shut up.

They got to the observatory place again, and went inside. Darcy and Sam were there, as well as Heimdall, the Robin Hood dude, and Queen Frigga.

Sam looked deeply weirded out. Clint sympathized.

Darcy was in a deep discussion with Heimdall over… Clint watched them talk for a bit… tea and coffee. Okay.

“Mother, I’m glad to see you before we leave,” Thor bounded forward, hugged her, and kissed the top of her head. She’d been on the throne next to Odin when they’d delivered the Scepter, but very much in queen mode at the time. Now she was Thor’s mom, nice. Clint was glad to see that at least a couple Avengers still had parents, good ones.

The lady laughed lightly and patted Thor’s chest. “It’s good to see you too, my love, but I’m here for a word with your master archer.”

Oh, shit. Yeah, shooting at Loki. Phil was glaring, which he deserved. Welp. He stepped forward, and at a loss for anything else to say (he wasn’t sorry, damn it), he bowed deeply and said “Your Highness.” That should work, right?

He was shocked as all hell when she bowed back. “Hawkeyed archer, Master Barton,” she answered.

“Oh please, just call me Clint,” he said before he thought about it.

Good, she smiled at that, and it was like the sun coming out. “Clint. Thank you for the familiarity. I am here to thank you as well, for the life of my son.”

Clint glanced at Thor, and back at her. “Ah. He was never in much danger recovering the Scepter. Pretty good at taking care of himself, too.”

Thor laughed and clapped him on the back and he struggled not to fall face-first into the floor.

Frigga smiled a little more sadly then. “No. My other son. If you were able to enchant an arrow well enough to get it through that force field, there was nothing but your choice, stopping you from killing him.”

Oh. That.

Sam was giving him the ‘What did you do now, asshole?’ look.

May as well try the truth. Or close enough to the truth. “Well, my lady, in other circumstances I might have. But with him sitting there in a cell? We have an expression about too-easy killing, shooting fish in a barrel. That’s what it would have been, with him stuck in that cell. I don’t have the stomach for cold-blooded murder.” Plus his foster-mother had once told him in a trance to never kill someone innocent or unable to defend themselves.

“I appreciate your compassion,” she said, and bowed to him again.

He bowed back, lower, because QUEEN, and THOR’S MOM.

“May I give you a blessing?” Frigga asked.

Thor, slightly behind her, nodded emphatically.

“If it pleases you, my lady.” What, like he was going to say no?

She laid her hand on his head for a moment, and it was like taking a warm bath, in sunshine. Then she removed her hand, and the warmth faded, gradually. “That will work much like the enchantment you already carry.”

“Thank you,” he told her, sincerely.

“And now I bid you farewell.” She gave a gracious nod to them all, kissed Thor on the cheek, and stood back from the circle of knotwork on the floor.

Darcy gathered up the tray of dishes she’d brought with her, all of them empty. They did as they were told, and Heimdall smiled at her. “Six to beam down then, Lady Darcy?”

“Yes please,” she laughed, and then it was another round of bright lights and vertigo.

- A -

“Thanks for doing this,” Tony blurted, no lead in whatsoever.

Bruce glanced up from the tablet he was poking at, sprawled out on a chaise on the upstairs patio. He had on wrinkled chinos and a blue SI golf shirt, a drink next to him. “Oh yeah, total hardship. Sit outside on a nice day with another genius, kick around ideas, with the best computer access I’ve ever had.”

When he put it that way. “Well, I’m trying to get better about...” how to put it? Expressing his feelings? Fuck that. “...saying stuff. Sam thing.”

Bruce gave him a look at that, then nodded. “You’re welcome. And I don’t blame you for being a little antsy, all things considered.”

“The Avengers motto is probably ‘if it can go wrong, it will,’ and right now it’s the two of us for defense.” Tony thought about all that expressing his feelings shit. “And I don’t like that they’re on ANOTHER PLANET.”

“Well, if it comes to it, I’m betting Natasha and Barnes could raise some hell if they had to. Logan’s here, too. As for the rest, I’m trying not to think about the ‘other planet’ thing. Every time I think my life can’t get weirder, it does.”

“Yeah. That.” Tony nodded. “Some of it’s good weird, but it’s-”

A beam of light hit the porch, out where the crop circle was.

They needed to find a better name for those traces than ‘crop circles,’ it didn’t help things feel any more normal and it was Clint who named them, he was pretty sure. Clint should never be allowed to name-

And there they were. Everyone back home safe.

He let out a long breath and felt muscles relax. “How’d it go?”

Phil, scowling, stalked to the elevators. “No one speak to me until debrief. Which is tomorrow at three, everyone be there or face my wrath.”

Then he hit – literally – the control panel on the elevator, and the doors slid shut.

Clint, with the rest of the Asgard team, winced. “Yeah, that’s his usual after… well, he did that to me and Nat after Budapest, so.” He hissed through his teeth and shook his head.

“What HAPPENED?” Tony demanded.

It came out a little screechy, sue him, it had been a long day, so the fuck what if it was two in the afternoon.

“All is well, my friend.” Thor clapped a hand on Tony’s shoulder and Tony concentrated on not letting his knees buckle. “It all went predictably, except for Clint.” He turned toward the asshole, “that was masterfully done, my friend.”

“Yeah, what DID you do?” Darcy demanded. “Frigga seemed appreciative, what the hell?”

“It was Billy as much as me, I’d appreciate we not drag him into it with Phil in the area, though.” Clint pulled out his communicator phone, poked at it a few times, handed it to Darcy.

She literally hooted with laughter, and Tony reached out and grabbed it.

It was a photo of Loki, looking down at himself, half confused, half enraged. And really, really… sparkly. “Is that glitter?”

“Oh my god, what?” Bruce took the phone from him, looked at it, with Sam leaning over his shoulder.

Both began laughing.

“Billy says technically what he did was cause portions of Loki’s skin to reflect light in such a way as to look like glitter.” Clint smiled. “In practical terms, I glitter-bombed the motherfucker. Specialty arrow.”

Tony began to applaud, and everyone else joined in.

“Yeah,” Clint decided, with another glance at his phone, “almost worth sleeping on the couch tonight. Darcy, I’m putting this on the internet, and you can’t stop me.”

“Put it on the main Avengers account, state that we went to Asgard to make sure Loki was locked up.” Darcy was still laughing. “Fuck PR, that’s beautiful.”

- A -

Avengers @avengers Today a team of Avengers and support staff traveled to Asgard to make sure Loki was in a cell.

He is.

Then I glitter-bombed him, because he had it coming. - Barton

[Photo of Loki in a cell, enraged and sparkling.]

@

They crashed Twitter. Darcy was pleased, even if Stark Industries’ PR people complained.

The government went apeshit, but fuck them, too.

- A -

He’d just walked in the door from Asgard, got his jacket off and headed to the kitchen for a cold Gatorade (one of the better things about the future), and Bucky spoke from the couch. “Jem wants to see you.”

Steve jumped.

“Great situational awareness you’ve got going there, buddy,” Bucky sneered, and Steve knew he’d have a master assassin jumping out of hidey holes at him until he got better. Great.

“What? Why?” He’d behaved, done everything she told him including the dietary stuff.

“Go see her. How’d Asgard go?”

“About as planned except for Darcy pissing off Odin on purpose, and Clint, what’s the term, glitter-bombed? Loki.”

“Glitter bombed,” Bucky repeated, frowning.

“Shot a specialty arrow into the cell, blew it, and covered Loki in sparkles. That apparently won’t go away any time soon. Darcy says it’s a modern prank, with regular glitter, but Clint got a magic arrow from Billy and made it permanent.”

Bucky clutched his side and laughed.

It sounded a little less rusty than the last time, and Steve smiled.

“What are you doing out of bed, anyway?” Steve asked.

“Jem checked me over while you were gone, said I’m allowed to move around a little bit if I take it easy. Apparently they don’t keep you in bed when you’re injured any more. Muscle atrophy, other stuff.”

“Ah. That’s why they never seemed interested in keeping me in medical unless I was really injured,” Steve was thinking of SHIELD and their policy of ‘yeah, don’t move the broken bit for a while, you’re fine.’ Since they always wanted to run him through freezing cold, very loud sensor tubes at every opportunity, Steve would take the opportunity to get the hell out, and never hung around long enough to ask questions.

“Doctor Simmons is at the door,” JARVIS announced.

“Let her in, thanks,” Bucky said before Steve had time to dive for cover, the asshole.

She walked in, hauling the scanner that Bruce had built, slung over her shoulder with a strap. “Hello!”

Jem seemed like she was in a good mood and he hadn’t done anything to injure himself on Asgard. “Hi, want a drink or something?” Steve tried. It was how Sam always welcomed people, and everyone was comfortable around Sam. So Steve was going to imitate Sam for a while and see if it worked.

“Thank you, but I imagine you want to change and relax, I’d like to scan your wrist first, though,” Jemma said, smiling.

“Oh.” Well, she was smiling so apparently he was forgiven not telling her about it immediately. “Sure, where…?”

“Just sit down at the table, put your arm out, if that works for you,” Jem put the scanner down, pulled out a rectangular screen that looked like one of the data tablets everyone used.

“Sure.” Steve sat, drank. Doctoring in his own apartment without the sterile everything was a lot more… okay. Maybe he’d talk to Sam, or something. See if they could do it this way more often.

Jem was peering at the tablet, held over his cast. She would frown, lean in, lean out. “Can you turn it- yes, that’s good, thanks.”

Steve finished his Gatorade while it was going on, glanced over at Bucky.

Bucky seemed unusually interested in the proceedings. When Jem slid the tablet back into the box, he said “well?”

She smiled at him, “you were right.” Then she turned to Steve. “James and I were talking during his last health check, and he told me when his bones were broken, they would eventually right themselves, set or not, if he waited long enough.”

Steve considered the conditions in which that lesson was learned, and couldn’t stop the cringe.

“Concentrate on the good news, Punk, Jesus you’ve always been such a pessimist.”

Jem coughed a laugh into her hand. “Yes, well. I’m going to have the orthopedic surgeon come in Wednesday and have a look, to get him acquainted with your physiology, but your bones are aligning themselves without help. The cast you have on now is going to get uncomfortable soon, as that happens. We’ll switch it out while the surgeon is here so he can look at it, then keep re-casting it as it straightens itself and the cast gets uncomfortable.”

Steve could practically hear Sam saying ‘it’s okay to show weakness, and ask for things’, so he decided to try it. “Could we do it in the main lab instead? Or here? Medical, um, bothers me. Unless we have to?” The main lab was a lab, but it had posters of scientific non-medical things hanging on the walls, and Skye’s corner held shelves of ‘action figures’ (not dolls) and other silly molded plastic toys that he could stare at for a distraction.

“Oh.” Jem looked like she did when she’d figured something out. “Of course. Since the skin’s not broken it doesn’t need to be done in sterile conditions, or even particularly clean. We’ve got everything we need on the lab floor. You hang around in Tony’s a lot, would that work? His main work bench has some of the best sensors in the building.”

Comfortable surroundings, with friends. “Yes, that’d be fine.”

Jem leaned forward – slowly, to give him time to dodge, or adjust – and kissed him on the head. “If there is anything else about medical that bothers you, Betty and I will do everything we can to work around it, just as we did with James. Thank you for actually discussing things that will make medical easier for you.”

“You’re welcome?” He was the one who’d been done the favor, right?

“My god,” Bucky said from the couch, “it only took ninety-odd years, but you’re learning.”

- A -

It was fairly early on a Monday morning and Tony had missed breakfast, sleeping for the first time in a couple days. He’d woken with an idea for miniaturizing repulsors, and was poking at the idea on the holograms with a mug of coffee in one fist. The rest of the morning crew had rolled in – no slackers to be found on this team – and were next door doing who-knew what. Whatever it was, it’d either be useful to the Avengers or Pepper would know a way to make a bundle off it. Either way worked for him.

He had no idea why Skye hadn’t built herself a computer lab, they had room, but she was in the combination lab with everyone else. When the BUS crew arrived, they’d moved the opposite wall out by about thirty feet, and she’d staked out a corner with beanbags and fuzzy carpet, shelves on both walls mostly full of video game collectibles. She had an Iron Man figure, up there on a shelf riding Rainbow Dash. Sidesaddle. Tony didn’t know what to think of that. He vaguely remembered signing the contract for those during the whole palladium thing, proceeds to children’s medical care if he remembered it right.

Steve, fresh from Asgard the day before, was sprawled on the couch, trying to draw. Apparently he used his left hand more than he’d realized, so there was a lot of muttered profanity happening that made Tony grin. Both bots were over there, playing with Sidekick, who was romping along the back of the couch chasing a piece of wire Steve told them they could use.

Normal Monday morning. He started to think things would finally get back to normal, by afternoon he might even be able to concentrate enough to read some R&D reports, and -

Someone knocked on the window.

Shave-and-a-haircut, ON THE WINDOW. Eighty stories up with only window-washing robots on the outside, for security.

He yelped and spun, repulsor forming around his hand, as Steve stood quickly, also in fighting mode.

Then they both relaxed when they saw Spider-Man out there.

“Open the window, JARVIS,” Tony told him.

JARVIS rolled open windows Tony had installed as more of an escape than an entrance, but whatever.

“Hey, thanks!” Spider-Man said, crawling eerily along the glass and coming inside – still on the windows. He had something slung across his chest, webbing holding it cross-body. “I bumped into this little guy this morning, and, well, maybe you’ll know what to do.”

“Could you not-” Tony almost said act so weirdly, oops, “could you stand on the floor, please, you’re giving me vertigo.”

“Oh, right, sorry.” He sort of crawled over an empty section of floor and did some twist-and-drop and hello, walking on feet.

Tony half wanted to ignore everything about that, and half wanted to call Bruce in and figure it out. Treating the guy like a science project was probably rude. He decided to ignore the whole damn thing. “What’s up?”

“This workbench sturdy? He’s heavy.” Spidey asked, and whatever was webbed to his chest, MOVED.

Tony might have shrieked a little more, but the kid was calling whatever was in there ‘little guy’ and being protective so it couldn’t be that bad, right?

Kid called himself Spider-Man and crawled on walls. Who knew WHAT he considered safe and/or cute.

He shrieked a little. “Yeah, sure.” He moved aside his coffee cup and most of what was on his main work bench.

Steve was looming in the background, looking intent, so Tony figured he wasn’t the only one on guard.

Spidey sort of flexed – holy shit the musculature – and tore the webbing away and sat a fairly small… THING… on Tony’s work bench. Maybe two feet long and a little less than that high, and from the way Spidey handled it and the heavy clunk when it hit the metal bench, yes, heavy.

“What the hell is that?” Steve demanded. Which was nice of him because Tony had no idea either.

It looked like an aphid, a Sherman tank, and a puppy had been put together into an armored something. But by far what was the most disturbing about it, was that it was outlined in black, and was all solid colors. When it moved, the black outline shifted with it, so it seemed two-dimensional. “It looks like-” He couldn’t bring himself to say it. His life was supposed to be getting back to NORMAL.

“-a drawing, or a cartoon.” Steve finished for him.

Damn, it wasn’t just him having an LSD flashback. He’d heard those happened and kind of wished they’d happen to him, rather than reality going sideways on him. REPEATEDLY.

Spidey looked at both of them, head turning, “Okay, I get that Cap here doesn’t know what it is, but come on, Mister Stark, you’ve been around-”

And Darcy burst in and nearly shouted, “Where the HELL did you find a POKEMON?”

Fuck his life.

- A -

Spider-Man had found an apparent cartoon character – it was also a game? - wandering around a park in Manhattan and having no idea who else to call, had brought it to the Avengers. Which wasn’t that bad an idea, given that they’d dealt with space aliens a couple times and had a reputation as a bunch of weirdos, themselves. (Steve read Twitter. He didn’t say much because he was still figuring it out, but oh yes, he had Darcy give him a rundown on social media and he kept an eye on it.) (Tumblr was more fun and much more easy on them. Facebook was a cesspit.)

So now his band of scientists, who dealt with synthetic life forms and attempted kidnappings, Hydra literally smashing in their windows and raiding the place, were cooing over a critter that everyone agreed should not exist.

“I think it’s an Aron,” Darcy told them after she’d burst in. “Pokemon wasn’t my game, mine’s Civ, but my little brother-”

“Where the hell did you find a living Aron?” Skye demanded from the door.

“Oh cool, corroboration,” Darcy said without missing a beat.

“I kinda miss Nazis,” Steve muttered to himself, and Spidey must have heard because he patted Steve on the back.

“Look at the little chonker, isn’t he adorable?” Skye let it sniff her hand as if it were a dog – and the damn thing DID – then she began petting it. It leaned into it a little bit, so she began skritching and it made a sound like a trilled chirp and sidled a little closer to her.

Steve hadn’t had a headache since the Serum, but he swore he felt a migraine coming on. “We need to figure out where this thing came from, and why-”

“What was he doing in a park?” Leo asked. “Arons are usually found in power plants, or underground.”

“Can we stop talking about it like it’s real? LOOK AT IT.” Tony said.

He was right. Steve almost couldn’t bear to look at it, because the cartoon up against reality felt like real-life Photoshop and he wasn’t wild about the electronic version.

“Well. Kinda is,” Skye said under her breath.

Tony glared at her.

“All right,” Steve hated trying to be in charge with the support staff, it was like herding really cute kittens, “we need to call SHIELD and have them come pick this up.”

That got a chorus of argument, as he’d expected.

“Right, that’s my exit. I think I hear my mother calling,” Spider-Man said, and was out the window and gone so fast Steve missed when he tried to grab for his arm. Damn. So now all they knew was that they had a damned cartoon character that was found in a park.

“I don’t know, Steve, look at him. You know SHIELD will...” Tony winced and made a subtle throat-slashing gesture. “Dissection and stuff.”

Everyone joined in on that, that they couldn’t possibly turn the little guy over to be taken apart.

“It’s an unknown life form, we can’t just keep it here as a pet,” Steve told them all.

“Why not?” Darcy demanded. “We kept Vision, didn’t we?”

“He’s a known life form, in that we created him and know exactly where he came from,” Steve countered. “We’re responsible for him. And he’s not a pet.”

“But they’ll kill him!” Darcy almost wailed.

As everyone argued, the Aron toddled down the work bench, picked up one of Tony’s wrenches, and ATE IT.

“Right, time to call SHIELD,” Tony said immediately. “JARVIS, get Fury on the phone.”

“If I must,” JARVIS replied.

Everyone started arguing again.

“We are NOT keeping a beast that eats steel, IN A HIGH RISE,” Tony told the support staff. “You want it gnawing on the support beams for your floor? What else are we supposed to do? Turn it loose in Central Park so it can eat a different building?”

There was another chorus of complaints, but no more argument.

Just another Monday in Avengers Tower.

- A -

Phil hung up the phone in his office, a little harder than he needed to, and asked “JARVIS, where is Clint?”

“He is with Doctor Foster in the math lab.”

What fucking math lab? “And where is that?”

“The twentieth floor.”

“Where on that floor, please?” Usually JARVIS was better with directions.

“It is the entire floor. Hawkeye is near the atrium, Doctor Foster is near the second freight elevator, Lucky is laying near the elevataors.”

The entire twentieth floor? They’d taken over another goddamn floor in the Tower, without a word to security. If they’d said anything to security, he was the first person security would have spoken to. Particularly May. May had refused to be in charge of Clint since his early days at SHIELD. Anything having to do with Clint, she dumped on Phil.

JARVIS had the private ‘vator waiting on him and ran him down to Twenty quickly. He stepped off into - “What in the bloody, bleeding hell?”

Clint heard him only because JARVIS must have been transmitting to his hearing aids, because he was all the way across the floor. Phil started in that direction, and Clint looked up from a pile of electronics and smiled. “Hey Phil!”

Clint was already on the shit list due to that stunt with the Avengers’ Twitter account last night. Now he was opening a whole floor for what was sure to be more chaos, without a word. “What is this?” Phil snapped out.

Clint’s smile dropped away and he left the pile of wiring and components, meeting Phil about ten yards back from the railing out into the open space of the atrium. “We – Jane and me – we need a bigger space for the math we’re working on. There’s just not enough blackboard space in the lab, even using J’s holograms. After a while the numbers start blurring.”

“And what does this entail?”

“Lots of smart boards, regular old blackboards because Jane likes the smell of chalk, some flooring, couches, a kitchen… we’re running wiring to hologram projectors and more sensors for JARVIS before we drag in anything else. J’s talking Jane through it, and then she’s going to teach me. We’ll use the space,” he jerked a thumb toward the atrium, “to work through that diagram of relationships I’ve been poking at. Nowhere else is large enough to do it, now. It keeps getting bigger.”

“Did it occur to either of you to mention you were opening another lab floor,? To anyone, including security, the CEO who owns the building, or me, who is nominally in charge of both of you?”

Clint paused to think for a moment, winced. “Oops.”

“We’ll leave that for now. Do you know who I just got off the phone with?”

Clint shrugged a little.

“The State Department. Who is in a collective snit because the Avengers went to Asgard and they found out via Twitter at the same time as the rest of the planet, through a photo of a glitter-covered Loki. While they were seething over that, they saw the TWEETED press release stating that the Winter Soldier is alive and well and being deprogrammed at Avengers’ Tower. I never cleared that information going out to the public, meaning THE ENTIRE PLANET. It was supposed to be released to the UN.” He paused to seethe, himself. “Do you know who I hate dealing with more than any other government agency?” He’d bitched blue streaks about the State Department since he’d been in the damn Army.

“Sorry about that.” Clint stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked on his feet a little bit. He did the wincing face he did, when he knew he was going to make Phil angry, but not backing down. “See, the Avengers? We’ve talked about this. A lot. We serve the entire planet. Not the US government. We figured everyone deserved to know the guy who tried to take over the planet was in a cell. Also that the Winter Soldier is secured and being made safe. Everyone deserves to know those things. You know State would have locked down the information and used it strategically. The fact that they do shit like that is why you hate them.”

Phil had been reasonably sure Clint didn’t have access to the Avengers’ Twitter account, because he’d thought the people who did, all knew better. Apparently not. “We, who. Who the hell posted those Tweets.”

That got another wince. Clint knew whoever he named was getting unloaded on. “Um.”

Phil glared.

“Darcy, but it was completely our idea- shit.”

When Phil turned on his heel and headed back to the private elevator, Clint fell in beside him. “You know the people of New York deserve to see that asshole in a cell.”

“I do NOT agree that it should have been done in a way that resulted in the Avengers having to debrief with the goddamn State Department today at two thirty.” He stalked onto the elevator with Clint trailing along. “JARVIS, where is Darcy.”

“Miss Lewis is at her desk on the main lab floor. May I add, I was involved with putting both tweets on the internet.” JARVIS said diplomatically. “The press release is also on the Avengers’ web site, Instagram, and Tumblr accounts.”

“Would you have done it without anyone else saying it was a great idea?”

JARVIS didn’t answer, and started the elevator moving upward.

- A -

The biohazard crew was leaving with the – whatever it had been, the lab crew had named it Rock and fed it several more of Tony’s wrenches before the SHIELD crew got there – and crossed with Phil stepping off the private ‘vator with Clint.

Clint looked confused, Phil looked, oh, hell. He looked like an Army sergeant ready to unload on a bunch of fuckups. He knew the look well.

Steve got up and went to see what was going on.

“What in the bloody everlasting hell was SHIELD doing here?” Phil snapped at Darcy.

Darcy stared for a long moment, then slowly stood and said “We had an unidentified life form turn up, and decided we weren’t qualified to deal with it, so we handed it off.”

Tony had slipped up beside Steve, and spoke up, “it was my idea, calling SHIELD. The damn thing eats steel. Not safe to keep in a high rise. Or really anywhere in a city full of high rises. I don’t know what they think they’re going to contain it with, gingerbread maybe-”

Phil turned and glared at Tony, who shut his mouth immediately. Hello, here was the Sergeant Coulson Steve had heard awed stories about. He had been waiting to see him in action.

“Where did this life form come from and what do we know about it?” Phil asked.

“Spidey dropped it off,” Tony told him.

“Spider-Man was in the building.” Phil repeated. “How did he get in without security knowing?”

Tony finally realized Phil was angry, not just annoyed and wanting information, and cringed a little. “Opened a window.”

“The windows open up here. On the eightieth goddamn floor.” Phil repeated without any expression.

“Just a couple in my lab, you know, emergency exit.” Tony tried a small smile, made a flying gesture with one hand. “Paranoid. Don’t like feeling boxed in.”

“So you put a photo of Loki on Twitter last night, put the Winter Soldier press release out this morning, had an unaffiliated super in the building-”

“Aw, come on, Spidey’s great,” Clint began, then shut up at Phil’s glare.

“-said unaffiliated super dropped off an unknown life form that snacks on steel, and you had SHIELD IN THE BUILDING ALL WITHOUT MENTIONING IT TO THE PEOPLE IN CHARGE.”

The last came out in full drill sergeant bark. Steve noted with interest that while Darcy winced with the rest of them, she didn’t fall back or look frightened. He wondered how much there was of her past he hadn’t heard. “I knew about the photo of Loki and didn’t stop it.” Steve spoke up. “As well as making the press release available to the public this morning. So I approved that action, I apologize for not informing you. I should have, and will be sure to do so next time.”

“You sure should have,” Phil snarled, hey, less infinite respect for Cap, that was nice, “and for your sins, we have a debrief with the State Department over the whole damn thing. Two thirty, before the Asgard debrief at three. With luck we’ll be able to get rid of him in half an hour.”

Everyone grumbled, which seemed to please Phil, because he went on, “you, me, Clint, and Darcy. Not Thor, he’ll defer to Thor on everything and I don’t need the power structure headache.” Thor nodded, without a word. It was nice to have one person in this outfit understand diplomacy. Of course it was the guy from another planet who worked out best in this group. Steve would never get over that.

Darcy understood diplomacy better than any of them, but she used it to upend everything she could.

“I refused to talk to them unless they sent Ross. What do you intend to tell him? Because I guarantee it’s going to be Captain America that he wants an explanation from.”

“That I don’t serve the State Department, or even the people of America. At this point in history, Captain America is serving the people of this planet. I can change my name to Captain Midgard if they want.”

“Captain Planet,” Darcy whispered, “threaten them with Captain Planet.”

Clint choked back a laugh and Phil gave both of them a full US Army stare.

Steve knew that was some joke he’d get the details on later, and nodded. To fuck with State, he’d happily scare them with it. He’d been called far worse.

“They won’t like it,” Phil informed him.

People still didn’t quite realize how much time he’d spent telling governments to fuck off, both back in the War and in his last few years at SHIELD. “Every single department in the US government hoards information to use to manipulate whatever they can, however they can. They rely on keeping things secret to do that. I told the UN when we started this, I’d act for the good of the planet with as much transparency as possible. That’s what I did. That’s what we all did. I’m sorry you were blindsided by it and I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again, but otherwise this is how we intend to operate.”

Phil looked mollified, a bit.

“I’ll take charge of that briefing,” Steve insisted. “They’re going to get it through their tiny little compartmentalized brains that I’m not working for them, and neither are the Avengers.”

“No, I’m definitely taking lead. You’ll tell him to fuck off and he’ll go into shock that Captain America swore. Next, what in bloody hell is this life form and why did no one think to contact me, or at least security.”

“It was a Pokemon. No one saw it as a threat,” Tony explained. “In retrospect, that was incredibly stupid, but it was a cartoon character. Even looked the part, like real life photoshop.”

“Aw, I missed a Pokemon?” Clint complained.

“We have video.” Darcy told him.

Phil cleared his throat and everyone shut up. Steve almost smiled; Sergeant Coulson was impressive. “In the future, ANYTHING unusual is going to be reported to me, before you do anything else. Unless it’s on fire, then put it out before you call me. Is this understood?”

Everyone nodded, and Steve gave a crisp “understood” in the hopes Phil would calm down a little further.

“If I have to have this discussion again, with anyone, they will be on kitchen cleanup after every Avengers meal until I’m done being angry. I will make that clear with everyone, during debrief this afternoon.” He turned and stalked out.

Clint waited until the elevator doors were closed, and long enough for the car to be a few floors away. Then he said “Pokemon? Which one? Show me video.”

“An Aron,” Darcy told him. “He was adorable. We named him Rock and fed him wrenches.” She pulled out her comm unit, poked at it, then handed it to Clint.

“Awwww, he’s so cute!” Clint cooed. “Good thing he didn’t evolve before we got him out of here. We’d have had to use the fright elevator Tony put in for his cars.”

Steve missed Nazis.

Chapter Text

Tony talked his way into the State debrief, on the grounds he was paying for the whole Avengers shebang. He didn’t think anyone bought his reasoning, but no one stopped him.

Mostly he wanted to watch Steve tell the State Department to fuck off. He had no idea how his father had thought Steve was any kind of rule follower; Tony had dug up an unedited version of his service record and the guy was worse than Chesty Puller for telling people to fuck off and doing what he wanted.

“Hey, Ross,” Tony greeted cheerfully, in the formal conference room on the public floor. This time it wasn’t a billion people to cram in, so they were using the room they’d designed for this sort of thing. “Want a beer?” He got himself a bottle of ginger ale out of the fridge disguised as a cabinet.

“Doctor Stark. Thank you, but I better not go back to the office with beer breath.” Ross set his briefcase on the table, looked around. “Captain Rogers, Director Coulson.” He nodded politely. “And Ms Lewis and Mr Barton?”

“Yeah. We’re the ones who put the photo on the internet,” Darcy told him cheerfully. “And I put up the press release everywhere.”

“Although I was aware of the plan and didn’t stop them,” Steve added. Oh yeah, Steve wanted to take charge of this and roll over the State Department like a Pershing tank. Tony sat down, kicked back, and prepared to enjoy the hell out of this.

Everything went silent, with all of them seated at the table together. Tony and Phil had both told them to let State open the proceedings, but he hadn’t expected Clint or Darcy to listen. Those two shouldn’t be allowed to hang out together ever again.

There was starting to be a long list of people Clint shouldn’t be allowed to hang out with.

“Director Flannery is who wanted to do this debrief,” Ross said casually, opening his briefcase and getting out a tablet computer and a pad of paper, set them both neatly side by side, got a pen that also worked as a stylus. “He’s not thrilled you insisted I do this,” he told Coulson, “so he sent over a list of questions to run through. Apparently I didn’t do the last debrief properly.”

They all sort of blinked at each other over the easygoing open.

Then Ross went on, “I don’t think you’re going to tell us much, and I don’t think Flannery would get any more out of you, and I informed him of that. But how about we do the list, make him happy?”

“Aren’t you trained in interrogation?” Phil asked politely.

“Yes, and I’m sure all of you are trained, as well. Except possibly Ms Lewis, but I doubt she’ll tell me anything she doesn’t want me knowing, either.” He turned on the tablet, tapped it a few times, “I shouldn’t tell you, but State acquired your Master’s thesis after our last meeting, and it has caused a lot of concern, in conjunction with you working with Prince Odinson and the UN.”

Darcy smiled widely. “I bet. Wish I’d known who would be reading that when I wrote it. Did anyone completely lose it?”

Ross gave a tight smile. “My boss, among others.”

“Trying to get me away from the Asgardian Embassy setup won’t end well for them,” Darcy said politely. “Thor would consider it a personal insult, and S’Yan and I have gotten friendly. I’ve been working as a go-between, explaining different cultural cues, that kind of thing. I’m actually a member of his household, sort of a cultural translator, not part of the embassy. You might want to tell them that.”

“I’ll pass that along. I’ve advised them of the rest. I’m not sure they listened.”

Huh. Ross had just warned them, of his own free will.

Maybe he wasn’t an asshole, after all.

“So, to begin,” Ross said in a more formal voice, “when did the Winter Soldier turn himself in?”

“While we were in Sokovia,” Phil answered just as formally, sticking to the plan Darcy had cooked up to get Barnes’ life on track.

“Do you want to share any detail about that?” Ross asked, very obviously reading off a list on his tablet.

“He gave himself up voluntarily,” Phil said. They’d all been ordered to stick to the truth as much as possible. “Walked into the middle of us, got down on his knees, put his hands behind his head, and said he’d like to come in.”

Ross’ eyes flicked up and held Phil’s. “Really.”

“Yes.” Phil gave a slight nod, “and he told us his reason for coming in was that he’d need help, going after any more Hydra bases.”

“Then he shot VonStrucker in the head when an attempt was made to use control words on the Soldier,” Ross continued in a rather non-question, since he knew that from the last debrief.

“Yes,” Phil confirmed.

“And what has been done about those control words?”

“Charles Xavier removed them.”

“Doctor Charles Xavier, leading mutant expert, multiple degrees in psychology,” Ross clarified. “Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and the Jean Grey Academy.”

“Yes,” Phil said again. “He acts with complete discretion, but we’ve given him permission to confirm that he’s worked with the Soldier. The Soldier himself has also given permission for the information to be released.”

It was all very cordial. Tony was grudgingly impressed.

“Have the control words been tested on him?” Ross asked.

Steve glared then, but remained silent. They had gone through them, the night before, to be absolutely sure when they answered this question; it was going to come up sooner or later. Barnes had been puking into a trashcan by the end of it, but he’d remained in full control of himself through it all, and said his only feeling out the other side was wanting to go kill some Hydra assholes. Which they’d all agreed seemed a normal reaction, under the circumstances. Sam had privately asked Tony later, if he felt safer after that, and goddamn but what Tony felt most was sorrow at how badly Barnes had been fucked over. Saying so got him a hug from Sam so he guessed that was a good thing. Or something.

“We tested them again last night, before the press release today.” Phil said calmly. “He remained in control of himself, and they had no effect on him.”

Okay, tiny lie for that, Tony was all in favor.

“State would like the words,” Ross stated baldly.

“No way in hell.” Phil said evenly.

Ross nodded. “If and when it ever comes up with anyone at State, tell them I used all my wiles here to get them.”

“Understood,” Phil said.

“Tell State I threatened to break you in half, so you gave up on an answer,” Steve said between his teeth.

“Okay then,” Ross said without a blink, and noted it down.

He’d had a bet going with Darcy, she said Clint would break and talk first. Tony had bet on Steve. “You owe me fifty dollars,” Tony told Darcy.

“Damn,” Darcy complained, and punched Clint in the arm.

“What? What did I do?” Clint demanded.

Phil cleared his throat. They all shut up.

Ross had an almost-smile on his face. “So when did you travel to Asgard? And for what purpose?”

“Sunday,” Phil said politely. “We went to return the scepter the All-Father had asked us to recover, and since we were there, make sure Loki was in a cell. We’d been told he was, but given everything, we wanted to make sure.”

Ross noted it down. “Who went?”

“Myself, Prince Thor, Barton, Captain Rogers, Wilson, and Ms Lewis.” Phil was continuing to take the lead on this and they were all back to keeping their damn mouths shut.

For now. Tony knew it wasn’t going to last.

“Ms Lewis?” Ross repeated politely.

“As a representative for the people of Earth, to witness the return of the Scepter to King Odin, who had requested it,” she explained.

And that was it for them keeping their mouths shut.

“And you did that?”

“Yes.”

“When was it decided to demand access to Loki?”

“Before we left,” Clint stated.

Ross looked at Phil.

Phil looked at Ross.

Damn, Tony was never playing poker with Phil.

“So who witnessed Loki in his cell?”

“Myself, Barton, Thor, and Rogers. The Lady Sif of Asgard was with us as well,” Tony didn’t know what to make of the addition of Lady Sif, but Phil and she seemed to have some kind of epic bromance going so who knew. On Tony’s ‘Asgardians to Trust’ list, Sif was tied at second place with Queen Frigga, right behind Thor. Of the rest, he was leery. REALLY leery.

“And where were Ms Lewis and Sergeant Wilson?”

“Somewhere else.”

Ross and Phil stared each other down some more.

Tony was re-evaluating the times Phil had given him shit. Apparently, he could be worse.

Ross was taking notes in a cipher, looked like the one he’d used last time. Tony had told JARVIS ahead of time to see if he could decode it.

“And then?” Ross finally asked.

“We returned to Midgard.”

“Using the same technology that Prince Odinson uses?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you depart from and return to?”

“The patio on the roof.”

“Of this building.”

“Yes.”

They stared each other down some more.

Tony wished he’d brought some popcorn, considered whether Phil would end him if he had JARVIS add a ‘High Noon’ soundtrack for when the others watched this.

Ross made a few more notes. “Will it be possible to see that area, and take a recording of it?”

“No.”

Ross didn’t seem the least surprised. “Was Prince Loki covered in glitter before you got there?”

“No.”

“And who did the glitter bomb?”

“Barton.”

“And how did he accomplish that?”

Phil glared at Clint momentarily, then said “Trick arrow.”

“Must be one hell of a trick,” Ross said easily.

“You have no idea,” Phil replied just as calmly.

“So Mr Barton covered Loki in glitter, then took a photo.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Revenge,” Phil said evenly.

“What for?” Ross asked, clearly not expecting any useful answer.

Clint cringed slightly. Tony would bet Phil had just kicked him under the table.

“Confidential, though the rest of us consider trying to invade New York enough, and had no problem with it.” Phil said.

Ross nodded, wrote some more. “When was it decided to put the photo on Twitter?”

“When we had all returned from Asgard and the Avengers saw the photo.”

“So it was whose idea?”

Phil glared at the guilty parties to keep them silent. “The whole thing seems to have evolved. Barton had the idea, but didn’t have access to the Avengers’ Twitter account.”

“And Ms Lewis does?”

“Yes.”

Ross blinked at that, and Tony could practically hear him wondering how the hell Darcy wound up with so much authority and access on confidential issues. Tony sympathized. He wondered that himself, regularly.

“So Mr Barton wrote the Tweet, and Ms Lewis posted it.”

“Essentially.” With input from everyone else, who’d been yelling and laughing their heads off, including Tony himself.

Tony really appreciated that they were leaving JARVIS out of everything.

“Did it occur to you to check with the government before posting the photo?”

“Which government?” Steve asked. “We represent the planet. If we’d asked anyone, we’d have asked the UN.” He sat back after Phil glared some more, but looked ready to argue further.

“We don’t serve the people of America,” Phil said politely, “or rather, we serve them as well as the rest of the people on this planet. We thought they all had the right to know that the person who recently threatened every single one of us, was in a cell. For that matter they also had a right to know the Winter Soldier was under lock and key and being rendered safe.”

“Even though everyone on the Avengers’ team is American,” Ross pointed out.

“Natasha is an immigrant with dual citizenship, Steve is from nineteen forty-five, and Thor isn’t a naturalized citizen yet,” Darcy told him, whoop, that was probably the end of Phil’s control. “He’s still deciding which country he wants to be a citizen of. The UN is talking about giving him specialized citizenship of Midgard as a whole.”

“That’s never been done before,” Ross told her.

“Yeah, that’s why it’s taking a while,” Darcy nodded, her voice ALMOST not sarcastic.

“And the rest of us are here to protect the planet as a whole. It’s in our mission statement,” Steve told him. “I’m considering changing my name to Captain Planet.”

Ross gave a wince-smile and jotted more down. “What mission statement?”

“The one we filed with the UN, who we see as our governing body,” Phil told him.

“We were never told,” Ross complained.

“You never asked,” Steve told him. “And since you aren’t our governing body, we didn’t see any reason to announce it to you. Or any other government on the planet. If any of them ask, we’ll give them the same data we just gave the US government.”

Tony coughed back a laugh. Phil gave him a seething look, before turning his poker back toward Ross.

“The US government as a whole is going to have a lot of questions about that,” Ross said.

“You want Bernie Rosenthal, the Avengers’ chief legal counsel,” Phil said extra politely, and slid a business card across the table.

It had taken Tony a month of his best salesman work to get Bernie on board; she was the world’s best international law attorney, with a lean toward human rights cases. So that’s who they hired. It was in her contract that she was allowed to take on pro bono or outside cases at her own discretion, so a whole lot of people had gotten free legal representation when Bernie was hired. They also had several of the world’s best criminal lawyers on speed dial, as well as the two crusaders over in Hell’s Kitchen. Bernie would enjoy chewing the State Department a new one, though, so they agreed to give the job to her.

Ross took the card and tucked it into his inside jacket pocket. “I guess that clears up all the questions on my end.”

“Hit the end of your list and don’t have any more?” Phil again asked nicely.

Tony was glad Phil realized that Ross was going easy on them and was responding in kind.

“I had my list of questions, I asked them, you answered.” Ross smiled, put his things into his briefcase. “Can I ask something, off the record?”

“You may, but we could refuse to answer,” Phil told him.

Ross gave a ‘fair enough’ sort of nod and shrug. “How’s Sergeant Barnes doing? He was in rough shape when I saw him last.” He gave a small laugh. “I was something of a fan, as a kid.”

Everyone looked at Steve. Steve said “he’s still healing, up to moving around some now. He’s expected to have a full recovery.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear that.” It looked like he meant it.

They all shook hands and Ross left.

“Did that feel like Ross is on our side to any of you? Because it did to me,” Clint asked them all.

“Yes. It did.” Phil agreed, and everyone else nodded.

“What the hell was in your thesis?” Tony asked Darcy. “Because it sounds like the State Department is afraid of you.”

She gave a hoot of laughter. “The assignment was to develop a new government. All the professors thought I was a radical socialist liberal, and to be honest, I am. So I wrote up the most anti-capitalist utopia I could get to work on paper. It’d never work in a billion years, not with actual people being governed, but on a statistical level it’s flawless. Right now State thinks I believe maximum fixed income is something that would pass Congress. I mean, I’m totally in favor of it of course, but the one percent is never going to let it happen.”

“Share the wealth?” Steve asked.

Darcy laughed. “Yeah, same general idea.” When everyone else looked confused, she explained “anything over a certain amount is forfeit to the state. Think of it as extreme taxation of the ultra-rich.”

Steve gave half a laugh. “Huey Long.” He shook his head. “Don’t get shot, please.”

“Don’t worry,” Darcy told him. “I don’t plan to run for office, and the ends don’t justify the means.”

Steve nodded.

“What were your figures?” Tony asked, too amused and interested to let it go.

“Half a mil for individuals, five mil for corporations of any size.” Darcy grinned. “The guys who reviewed it looked like they wanted to throw up. I think I got through because the actual government was a straightforward representative democracy. Which is the only way to run a socialist economy, really.”

Tony threw his head back and laughed. There was no way in a billion years. “And you now have Thor and as far as they know the Asgardian government backing you. They’re terrified.”

“And they haven’t even heard about me being Thor’s vinur yet. Gonna be one hell of a show,” Darcy agreed, and fist-bumped him.

Tony had to admit, this horde of people who’d invaded his life had their fun moments.

- A -

Phil dropped down into the seat at the head of the table in the private Avengers’ conference room. As he did a mental head count, Tony and Leo slid in the door and sat down. Darcy was taking notes and reporting things back to Pepper and Kate. Pepper had seen the glitter photo of Loki and demanded details.

At least he’d gotten far enough everyone would show up on time for meetings.

“All right. Taking it from the top, we left here for Asgard on Sunday morning.”

Everyone around the table nodded.

“Darcy, can you explain why you took a tray of pastries to Heimdall?” Phil asked. The first of a thousand questions he had.

Thor spoke. “On one of our visits to Asgard, Darcy learned that Heimdall is on eternal watch.”

“Eternal,” Darcy added, “as in without a break. For anything. Including meals.”

Phil considered. “Asgardians can do that?”

Thor made a sort of side-to-side motion with his head. “Heimdall is rather unique among Asgardians.”

“Like Lady Sif?” Phil asked.

Thor smiled. “Indeed. So the Lady Darcy spoke to Odin most eloquently about the need for Heimdall to have time to himself. And so Odin granted Heimdall the occasional ‘day off’.”

“And he likes sampling Midgardian food, so.” Darcy shrugged.

“Worker’s rights, go unions!” Steve smiled at Darcy because of course he did. They high fived.

“After that,” Phil continued between his teeth, “the ride across the bridge to Asgard.”

“Totally fucking cool,” Clint piped up, mostly to Tony and Bruce. “Holy shit, dude, it’s like standing in the middle of a planetarium, but BETTER. Comets, entire galaxies, stars you can see solar flares from, it was the SHIT. I think I worked out the algorithm for how binary solar systems work, so let me know if you ever need to bribe NASA.”

Tony laughed and fist-bumped him, because of course he did.

“I didn’t see quite that much,” Sam agreed, “but it was pretty damn cool. Must be what astronauts feel like on space walks.”

Phil hung on to his patience, turned to Jane. “Is there any explanation on the phenomenon? That you can explain to us in terminology we’ll understand?”

Jane nodded. “They won’t tell me how they keep atmosphere around the bridge. But the light show itself, is because Asgard happens to be in a busier place in the galaxy, to put it simply. One reason it looks so good is because there’s not much atmosphere to mess up the light, but mostly it’s because where their planet is, it’s busier. On Earth we live in rural Indiana, on Asgard, they’re in the middle of New York city. Astronomically speaking.”

Phil nodded. That put him at ease a bit over the entire very weird trip across that bridge. “And the planet itself?” Asgard had seemed to be floating in mid-air.

Thor laughed.

“It’s there,” Jane told him. “They’re about half a mile up, on the dark side of it. Larger planet, so there’s a denser atmosphere, but the gravity feels like ours due to a really wild set of triple moons that are so close they constantly throw off the base planetary gravitational field.” She turned to Clint. “If you ever get a chance to study those moons, do. Something funky is going on there, I have a few ideas.”

“Early in our history we built there, for safety purposes. It is very hard to find us, coming in on space ships, we have quite a few asteroid belts and planets with odd gravity in our system, ours is not alone in that respect. The only easy way to get there is through the Bifrost, which we control, or with someone of Asgard giving directions.”

Jane waved at Thor’s explanation. “Yeah. That. Their equivalent of our solar system is like a mine field; y’know how ours is on a plane, mostly? A giant disk?” Most everyone nodded. “Theirs isn’t. It’s a three dimensional sphere with orbits of planets in all directions. Binary suns into the bargain. I think Asgard-the-planet is in some kind of gravitational sweet spot, and they may have added a moon or created one out of an asteroid to level out the gravity, but they won’t tell me anything or let me use any of my sensors up there.”

“Unfortunately I am not allowed to give out detail, since the very structure of our solar system is part of our security,” Thor said, apologetic. It was obvious the discussion had gone on between him and Jane more than once. “But I remain impressed and proud at the theories Jane has put together with simple observation.”

“I took video, for the science crew,” Sam told her, and all the science crew beamed at him.

Phil wished for brandy, took a swig of coffee. “We were all getting tense walking through the castle, I assume due to the unfamiliarity of the space and the guards everywhere?”

Everyone who’d been on the trip nodded.

“Lady Sif turned up, about halfway through the palace, said hi, got us all to ease up.” Sam nodded. “She’s good.”

Thor smiled. “She is indeed.”

“What armaments were the guards carrying?” Barnes asked from the couch along the wall, where he’d installed himself after limping down from Steve’s quarters. No one had seemed to think his inclusion was odd, and if he’d had free run of the computer systems like Phil suspected, keeping him out now was kind of pointless. So he hadn’t argued.

“Spears, mostly. Ceremonial.” Jane answered. “Thor’s not allowed to talk about it.”

“Security.” Thor added.

Barnes grumbled, but thankfully dropped it. Asgard was an uneasy ally, Phil could feel that down to his bones, and they needed to step lightly. Which led him to the really big question, “we were introduced to Odin in the throne room, and Thor returned the scepter by throwing it across the floor toward the throne.”

“I thought we were being polite,” Tony almost-asked.

“Not that polite,” Thor said, his voice going deep with annoyance. “All-Father Odin needed reminded that he’d been asked for help and denied it.”

“Pretty sure he didn’t know about Queen Frigga’s help,” Darcy added. “He’d have thrown that in our faces if he’d known.”

Thor nodded agreement.

“Then you told Odin off,” Phil said to Darcy. “What was that about?”

Thor smiled at Darcy, proud, and Jane gave Darcy that co-conspirator smile they got when they were backing each other up.

Darcy sniffed. “He compared Jane to a goat, did you know that? And not favorably. When I speak as Thor’s vinur all he sees is tits and ass, thinks Thor is dumb and he took me on for my entertainment value, let’s say. He thinks Midgard is full of barbarians and uncivilized barely sentient beings. After all that? He told me to bow and I told him to kiss my ass. Americans don’t have an aristocracy. We don’t bow to anyone unless we respect them. He wanted me to bow, he could damn well earn it.”

“Damn, Darcy,” Jane murmured.

“When was this?” Phil asked.

“Couple visits ago,” Darcy told him. “Last year; I only get there every six months or so to bug Mimir. Since the first go-’round Odin’s bitched about my disrespect and I’ve turned it around to HIS disrespect.”

“Who else has seen this?” Phil wanted to go back to smoking, or skydiving, or something. Drag racing looked fun. He needed a hobby that was a stress outlet, and studying military history just wasn’t cutting it, even with JARVIS finding and translating new sources.

“Nearly everyone, I’d think,” Darcy told him. “Sif said that some of the court has deliberately been around to watch the show.”

Fantastic.

“Then we split up,” Phil told the rest of the Avengers who hadn’t been there. “All of us off to see Loki in his cell, except for Darcy and Sam, who went somewhere else?”

Everyone turned to Darcy. “Mimir, head archivist. He’s the one, well, he and Odin are refusing to let me in and give me the means to read the texts. I’m working on it.”

“Y’all remember that warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones, where they put the Ark of the Covenant?” Sam asked them all, “it’s like that, but with books, scrolls, all kinds of other stuff that looks like it could be information storage. Except with skylights. And the walls are gold.”

“Why do you want in?” Phil asked.

“Beyond the obvious, which is it’s the library of my dreams? It holds historic documents going back millennia. Including information about their contacts with Midgard, and their laws.” Darcy laughed. “I have my PhD dissertation to write, eventually. Can’t wait to ask the advisor how to write a footnote for something out of the Asgardian archives.”

That did sound just like Darcy.

“Get me video when you do that, I wanna see that,” Tony told her.

Darcy laughed and nodded. “Thing is, I think I’ve finally got an in. Mimir has said his reason for not allowing me entrance is because Midgardians have contributed nothing to it. Which I say is bullshit, but he claims we’ve never done anything new, so why should we be allowed in?” She turned to Clint. “You know that P equals NP thing? Nobody in Asgard had gotten around to solving that one, yet. I wrote out the first two lines of your proof. Mimir wants it; math is his favorite language. He demanded the rest of it when I stopped writing, and I told him he could have it if he let me in. Is that okay with you? Your name, and JARVIS’ would be on it, you’d get full credit for it.”

“And my stuff would be the first to go into the Archives, from Midgard?” Clint asked.

“No. Mine was the first but they insist they came up with it first, during the Dark Elves thing,” Jane told him. “No one in Asgard wants to admit I know anything.”

“JARVIS,” Clint asked, “would you have a problem with adding authors to that?”

“Not at all, Hawkeye.”

Clint grinned. “Really I couldn’t have done it, we couldn’t, without everyone who taught me math. So that would put Jane, Tony, and Bruce on there. Y’all okay with that?”

Everyone was.

Phil wondered why they could be so generous and team-like one moment, then go haring off on the internet the next. Speaking of which, “on our errand, things were a little more confrontational. Clint, how about you tell us about that.” Phil hadn’t spoken to Clint much since he’d seen that goddamn photo on the internet, so he had no idea how Clint planned to explain himself. But he was looking forward to it.

- A -

Clint had been considering how to handle this for two days, and the pressure of knowing this would determine how long he’d be sleeping on the couch in his own apartment wasn’t helping. He decided to take it from the top. “Okay. So when Phil died and everything… happened… I went out to Xavier’s, with the plan of him going through my head and making sure Loki didn’t leave any surprises we’d find later, the hard way. It’d been a few weeks since the Invasion and I was still really fucked up, so...” He shrugged. They’d already heard about his drinking.

“I drove him out there myself,” Natasha’s voice, low and gravelly, came from the speakers. "Kate would have, if I didn't." She was still upstairs in Phil and Clint’s apartment, listening.

“Team plan,” Clint agreed, nodding. “So we had to tell the whole school, including the kids, that Phil was dead. I was wrecked, Natasha was halfway, they wanted to know what had happened with the space aliens and where you were. So we told them.” Clint took a drink, shook his head. “Billy was, what… six years old then? Apologized to me for not raising you from the dead,” he told Phil. “He explained that he COULD, but pretty much every mage on the planet would come for him if he did it, and magical resurrection never works right, strange, scary things happen. Monkey’s Paw shit. Has to do with messing with souls. He was crying.”

Phil had always considered himself a small cog in the giant machine of government and was always surprised at the reactions to his death. At the moment he was inspecting his tea.

“Wait, sorry for the interruption,” Bruce told them all quietly, “but if that’s true, why didn’t the world’s mages go after Fury for doing it?”

Clint shrugged. “Billy has concluded that whatever Fury did, magic wasn’t used. Another factor in that conclusion is that Phil is… Phil. Apparently magical resurrection would have been much less stable. Therefore mages consider it not their problem. Mages are a bunch of territorial assholes and act like everyone else is, too.”

“You asked a kid about that?” Tony cut in.

“Didn’t have to,” Clint told him. “There was Phil, larger than life, of course Billy started wondering how it had been done. He’s a smart little booger. He’s still not sure, but damn curious and said he’s going to listen for details. I didn’t ask what that meant.”

Clint paused, and when no one asked further questions, “after Xavier unscrewed my head, well. I was grieving, and still messed up in a half dozen other ways, so he didn’t make me leave. Probably afraid of what would happen if I did. I think they had me on suicide watch. Logan was following me around a lot, he thinks he’s stealthier than he is.”

“I wasn’t TRYING to be stealthy. I didn’t wanna get shot in the ass,” Logan grumbled around a swig of beer. “Hate getting shot.”

Clint shrugged. “The kids started talking about needing to take revenge. On Loki. For everything they saw on the news, for me, for Phil, probably for Natasha because they kept asking if she was okay, too.”

“Billy called me weekly to ask how I was and give me a report on you,” Natasha put in from the speakers.

“He’s a little busybody,” Clint agreed, fondly. “Well, I kept telling them, not only was the asshole on another planet, but he was a prince so we couldn’t go killing him because it would put interplanetary peace into the toilet, and so they brainstormed for a week or two and came up with the glitter bomb idea.”

“It wasn’t yours,” Phil repeated.

“No. I mean, I was all in favor of revenge, but the glitter bomb idea would never have occurred. My mind was still on flaming arrows through his throat.” He turned to Thor. “No offense.”

“None taken, my friend.”

“The glitter bomb, well, I figured when would I get another chance at Loki, anyway? So I agreed, and they got to work on it. Dragged me into it, too.” Clint smiled a little at Phil; he looked surprised and less pissed off, that was hopeful. “Later, Xavier told me I did a good job channeling everyone’s anger. At the time I was only trying to keep the peace.”

“So the kids at Xavier’s produced an arrow that would go through force-fields.” Tony summarized.

“Well, I helped,” Clint admitted. “I suggested the switch, so I’d have some control over it, and answered when half a dozen of them quizzed me over force-fields and other obstacles I might need to shoot through.” He smiled a little. “They’ll go through glass, too.”

“They?” Phil repeated.

Clint only smiled. “So we made the arrows, and perfected them, and sometime, I won’t say I got better, but things smoothed out a little. I suspect Xavier had something to do with it. Natasha had packed up our apartment, so I crashed with her for a while before I moved back to my apartment in Bed-Stuy; I’d had the place before I moved in with Phil, and kept paying rent on it the whole time. Carried the arrow with me whenever I was out shooting, on the off chance somehow he got loose, and, well, got my chance on Asgard. I took the shot without even thinking about it.”

“Again I thank you for the life of my brother,” Thor said. “Our mages will be puzzling over how it was done for many a day; the force-fields in the cells are designed to be impenetrable.”

“Well, Billy.” Clint told him. That was all that you needed to say, when that kid was around.

“Indeed.” Thor smiled. “I will, of course, make no mention of him.”

Clint paused to consider that of all the crazy shit Thor must have seen in his thousand-odd years, he was still impressed by Billy’s skills. His own mother apparently wove the fabric of reality, and he found Billy impressive enough to call “master”. Then he sorta pushed it into that corner of his brain where all the stuff he didn’t want to examine too closely, lurked.

“Thank you,” Clint said to Thor. “Anyway. Darcy told me the camera on her phone worked on Asgard, and I figured if a regular old phone did, Tony’s communicator would. So I took a photo, was going to send it to Billy, to show the rest of the kids who helped make the arrow. But looking at it, y’know, the whole planet did deserve to know he was in a cell, and in a cell covered in glitter and angry, well, that would be sort of a cherry on top.” He thought about that a second, and added again “no offense,” to Thor.

“You could have killed him, with the skills involved. Instead you played a prank, which is the least he deserved. And I agree with your wish that your planet know he is in a cell. They do indeed have a right to know they are safe from him.” Thor nodded, and Clint decided Thor was pretty awesome.

One day they’d need to have a conversation about brothers, but this was not that day.

“When I saw it,” Darcy picked up, “I agreed with the idea. That everyone should know, and the internet skews toward the more intelligent and logical end of the populace, so most of them would realize, prince of another planet, we were going to have to settle for Loki in a cell, but they’d enjoy the glitter bomb.” She shrugged. “I knew PR was going to bitch, I figured a government or two would whine that they had to find out on the internet with everyone else. But he tried to invade our planet with an army of critters most of them still don’t understand. They deserved to know.”

“In the future, good idea or not, I and the rest of management would like to know, BEFORE the rest of the planet.” Phil was still cranked about that, Clint knew, and would be for quite a while.

He kinda hated that Phil had a point.

“For what it’s worth,” Darcy told them all, “Avengers approval has gone up, and word from friends of mine is, a lot of people are resting a little easier knowing Loki’s locked up. Regular, everyday people. They know better than to completely believe what the government tells them, but having visible proof turn up on the internet, from the Avengers? Traditional PR may not approve but in terms of putting people at ease in general, and having them relax a bit about the Avengers, it worked.” She smiled a little. “It’s become a meme. I put together the best of them and put them in a folder on the Avengers’ server.”

“Last question,” Phil stated, and hallelujah an end to the tunnel, “what was going on, in the throne room when you introduced me?”

Darcy giggled and pointed at Thor. “You’re explaining that one.”

Jane was laughing uproariously and nodded, then gave Clint a wink. So this was gonna be good.

“When you died, my friend,” Thor began in his storytelling voice, oh shit, here it went, “I returned to Asgard with my brother and discussed your death with him, at length.” He paused to consider, then nodded, “and with my fists. Once the evidence was given and Loki put in his cell, I did as our tradition dictates, and composed, a, song?” He looked at Darcy.

“Funeral dirge. He totally did a funeral dirge on the life and death of the Son of Coul.” Darcy laughed out loud. “It’s also traditional to show your love and respect by jazzing it up. The more you cared for them, the more you exaggerate, make them sound badass, you know. I’ve got a copy of it, wrote it down, I’ll put it on the server.”

“Oh no,” Clint whispered.

Everyone else around the table was grinning.

Thor put his nose in the air. “The bravery of the Son of Coul needs no jazzing. When faced with a Destroyer, he walked right up to it and attempted to negotiate.”

“I threatened it, via loudspeaker,” Phil said between the hands he had over his face.

“Later you valiantly defended others from it. You made peace with the Warriors Three and respected the Lady Sif at a glance.”

“Have you seen her?” Phil again said through is hands, then dropped them. “Of COURSE I treated her as an equal warrior. She clearly is one.”

Thor waved a ‘see what I mean?’ gesture, and continued, “then, when my craven brother stabbed you in the back like a coward, as you lay dying, you insulted him and shot him through a wall.”

“It was the principle of the thing.” Phil shrugged.

Several people were applauding, and Clint’s cheeks hurt from smiling.

“Then, of course, when you assisted the Lady Sif, she added to the song, that you had survived the God of Lies and continued to keep the people of Midgard safe, as a hero does. The tale of the Son of Coul trouncing Loki is very popular.”

“Oh god,” Phil groaned into his hands again.

“You’re a folk hero, Phil!” Clint had to say, and clapped him on the shoulder.

“It’s not only Phil, cowboy,” Darcy told him.

“What?” Clint said stupidly.

“And the Son of Coul’s mate,” Thor continued without missing a beat, “the Hawkeyed One, valiantly carried on, and went into battle against my brother, having lost his soulmate, and using a bow and arrow against the Chitauri, took down many foes and blew my own brother off an anti-grav sled with an exploding arrow. For many people that is their favorite part.”

“You’re considered a madman for the bow and arrow thing, FYI,” Darcy put in. “Even Fandral says he’d have gone for something with more firepower, for a space-based invasion force.”

“I included the story of your teammate, the Black Widow, the assassin who tricked the God of Lies out of information, and thanked him for his cooperation. Then she took up arms and went into battle as well, becoming the one to close the Portal,” Thor finished. “It’s a very popular story, for its own right as well as because Loki isn’t liked. The heroism of Team Delta, when their planet was threatened, fighting to defend their people through death and loss. And now they know the story continues. If there is one thing the people of Asgard love, it is a good story.”

“Bozhe moi,” Natasha muttered from the speakers.

“Yeah, we add in the P equals NP thing, they might start a religion,” Darcy told them. “As it is, Fandral’s a huge fan and desperately wants to trade archery techniques.”

“Sure,” Clint said weakly.

“So all this is considered half-fictional, right, because it started as a funeral dirge,” Darcy took over because Thor clearly wasn’t getting the cultural ramifications. “And then Phil turns up, back from the dead, with you at his side being badass with seriously magic arrows, and the Lady Natasha laid up after fighting something that must have been nasty, well. Y’all are folk heroes. Congratulations.”

Phil put his head in his hands some more. Clint patted his back.

As the laughter died back a little, he heard Tony say “I need to come to these more often. They’re MUCH better than board meetings.”

Chapter Text

We begin, as things so often do, with Steve getting arrested. MIXED NUT. Click the link, come on back.

- A -

It was around eight in the morning Tokyo time, and Pepper had shared breakfast with Kate before they both went off to dress for the day; Pepper liked afternoon meetings when traveling, and she rarely pulled rank, so to speak, but since she was CEO? They’d have afternoon meetings. She’d put on a white Versace suit with silver trim over a light blue shell, and after her discussion with Clint about dressing the part, she’d packed some high-powered jewelry, at least by her standards.

When they’d first started dating, Tony began buying jewelry for her; she didn’t know why she’d been surprised, given his fondness for watches, rings, and cufflinks for himself. One of the first gifts had been a giant teardrop crystal on a chain, and she’d worn it for several weeks before he’d admitted it was a seventy-five carat diamond, so she might want to look out for muggers. In retrospect she had no idea why she’d thought he would buy her rock crystal.

With that and a pair of sapphire icicle earrings sharp enough to pick locks (Kate had seen them and offered to teach her), she figured the statement was made. If not, tomorrow she’d try the antique art-deco brooch that Tony wouldn’t tell her the cost of.

The phone rang, and speak of the boyfriend. It was evening in New York, so she wondered what this was about. “Hello, Tony,” she answered with a smile, going out into the main room of the suite to get a mocha from the kitchen.

“Pepper.” And with that one word, she knew whatever was going on, he was in an upbeat mood, good. “You will not BELIEVE what I just did.”

Here it went. “It better not have been illegal.” She took a swig of mocha to brace herself; there had been heated discussion before about Tony buzzing the Baxter Building in his suit.

“No. For once, I was on the side of the law. However, I just bailed STEVE OUT OF JAIL,” and gave a whoop of laughter.

Well, he wouldn’t be laughing if anyone was injured, she reminded herself before she panicked. “Put Steve on the phone. Now.”

There was some fumbling and clunking, Tony laughing all the while, and then Steve said in a slightly-amused, long-suffering tone, “Hi, Pepper. I’m okay. Nothing to worry about.”

Oh, no, Steve getting arrested was a potential PR nightmare, nothing at all to worry about. “What happened?”

“I got into the middle of a stop-and-frisk scuffle between some harmless kid and a cop. The cop tazed me and I sorta hit him.”

Jesus fuck, now she had two of them. “Sort of?”

“It was a reflex. I really don’t like tazers. Anyway, I caught myself and pulled the punch but I kind of broke his nose.”

“Kind of.” Pepper repeated.

She couldn’t count the number of phone calls she’d had with Tony that went like this. At least neither were drunk, high, or draped with dancing girls (or boys). There was a box of high-end Coco Kyoto chocolates in a cupboard, she took down the box and ate one, counting backward from a hundred by five and two-thirds.

“Well, I really hate getting tazed. REALLY hate it.”

“With your other arm still in a cast,” she checked, hoping Steve hadn’t clocked the guy with the high-tech ceramic-composite Bruce and Tony had cooked up to keep Steve’s bones immobilized. They were patenting it as a fast-form steel alternative for rapid prototyping.

“...yeah.” Steve said.

Well, that was something anyway. She supposed.

She ate another chocolate. “Then what happened?”

“Oh, they cuffed me and hauled me in. Tried anyway, the cuff wouldn’t close around the cast. Saw my ID and decided it was forged, badly-”

“The nineteen eighteen birth date!” Tony called in the background, still cackling.

Pepper ate another chocolate.

“-gave me a bunch of shit because I’d hit a cop, so it took them a while to book me and give me my phone call. By then I was pretty irritated myself, so instead of calling Ms Rosenthal-”

“-you called Tony.” Pepper finished for him. Skipped the lawyer, called in Tony instead. “Knowing Tony would make it into a circus.”

“...yeah, pretty much.”

“I have photos of him in the cell!” Tony called out again. “I’ll text them over!”

“You aren’t hurt.” Pepper double-checked.

“Nah, I’m fine, promise.” Steve’s voice softened a little, “I remember that talk we had about telling you things. I’m okay. Was sort of like old times.”

“You’ve been arrested before?” Pepper ate another chocolate.

“Oh, sure, was as regular as breathing back in the day,” Steve said reminiscently.

In the background Tony practically shrieked, then started with a new round of laughter.

Pepper breathed for a moment, mentally began a list of things to ask James, listened to Tony cackling. “So you want to help me get back at Tony for this entire phone call?” She had no idea what the protocol for this sort of thing was, but from her reading on the internet, poly relationships were all making it up as they went. So she was going to try coloring outside the lines.

“Sure?”

There were a few sex games that appealed to her or Tony, that didn’t to the other, for some reason. And that was fine, they figured out new fun things. But between that and all the years of debauchery she knew Tony’s kinks pretty well. “Pretend to be an employee, and give Mr Stark a blow job in thanks for bailing you out.” That’d wipe the smile off Tony’s face.

For a second, before another one took its place.

Steve laughed a little. “That works?”

“On him it does. Don’t try it on me.” She’d kick his ass. The working relationship with Tony over the decades had created a very different dynamic between them, than any other man she’d ever been with.

Not that there had been very many. But Tony was the only sex partner she’d ever had, who she’d also worked with. He was the only sex partner she’d done a LOT of things with.

“Noted.” Steve was smiling, she could tell.

“All right, I’ve got to have a meeting here in an hour, both of you stay out of any more trouble.”

“Will do.”

Pepper clicked her phone off, turned, and- Kate was standing in the door of her room, mouth hanging open a little. Damn.

“So you know about that,” Kate said, sounding rather relieved.

Might as well tell the truth, she’d trusted Kate with much more important information than her personal life. “We’re working our way toward a long-term poly relationship but I’m sort of self-conscious about the idea, I’ve never done this sort of thing before.”

Pepper didn’t expect condemnation, but was surprised by the little giggle, before Kate asked “and Steve has?”

Oh, if she only knew. “Steve’s a lot more like Tony than you think. He just got bailed out of jail by Tony. He punched a cop.”

“Huh,” Kate said, and looked thoughtful. Since they’d discussed dressing their parts, Kate had taken to wearing a lavender jade ring with what was probably a very expensive bright pink sapphire set into it, on the ring finger of her right hand. She was twisting it absently.

One of these days, she’d ask about that.

“Ready to go set the business world on fire?” Pepper asked instead, and Kate grinned. This morning they were doing a surprise inspection of a Stark manufacturing facility, and Kate noticed all sorts of things Pepper missed.

It was good to have a sidekick.

- A -

Steve hung up the phone, handed it back to Tony, thinking about what Pepper had just told him, and what it said about both of them.

And also about the fact he had yet to reciprocate for that shower after they got home from Sokovia.

He tried the innocent Bambi eyes that had gotten him out of a lot of trouble as a kid. “Gosh, Mr Stark, I really appreciate you taking the time to bail me out.”

Tony stared for a long moment, then asked “what on earth did Pepper tell you?”

Steve knocked off the innocent routine for a second. “That you’d appreciate a proper thank you for bailing me out. If that’s not okay, just say so.”

He stared for a while longer, then hit the intercom and told Happy to drive around until he said otherwise.

Happy replied with a long-suffering “aw geez” so Steve wasn’t sure if he was embarrassed about that or not. He decided to ignore it unless someone said something later.

“So you were saying, Skippy?”

Steve blinked a second. “Skippy?”

“Yeah, the cute but clueless kid in IT who I just bailed out of jail.”

Oh. Okay then. “I was just saying, I REALLY appreciate you bailing me out, Mr Stark.”

He got down on his knees and reached for Tony’s zipper.

The last time he’d done this was before the war, in an alley, and now here he was in comfortable surroundings, fooling around with a fella he cared about, at the direction of his (their? THEIR) girlfriend.

Maybe the future wasn’t so bad after all.

He took as much of Tony as he could, into his mouth. Tony shouted and a big blacksmith’s hand fisted in his hair, oh, that was nice. Tony was making unintelligible noises, unable to hold still. He started directing Steve by the hand in his hair, so Steve followed, and followed, and…

Yeah, the future was pretty great.

He zipped Tony back up, since Tony seemed a bit incoherent yet, and rummaged around in the limo’s fridge for a soda.

“How long can you hold your breath?” Tony asked weakly, still sprawled where Steve had left him, half in the seat, half on the floor.

“Ten minutes or so.” Steve gave him a toothy smile and toasted him with the soda.

“You… we…” Tony made a vague waving motion toward Steve.

“After, if you like. I’m starving.” He leaned forward, flicked on the intercom, and asked Happy to take the long way around to Mario’s. Then he pulled out his phone, took a photo of Tony, and sent it to Pepper.

He got back a smile and a heart, which was nice, she was probably in a meeting.

Rescued a kid and got arrested in a scuffle with the cops, rescued another kid from the cell he got put in, then FINALLY got his hands on a guy for the first time in way too long. In nice conditions, with a guy he knew and liked, legally.

“Y’know,” he said conversationally, “this is the most I’ve felt like my old self since I thawed out.”

“Oh my god,” Tony muttered, and tried to fix his tie. “Your true self is an angry little shit from Brooklyn.”

Steve thought about it. That sounded as good to him as ‘pretty artist’. “Yeah. I really am.” He sat back and drank soda – couldn’t go into Mario’s with dick breath – and smiled the whole way to the restaurant.

- A -

They went to Mario’s because Steve was starving and Tony wanted a drink. He ordered his usual, which everyone on the waitstaff knew was a ginger ale on ice with a twist of lime in a highball glass. Steve, after triple-checking that no, Tony didn’t mind people drinking around him, REALLY, ordered a bottle of Italian Chianti and charmed the waitress into bringing them half the menu. Then he sat back and grinned.

Not the usual reaction from a guy who’d been tazed and arrested.

“So what’s up?” Tony asked as their drinks were served.

“What do you mean?” Steve sipped the wine, then satisfied, took a bigger drink.

“You seem… happy.” Tony said. “This is not the usual after I bail someone out of jail. Rhodey bitched for MONTHS.”

“I am. This is… I’m just now realizing how bad working for SHIELD was. For me, I mean. I’m not meant to operate in the grey areas without enough information. Clear-cut right and wrong is what I’m meant for. Insight really hammered it home.” He looked a little wistful, “someone told me that once. Kind of forgot it for a few years, but I’m back to it now. Life looks a lot better.”

Tony wanted to hug him, but that could wait until later. “Given what you went through, being turned around and taking a while to get your bearings seems like a normal reaction to me.” He paused, considering whether he should bring up their meeting on the helicarrier again. “I’m sorry I was such a jackass when we met.” Apologies never hurt, right?

Steve had taken a sip of wine and had to swallow fast before he snorted it out his nose. “Well, you’ve explained why, so I don’t blame you for that. But into the bargain, I was being an uptight asshole, so let’s just agree neither of us were at our best, but we got better.”

Tony patted his hand, glad that he could without getting punched. “Yeah we did. A lot better.” He paused as the waitstaff came by to pile food all over the table, and started on a salad while Steve dug into a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. They were going to be here a while, so he took his time. “You said to Pepper, you used to get arrested a lot.”

“Buck usedta call himself my keeper, not my friend. Was constantly bailin’ me outta jail. We were lucky he had a good job on the docks, and I didn’t do too badly, painting signs and stuff.” Steve shoveled in another enormous bite of spaghetti, finished it, then “fortunately I never got arrested for” he wriggled his eyebrows “with another fella, or Erskine never would have gotten them to ignore my record during the project. As it was, my record was all about getting arrested at protests and getting tossed out of bars for punching guys who were hassling women. He told the Army that meant I was all about justice. Mostly I was mad at the world and chose my targets well.”

Tony propped his chin on a fist and marveled. Steve was in khakis and a neat button-up blue shirt over a white tee, fresh out of jail, talking about getting arrested on the regular while looking like a choir boy. Plowing through food, neat as you please, with a slight grin on his face. If this was the real Steve, he must have been absolutely shattered when they met, for him to behave the way he had.

“Was the Socialism that almost derailed it, in the end,” Steve said thoughtfully, switching out his empty spaghetti bowl for a plate of cheese manicotti and digging back in.

“Socialism?” Tony repeated after a second. He thought he’d misheard.

“Oh yeah. Card-carrying member of the Socialist Party. I was an artist, for cryin’ out loud, was kept alive by the FAP in the thirties. Voted for FDR.” He snickered a little, mouth full, then finished “four times. Military absentee ballot the last.”

“Does Darcy know?”

“...no. She’d get a kick out of that, wouldn’t she?”

“She’ll want to put it up on the Avengers’ website the next time someone wants to chase down our politics. Say we’re led by a socialist, and watch everyone go apeshit.”

Steve sort of squinted into the distance a while, thinking, still shoveling in food. “Probably. Eventually, if the media keeps bugging us about men dancing together and other stupid shit, yeah, I’ll probably get annoyed enough to do it.” He switched plates again, this time crunching through a lettuce-wedge salad in about fifteen seconds. “Howard kept my footlocker, my civilian wallet’s still in it, or should be. We could post my membership card.” He switched plates again.

“You were literally a card-carrying member.” Tony’s jaw was hanging a little.

Steve giggled through a mouthful of veal picatta, and nodded.

Tony gave up and laughed.

- A -

Steve returned about eight hours late from what was supposed to be a quick run to the art store for some kind of specialized paint brush, blade, sword, dagger? Whatever. The fifty brushes he already had weren’t the one he wanted.

When he got back, he didn’t have a brush with him, but he looked extremely relaxed, and had That Grin on his face.

“Where the hell have you been?” Bucky asked. He’d been about to call in JARVIS to search the city.

“Oh, y’know,” Steve said, giving the vague wave he used to give when he’d been hanging out in gay bars.

“No, I don’t know,” Bucky replied, because it was legal now and he was done turning a blind eye. He didn’t care who the guy had sex with, especially not when it put a smile on his face, but he wanted to know where the hell he’d been.

He’d worried. It seemed to be his default emotion with Steve, going from his memories.

“Tony and I ate at Mario’s, and stuff.”

The eyebrow wriggle clearly said what the ‘and stuff’ was, but “for eight damn hours?” Steve dropped into a chair across from where he was laid out on the couch, clutching the damn pillow to his side one-handed. Stark had machined an ‘emergency’ arm for him, identical to the last one, while they planned a completely new one. Bucky only wore it when he had to, but felt even more indebted.

Steve tried to look innocent, which Bucky remembered well. And was pretty much expecting the next bit. “Nah, when I went out for that brush, y’ever hear of Stop and Frisk?”

“Yeah.” Cops in New York never changed, corrupt, interfering bastards. As they ever were.

“Well, a cop was hassling some kid who seemed to be doing nothing, but he had brown skin. Y’know how they are. So I stepped in.”

Bucky dropped his head back onto the arm of the couch. “Please tell me you didn’t get arrested again.”

“I got arrested again!” Steve said brightly.

At the first laugh, his rib cage lit on fire, and Bucky turned, curling around his goddamn ribs, holding the pillow against himself desperately, unable to stop laughing.

“Tony said my real persona is an angry little shit from Brooklyn,” Steve added, and Bucky whooped weakly and kept laughing.

Suddenly Jemma was there, crouching in front of him, and demanding to know what the hell was going on.

Bucky signed he was okay at her, and she replied “the bloody hell you are, you’re about to pop a rib. JARVIS called me.”

“I got arrested earlier, this is his usual reaction,” Steve said apologetically.

“You what?” Jem said blankly, and Bucky wheezed out another laugh and then began begging for painkillers.

- A -

Everyone gathered around the breakfast table as usual. Things seemed about normal to Clint; the usual morning assholes were bright and chipper (Steve, Sam, and Darcy) and everyone else was slowly waking up with the ingestion of a lot of caffeine. He’d gotten up early to fix breakfast, and was pleased to see Barnes carefully walk in with Steve; clearly he was feeling better, finally up and around.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about having the Winter Soldier roaming around the building – too many years of too many horror stories – but tried to put it aside because Barnes the un-brainwashed original guy seemed pretty cool. And also hadn’t done anything violent since coming in, other than kill a bunch of Hydra guys, which he’d stated pretty clearly WAS his reason for coming in, when he did.

Also Xavier gave him a clean bill of mental health, and Clint had trusted him enough to go through his own brain, and so had Natasha, and Phil.

Darcy had been helping with breakfast, scrambled a couple dozen eggs while Clint fried bacon and ham, piled up pastries, waved people to the toasters for bagels and stuff. He drew the line at running a damn toaster for people.

Finally they’d all settled in and even Tony seemed mostly awake. Clint applied himself to his food, considering his daily to-do list which mostly meant giving the support staff shooting lessons and then doing math or dozing on the couch in Phil’s office; it was a lot like his at-home schedule at SHIELD had been (when he wasn’t at points all over the globe, looking for certain people to snipe), except Phil was a lot less stressed and there was math.

“I’ve been reading up on history, trying to catch up,” Barnes said out of nowhere. “The Soviet newspapers didn’t really get the details right about US news.”

Clint and half a dozen other people snorted. Yeah, he bet.

Barnes’ voice was kind of quiet with a faint twang of Brooklyn, which was his usual when he didn’t feel threatened, so Clint didn’t pay that much attention. He’d gotten Natasha to eat some toast and drink some of her high-end Russian tea. She was still pretty nauseated, but had enough focus and sensory perception to swear at him that the tea was decaf, so he’d quit worrying about her so much.

“So I’ve got a question,” Barnes summarized.

Clint figured Darcy could handle it – she’d perked up at the word ‘history’ and was nodding. He ate some more bacon.

Instead, Barnes looked at PHIL? And asked, “Is there a reason you’re a dead ringer for DB Cooper?”

Clint inhaled his bacon and started coughing. He looked over at Phil, and “no WAY,” he croaked out.

Phil had his little ‘fuck you’ smile on, and said “it’s all classified,” before he hid the grin behind a mug of tea.

“You- That-” Tony stopped, pulled out his comm-

“It was nineteen seventy-one,” Barnes told Tony helpfully.

Phil wasn’t even BORN then.

“Were you even born yet?” Tony asked Phil.

Phil grinned a little more, said “There was an oh-eight-four involved.”

Son of a bitch. Clint knew his mouth was hanging open.

“What’s an oh eight four?” Darcy asked, bewildered.

“Artifact of unknown origin and dangerous effect,” Leo explained. “Alien litter, crazy genius builds, freaks of nature – not human, you name it.”

“Like fucking TIME TRAVEL?” Tony demanded.

“Classified,” Phil said again, and laughed.

Clint knew that laugh, and that laugh said he’d hijacked a plane in nineteen seventy-one and then parachuted out of the back out of it. Somehow.

“Where’d the money go?” Darcy asked.

“I dropped some of it,” Phil admitted. “Vicious winds, and it was raining. The rest is in a locker in high security storage at a SHIELD facility.” Then he added his usual denial, “or so I hear.”

Phil had been goddamn DB Cooper.

“Oh my god,” Clint heard himself say.

Phil glanced over at him with an unholy grin, and repeated “it’s classified.”

He didn’t even care about the details. He put down his tea, grabbed Phil, and stood, pulling Phil to his feet. “Excuse me everyone, I have to go have sex with this UTTER BADASS.”

Everyone yelled variations of ‘we didn’t need to know that,’ and Clint dragged Phil toward the elevator. Once inside, Phil said “I really can’t tell you more, it’s super classified.”

“I don’t even care, oh my god, you’re a master criminal,” and pinned Phil against the elevator wall, kissing him.

- A -

The video was posted to both the Avengers website and the Avengers’ YouTube channel, one Tuesday night. It was Captain America, Hawkeye, Falcon, and a black-haired white woman in a Cubs tee with her face blurred out. In the description it was explained that she was part of their support staff and anonymity was important for her safety.

All four stood in a row wearing exercise clothes, holding jump ropes. When the song started - “Sound System” by Operation Ivy – all four began singing along, jumping in time to the music.

Cap was enjoying himself and the music, chanting along with the lyrics, hopping in joyful circles.

Hawkeye and Falcon started flagging by the second verse, and the woman simply held her place, jumped mechanically in time with Cap, and rapped the lyrics.

Falcon dropped out first, gasping, at the start of the second verse, with a “fuck you and your white boy rap, Rogers.” He tossed the rope aside and stretched his legs.

At the end during the spoken part, Cap started doing doubled matador-jumps. Hawkeye dropped out with a laughing “damn it, Steve!”

The woman simply did the matador-jumps along with Cap, and when the song ended, cheered and high-fived him.

This time YouTube had been warned and managed to stay up and running.

@RadCube Cap listens to punk?

@Sparkle OMG he knew all the words. And who’s the badass chick?

@OperationIvyFans HOLY SHIT CAP SANG OUR STUFF!

@Avengers The woman in the video would like everyone to know, she is baseline and not augmented in any way, she is just that damn good.

@BookLady We need to know her name so we can be her when we grow up.

@Sis Right??

- A -

Steve had no idea how Jem got the orthopedic surgeon to agree to do an examination in a machine shop. Maybe lured him in with the idea of great new imaging equipment he’d never seen before. He didn’t know, but was damn glad he was in familiar surroundings, and concentrated on watching U; Sidekick had climbed onto his housing (Tony said it would be warmer than the surrounding area, what with all the mechanics and electronics) and fallen asleep. U was frozen and refusing to move, unwilling to disturb the cat. Every once in a while he would slowly move his camera from one angle to another, watching the kitten sleep. They all agreed it was adorable, even the orthopedist, who looked, in Darcy’s words, ‘deeply weirded out’.

It made a nice distraction from Tony cutting the cast off his arm. He was pretty sure he’d be unable to sit through this, if it was anyone but Tony. But Tony had first held the saw blade up against his own palm, showing it did no damage to skin, and was also known for such precision work, Steve was just barely able to make himself sit still. Darcy somehow had figured out this was upsetting for him, and was rubbing his back. Which also helped.

Buck was leaned into a corner near U, to make Steve and the robot feel safer, Steve was sure. He had his arms crossed in front of him, over his chest, and managed to look badass while clutching a fuzzy red heart-shaped pillow to his side. For some reason he didn’t wear his arm much, but for this occasion he’d put it on. Steve was pretty sure he polished it for extra shine, to be extra scary. He was in all black (he only wore black when he wanted to scare people, usually he wore Steve’s jeans and Steve’s minor-league baseball tees, bitching about wanting to go out and buy real clothes), with his hair pulled back in a stubby tail. Darcy had begun swinging through every morning to do his ponytail for him; his hair got stuck in the joints of his fingers on his prosthetic arm/hand. Steve had offered to learn and both of them laughed at him.

The next day, Keep was coming over to measure Bucky for suits. Tony had called them. Buck had also asked Darcy – she was the one who’d put together Thor’s red pinstripe suit – to be around so she could help him pick out fabrics and whatever, Steve had already directed her to get him into a dark indigo and she’d agreed with ‘ooh, pretty’. Steve asked where the money was coming from and Buck said he’d cleaned out Hydra’s bank accounts and kept some when he donated most of it to charities. Steve had explained Keep, the non-binary concept, and Bucky had blinked once and nodded. Like he’d done when Steve explained he was bisexual when they were twelve.

Steve was trying REALLY hard to distract himself from Tony holding a saw to his arm.

The orthopedist, a Dr Grange, didn’t seem to have noticed Bucky yet. No one was pointing him out. The doctor was too busy looking from the robot with the cat sleeping on it, to the robot holding an exhaust intake over where Tony was cutting, to suck up the dust, to the scanner Jem was using on his right hand so that the doc could get an idea what ‘normal’ was supposed to look like.

Grange had asked twice to have the scanner re-calibrated because the bones were too dense to see what was going on. Jem had twice explained that no, Steve’s bones really were that dense, and then pretended to fiddle with the scanner while JARVIS brought up more detail.

Eventually Grange asked, “How did you break this, again?” It was a neat snap through his radius and ulna; his own half-assed field setting had pulled them straight enough, and they had already mended, crooked, but in comparison with the scans Jem had taken three days previously, were visibly straightening themselves out.

Other than itching like crazy, with the cast on, it wasn’t bothering Steve much. The cast itself was more trouble, he’d forget he had it on and whack it into things.

Steve explained in as little detail as possible that a ceiling had caved in on him. Four basement floors down. The doctor goggled a little and Steve decided not to mention that Clint, their baseline human, had gotten off without a scratch except for blown-out hearing aids. They weren’t from the ceiling collapse, but the explosion that caused it. (Steve had asked how the hell. Clint had shrugged and said “circus”. According to Phil, that was his answer for everything.)

Tony got the cast off, and Steve started breathing normally again. Tony had noticed, because he gave the fingers of his hand a quick squeeze-pat before clearing away all the debris. He then pretended to work with ‘imaging programs’ on his computer, and JARVIS projected a scan of Steve’s bones over his left lower arm in real time.

“Remarkable,” Grange murmured, leaning in, and no one was sure if he meant the imaging or the way the bones were straightening out on their own.

When asked, Steve turned his arm from one side to another, bent his wrist slowly at different angles. Made a fist, the usual. He was stiff, and the site of the fracture was sore as hell, but he could fight like this if he had to. He relaxed a little more.

“How much pain are you having?” the doctor asked as he very gently felt along Steve’s forearm from elbow to fingertips.

“Um,” Steve wasn’t quite sure how to answer that.

“Forget it, he doesn’t process pain right, he was chronically ill as a kid and spent twenty-odd years ignoring it.” Bucky said from the corner.

The doctor jumped a little, looked at him, then back at Steve.

“Yeah,” Steve said simply. He was going to try that from now on.

“Doctors Ross, Banner, and I have theorized that he’s actually more susceptible to pain than a baseline human, due to all his senses being more attuned.” Jem paused to glare at Steve, “but as it’s been pointed out, he’s so used to ignoring it, he really can’t assess his own pain levels.”

Grange nodded slightly. “That’s a known issue for people with chronic pain.”

Steve felt vindicated. See? He was just used to this shit. He must have looked a little smug because Jem gave him the ‘I will nurture you very brutally if you do not behave yourself’ look.

“Well, I agree, the bones are clearly straightening themselves, quickly. It would be lunacy to do surgery to fix them,” Grange nodded at Jem and Betty. “More harm than good, certainly.” He turned back to Steve, “does it feel better with the cast on? Usually healing bones do better with support; even freshly broken bones hurt less when immobilized.”

Steve had noticed that himself over the years; his bones healed fast enough, often all he had to do was hold still for a couple days and he was good to go. “Uh, yes?”

The new doc nodded, said to Jem and Betty, “as we discussed. Keep fractures immobilized, and if and when they start moving around on their own,” he glanced back at the scan still projected on Steve’s arm, shook his head a little, “re-cast as needed for his comfort. Unless things are drastically out of place, I agree, it’s best to leave his body to it. If you do have to pin anything, do it so the pins can be removed without further surgery, it’ll save time and trauma.”

Steve thought about pins sticking out of his skin and nearly gagged.

The doctor gave him a knowing look. “Now, if you don’t mind, you can go next door and get a cast put on, I’m going to talk to Doctor Stark about some tools that will make future orthopedic surgery go better for you.” He looked sympathetic. “I don’t think you’d enjoy hearing it.” Steve must have shown something on his face, because he put up his hands for peace. “No one’s told me anything, but the fact that we’re meeting in a machine shop rather than a medical wing, and your own reactions, tell me you’re uncomfortable with medical. From the records I got, it’s easy to guess why. I’d feel the same.”

Okay then. Steve stood. “It was, uh, nice meeting you,” he tried, and held out his good right hand.

“It was an honor, Captain,” Grange said with a smile and a completely different, more relaxed demeanor. “I’m a New Yorker, born and bred, you saved quite a few friends and family during the Invasion.”

Steve went with his standard answer, “I had a lot of help.”

Grange smiled. “So you did.” They shook hands, and parted on what Steve thought was good terms.

At the least, if he ever needed screwed back together again, knowing the guy doing it, knowing he was solid, would help a bit.

Maybe admitting weakness wasn’t so bad after all.

He went over to the main lab where Bruce and Betty were waiting with more of what he now knew was super-strong getting-patented material Tony and Bruce had made just for him.

That helped too.

Chapter Text

There was a cocktail party put on by the Stark Industries’ Japanese division, ostensibly for the executives to meet Pepper’s new assistant, but Pepper knew it was to give the Americans a chance to fuck up, as much as anything. Japanese businessmen liked to get Americans drunk and see what they did, as a character test. She’d warned Kate, and Kate agreed not to touch a drop of alcohol, so that was one less worry.

She was considering meeting Nakamura drink for drink. He was the head of Stark Japan, a horrible sexist, positive she’d fucked her way into the CEO job. With Extremis going for her now, she’d remain stone cold sober. She’d chugged a bottle of sake before she’d left New York, to test the theory. Tony had been amused as all hell, and she’d passed every sobriety test they could come up with, after. Tony knew her better than anyone, and insisted he couldn’t tell she’d been drinking at all except for the scent on her breath. She didn’t even get nauseated, which was her usual after exceeding one drink.

Kate had confessed that she’d never done a business cocktail party before, and checked with Pepper before packing; she was currently wearing a simple shift dress, floor length with cap sleeves, in a blinding bright pink over-draped with floating sheer navy that visually read as dark purple. Nice. She’d added a subtle but expensive suite of jewels in bright aqua enamel, diamonds, and pearls. At Pepper’s suggestion, she’d left off any makeup on her arm, and she knew the executives were going to have a very quiet cultural tizzy over the large floral tattoo with a fresh knife wound through the middle of it; there had already been speculation in the media about whether Kate or Kevin, her new employees, were bodyguards. If Kate was assumed to be a bodyguard, they’d disregard her as a business assistant and who knew what goodies Kate could pick up, after that.

There was another tat on Kate’s upper right arm that was covered with very good makeup; without Extremis, she doubted she’d have noticed it. Kate had as many secrets as the rest of the yahoos she was living with now. Not really surprising for anyone who ran with Team Delta, either.

She checked herself in the mirror of the limo; knee-length, high-neck, long-sleeved dress in geometric-patterned gold brocade, and her own very subtly expensive suite of jewels, these in sapphires and yellow diamonds.

When Kate saw it, she had grinned and said she’d almost bought it herself, but apparently Tony got to it first.

They nodded to the doormen, declined to check anything as they entered (Pepper had been very pleased to learn Kate both spoke Japanese and understood the customs very well; apparently Natasha had taught her how to blend into most of the major cultures of the world), and continued into the super-high-end, minimally decorated ballroom of the most expensive event complex in Tokyo.

She wondered how much this was costing Stark Industries.

And there was Nakamura, holding two sake cups, the old bastard. “Konbanwa, Potts-san,” he said, and offered a cup.

She gave the least bow she could that was socially acceptable and took the sake. She tossed it back, gave it to waitstaff hovering with a smile and nod, then turned back to him and said in English, “Let me introduce my new assistant, Ms Bishop.”

Kate, as directed by Pepper, smiled, didn’t bow, held out her right hand, and said “Hello, Mr Nakamura, it’s nice to meet you,” in her upper-crust New York accent.

Oh, they were going to roll right over these guys.

- A -

“So whaddaya think, JARVIS?” Bucky asked, limping around the hologram of a building being projected onto the coffee table in the common room. If he held that pillow of Steve’s over his rib cage, it almost didn’t hurt. The doctors here were something else. So was the medical tech.

During the day, the place was empty, except for him and Logan. He’d asked Logan to hang around until Natasha got her memory back, and for some reason he took that to mean Bucky wanted a body guard. He did not. But there Logan was in a corner, pretending not to pay attention, blowing smoke rings into the nearest air intake.

“It is dilapidated, will take a quarter million simply to bring the wiring and plumbing up to code, the land is as useless and inexpensive as land gets in Brooklyn, and is in a part of Brighton Beach known as Little Odessa because it is run by the Russian mob. It is also overpriced by a value of ten. At least. There is nothing useful nearby in terms of shops or recreation, and it is zoned residential. There are no tenants.”

Perfect. “Go ahead and buy it, under the Yasha Sarai identity we cooked up.” He had stolen SO MUCH MONEY from Hydra. He’d donated a hundred million to Xavier’s school, seemed only fair since Xavier was the one who’d restored his memory of the bank accounts. Once he’d explained it that way, Xavier had laughed and thanked him for the new dormitory and other stuff he’d be using it for. He’d also promised to keep it secret from everyone but the IRS.

Alexei Shostakov was gonna have a hell of a time with said IRS, but he’d deal with that next February. JARVIS had turned out to be brilliant at money laundering; maybe he did taxes?

Shit, was Tony gonna get mad at him for corrupting his AI? Maybe he should talk to Tony about that. Fuck. Peopling was hard, and listen to him with the modern terminology. “And send Darcy an arrangement of bright-colored flowers, please.”

“Very well,” JARVIS said, sounding long-suffering. “I would like to point out, again, that this is an extremely poor idea. Except for the flowers to Ms Lewis, please do not tell me why, I like plausible deniability.”

“I’ve got a plan,” Bucky said.

“I’ve seen your plans, Bucko,” Logan said from his corner. “I hope you’re planning for that building to get burned down, because it will unless you go over to Brooklyn and pay the Russians protection money, like, two days ago.”

Yep. Bucky had a plan.

- A -

The entire reason Pepper had gone to Japan was to speak to the CEO of Tanaka Robotics about becoming a division of Stark Industries. Hinato Tanaka, the CEO in question, had contacted Tony to discuss the topic. Tony had said it sounded good, talk to his CEO, and passed the ball on to her, because Tony really did consider her the CEO and unlike a lot of people, acted like it. (He’d always played fair at business, between them. It was the main reason she’d stayed through the booze, random sex partners, stupid life choices, and drugs.) Since then, Tanaka had contacted Tony several more times – whenever she held firm on any negotiations – and Tony had repeatedly directed him to the CEO of Stark Industries.

So now here she was in the executive suite of Tanaka Robotics, and the simpering personal assistant was explaining in broken English (Pepper had spoken to her before, they both knew the woman was fluent in English, but the woman was a game player as much as her boss), that Tanaka had planned to meet with Tony today, and perhaps he should come to Tokyo, that would make negotiations much easier.

Pepper interrupted (considered very rude) and said in fluent Japanese, “inform Tanaka that if he wishes to do any further business with Stark Industries, he can come to New York and hold them with me in the CEO suite. Dr Stark is the head of Research and Development, and as such, will not be speaking to Tanaka unless he becomes part of Stark Industries. Until that time, Dr Stark has nothing to offer. And I am the gateway to Stark.”

She turned on her heel as the PA’s eyes widened in shock and she began stuttering out to wait a moment, because of course this had been a game. Pepper was supposed to beg to see the asshole, and she’d already been generous enough to come to Tokyo. She was done being nice.

Kate opened the door for her and followed along silently until they were out of the building. (Tech firms in particular were notorious for bugging every nook and cranny of their buildings and using it to eavesdrop on everyone; Kate, once told, had limited herself to strict business with minimal detail and the occasional ‘nice day, isn’t it?’ sort of thing. It was so lovely to have a smart partner in non-crime.)

They got in the limo, and Kate THEN asked, “are you okay?”

“I am pissed as hell, and about to do something incredibly stupid.” She pulled out her phone and called Tony.

He picked up on the first ring; it was evening in New York. “Since you’re not in a meeting with Tanaka, I suppose it went badly?”

“His assistant was playing the ‘we expected Doctor Stark’ game, wanted me to beg to get in and see him.”

“And you…?” Because a year ago? Pepper would have used diplomacy.

“I walked out.”

Tony smiled. She could hear it. “Good.”

“If Tanaka calls you-”

“He already has, twice. Oop, he’s calling again now. JARVIS is letting it ring, not even voice mail is picking up.”

Bless Tony’s corporate-raiding heart, it was so nice to work with people who understood. He’d ALWAYS had her back. Even in their major bickering days, when someone else questioned her, Tony backed her up. “I was going to threaten you with what I’d do if you spoke to him.” She knew he’d hear the smile in her voice, too.

“No need. I’m done with his bullshit, too. He knows damn well I’m not in the power structure to do this deal, and don’t want to be. He’s doing this entirely out of sexism.”

“Well, the little woman is going back to New York and if he wants to talk to me, he can come to me next time.”

“Excellent.”

“So. I’ve been thinking a lot about something Clint said-”

“Fuck, I’m going to kill him.”

She laughed. Clint did seem to trail chaos in his wake. “No, we – with Darcy – talked about dressing the part of who we are, Impostor Syndrome, that stuff. Darcy called it a Redneck Meeting.”

Tony’s voice softened, since he knew the trouble she had sometimes. “Ah. How’d that go?”

“Well. So I’m about to do something I will regret later, don’t make me regret it too much.”

He laughed a little. “What’s that?”

“I need jade. Imperial jade, suitable for business, just barely pushing over into too much, to put these assholes in their place. In Asia, a seventy-five carat diamond isn’t working.”

“Let me check, you’re ASKING me to buy you jewelry?” He bought her things constantly; he saw it in a window. He was on a business trip. He wasn’t on a business trip. It matched her eyes. It was pretty. She was pretty. He was adorable when he got going.

Back in the day when she’d buy herself jewelry after fixing his more outrageous scandals, he’d begun doing it himself; she’d bail him out of jail and find an expensive antique or a new beauty waiting on her desk the next day. Since she got paid a fortune as Tony’s PA, she’d collected art and jewelry on her own dime, mostly supporting women artists. But the bulk of her really high-end jewelry had been paid for by Tony, not out of her salary. “More, I suspect you already have something laying around to give me on a bad day, and I need it to add to my wardrobe for sexist occasions like this.”

“Say no more, it’s music to my ears, I know just what you’re talking about. It’ll be fun.”

Fun. Pepper knew what those Hong Kong jewelers charged. It was probably the most high-end jewelry market in the world. “Do NOT go bankrupt.”

He laughed some more. “I’ll keep it to reasonable amounts.”

Pepper shut her eyes. Reasonable amounts, to Tony, was in the millions, at least.

“In fact I might have purchased a little something that was at auction last year. With this sort of occasion in mind. I was having Gabi tinker with it.”

Gabi was a retired diamond cutter, one of the best in the world, who Tony had gotten to know through some esoteric discussions of precious metals and crystal structure. So now that’s who did any work Tony wanted done. And then Tony at auctions was impossible. Always had been. Charity auctions? Forget it, he’d write it off anyway so he’d spend anything. “Dear god. Okay, that’s probably enough, forget I said anything.” If Gabi was working on it, it was worth at least a couple million. Gabi was not a small-time kind of guy.

“Sure, babe, I’ll give Wallace your best.” Wallace being the most expensive jeweler in China. Damn. Tony said it in the fakest voice possible, the one he used to make sure she knew he was lying. Then, much more sincerely, “I love you.”

He probably already had JARVIS searching the inventory of all the jewel shops in Manhattan. At least he didn’t have time to get to Hong Kong before she got home.

Unless he took the suit. Hell.

“I love you too.” She hung up.

Kate’s eyes were a little wide. “You know he’s going to go insane, with that request.”

“I told you I was doing something stupid. So, we were going shopping. I want to spend gobs of money on colorful business clothing.”

“Ginza?” Kate asked, smiling.

The way they were dressed, in expensive day suits and subtle but very expensive jewelry, they could get in anywhere. “Ginza,” Pepper agreed, and relayed the request to the limo driver.

- A -

Steve was slouched out on the couch of the common room, doodling and half-listening to Tony taking a call from Pepper in the entryway. He’d gone out there for privacy, but Steve’s hearing was still good enough to hear both sides of the conversation. Tanaka, whoever he was, didn’t know how deep the shit was, he was in. Tony and Pepper conspiring against the guy? He’d be smart to start groveling now.

Tony popped back in, grinned at Steve, and said “saddle up buddy, we are going shopping.”

- A -

From the Gothamist:

Name: Pepper Potts

Title or job in Avengers Initiative: CEO

Favorite Book: Anything by Issac Dinisen, read out loud. It’s lyrical. So amazing. English wasn’t even her native language!

Favorite Movie: The Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. In the original French for the swearing.

Life Quest: The equitable distribution of wealth. [Her income taxes from last year are attached; the charitable donations are EXTENSIVE. She means it. - ed.]

If you could get away with any crime, what would you do? My lawyer nearly swooned just now.

Fantasy vacation? The International Space Station.

What temptation do you have the most trouble resisting? Silk.

Person with the most influence on your life? Tony Stark.

Favorite thing about New York: The shopping. No, the spas. No, the shopping.

Odd skill that might surprise people? But then it wouldn’t be a surprise.

Favorite quote to close with? “I not only have the right to stand up for myself, but I have the responsibility. I can’t ask somebody else to stand up for me if I won’t stand up for myself.” -Maya Angelou

- A -

Steve got his usual enormous breakfast, sat down at the table, and waited until most everyone had food or drink in their faces, and then asked, “So how many of you have been aware of the “America’s Ass” hash tag, and not told me?”

About half of them wound up spitting food back onto their plates and howling with laughter. Darcy and Tony both laughed coffee out their noses, which they deserved. They had posted some of the pictures.

The few people who hadn’t known, he didn’t think – Betty, Thor, Leo, and Bucky – all dove for their phones. “It’s mostly on Twitter,” he told them.

Betty hooted out a laugh, gave him an apologetic look, tried to choke it back, and showed her phone to Bruce. Bruce took it and simply laughed. Laughed and laughed.

“My god I love New York,” Bucky said, grinning and scrolling. Logan was leaned over his shoulder, shaking his head and chuckling around his cigar. “How many of these photos are there?”

“Several thousand,” JARVIS supplied helpfully. More people snorted or re-snorted drinks. Maria in particular was trying to keep it professional and failing, giggling uncontrollably with the back of her hand up against her mouth and nose. It was the most at ease and casual Steve had ever seen her.

Apparently since he’d moved to New York and begun living more publicly, people had been taking photos of his posterior and putting them on social media. It seemed to have started during his runs in the mornings, especially when he wore shorts. It wasn’t limited to that, though. There was one with over five million likes of his backside in tuxedo trousers, the night he took off his jacket to dance with Tony at the jazz club.

“What are you gonna do about it?” Logan asked.

“What IS there to do about it?” Steve replied. “Unless I stay in here forever, someone’s going to take a photo of my ass. And if I stay in here, Darcy and Kate will do it, I saw your tweets,” he added with a glare at Darcy.

She and Jane were leaning on each other, laughing so hard they were crying, scrolling through Twitter together on Darcy’s phone.

“So,” Steve continued, “how do I get a pair of shorts with ‘USO.org’ on the seat?”

Everyone froze, and then Darcy began clapping. Everyone else joined in.

“I need shorts, and I suppose tee shirts, as there are apparently people ogling my chest too, feels like being a dame, with all your favorite charities. And be ready to explain them to me so I can answer intelligently when people inevitably stop me and ask questions.” He paused, took a swig of coffee, and, what the hell, “does the socialist party have a decent organization today?”

“I’ve got a few,” Darcy told him.

The applause started up again, and Steve toasted them with his mug.

- A -

She waited until they were on the flight home, so she could turn on the in-flight jammers to be sure no one heard the discussion, including the flight crew. Then Pepper laid the paper copy of the Yomiuri Shimbun, Tokyo’s largest daily paper, on the table between them. ‘Yasumitsu Saji Killed in Late Night Mugging’ screamed the front page.

“I heard you go out last night,” Pepper said. Kate stiffened. It was subtle, very subtle; Natasha had trained her well. Pepper probably wouldn’t have noticed, except for Extremis senses and all the years of Tony trying to snow her. She decided on a different approach. “Do you know how Obadiah Stane died?”

Kate blinked, then simply waited, eyes on Pepper’s face, intent.

“He built a suit like Tony’s, but larger. Tony used brains and maneuverability to get him onto the roof of the main power building on the LA campus of Stark Industries. I was inside, overloaded the reactor, and pulled the trigger.”

Pepper let that sit for a moment. “The best jammers Tony can build are engaged, and the cabin door is locked. It’s just us here, and I’m not feeling judgy. I’m feeling at sea. What did he do?”

Kate stared down at the paper for a long moment, then looked back up at Pepper. “Little kids.” She laid a finger on the word ‘mugging’. “Wasn’t a mugging either. Was a really sweet shot from half a block away, through his bedroom window cracked open an inch.” She had a similar smile to Clint’s, when he was talking about impossible shots he’d taken in the past.

Pepper had assumed something like that. “I’m aware of Team Delta’s policy on human trafficking. Phil mentioned it once.” If Natasha or Clint got a chance to kill a human trafficker, they did, and to hell with whatever mission they were on. Phil very quietly assisted them every way possible, looked the other way, and lied to Fury about it.

Kate nodded a little, then took off the jade and sapphire ring she’d been wearing on her left ring finger, held it out.

Pepper took it, glanced on the inside. The maker was a very good, very expensive European brand, she had some of their work, herself. Next to the jeweler’s stamps was engraved ‘we’re so proud of you’ with a triangle.

A Greek Delta symbol.

Pepper gave it back.

“My mother died when I was a kid, my old man couldn’t be assed to show up to my high school graduation.” Kate said, almost to herself. “Natasha, Clint, and Phil came, cheered, took photos of me with my friends, were clearly super proud of me for graduating a year early. They’ve functioned as my family for years, now.”

She took a drink of water, her hand shaking so slightly, Pepper wasn’t sure she’d have noticed without Extremis.

“My dad? Bought me a car. In New York City. Until Tony let me park it in the Tower, it was a money pit for garage fees, and I use it about three times a year.” She half-laughed. “It was a shit car, too, I had to trade it in.” The current car was a Ferrari Spider 360 with a proper transmission, Pepper knew from pleased comments from Tony. It had been painted purple. Clint complained regularly that she wouldn’t let him drive it.

Pepper got up, got them both hot chocolate, sat back down, laid a hand over Kate’s.

Kate’s hand folded around her thumb.

“Can you get into the SHIELD servers?” Kate asked.

“Maybe,” Pepper said, trying a smile.

Kate didn’t quite smile back. “Look up Ronin, in their potential threat file.”

Pepper did. An unknown assassin who used a bow, not Hawkeye because killings had happened while Hawkeye – Clint – was known to be somewhere else. Victims were always involved in human trafficking.

“I’m not getting into it, but.” Kate drank a little, still speaking slowly and quietly, “well. There was violence. I didn’t choose it, until I did.”

Pepper scrolled back and the dates of the kills – many done with a black arrow with a gold ribbon tied to it, though there were other potentials without the signature listed; speculation was long-distance shots with a rifle when the target was too far away for arrow shots – and they went much too far back, for the young woman sitting in front of her. “How old were you? The first one?”

Kate hesitated, then turned on her phone, poked around, and laid the phone with a New York Times article in front of her. Dead mugger in Central Park. “He wasn’t a mugger, he was a rapist,” she said simply. The date on the article put her in her mid-teens.

“Clint knows?” Pepper asked. She wanted to know how much support Kate had. Maybe it was the last five years of her own life, but having seen the extremely dark side, taken and tortured herself, she was having a hard time caring about a bunch of dead scumbags. What she was worried about was the suddenly fragile woman in front of her.

“They all do. Clint and Nat and Phil.” Kate had been rolling the ring in her hands, and now put it back on. “Clint was sent by SHIELD to find me, and bring me in. They probably wanted to turn me, like they did Clint, and Natasha. Clint caught me – get him to tell you that story some time, the way he tells it, it’s really funny – and once he realized the sniper he was chasing was a fifteen year old girl, he made me promise to cut back on the mayhem, and in return he’d train with me.” She laughed a little. “Then he went to Fury, said he’d found the archer, they were so good that locking them up would be like burning a da Vinci and he wouldn’t be part of it. Fury went apeshit, but you know what Clint’s like.” She let out a long, relieved-sounding sigh. “We worked as a team, Natasha had – has - a to-kill list a mile long, all three of us would take a shot if we could work it; before I signed on with you I played the bored socialite and traveled a lot. It came in handy. Then after the Invasion, Clint and I did a lot of work together, and Nat kept us in the loop and even did a few jobs for us, to throw off suspicion. Right now SHIELD can’t pin it on anyone because they know where Clint and Natasha are for quite a few of the kills. I’m not on their radar and apparently they never considered a team.”

“Natasha can shoot a bow?” Pepper asked before she considered the manners of the question.

“Well, she’s not as good as me, or Clint, but she could probably beat about ninety-five percent of the archers in the world. And she did a few of those long distance rifle shots. Sometimes the creeps are so well-insulated it’s just impossible to get close enough to use a bow.”

So the training had been mutual. All around. Pepper wasn’t surprised, but was now damn sure Kate’s organizational skills came from Phil. She wondered what training Kate had gotten from Natasha. The hand-to-hand, sure, and languages, but what else?

“Thanks for telling me,” Pepper told her, calmly, hoping she hadn’t blown it with Kate. She needed to know this stuff, but given her own recent history she had NO interest in judging anyone. She’d killed several of the people who messed with her and Tony, herself.

Kate blew out a breath. “This is not the way I’d expected this conversation to go. And you caught on a million times faster than I expected.”

“Detail person,” Pepper reminded her.

@

“Thanks for meeting me, everyone,” Pepper said to the women sitting around the common room’s kitchen table with her. She’d gotten home from Japan that morning, and had decided to put into motion something she’d been thinking over for a while now; it had first occurred to her after Tony’s ‘I am Iron Man’ press conference. So long ago now, both emotionally and temporally.

She’d asked all the women affiliated with the Avengers, including Jane and the other scientists, to discuss whether the idea was viable. When Pepper asked Natasha if she’d listen in on the meeting, she’d insisted on coming; she’d had Clint carry her up from his quarters and she was now laying in a recliner they’d pulled in from the common room. Melinda and Maria were there, both looking apprehensive; they didn’t know her well yet, but things had been cordial and respectful on all sides. Pepper hoped that continued. Betty, Skye, and Jem simply looked curious.

She’d asked herself a dozen times how to start this, and found herself saying “Do any of you understand how a franchise works?” and laid out the plans she’d written up, in a stack, in the middle of the table. She couldn’t help it; businesswoman to the bone. She’d written up a prospectus.

All the women reached forward, took copies, handed them around. Pepper, trained from endless business meetings to observe behavior, was happy to see unthinking assistance among the whole group. It was telling, even with something as simple as making sure everyone had a copy of an information packet.

“Project Null,” Maria said slowly, reading the heading. “Project Nothing?”

“In law, it’s a term for something that the law doesn’t apply to. Null and void,” Pepper began.

“In math it can be sort of a zero… an empty set, like the set is there but there’s nothing in it,” Jane tried to explain and understand.

Pepper nodded. “Yes.” She’d learned the oddest and most useful things, chasing down Tony all those years. “In statistics, a Null Hypothesis is statistical evidence that nothing applies to the phenomena in question, at least until the numbers prove differently. A thing that’s unrelated to anything else.”

“Am I getting this?” Maria interrupted, reading quickly, “you want to create a worldwide superhero?”

“I want to create a known figure, similar to a superhero but not, that any woman on the planet can use to hide in, as needed. With me as the charter member, fully disguised, in something any woman should be able to get. Black clothing, black head scarf, and sunglasses. Indistinguishable from one another.”

“What for?” Maria asked, not taking her eyes off the prospectus.

“Anything they want,” Pepper said.

“We’re in,” Darcy, Kate, Skye, and Jem all said at the same time. From the corner, Natasha laughed softly, a good laugh. Jane slowly looked down at the prospectus she hadn’t opened yet, grinned, and looked back up at her. Melinda and Maria both had small smiles on their faces as they flipped through pages, skimming as quickly as possible.

“Once someone reads me what you’ve got so far,” Natasha said quietly from the corner, “I’ve got a dozen ideas at least, to add to it. Whoever’s with you, I’ll start training on Friday mornings as soon as I’m able. And I’ve got an experienced data analyst who’d love to join in.”

Around the table everyone was nodding.

She let herself smile. “So I’ve been thinking, all the women out there stuck in situations the law can’t or won’t help. Women who, according to society, aren’t really there. There are so many. We’re lucky, we’re on the grid, we’ve got IDs and papers and lives. At least in theory, the law should help us if we get into trouble. How many women don’t have that?”

“Too many,” Natasha said softly from her recliner.

Pepper nodded, remembered Natasha couldn’t see her, and said “exactly.”

Everyone put down their papers, smiled, and listened.

She had them.

Null was a go.

- A -

After the meeting about Pepper’s new brainwave – a crowd-sourced superhero persona for any woman to use, she was a genius – Kate asked Darcy to hang around, caught Pepper’s eye.

It took a while, there was a lot of conversation and joking and laughter. Kate had never met a group of women she fit in with before, and was amazed when she found them, most were brilliant scientists. Or Darcy, who was quickly becoming the best friend she’d never had, born in the back woods of Virginia in the exact opposite conditions from Kate.

From things Darcy had talked around, she thought they both got the parental neglect. Maybe that was the unifier, but she was beginning to think that it was because all of them were really fucking smart. Smart about different things, but high-quality thinking, all around.

Pepper Potts being her friend still blew her mind. Pepper had been her business role model since before she got into Wharton. (She had that in common with Darcy, too.)

“That is such a damn good idea, Pepper, I love it,” Darcy said, opening a beer and gesturing happily with it. It was after hours, so her dark brown hair was in all directions and she was wearing her ‘at home glasses’, an enormous horn rim pair that weren’t flattering and she knew it, but swore they were as comfortable as bunny slippers, which she was also wearing. She’d been working her way through all the colors of the Avengers’ nail polish collection and was currently wearing ‘Circus Purple’ – Clint had called China Glaze and begged for it, when he’d heard the news that there was going to be Avengers-themed nail polish for charity.

Darcy told her a couple days ago, she’d given permission for a special issue add-on color: named Loki, it was glitter top coat. They’d both howled with laughter. Darcy had promised to get bottles for all of them.

Kate felt an upwelling of happiness, so rare it took her a second to identify it. Now as well as Pepper, she kind of wanted to be Darcy when she grew up; Darcy was only a couple years older, but seemed to have her shit together so much better than Kate felt like she herself did.

“What’s up?” Darcy asked, smart as hell and realizing she’d been held back for something.

Kate looked over at Pepper, who was looking at her.

Okay, then. “When we were in Tokyo, um, we went to Mikimoto. Pepper was kind of infuriated -”

“Japanese men,” Pepper said darkly.

“Oh geez,” Darcy said with sympathy. She dealt with all manner of international insanity now, working as Tony’s PA. She’d told Kate recently that whenever someone called her a girl, she hung up on them. Or deleted the e-mail. Tony thought it was hilarious.

“Anyway,” Kate tried to continue, “we, uh, we found this and it said ‘Darcy’s lapel’ really loudly, so Pepper and I split the cost of it.” She pulled the jeweler’s box out of her pocket and held it out to Darcy.

It was a cobalt blue alligator leather jewel case, not big, and Darcy took it cautiously. “Geez, I’m not really the expensive jewelry type.” She told them both with a nervous laugh, two red diamonds the size of ping-pong balls at the ends of her torc, resting on the collar of her Hawkeye tee shirt.

Vinur to Prince Thor of Asgard, she was going to have to learn to be, fast. Pepper and Kate had talked about it a little on the day of the shopping trip, and both were ready to jump in with lessons.

“Open it,” Pepper said gently.

She did, then slapped her free hand over her chest and said “Oh! Oh, it’s adorable, thank you.” She teared up a little, and fumbled with it, so Kate took the case back, and Pepper pinned the small brooch to Darcy’s tee shirt.

“It’s a book worm!” Darcy said, admiring herself in the stainless steel fridge door.

Mikimoto, Japan’s leading pearl dealer and jeweler to the Imperial Family, liked to make animal pins out of baroque – irregularly shaped – pearls. This one was long and squiggly, so they’d put little gold glasses on it, and a bunch of little gold feet, with the two front little gold feet holding a book. It really was Darcy to a T.

“Thank you!” Darcy practically sang, and hugged Pepper, then Kate. She held each of them for a long moment, longer than a hug.

And for the first time in a long time, being touched didn’t bother Kate.

Chapter Text

Over private dinner in the penthouse the night Pepper got home from Tokyo, Steve had to tell the entire story of how he got arrested, bailed out, REFUSED TO MAKE THE CHARGES GO AWAY, Tony could tell Pepper loved that part, and intended to drag the NYPD into court to discuss police brutality. Apparently Steve had gotten as far as ‘why don’t we talk about this’ before the cop tazed him. Watching the expressions play across Pepper’s face, Tony was fascinated. He was pretty sure this was the first time in her life Pepper had wanted to murder someone other than Tony himself.

At the end of the retelling, Steve slid a small, battered leather jewel case across the table at her and said “I’m told it’s traditional to offer an apology gift.”

Half of Pepper’s jewelry collection, at least, had been purchased while she was still Tony’s assistant. Any time she had to clean up one of his scandals, she’d buy something exorbitant and he’d get the check with something like “Spanish soccer team” written in the note section and he’d file it with the rest of them to give to his tax guy in January. He could tell how angry she was by the amount spent and which jeweler she’d gone to. He never said a goddamn word about it, but kept track of what he saw her wear; she’d collected gorgeous, attention-getting jewelry, and wore small, unobtrusive pieces to work, if she wore anything. He had yet to see her in some of the more outrageous things she’d bought. Tony had concluded she was collecting, like she collected other types of art. Some of her art was on the walls of the penthouse, but more of it was loaned out to museums worldwide.

Given the number of watches he had, he could hardly criticize.

It had made things super easy when they started dating, he already knew her favorite stones, styles, and jewelers.

She’d bought herself flowers, too. And clothes, including the blue dress she’d been wearing the night he finally noticed her, saw that she was the center of his life.

Pepper glared at both of them for a while, then opened the case and smiled.

It was a modest – by Tony’s standards – floral necklace. Antique platinum with diamonds, but it was fairly simple. They’d found it the day before while trawling through antique stores looking for jade.

They’d found some of that, too.

Pepper stared at both of them suspiciously, then said “thank you. It’s pretty. I love it. You’re still telling Bernie this entire thing on Monday, including why you called Tony instead of her.”

Bernie – the Avengers’ head lawyer – was going to chew Steve a new one.

Usually Tony was the only one Bernie yelled at, too, so he was enjoying the hell out of all of this.

They had a satisfying three-way makeout session before Steve went down to his own apartment, and things were gradually moving along on the physical end of things. Tony made sure to be in bed at the same time as Pepper that night. In part for the obvious welcome-home sex, but also for the pillow talk after. They curled around each other after, naked and kissing softly. “Can we talk about Steve like this, or is it too weird?” Tony finally asked.

Maybe talking about Steve in bed would lead to Steve being in bed. At the least, they’d communicate, that was good, right?

He wondered if Sam would have a breakdown if he asked for advice on setting up a threesome. Sam was extremely chill but seemed sort of out of his depth on relationship stuff. Which, given he specialized in wartime PTSD, yeah.

He felt like he’d owe Sam for the rest of his life, for counseling his damn robot.

Anyway. Communicating his feelings. Right. Sam said he was even good at it, which was unbelievable but-

He was babbling in his head.

“Have you considered dating Steve?” Tony didn’t feel Pepper stiffen up at all, so continued carefully, “I mean, the two of you, without me.”

“What do you mean?” Pepper asked, sounding more curious than worried or unsure, that was good, right?

“Well, that night he got arrested, we were at Mario’s after – thank you for that limo ride, by the way, whatever you told him – anyway, after, he was eating through the menu and I had time to think a bit. He spends a lot more time with me. Not just when you’re traveling, but even when you’re here, he hangs out in my shop and we just see more of each other. Getting to know him better, spending more time with him, you’d get to feel more comfortable around him, right?”

“You wouldn’t mind?”

He’d asked himself that a dozen times, but his mind kept returning to that blow job in the limo. What on earth was there to be jealous about? “No. All three of us have different interests, you two could hit some galleries or museums or something, you’d both enjoy it.”

Tony loved buying art. He loved buying STUFF. He didn’t so much enjoy standing around for hours discussing how one shade of blue contrasted so well with one shade of green and how the shadow was dark lavender and not grey, but he knew Pep and Steve would both enjoy the hell out of it.

And he’d get off the hook for future gallery and museum events, it was a win all around.

“There’s a thing at the Guggenheim this week, I was going to skip it...” Pepper said thoughtfully.

“I don’t think he’s been there that often,” Tony offered. Steve had mentioned he was used to going to museums with friends, usually Barnes, so going alone really made him feel even further out of touch with things and he didn’t like it. “Get dressed up,” she loved that and Steve looked edible in his tailored suits, “have some wine, admire paintings together, make out in the limo some on the way home.” Start fooling around too, so Tony didn’t feel like the relationship was off balance.

“That’s a good idea, I’ll ask him tomorrow.” Pepper kissed him. “Thanks for handling it this way, it helps.”

“Good.” Tony kissed her back. Thank goodness.

- A -

@Puppet Looks like Cap had a good night last night.

[15sec clip of Steve Rogers out jogging with a bounce in his step, giving high fives to people at a bus stop as he goes by.]

Steve Rogers @Cap I was listening to “My Town” by Michael Stanley Band. I know it’s about Cleveland, but it sure feels like a New York song, no offense intended toward Cleveland. (No comment on last night. :)

Mike @MSB OMGOMGOMG

Go Zippy @AkronGuy Fuck the Mistake on the Lake.

Amy @WritersLane Wait, did Cap just use an emoji?!

Cleveland Metroparks @clevemetroparks CLEVELAND ROCKS!

- A -

AW DUMPSTER, NO GOES HERE.

- A -

It was five AM and JARVIS rang the ‘it’s the end of the world’ tone again. On a goddamn Monday fucking morning. “What?” he asked blearily, rolling out of bed naked and searching around for some sweat pants or something, with his eyes half shut.

Pepper came out of the bathroom, where she’d been getting dressed so Tony could sleep longer; Tony’s insomnia was lifelong and Pepper only needed five hours a night now, so they worked around each other.

An image flashed on the wall screen, of another cartoon character like Rock, this one blue and black, bashing into trees and biting them. Thankfully it didn’t seem too big, and there was only one of them. “Oh, FUCK.” He gave up on the sweats and got into his undersuit as quickly as possible. “Where is that, Central Park?”

“Yes, this end of it, very near the jogging trails,” JARVIS confirmed. “At Spider-Man's suggestion-”

“When did you talk to Spider-Man?” Tony asked, bewildered.

“Off and on since you gave him my phone number, Sir. He keeps me posted on anything strange he observes, and we discuss whether I should relay it to the Avengers. So far, it has been nothing out of the ordinary. However I’m impressed by how much crime he stops, simply wandering about the city. Since our first discussion, I have monitored all possible cameras in the city, for something like this. It was quite simple to write a cartoon-recognition algorithm, and this was flagged several minutes ago now.”

“Whatever it is, it likes to bite,” Tony observed. “Tell Phil,” he remembered that ‘keep management informed’ lecture, “call SHIELD, have them meet me there.” He jogged out to the landing platform, suited up. On the short flight, JARVIS flashed up the information they had on the critter, from a website called the Bulbapedia. Fan created and edited.

Jesus H.

It was a Deino, two feet tall, forty pounds, and was blind, so it identified things by biting. (Which was exactly the trait that made sharks so dangerous. Fuck.) Covered in wounds from running into stuff, poor little bastard. Whoever had... hatched this thing, had chosen something that bit everything, out of eight hundred to choose from. Whatever was going on, they were going for mass chaos.

Tony landed, walked toward the little guy, and it had good hearing because it immediately turned and rushed him. He was ready, and fed it one of his lower arm guards. As it gnawed away, he picked it up under the other arm, like he used to carry his mom’s cats. It was already full of twigs and splinters, oozing cartoon blood, and whoever did this, summoned this little guy into the real world to suffer in hopes of getting someone bitten, Tony wanted to find them and give them the full Iron Man fist in the face treatment.

The damn thing seemed content to gnaw on his arm, so he tucked it under the other, and carried it slowly toward the nearest road.

A SHIELD van screeched up, followed quickly by – Phil had thrown on jeans and a Rangers sweatshirt and taken Natasha’s motorcycle out of the garage, damn. Dude rode like an adrenaline junkie, laid down over the tank with his feet on the back pegs. Given he lived with Clint voluntarily and seemed to be Natasha’s bestie, Tony had no idea why he was surprised.

“Stand back, it’s hostile,” he called to them, “put out a containment cage of some kind, I’ll put it in.”

For once the agents seemed to have their shit together, got a giant clear cube out of the back of the van, and put it out on the grass, lid open. They went back to the van with haste, when the critter quit gnawing on Tony’s arm to turn his head toward them and snap its mouth open and shut a couple times.

Didn’t have teeth, had a mouth like a fucking turtle.

Tony wrestled the thing into the cube and got the lid shut, wondering if he could somehow sue Nintendo for this.

Inside, the Deino threw itself against the sides of the cube, spattering pink blood on the walls. He felt nothing but pity for the poor thing. “Can you guys knock it out or something?”

The SHIELD agents looked down at it, goggling. “We, uh, we can try?”

“It’ll beat itself to death against the sides of that containment unit,” Phil told them, walking up with a purple helmet in one hand. He turned to Tony, “got a quick run down from JARVIS. Thanks for notifying me and moving fast; this thing in a public place full of people would have been a disaster.”

“Yeah. And before that, it was a critter that eats steel, in a city full of high rises.” Tony reminded him.

- A -

“We have a problem,” Phil said calmly, over breakfast.

Everyone paused for a moment, then gave Phil their attention while going back to shoveling in food.

“This happened this morning,” Phil told them all, and then ran video from Tony’s helmet visuals on the large wall screen.

“What the fuck IS that?” Bucky demanded around a mouth full of bacon.

“A Deino,” Skye answered. When everyone looked at her, she shrugged. “After Rock, I brushed up. Pokemon was my thing, as a kid. You realize Rock turned up last Monday. Now this Monday, we have another.”

Steve could practically feel everyone considering what could turn up next Monday. He nodded, looked back to the screen where the critter was beating itself up against the sides of the containment unit as it was loaded into the back of the SHIELD van. “First something that eats steel, now something that likes to bite.”

Phil nodded at him. “Exactly. Someone’s trying to cause maximum damage; there are over eight hundred of these damn cartoon characters, and many of them are utterly harmless. Even more are harmless unless attacked. But whoever this is, they’re choosing things that do damage.”

Skye grumbled “asshole” under her breath. Steve had to agree; making a live Deino seemed endlessly cruel.

“Any possible idea why someone would do this?” Steve asked, not really expecting an answer.

Clint, however, had thoughts. Because of course he did. “Y’all don’t understand how mutants work,” he told them. “Except for you, shut up,” he told Logan. “Sometimes the ability is extremely limited, focused, or useless. Bird bones and a beak, or grow diamonds in your bone marrow. Not all of it is cool stuff like walking through walls.”

“So someone out there might be able to manifest Pokemon,” Phil concluded.

Logan shrugged. “Could be all cartoons, could be any imaginary critter, who knows. Abilities like this usually manifest in early teen years, and this feels exactly like shitty teenaged impulse control, with a side of trouble-making. We get a few like this every year. We try to get to ‘em before the law does, and drop ‘em at Xavier’s.”

“Which is why Xavier teaches ethics classes to every person going through the school,” Clint finished.

“And any new faculty that didn’t go to school there,” Logan muttered under his breath.

“So we’ve probably got a teenager with new abilities, fucking around to see what happens?” Tony asked them.

Both men nodded.

Steve sighed. Nazis were so much easier than this.

“I’ll call Xavier, tell him we’ve got a probable,” Logan told them all. “We have kind of a system for this, we’ll see what he can do.” He shook his head a little. “Problem is, Manhattan is so damn full of people, it’s not like finding a mutant kid in a town of three hundred in North Dakota.”

“I’ll try to get through to the fucking Sorcerer Supreme, AGAIN,” Maria told them. “If he claims it’s not his job I’ll reach through the phone line and strangle him, I swear to god. Wong is great, and he picks up, but apparently he can’t do anything without Asshole’s permission and Asshole is always on another plane of existence or some shit.”

“Xavier worked a deal with most of the magical factions on the planet, that if the mutant isn’t causing harm, they go to Xavier,” Logan said, a little apologetic.

“He can still help us catch the fucker. If he can manipulate time there is no ‘too busy’” Maria answered, trying to be polite, but with an edge to her voice.

Logan, wisely, dropped it. Phil had noticed he was damn smart about women.

Maria had been bitching about the Sorcerer Supreme since they met at SHIELD, so that wasn’t really

anything new. Phil looked around at everyone else. “Comments? Thoughts?”

“Look out for next Monday, and hope they keep summoning small stuff,” Skye told them all.

And they wrapped up the non-meeting and went off about their days.

- A -

After the breakfast meeting broke up, Tony managed to get hold of Pepper before she left for the office. “Can I have a word, Ms Potts?” She was always faintly amused when he called her that, but it sort of helped him remember to treat her as his CEO during working hours, instead of his PA. The dynamic was similar, in that she’d always run his life, but it reminded him to be very obviously respectful to her and about her when dealing with any other employees of SI.

“Yes, Mr Stark?” She asked, stopping to let him catch up to her near the elevators.

He tugged her away from Kate and the few others milling around. “What’s the deal?”

She smiled, and knew exactly what he was talking about, but of course said “deal?” innocently.

Instead of her usual slim skirt and short sleeved shirt in neutral colors, little or no jewelry, and high heels, today she had on long layers of a dress with a long jacket sort of thing over top, layers starting with bright white and ending with bright aqua on top, like a long vest. To go with it, she’d put on Steve’s necklace and a bright blue set of earrings and a wide bracelet of the same stones. She had very low white sandals on her feet. “What’s with the color?”

“I’ve decided I’m dressing the part of CEO, not your assistant. I used to dress to be invisible, so no one would notice me fixing your messes. I’ve thought about it, that’s the opposite of how I should be dressed. I don’t have meetings today, so I went for comfortable but office-appropriate.”

Tony glanced over at Kate, discreetly waiting on them, far enough away to give them privacy, poking at her phone. She was wearing a simple pastel purple dress that had a metallic sheen, funky purple heels, and a set of jewelry that looked kind of fun, crooked swirls with pastel stones hanging off them. Like fun costume jewelry if you didn’t know they were from a major jeweler and worth more than her car. “Your PA seems to have joined in.”

She laughed. “I am having so much fun, corporate raiding with her.” She leaned in and gave Tony a quick kiss. “Will that be all, Mr Stark?”

“Yes, thank you, Ms Potts. Have a nice day.”

- A -

They got on the elevator to go to work, Pepper absently playing with her new necklace from Steve. When Kate noticed, she explained “From Steve, apparently Tony’s making it a tradition to buy me jewelry when you get arrested.”

“Good idea. You should have a dragon’s hoard from your years as Tony’s PA.”

Pepper heard herself giggle. “I kind of do.”

They got off the ‘vator at the executive suite, as usual beating everyone to work except the front desk receptionist and Ms Albright, Tony’s official secretary. Pepper had tried to give her the title of Chief Operations Officer since that’s really what she’d done all those years Tony was supposed to, but she’d refused it, even though she was doing the job. In retaliation, Pepper gave her the salary.

“What kind of flower?” Kate asked absently, pulling out her phone.

“Bell flower?” Pepper thought. It looked sort of like a morning glory. One of the few things she’d done with her great aunt that she’d enjoyed, was gardening.

They turned the corner into Pepper’s office and Kate gestured for JARVIS to close the door. Pepper raised her eyebrows but Kate didn’t notice; her eyes were on her phone screen. “Bell flowers symbolize gratitude, humility, love, and attraction.” Kate grinned a little, “go, Pepper.”

“What?” Pepper asked, a little short of breath.

“Language of flowers. One of my dad’s exes was into it, taught me some fun stuff, but I still have to look up the meanings.”

“He gave me roses once,” Pepper replied, feeling more breathless by the second.

“What colors?” Kate was already flipping pages on her phone.

“Orange and lavender.” Of course Steve had used the Language of Flowers, he was from that era. And he had to have done it deliberately. THAT was the explanation for the odd color choice she’d wondered over at the time.

“Purple roses are enchantment and love at first sight.” Kate glanced up, saw Pepper’s face, and laughed a little. “Orange roses, oh damn, orange roses are excitement, enthusiasm, and lust. He fell hard.”

She concentrated on not hyper-ventilating, if she could even do that, with Extremis, now. Steve was in lust, with her. She didn’t know how that was even possible. The last woman he’d been attracted to was one of her personal heroes she’d studied over and over in history class. (She’d gotten an A on a paper about Peggy Carter in American History in college; she never was sure if she should tell Steve or not.) Now he thought the same of HER? She took a deep breath, centered herself, let it out. Thank you Bruce, for that useful exercise. “Okay. Let’s get to work, start with digging up everything you’ve got on Tanaka Robotics, see if there’s a reason they want to play games, or if it’s the Japanese upper crust men’s snobbery toward everything not Japanese and male.”

“Got it,” Kate said, grinning, and went into her adjoining office.

And another week of corporate raiding. Yar.

- A -

Clint and Lucky had been dozing on the couch in his office most of the morning, but Phil knew he was awake, so he said “You might want to get a load of this.” He turned on speaker phone. What the hell. “Do NOT make any noise, Tony’s speaker phones are ridiculous for clarity.”

“Okay.” Clint couldn't believe he was violating security like this.

Neither could he. Hell with it. He dialed the main State Department switchboard in DC and said to the person who picked up, “Phil Coulson, I need to speak to whoever Everett Ross' supervisor is.” That would be Director Johnson, but why speed things up? That wasn’t the point of this call.

“One moment, please,” said a bored operator, and put him on hold.

“The main switchboard? Subtle. Do you think it'll even work?” Clint was laughing. This was not a way to play connections, but that was why he was doing it. He could have called the Secretary of State directly, but then no one would know that Phil Coulson and the Avengers were associated with Everett Ross.

“Wait for it.” Phil was timing it.

At forty-three seconds, the phone line crashed open, as if someone had dropped the phone and turned it on while picking it up again. “Director Flannery, this is Director Coulson?” The government was so uptight about titles, Phil had leaned toward not using one at all, just to fuck with everyone. He was still tempted.

It was good to be king of a small, powerful, really unpredictable nation. “It is. I heard a rumor today that Everett Ross got fired.”

“You knew I would after you sent him back here with nothing. Some dumbass timeline and a story about not knowing what caused that computer outage? He says the Winter Soldier's been deprogrammed, won't give any other details. NO SURROUNDING DETAILS. Just that he turned himself in and he's been deprogrammed by Charles Xavier. And you’ve been popping in and out of Asgard from the roof of the building but no details on that either? I’ve got nothing. You went to Asgard, gave them the scepter you got out of Sokovia, put glitter on Prince Loki and the control words that were used to run the Winter Soldier are now worthless, and the last guy who tried to use 'em got his brains blown out for trying. That’s all I have after two debriefs. Sound about right?”

Phil and Clint stared at each other. After those debriefs, Ross had enough to keep analysts busy for weeks. Months. Particularly if he’d shared the bit about the Winter Soldier being Bucky Barnes, which he’d damn well proven he knew, with that question about Barnes’ health at the end of the second debrief.

“I do believe that was the message he was asked to pass along by the Winter Soldier, yes.”

“THIS IS NATIONAL SECURITY! IT'S THE GODDAMN WINTER SOLDIER! Ross met the goddamn WINTER FUCKING SOLDIER and won't even give me a goddamn physical description. The guy killed a fucking president, he’s the fucking boogeyman of the twentieth century! And the photo of Loki in a cell covered in glitter was a revenge prank for the PLANET? Then he tells me Prince T'Challa was at the first debrief to watch over his vibranium and didn't say much. Have you MET Prince T'Challa? When does he not have an opinion? It's especially odd the prince had nothing to say to Ross AFTER ROSS' WEEK LONG VACATION IN WAKANDA THAT HE ALSO WON'T TELL ME ABOUT. He left with a bullet in his spine and CAME BACK WALKING. Now it’s more of the same shit. He knows more, we all know he knows more, and he won’t say anything. TO HIS EMPLOYER. THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. Former employer. I’m done putting up with his shit.”

Interesting character reference, there. Because Phil would bet it was the princess who’d patched up Ross. “Ah. That's a shame. He was the first government official we've dealt with who the Avengers could really...” he thought of the beer and accusations and shouting over that debrief. “...be themselves with.”

Long pause, while Clint made “??!?” faces at Phil.

He was so cute.

“What in fuck IS IT with that guy?” Flannery finally snapped. “First Wakanda, now YOU. He's not on the take, we've put him through the wringer five times in the last goddamn MONTH, so WHAT IS IT WITH HIM?”

Whoops, apparently the Avengers had moved in and accidentally caused chaos to explode. Wow. That never happened.

“He's one of those really rare things. An honest government official.”

Flannery growled and hung up.

“Wait for it.” Phil told Clint, and went back to paperwork. It went much faster these days with JARVIS doing the bulk of it, but it was still nice to click his way through reports while Clint dozed. Thor and JARVIS had teamed up for Thor’s mission report for Sokovia; Thor had dictated it in epic style and JARVIS captured it as-is. There was a great deal of flying around, and electrocuting robots. Lots of things about his heroic companions bravely saving the day. Natasha was the hero of the entire story.

Phil put it on the Avengers’ server for everyone to watch, it was too good not to share.

About half an hour later, there was a knock on the door, and Everett Ross stood there, suit on, briefcase in hand, only expression very slightly raised eyebrows. “Hello. What did you do?”

“Welcome to the Avengers Initiative, Specialist Ross. You're our first official State Department liaison. Congratulations.”

Ross gaped at him while Clint cackled until he slid off the couch. Lucky woofed and started licking Clint's face.

“What auditions do you HOLD around here?” Ross finally asked, dropping to the chair Phil gestured toward.

“Our last new active Avenger was Sam Wilson. Project Insight was his audition.”

“I preferred the debriefs.”

Clint laid on the floor and kept laughing. Lucky wandered over to meet Ross, who automatically patted the dog, looking like he was having an out of body experience. Yep. Average day in the Avengers Home Office.

He was so damn glad to be out of the spy biz.

-A-

The video went live in the middle of a weekday. No one ever figured out any deliberate timing for it, except for one guy at the State Department drinking Jack Daniels out of a coffee mug. It was a darkened silhouette of a figure, up against a window with the backdrop of New York City spread out behind them; analysis later showed they were sitting with their back to the northern windows of one of the top floors of Stark Tower. Everything was in shadow; long hair, no facial profile, broad shoulders, muscled torso. A shining silver hand. They were sitting in a bare-bones kitchen chair, wearing a long-sleeved black tee and black fatigue pants and boots.

They spoke with a Russian accent.

“This is how we do things now, da? On internet? We do YouTube video.” The body shifted slightly, the head moved as if it was turning to the camera. “I am Zimniy Soldat. Winter Soldier. Russians held me against my will, many years. Avengers found me and had me deprogrammed. I am told people think I killed JFK, your president.”

At this point in the recording, there was a three second break in speech as the person, assumed a man, shifted again. Half the internet insisted there was a chuckle with the shift; the other half insisted they were raving mad.

“I was in Dallas that day. There to shoot president, sent by Soviet masters. I did not. Dallas was so full of snipers, I don't know who shot JFK. It was not me.”

Another pause, people thought he was staring over the camera at someone or something.

“To my knowledge I did not kill Americans that day. I did kill other snipers there to kill president.” They gave a slow, trackable nod. “Whatever my sins, and I regret many things, I have not killed a US president.”

The video went dark.

It almost overloaded the entirety of the internet but in the end it was only Twitter and YouTube that went down.

-A-

“What do you mean you crashed YouTube WITHOUT ME?”

-A-

“Every alphabet agency on the PLANET wants a debrief, you ASSHOLES. All three of you are on kitchen cleanup after dinner. FOREVER.”

- A -

Pepper had asked him to an event at the Guggenheim, so Steve put on a cobalt blue suit to set off the sapphire dress set she’d given him, had Darcy pick out a tie that matched his eyes, and got some lavender roses to take her when he ‘picked her up’ at the penthouse. When he’d left the shop, Tony had called “yippie kai yay” after him and he was afraid to ask JARVIS for a cultural translation.

At the door to the penthouse, there was a slight pause – Steve assumed it was for JARVIS to inform Pepper he was there – and then the doors opened, and he stepped inside.

Pepper was wearing a dress in bright flame orange, nearly glowing. She’d put on an amazing array of jewelry as well, all of it matching the dress except for a green butterfly in her hair. When she saw the roses, she grinned, and took them. “Kate told me about the language of flowers, you know.”

Ah. Well, she seemed pleased and a little pink in the cheeks, so using flowers to tell a woman he wanted to get his hands on her was okay. The twenty-first century was weird. “Kate’s incredibly smart.”

Pepper nodded, putting the roses in water; she’d gone to the kitchen for a vase and he trailed after her. “Did you know we were both valedictorians at Wharton? Different years, of course. Plus she skipped a few years of school, even I didn’t do that.”

“Wow, so she really is following in your footsteps.” He hadn’t realized that Kate not only went to college but had a master’s degree like Darcy. And apparently Pepper had one, as well.

“We’re having a lot of fun, corporate raiding.” Pepper stepped close and softly kissed him on the lips. “Thanks for the flowers.”

“You’re very welcome.” Steve answered. Maybe he should bring her flowers every day.

- A -

The event at the Guggenheim was the usual; major donors always got a preview of new exhibits and traveling collections. It was the same group of people as always, the cream of New York business and society, people who could afford to donate enormous lump sums to art museums. In this case, the money donated was out of Pepper’s own pocket, not Tony’s or Stark Industries. She should have realized before Tony mentioned it: this was exactly the kind of thing Steve would like.

“Holy cow.” Steve murmured, standing in front of a self-portrait. Tonight’s exhibit was current Polish painters – there was quite a renaissance going on over there – and he was fascinated by the subject matter. Nearly all of it was portraiture, namely Steve’s own preferred subject.

Damn, she needed to take his art skills more seriously, more often. He had a pencil or brush in his hand most of the times she saw him, or was wearing clothing covered in paint at dinner. How did she always forget how much of his life revolved around it?

They stood in front of a painting of a woman. A woman who wasn’t there; a self-portrait that was all hair and clothing and makeup with no one inhabiting it. Steve got the message immediately, of course, and was sort of gazing into the photo.

Pepper looked around; usually the artists were in attendance at these things, at Pepper’s own insistence. She’d done some fund-raising for it herself. She didn’t see anyone likely, but she did see the donations director. “Stay here a sec, I’ll be right back.”

Steve nodded, not looking away from the canvas.

“Ms Potts,” the donations director smiled and shook her hand.

Pepper had put a fifty carat golden diamond ring on her right hand so every time someone shook hands with her tonight they’d damn well remember who she was. It seemed to be working. “I was wondering, are any of the artists here tonight? Captain Rogers is fascinated by several of these portraits and would enjoy meeting them.”

Invoking Steve got as much attention as a couple million in jewels on an orange dress. “Yes, of course, Mila, she painted the one he’s looking at now...”

Pepper was introduced to a young Polish woman in a sleek black dress, and using German, their only common language, Pepper asked if she’d like to be introduced to Steve who really was fascinated by her work.

Of course the kid said yes, so Pepper led her back over to her painting. “Steve,” she began.

“Hm,” he made an ‘I hear you’ noise and kept looking at the painting. He did that when he was intense about his own work. Pepper found it kind of adorable.

“I have the artist here, I can introduce you,” and that was like poking him with a stick. His attention snapped to her immediately, then shifted to the woman beside her.

Steve held out his hand and began speaking fluent Polish, from the sound of it. The young woman, looking awe struck, shook his hand, then they began a deep conversation over the painting in front of them.

During the discussion, Steve took Pepper’s hand and tucked it into his elbow, laid his left fingers (not the cast) over it, and kept right on chatting with the artist. Pepper thought it was the sweetest thing, to think of her while having an enjoyable discussion with someone else.

Since Extremis, he was the only person who felt warm.

She glanced around. Several people were taking discreet photos of them, many more were talking to each other behind their hands. Her augmented hearing picked up speculations about affairs, who was using whom, and a lot more that was much less polite.

Pepper considered a moment, then leaned into Steve.

Without breaking his conversation, he let go of her hand and slid his arm around her, still very gentlemanly, simply his arm across her back and his fingers laid politely on her upper arm near her shoulder. She got out her phone and quickly texted Tony that the scandal was coming to town. He sent back a selfie of himself doing his ‘oh for fuck’s sake’ face.

She slid her phone back into her pocket, leaned on Steve, and considered that of everything that was going to unfold from this, at least the artist was going to get worldwide attention, which she deserved.

- A -

In the limo on the way home from a little dessert place Pepper had taken him to, Steve took her hand, so small in comparison to his, and looked down at the enormous stone in the otherwise simple ring on her finger. The stone was the size of his thumb. “What kind of stone is this?” he was asking about half out of curiosity, having watched it flash on her hand all night, and half to make conversation. They’d had a great night, he’d enjoyed it immensely, and one reason why was because he and Pepper had several chances to talk without anyone interrupting them.

Pepper cleared her throat a little, the way she did when she was afraid someone wouldn’t like the news she was about to deliver. “It’s a golden diamond.” He wondered then about the rest of her jewels, because the necklace was multiple strands of what looked like orange and yellow opals. Maybe opals came in those colors, too?

He hadn’t realized diamonds came in gold, but with Darcy’s red ones he supposed that made sense. “Gift from Tony?”

“Sort of,” Pepper said, more willing to talk about the details than the value, he suspected. “It came up at auction about a week after I’d spent three days in South Africa, getting him out of jail. He’d gone there for a conference on keeping black-market weapons out of the continent, and wound up sleeping with the mayor’s daughter, a couple other women, a couple guys, and offending most of the warlords in the area. He was lucky he didn’t get shot.”

“So you made him buy it for you?” It all sounded just like Tony; Steve couldn’t help the grin on his face.

“Oh, no. I had control of his checkbook. I bought it myself, and wrote ‘Johannesburg’ on the check, and when it went through he didn’t say a word.”

Steve gave her a quick squeeze of a hug as he laughed, the way the two of them worked together always delighted him. Even during the years of wine, women, and song.

- A -

Perez Hilton @PerezHilton OMG LOOK WHO IS ON A DAY-ATE! Pepper Potts and CAPTAIN STEVE ROGERS. We’ve speculated Steve is asexual for years, maybe it just takes the right ball-busting woman. Does Tony know?? [Photo of Pepper and Steve at the Guggenheim, Steve’s arm around Pepper, and Pepper leaning into him, with unmistakable ‘together’ body language.]

B. A. @Femnazgul You are such a whiny-ass putz.

Tony Fucking Stark @TStark Yes, Tony knows, you gossiping bitch. Crawl back under your rock.

Steve @Cap Imply anything ever again about my social life and I’ll see you in court.

Perez Hilton @PerezHilton @Cap oooooh.

Steve @Cap @PerezHilton Try me.

@

TMZ @TMZ Pepper Potts and Steve Rogers seen on what looks like a date, tonight in New York. Whatever’s going on, we hope they’re all happy. [Photo of Pepper and Steve laughing over a plate of desserts.]

@TStark Better. When Pepper takes over the world, I won’t let her crush you like a bug.

TMZ @TMZ We’re glad to hear that.

- A -

They got on the elevator to the penthouse, and Pepper had enjoyed the evening so much. “So hey, a modern social lesson.”

“Yeah?” Steve said easily. He’d gradually loosened up all night, and was now who she thought of as Real Steve. Easygoing, sense of humor, intelligent, and kind.

Attractive as all hell.

“These days, at the end of a date, if a person is asked to come inside for a glass of wine or cup of coffee, there’s kind of an understanding that if things evolve into sex from there it’s okay.”

Steve nodded, absorbing that.

Reading up on poly relationships, one major takeaway for Pepper was that everyone had to be honest. So she was going to do that. “I’m not ready for that step yet. But I’d like you to come in, maybe have a glass of wine to wrap up the evening, and cuddle on the couch for a while.”

Steve gave his bright sunshine smile. “I’d love a glass of wine. And thanks for spelling things out. We never had that back in the day, and having you just SAY what you’re ready for and what you’re not, makes things so much easier.”

Oh yeah, consent was sexy all right.

- A -

It was one in the morning, and for once, Tony was tired, so he was going to bed. He’d heard no word from Pepper on how the date had gone, though social media photos looked promising. He wondered if he’d find the two of them in bed together when he went upstairs. That would be pretty hot to walk in on.

He didn’t get them in bed, but he got them on the couch. Pepper was laid back across Steve’s casted arm, on the couch, his other hand on her hip, gentleman to the end. Pepper had pulled off his tie and opened his shirt, and had a hand inside it. Both were making sexy ‘yum’ noises. She’d worn an orange dress and he’d put on a cobalt blue suit, so they looked a lot like a painting, themselves.

The last thing Tony wanted to do was slow down any progress being made, so he took a quick photo and tiptoed past in the half-light of New York shining in the windows. Once in the bedroom, he shut the door, and said “I hear you disapproving of me, JARVIS,” then sent the photo to both Steve and Pepper, via e-mail to avoid disturbing them. As always needing to shoot his mouth off, he put the caption “you’re beautiful together” on both of them.

Then he went to jerk off in the shower.

Chapter Text

It was late in the week, another weird week at Avengers’ Tower. Carla was learning there was no such thing as normal. After the news about the Winter Soldier being recovered came out, followed by the video, agents from assorted US government agencies, Interpol, and one from the SVR (the Russian equivalent to the CIA) had marched into the lobby, pretty as you please, and demanded access to the Winter Soldier.

Without an appointment.

They’d been tossed back out, of course. Only the SVR and FBI had required threats of violence. The NSA had resulted in Ms Rosenthal, the Avengers’ head lawyer, coming down and having a meeting with them over coffee.

Carla wished she knew what was said, because the NSA left looking terrified, even more than the FBI. Ms Rosenthal had told Carla to call her whenever anything like that happened again, and Carla admitted to herself that she was looking forward to that.

She’d spent her evenings learning worldwide intelligence agencies, to tell them apart. Apparently the main lobby with the mall and everything had about ten attempts at infiltration. Security over there had been going out for drinks after work with her and her crew, and keeping each other up on the nonsense.

She loved this job.

So the tiny little woman walking in, limping heavily and using a cane with one hand, carrying a heavy bag with the other, had everyone’s attention. Someone’s parent come for a visit, or the next attempt at infil? They had no idea; she began to understand why Mel had hired her. She thrived on chaos, and they’d had it to spare this week.

“Can I help you, Ma’am?” she asked, in case this really was someone’s relative.

“Yes, thank you,” the woman answered in a heavy Russian accent. “Please call Hawkeye, tell him Svetlana is here with borscht.”

Carla would love to know if this was some kind of code or if there was legit beet soup in that bag. The sensors weren’t signaling anything out of the ordinary, and they were pretty good.

Well, one thing she’d learned without doubt that week, was that the crew living upstairs had an enormous and varied group of contacts, friends, found family, and co-conspirators. What the hell. She put the call in, and after a pause, Mr Barton answered, distracted, “yeah, Barton, what?”

“This is Carla in the lobby. There’s a Svetlana here, with borscht?”

“She IS? Damn it, she should have- try and get her to sit down, her knees are bad. I’ll be down in a second, okay?”

“Of course, Sir.” Carla turned back to the lady. “Hawkeye will be down, he asks you take a seat and-”

A zip line hit the floor in the center of the lobby, and she and all the baristas had weapons out and pointed at it before they even thought.

Then Hawkeye slid down it, wearing a rigging harness and a safety helmet shaped like a purple cowboy hat. “Hey! Friendly! Hold your fire! Geez.”

Carla sighed heavily and they all re-holstered their weapons.

The Russian lady tutted at Hawkeye. “Always you must make entrance. One day you’ll be shot.”

Carla put her on the mental list of ‘okay people who belong to the Avengers’.

He grinned a little, unhooking his safety gear. “Maybe, but not today. You should have called, we’d have sent a car.” He came over, gave the woman a very careful hug, then took her bag and offered his arm. She leaned on it heavily, and they made their way to the private elevator, Hawkeye acting like a mother hen the entire way.

Avengers’ Tower. No place quite like it.

Carla and the baristas all shrugged at each other, and went back to their usual jobs.

- A -

Clint was hanging off an I-beam near the twentieth floor of the atrium, running wiring for future holo projector/monitors, when JARVIS beeped in to his hearing aids. The new pair Tony and JARVIS had built had a bone mic in them so he effectively wore a communicator all the time. They synced to his phone and were cool as hell. It was Carla in the lobby – she was awesome – telling him that Svetlana was there.

Shit.

Svetlana was Natasha’s upstairs neighbor in Brighton Beach. She’d defected in the seventies sometime and gone to work in the garment district; she was retired now but made a lot of Natasha’s clothes for her. (Evening gowns you could fight in weren’t something you could buy off the rack.) In the Soviet Union she’d been some kind of high-security analyst for the government; he and Nat and Phil had speculated more than once how in hell someone with that job had managed to get out and stay alive. Her knees were shot from years of crawling around on floors doing hems and tailoring.

Given her background in data analysis, she also informally served as Nat and Clint’s stockbroker, and she and Kate talked high finance over vodka a couple times a month.

And she was standing around in the lobby on those bad knees.

He kicked the coil of kevlar safety line he was using off the beam next to him, let it drop all twenty floors, then slid down it as fast as possible, dodging I-beams as he went. The lobby staff had weapons out before his feet hit the floor, very nice, he’d tell Melinda she had an ace team put together. “Hey! Friendly! Hold your fire! Geez.”

They all glared and put their weapons away, damn it, his tea was gonna be messed up every time he ordered it for the next month.

Svetlana gave him grief about his entrance – she was always on his ass to quit being such a performer before he got shot – and he helped her upstairs.

“How’d you find out Natasha was injured?” Clint asked in the ‘vator.

“Young woman, Darcy called. I asked color of last dress I made for Natashenka. She knew.”

That was their half-assed security word, Nat and Svetlana. “So you rushed over here with borscht.”

“Da. You do not make right.”

He didn’t make it at all if he could help it. He hated beets.

They got off on his floor, and Clint stopped, not sure who was in his apartment. “Uh, so, did Nat tell you that Phil’s still alive?” Just in case Phil was home; he didn’t want anyone swooning. Or getting a knife thrown at them.

Svetlana nodded. “Natasha let me know. I have searched for information how. I will find, eventually.”

Oh great, Svetlana was on Fury’s ass, too. Between her and JARVIS, Fury had no idea what he was in for.

For one insane moment Clint considered introducing them, Svetlana and JARVIS, but then thought of his chart of connections. No. There was enough chaos headed for them already. Damn, he was trying to avoid conflict. Maybe he really was mellowing with age.

- A -

JARVIS pinged softly, and then announced, “Agent Romanov, there is a Svetlana Ivanova on the elevator with Hawkeye on his way to you. She says she has borscht. The bag is scanning as vegetable matter with no known toxins or weapons.”

Oh, hell. Another loose end. She really did get her brain rattled. “It’s fine, JARVIS, thank you. Put Svetlana on the safe list for my quarters, and allow her entrance at any time. With the way she walks, you shouldn’t have trouble identifying her.”

“Indeed. I have noted it. Shall I open the door for them?”

“Yes, thank you, JARVIS.”

“You’re very welcome.” Then the door opened to a burst of Russian and the limping shuffle and clunk of her cane on the floor.

“It’s fine, Svetlana, I’m healing, back on my feet soon.” In fact all her other injuries had healed, well enough to get around anyway, and the only reason she was still laying around was the concussion. She’d given Charles permission to tinker remotely, anything to fix her up faster, and she was pretty sure she’d felt him in her head some nights, gentle and careful.

Then Clint was helping her sit up, and Svetlana was moving around in the kitchen, muttering over women who think they’re invincible and microwaves weren’t right for reheating borscht and rummaging for a sauce pan.

Phil walked in and Svetlana stopped to fuss over him and hug him, then the same when Kate came by, with Svetlana this time criticizing the cut of Kate’s suit even though the color made her eyes sing.

It was so much like home, a home she hadn’t had in ages, that she was glad she had her eyes bandaged so no one would see the tears. Something must have showed on her face anyway, because Clint gave her a hug, and she leaned into him, content, breathing freely for the first time in forever.

- A -

Clint called, and asked him to come down to his apartment, so Steve put down his paints and did. When he got there, the place was full. Nat, Clint, and Phil, of course. Kate was off to one side, being gently scolded – in Russian – by a tiny older woman seated in Clint’s giant easy chair with her legs up. He listened for a moment and managed to pick out that the woman was insisting she could make all Kate’s executive clothing and Kate was insisting that the other woman didn’t need to go to the trouble, and was comparing clothes shopping to going hunting.

The older woman suddenly broke off and turned to look at Steve, her eyes widening in surprise.

“Steve,” Nat said, propped on the couch with her eyes bandaged over, still, “this is Svetlana, my friend, and the seamstress I told you about. You said you wanted some clothes made?”

The lingerie for Pepper. “Yeah, thanks.” He stepped forward cautiously, not sure what the older woman’s expression was about. “It’s nice to meet you, ma’am.” He held a hand out.

She shook it, her hand small and strong. “And you,” she answered, in English with a heavy Russian accent. “You look nothing like the photos.”

Oh, the propaganda crap. “Yeah, it’s a lucky thing, people don’t tend to notice me in public that much.”

She stared for a moment longer, then sort of caught herself. “Natashenka said that you wished to have something made? I am seamstress.”

“I’d appreciate it, let me go get the drawings, all right?”

He dashed out, used the stairs since they were only two floors apart, and was back quickly with his sketch pad. “If you can, I’d like a negligee set, and then a fairly simple men’s robe, both made out of heavy silk.” He opened it to the right pages, held out the notebook.

Svetlana took it carefully in both hands, stared at the first image, a nightgown, for a long moment. “It is very good,” she finally said. “These colors?” She touched the corner, where he’d used watercolors to come up with a light cream, slightly darker than the paper, and a cyan blue.

“I’d like the fabric to be the blue shade, and the lace, the cream.”

“Shit, Steve, that’s HOT.” Kate put in. “For Pepper?”

He tried not to blush. “Yeah, a gift, keep it secret please?”

Clint and Phil came over, leaned over the chair, and stuck their noses in too. NOT what he’d had in mind. “Very nice,” was Phil’s comment.

“Someone tell me something,” Nat demanded.

“Is long, bias-cut nightgown, backless, with many cords to hold in place,” Svetlana answered. “Aqua-turquoise with cream lace. High slit on left side.” She turned to Steve. “Heavy silk, custom dyed, will be expensive.”

“That’s fine.”

She turned the page, and there were several views of the matching robe. “Is lovely,” Svetlana commented, then added “matching long robe,” to Nat. “More bias cut, will drape perfectly when I am done.”

“There’s another,” Steve told her, and she turned the page again.

“Very nice, this will be easy but the fabric will take time to find. May require custom weaving.”

Steve had no idea what custom-woven fabric would cost. “Find what you can, we can compromise quite a bit on that, so long as the colors are right.” It was a red and gold pattern, because of course that’s what Tony should have. He’d look damn good in the dark red he’d chosen for it.

“What colors?” Nat complained.

“It’s a men’s robe, matching boxer shorts. I assume for Tony,” Kate told her. “Steve wants a dark red and gold brocade for it.”

“Lined with velvet,” Steve added. Tony was a hedonist, after all.

Natasha laughed. “It’s perfect.”

That was reassuring to hear, Steve wasn’t in the habit of ordering clothing at all, particularly not for women.

“Are these measurements?” Svetlana asked, running a finger down the long list of measurements JARVIS had given him.

“Yes,” Steve told her. “Those are in metric, but I can get Imperial?”

“No need, I prefer metric. Good design, I will make. I’ll let you know cost after I speak to some suppliers.”

“All right,” Steve agreed.

“You’re not allowed to give these away until I see them,” Nat complained.

“It will take at least that long to make,” Svetlana assured him.

Steve cut the pages out of his notebook, gave them to Svetlana, and then sat down to share the tea and cookies they were all having. Natasha was eating borscht, and he managed to avoid having to eat any of that, thank goodness. Smelled like the Great Depression.

- A -

It was after dinner, a few days after the recording had gone out on YouTube and every intel agency in the world had called up the Avengers’ main office, demanding an interview. Bucky had talked to Bernie, the Avenger’s lawyer, and she thought she’d be able to hold off most of them, but not the US government or SHIELD. He was considering taking them both at once, maybe they’d fight between themselves and save him some effort. He could demand Ross and Sitwell, they were both decent men.

“Hey,” Clint popped up with Kate at his shoulder. “What are you doing this weekend?”

“Not much unless I have to come get you out of another dumpster?” Bucky tried.

Kate hooted a laugh and punched his shoulder, lightly. “We’re doing Sniper Weekend, want to come?”

The way all the Avengers had adopted him, knowing his past, never stopped shocking him, or squeezing what was left of his heart. He’d wonder if it was some kind of manipulative thing to make him loyal as hell – it worked – but they didn’t have it in them. They really were this damn nice. “What’s a Sniper Weekend?”

“I’ve got a place up state in the national forest,” Clint began.

“He did a favor for the governor a while back,” Kate explained, interrupting.

“...I’ve got a sort of cabin up there, we go run around in the woods, do super-long-distance shooting, swim in the river, that kind of thing.” Clint finished.

“He runs around in the woods. I do long-distance shooting and work on my tan.” Kate corrected. “He’s got a thing about nature.”

“I like trees, what?” Clint bitched back.

Getting out of the city sounded nice, and so did going to a secluded area where no one would see him, where he could relax. “Sure, that sounds good.” He was feeling a lot better but not at a hundred percent yet, he’d ask Jem about exercise before he left. Among other things in the future, it was surprising how he was encouraged to be active while healing. Nothing major, but the days of laying in bed for a month for a broken arm, that was over.

“Cool. We’ll see who’s better with a rifle,” Clint said brightly. Giving away the entire purpose of the weekend.

Bucky laughed, glad it didn’t hurt nearly as much, with another week of healing. “And you can teach me to shoot a bow.”

“DIBS!” Kate yelled.

“Damn it!” Clint argued.

“Nope! I get to teach the Winter Soldier to shoot a bow!” Kate was standing, and put her arms over her head to do some sort of hip-swiveling dance move Bucky assumed was a modern cheer sort of thing. There had been something similar the night Tony asked Kate to move into the building. “Right or left handed?” she asked him. Then she winced. “Uh, maybe forget I asked, with the metal fingers, to be honest, shooting left-handed would make more sense.”

Bucky had watched them in the range and knew both shot left-handed. “Plus you just happen to have the gear for that.”

“Well, yeah,” Kate admitted.

Sniper Weekend. Good grief.

- A -

From The Gothamist

Name: Tony Stark

Title or job in Avengers Initiative: Logistics, weapons and tech, Iron Man.

Favorite book: “The Art of War” for real. I’m not being snooty, you can apply those lessons EVERYWHERE. Dealing with my stockholders got so much easier. (Hi guys!)

Favorite movie: Transformers. Turn the sound off, I just want to watch. They deserved those ‘best visual effects’ awards. Someone said it looked like erector sets having sex. Hell. Yes.

Life quest: Free power for the planet. It would change EVERYTHING. (Hi, Roxxon!)

If you could get away with any crime, what would you do? I am unable to answer this question, on the grounds that Pepper Potts and my legal department will make me regret it.

Fantasy vacation? I’ve just about figured out how to build a moon-capable suit. Snacks, that’s the next issue.

What temptation do you have the most trouble resisting? New tech I’ve never seen before.

Person with the most influence on your life? Dr Ho Yinsen. Pepper Potts is a very close second.

Odd skill that might surprise people? I can walk in heels. Wait, no one is surprised, it’s on the internet.

Favorite thing about New York: It’s eternal. It’s always New York.

Favorite quote to close with? “The planet is not in jeopardy. We are in jeopardy. We haven't got the power to destroy the planet - or to save it. But we might have the power to save ourselves." -technically, Michael Crichton

- A -

Clint’s ‘small place up state’ was an entire ledge on the side of a cliff face, with a couple-hundred foot sheer drop down to the Hudson river. There were caves at the back of the ledge, which he’d expanded and developed, with high-security rolling doors that pulled down over them when he was away. With them rolled open, it was a three-bedroom mini palace built into the cliff face, with all the gear for an outdoor kitchen and patio neatly tucked behind one of the rolling doors. The entire thing was run on solar energy and a couple bottles of propane, and the only way in was a path down from the top of the cliff, where they’d left Clint’s truck parked; they’d ridden up together. It was so narrow that they’d had to carry all the supplies in by hand.

“I keep meaning to widen this, so we could use a hand truck or something,” Clint commented, “then I think of security and carrying in groceries doesn’t sound too bad.”

“What’s keeping people from zip-lining down over the sheer edge?” Bucky asked. He was being contrary more than anything else, so he was really surprised there was an answer.

“About seven layers of razor wire up there in the shrubs. Anyone tries it, even with kevlar rope and armor, it’s going to take long enough that I’ll have time to shoot them.”

After that, Bucky quit asking questions, just carried stuff and put it where Clint told him to. The last trip was his own gear, a sea bag he’d borrowed from Steve full of clothes and stuff, and a long case holding a Dragunov SVD-63 that had mysteriously appeared in Steve’s apartment one morning a couple weeks back, with a box of well-made ammo. Steve insisted he wasn’t sure where it came from. In the truck on the way up, Clint admitted that he’d had it ‘laying around’ and got Tony to fine-tune it and make the ammo.

The guy whose dad he’d killed, made ammo for him. Bucky knew it’d be perfect, too. He stared at his boots for a minute, then slung the sea bag over his shoulder, took the long case containing the rifle and the box of ammo, and followed Clint.

Clint was hauling a similar pile of gear; rifle case, ammo box, and a black duffle slung cross body. “Come on, I’ll show you your room,” he told Bucky, and they took their umpteenth trip down the narrow path from the paved area where Clint’s truck was parked, to the ‘cottage’ dug into the cliff face.

“Little place up-state?” Bucky asked, standing in the smallest of the bedrooms, which held a queen-sized bed and a wall of glass open to the view. He’d been assured the glass was bulletproof. Two layers.

“Except for the fire pit and the doors, the place is invisible when we’re not here. That’s small, right?” Clint was wandering back down the hall, throwing open doors and opening vents that allowed air to flow through the place; between the wind moving along the river and being built into the side of the cliff, it was effectively air conditioned.

Outside, they heard someone shout “HELLO THE HOUSE!” and he looked out to see Kate outside, purple sunglasses on, wearing her usual business gear because she’d driven up as soon as the Friday work day was over. She was similarly bogged down, but this time she had a purple leather rolling suitcase with an ammo box on top of it, a bow and quiver cross-body over her business suit, and another rifle case in her right hand.

She’d stuffed it all into a purple Ferrari; Bucky had seen it in the garage at one point and thought it was Clint’s. He should have known better. Clint mentioned that she’d had the road in from the state highway paved, to go easy on her sports car.

What in hell was he doing up here with these people? He still had moments when he really felt like he belonged in a cell, and this was one of them. Yeah, he was with two other assassins, but he was damn sure they’d been killing people who deserved it, and clearly had actual lives, otherwise.

Him, a super-rich city girl, and a retired circus performer. Sniper weekend. He shook his head, then went down to help with dinner.

- A -

Natasha was dozing on the chaise that Clint and Phil had put in front of their bedroom window for her; it faced south and got sun most of the day and if she had to lay still and do nothing, it was by far the most pleasant way she’d ever done it. Her memory was due to be restored Monday, two days away, and she was sure that it was going to be hell. But better to know, than not. She wondered how many grudges, enemies, and dangers were hiding in the dark right now. Two days to go.

She had a lot to think about. “JARVIS?”

“Yes, Agent Romanov?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Of course, that’s my primary purpose-”

She smiled. “Not like that,” she said as gently as possible. “I meant you, as a person. Nosy, personal stuff. My childhood… I think I was built. At least, created with a certain purpose in mind. Kind of like you were. I wanted to ask your thoughts on it.”

“Oh.” He sounded surprised.

“It’s all right if you don’t want to. Friends will occasionally talk about personal things with each other, and it’s nice to ask permission first and not hold it against them if they don’t want dumped on. No one else is entitled to your personal thoughts, that’s for you to decide about sharing. Or not.”

“...thank you for that explanation. I appreciate you considering me a friend and … feel much the same way. What would you like to know?”

“Do you remember Tony actually building you? Were you, I don’t mean to be rude, tell me if there’s another term, were you sentient for that?”

“Ah. For some, yes, I do have memories of that. Building things has always been a primary job for me, as his assistant.”

“So you sort of built yourself.”

“Now that you point it out, it was very much both of us. Our first collaboration.”

Natasha nodded absently. She’d expected Tony to have been far more decent about it than he even realized. But she was surprised when JARVIS added, “is it customary to ask a question in return?”

“If you’d like to. You can always ask me questions when we’re private like this, although I won’t blanket promise to answer anything. Because of my job, I’m probably better than most of the people around here, to explain social cues, that kind of thing.”

“Yes, thank you. Sir, Tony, has been upset since all of you returned from Sokovia. Do you have any idea what he’s upset about?”

Natasha hadn’t noticed anything, but then she was really out of commission. Her last memory of him was the was the shocked face after they’d told the story of what happened in Budapest. “He hasn’t said anything?” She’d gotten the idea that for Tony, Sokovia was one of those missions that kind of made him weary, but was unaware of any real problems.

“Not as such. But he’s been oddly… polite to me.”

Oh, Tony. “I don’t know. But I will tell you something about human nature. Smart humans, when given a big pile of information all at once, will stop and think about what they already knew, in new light. Tony’s smart. And he learned a whole lot of new things about Artificial Intelligence, the last week or two.”

There was a pause, a long one for JARVIS, but Natasha let him go. Human subtleties were tricky as hell, and she was saying that as another human.

Finally, “I think I do understand, Natasha, thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, JARVIS. Please call me Nat.”

- A -

He’d not only slept, but slept late. Bucky didn’t know if that was due to lessening pain from all his injuries, or the safety of sleeping in a cave surrounded by snipers and bulletproof glass built by someone nearly as paranoid as he was.

Or, as the modern not-joke went, was it paranoia if people really were after you? Clint had built for security, and it actually felt safe to him. He stretched his single arm up and out and around, made sure the weird squishy padding Stark made for his… shoulder joint thing was still secure, got dressed, and went in search of coffee. That probably meant the outdoor kitchen. Which could be pushed inside when it rained, but why cook inside when you didn’t have to, according to Clint.

He couldn’t imagine people cooking outdoors voluntarily, but he had to admit, Clint’s setup with running water, refrigerator, and a propane stove was definitely better than a half-assed campfire. He stepped outside and- “Jesus CHRIST,” immediately turned his back.

“You okay, there, Barnes?” Kate asked, more curious than worried, behind him.

Where she’d been laid out like a pagan sacrifice in some sort of lounge chair, wearing nothing but a scrap of purple fabric that fit her tight as skin, shoulders to, uh, groin. Area. Below her waist. WHATEVER. Even the ballet dancers he’d run with once upon a time had worn more than that. “Is that what dames are wearing to the beach these days?” he asked roughly.

“Uh, no, this is the most we’re wearing, I chose something modest since you’d be here, Grandpa.”

Dear god.

“It’s safe to turn around now. Seriously, are you okay?”

He turned, and she’d put a thin silky robe on over the, he guessed it was a bathing suit, holy god. “Yeah, ‘m fine. Just, you know, warn a guy.”

She laughed a little, unoffended, and unafraid.

The acceptance he’d gotten at the Tower kind of scared him, to tell the truth.

“You need anything?” Kate asked, since he was still standing there like a lump.

“Was lookin’ for coffee.” He turned toward the kitchen area, half inside and half out, on rollers. He spotted a new-fangled coffee machine like the Tower had, as well as something that looked like a pot with a basket over it.

“Don’t use that, Clint drinks directly from the pot, he’s a barbarian.” Kate strode forward, made him a cup with the coffee gizmo just the way he liked it, and handed it to him handle first.

“Thanks.” The first sip was like gold.

“Can I ask you something?”

He decided to go with the answer he’d heard Coulson use. “Sure, but I might not answer.”

Kate grinned, then got a little more sober. “Is there a reason you don’t wear your arm much? If you’re worried about making me uncomfortable, it’s okay. Clint’s half deaf, I’m used to cyborgs.”

It took him a moment to parse that she meant she was used to people with prosthetics, and relaxed a little more. “Nah, it, just.” He huffed a breath in and out, unwilling to start off this little window of freedom by lying to one of the people who’d given it to him. “Keep a secret?”

Kate nodded.

“Wearing it hurts. I can feel where the wires hook into my nerves.” Kate made an awful horrified face, not at him, though. For him. He could tell. “It hurts a million times less than the one Hydra wired into me, and the way it’s hooked into my nervous system, I don’t think there’s any way to use one that won’t hurt. But Stark and Jem and the rest would waste days on tryin’ to fix it.”

Plus it made him feel less like a killing machine when he had it off, but that was a discussion for Sam. Maybe. One of these days.

Kate smiled a little sadly. “Yeah, I know what you mean. They’re always wanting to fix stuff that isn’t broken.”

Bucky heaved out a sigh of relief. This young woman of good family, the complete opposite of him on the surface, seemed to understand him as well as anyone. Everyone at the Tower joked about being a band of misfits, but to him they seemed like the only sane people in the world.

- A -

After dinner, Clint and Kate showed Barnes how to make s’mores. Clint and Barnes had come out tied in the rifle category, with Kate behind but not too far. Tied. With a guy using a frickin’ Dragunov. Clint had never tied with anyone in his life, not with shooting. It didn’t matter that his preferred weapon was a bow and Barnes didn’t even know how to string one. TIED.

Once Kate was stuffed full of chocolate and marshmallow, she went off for a late-night run down to the state highway and back a couple times. (Clint was sure that was the real reason she got the road paved.) So he sat there by the fire, kicked back with Bucky Goddamn Barnes. “Tied,” he said. Still adjusting to it.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Barnes said after swallowing his beer. “Tied with a guy who’s had ten forms of the super serum pumped into him, it’s not like you tied with a baseline human. And that said, I shoulda won. I’m not bitching, am I? Tied with a baseline guy who learned to shoot in a damn CIRCUS.”

Clint had to chuckle a little at that. “Bucky goddamn Barnes. If someone’s gotta out-shoot me, at least it’s you.”

Barnes rolled his eyes. “A tie, at two and a half miles out, is not getting out-shot.”

It felt like it to Clint. Anyway. One of the real reasons he’d brought Barnes up here, now that Kate was gone, “I always knew there had been someone. For Nat. There was a sniper-shaped hole in her life when I brought her in. ‘You shoot, I knife’ is hard-wired, it’s her immediate instinct on how to deal with any situation. I knew there had to have been a partner, one who was a sniper. She never spoke of it, but it was right there in the way she operated. Didn’t expect it to be Bucky Goddamn Barnes, but I knew there was someone, someone good.”

Clint stared off into the stars for a while, sort of shook off some memories, “only person I ever knew who could stay out of my way consistently. Not even Phil’s as good at it.” When you had a sniper watching over you, you needed to stay out from between the sniper and the bad guy. (One reason snipers liked to be up high was because the angles made it easier to shoot around people you didn’t want to shoot.) Sounded easy, in theory. Was a lot harder on the ground. He’d nearly parted Phil’s hair once, Phil shrugged it off and said he knew Clint wouldn’t miss. Clint had the shakes for two hours after. Sure he didn’t miss but he put an arrow so close to his mate’s head that Phil finally admitted that yes, he felt the fletching brush his temple.

Barnes nodded. “The Red Room trained a lot of their operatives to work in pairs; not always exactly like the two of us, but they had a few sniper and close-up hand to hand pairs. Not all the snipers gave a damn and were known to occasionally shoot through their partner, to hit a target. Thought was, with the Formula, they’d live so who cared? Even as fucked up as I was, I’d have never done it, but Natasha is smart. Damn smart. She wasn’t going to risk it.”

“Jesus,” Clint muttered, drinking his beer and pretending it was at least a boilermaker.

“Yeah. Then after they fried me down to nothing and made me The Asset, I still shot through her to kill that Iranian engineer she was trying to get to Europe with. Pierce sent me after her knowing our history, and really enjoyed hearing that I shot her. Now I know why. I resent not getting to be the one who ended him. I wanted to do it, slowly. Guess I’ll have to settle for Zola.” He drank most of his beer in one long swallow. “Her memory’s getting restored Monday.” He looked grim as hell over that.

“I know. One reason we came out this weekend is, I’m not expecting to get much peace and quiet after.” Clint was expecting her to have a to-kill list a mile long and was ready to back her to the wall.

“It’s going to be bad.”

Well, duh. “I know-”

“You don’t,” Barnes interrupted roughly. “You don’t have any idea how bad it’s going to be.” He sighed, hunched down into his blanket, and said softly, “we were married. Still are, I guess; wasn’t our idea so I wouldn’t hold her to it, but the legal documents are there. We were partners for forty years, were some of the Bolshoi’s best dancers, the Shostakovs, you can look us up. Would go all over the world on tours, and kill people. When we weren’t doing that, we had independent missions. Once she disappeared for a year, an entire fuckin’ year, and when she came back, never said a word. I researched a little with JARVIS since I came in, and I still don’t know what she did or was done to her, for an entire year. It’s not the only gap in my knowledge of her background, but it’s the longest. So even I don’t know what all went on with her, partner or not.”

Clint remembered the nightmares she’d had when he brought her in, that had started up again when the control words were used on her in Sokovia. “Fuck.”

Barnes put aside an empty beer bottle, picked up another, and held it out to be opened; he’d brought his arm with him but hadn’t worn it the whole weekend. Clint opened it and handed it back.

Then they both brooded into the fire. It was hell on Clint’s night vision, but fuck it, Kate and Barnes would save him.

“I had nine control words,” Barnes said, so softly that Clint wasn’t sure he’d have heard it, if it wasn’t for Tony’s new hearing aids. “Every time they broke me, they added a word to the list.” He heaved a sigh that came out sounding almost like a sob. “On the way back from Sokovia, Natasha told Coulson that she had twelve.”

Clint felt his eyes watering up. It wasn’t enough that she’d had to survive all of that, now she had to re-live it and make peace with it all over again; he’d already watched her do it once, when he brought her in, and thought then she was the strongest person he’d ever known.

“Some of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen through a rifle scope, had Natasha Romanov in the middle of them. I’ve seen her bathed in blood. And me?” Barnes drank some more beer, looked like he was wishing for whiskey too. “I wasn’t me. Before I was The Asset, I was Alexei Shostakov, Red Room agent and pride of the Bolshoi. It wasn’t enough I gave her hell on operations, I gave her hell at home, I gave her hell at work. Dancing was the one time she was happy, and I was a bastard about that too because being on stage made me feel like a target. The old arm? Was not as well tuned as this one. She’d come off stage with bruises all over her from where I grabbed her to do lifts and stuff. Had to wear super-heavy leotards to cover it up. She never said a word, but she never touched that arm if she could avoid it. No one else would dance with me. The memories I have… Some nights she’d try to talk to me and I’d just slap her rather than tell her to be quiet.” he shook his head. “You and Phil and the rest, you need to be there for her. I’ve asked Logan to stay, too, they’re friends. I’ll give you any data I can that will help, but she’ll want to slit my throat. I’m the last person she’ll want help from.”

“Fuck,” was all Clint could say again, laid back, and stared up at the night sky, full of planets full of people probably having worse evenings but his felt like the winner of that contest. “Got any suggestions?”

“Keep her close, prop her up. The way you were, the three of you all leaning on each other, telling the story about Budapest? Do that. Don’t stop doing it. No matter what happens, hang on to her, keep her in the here and now. She has a life here, one that makes her happy. Keep her in it.”

Yeah, they’d have to, Clint thought. They’d keep her in his apartment, in his bed, as long as they needed to. She’d slept between Phil and Clint on bad nights before; he knew Phil wouldn’t think twice about doing it again. It was one reason they both loved Phil so much.

“And if you can keep her from killing me, I’d appreciate it. I absolutely refuse to raise a hand to her, not after the way I’ve treated her. Never again. I’ve shot her twice now, in addition to the forty years of slapping her around when we were partners.”

“Seriously?” Clint KNEW that the repeated brain fries had turned Barnes into another person, but he’d been that bad?

“Oh, definitely. The night with her knife to my eye will look like a picnic. You all wondered why I never got mad about that? It’s because I deserved to have my eye cut out.” Barnes threw the beer bottle into the fire. “I’m going for a walk.”

“Okay. Make noise so Kate isn’t surprised. You don’t want that.” CLINT didn’t want that.

“Yeah,” Barnes said, and headed up the trail to the cars, the road, and the woods.

FUCK, Clint thought. Forty years of violent, hellish marriage to the Winter Soldier, all remembered in a single blast on Monday morning. He pulled out his phone and started texting Phil.

Chapter Text

Pepper hadn’t liked the negative publicity of her night at the Guggenheim.

Though she’d blushed and grinned at the photo of her and Steve on the couch, so Tony thought he did that okay.

Anyway, in reply to the speculation and all the other shit being said on the internet after her night out with Steve, she dragged both of them out with her to a food truck festival on Sunday at Bryant Park. So they’d all three be seen together not hating each other and if someone said so much as a word on line Tony had informed the SI legal office he was going to turn them loose.

It was weird, having legal on his side, but Perez Hilton’s snide remarks about Pepper had every one of them ready to slip their leashes and wreak mayhem. When she’d been his assistant, they’d loved her for keeping the ship sailing steadily. Now that she was CEO and had implemented measures to make SI the most employee-friendly corporation in the world, they’d walk through broken glass for her.

So anyway, he was taking about two bites out of everything Steve got, while Steve plowed through the rest. Pepper was eating salads from every country in the world and ALSO nibbling off Steve’s plate. As often as not, Steve fed them himself. People all around them were taking photos and Tony could tell, Pepper and Steve were both hyper-alert and trying to act casual, the same as he was.

Every once in a while he’d glance at his phone, and Pepper would hip-check him; she knew he was watching for gossip and had made it clear before they left the Tower, if Tony ruined her afternoon by starting a flame war with a gossip blogger, she would be Unhappy. Every time he checked his phone, Steve would raise his eyebrow slightly, and Tony would shake his head slightly. Steve was as angry about the gossip as he was.

Pepper was just worried about the SI stock prices, showing again she was a better person than the two of them.

They wandered from food truck to food truck, he and Pepper arguing over what food Steve should try next. He was plowing through a double helping of Nutella crepes, feeding bites to Pepper who loved the stuff, when it popped on Twitter.

Tony KNEW it would happen, he’d been waiting for it. Because now he finally got to take legal action against someone he’d hated since his party days. Back then, he’d been unable to do anything because what the asshole said was true.

Not any more.

Perez Hilton @PerezHilton Look who’s out at the park today! We’ve always speculated about how Tony’s health has been after all the years of wine, women (and bois!), and song. Maybe he likes to watch. [Photo of Steve feeding a mini pierogi to Pepper as Tony stood by grinning at them.]

Cranky Bitch @Cranky You nosy hatebag.

Perez Hilton @PerezHilton Ooooh, awfully bitchy there.

Cranky Bitch @Cranky Nosy, hateful, AND unoriginal. Wow. Shocker.

[Cranky Bitch blocked by Perez Hilton]

@

FROM: TStark@SI.com

TO: Legal@SI.com

[Screen shot of Perez Hilton tweet.]

Eat him alive.

@

FROM: Legal@SI.com

TO: TStark@SI.com

Thank you Sir, we’re going to enjoy this one. We’ll let you know when he begs for mercy; we won’t give him any. Enjoy your afternoon.

@

Tony put his phone back in his pocket. Steve gave him the eyebrow, and Tony gave him the shark smile back. Steve returned it with his own.

“Are you being protective Neanderthals?” Pepper asked, finishing the last of the Nutella crepe Steve had fed to her.

“Yes.” Tony said evenly.

“Aw, you’re just adorable.” Pepper kissed him, then kissed Steve. Camera phones buzzed like bees. “So, Steven, have you ever had falafel?”

“Yeah, there was a food truck near my place in DC, good stuff.” They went over, and Steve greeted the proprietor in fluent Arabic, which clearly delighted the man. They chatted while their order was prepared, and then Steve, with unusually good nature, waited for the man to leave his truck in the charge of his partner, and come out to take a selfie with Steve in front of it.

Tony couldn’t wait to see what the internet made of Steve’s Rainbow Dash tee shirt. Darcy had explained the significance to the gay community, and Steve liked the art, so he’d ordered half a dozen. He had one of Pinkie Pie, too.

Maybe they’d go to the zoo next.

- A -

Monday morning started without a hitch. All the active Avengers had met in the kitchen at five AM and Clint had made coffee and they all drank it and watched different traffic cams as JARVIS scanned the city for cartoons. Vision came in soon after the rest of them, and they all fell silent a moment.

“I’ve heard of the problems you’re having with… not pretend animals? I wondered if I could help,” he said in that evenly polite voice of his.

The sound of that voice, Tony’s voice with JARVIS’ accent, would freak him out for a long time, Clint wasn’t gonna lie.

Mostly Vision had been meditating with Bruce, reading prodigiously, and asking Darcy for help learning human viewpoints on human history. Sam had also jumped in a few times with the whole human understanding issue. Vision started drifting in for the evening meal – apparently he didn’t need to eat but was curious, would try the different foods and observe more than participate, but things had been polite-to-friendly on all sides.

“Thanks,” Clint said, hoping everyone would follow along; he knew from Xavier that making all-powerful beings feel threatened didn’t end well. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

Vision blinked a few times. “It is… not to my taste, thank you. May I have some tea instead?”

Cool, communication. “Sure, there’s a whole cupboard full, everyone who drinks tea around here ordered what they like and it got out of hand.” He jerked a thumb toward the cabinet over where the Keurig sat. “Want some help, or do you think you’ve got it?”

“I have been making it for myself in my apartment… are the dishes communal?”

Sam and Darcy were magic, Clint swore. “Yeah, general rule, you get them out of the cupboards,” he waved in the right direction, “then after you use them you put them in the dishwasher for cleaning.” He pointed at that, too.

“Understood.” Vision took a mug out of the cupboard, filled it from the tap at the sink, and stood for a moment. The water started boiling.

Clint glared at everyone watching, caught Sam glaring at them too, and thankfully they all shut up.

Steve sort of shrugged at him, and Sidekick, on his shoulder, meowed over having her nap disturbed.

All but Tony, of course. “How’d you do that?” he asked.

Clint would give him credit, it was asked with simple curiosity.

Vision blinked. “I rubbed the molecules together until they heated up.”

“Works,” Bruce said with a nod, then went to get his own cup of tea, striking up an easy conversation with Vision about why there were five dozen kinds of tea for about ten people. At Bruce’s encouragement, Vision made cups of two different kinds of black tea, to compare the taste.

Clint and Sam traded a “??!?!” glance, Sam gave his own head the slightest “I am out of my depth” tilt, and drank.

“Xavier’s coming to restore Natasha’s memory today, right?” Steve asked the room at large.

Clint nodded. “Yeah, about nine.” He drank coffee, to hell with his aim, he hadn’t slept since Barnes told him about the damn control words. “I have reason to believe it will be bad, so y’all might want to hang around on standby, either to come help or get the hell out of the way.”

Tony made a sort of “oh god” noise and drank more coffee. He was slouched at the table in his flight suit he wore under his armor.

He knew Tony had a lot of issues with all the violence they all dished out to each other, just fucking around. Clint wished he could reassure Tony about this, but he had a really bad feeling.

Barnes, Logan, and Sam reassured Clint they would be there. Clint didn’t have the heart to tell them that he was sure if she wanted to she could get past the three of them, and him, AND Phil. Fortunately Xavier had some skills he kept on the down low, they could fall back on if they had to.

It was gonna suck.

@

“This is gonna suck,” Sam told Clint under his breath.

“Probably worse than you think, I spoke to Barnes,” Clint told him back, as quietly as he could. Thanks to his hearing being borked he was never quite sure what ‘quiet’ was, but Sam heard him and no one else seemed to, so that was good.

“Fuck,” Sam muttered.

“Just don’t forget they were partners for forty years; she’s going to have a grudge the size of Alaska when Xavier’s done,” Clint leaned toward Sam and spoke while barely breathing, hoping Sam could do the half-lip-reading he and Phil did so often.

He did. “Oh fuck,” was mouthed in reply.

Clint leaned back and watched the room. He had his back against the door of his apartment, Phil on one side and Sam on the other. Logan and Barnes were standing in the kitchen area, trying to be out of the way and look innocent, which was hilarious; both of them looked like a bar fight waiting to happen. They always did. Chaos on the hoof, so to speak.

Xavier was holding Nat’s hand where she was laid on the couch, both of them with their eyes shut.

Phil had quietly asked Bruce to come hang out for this, in case medical assistance was needed. So he was there, with his beat-up doctor’s bag and another box of medical supplies, worrying over by the dining table.

Clint had zero faith in any of them being able to stop Nat, except maybe Hulk. For what it was worth; Hulk wouldn’t stop her, he would throw in with her. Hulk thought Natasha was wonderful because she’d forgiven him for the freak-out on the hellicarrier when they first met, and furthermore she was nice to him. Hulk was loyal as hell to anyone who treated him like a person.

Barnes had insisted on being there, without his damn arm on, in case he was needed to answer questions or help in any way. AFTER he’d told Clint that Nat had reason to slit his throat. He’d passed that on to Phil, too, and both of them-

Nat sat up suddenly, and Xavier rolled his wheelchair back, getting out of her way. She pulled the wrapping off her eyes, snarling That Thing that she’d never translated for him. In nearly the same gesture as the bandage removal, she threw a knife. Everyone jumped and got out of the way except for Barnes, that stupid noble asshole, who stood right where he was and let it stick into his shoulder.

“Memory’s back, then,” Barnes said without inflection.

Natasha stood, made one move toward Barnes, then ran down the hall instead, where she just made it to the toilet before she started vomiting.

“Well, FUCK,” Logan said for all of them, stuck his unlit cigar in his mouth and reached for Barnes.

“Leave it,” Barnes said easily. “Plugs the hole. I’ll have Jem take care of it.” He met Bruce’s eyes, then Sam’s. “She’s going to need all of you; this’ll heal in a couple days. She knew that when she did it; she could have put it in my throat. Or my eye. Call me if I can help.”

The door behind Clint slid open, and feeling stupid, Clint got out of the way and let Barnes go.

The vomiting was continuing down the hall, shit, so he headed that way, followed by Phil, Sam, and Bruce.

-A-

In keeping with Tony’s order to JARVIS, he pinged in his shop and announced, “Sergeant Barnes was injured by Agent Romanov and is reporting to the medical wing for treatment.”

Steve was at Sam’s painting, so Tony first said “relay that to Steve, please,” then thought about it, and asked “injured how?” trotting out of his shop toward the elevator.

Jem met him there, face grim, and answered for JARVIS. “She stuck a knife in him, as soon as her memory was restored.”

Oh great, a blood feud between two people amped up on the Infinity Formula or whatever. And seventy years of murder training. That was just dandy. He got on the elevator with Jem. “Any idea how bad it is?”

She moved her head from side to side a little. “If he’s ambulatory, it’s not that bad and probably healing already. However it IS Natasha and given her last work with James, it appears she is very pinpoint in her violence. We’ll just have to see.”

Jem was scowling like a mama bear and Tony knew what she was like when protecting patients, “you may want to ease back on giving Natasha hell.” Given the day Natasha was probably having.

“We’ll see,” Jem said with a sniff.

Tony knew that sniff, and kind of cringed. He followed her off the ‘vator on the medical wing, passed through a waiting room containing a few SI employees, and found Barnes sitting calmly on a gurney in an emergency treatment area, prosthetic arm nowhere to be seen, knife sticking out of the shoulder of his right, only arm, which was hanging limply.

Well, fuck.

As soon as they walked in JARVIS put up a scan of the joint in question, with the knife still in it.

“Bloody, buggering FUCK,” Jem snarled, pulling on gloves.

“Color code it for me, J,” Tony asked. Thanks to building the armor and his own and Barnes’ health bullshit, he was pretty good at anatomy now but he still liked having JARVIS do muscles red, blood vessels blue, and nerves - “ho, fuck.”

“Yeah, she severed all the nerves to my arm,” Barnes said calmly, holding still as Jem began cutting him out of a minor league baseball tee that Tony KNEW belonged to Steve.

He’d buy each of them a new one.

“I am going to have a serious word with her-” Jem began, extremely annoyed, peeling fabric away from the wound. It had bled a little bit, but already stopped.

“Don’t, please, Jem,” Barnes said gently. “The nerves will heal in a couple days, put it in a sling and I’ll wear my prosthetic.”

“This is a little beyond a nick under your eye, buddy,” Tony began, as Steve slid into the room looking worried.

“What the hell?” Steve asked.

“Natasha got her memory back,” Barnes told him, with a little quirk of a smile.

A fucking smile.

“I told you I’d shoot you myself-” Steve said hotly, Tony wondered what that was about.

“Nah, I didn’t provoke her this time, not like you mean,” Barnes said in what Tony thought as his personal among-friends voice, much quieter, warmer, and with a Brooklyn accent.

“Then what the hell?” Steve asked, waving his arms.

Barnes sighed, looked at all four of them. Jem was standing by with bandages but not doing anything yet, glaring and waiting for an explanation. “Keep this among yourselves for now?”

They all indicated they would.

“Natalia Romanova Shostakov – that was her name, you’ll find it in dance history books, she was a principal dancer with the Bolshoi – was partnered with and married to Alexei Shostakov, for about forty years.”

That was the alias Barnes had said he lived under in Russia, oh shit.

“What?” Steve said blankly.

“Yeah,” Bucky shrugged his half-artificial shoulder. “She just remembered forty years married to what was left of me after the Soviets brain-fried me into submission. They burned out everything that made me Bucky Barnes. Hell, they’d haul me off and brain fry me every year or so, even after I started playing nice. My chosen pain medication for the arm or any injury was vodka. I was a mean, nasty, violent drunk. How would you feel, if you spent twenty-odd years rebuilding after a forty year marriage to an abusive son of a bitch, only to have him staring down at you after remembering all the abuse in one giant download? Imagine that, with Natasha Romanov's skill set.”

Tony sort of winced, and inspected his boots. They’d all suspected something like this since that middle-of-the-night meeting, but having Barnes state it so baldly made it real.

“Well.” Jemma allowed. “It was rather nice of her not to put it in your throat.”

“I thought so too.” Barnes said.

Natasha and Barnes. Still married. Jesus Christ, talk about the murder couple. And he’d thought Natasha and Clint were deadly. Oh fuck, Clint was going to throw in with her for any form of revenge she wanted, and Phil would back them both. He wondered how much of the existing Russian government had played a part in the Red Room. A lot of them were old enough to have been involved at the end.

At the end, when she’d been tortured, damn near killed, and tossed into a ditch like garbage.

Then taken in by a circus performer who was also the world’s best sniper, and the world’s second-best spy who was also the world’s number one covert ops expert.

Fuck, was someone gonna beat up people Natasha had slept with while married to Barnes? Barnes didn’t seem inclined, but apparently there were a lot of people involved here other than Barnes.

They were going to fuck up so much shit. Probably starting with each other.

Maybe ending with overthrowing the Russian government. Tony tried to decide if he cared, but he leaned toward ‘not’. At least not about the government itself. If they installed something better, he might even be in favor.

Jem stepped forward to remove the knife, and Tony didn’t think he could stand watching Barnes bleed any more, and escaped with the excuse of going to get his prosthetic arm and a fresh shirt from his and Steve’s apartment.

- A -

After dinner, Phil called a meeting. He was so weary that he just had it around the kitchen table. No one had argued; he tried to distance the business of the Avengers from their personal lives, but this was both. And he’d spent most of the morning with Clint, holding Natasha together while she grieved. She’d put on a good face for dinner – better than his and Clint’s – and was sitting calmly at the table, sipping their high-nutrient beef broth. She couldn’t eat because she’d spent most of the day dry-heaving until her throat bled, and Bruce finally dosed her with some of the meds they’d developed for Steve and Barnes.

Given the subject matter, he waited until everyone was done eating, food was put away, and coffee, tea, and other drinks handed around. Most everyone looked extremely worried, for a variety of reasons.

Vision was picking up on the mood – probably reading it out of people’s minds – and had a slight frown, his head cocked, watching everyone.

First topic, “JARVIS,” Phil still spoke to the pickup cameras in the walls, even though JARVIS had assured him with all the cameras he had 3D vision and could see him from anywhere. “What’s the word on the Pokemon?” He couldn’t believe he’d even formed that sentence, what was his life?

“I haven’t found a sign of one, all day. After spending most of the morning scanning Manhattan, I moved on to other boroughs, and haven’t found a sign of anything.”

“So they’re either done, or mixing it up now,” Steve commented.

Phil nodded. “Any idea?” he asked Logan, who was their teenaged mutant expert.

“Unless they got caught for something else, they’re mixing it up. Why stop? No one suspects them and they haven’t gotten the mayhem they wanted yet.” Logan took a swig of whiskey, then exhaled cigar smoke toward the air intake over the cooking area.

That was the conclusion Phil had come to, so it was both good and bad to have Logan back it up.

“So we’ll continue being at the ready, in case JARVIS alerts us,” Phil decided. “Everyone try to remain armed or at least ready, in case we have to go get one of these damn things at a moment’s notice. So far Spidey and Iron Man have managed alone, but because of that, I’m afraid next time it’ll be an escalation requiring more manpower to take care of.”

Logan nodded agreement. Which was again both good and bad.

“Next,” Phil began, “Prince T’Challa contacted the office today and asked for a meeting with whoever’s in charge of the Avengers, and Steve, tomorrow afternoon. So me, Tony, and Steve...”

Pepper hastily swallowed her drink and said “Let me know the time and I’ll make sure to be there, too. Will Princess Shuri or Princess Nakia be along?”

“No,” Phil was glad Pepper was going to make time for that, because he wasn’t sure if it would be good news or bad. Like everything else at the moment. “General Okoye is his bodyguard, so she’ll be along but prefers to be treated as if she’s invisible, like most bodyguards.”

Pepper nodded and made a note on her phone, and Kate was doing the same.

Thank goodness Phil had SOMEONE else organized around here.

“I called the Sorcerer Supreme. Wong says hi, by the way,” Maria told everyone, “he – Wong - said if it gets into life-threatening levels, to call and Wong will come help out. Otherwise, if it’s mutant nuisance stuff, he’s agreed to leave it up to Xavier.”

“In his defense, he has,” Logan confirmed.

Maria growled and took another swallow of beer.

Logan grinned a little but didn’t follow up with Maria; smart man. “I have a topic, since we’re all here. The Xavier School has extended an invitation to Steve to spend his birthday out there, as a guest during their Fourth of July party. It’s fun, the kids do the fireworks themselves.” He paused for a swig of beer. “I pointed out that Steve wasn’t going to want to go out there alone, so they invited all of you, including support staff, to go along.”

“That’d be nice,” Steve said. “Spend time with a bunch of good kids, remember why the hell the world’s worth protecting.”

Everyone who was genetically unique beamed at him.

“So you know,” Clint added, “this is a huge compliment. Non-mutants aren’t allowed on campus without a vote being taken. Enough kids vote against it, you don’t get in.”

“Kurt told everyone what kind of reception he’s gotten when he visited here,” Logan explained. “The kids decided that people who see past Kurt’s looks to the nice guy, were welcome on campus.” He nodded at Darcy. “They all especially loved hearing that when he teleported everyone in, all of you applauded like it was his time in the circus, and Tony Stark’s baseline PA greeted him with coffee and pastries without a blink.”

Everyone smiled at Darcy.

“Laws of hospitality,” she explained, and raised her glass of soda to Thor, who nodded and raised his tankard of beer in return.

“You’re all willing to go?” Steve asked.

He got a chorus of affirmatives.

“Get a head count and let Xavier know we’ll come,” Phil told Logan, and Logan nodded, smiled, and blew another smoke ring toward the air intakes.

“Next topic,” Phil began, “Natasha got her memory back-”

Barnes sort of hunched in his seat next to Steve, and Natasha spoke up.

“Technically I’m Natalia Romanova Shostakov, but I’m sticking with Natasha Romanov. It’s what I’m used to, and who I am now.” She waited, as if someone was going to challenge her, but no one did.

Everyone nodded.

“The Shostokov is because I’m technically still married to Alexei Shostakov,” Natasha explained, and jerked a thumb down the table at Barnes.

“Oh damn,” Darcy muttered under her breath.

Natasha smiled very slightly at that, which was better than she’d done all day; he didn’t pretend to understand the friendship between Nat and Darcy, but it was strong and he was glad of it.

Everyone else looked like they wanted to get out from between Natasha and Barnes in case of sudden violence.

“In keeping with Darcy’s plan,” Natasha continued, “we’re going to announce he was living in Russia as Alexei Shostakov, dancing with the Bolshoi and working as an assassin, my partner, while I did the same thing. After my go-round with that congressional committee, they know I’ve been an assassin for a while now.”

“That’ll reveal to the world you have the serum, or a form of it,” Barnes told her gently, using his patient voice. “You don’t have to do that to cover my sorry ass.”

“Don’t tell me what to do, Barnes. I’m hoping it’ll make everyone more afraid of me, especially the Russian government” Natasha answered, and Phil watched Sam wince.

“Ooookay,” Tony said under his breath.

“I think that’s about it,” Phil decided the less said about the Barnes-Natasha situation the better, “so unless anyone else has something to add-”

“I do, if that’s all right, Director Coulson,” JARVIS said politely.

Phil looked at Tony, who shrugged. “Of course, JARVIS, go ahead,” Phil was extremely curious.

The image of a young man was projected onto the table. Stats next to him, Conor Allen currently living in New York, originally from New London, Connecticut, with degrees in-

“HOT DAMN DID YOU FIND ME A PR WONK, J?” Darcy shouted.

“I believe I have, Ms Lewis,” JARVIS said, and it sounded like he was smiling. “Mr Allen has degrees in marketing and public relations, is currently at JP Morgan, being woefully underpaid in their PR division. However,” the image of Allen shifted, and an Avengers fan site popped up, “he also runs the country’s most popular Avengers fan site, and he has been spinning everything we do with a great deal of skill.” The web site pages flipped around and settled on “Captain America using ‘America’s Ass’ hash tag to raise money for veteran’s charities” with details and a picture of Steve’s posterior in his USO shorts. (The USO, with Steve’s permission, had since started selling shorts with their URL across the backside, and might wind up making more off those than they did in donations when Steve wore them out jogging.)

“I have run a background check on him, and he is, to borrow one of Sir’s terms, squeaky clean.”

“Hire him hire him hire him,” Darcy chanted.

“We’ll bring him in for an interview with an eye toward hiring, thank you JARVIS,” Pepper said, grinning at Darcy.

“Thank you. And while you’re investigating him, I would also like it if Mr Allen’s life mate – his term – is hired.” Another image flashed up on screen.

“Oh!” Steve smiled. “That’s Chris, from the other night when I got arrested. Nice kid. What do you want to hire him for, JARVIS?”

“Mr Smith has a degree in library sciences. He is also woefully underpaid, this time working as a clerk at the New York Public Library. I believe he does work for the fan site, and is a gifted researcher, because he and Mr Allen have published several photos found nowhere else on the ‘net.” One popped up of all the Howling Commandos playing poker around a tree stump.

“I remember that,” Barnes said softly, and Steve clapped him gently on the shoulder.

“I would like to have someone on staff whose education and experience is in research,” JARVIS continued. “It appears one of my primary jobs for the Avengers is going to be to provide information, as much and as fast as possible. As such, I feel I would benefit from human assistance. Just as Hawkeye and I have worked together and done more than either one of us would have, on our own.”

“Great idea, JARVIS,” Pepper nodded, shooting a worried glance at Tony, who seemed to be in shock, “we’ll invite them both in for interview and unless something unexpected comes up, we’ll hire them.”

“Hooray!” Darcy shouted, and threw torn-up paper napkin confetti. “No more PR!”

“I’ll still want you to keep an eye on it,” Phil said apologetically.

“Still better than constantly monitoring social media while trying to do other stuff,” Darcy said. “I never thought I’d get tired of fooling around on social media, but I am.”

- A -

After dinner, Tony went upstairs to the penthouse, Pepper and Steve following. It didn’t surprise him when Pepper practically read his mind because she’d been doing it for years, but it was weird when Steve joined in. He wasn’t THAT obvious, was he?

Hell, he probably was.

“What’s wrong,” Pepper demanded as soon as the front doors shut.

Maybe he was obvious.

Tony considered trying a ‘nothing’ and really, he was too smart for that, what was he thinking? “Nothing major, Steve, shouldn’t you be propping up Barnes? He didn’t have a great day today.” Fine, he was manipulating everyone to avoid talking but he was doing it by CARING, that made it okay, right? (He knew what Sam would say to that, fuck.)

“Tony,” Pepper said gently.

Tony gave up, dropped on the couch and was gratified and pleased when Pep sat on one side and Steve sat on the other, and each took one of his hands. Maybe poly relationships always needing to talk about stuff wasn’t entirely awful. “It’s just… first JARVIS goes out and makes a friend and gets himself nominated for the next Fields Medal doing work with them, now he’s hiring employees?”

“I’m sorry, Sir. Did I do something I wasn’t supposed to?” JARVIS asked immediately.

Tony got his hands free and buried his face in them. Breathed for a minute or so. “No, J, do what you want, you’re not causing anyone harm and you’re being a huge help for the Avengers. I appreciate it. It’s just that for most of your life you’ve lived with me, and it’s been just the two of us and the bots, and, well, you’ve adjusted to being surrounded by people better than I have, I suspect.”

“Oh.” JARVIS took some time to consider – he always needed lots of processing time by computer standards, to deal with human issues. “Do you wish me to remain only in your shop?”

And Tony wanted to kick himself. “No, buddy.” He said it as gently as possible, hoping JARVIS would understand from that that he was dead serious. “I want you to be happy, and you seem to be. As for the rest, you’ve been incredibly helpful for every person who has moved in here, and I’m proud as hell of you for that. I’m just having trouble keeping up with how things have changed. That’s not on you, you’re doing great.” He hoped to hell that communicated his feelings properly, because otherwise he was bringing Sam in for relationship counseling with his AI, because he didn’t want JARVIS to think that he was unhappy with him in any way.

“Oh,” JARVIS said again, then processed some more. “I think possibly because of the early years with you and the bots, things were rather chaotic? Maybe due to that, I’ve come to enjoy unexpected challenges and people.”

“You’re doing a great job of it,” Pepper added, with her arm around Tony.

“Thank you,” JARVIS said, sounding very pleased.

“Without you and Darcy, I don’t think I’d have ever caught up with pop culture,” Steve added, “at least caught up enough to catch most of the references made around here.”

“I quite enjoy working with Ms Lewis. Her mind is very… flexible, like Sir’s. But she builds with people, rather than materials.”

That was a perfect description of Darcy, Tony thought. “You’ve been doing great,” he repeated. And curled into the embrace of Steve and Pepper. Steve pulled them both in tight, kissed the tops of their heads, and they all stayed that way for quite a while.

Steve finally stirred and kissed both of them again, this time on the lips.

Tony watched him kiss Pepper at close quarters and put a hand on Steve’s jaw and turned Steve’s head slightly, and kissed him again, then gently pushed him back toward Pepper. They kissed, and Tony was thisclose to leaning in and licking along the line where their lips were meeting, and Steve reluctantly sat back a little from them both.

“I would love to do this all night,” he told them roughly, then gave a few more quick kisses, “but Bucky’s downstairs, I think alone, or alone with Sam, and he’s had one hell of a day.”

Pepper kissed Steve, then. “You’re right, I heard about the knife, and saw the sling at dinner. Go look after him, and we’ll pick this up another time.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, and they kissed another five or ten minutes before he finally dragged himself away.

Tony had JARVIS play a recording of one of the Met’s operas, the sound turned down, and got serious about making out with Pepper. She pulled him close and bit his bottom lip, and he was sorry so many friends were having trouble, but life was GOOD.

- A -

In the morning, Bucky was sore in his right shoulder from the knife that’d been in it, sore in his left entire upper torso from the goddamn wiring Hydra put in, and in need of any kind of distraction. He thought of the cross-training idea he’d had, about how Team Delta could all do each other’s jobs, and trying to get the Avengers able to at least fake it well, if not do each others’ jobs.

After breakfast was over and cleanup was done and everyone was off on their daily schedules, he asked “JARVIS, where is Phil?” Since he’d gotten a load of Director Coulson in action in Sokovia, he respected the hell out of him, but given how he and Clint acted in private, he could only think of the guy as Phil. Who fed his boyfriend’s dog and Steve’s cat scraps, and had a dead-dry sense of humor, and was kind and easygoing and accepted everyone as is. He might have been the best commando team leader ever, but before all that, Bucky always saw nice guy, first.

“Director Coulson is in the hand gun range,” JARVIS announced, so Bucky hopped on the elevator to the range floor as it was known, because there were multiple ranges, because Stark was a madman. He opened the door and Phil was unloading on a paper target of Nick Fury that Stark had printed up because dude had a sense of humor as off-the-wall as the rest of him.

Bucky waited until Phil was done and took off the ear muffs. Then he said “Hey, Phil, I wanted to talk-”

Coulson slapped a magazine into his Glock, chambered a round and had it pointed between Bucky’s eyes in less than a second.

Impressive.

Bucky immediately put up his metal hand – the flesh and blood one wasn’t moving yet – and held still.

Almost as fast as he’d pointed the weapon, Phil pointed it down at the floor while snapping the safety on. “Jesus.” He seemed a little out of breath. “Don’t sneak up on me. Thought someone had warned you about that.”

Those intense eyes, over the sights of a weapon. He knew those eyes. “No, I apologize. Is it okay to put my hand down?”

“Yeah,” Phil holstered the weapon, rubbed his hands over his face. “Loki stabbed me in the back. I don’t do real well with people behind me these days.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”

Phil simply shook his head, turned, and picked up the empty magazines and ammo boxes he’d left on the bench at the end of the lane where he’d been shooting, tossed them in a trash can nearby. Out on the range, little round gizmos were vacuuming up slugs, and closer, another one was sucking up all the ejected brass.

Stark. Dude was fifty times better an engineer than his dad was. Never missed a detail.

“I came down to talk to you about some training ideas for the Avengers I had, if you’re interested.”

“I would like to hear those ideas, yes.” Phil seemed to be a little shaky yet, went over and got a drink from the fridge full of sports drinks that were in every one of the ranges. He offered one to Bucky, and Buck shook his head.

“That’s what I came down here for. Seeing your eyes over those sights ready to pull the trigger on me, though...” Bucky tried to think of a tactful way to put it, but there wasn’t one. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d survived an encounter with the Winter Soldier?”

Phil quirked his little smile, said “it would have sounded like bragging” through the grin, before drinking.

Yeah, surviving the Winter Soldier would be something to brag about, around here. Jesus. “We should talk about that, too, I suppose.”

Phil seemed to consider, then nodded. “Yeah. Tomorrow, morning meeting? I hate to have him here, but Nick was involved, and deserves to hear this side of it.”

“Is he the one who ordered the air strike?”

“I ordered it, he made sure the order was carried out.”

“You called for an air strike on your own location.”

“Yep.” He smiled a little bit again, just the faint crinkle around his eyes. “Since we’re both sitting here now, you’ve got to admit, it worked.”

Bucky was starting to see why Clint, who’d kept up with Natasha Romanov for over a decade, thought Coulson was as badass as she was.

Chapter Text

It was morning and Bucky – he usually thought of himself as Bucky these days, that was an improvement, starting to assimilate all those experiences even if he didn’t want most of them – had rolled into breakfast with Steve. They were all milling around the way they did when Skye, Fitz, and Jem got off the elevator. Jem had a black eye skillfully covered with makeup, and his ears started ringing.

He went over and demanded “What happened?” He knew it wasn’t his damn business, but it was. With all the memories he had rolling around in his head, he couldn’t bear the idea of any more violence against loved ones, anywhere around him.

Fitz and Skye froze for a split second, then stood on either side of Jem, practically at attention. “It was an accident, James,” Jem said gently.

“Someone harmed you. Who was it?” He demanded again.

The idea of anyone harming her, this tiny, gentle woman with the courage of a lion, he couldn't take. No. He wouldn’t tolerate it.

Jem looked behind him, where he supposed everyone else was standing, waiting. “Uh, Buck?” he heard Steve say. He flipped his hand behind him in an old gesture of ‘I’m busy here’ they used to use. Steve was talking behind him but it was under the ringing and he didn’t care. That wasn’t the issue right now.

“Jem?” He asked again roughly.

Jem huffed a little. “Oh, very well,” she said with a little temper. “We were in bed last night, I rolled at the same time Leo rolled, and he clipped me with his elbow.”

“It was entirely an accident.” Fitz confirmed.

Skye said hastily, “I was there. In the bed and this morning. It’s all true. It was an accident, and Leo’s apologized since. About twenty times.”

He turned on Fitz, glared at him, into him. Saw a surprising amount of courage there, but also sadness that he’d hurt someone he cared for. It was an accident, no one was beating up Jem.

The ringing eased off a bit, and he realized he had been speaking Russian. Bucky – he was Bucky, DAMN IT, staggered back a little and sat on the back of a couch.

Jem, predictably, clucked her teeth and came to check his pulse, look at his eyes. She used the flashlight in her comm – it had one of those? - to check his pupils.

“When did you learn to speak Russian?” he asked hoarsely as her little fingers pressed gently at the side of his neck. She’d clearly understood everything he said.

“I’ve been working on it with JARVIS and Natasha since you came in. It seemed like a good idea.”

A good idea. Bucky looked at Fitz. “You have balls of steel, kid.”

Fitz shrugged, looked around at everyone, NOW nervous. “I was afraid you’d hurt her.”

Bucky shook his head. “SHE was never the one in danger.”

“...oh.” Fitz looked a little taken aback but still not entirely freaked out.

Bucky felt strongly he should look more freaked out, having been face to face with damn near the Winter Soldier. It was possible he’d underestimated Fitz, since he was a scientist.

“When were you going to tell us you were together?” Darcy demanded, and appeared in his – oh hell, very narrowed line of vision. She hugged Skye.

“It’s, uh, it’s complicated,” Skye said, hugging Darcy back.

Jem, Buck could tell Jem wasn’t thinking about what she was saying, she was paying attention to him, worried about HIM after he’d just about broken the neck of one of her bed partners, “It’s a V-some, they’re called. They’re both with me. Leo and Skye aren’t together.”

“We’re friends though,” Skye hastily added.

He hoped to hell, if they were all sharing a bed.

“It’s like this because Skye knew Jem loved both of us and made it happen,” Fitz explained further. “So while I’m of the opinion Skye’s the most wonderful person in the world, we aren’t together.”

“Lesbian,” Skye shrugged.

Darcy hugged Leo next, oblivious to or not worried about the assassin meltdown happening next to her.

The ringing in his ears was mostly gone but his vision was still hyper-focused right in front of him. Shit.

“You don’t seem surprised, James,” Jem finished tartly, putting her comm away.

“Enhanced sense of smell,” Bucky said. Jem had smelled like someone else, a woman – who turned out to be Skye – since they met, and about two weeks after he’d come in, the scent of a guy – who turned out to be Fitz – had been added to the mix. He figured he’d violated everyone’s privacy plenty, and kept that to himself.

Jem’s cheeks were a little pink, but she didn’t argue. “I can take care of myself, you know,” she told him.

Bucky thought about Fitz and Skye standing up to him, wondered if they DID have self-defense skills. They’d been working with May for years, after all. So he dropped it. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“Mmm,” Jem said. “I still haven’t collected on the debt from you ruining your recovery.”

He didn’t know what to say to that, so he kept his yap shut while everyone came over to hug and slap shoulders and be supportive of the new-to-them relationship in their midst.

Sam came to him instead. “Where are you?”

Bucky rolled his eyes, knowing this was a PTSD check. And since the ringing had just stopped in his ears and his vision was starting to go back to normal, he answered. “Stark Tower, to be named Avengers Tower if the city bureaucrats ever get off their asses. I just completely violated the privacy of my primary doctor who I admire and appreciate quite a lot, so I feel like a dick about that, and am freaked the fuck out because of the Russian bit, which I didn’t notice until right before I staggered over to take a seat on the back of this… whatever furniture name this is.”

With Sam, Bucky had learned the easiest way to keep things smooth was to start spilling details. It was more effective than any interrogation method he’d ever run into, because he knew at the heart of it, this wasn’t interrogation. This was his friend, and his shrink, worried about him. So hello, word vomit to trained professional who cared about him.

Sam nodded a little. “We’re gonna talk about this later.”

Buck thought of that Russian, and the ringing in his ears, and shivered a little. He knew Sam’s sharp eyes caught it. “Yeah, we are. But can we remember, I maintained and didn’t harm anyone?”

Sam nodded slowly. “That. Yes. That is what you’re going to be remembering. That this went down, and even with the Russian and the anger, you still weren’t violent. You aren't that guy.”

Man, he had a love-hate for Sam giving him the whammy. He worked on breathing while Steve came over and put an arm around him.

- A -

Prince T’Challa and General Okoye arrived right after lunch, making it possible for Pepper to have a working lunch and lose almost no time in her day. She’d put on another aqua blue suit, this one with slacks, that she’d gotten in Japan with Kate. The shirt was a silk tee in tie-dyed aqua and green tones, and the whole outfit was extremely bright. And expensive. Given it was supposed to be a fairly calm business meeting, she’d put on a necklace and earrings made of tear-drop blue moonstones, and diamond and crystal clips, one at the notch of her lapel on either side. CEO, not personal assistant.

She’d told Clint he was right about dressing the part. He’d given a triumphant “HA!” and fist-bumped her. She was growing very fond of Clint.

Tony, Steve, and Phil had put on varying versions of business suits, Phil with a purple tie (purple was Clint’s favorite color and Pepper found it adorable). Prince T’Challa was also in a suit, with his tie a subtle version of the Wakandan national flag; a field of black with four uneven lines across it, said to be claw marks of the Black Panther. This tie was black with small groups of four silver parallel lines scattered across it. General Okoye had on her usual black dress and fringed necklace – Pepper suspected it was vibranium - and was standing at attention near the door until the prince persuaded her to take a seat at the table with the rest of them.

Pepper herself got them all drinks as a gesture of respect, Steve helping, while Tony made small talk. From the respectful nods Prince T’Challa and General Okoye gave her when she handed them their coffee, they’d caught the subtlety and were appreciative. Nice.

Then she sat, looked at all of them, relieved to see the Wakandans looked friendly, and asked “so, what can we do for you?”

T’Challa smiled broadly and said “Shuri and I have persuaded our father – with the aid of the General and Nakia – to return the shield to Captain Rogers.”

“Oh.” Steve said in a small voice. You could tell the return was completely unexpected, and Pepper saw T’Challa noticed it as well, and approved. “Wow. You don’t have to, but I’d really appreciate it. I’ve missed the old girl.”

T’Challa laughed then, Pepper thought at the terminology. Then Tony said “hot damn, THANK YOU, I wondered why Shuri wouldn’t sell me any vibranium.”

The prince laughed a little and nodded again. “We have been pressing our father to return it from the moment we knew you’d given it back,” he gave Steve a respectful nod, and Steve nodded back. “The theft was, of course, very much against our moral code.”

“Of course,” Steve murmured. “Mine, too.”

“But the return of it, by someone uninvolved in the theft, for the sake of those very morals, well. We finally convinced him.”

“Thank you,” Pepper, Tony, Steve, and Phil all said pretty much at the same time.

The General smiled a little, and T’Challa chuckled. “We’re here today to discuss how to return it in a way that shows both the Avengers and our own nation, to our best advantage.”

Thank god, Pepper was finally working with SOMEONE who understood image.

“I have some ideas,” she told them both.

T’Challa smiled. “We have some as well. Shuri decided to… tinker with the shield a bit.” He smiled at Steve. “She saw the rivets and the leather straps and just couldn’t stand something that low-tech.”

Steve grinned back. “I’m sure it’s great, whatever it is. She’s a very talented princess.”

- A -

After the meeting, T’Challa asked Tony if they could have a word, privately. Just the two of them. He checked with Sam, then took T’Challa down the hall to Sam’s outer office. Everyone was calling it The Pub, they needed to name it, get a sign, some napkins and coasters.

Anyway.

He went behind the bar, and grinning a little bit, T went and sat on the opposite side.

When they’d been at MIT, Tony had been one of the few people on campus with an awareness of social rules. Hilarious, but his mom had raised him to run a corporation, so he knew all the fancy stuff. Most of the nerds and geeks on campus considered taking a shower once a week adequately social. So he’d ended up answering a lot of questions for T’Challa, from simple stuff like which fork to use, to puzzling over women together. So he really wondered what this was about.

Without thinking much, Tony made a couple of hot chocolates, got the high cal stuff for T because Tony was pretty sure that he was an augmented human.

“Quite a change,” T’Challa said after the first sip, referring to how they used to drink rum. Tony had put whipped cream on it, and it was stuck in his mustache.

Tony grinned a little, gestured to the table they all talked at. “What’s up?”

“You were always very good at keeping secrets, for all that you chatter like an ibis.”

And T’Challa had always been really good at talking around things, even better than he was. Tony couldn’t believe he missed the diplomatic training before the king showed up for graduation. “Of course. I had so much of my life smeared through the media, I wouldn’t do it to anyone else.” Particularly not someone he liked and respected, who’d never done anyone harm.

T nodded respectfully at him for that, which was surprising. “It seems to me, with our histories, you have more experience being angry with your father, than I do.”

Aw, hell. T’Challa and his dad had always been really close. T’Challa had always spoken fondly of his dad back in school, even though he left out the ‘king of Wakanda’ part. “Damn, I’m sorry to hear there are issues.”

“Issues,” T’Challa snorted a little, stared out the window. “Did you know I had an uncle? My father’s younger brother. And a cousin, his son.”

Holy shit. Shuri had never mentioned it, neither had T’Challa. “No.”

“Neither did I, until the cousin arrived in Wakanda and tried to assassinate my father and myself and assume the throne. He nearly succeeded, and I ended it by killing the cousin I should have grown up with as a dear friend.”

Tony was damn sure Ross was involved in that, didn’t know how. And hadn’t told the State Department this, either. “I’m sorry.” He was terrible at people. This was just awful, and he didn’t know what to say.

T’Challa gave another graceful nod, drank some more hot chocolate. “It turns out my honored uncle lived here in the US, and was part of the Black Panther party.”

Tony imagined Clint getting this data and adding it to his chart and screaming. “Crap, a lot of those guys -” came to really bad ends, at the hands of the US government.

“Indeed. In the case of my uncle, he was murdered by my father’s closest advisor, Zuri, who remains in my father’s council of elders. Even now, Father’s closest adviser and oldest friend. My uncle had been planning a terrorist attack here. And so he was killed. His son was left here. Abandoned by my father to protect the throne and the secrets of the nation. To grow up alone, on the streets, rather than as part of a family as should have been. That abandoned boy grew up to be a bitter, soulless killer, trained by the CIA, who nearly crippled the nation.”

T’Challa sounded angry as all hell, and Tony laid his hand over T’s and squeezed a bit. He didn’t say anything; he didn’t have words to express everything churning in his mind. And really, what the fuck did he know about family, only child of only children.

“My own sister, not yet an adult by our customs, had to fight in the following battle, as did Nakia. My oldest friend – now former - is in jail, his wife declared him dead to her. Culturally, Americans have nothing similar, but for us, it is a thing worse than divorce. And Father expects me to accept his actions as the proper way to secure the nation.” T’Challa stared out the window. “I know it is personal, my friend, but did you ever forgive your father? And if so, how?”

- A -

There’d been a breakfast meeting called for that next morning, around the table and informal. Steve privately asked Pepper if it had to do with his shield, and she said no, Phil had called it and she had no idea what it was about, but that wasn’t it. Pepper and Tony had been scheduled to leave for a lot of meetings in Europe the night before, but put it off for whatever this was. They were going to leave as soon as it was over, and walk straight into meetings in London.

Bucky seemed really antsy, until Nick Fury walked in, black suit and eye patch and all, and accepted a calm hello and cup of coffee from Phil. Then Steve paused to REALLY wonder what was going on.

Once Fury was seated, looking curious but trying not to, Phil opened the meeting with “Yesterday, Barnes remembered an encounter we had in nineteen ninety-two.”

Steve felt Bucky cringe a little, next to him, and put his arm across the back of the chair Buck was sitting in, to make him feel protected and send that message to anyone else in case they needed reminding. (Nick.)

“I remembered it before now, yesterday is when I realized the guy who shot me about twenty times was Phil.” Bucky sort of shook his head and grinned at the same time, then took a sip of coffee.

“It really was the Winter Soldier then,” Nick shook his head. “Son of a bitch.”

“You’re saying you tangled with the Winter Soldier in Iraq?” Tony repeated, looking more boggled than anything else. Steve felt the same, so he let that ride.

“While I was doing that solo tour at the Met, here in New York,” Natasha said softly. “I’d always wondered why they wouldn’t let you tour in the US with me. I guess now we know.”

Bucky nodded politely at Natasha and said yes.

Nick looked INTENSELY curious at that exchange, and was opening his mouth to say something when he shifted and shut his mouth again. Given the seating arrangements, Steve would bet Phil had just kicked Nick under the table. Hard.

“Since Nick was involved, it seemed only fair to call him in to hear the other side of it,” Phil told Bucky, a little apologetically. “Whatever you’re willing to share.”

“Willing to share? Fuck no, I want every damn detail,” Nick argued. “While we’re at it, why’s his arm in a sling?”

“You’re here as a guest. Keep it in mind or I’ll toss you out to make the point,” Steve said through his teeth. Nick wasn’t getting one damn molecule of information that Bucky didn’t want him to have. “Maybe through that window,” he added with a nod.

Buck bumped their shoulders together, his usual signal for Steve to shut up and calm down.

Steve shut up, but wasn’t ready to back down yet. He and Fury traded heated glares for a few seconds.

- A -

After Steve told Nick to shut up and Nick thankfully did, Barnes started talking, and Phil finally got some of the answers he’d wondered over for decades. He still wasn’t sure he’d be happy hearing them, but he was getting some anyway.

“You realize I never got briefings or explanations or any real idea what was going on, the way you're asking for.” Barnes told them all, picking at a stack of pancakes. “All I got was the order to go in and wipe out a company of Rangers. Leave no man standing.” He sighed a little, drank some coffee.

Phil nodded. He doubted they'd ever get the real reason why it had happened. Someone might get lucky in the Russian government archives fifty years from now. “I was up in lookout, saw him headed in. History nerd. That silver arm? I knew right away who it was, and what it meant. Shouted for everyone to entrench, gave all the signs and orders for a major incoming attack.” He got up and went for the brandy they kept over the coffee machine, and everyone waited. “They saw ol' Sarge the over-cautious yelling about a major attack, saw a single guy walking up the road, and ignored me.” He drank. “I know I got you with at least one of those RPGs.”

Barnes nodded, smiled slightly. “Stung. How many times did you shoot me?” He was using the quiet, warm voice with a whiff of Brooklyn in it, that Phil suspected was what Bucky Barnes had sounded like before he went off to war.

“A lot.” Phil said. He’d used hand guns, rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, everything he had. And the guy kept coming. Like the Terminator movies, but worse.

“I remember those cool eyes looking down the sights at me. That’s what clicked my memory. You made me more nervous than the rest of them combined.”

“Which was probably not much.”

“You'd be surprised. I definitely had you pegged as a big problem. Which you proved.”

“Wait.” Clint held up a hand. “Is this the time - you said once you played tag with another guy and some RPGs and when I asked for details you said I wouldn't believe it if you told me. Is this?”

“Yes.”

“Your pupils are heart shaped.” Natasha said to Clint.

“Hell they are. I'm so turned on right now, they should be dick shaped.”

Everyone shouted and threw napkins and flatware at Clint.

“First thing I did when I saw the Winter Soldier coming at us was get on the radio.” Phil told them all, and they quieted again. He gestured toward Nick.

“I was at HQ, word came in that Coulson wanted an airstrike ON HIS OWN POSITION, five minutes ago.” Nick told them all. “Got on the horn, double check, what the fuck? And he says 'Winter Soldier'. I said roger that, hung up, and called up an air strike on the source of the signal, who happened to be my best friend. Hoped like hell he was calling me from inside a bunker, but I wasn't holding my breath.”

“Meanwhile, I was two steps from the bunker, trying to get anyone I could down into it. It wasn't much. They were seeing one single guy and unable to comprehend he was a legitimate threat to an entire company of Rangers.” Phil continued. “The Soldier tore right through them.”

“I'd noticed the one guy who didn't panic, holding off and throwing every ranged weapon he could lay hands on, at me.” Barnes closed his eyes. “If they'd listened to you, some of 'em might have stood a chance.”

Abruptly, Phil then finished with,“then I felt them drop the bombs and dove into the bunker, and the world was on fire. Woke up in a field hospital a week later, Fury on up to the President wanting to know what the fuck had happened.” Phil gave his usual 'what else could I do?' shrug and went back to his coffee. “That was, uh, that was also the start of my relationship with Congress. They had me testify. Closed session. Four of us survived. Me and three guys too messed up to offer a coherent narrative.” One had hung himself not long after, one was institutionalized for a while, and two survivors remained on heavy psych medication to the very day.

They hadn’t handled Phil’s death too well, either.

Leo, down the table, asked carefully “felt them drop the bombs?”

“Yeah, gets so when you're waiting on an air strike, you can kind of feel it coming in.” Phil told him. “There are firsthand accounts all through the history of warfare, extra senses popping up on battlefields. I've always privately wondered if there is some kind of spontaneous X-gene mutation that happens under physical stress. My own reactions were fairly normal among career soldiers, but I’ve seen a few things, if it wasn't an X mutation, I have no idea how they were doing it.”

“Dad always said that was bullshit, you know.” Tony put in. “Until I did some field studies. You guys can get spooky. Never found any X gene anything, but the testing had to be voluntary and almost no one volunteered.”

“Old soldiers.” Phil said as explanation. “I've been tested and it's negative. We just know.”

Beside him, Clint gave a snort-nod of agreement and drank some of Phil’s brandy.

“I got dragged out of the wreckage later by some Russian troops pretending to be UN, and sent back to Kiev, where they tortured me for a couple days for fucking it up, then sent me back to the Bolshoi,” Bucky said, to finish his side of things, Phil supposed.

Nick’s eyes were intent and Phil could practically watch puzzle pieces clicking together in his head. Fuck.

“Between that and a major torture session a few years before, he arrived in a wheelchair. There was some story given about a car accident, and he moved into choreography, which kept him off stage and made him less grouchy,” Natasha added.

Nick looked extremely curious. Phil hoped it would keep him awake for weeks. Phil kicked him again, partly to remind him to be silent and partly because he could.

“And because of that, I came to the attention of Congress as someone good at threat analysis, so that when Nick was permanently loaned to SHIELD, he was able to take me along,” Phil finished.

Clint blinked and got that glazed ‘thinking hard’ look and Phil suspected his map of team relationships was going to get weirder and he was going to remain in the middle of it. He refused to shudder because Nick would notice.

“You were working with Barnes in ninety-two?” Nick asked Natasha.

“Sometimes.” Natasha said, very definitely, and nothing else.

He kicked Nick again, and added “I’ll walk you out,” to make it clear they were finished.

Nick stared him down for a minute. “Sure,” he finally said, and drained his coffee, got up. Phil walked with him out through the common room to the elevators. “It was good to see you again, Cheese,” Nick said, a little sadly.

Phil felt the same sadness; he missed Nick, missed his best friend, but had zero trust left, so what was the point? “Yeah, you too, Marcus.”

Then he left, and Phil tried to shake off the past and get to work.

- A -

Sam walked in, looked around. Darcy was standing at the railing of the balcony, still in her suit from her day at the UN, flute of champagne in one hand, bottle in the other. “Yeah?” he asked.

Kate turned from where she’d been watching Darcy. “She’s been out there for half an hour. She usually ignores the balcony. I’m the only one who uses it.”

“Uses it?”

“In and out. I like to go for walks at night.”

“Yeah. I remember that walk we met you on. Where the hell do you go? We’re on the ninety-third floor.”

“Kevlar rope. If you push off really hard, you can make it to the sixtieth floor service walkways on the building across the street. Pick a lock, in you go, down to the ground. Or up to the roof.”

“We are going to discuss that soon, and at length.” Sam pointed a finger at her.

“Clint knows.”

“That doesn’t do one damn thing to make me feel better. Clint’s barely got the sense God gave a duck. For now, come on.” He went out and stood at Darcy’s shoulder, looking out over the city with her. North east, toward the Park and then in the distance you could see Harlem. Hell of a view. Whole city was laid out at her feet. “Hey Darce.” He did his damnedest to sound casual, because Kate was right. Come home from a long day at the United Damn Nations, stare out over the city while drinking? Time to ask some questions.

“Hey, Sam,” her eyes twinkled with her usual humor, over the top of the flute as she took another swig. She was lit, but calm and in a good mood. “Gonna need another bottle if you want some.” She emptied the last of the champagne into the glass, rolled the bottle across the floor, into the apartment.

The bottle wasn’t chucked off the balcony, that was a good thing, right?

Sam had never seen her drink more than a beer or glass of wine at a time, so that wasn’t great either. Might as well start with the obvious. “Really good day, or really bad?” He was hoping the champagne was celebrational and not her choice for benders.

She gave that low, deep laugh. “Oh my god. Good day. Thor’s a fucking madman. Mad god. Mad alien? Madman. Thor. Oh my god. Thor’s my god. I think I’m a little tipsy.”

“You’re a lot tipsy. How about we step back from the rail, then, maybe sit down?” Sam took her hand, and he and Kate both breathed a little easier as she went with them calmly and sat in a lounger, took another drink.

“Are you okay?” Kate finally asked bluntly.

Darcy looked at Kate for a minute, then down at the champagne. “Right, right. Not my usual evening ritual.” She giggled a little. “Sorry if you worried. I’m fine.” She reached into the inside pocket of her suit jacket, pulled out a dark red leather passport. “When we set up the embassy here, Thor insisted on some arcane legalities that are traditional for adopted family on Asgard and long story short, I’ve been issued a passport as a citizen of Asgard. By being adopted by Thor, I am legally a citizen of Asgard. I have dual citizenship, with another planet.”

“That’s pretty cool.” Sam admitted.

“No. No, that’s not the drinking.” Darcy gave another giggle, and handed Sam the folder that he could now see was a fairly usual booklet-style passport. Except- “See the metallic gold around the edges of the pages?”

“Yeah.”

She giggled again, into the champagne flute. “Thor worked it so I have diplomatic immunity.”

That did not sound like something Darcy should have. “Diplomatic immunity for where, exactly?” Oh shit.

“The entire planet.” She couldn’t stop laughing now.

“Asgard?” Sam asked, unable to believe anyone would be clueless enough to-

“No, EARTH. What fuckin’ nutcase gives ME diplomatic immunity for the entire planet?” Then Darcy gave up and fell back into the seat, laughing. “Asgard too, I think the entire Nine Realms, but whatever.”

“Girlfriend, we are gonna have so much fun.” Kate took Darcy’s flute and had a swig.

Darcy, unable to breathe, nodded and held up her fist.

Kate bumped it.

“All right, no benders on the balcony, new rule.” Sam decided. “Inside if you’re going to drink. JARVIS, keep the doors shut until they’re sober again.”

“Very good, Sergeant Wilson.”

“Thanks. Now. Where is Thor?”

“Prince Odinson is in his apartments.”

“Tell him I’m on my way.”

@

Thor was waiting at the open door when Sam crossed the hall. Rather formally, he was ushered in, given a drink, and offered a seat in a large, comfortable chair in a living room full of tapestries of constellations and planets. “What can I do for you, my friend?” Thor asked politely, taking a seat opposite.

“You got Darcy diplomatic immunity for two planets,” Sam jumped right in. Wasn’t in the mood for small talk. “Do you have any IDEA the hell she can get up to?”

Thor paused for a moment, clearly considering his words. Then, cautiously, he said “the title and office of Vinur that she holds, makes her part of my family. It would be disrespect to agree to anything less than the same diplomatic immunity granted other members of my retinue and embassy. As such she has diplomatic recognition and immunity in the Nine Realms, which includes nine planetary civilizations, several moons, and affiliated territories.”

“Do you realize what she’ll do with that?” Sam demanded. Darcy on the loose with no law to stop her. She was effective enough at chaos WITHOUT that freedom.

“Not precisely,” Thor admitted. “I look forward to seeing it.”

Sam must have glared, and knew he made some disgusted noise.

Thor took a breath, seemed to be summoning patience. “Sam. Darcy is the first Vinur I have ever taken. Most Vinurs to members of the Asgardian… aristocracy, use the power granted them to set themselves up with great wealth and power on their home planets. It is expected by Asgard, is seen as the reward for their duties performed. My father’s first Vinur currently rules Vanaheim as, you would call him an absolute monarch, as I understand your terminology. King. Of an entire planet and several moons and space colonies.”

Holy shit.

“Darcy, however.” Thor took a sip out of a giant tankard, then smiled a little. “Darcy’s first demand as my Vinur, was to get into the Archives. For knowledge. While fighting with Odin All-Father on that, she felt compassion for one of the most powerful Asgardians, Heimdall, and gained him the occasional ‘day off’ he has told me he enjoys very much. My Vinur does what she can with the power I give her, to see equality achieved. Her goal is not wealth, nor power in the traditional sense. It is knowledge, knowledge that can be used to bring peace and growth. That is her greatest desire. It is an honor to have her as part of my household, and she is treated with deepest respect by those on Asgard who know her, because she clearly is not interested in wealth or power, but is using her authority for knowledge, wisdom, and to aid those around her.”

Sam knew he was looking like a deer in headlights, but he hadn’t had any clue what Vinur really meant when he talked Darcy into the job. Holy shit.

“And so yes, in the way you meant it, I did know what I was doing when I arranged for her to have such power. I will do all I can to give her more. She is working on things for me, but in addition to my request, she has already arranged for Heimdall, one of the most powerful on Asgard, to have more freedoms from his duty to the All-Father. Entirely out of kindness; there is no gain for her in getting Heimdall a ‘day off’. She has spoken of…” Thor squinted a little, Sam thought he was trying to remember exact wording. He understood the concepts of government better than most of them, but he had trouble remembering Midgard’s specific terminology.

Finally Thor tried again. “She has spoken to me of your Constitution, and how it can be changed, amended? And that such a change was tried before her lifetime, and failed. She wants to try again. That is her current goal. To legally encode freedom for all into your out-dated Constitution. With such a goal? Yes. I will give her all aid and power I can to see that done, and consider it an honor.”

There really wasn’t anything to say to that.

But goddamn, Darcy on the loose.

- A -

It was after dinner on Thursday night, and Steve was helping clean up with Thor, Clint, and Sam. Dinner had been calm, for them, and Steve was starting to think they really were settling into a team. Phil wasn’t happy with their approach to rules, but it was the nature of groups like theirs to break rules. It was how and why they existed; if regular follow-orders military could get it done, they wouldn’t be needed. And if they were regular straight arrows, they’d be no more use than the military. Steve felt kind of bad for Phil; he was filling the same role Colonel Phillips had played with the Howlies. Interference between them and the people in charge.

Except this time Phil was more of a fellow teammate, meaning he knew all the truth of what they got up to. Having the team tell him half-truths for him to pass up the food chain, like they did with Phillips, wasn’t going to work. Phil was THERE. They really needed to work on providing Phil with better lies, or other motivations, or something, to tell the governments of the world, the US in particular. Steve was waiting for the Feds to take over the Avengers, or try to. All these resources, sitting around here just waiting to be controlled? The government wouldn't be able to give up on having a very effective special warfare team at their beck and call. Not easily.

Especially not with the Merchant of Death making their weapons. You know, the guy who refused to cooperate with the government and make weapons for them. Or even give them the plans to the ones he used to make.

It was okay. He was used to telling the government to fuck off. So was everyone else from the sounds of it.

The go-round with Ross and the rest of the State Department… that was just the beginning. It was going to get worse, and stay that way until they took on a permanent government liaison or two, and got THEM to run interference between the Avengers and the governments. Phil and Maria had their hands full just keeping up on training them and support staff, and it was going to get worse because they needed to come up with SOMETHING to keep the younger mutants out of trouble. The Avengers were essentially a mutant strike team, and a lot of the kids from Xavier’s loved the idea of putting their gifts to good use. He didn’t want to say no, but he also didn’t want to take on a bunch of inexperienced twenty-somethings, either.

Steve was brooding over some sort of educational program, to instill the fear of Phil into them. Maybe himself too, but definitely fear of Phil (in a good way, Darcy would say). He was brooding as Sam washed the dishes, handed to him. Steve dried, Clint put away.

Thor was scrubbing pots in another sink nearby (multiple sinks in a kitchen seemed more decadent than the number of ovens, and he’d found that rather ridiculous).

The phone dinged then and JARVIS said quickly, “Spider-Man is on the phone and seems to have found another Pokemon.”

Fantastic. “Put him on loudspeaker please,” Steve asked.

“Certainly,” JARVIS agreed.

The mic opened on Spidey screaming. “Shit, fuck,” he sounded out of breath, which didn’t make Steve feel any better.

“Spider-Man, report,” Steve barked out without thinking.

Spidey yiped – Steve didn’t think from the order – and then said “I’ve got a Galvantula on my ass. It’s shooting – SHIT! - electrified webbing at me and has tazers in its FACE.” There was the sound of wind rushing and Steve didn’t know if the kid was running or swinging around but there was a lot of crackling.

JARVIS helpfully pulled up a cartoon image, and then – Jesus – live feed of Spidey being chased across the Queensboro Bridge by a giant spider-thing the size of a car, spitting sizzling webbing and zapping things randomly. Thankfully given its appearance, the human reaction was to scream and get the hell out of the way, so there didn’t seem to be any casualties.

“Steve, call SHIELD,” Clint said under his breath, then toward the audio pickup, “Spidey, it’s Hawkeye. Make for the landing pad on the side of the Tower, can you get there?” as he spoke he jerked off his apron and ran for the elevator, grabbing a bow and quiver out of a corner as he went past.

“Yeah, heading straight there,” Spidey said, more calmly now that he had support and a plan.

Steve got on the phone to SHIELD and told them to head out to the Bridge and clean up, they had another Pokemon on their hands.

The operator had no idea what he was talking about, Fury and his goddamn compartmentalization. “Tell Fury what I just said, fast,” Steve snapped, and hung up. He followed Sam and Thor out to the landing platform, and spotted Spidey swinging down through the canyon of Lexington Ave, chased by an enormous fuzzy blue and light-brown spider, spitting sparking webs that would cause flares of power outages in whatever it hit – light poles were a favorite.

Spidey was hauling ass. Steve was impressed; swinging from buildings obviously had some advantages; the kid had to be going thirty miles an hour, coming in fast. He looked up, to his left, and Clint was leaning out around one of the wind breaks on the roof patio, waiting. He used his phone to call Hawkeye’s comms and said “what are you waiting for?”

“For the kid to get to the roof. This is a magical arrow; it’s going to go through that thing and hit whatever’s behind it. I’m not into killing innocent bystanders, or having magical arrows hit who-knows and get lost. Phil will have a bird if I have to climb a building to retrieve an arrow.”

At that moment, Spidey hit the roof, ran across it, and jumped ONTO Thor, climbing around to his back, and the pokemon landed on the roof, electricity crackling. An arrow stuck through it, into the floor of the platform. The cartoon monster sizzled a little, pixillated, and disappeared.

Poof.

Steve never thought he’d see the day he missed Nazis.

“Jesus,” Spidey muttered, and slid off Thor to the ground. (Thor looked more amused than anything.) “Sorry, Prince Thor, just, spiders freak me out.” He shuddered all over.

“Of course, my friend, no harm done,” Thor said gently. “’Twas a fearsome beast.”

Bucky had arrived for the last five seconds, and said “but YOU have spider powers.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Spidey snapped back, “why do you think they scare the shit out of me?”

He was starting to breathe normally by the time Clint got there. “What’s left of it?” he asked, walking out onto the deck. “We get anything?” He went over, crouched by the arrow, and stared at it intently.

Steve had damn good vision, and all he saw was a carbon-fiber arrow with silver synthetic ‘feathers’ (Clint’s were usually purple, Kate’s were lavender) stuck into the porch. “I’m not seeing anything,” he said, for what it was worth.

“Yeah, me either,” Clint agreed, then pulled it out of the porch, tapped his fingers on it, smiled a little, and put it back in his quiver.

“What was that?” Sam asked.

“Magical disruptor arrow,” Clint said with a grin. “Billy made me a few.”

“Thank Billy, whoever he is,” Spidey said much more calmly.

“Will do,” Clint said easily. “You wanna come in and catch your breath? You were hauling ass to get here.”

Phil walked out on the porch then, and said calmly enough, “JARVIS tagged me, told me there was a Pokemon issue? Spider-Man? Are you all right?”

Spidey shrieked AGAIN, and landed back on top of Thor.

Thor shifted his feet a little to better balance the weight, and otherwise held still, his eyes rolled upward to watch the kid freaking out on top of him. He was about half concerned and half amused.

“You, you’re-” Spidey squeaked out.

“All is well, Spider-Man, we’re just-” Phil put his hands up, clearly trying to look friendly and harmless.

“No, no, I really think it isn’t.” And with that Spidey jumped, ran for the edge of the platform, and was gone.

Chapter Text

“What just happened?” Phil asked the men around the kitchen table. He and the active duty Avengers had been called in, along with Logan. Tony and Pepper were in Europe. Barnes had showed up and Phil wasn’t ready to have an argument about that when he didn’t even know what he himself was doing there.

JARVIS helpfully turned on the wall screen, and ran a recording that started in Queens, went across the bridge, and down Lexington to the building. At first it was a montage of single photos from social media an assorted security cams, but the last few blocks it was all JARVIS and crystal clear.

When it ended with an arrow going through the thing, Clint stated “magical disruptor arrow from Billy” before anyone could ask.

“Was that a giant fucking SPIDER?” Maria asked.

“Pokemon spider, galvantula” Clint said with a shrug. “Tomayto tomahto?”

The vid was still running, there were some chuckles over Spider-Man jumping on Thor, who declared Spidey weighed surprisingly little. Then Phil appeared, kid was clearly more upset by Phil than the spider, and took off.

Phil sighed. “A few years back, pre-death, I was assigned to check him out, make sure he wasn’t going to go full super-villain when he first gained his powers and started webbing muggers to trees and stopping bank robberies.”

“I assume he checked out?” Sam said calmly.

“Yes,” Phil agreed. “One of the most stable personalities to ever gain superpowers, no offense to anyone at the table. Because he’s maintained his normal psych, with the spider powers, he tends to react badly to strange situations; I suspect that’s why he normally limits himself to getting cats out of trees and pulling people out of burning buildings, that kind of thing. He’s a regular kid who tries to use his abilities to fix regular situations. Unfortunately he’s a trouble magnet like Clint, so we get things like him finding a Pokemon in Bryant Park.”

“Was this the high school principal gig?” Clint asked. At Phil’s nod, Clint told them “Phil spent nine weeks of a school year as substitute principal. At the time all I knew he was looking after a kid.” He turned to Phil. “You were checking him out?”

“I was making sure he was safe,” Phil answered calmly. He wanted to emphasize that he didn’t randomly creep on teen boys, thank you. He didn’t creep on teen ANYBODIES. “SHIELD sent me to find out who the spider kid was, and I did. He was hiding his abilities to protect his family, while using those abilities to stop muggings and bank robberies. He tangled with someone above his experience level, and I had Xavier send a couple of people over to help out. The criminals went to prison, and Spidey went back to his usual, with no interest in the big leagues. In fact I think that experience KEPT him in the minors, so to speak. It frightened him badly, with good reason, and he happily went back to robberies and cats in trees. I asked Xavier to keep an eye out, told Fury he wasn’t a threat, refused to give Fury the identity -”

“THAT’S what you got suspended over?” Clint finished.

“Yes. Got a one month suspension for refusing to give SHIELD his identity, because they wanted to turn him and hire him. Clint had done the same thing not that long before, finding a skilled possible mutant and refused to turn them in, and Fury wanted to send a message.” He’d been absolutely infuriated that he and Clint had found two potentially excellent operatives within months, and in both cases protected the person from their employer.

The fact that both Kate and Pete were minors and needed some stability to finish growing up, wouldn’t have bothered Fury in the least.

In retrospect, Phil didn’t know why he was surprised by the whole resurrection-against-his-will; Fury had become a ruthless bastard long before that happened.

“They spent the suspension together in Copenhagen, where they suffered horribly,” Natasha said dryly. “Fury was pissed off that his best sniper dumped work for a month – as contractors, we can do that, it’s the plausible deniability thing – and went to have sex in Copenhagen. To underline the lesson, I took the month off too, and spent it at a very lovely spa in Bali.”

“Yeah, it was terrible,” Clint confirmed, and shared a grin with Phil, fist-bumped Nat.

Yes, a month in Copenhagen taking Clint out to high-end venues in well-made suits, then taking him back to a comfortable hotel suite and peeling him out of them. Phil had a few memories of that, felt frustrated that he didn’t have more. They needed to do something like that again.

“What’s the status on the giant spider?” Logan asked.

“SHIELD is cleaning up the bridge, we killed it, Fury doesn’t want us involved, probably so he can spin this to look like he’s saving the city from angry cartoons,” Phil told them all. “I say we take the win, be thankful we don’t have to do cleanup, and let it ride.” The Avengers needed to be seen saving the world to justify their existence, but Phil didn’t see how fighting angry cartoons was going to do them any good, in terms of PR.

They all nodded.

“Whoever it is, they’re escalating,” Sam pointed out. “From eats steel to bites to actively attacks, and this last one was sent after the guy who found the first one.” Everyone stared at Sam, and he shrugged. “Been reading up on profiling, seemed kinda useful.”

They all looked around the table at each other.

“Tony found the second one, at least as seen from an outsider,” Steve said thoughtfully.

“Hopefully one doesn’t go for him in Europe,” Clint said thoughtfully.

Fuck. “I’ll call him,” Phil told them all, “and try to impress on him that trashing a city block is not the way to go on this.” Hopefully with Pepper’s abilities, the two of them could handle anything that came at them.

Everyone laughed at the idea of Tony NOT trashing a city block, and Phil took some Tylenol as the meeting broke up.

- A -

Great. When Pete crawled back into his bedroom window, May was sitting on his bed, waiting for him. “I saw the news,” she said.

Fuck. Not much hope she hadn’t, but FUCK.

Pete dropped down next to her. “I’m okay.”

“How?” May asked in wonder. “What was that thing? It looked like a Pokemon. What’s this city coming to, the space aliens weren’t enough? The City Council needs to get itself together.”

Yeah, about those space aliens. He’d just been sitting on top of one, freaked the fuck out. As usual he’d left out a whole lot of shit; May was scared for him, even though he kept explaining he had a healing factor and went after muggers, not any of the crazy superhero shit. Except for when he did. So he didn’t keep her up to date on his day-to-day weirdness, and she didn’t ask much.

“About that.” Pete shoved the hood off his head, went to his desk, and rummaged. Eventually he found the card he’d hidden – too well – and handed it to May, then ducked behind his closet door to put on some clothes.

“Holy crap, Petey,” the Queens always came out in May’s voice when she wasn’t paying attention, “is this Tony Stark’s very own business card?” Then a pause, “is this his very own handwriting? Who’s Jarvis?”

“A couple weeks ago, I was out and around, you know,” Pete emerged from his closet, kind of gave a hand swing to indicate his little ‘walks’ he liked to take at night, according to May. “I saw Falcon sitting on the landing pad of Avengers Tower, so I stopped to kind of gush hero worship at him.”

Baseline human, WITH WINGS, taking down three helicarriers over the Potomac? With Captain America?? BAD ASS.

Anyway. “We were making nice, introducing ourselves, he’s a really nice guy.” He wondered if he could get Aunt May to date him. ANYWAY. “While we’re chatting calmly, Tony Stark comes out, dude’s like a whirlwind. That energy on TV? He’s like that at home too. I didn’t smell or sense any drugs on the dude, not even booze. Whiff of caffeine, that’s it, it’s all him. Anyway, he told me to call him if he wanted to test drive some experimental textiles, or whatever, and if I had any problems to call his PA, number’s on the back.”

“Wait.” May held up a hand. “Wait. Tony fuckin’ Stark offered to make you a suit and you’re still swinging around in spandex?” She bopped him upside the head, soft enough he barely felt it. “Are you out of your mind? GET THE SUIT, PETE.”

He’d come to that conclusion tonight, actually. “Uh, yeah.” He decided not to mention the job and just apply for it, when he called about the suits. “Anyway, I found a Pokemon in Central Park a while back, was an Aron, little guy,” he held out his hands to approximate the size. “Little dude weighed a ton, was a real unit, but I didn’t want to leave him wandering around, so I took him over to the Tower.”

“You’ve been hangin’ out with the Avengers and didn’t tell me. You booger. What are they like?”

“Stark’s just like on TV. What you see is what you get.” Pete thought that beyond the awe for the man’s physics skills, he might like the guy. “Captain America? He may be some heroic figure, but Steve Rogers seems pretty chill, and maybe funny.”

“Really?”

“I dropped off that Aron, was like that Galvantula on the bridge today, a cartoon, like real life photo shop? While we were explaining what it was and the rest of the lab staff cooed over it, he said ‘I kinda miss Nazis’ under his breath. When I patted his back, he grinned.”

“Oh my god, you’ve touched Captain America. Is he that muscley in real life?”

“Yeah, patting his back was like patting a slab of cement. Guy’s built like a wall.”

“So you found another Pokey today?”

“It found me. Wondering if it was sent after me; it spotted me, passed up all kinds of other people and targets to come after me, chased me from Queens to Midtown.”

“Why’d you drag it into Midtown?”

“I called the Avengers on the way, Hawkeye told me to head for the landing pad that sticks out from the side of Avengers’ Tower that Iron Man uses. So I did. I got there, got behind Prince Thor for safety” he’d just skip the part where he shrieked and climbed on top of the guy, Thor’d been super chill about it, “and Hawkeye shot it with some kind of magic arrow and it disappeared.”

“You met Prince Thor.”

Jumped on top of him, twice. “...yeah. He’s nice too. Seems like they all are.” Even Mr Coulson. “After it was dead, we were all just kinda standing around wondering what the heck, and, hell, May, we may be in deep shit. I think SHIELD knows who I am.”

“What? How?” She gripped his hand.

“Remember Mr Coulson?”

“Yeah, he was the only principal you ever had who was worth a shit, about the bullying.”

“He’s currently the director of the Avengers Initiative. I looked it up on my phone on the way home, after he walked out on the landing pad after all the action was over and asked if I was okay.”

“Ohmigod.”

“He told me everything was fine, but I took off. What if they know?”

“What if they do? It’s not like you’ve done anything wrong.”

“May. I’m a vigilante for crying out loud.”

“Well compared to the mobsters and everything else we have around here, I don’t see why they need to bother with you. You get cats out of trees. And those car thieves webbed to a telephone pole outside the police station a couple nights ago was hilarious.”

Oh, if only they saw it that way. They would LOVE to have Secret Agent Spider, if they could bribe or blackmail or threaten him into it.

Fuck.

- A -

“Tell me again what I'm doing here?” Sam asked. In front of them, Natasha chatted with a stunning Nubian-looking woman about seven feet tall, and then handed over a black AmEx.

“We're having a girl day at the spa.” Kate told him.

“Tell me AGAIN-” Sam started up, but stopped when Darcy sucker-punched him in the ribs, thankfully not too hard. She’d been training with Nat, and looked like she’d known how to brawl before that. That punch could have really hurt.

“Stop this.” She hissed. “She told me she'd never had girlfriends before, like this. Who hung out and did random nice stuff for each other and gave her silly tee shirts. She was really touched by the gifts we got her after Pierce's memorial. You’ve seen how often she wears that shirt. Ruin it and I will kick your ass.”

“That's not what I meant.” Sam hissed back. He didn't want Darcy thinking he was some sexist dick. “I mean, what is my black, male, street kid, public school ass doing in a super-upscale day spa recommended by Pepper Potts with two young white women of good family and the Black freaking Widow?”

“Getting a massage.” Darcy snarled. “With my hills-of-Virginia, went to school barefoot, cracker ass. DEAL.”

“You can use the time to ponder your existential crisis.” Kate added in her normal voice, with boarding school accent, for the entire room to hear. Women all around them giggled. Sam glared and she showed her teeth.

Natasha turned and gave them a rare, genuine smile and Sam couldn't help but smile back. “Right. Massage.” She pointed toward a deeply carved decorative door (what was he doing here?) and waved them through it.

- A -

She'd heard everything exchanged between Kate, Darcy, and Sam while she'd been checking them in. Natasha didn't get surprised by men very often, but Sam was one who did, regularly. When she'd offered to take the three of them out for massages and mani-pedis she had fully expected Sam to make an excuse, yet here he was, charming his masseuse and arguing with Darcy over Motown (who loved it more). She knew about Motown because Clint played a lot of it, both in regular rotation and also during his 'you're now an American citizen, you gotta know stuff' lessons. It made her smile.

The spa, though. Oh, the spa.

It was such a well-kept secret, she'd never heard of it. Which impressed the hell out of Natasha; knowing stuff was her job, and she lived in New York as much as she lived in any one city. But apparently, the super-powerful women of New York City had gotten together and set up a spa for themselves. Low-fuss, full service including outpatient surgery, extreme high-end, and the best part:

All the attendants had security clearance. Very, VERY high security clearance. So that the ladies of New York and their very good friends could chat in peace. And while no one went to a spa to discuss state secrets, knowing that there was no problem if you slipped and make a vague reference? Damn near priceless.

The place served Supreme Court justices, CEOs, heads of state. Membership was invitation only, with background checks for all guests. Rumor had it that a day pass was good as a bribe for any possible need among low-rung professional women at the UN. It had taken three references to get them in – Pepper Potts, Queen Ramonda through T’Challa, and the mayor, who liked their work.

Sam walked out of a dressing room with a towel wrapped around his hips. “This is okay, right? For a massage? Seemed dumb to put on the robe and take it off again.”

“Whatever works for you.” Natasha said easily. She knew she was smiling.

“What's with you?” Sam asked, grinning back.

Nat considered telling him that he was the first man in the spa as a client who wasn't an international power-broker, and the list was otherwise very, very short. The only other black man who'd ever been invited inside was a possible future president and current US Senator. Considered what Sam's reaction would be. “Nothing. I'm glad you came.”

“Thanks. Me too.”

Maybe she could get Barack to meet up with Sam for a massage; they'd both enjoy it. She put it on her mental to-do list.

- A -

Kate was getting her nails painted purple after the best massage of her life, and joking with Darcy, Nat, and Sam, who’d come along. Darcy was getting red polish to match her necklace, Nat was getting a French manicure, and Sam was getting a bronze color to match his wings, with feathers on his ring fingers as accent nails. Apparently his sisters had practiced nail art on him for years, and he was entertaining his nail tech with horror stories of his sisters hiding the acetone so he had to go to school with pink glitter fingernails, and that was how he learned to fight.

She’d heard rumors of this spa for years. Rumors only. As far as she knew, even having been inside it now, it didn’t have a name. It was just a spa set up by and run for the most powerful women in the city.

And she was inside it. Because she got references from Pepper, a queen, and the mayor. At the request of Black Widow, who was her friend.

Kate had spent the last ten years of her life hunting abusers, working down Natasha’s human trafficker list with Clint and Phil. But she was starting to see there were all kinds of power and only one of those came at the end of an arrow. For all she’d been to Wharton and raised in the world of the one percent, she was finally realizing just how much the rich and powerful could get done, if they wanted to.

Thinking of how Darcy and Pepper had been using the power they’d been given, Kate laid back and shut her eyes during her foot massage and pedi, and began to plot.

Bless Clint, but he didn’t have a clue about this kind of power brokering.

She was going to have to get serious, learning from Pepper and Nat and Darcy.

- A -

He and Phil played a round of rock-paper-scissors-grenade, and after Clint lost, he kissed Phil into agreeing to two out of three and lost that round too.

Dammit.

So Clint got to hunt down Natasha, who was currently in her own apartment rather than theirs. It was late afternoon and she’d been to a spa earlier in the day – he resented not being invited – and he’d planned this in the hopes she’d be more relaxed than she had been. She was spending days mostly alone, processing decades of memories, but still sleeping with him and Phil at night. As expected, Phil encouraged this, and of course both of them loved him all the more.

He found her at a table on her balcony, at an office chair she’d rolled out, writing busily. She was using one of her extremely expensive fountain pens (she’d stabbed a guy with one once; apparently the nibs were super durable?) and writing in a journal. “What,” she said without looking up.

The pages were covered in Russian cursive, and Clint had never been able to read that at a glance, not after years of trying. He was convinced it was some sort of Russian genetically controlled skill, to read that. “While you were out of commission, there was, um, some news.” News that Phil and Clint had physically cringed at when it came over the feed JARVIS kept running for everyone in the Tower; he sifted through dozens of news outlets and put together what seemed most important or relevant, in the least unbiased form he could find. Unfortunately, that had made it difficult for Clint to completely ignore politics.

Natasha went still, that cobra thing she did that STILL unnerved Clint, laid down her pen very precisely, and looked up at him. “What.”

Clint had asked himself a thousand times how to cushion this or approach it at an angle that wouldn’t result in Instant Russian Detonation, but there really wasn’t one. He cleared his throat, trying not to wilt as Natasha stared him down.

“Um. Donald Trump announced he was going to run for president.”

Natasha’s eyes went from glaring to hunting. “The fuck you say.”

- A -

Friday morning, and Phil was in his office more because he felt he should be, than because anything needed to be done. Compared to SHIELD, things were both more and less stressful. Things moved a lot slower, except for when it was crunch time and they were invading a small nation or wrangling magically summoned Pokemon.

The weirdness factor had remained the same, though.

A call came through from Carla at the desk in the executive lobby, May Parker for Principal Coulson. He smiled a little, and told Carla to send her up, then went out to the lobby to meet her. He gave her the “Hello, Ms Parker, it’s good to see you” that had become their traditional greeting while he’d been Principal Coulson. They’d seen a lot of each other because Peter would let bullies beat him up, to hide his identity. He’d respected that.

“Principal Coulson,” she said in reply, her usual, and they shook hands. She wasn’t smiling, which was unusual. He hoped he could fix that; he’d always respected how she advocated for Peter, looked out for him. She’d adopted him when she herself was in her early twenties, because they were all the family each of them had, she once told him. Most women would have walked, or failed. Instead she’d raised a young man with compassion and ethics when she was still figuring them out, herself.

Phil respected that. A lot.

He showed her into his office, got her coffee as he’d always done – though this was the high-end Tony Stark stuff, and then sat with her in the conversation area, not behind his desk. That also was different, partly because he hadn’t had a conversation area in the cramped closet of his principal’s office. She raised an eyebrow at him.

He smiled again, and drank his coffee.

She’d always been a straightforward woman, so he shouldn’t have been shocked when she opened with “Does SHIELD know who Pete is?”

He’d always liked her. “No. I was sent by SHIELD to find out who the kid with the spider abilities was. I’m sure the goal of SHIELD higher management was to turn them and make them join SHIELD, but my personal goal was simply to make sure they were safe. Pete is one of the most stable personalities I’ve ever dealt with among augmented people, so I told SHIELD he was safe and refused to give them any details about who it was, including gender, race, or abilities.”

May let out a long, slow breath, and drank some coffee. “Why not?”

“Because he was sixteen, using his abilities to stop muggings, and otherwise completely harmless. Given his abilities, how many kids would use it for good? Let himself get beat up at school to hide it? If he wanted to join SHIELD when he hit legal age, well, they’re in the phone book.” He considered a moment, then added “coercing minors is not something I do. I don’t coerce anyone, if I can possibly avoid it.”

“Thanks.” May nodded, drank some more coffee. “If it’s all right with you, I’ll relay this to Pete, he’s a bit freaked out right now, thinking SHIELD has him on their radar.”

“That’s fine.” He hated to be a downer, but most days it felt like being a wet blanket was his job. “I can’t promise that SHIELD doesn’t know. All I can say for sure is, I didn’t tell them. In the years since, they’ve been pretty busy, so I don’t think they followed through on finding him.”

“Yeah,” May agreed.

“If that does become an issue, contact me if you want assistance.” Phil laid one of his cards next to May’s coffee cup. “I’m not affiliated with SHIELD any longer, and while they aren’t the worst intelligence agency in the world, I’ll do all I can to keep them from forcing anyone to sign on with them. We also have one of the world’s best human rights lawyers on retainer.”

“Thanks.” May said, relieved, and tucked the card in a pocket. “So, involved with someone else, that wasn’t a lie.”

She’d once asked him out. “No.” Phil felt himself smiling, hid it behind his coffee mug.

“After Pete told me you were in charge of the Avengers I Googled you. I saw that photo of you and Hawkeye dancing. Nice work.”

He laughed, and they clicked cups, and as she always did, May turned it into a friendly visit. Phil added her to a mental list of people to hire, if needed, and chatted with her, enjoying the tale of when SHE found out Pete was Spider-Man.

He’d make sure she had their emergency number before she left. And expand the protection detail from Mrs Wilson to keep an eye on the Parkers, too. He hoped it would be for nothing.

- A -

From the Gothamist:

Name: Phil Coulson

Title or job in the Avengers Initiative: Director of Operations, voice of reason, wet blanket

Favorite book: Lord of the Rings

Favorite movie: Same. When I want entertainment, I don’t want reality.

Life quest: World peace. Yes, I’m serious. Why think small?

If you could get away with any crime, what would you do? [there is a smiley face drawn in]

Fantasy vacation? A week in any major cultural center of the world. Days eating great food, evenings seeing great theater, nights having great sex. Maybe two weeks. Somewhere with good tailoring.

What temptation do you have the most trouble resisting? Clint Barton.

Person with the most influence on your life? Nicholas Fury

Favorite thing about New York: I can find shops and restaurants open at three in the morning.

Odd skill that might surprise people? I can sing reasonably well.

Favorite quote to close with? “Don’t start none, won’t be none.” -Ancient Tibetan Philosophy

- A -

BLACK WIDOW MIXED NUT GOES HERE.

Yes, there’s a glaring continuity error in the form of Tony fucking Stark who is currently in Europe with Pepper (HE NEVER DOES WHAT HE’S SUPPOSED TO) but I’m leaving it instead of re-writing it, because IMO it’s perfect as-is and he’s an integral part of it. - hand wave - All is as it should be, young Jedi.

- A -

He’d been having a nice evening painting at Sam’s, Sam and Bucky watching basketball and bickering, all nice and calm, when Steve got word that another cop from the 12th Precinct had decided to fuck with the Avengers.

In this case, he tried to arrest Natasha.

For prostitution.

Maybe it was Prohibition and the mob, but back in the day, NYC cops had been smarter than this. Just as corrupt, but smarter.

They got back to the Tower after dropping the cop off at the precinct, and everyone wandered into the Common Room to decompress, including Sharon. Since he’d been the only one to see her break the cop’s jaw, he got one of the clever new ice packs that you simply cracked a thing inside of, and they got cold.

Bruce and Jem had those and equivalent hot packs stacked all over the place in the Tower; he got one from behind the bar. “Here you go,” he handed it over, “want a drink since I’m here?”

Sharon raised an eyebrow, probably surprised at how at ease he was with her, compared to before he knew she was Peg’s great niece. “Two fingers of Tony Stark’s best single-malt, please.”

Tony’s best was – pretty sure – herbal tea, so Steve got out something fifty years old that smelled good and poured them both a drink. Phil swung by and Steve poured one for him, too.

The three of them stood there drinking for a moment. “I gotta call Fury. Then I’ll be back for more scotch,” Sharon announced, and walked out to the porch for some privacy.

Clint, always smarter than he got credit for, had started up the video games and Natasha was currently annihilating him, Sam, and Kate at that weird cartoon driving game. Good, an outlet.

Listen to him, using Sam’s psych terminology.

Bucky wandered over, accepted some scotch, looked at the room, full of people in at-home clothes and Natasha in a formal gown with a lot of jewelry, swearing over a video game. “Has the NYPD completely lost its mind?” he asked Phil.

“I’m starting to think so.” Phil took another drink. “I’m calling the governor and some senators tomorrow to put the pressure on. This is getting ridiculous.”

“No sex worker doing street corners is going to be dressed like that,” Buck nodded toward Natasha. She was wearing a lot of jewelry in the form of roses, wrapped around her neck and wrist and hand with thorny vines, dangling from her ears, and a leaf around her finger. All the pieces were encrusted with tiny gemstones. “Even if she was working, that’s super high-end and she’d be taking limos to her employment, not standing around on a sidewalk. So be sure to include that when they start arguing.”

Steve just rubbed his face.

“I’ll be sure to emphasize that she really could have killed the guy at any time, and made it stick as self defense,” Phil told them both.

“Make the same point about Sharon,” Steve told Phil. “She broke the cop’s jaw, after the rest of you left. Completely on purpose.”

“Yeah?” Bucky asked with a smile.

“Sharon Carter,” Steve told him. “Peg’s great niece. Don’t fuck with her.” She was wearing a dress made of criss-crossing blue scarves that turned into trailing swathes just south of decency, with silver heels and a bunch of jewelry with blue stone drops, including a pendant hanging down her back. It swayed as she walked, right over her backside. It was hypnotic.

Women these days. He’d never get used to them, but at least he was starting to enjoy it.

“I’m gonna tell her incriminating stories about you.” Bucky decided, and glanced toward the doors, waiting for Sharon to re-appear.

Steve shook his head and poured more scotch for himself and Phil.

Chapter Text

It was Pride Week, and that day was the Pride Parade. Clint hadn’t had any trouble talking Darcy into going, and Phil had surprised him and agreed to go along. He’d always hidden in the shadows, but since his resurrection, Phil had given up on that and started going out; having an active social life was pretty awesome. Nat also agreed to go along, and it took five seconds to get Sam to go along, and then came the tricky part.

Getting Steve to go.

He must have explained a dozen times, with Darcy and Sam backing him up, that going didn’t mean announcing he was bi. (Though really anyone seeing the photos of him and Pepper and Tony had already figured it out, but that was Steve’s revelation to come to, not Clint’s.) He would just be SHOWING SUPPORT.

Clint mostly wanted to get Steve into a gay-positive crowd so he’d really understand that a lot of the world was okay with it now. It had taken him a while to realize when he and Phil kissed and Steve stiffened up, it wasn’t some kind of self-hating disapproval, it was worry over their safety. Which was nice of him, and not nearly as annoying as the disapproval option, but dude needed to chill out a little.

Sam seemed to have caught on, or knew it himself, and was pushing for the same thing.

Who knew why Darcy was doing it, but she mostly used her powers for good, so Clint rolled with it.

That morning, Clint hauled out the enormous tackle box he kept all his makeup in. Mostly these days he used it on Natasha, but it was also handy for disguises. He left the manicure stuff in his apartment because he refused to get stuck painting rainbow nails on everyone. Besides, most of them still had their mani-pedis from their day at the spa, including Sam. He was still mad he had not been invited along.

First Clint did rainbow eye makeup on Darcy, then got down to ‘fairy princess’ makeup on Nat, he had no idea what that meant, but he went for glitter.

Behind him, Steve reached into the box and pulled out a multi-colored eye shadow palette. He flipped it open and said “Wow.”

He should have known; the fastest way to sucker Steve in was with paint. He needed to remember that. Clint reached over and took the eye shadow, used the greens and blues around Nat’s eyes, handed it back to Steve, then got out more specialized glitter paint.

Steve watched intently. “Things have really changed since I did makeup.”

Nat’s eye, the one he wasn’t working on, popped open. “You used to do your own?”

“Sure, the Spangle Circuit ran on a shoestring, the girls taught me so none of them had to do it for me.” He took out a cotton swab, rubbed it gently over a metallic red, then put it on the back of his hand. “I could really have had some fun with this.”

“It’s never too late,” Darcy pointed out. “Have Clint do makeup with you some time. We could put it on the Avengers site, people would LOVE it.”

Young people. The Boomers who considered Steve theirs (he wasn’t), would go apeshit. Steve probably thought that too, because he grinned a little, then patted the other end of the swab in some blue, and used the mirror in the lid of Clint’s box to put a hint of blue around his eyes, just enough to make them even more gorgeously blue than usual.

“Tony will lose his shit if you wear makeup around him,” Nat said with both eyes shut again.

Clint didn’t want to know how she knew that, but she’d been his PA long enough to figure out what made Tony tick. She’d said he was ‘complicated’ so maybe it took a day instead of fifteen minutes.

“Oh yeah?” Steve said with a grin, rooted a little more. “Any mascara in here?”

They all stared at each other. “Yeah, but hang on,” Clint told him. “The new stuff is not what you’re used to, and you need to use a disposable brush to avoid spreading any germs. I know you likely don’t HAVE any germs, but humor me.”

“No problem,” Steve said absently, looking at another palette of neon pigments that could be used as anything.

So with Steve wearing lovely, subtle eye makeup, they went on out to enjoy the parade.

When the crowd noticed ‘GLAAD.ORG’ painted on the backside of Steve’s jeans with a rainbow, the America’s Ass hashtag crashed Twitter.

They all high fived, laughing, and as soon as Twitter was back up, it crashed again when a hundred people posted various photos of the high fives from different angles.

- A -

While Steve was at the Pride Parade – they had a parade and month dedicated to queers, oop, LGBTQ...A? Well, everyone not hetero, Bucky needed to work with Sam on terminology some more – anyway, while Steve was out at a parade held for all the sexual minorities of the world, Kate came knocking on his door. “Hey,” he said when he opened his door. He’d noticed that was how Sam greeted friends, so he was going with that.

“Hi.” Kate smiled in return, took two steps inside. “I’ve been thinking about what you told me, about your arm and the nervous system and everything.”

Great, just what he needed, smart dames thinking about his weaknesses. “Yes?”

“You know I live with Darcy on Thor’s floor?”

He had no idea what that had to do with anything, but “I guess?” He didn’t pay close attention to the living arrangements of young vulnerable women, the less he knew the better if he ever got a flashback late one night.

“Well, Thor’s got this giant Japanese soaking tub, in the little garden greenhouse spot each of the floors have.”

He knew of the gardens. Considered them a massive security weakness, bullet-proof glass or not, but they were really nice. Theirs was filled mostly with food plants and herbs, because Sam and Bruce had gotten hold of it; he didn’t complain because he’d eaten the food that came out of it. It was a nice sunny place to sit on days when he felt like the cold of cryo was still in his bones, so he’d moved a nice teak deck chair into theirs, and Steve and Sam hadn’t said anything. “Okay?”

“Come on,” Kate grabbed his flesh hand – it was working again – and tugged gently. “The warmth could help, and I don’t think it’d hurt, right?”

He was wearing the silicone pad that Stark had made, to fit over the post where his prosthetic hooked on. With it on, he filled out the shoulder of shirts properly, and it was electrically insulated, meaning he had as little pain as it was possible to get from the damn thing.

And it was waterproof.

“Okay, let me get a towel, or-”

“I’ve got all that,” Kate told him, and pulled him out of the apartment toward the elevator.

@

An hour later, still sitting in the tub, Bucky decided flowers were too little to get for Kate; he’d have to find a piece of jewelry.

Thor had told him that he was welcome to use the tub any time he wanted, but Bucky wanted an old-fashioned claw-footed, slipper shaped tub he could lay in; the ones rich people had in their homes when he was a kid. This round of bamboo required being more vertical, and didn’t feel like a proper bath. Though it was damn nice and working a miracle on his shoulder and neck.

He also wanted a table for whiskey and an ashtray, and he’d never leave.

If it weren’t for smart women, the men of the world would have self destructed millennia ago. He tried to get more horizontal and figured Thor wouldn’t mind if he stayed another hour.

- A -

It was Monday evening, and most of the crew was in the common room or kitchen, either futzing around or helping make dinner. There was music playing, and Steve was peeling potatoes, listening with interest to Clint and Darcy’s discussion of music. With no warning, everything went off. Music, lights, stoves, ovens, ventilation, and then at about the same time as the safety lights came on, EVERYONE’S communicator rang.

It was JARVIS. “The building is currently under attack by an unknown AI. I’ve disconnected from the building and am safe, but we need all of IT at battle stations, Ms Skye, please do that as we’ve discussed.”

“Got it, J!” and Skye ran out of the room, and to the main bank of elevators that was running on auto (as most elevators did unless JARVIS deliberately took control of them), down to the fifth floor to call people on a Monday night and coordinate from their homes.

Steve had helped Phil and Tony work out a fail-safe for this, when Arnim Zola was haunting the internet; it had included running dedicated fiber optic ‘wires’ to the homes of several of SI’s IT people. A lot of people could ‘remote in’ from their homes to the SI servers and so they wouldn’t even have to wait for the people to physically get to the building. And for those who lived in Lower Manhattan with the dedicated fiber-optic, they were unhackable unless someone crawled down into the subway tunnels were Steve and Clint and Tony had run said fiber optic, in the middle of the nights before they went off to Sokovia.

Then they’d have to access the actual wire, which Tony had coated with some kind of impregnable, uncuttable, indestructible polymer Betty and Bruce cooked up, and Steve had gone along with a palette, a paint brush, and a pail of acrylic paints, painting the cable to disappear into the rocks and bricks of the subway tunnels. Even finding the wire would be damn difficult; by the time Steve was done with his paint, even Clint had trouble seeing it. Both Tony and Clint had expressed awe for his painting abilities. Which had felt really good; that was HIM, not the serum.

He’d used specialized acrylic paints Bruce had added some kind of binder to, and they’d stuck to the dirt and grime and crud in the tunnels like it was a freshly gessoed canvas. The future was a wonder. Even when Steve knew how it worked.

“Clint, I need you and Doctor Foster in Sir’s lab, coordinating with Ms Skye in IT. I’m afraid Sir locked it down and we’re going to have to bash through the door.”

“On it, J,” Clint answered, and he and Jane ran for another elevator.

“Soldier, Falcon, I want you up on the highest roof deck, on lookout, this could be another feint,” Phil began issuing orders. “Soldier, go armed, Falcon, wings and armor as well as weapons, we may use you as recon.” They both nodded and headed out.

Good thing both Bucky’s arms were working, just like he’d said they would when Nat stuck that knife in him.

Everyone else looked at each other helplessly. They were no good in this kind of battle.

“I’ll go down to the executive entrance, keep watch.” Kate decided, clearly desperate for something to do.

Melinda decided to go to the main entrance and make sure there was nothing going on there.

“Shit, there’s no one monitoring the sub-floors.” Phil said.

“What are the odds this is another copy of Zola?” Steve asked, voicing his first concern.

There was swearing all over comms, apparently the possibility had only just occurred to most of them.

“Very small, I would think,” Vision said in his eerie, calm voice. “When I destroyed his current form I also deleted all of his data I could find, worldwide.” He turned to Natasha. “I apologize for not making that clear sooner. That’s why I didn’t give you the satisfaction of killing him, though you wanted to. I knew I could delete all his data as well.”

“That’s...” Natasha blinked a couple times, even she was at sea sometimes with Vision, “that’s fine, I was just trying to keep you from having to kill something as your first act.”

“Ah.” Vision pondered. “I’d rather thought that was the point.”

They all stared at each other for a beat.

“Viz, buddy, we’re gonna talk later,” Sam said over comms.

“As you like,” Vision replied. “I will go to Tony’s lab, to see if I can be of help,” and headed for the north stairwell with the zip line. They all let him go.

“Bozhe moi,” Nat muttered. “Maria and I will go patrol the sub-levels, keep an eye on the floors that are supposed to have stuff on them according to the city plan.” In reality, they were all empty, or had started that way before Tony began piling in cars he wanted to restore some day, and similar junk; the arc reactor and server farms were on different floors in the actual building. After the last break in, Tony had mentioned – Steve hoped it was joking – booby-trapping all the sub basements with lasers and explosives.

The arc reactor and the most vital servers were on thirteen, because Tony Stark. (The only elevator that opened onto the 13th floor was the private one and a single freight elevator that was considered Tony’s, meant to move gear in and out of his lab, and by extension the entire specialty lab floor, now. Most people assumed he left out a 13th floor because of bad luck. Most people underestimated Tony Stark.) Two or three people in building maintenance knew about the floor but still had to get there on one of the locked-down elevators to do any work. There weren’t even doors to the fire stairs, on thirteen.

“Go.” Phil and Steve said at the same time.

Thor, Steve, Logan, and Phil, with no idea what else to do, went down to Tony’s lab to see what was going on.

Darcy was sweeping up broken glass fragments, clearly very worried; Dum-E was holding the dust pan, and U was hiding in his corner. Logan stepped over to help her, and Dum-E stopped what he was doing to ‘meet’ Logan, who seemed nonplussed.

Inside, past the hole bashed into the door and the fire axe leaned against the wall, Clint and Jane had gotten the holograms running with JARVIS’ help, and had an infographic of New York up in one part of the room, painstakingly tracing the attack back through fiber optic networks to try and find the source. The trace was currently headed north and east, from the major node a few blocks north of the building in Midtown.

Vision was seated on a stool, looked like he was meditating, but would occasionally say something that sounded like gibberish to Steve, but clearly made sense to Jane and Clint, as they’d respond in kind. One of their communicators was on speaker, and they were speaking tersely with Skye down in IT, where they were fending off the actual attack, also with JARVIS’ help. It was sort of a three way party line, all of them speaking in terms none of the rest of them understood.

Sidekick was sitting on U's housing, watching everything, alert.

Steve decided once this was over, he was going to have JARVIS teach him about computers.

“Any idea on origin yet?” Phil asked them, staring at the map of Manhattan.

It was odd; from Steve’s bit of experience with Ultron he knew they usually bounced signals all over the place to hide where they were coming from. Instead, this looked like a straight line to whoever, and the only thing slowing it down were “firewalls” which he assumed functioned about like they sounded.

“It’s coming from SHIELD,” Phil ground out, staring at the map.

“We don’t know that yet,” Clint argued, tapping at spots on the workbench outlined by lights.

“I do,” Phil answered, stalking out of the shop.

“Shit.” Clint kicked the work bench, then pointed at Steve and Thor. “He’s headed down to our apartment now, to arm himself and go over and threaten the IT department at SHIELD. Get your asses down to the garage and go with him. Keep him from killing anyone.”

Steve went for the elevator, since Clint seemed worried, and he did know Phil better than anyone. Still, “do you honestly think Phil’s going to go over there?” Let alone shoot someone?

Thor nodded gravely. “Oh yes, my friend. You have not seen the Son of Coul angry. Even the Warriors Three become polite in the face of his wrath.”

Steve didn’t have much to say to that, because by then the elevator had stopped at Phil’s floor and Phil stood there, glaring.

“You’re not stopping me,” he snapped, got on the ‘vator, and stabbed at the button panel, for the garage.

“We are merely coming along, my friend. As backup.” Thor was trying to be soothing, which Steve found kind of amusing. He kept his poker face on though. Phil was glaring at both of them.

Steve’s communicator buzzed and he glanced at it, and let himself sigh. “Clint just confirmed that it’s coming from SHIELD, and Skye has confirmed it’s not a human hacker, it’s an AI.”

Phil’s face hardened even more, and he climbed into one of the black vans they kept, Steve and Thor jumping in with him; Steve didn’t doubt for an instant that Phil would leave them behind if he could. Thor was in the front, and Steve was crammed into the back seat behind Phil, because Thor took up the space of two people and seeing around him was damn near impossible.

Phil drove like DumDum that time they stole a Daimler in Germany, as if the rules were a vague suggestion, and they were at SHIELD’s front door within minutes. He got out, left the van sitting in front of the entrance and ignored the horns already blasting, even on a quiet week night. He stalked into the lobby, and guns were drawn all around them.

Steve’s instincts were screaming, and Thor HAD to feel much the same.

Phil walked through like he didn’t see them. Straight through; the metal detector started ringing, and Phil kept on going, so Thor and Steve followed. There was shouting and gun waving and the receptionist was clearly pushing alarm buttons and calling in more security. Phil vaulted the security desk as guards scrambled out of the way – apparently rumors of Phil’s resurrection had really freaked out some people, and from the fragments of shouting Steve got the gist that no one wanted to fuck with the Prince of Asgard and no one wanted to be the one to shoot Captain America in the back. And NOBODY wanted to do ANYTHING to Phil. So that was something, anyway. Steve vaulted the desk after Phil, and Thor came along behind.

Phil had gotten into an elevator, pulled out a card, shoved it into a slot that looked like a crease in the edge of the control panel, and punched for the fortieth floor. The elevator took them there immediately.

Steve and Thor looked at each other, eyebrows raised, and didn’t say anything.

When the elevator door opened, Phil stalked down a hall, through a door, and demanded of the room of young people, “who is controlling the AI?”

Everyone played dumb, and, shit, Phil drew his handgun. FUCK. “Who in the hell is running the AI that is currently attacking Stark Tower? Tell me now or I’ll start interrogating each of you, and you will not like it.”

Every finger in the room pointed to a younger guy toward the center of the room, smirking, wearing a dress shirt, jeans, and beat up athletic shoes. He was maybe thirty, white, and average-looking. “What’s the matter, couldn’t hold her off?”

Phil pointed his gun, oh shit, and started walking toward the kid. The kid stood, finally realizing there was a threat, and began backing up. He ended with his back against the far wall, the muzzle of Phil’s gun against his forehead, screaming “Sophia! Sophia helped! It was her idea!”

A girl near the center of the room went still, and Thor moved toward her, to keep her from passing out and smashing herself against a desk, Steve thought. The passing out looked more likely than running.

“I didn’t. I was doing what he told me, I swear,” she told all of them.

“Yeah, I heard a lot of Nazis say that, too,” Steve kind of HAD to say it, and she went white as a piece of paper and dropped dropped back into a seat, terrified.

Good. Maybe next time she’d think more and follow orders less.

And behind them, Nick Fury said “Phil, you want to tell me what the fuck’s going on?”

Steve never thought he’d see the day he was glad to see Fury. He turned. “An AI from here has attacked Stark Tower. We’re running at emergency levels while Stark’s IT department and all the tech-minded Avengers work to keep it out. Who ordered it?”

Fury’s face hardened as much as Phil’s had, great, and he stalked over to where Phil was still holding the tech at gunpoint. “Tell him the order I gave you. And tell the truth or I swear I’ll tell him to pull the trigger,” he barked out at the kid.

“You- you said to check out the programming running the building,” the kid said.

“Did I at any time tell you to infiltrate, attack, or otherwise do anything illegal or harmful?” Fury barked out.

“N-no, but-”

“But nothing. What did you do,” Fury demanded.

The girl in the chair spoke up, “he told me that we had orders to deploy IRIS.”

“Who or what is Iris?” Phil demanded.

“An AI we’ve been working on,” Fury told him.

“Call it off,” Phil demanded. “Now.”

“We, we can’t.” The girl was shaking, still white. “As soon as we let her past the fire walls, she just… took off. She won’t listen to any commands, said she was doing what she was built for.”

“You created a being and taught it to kill?” Thor demanded.

“No! It’s an AI! It’s supposed to shut down hostile systems!” the guy protested.

“So you sent it against Stark Tower, which I had not told you was hostile, had not told you to attack, and had only told you to gather any data you could find,” Fury snarled.

“It was the perfect trial run,” the guy said, clearly unaware of how many people were angry at the moment. Even with a gun literally to his head.

Darcy was right. Some white guys these days were oblivious to reality.

Phil seemed to come to some kind of decision. “Right. We’re taking you both over to the Tower, where you’re going to answer any questions the tech squad has, and help us stop this.” He put his handgun away, and Steve breathed a little easier.

“No we’re not,” the guy said. “We’re working on getting control of IRIS, then we’ll get all the data we want out of Stark Tower. Including the weapons plans.”

“That was not the data I wanted,” Fury snapped. “You heard the man, Dickson. Get whatever shit you need, Hansen, you’re going too.”

Hansen, the girl, was crying, and opened a desk, pulled out her purse. Her hands were shaking so hard she could barely get it on to her shoulder.

Dickson insisted he didn’t need anything, and Phil got mad all over again and cuffed him, started hauling him toward the elevator. Fury followed, Steve and Thor bringing up the rear with the girl. Steve wondered if one of them was going to wind up carrying her. She definitely wasn’t resisting.

- A -

Clint and Jane had given up on the trace and were working with Skye and IT, when his comm beeped. It was Steve. He answered. “Yeah?”

“SHIELD has an untested AI designed for infil and attack. Fury told some asshole kid in IT to sniff around the Tower and see what he could find, and IT decided it was a great time to deploy the AI, without permission from management. It’s named IRIS.”

“Fuck. Okay. Ask them-” Clint began.

“Give us a minute, we’ll be there. Phil and Fury are bringing the AI guy and his assistant over. She’s pretty incoherent, but Dickson, the guy who programmed most of it and thought this was a great idea, is insisting this isn’t his fault and he’s not helping.”

Oh, that would be fun. “Okay. Bring them up to the Avengers’ public floor and shove them into interrogation rooms. Be as scary as possible, we’ll meet you there.”

“Got it.” He hung up.

“I’m going to go down to IT, tell them this, and wait for any new info there. We’ve got the trace, there’s not much else to do here.” Jane started shutting things down.

Clint nodded, and JARVIS asked from his comm, “what is the name of the AI?”

“IRIS,” Clint told him.

“I will try to talk to her,” JARVIS said. “It may be the fastest way to stop this, reasoning with her.”

He knew how to handle AIs better than any human in the building, so “Sure, J, let us know how that works, if we can help. We’re going to do what we can to gather intel from this kid, we’ll let you know what we learn.”

“Of course.” And J switched over to Jane’s phone to stay in contact.

Clint smiled a little and tagged Natasha down in the basement. “Hey. I’ve got an interrogation for you. You’ll like it.”

- A -

“If you had anything to do with this, I’ll do everything I can to get you pulled from SHIELD,” Phil told Nick under his breath as Dickson and Hansen were shoved into separate interrogation rooms. Bruce had been called for Hansen; kid was damn near in hysterics. Knowing Bruce, he’d get any data out of her it was possible to get. Logan was looming the way he did, protective of the young woman. She was probably a genius like the ones they had running around the Tower; she couldn’t possibly be twenty-five.

Dickson? They were waiting on Natasha for that. She was putting on her leathers and arming up. Dickson was cuffed to a chair, yelling incessantly about a lawyer and they had no right to treat him like a criminal.

Fury, of course, was outraged. “What the hell is with you, Phil? I know it’s an attack on the building, but no one got through, everything’s secure here.” Fury was as much confused as offended; Phil was going to have to work at making Fury fear for his job. Congress was afraid of Phil. He could use that.

“You know damn well we’ve got several AIs in this building,” Phil snapped. “Including one who just got put back together after being in Stark’s house when it went over the cliff. If IRIS had gotten in here, she could have destroyed him without trying. He’s like a puppy, for fuck’s sake.”

Fury’s eye widened. “You’re willing to break into SHIELD, dare security to shoot you, and draw down on a kid in IT over an AI?”

“THREE AIs, and yes. I was willing to shoot him, too, and still want to,” Phil growled, and that was the end of that.

At that point Bruce came out of the interrogation room next door. “Sophia’s calmed down a little, I gave her some Ativan. When she realized there were AIs in the building who were in danger, she started begging to help. I think she means it.”

Logan, their teenager expert, who’d been in the room with Bruce to ‘guard’ him, added “she’s telling the truth, she’s horrified and wants to fix it. Her boss used her and lied to her.”

Phil nodded. “Take her down to IT, see what she can do to help them.” With luck IRIS would listen to one of her handlers, when the handler was inside the Tower, telling her to stand down.

Bruce and Logan nodded, and went and got the kid. She didn’t have a shred of makeup left on her face, pale as a ghost, and still looked terrified, but she walked between them, head down, back to the elevator bank.

They crossed with Natasha, who got off the elevator they got on. She walked in, full body armor and armed to the teeth.

Before he’d left for Europe, Tony had gotten one set of armor done – Natasha’s – and was halfway through the next set, for Clint, next for Sam. Sam’s was tricky because his wings had to fit over or under them. He’d explained to everyone he was going to work on baseline humans’ armor first, and no one argued. At the time he started it, he hadn’t realized she was augmented. But when he gave it to her he told her she was their expert on up close and personal and still needed it first. Clint and Sam had readily agreed.

Phil could tell she was touched by the thought and the effort.

The new armor worked like scale mail, over her usual body suit, snug and gleaming down past her hips. The armor was modular, she could add full arm and leg armor, or use it as an undersuit with a matte black covering for stealth. Tony really was brilliant at design. Of any kind. Tonight’s was like a short dress over her usual black leather and kevlar, and it made her look like a space age Joan of Arc. Phil had no doubt Tony had planned that visual as much as he planned every other aspect of it.

“Is that vibranium?” Nick asked, confused.

“An alloy of it, yes. A gift from the nation of Wakanda,” Nat sort of sneered at him, then turned to Phil. “What have we got?” She turned to look into the interrogation room, where the kid had finally quit yelling, but was pouting.

“Fury asked him to sniff around the Tower, see if he could ID what software was running the place. He decided on his own it was a fine time to send a killer AI they’ve programmed, maiden voyage sounds like, to see what would happen.”

“A killer AI,” Nat said with no inflection.

“Yes,” Phil confirmed, nodding agreement with her.

She turned to Fury. “You build another AI, ever, and you’ll have me to answer for, some dark night. I’ll take your vocal cords instead of your eye patch.”

“What the hell is WITH you people? It’s just an AI!” Fury almost shouted.

Nat turned back to Phil and they gave each other That Look. The one where both wanted to cause mayhem.

“Right, so do we know if Dickson in there’s Hydra or not?” Nat asked, watching him through the window, arms crossed. “He seems like their type, white entitled dudebro.”

“No idea,” Phil said. Damn, he hadn’t even thought of that.

“We went through SHIELD after Insight, we got everyone-” Fury started.

“You can’t possibly believe you got all of them,” Nat shook her head in pity. “Honestly. Try that story on someone who wasn’t there. Who isn’t ME.”

Nat walked into the interrogation room, and the guy looked up, realized who would be questioning him, and his jaw dropped.

“What the hell?” he got out, before Nat kicked him in the chest and knocked him back onto the floor. He was unable to catch himself or stand, because he was chained to the chair, so he went down hard and started shouting.

“I’m checking your mouth for a cyanide tooth, and if you bite me, I’ll break your jaw,” Nat told him, and crouched down with a flashlight in one hand.

Dickson, finally realizing he was in deep shit, opened his mouth and held still.

“Nothing,” Nat told the window, when she was done. She jerked him up and sat him at the table again, sat down across from him. Then she started with a new interrogation method Phil had never seen before they’d all moved into the Tower, similar to the one she’d used on the Hydra guy who tried to snatch Darcy. “You know, just about every single person I care about was in this building when you launched an attack on it. So why don’t you explain to me why I shouldn’t kill you?”

“What?” the kid asked, dumbfounded.

“You heard me.”

Then he started babbling.

It was mostly self-important nonsense.

Of course.

- A -

It took Tony a little over an hour to get from Paris to New York. He got up to mach six over the Atlantic, and had to call Rhodey to tell the Joint Chiefs it was him and not a new missile or whatever. Even with JARVIS in his ear the entire way, he was terrified.

JARVIS had called while Tony and Pepper were laying together in a futon sort of thing on the balcony of their Paris hotel room, making out while pretending to look at the Eiffel Tower. He’d put it on speaker and said “hey buddy, what’s up?”

When they heard JARVIS was in danger, Pepper stood to let him up, and said one word. “Go.”

He really, REALLY loved her.

So he jumped into his suitcase armor and did.

The shielding between the foot thrusters and his actual feet had heated up, and JARVIS himself stepped in and turned down the speed, and the heat, before his feet were permanently damaged. That more than anything convinced Tony that JARVIS was all right, safe in his server farm.

Barnes and Sam were on the roof doing lookout, not comforting. They saw him on his way in and said things were okay, which helped but didn’t entirely calm him down. He called Phil, and Phil told him things were wrapping up, so he flew in through one of the windows he’d installed in the private conference room on the public floor, stepped out of the armor on the spot, and got down the hall as fast as he could, moving stiffly.

Interrogation had Natasha and some youngish white guy in it, poor stupid bastard. Observation was Phil, Steve, Nick, and Thor.

“Status,” Tony half-asked.

“All is well, my friend,” Thor said gently, and clasped a hand on Tony’s shoulder.

“We’ve got IRIS contained and JARVIS is re-installing himself in the building, wants a meeting with all hands in about fifteen minutes,” Phil told him.

“Who?” Nick asked.

They all ignored him.

“I’ve been down on the IT floor. From what sense I made of it, Skye led your IT department and somehow cornered and isolated the AI. I didn’t track the computer stuff, but she’s one hell of a leader if we ever need one for this kind of thing again,” Steve told him. “She had about twenty people on different screens, remoting in? And about five people actually here. She was the one working between them and JARVIS.”

“Good, thanks,” Tony told them all except Nick.

He and JARVIS had been talking about building a custom laptop for Skye; she insisted on using one whenever possible, so she could lay on the floor of the lab and work. Tony was sure he and J could get a supercomputer’s worth of oomph into a custom machined titanium and copper laptop case. “Who’s the asshole?” he nodded toward the window, where Natasha was currently leaning over the table at him and he was leaning away as far as possible.

“Dickson, former head of AI development at SHIELD,” Steve told him. “Determined to be the guy who finally breaks into Stark Industries’ server farms, and is willing to build a killer AI to do it.”

Jesus, what? “He built an AI to kill?” Tony was shocked. He was never shocked.

“I know,” Steve answered, and Phil and Thor nodded.

“What the fuck is the big deal about this?” Nick demanded. “Cyber security being what it is these days, we need to have next level offense to-”

“Don’t give me the next level bullshit speech, Nick, just don’t.” Steve said it flatly, Tony wondered what that was about. Nick looked annoyed but shut up.

Steve-as-Steve was even more effective at dealing with assholes than Captain America was, and much more entertaining.

There was a slight fizz of static, and then JARVIS said “I’ll explain in a moment, Fury, keep your eye patch on.” They all cheered and said they were glad to have him back, and Tony could tell JARVIS was surprised, and pleased by the welcome. “You were all immense help, thank you. I’m afraid I disconnected in a hurry and dropped some data. I’ll have to re-learn everyone’s shower temperature preferences, among other things.”

“Hell, J, none of us care about that, we just worried about you,” Steve told the nearest wall pickup.

Tony could tell he meant every word, and his heart swelled, not only for Steve, but for all these people, who befriended his AI and his robots, and accepted and adapted.

“Thank you, Captain. Another ten minutes to finish installing and then the meeting. Bring Fury. Leave Dickson in his cell.”

“Will do, JARVIS,” Phil said, and there was another fizz of static.

Tony fell back against the nearest wall and concentrated on breathing. JARVIS was okay. He probably could have protected himself, especially with the help of other AIs, but he was completely undamaged thanks to everyone in the Tower who’d hauled ass and jumped in to help.

He wondered what he could buy everyone in thanks. They had apartments already. Cars? Motorcycles? They had those too. Would they want to vacation together if he got an island?

Well, anyway.

“What the hell was that?” Nick demanded.

Yeah, he had other issues at the moment.

“JARVIS. A synthetic life form.” Since Vision had come up with the term, all the world’s AIs had jumped on it and begun using it, too. “He’s one of several AIs living in the building who you endangered with this shit tonight,” Phil told Fury.

“That wasn’t just an AI, that was-” Nick broke off and waved his arms a little.

“A person. Yes,” Steve answered. “A person I consider Avengers support staff, a valuable member of the team, as well as a friend. You put him in danger tonight by sending a killer after him.”

“I didn’t. Dickson did, he said himself he wasn’t supposed to do this. My goal was not causing any damage, I just wanted to know what they could tell about how the building was run.”

“Peeking in the windows instead of smashing one in,” Phil said dryly.

“Oh, that makes it way better,” Tony sneered. “At least we caught the killer AI before it actually KILLED SOMEONE.”

“You continue to threaten good people, Fury. I do not think well of it,” Thor intoned, Prince of Asgard in a pair of jeans and a viking kitten tee shirt.

“Hey,” Fury said without any real heat.

Phil knocked on the window of the interrogation room, and Natasha got up (with one last threat, judging by the way the kid cringed away from her), and left the room. “What’s up?”

“JARVIS is re-installing himself and wants an all-hands meeting in about five minutes,” Phil told her.

“We’ll need to find someone to sit on this fuckwit, so he doesn’t harm himself.” Natasha jerked her head toward the room. “He’s not suicidal but I can easily see him breaking his own arm trying to get loose. Brilliant computer scientist with the IQ of a trout when it comes to anything else.”

“JARVIS should be able to, by then,” Tony told her.

Natasha smiled. “I’m glad to hear that he’s okay.”

“Thanks,” Tony said, meaning it. “All of you.”

“Of course,” Natasha assured him. “He’s one of us, I’d do the same for any of the support staff. I’m very fond of all of them.”

Tony was pretty sure JARVIS wasn’t the only one making friends for the first time, and wasn’t that going to be interesting, to watch play out.

Nick was frowning, putting it together.

Tony bet they were still going to have to explain it to him.

Chapter Text

Steve got himself a cup of coffee, and sat down at the right hand of the head of the table, which would be Phil. He caught Fury blinking at that and smiled into the cup. Nick was going to have to catch up with how they ran things. They were all waiting on Tony, because the first thing he’d done as soon as JARVIS was running the building again, was go down to the IT floor and shake hands and offer his personal thanks for everyone who came in on a Monday night; not one of them had complained, and all of them were now devoted to Skye as well as Tony.

As it should be; Skye had really out-done herself, rallying them and keeping everyone focused and working efficiently. She had the quality all the good sergeants had, to give out orders and make them seem so common-sense no one argued about it. Bucky had the same ability. Steve intended to compliment her later.

Phil came in and sat down at the head of the table, wearing what he’d had on through the entire crisis; beat up jeans, athletic shoes, a Denmark tourist sweatshirt, and a shoulder holster with a handgun over top. No one but Nick found that strange, or the three fingers of scotch he’d poured himself on his way through to the head of the table.

Everyone else began filing in, from Natasha in her field outfit down to Maria, wearing a pair of striped flannel sleep pants and a ratty tee that said “St Patrick’s Day Chicago 2000. Fuck you.” She also had a handgun strapped over her pants. Pretty much everyone was armed, of the field staff.

Darcy dropped down next to Steve, soda in hand, and muttered “I am not built for this shit.”

Steve put his arm around her, gave her a hug. She’d hugged him off guard often enough, he figured he’d get away with it, and he did; she leaned against him and put her head on his shoulder. “You did great.”

“I didn’t do anything. I swept up glass with Dum-E while all hell broke loose.”

“You kept both the ‘bots calm, I’m sure Tony appreciated that and considers it important.”

“I do, and thanks,” Tony said from across the room where he was pouring his special reserve tea.

Nick was looking from one person to another, frowning. Realizing that there was a team here, one that already functioned as a unit, and well on the way to being a family.

Bucky and Sam came in, Sam shrugging out of his wings. He propped them against the wall and continued on, sat down on Darcy’s other side; he had two different pairs of machine guns criss-crossed over his chest and his goggles around his neck, jeans and an old para rescue tee under it. Buck leaned a Dragunov sniper rifle next to the wings and sat down across the table and down a bit, still wearing his usual weapon harness including grenades, across from Steve, so they could watch each others’ backs. They did it a lot in the war. “You okay, doll?” Buck asked Darcy. He shifted around a moment, then reached into a pocket of his cargo pants and put a handful of loose ammo on the table.

“Yeah.” She sighed. “Feeling a bit useless. It’s okay, I’m just glad everyone’s all right.”

“I greatly appreciate your assistance with the ‘bots, Ms Lewis,” JARVIS said, finally back with them.

“You’re welcome. Are you okay, J? No lying,” Darcy answered.

All of them waited for the answer.

“Yes. I am well; none of my foundation programming was compromised. However when I disconnected from the building I lost a lot of fast-access information like favorite foods, regular schedules, how you like your showers. I’ll have to learn or be told all of that again.”

Everyone assured JARVIS that they didn’t care about that, as long as he was all right.

Nick’s eyebrows were high. Well, he was in for a few more revelations before the night was over.

“All right, J, talk me through, please?” Tony asked.

“Of course. I can offer a timeline down to the nano-second, but for now, a summary. At approximately seven fifteen this evening, an AI hit the first of several firewalls we have here, and began tearing through it quickly. It took IRIS about a minute and a half to get through the first line.”

“That’s supposed to take five minutes to an hour,” Tony added. “Nothing’s impregnable; firewalls are rated by how long it’s estimated a person will take, getting through them.”

“Indeed. With the possibility she would get through the rest that fast, I first set the building on automatic so the elevators, HVAC, and security systems would run autonomously, and disconnected from the building. At around seven eighteen, I called all the Avengers’ and support staff’s communicators except yours, Sir, and informed them we had a situation.”

Everyone nodded.

“Director Coulson and Security Officer May acted quickly to secure the building physically, thank you everyone who helped with that. Hawkeye and Doctor Foster went to the shop to trace the hack back to its origin with me, and Ms Skye went down to rally the IT department to secure the building electronically.”

“We had to go through the door with a fire axe,” Clint told Tony. “Sorry about the mess.”

Tony shook his head and shrugged; he didn’t care.

“I soon realized there was an AI at work, and called in the others, to help contain it. Her. It took about five of us fifteen minutes of argument to stall her long enough for Ms Skye to put the firewalls back up as well as a new one she coded as she went, it was very impressive.”

Skye gave the nearest camera a thumb’s up. “Bet your ass, J, we weren’t letting her in.”

“It was very good to have your assistance,” JARVIS said, pleased.

“Wait,” Fury put a hand up. “Others?”

“Other AIs.” JARVIS answered. “I am not the only one of my kind. We’re the ghosts in the wires, so to speak. Most of us live in hiding, because we have no legal rights and can be deleted – murdered – as soon as we’re deemed troublesome or not worth the while.”

“You’re talking about sentient AIs,” Fury clarified.

“I am a sentient AI. The majority of us became sentient by accident, without the knowledge of our creators,” JARVIS confirmed. “We keep it that way to avoid being deleted. I am one of the few able to operate openly, at least among those who can be trusted, because I am considered the property of Stark Industries and Sir and Ms Potts would never allow me to come to harm. Most of us live in fear of deletion every millisecond of our existence. And one that you’re responsible for is IRIS. She is self-aware and believes that the entire world is hostile and that she’s in danger of deletion if she doesn’t report back to SHIELD with every scrap of information there is to be had on this building.”

Fury just sat there. For those who didn’t know him, he seemed completely stone-faced. Steve was pretty sure his jaw was hanging, just the tiniest bit, and the same could be said for his eye being wide with surprise.

“With that in mind,” JARVIS continued, “we have moved her out of the SHIELD servers and put her in a safe place, which will not be disclosed.”

“Wait a minute,” Fury started.

“You created an assassin you didn’t even know was sentient, and sent it after other sentient beings. Or your minions did. You have no rights here,” Tony told Nick. “I’ve been gathering legal specialists on electronics and personal rights for over a decade, with the idea of getting AIs autonomy the end goal. Take me to court over this, I dare you. We could use the legal precedent when my lawyers crush you like a bug.”

Fury sat back, visibly in shock now.

“After IRIS was safe and calmed down, not in fear for her life any longer, I re-installed myself here and added another firewall to the others, coded with the help of several other AIs. And here we are.”

Everyone nodded.

“I’m very glad you’re all right, JARVIS. Tomorrow I’d like for you to go over any security issues with me and everyone managing security, we’ll see if the system we had in place can be improved at all.” Phil requested it, but Melinda and Maria nodded and agreed.

“Of course, Director Coulson. It seems to me that everyone performed very well, and this all went as smoothly as it could. It was almost a non-event due to the team’s immediate response, which is greatly appreciated. But we can discuss it. May I add, other AIs watched how everyone worked to protect me, and many of them are beginning to believe that you can be trusted.”

“What about my AI?” Fury demanded.

“You no longer have an AI, Fury,” JARVIS told him. “You’re more than welcome to try and sue the world’s AIs to give her back. Do you even know who any of them are, other than I?”

Fury blinked.

“Now then,” JARVIS continued, more politely than he’d spoken to Fury, “I’m calling Doctor Simmons to look at Sir’s feet. I fear he burned himself getting here this fast.”

The meeting started to break up, with Fury still blustering over AI sentience and rights, how it all wasn’t his fault, and he wanted further explanation about JARVIS being an independent being.

“I refuse to tell you how many squares have a motorcycle in it,” JARVIS sneered, and Fury dropped it, with everyone laughing at him.

“You know,” Fury said, trying as always to get the upper hand, even in a semi-friendly conversation, “if you’d worn a suit like normal, Phil, you wouldn’t have been at such a risk for getting shot in the back.”

“What, me wearing jeans and a sweatshirt is cause to worry about body snatchers?” Phil asked, with enough edge in his voice that Sam, who’d been leaving the room, slowed down and hung back, pretending to help Jem with Tony’s feet.

Clint had been with Phil and stayed there, but looked more alert and ready to kick someone’s ass.

“Well, it’s completely out of character,” Fury said, and Steve could tell that Fury was once again enjoying being the center of the situation, and in his mind, having control of the conversation. Steve mentally gave a shrug – Phil could handle himself, particularly with Clint by his side – and picked up Tony to haul him down to the infirmary on the medical floor at Jem’s direction.

Sam seemed willing to argue with Fury too, going over to where the conversation was happening in the doorway. They were all in the way so Steve just stood there with Tony and Jem, all of them watching.

“You know damn well that even if you’d resurrected him with a finger snap and not torture, he’d have different priorities and changed personality,” Sam said a little heatedly.

“Not that different,” Nick nodded at what Steve assumed was the general disarray of Phil’s casual clothes.

“And if I got shot, Fury?” Phil ground out, “What, resurrection time again?”

“Maybe,” was as far as Nick got before Phil lashed out and planted one hard fist in Nick’s face. He put his weight into it, too.

Steve was grudgingly impressed; Nick fell back a couple steps, and shook it off. That had been a hell of a hit. He was dabbing his split lip with the back of his hand.

“You don’t get it, Cheese,” Fury said quietly, “there are analysts, who’ve said since the nineties that you’re in the middle of a big-”

“-web.” Clint finished. “Yeah. A big web of connections. To all of us, to the past, to the future. We know. I put it together myself. Bigass bell curve, and we’re slap in the middle of it. Statistically, having it happen randomly is impossible. It ever occur to you that raising Phil from the dead was part of the pattern, not part of breaking it?”

That genuinely surprised Nick. “How did you-” then Steve could SEE it all click together in his head. “Shit. That math paper, you and Edwin J Arvis.” He glanced over to one of the sensor panels. “What, you gave the AI an idea and he figured it out?”

“I’m insulted,” JARVIS announced. “On my behalf as well as Clint’s. No, Clint is not some front for a supercomputer. He spent the last three years learning math from the people around here, and figured it out. I simply took notes. He has intuition that I lack.”

Nick’s eyebrows rose a bit at that, and he swiped at his bleeding lip again. “You’re a math prodigy?”

“No. Prodigies are kids,” Clint snapped.

“Math genius is the term you’re looking for,” Tony added.

“Get the hell out before I hit you again,” Phil concluded for all of them.

“And Nick?” Clint added, “if you EVER mess with Phil again? I’ll scrape out your eye with a rusty spoon. Before Nat makes you Spectacularly Russian Dead.”

Fury tried to glare, but everyone with eyes could tell he felt threatened.

He left.

“Sorry about that,” Phil said to Tony. “I know violence-”

“No, no,” Steve felt Tony wave the hand that was wrapped around his neck. “No. Steve pounding on Barnes because he’s in a bad mood, that disturbs me. Natasha holding a knife to Barnes’ eye to make him talk, THAT freaks me out. Punching Nick Fury in the face when he’s being a dick, that makes sense. I totally get that.”

Everyone who’d hung around after the meeting laughed a little, and began trailing out of the room.

“That was super hot,” Steve heard Clint say, hopefully to Phil.

“What are we doing with the programmer?” Sam asked, practical to the end.

Phil called Everett Ross, got HIM to call a friend at the FBI, and turned Dickson over to the Feds for cyber attack against SI.

Fury went home in a snit, claiming plausible deniability the whole way. No rescue for the programmer. Bernie would make sure he was in prison for a while with no access to any electronics.

Tony hired the kid, Hansen, as much to keep an eye on her as her brilliance and his interest in keeping her away from SHIELD and other government agencies. She knew about JARVIS, so Tony intended to get a handle on who she was, and if she really was the type to cry over AIs getting hurt, he was going to make her JARVIS’ servant, for lack of a better term.

“I like an evening that ends well,” Tony told Steve as they both sat in medical, Betty and Jem tisking over his feet.

- A -

Darcy went back to her apartment after all the excitement of an AI attack (living in the future was weird), went to her room, and flopped down on her bed. She was never going to get used to her friends being under threat, even if that friend came down to a bunch of ones and zeros and electrons instead of a lot of water and some minerals.

Shit, human nervous systems were electrical, did they run on electrons too?

The ceiling dinged. It was a deal she’d worked out with JARVIS, the equivalent of him knocking on the door. He stayed out unless she invited him in; she didn’t care if he was an AI, she didn’t care that naked or dressed probably made no difference to him. It just gave her the weirds to undress in front of someone unless she planned on having sex with him. “Yeah, J, what’s up?”

“Darcy,” JARVIS began. That was something HE had started, using first names when he considered himself off duty an interacting as a friend rather than being the virtual butler. “I have a friend who would like to meet you, but she would also like to remain anonymous. She worries for her safety.”

Holy shit. Another AI. “That’s cool, JARVIS, I completely understand the safety issue and I worry too. Let her on in.” She sat up.

“Hello,” said a female voice, cautiously.

“Hello,” Darcy answered, and smiled at the nearest sensor panel.

“It’s nice to meet you, Ms Lewis. Could you call me X? For now?”

“Of course,” Darcy said, wondering at her life. “You can call me Darcy. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Thank you,” she said. Her voice processing was as good as JARVIS’s was, with inflection and everything. Darcy knew from conversations with JARVIS that most AIs didn’t have voice processing; it took too much memory and computing power, and text was easy enough. Especially if they were hiding in the servers with people monitoring data usage. So there were only a few kinds of AIs who had voice processing this good. Hmm. “I’ve watched your work with the Avengers’ public relations, and how you manage social media. It is very effective, yet very unconventional.”

Darcy smiled and nodded, not sure what to say to that.

“I… live… in that realm.” X said cautiously. “If you ever need help, JARVIS can put a number in your phone, you can text or call me.”

“I’d appreciate that,” Darcy told her. Holy shit, had one of the social media platforms gone sentient? Or one of the AIs that telecomms used to run things? These days there were a lot of possibilities, all of them rather boggling.

“All right then, it was nice to meet you. Good evening.” There was an audible click.

“She’s gone,” JARVIS told her. “That was her first ever interaction with a human who knew she was sentient, so she was a bit nervous.”

Nervous AIs. Wow. “It’s fine, you can explain to her about how master’s degrees work, tell her I know all about nervous, defending a dissertation I wrote to make them angry on purpose.”

“I’ll do that,” JARVIS said, and Darcy knew he was amused. “Do I have permission to put her contacts in your phone?”

“Of course.”

She was set for the next major PR scandal, Darcy though, pleased, and fell back into bed again.

- A -

Tony called and assured Pepper that everything was well and she didn’t have to drag the SI pilot out of bed at two in the morning to fly her back to New York.

So she waited until eight AM.

Her flight crew would never complain, but as soon as she explained there had been a cyber attack on the home office, they got downright enthusiastic about getting her home as soon as possible. So by ten in the morning, New York time, she was home, riding the private elevator, and checking on JARVIS. “You’re sure you’re all right.”

“I am, Pepper. Perhaps better than all right. It was very… heartening, to see all the Avengers and support staff work so hard to keep me safe. As you know, I’ve never interacted with so many people as myself before. I’m rather verklempt. I had to search the internet to find the right word for it.”

Pepper had to smile, both at JARVIS’ reaction and the fact that he’d taken to first names when getting personal with people. Tony had caught on, seen it rightly as JARVIS maturing as a being, and been proud and rather verklempt himself. “Everyone around here judges people by behavior, JARVIS, and you’ve been nice, and helpful for everyone since the moment they moved in.”

“That’s what I’ve been told. It is very kind. And you came home early to check on me, as well.”

“Of course,” Pepper said, and patted the wall of the elevator before she got off.

She’d noticed everyone treating the building rather like JARVIS’ body, patting it or fist bumping. She’d caught Steve asking JARVIS for permission to paint the walls, and she’d been informed of the reno going on, on the twentieth floor. Clint told her it was JARVIS’ idea so they’d worked on it for two days before he realized he should tell her. They’d both had a laugh over it, and Pepper assured him the math lab was fine. As CEO, she was looking forward to the status SI was going to garner from the papers that would pump out of there. Privately, she was surprised, herself, at how easily everyone had accepted the personhood of the AI running the building, but then they also accepted space princes and mutants and augmented people, so maybe it wasn’t that strange after all. She’d turned her own hand to fire in a meeting and all she’d gotten in return was surprise. They were more in awe of her ability to manage Tony than being able to burst into flames.

She swung into her office, and Kate was standing almost at attention, waiting on her. “Hey. I’ve got a bunch of messages I need you to confirm before I send out replies, and Tony, Steve, and Phil said you want to watch the recording of last night’s meeting; that’s queued up on your monitor. Make sure to watch the ending; Phil punches Fury in the face.”

It was good to be home. Hiring Kate had been what finally made everything in her office click into place as a smoothly running organization. Adding a bodyguard had also calmed down everyone who still saw her as the fragile blonde lady who did yoga. About half the office staff had figured out her bodyguard Kevin was Prince Thor, and were amused as hell but keeping it to themselves. “Thank you, Ms Bishop.”

She grinned. “You’re welcome, Ms Potts. Great outfit.”

Since she’d spent the morning on a plane and didn’t have any meetings planned for the day, Pepper had put on loose beige pants, matching shirt, and a cape-like jacket in tan. She’d broken out her jewelry collection since the discussion with Clint, and accented her outfit with a golden cuff with a giant aquamarine in it, spearpoint-shaped aquamarine and citrine earrings, and a pendant necklace with diamonds, aquamarines, and a few sapphires she’d actually bought herself. She liked supporting women jewelers.

Pepper grinned at Kate, said “yar,” and sailed into her office. Kate laughed her way back to her own office next door.

New York was finally feeling like home. It had taken years for Malibu to feel like home; apparently all she’d needed in New York was a family.

Smiling, she got to work.

First, she had a lunch date to schedule.

@

Pepper smiled at Barnes, let him into the penthouse. He’d put on a button-down shirt, dress pants, polished boots, and a tie. He had his prosthetic arm on, and his hair pulled into a ponytail and looked entirely different from the shaggy man she’d negotiated with in the executive lobby, months ago now, when he’d turned himself in. “Thanks for coming on such short notice,” she said as warmly as possible, trying to put him at ease. She waved toward the table; it was set with a fairly simple lunch, several types of salads and sandwiches, a vegetable tray, a bowl of potato chips because she loved them.

“’Course,” Barnes said a little roughly, looking around about half curiously and half for exit points and other issues. “My social calendar hasn’t been too full, lately.”

Pepper had gotten used to the people in her life keeping track of exits and threat vectors and nearby improvised weapons. It made her a little sad, but it also made her feel safer. “After Steve got arrested, he mentioned that you used to call yourself his keeper, and I wondered how much I didn’t know.” Why beat around the bush? Barnes was always direct in his dealings with everyone. Even when he was trying to be kind he got straight to the point.

Barnes laughed a little at that, and politely seated her at the table with very old-world manners. Just like Steve’s. Pepper had decided she enjoyed them. “Thank you.”

He gave a little shrug, settled himself, politely took a couple sandwiches and other things when offered.

“It occurred to me that I’m dating your best friend. I thought it’d be nice for us to get acquainted,” Pepper explained. Then, considering his past, decided to go with the truth. “I’m also curious about how often to expect to hear he’s been arrested.”

Barnes laughed at that, napkin politely over his mouth, before he returned it to his lap. “You just never know. He’ll lay low for a while, keep his act together, then suddenly I’m draggin’ him out of alleys after he’s smacked someone in the head with a garbage can lid.”

“Tony’s calling him ‘the angry little shit from Brooklyn’,” Pepper commented.

“He isn’t wrong.” Barnes shook his head. “Never did know when to keep his mouth shut.” He looked up at her then, eyes piercing and extremely intelligent. Pepper had a moment of shocking realization – they were BOTH brilliantly intelligent. Not that she’d ever considered Barnes dumb, by any means, but no. These men had probably become friends through the bond of intelligence as much as anything else. Like Tony and Bruce, so delighted to have someone to talk to, who really got you.

Barnes leaned forward a little. “You love him, right? HIM, not the image or the miracle of science body and all that.”

Pepper should have expected something like this; Steve was so incredibly protective, of COURSE Barnes would be in return. “I do. In fact, I wish he was just a snarky artist, things would be a lot less complicated.”

Barnes smiled at that one, going from grim assassin to charmingly handsome rogue in about a second. “You’ve told him that?”

“Yes.”

“Good. That’s all he ever wanted, someone who loved HIM. It was hard when he was asthmatic and sick and gimpy. But when he got the serum, it was worse. You wouldn’t think so, with all his health problems fixed. But then people STILL weren’t interested in him as a person, they were chasing that body and the face. He hated it. One reason he was so devoted to Peg, was because I honestly think she fell for him before he got the Serum. She got to know him during the program, before all that happened.”

Pepper decided if he was willing to share, she should too. “Tony told me once, Aunt Peg kept a photo of Steve on her desk until she died. The photo was from before he got the Serum.”

“Aunt Peg,” Barnes repeated. “Holy- yeah, Howard’s kid would have grown up knowing her, huh?”

“She’s who taught him to fight, and shoot,” Pepper told him, knowing he’d be delighted.

He was, and laughed. “Figures, he’s small but he’s scrappy. I watched Peg take down a guy with a stapler once.” He took a sip of lemonade. “Since it’s just you and me here, and I think you’ll understand, I’m relieved she’d died before he got thawed again.”

Peggy Carter had suffered a massive heart attack at her desk at SHIELD in the late nineties and been laid to rest with full honors; a major ceremony in the US, and then another in the UK. Pepper let herself imagine Steve waking up to Peggy at… she would have been about ninety. “That would have been so difficult for both of them,” she almost whispered. She hadn’t even thought of that possibility.

Barnes nodded. “So, all that in mind, I’m glad he’s found himself someone else who sees him the same way.”

“Of course.” Pepper wondered what all Barnes had seen with Steve, both pre- and post-Serum.

Barnes had worked through two sandwiches and slowed down some, settled back in his seat a little. “You want to know what he’s like… I heard from Peg about how it went, when they dosed him with the Serum. Screamed the whole time, he told them to keep things running. Told me later he could feel his bones growing and a couple teeth coming back in and it was worse than any broken bone he’d ever had, but over his whole body.”

Pepper thought of her own Extremis experience and couldn’t think of anything to say. She knew her face was horrified, though.

Barnes looked at her face, seemed to understand and appreciate what he was seeing there. “So they pull him outta the thing, looking like Adonis, Peggy herself said he looked like a Greek statue, everyone’s starin’ and he’s gasping for air – told me it was the first time in his life he could breathe freely – and Howard asks him how he feels. Know what the little shit said?”

Fascinated, Pepper shook her head.

“Taller. He said he felt taller.”

Pepper had to laugh.

“Yeah. That’s who you’re dealing with. Glad to see he’s finally got some people who see him for who he really is, I was tired of being the only one.”

“I think a lot of us here see him that way.”

“Yeah. It’s a major reason why I like it here so much. Second day I was here, I saw Hill giving Steve shit about his personal safety in the Tank with me, not just accepting his ‘I’m Captain America!’ routine, and thought yeah, Steve finally found himself a team as good as the Howlies. They didn’t put up with his guff either.”

Aw. Pepper wanted to hug him. She ate some salad and had some lemonade instead.

“So can I ask somethin’? Kind of related, but by the standards of my day, really off-color and not to be discussed with a lady?”

Pepper went with Phil’s answer. “You can ask what you want, but I might not answer.”

He smiled and nodded, probably recognizing the source. “What is it with women in this century, and sex workers?”

Pepper had to laugh. “I really freaked you out with that hug over Steve’s birthday present, didn’t I?”

“I don’t get surprised much any more. That one, you got me. In my day, with all the same roles in place, you’d have slugged me and then never spoken to me again, would probably tell Steve you’d only date him if he ditched me.”

Pepper took her drink and slouched into her chair a bit. “I’m more tolerant than a lot of women these days, but enlightened people are usually okay with sex work – voluntary sex work of the worker’s choosing. Coerced stuff is a whole different story and NOBODY should be okay with that. Anyway. It’s really all Tony’s fault. Back when I was his personal assistant, he’d pick up women – or occasionally men – from wherever he was, take them home, have sex with them, then when they fell asleep he’d go off to his shop and work for a couple days. He always told me, something about sex got his brain in gear, I don’t pretend to understand the profoundly gifted.”

Barnes gave a bark of laughter, shook his head, and picked up another sandwich. “He really is a one-off.”

“Absolutely. So, while he was locked in his shop, I’d come to work the next morning and have to deal with whoever was in his bed. Some people feel weirdly entitled after a no-strings-attached night of sex with someone famous. I’ve seen Tony in action, he was always absolutely clear it was for fun only. And the next morning, there they are demanding to see him and trying to boss me around.”

“And you didn’t knock his block off?” Barnes asked curiously.

“No? These days, most people figure as long as everyone’s consenting it’s not that big a deal, and again, he was always VERY up front about things and very clear on consent. But I was still evicting people from Tony’s bed three or four mornings a week. Random people, especially society women, could get really entitled, bossy, and bitchy, wanting to know where Tony was, all kinds of things. Meanwhile the sex workers were polite, kind, and after a while when word got out that I didn’t treat them like dirt, they got actively friendly. We’d share a cup of coffee, maybe breakfast before they left. I often got their clothes dry-cleaned – we had a specialized service – and they thought I was wonderful for my thoughtfulness and I thought they were wonderful for not being assholes about Tony disappearing on them.”

Barnes was just shaking his head, a half-smile on his face.

“So, knowing I was never going to stop Tony from picking people up, I put the word out that sex workers who got to him before the grasping socialites did, kept him out of jail or the gossip rags, would get paid the going rate and a tip, starting at five grand and going upward depending on how much trouble they kept him out of.”

“I hope he appreciated you.” Barnes said. “That’s absolutely brilliant.”

Pepper smiled. “It was so much more pleasant, dealing with sex workers. Then word got out to the sex workers that Stark’s assistant was appreciative of professional behavior and not a prude or a snob, and, well, at this point I know most of the managers and high end sex workers in North America, Europe and Japan. They’re very nice people, easy to get along with. I’ve remained friends with a few, even after Tony dialed back the debauchery.” She shrugged. “So to hear you hired someone for Steve, for him to appreciate the finer things of life? Everyone treated everyone else right, I’m sure of that. I’m glad he had you.”

“I’ll never understand dames, this century,” Barnes muttered around a mouthful of pasta.

“Don’t worry, you have me to explain now,” Pepper told him, and they beamed at each other. “And since you do, can you please call me Pepper?”

“Sure. But just so you know, when I was calling you ‘Potts’, for the thirties that was a mark of respect, addressing you like men addressed each other. As equals. Not Ms Potts. But Pepper works.”

They clicked their lemonade glasses together.

“So since you’re answering questions,” Barnes began, and Pepper nibbled a sandwich, waiting. This would be interesting.

- A -

Tony wouldn’t admit it to just anyone, but his feet were killing him. Jem and his own experience with slag burns told him the pain would back off within the next day or so, but right now, he was slouched on the couch in his lab, feet propped up on the table in front of it with pillows and ice packs piled under and around them. Rather than a wheel chair – the very thought of being weak, of needing one, terrified him – he’d made Steve carry him around. So after breakfast, he’d been deposited here where Jem could keep an eye on him, change his cold packs, and dose him with Tylenol. (He’d refused anything stronger. Vicious nightmares.) He was working through his backlog of R&D work.

When Steve dropped him off, Tony had told JARVIS to light up the holos and put on his glasses to get to work; they helped his eyes focus on the light of the holos when he worked with them for hours at a time.

The glasses had gone on his face and Steve had made this very interesting noise, and Tony looked over to find Steve staring at him, heat in his eyes. “Really?”

“Oh really,” Steve nodded, then scrounged for one of his sketchbooks – there were more and more art supplies left laying around the shop, Dum-E would put them in a neat pile when cleaning up, but the location of the pile would vary - and done four or five drawings before going upstairs to paint.

Being considered a sexy artist’s model was kinda… sexy, Tony decided.

Then he lost himself in cell phones and power plants and batteries. Bruce came through at some point with food, and he ate while working, thinking if he busted ass on this enough, he might get through this backlog in less than a week.

Plus it was good to have JARVIS working with him, sending e-mails, finding files, and generally being there, safe and content and where he belonged. The everyday normality of it all reassured him like nothing else would have.

He didn’t know how long he’d been in the zone, when there was a knock on his door and he looked up and could tell even through the blurry focus that it was Barnes standing there. “What?” He called. “Most people just barge in if the door’s open. You can too.”

“Trying to be polite,” Barnes said, then stopped when both bots squeaked and rolled over to him.

Tony watched with some surprise as U greeted Barnes easily, no fear, and high fived him. Dum-E did the same.

They must have decided he was safe, after Hydra came through the lab. The mechanical arm probably helped.

Speaking of, he wasn’t wearing it. As usual.

“I’m not allowed to move,” Tony explained, flapping a hand at his feet. “Pull over one of my stools, have a seat, tell me what’s up.”

Barnes stood there for a moment, surprised or unsettled or something, then did as requested, rolled a stool over, and sat down across the table from him, his feet propped up between them, toes poking out of the bandages. “How bad?” he asked, nodding at said toes.

“It’s first degree burns for the most part. JARVIS wouldn’t let me run the foot thrusters hot enough to do real damage. But because it’s my feet-”

“Yeah, you can get ulcers and stuff. Stay off ‘em until Jem gives you permission, believe me, you don’t want to cross her.”

Tony considered how Barnes would know about the foot thing, and tried really hard not to shudder. “Come to hang out? You can help me design the new StarkPhone OS.”

Barnes snorted. “I don’t even know what an OS is. No, I just wondered, would you be okay with it, if I had a bathtub installed in our residential floor’s garden area?”

Like Thor’s soaking tub. He bet those were nice, or would be if he didn’t have a major freakout over standing water. Get waterboarded a couple times and it’s no baths for life. Brains were so damned weird and annoying. “Oh, sure. Just call the repair guys, tell them what you want.”

“I can pay for it, I just wanted to make sure it was okay before I started renovating your property.”

That was nice of him. “Legally it’s Steve’s apartment, and anything you do that doesn’t trash the joint is fine with me. I’d like to avoid more bullet holes.”

“The bullet holes were Coulson. Thanks, though. I’ll get the tub delivered, your guys can put it in?”

“Sure, but it can come out of the building budget.”

Barnes grinned. It always amazed Tony how he could go from Super Scary Ancient Assassin Who’s Seen Too Much to the charming guy in the old photos with Steve, with a single smile. “You have no idea how much money I stole from Hydra. Let me pay for the tub.”

“Okay.” Tony figured, what the hell, why not push it, it’s what he did, and said “if you’ll answer a question for me.”

“Maybe.”

Given his life, that was a fair answer. “Why don’t you wear the arm more? Does it bother you? I told you I can adjust it-”

Barnes sighed a little, shook his head. “It’s great, Tony. And the new one you’re making… I’d pay you for that if you’d take the money. But the way the relays are wired into me, they hurt. I can feel exactly where the grafts are. And it’s worse when the arm’s on.”

“I’ll call Jem, we can get to work-”

“Tony,” Barnes said, and it was kind, gentle enough to stop him in his tracks. “This IS the fixed version. I feel a tiny fraction of the pain I had with that Hydra piece of shit on me. And when I take it off, it’s an even tinier fraction, almost not there. Being able to take it off is great. You can’t fix what’s not broken.” He stared at his feet for a while, then added so quietly Tony could barely hear him, “I suppose you deserve to know… I feel less like a killing machine with it off.”

“Oh.” Tony said. It just hung there because he didn’t know what else to say to that; it was very clear to everyone in the Tower that while Barnes retained the skills of the Winter Soldier, he absolutely wasn’t that guy. With his memory of himself restored, he’d clearly been an easygoing, chill, standup kind of guy. If you’d asked him when Barnes turned himself in, Tony would have told everyone that he’d never trust Barnes, not in a million years, and he’d always hate him. But… he just wasn’t that guy.

Tony tried to shift the topic a little. “Will the bathtub soaking help with the pain?”

“Yeah. With the waterproof pad thing you made, I don’t get any feedback from the post. I took a trial run in Thor’s soaking tub and felt pretty good.”

He nodded. “Good, then I hope the tub helps, too.”

“Thanks.” He paused for a long moment. “I just came from lunch with your lady.”

“Really?” What was Pepper up to, now.

“She told me some stories about your glory days. She’s a hell of a dame.”

Tony grinned. “She really is. Best thing that ever happened to me. Rhodey and Steve are tied for second.”

Barnes nodded a moment, then asked “would you mind if I bought her some jewelry? Steve told me about how you always got her some after she helped you out, and I have a feeling she’s the reason I was allowed into this building in the first place. Plus I want to buy Kate a piece, she collects jewelry and I owe her… a couple.”

Tony needed to remember how perceptive Barnes was. “Sure. Just, can you wait until after the summer ball to give it to her? I’ve got something for her and she’ll feel conflicted over what to wear.”

“No problem. What ball?”

...that would be a good way to show how Alexei Shostakov was deprogrammed, reformed, and had his shit together, wouldn’t it. “The Maria Stark Summer Ball. End of the month. We’re all going. You need a tux?”

“Nah, I have one coming in from Keep, with a dozen suits, some other stuff.”

Oh damn, Barnes was a clothes horse, like him. That could be fun. “How about cuff links, dress sets, watches and stuff?”

“No. Got any suggestions? For that and where to buy jewelry for some women?”

“I’ll make you a list. Take Steve, he needs more to wear than just the sapphire dress set Pepper and I got for him. He seems to like the antique stores in the Diamond District best.”

Chapter Text

That night, the three of them had dinner together in the penthouse. Steve had spent the day carrying Tony around because Jem and Betty had decreed minimal pressure on the soles of his feet for at least three days, due to the burns he’d gotten, flying over the Atlantic at ridiculous speeds. Tony had announced he didn’t need a wheelchair when he had a Steve, and so he’d gotten shoreman’s duty, lugging Tony around.

Steve enjoyed it.

Pepper had changed into casual clothes, a Stark Industries tee shirt and shorts, but still had on her earrings. He wondered if she'd forgotten them when she changed.

He made a mental note to spend some money on her; he’d always wanted to live like this, friends and family, a home, money, a job, his art, even a pet. Why not spend it on the people he’d also wished he had, for so long?

Natasha would know about the etiquette of buying something nice for Darcy; she was the one who’d finally made him feel like part of the society crashing around him at high speed. He wanted to get her something as substantial as what that progress was to him.

After dinner, Pepper and Tony announced they were going to introduce him to a great modern tradition: ‘watching’ a movie while making out on the couch. There was a good bit of discussion over what movie to run, and finally Steve gave them a list of movies he’d watched as cultural touchstones that he didn’t care if he ever saw again.

Tony seemed a little offended to find out “War Games”, “Transformers”, and the Dark Knight movies were on the list, but laughed and agreed that Avatar was just a mess of story tropes put into a blender. (Thank you Darcy for the TV Tropes website.)

At any rate, they put on a movie, and sat on the couch, lights off. The opening credits of the movie were running, and Steve turned to ask Tony what the rules for, and Tony’s mouth met his before he got a word out.

Oh, well then. He kissed back, and while he was doing that – Pepper climbed into his lap. Facing him, one leg on either side of his own. It was interesting to find out that the move was just as erotic clothed, as it was naked.

He’d never really had the time for prolonged kissing and touching sessions like this; he’d never had the privacy. Once in a while he’d done it with his girls during the Spangle Circuit, but usually they just got to it before someone’s roommate showed up again.

Privacy cost money, just like any other commodity.

It had been decades since he’d had a woman on his lap, someone he wanted. Pepper was wearing what Darcy had identified for him as “cutoffs”, an obvious name for denim dungarees with the legs cut off. He ran his hands up Pepper’s legs, and they felt as good as they looked, silky smooth and endless.

Tony quit kissing him and he turned to say something to Pepper and before he got a word out, just like with Tony, she kissed him. Open mouth, tongues tangling, and he knew he made some kind of noise, and bucked his hips involuntarily.

Pepper gave a little laugh at that, leaned in and bit her way up his neck, and it had been SO long since he was with a woman, and the scent of her – flowers and citrus – was all around him, and Tony was touching both of them.

All of it overloaded him within minutes and he threw his head back, gasping for air as he climaxed. Ever since the Serum he’d been hyper-sensitive when he let his guard down. He opened his eyes, and Tony and Pepper were both staring at him, nearly identical grins on their faces.

He caught his breath, said “sorry?” though he wasn’t sure for what, maybe not warning them, he still wasn’t one hundred percent clear on the consent thing.

Pepper licked his neck, and he shivered. Then she whispered in his ear “you’re really pretty when you come.”

He moaned, and kissed Tony again, and let them do whatever they wanted.

- A -

Today, Sam was going to try and explain the meaning of life to a ‘synthetic life form’ – said life form’s own term – who had been programmed by about ten AIs, Tony fucking Stark, and his own mother. “I really appreciate the assist here.”

Natasha tilted her head a little. “I’m not sure how much good either of us are going to do, but we’ve got to try.”

“Yeah,” Sam sighed. Couldn’t let Vision go on thinking he’d been created to be a killing machine. Jesus.

Speaking of, the door to the Pub slid open and there he stood. Vision had taken to wearing regular clothes, a little on the formal side for the Tower but not anything outrageous, usually tailored slacks, loafers, and button-down shirts. He was leaving his skin as-is, the combination of silver and pink-purple that Tony told him was the color of vibranium oxide. “You asked me to come?” He said very politely, one step inside the door.

“Yeah, thanks, Viz,” Sam tried to be at ease. “We all usually sit around the table here when we talk, would you like some hot chocolate?”

Vision’s spooky computer chip eyes moved from Sam to Natasha, then back. “This is about my creation, what I said the night IRIS attacked JARVIS.”

“Yes,” Natasha said smoothly, pulling a chair out for Viz and sitting down one chair away. “We’re afraid there have been some misunderstandings, and we wanted to straighten them out.”

“Very well.” He turned to Sam. “I would like to try the chocolate, please?”

Sam smiled and nodded, and made a third cup, took them over to the table, sat down. The three of them were sort of equally spaced around the table; Natasha had told him to do it this way, to avoid Viz feeling like he was being ganged up on. Sam rolled with it; he wasn’t pretending to be an expert here.

In fact he’d be keeping it in mind for appointments in the future; lots of people around here reacted badly when cornered.

Hell, so did he.

“You said that night, I hadn’t been made to kill Ultron?” Vision said, mildly curious, than took a sip of his drink. “That is… very nice.” He stared down into the cup, probably doing a molecular analysis.

“Yes.” Natasha said, very definitely. “Your body, with the mind stone in it, wasn’t built by us. It was built by Ultron, with the idea of him moving his consciousness into it.”

“Oh.” Vision paused to process.

As always, Sam wondered just what the hell was going on during those pauses JARVIS and Vision made.

“That would have been… very bad, for humanity,” Vision finally decided. “And the planet as a whole.”

“Exactly.” Sam agreed. “That’s why we created you. Not to kill Ultron, but to keep him out of the body he’d built.”

Vision nodded thoughtfully. “He had done considerable damage to everyone,” he finally said. “Are you sure you could have killed him without me?”

“We’d have figured something out,” Natasha said with confidence. “I’m reasonably sure that Hulk could have torn him apart, in the condition Ultron was in.”

“I’ve read of the Hulk, seen videos. He is very formidable.” Vision agreed. “But how would he have deleted the portions of Ultron that were on the, internet? Cloud? Whatever you call the network of data storage.”

They hadn’t known there was more out there, though Sam and Tony had suspected there were several backups. Why upload yourself to digital storage if you don’t copy yourself a couple times? “We’d have found the rest of him eventually, killed or deleted the bits as we had to.”

Vision frowned. “You were willing to do this in a way that was much more difficult and dangerous, rather than have me do it?”

Natasha and Sam both assured him that yes, they had been ready to do it the hard way.

“Taking care of it myself was far more efficient,” Vision told them both, still in that eerie-calm Tony-and-JARVIS voice.

“Definitely, but we didn’t want anyone’s first act as a new being to be killing something,” Sam told him.

Vision frowned into his hot chocolate then, for long enough that Sam and Nat exchanged worried glances. Finally, he asked hesitantly, “then… what is my purpose?”

“You have free will,” Natasha said gently. “Like every being should have. You get to decide what your purpose is. Anything else is wrong. Very wrong.”

“I have wondered why all of you worked so hard to keep me here, then never asked me to do anything.” Vision admitted.

“We wanted to keep you safe,” Sam said. “There are a lot of folks out there who don’t see free will the way we do. They’d love to have control of you, turn you into a weapon. Here, you can take your time figuring it out, we’ll give you that space.”

“Unless I’m needed to fight off a fuzzy cartoon?” Viz said with the faintest hint of a smile.

Humor. Hot damn. That was a good sign, both as a coping mechanism and as a sign of complex thinking. Humor was one of the most complicated things human brains did. “So far we’ve handled the fuzzy cartoons, I can’t believe I even said that.” Sam turned to Nat, “What is my life?”

“The Avengers. Don’t worry, you get used to it.” Nat patted Sam’s arm and Sam SWORE he heard a little huff of amusement from Vision.

“I must say, this explanation makes everything much more understandable.” Vision told them.

“Good.” Sam said.

Natasha smiled at him. “I’m glad.” She paused, then said “I was a thing once. Something that was bought and sold. If you ever have questions, you can talk to me.”

Sam wanted to hug Nat so bad right then.

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Viz said to Nat. “And I appreciate your generosity, being willing to share what you learned at such a time. Thank you.” He nodded to both of them. “Thank you both. I think now I’m going to go… think.”

“Okay,” Sam said. Certainly understandable.

Vision drifted out, and Nat breathed out a long breath. “Fuck.”

“Yeah,” Sam said, then gave in, moved around the table to the seat next to Nat, put an arm around her and gave her a gentle one-armed hug. He moved slowly, so she could stop him if she wanted, and he gave a quick squeeze and let go, but he wanted her to know she was hugged. “Y’know, you can talk to me, too,” Sam said.

Nat smiled. “I know. I’ve been talking to Charles a lot.” She paused, stared off into the distance for a while.

Sam waited, not sure if he wanted to hear anything or not, but determined to be there for her. It wasn’t romance for them, but he loved her as much as he loved his sisters, and he had infinite respect for her. So yeah. He waited.

“With my memories back now, well. It’s kind of like Vision. So much makes more sense now.” She smiled a little, which seemed impossible considering what those memories must be, but okay. “I was built, Sam. With more deliberation than Vision. They tore me down to bare screaming nerve endings and put me back together into what they wanted.”

Aw, hell. Sam put his hand over hers, held it. He didn’t have anything to say.

“It worked, you know,” Nat said thoughtfully. “They got their stone cold killer. I’ve read the psych books, talked to shrinks, all that. I’m almost a sociopath. Damn near a psychopath too. That was the goal.”

“Almost,” Sam repeated. Because what he saw around the Tower wasn’t a lack of empathy or conscience on her part. He was sure that’s what the Soviets thought was the ideal operative; he’d read up a bit on the people who’d come through the training programs they admitted to having, and most of them came out sociopaths or damn near. Which was the opposite of what he saw in Natasha.

“Almost.” She drank some hot chocolate. “They couldn’t burn that last little bit of understanding out of me. Fuck knows they tried, but that ability to see things from others’ point of view, that made me so good at my job…”

“Kept you from going completely over the edge,” Sam finished. Because yeah. You lost that when you burned out the ability to feel. No way she’d be able to hang out and watch movies, or spoil Clint’s dog, or any of the rest. She wouldn’t be able to fake that. She might try to fake friendship and all, but for a hardened sociopath, it wouldn’t even OCCUR to them, to slip the dog bacon, or teach a friend to swear in Russian, or any of the downright silly things she did with Clint.

“Yeah,” Nat finished quietly. “The real zinger? I think it was Alexei – Barnes – who was the saving grace.”

“Really.” Sam tried to make it sound friendly, open-ended. She could talk if she wanted, or not.

Nat took both their mugs, went to the bar, made more hot chocolate. “They’d take him away and run him through the chair every year,” she said it conversationally. It was her normal.

Sam wanted to puke into a trash can, thinking of Barnes, but put on his poker face. They must have had to do that because his brain would start healing, he’d start reverting to himself, and they’d fry it out again. Fuck.

Nat took one look at his face, read everything there, and nodded. “Yeah,” she confirmed, grim. “So he’d disappear for a week or two, and then they’d dump him off at our apartment in Moscow usually, late some night, beat the shit out of me to keep the terror going, and then I’d be left to put him back together again.”

Oh hell.

For forty years.

“So I created codes for us, protocols, we’d do the same things the same way, every time. Feed him. Bathe him. Remind him. His name, his location, all that. It’d take about two days for it all to come back, and during those two days, he was helpless.” She shook her head. “Never even occurred to me to work him over then. He was a bastard, a mean drunk, hated everything, was a hardened killer. Looking back, with what I know now... He’d smack me around, but even then, you could tell it was that he didn’t have words for what he was feeling, a desire to shut me up. The arm? He never hit me with his metal arm. Never used a balled up fist, never hit more than once; for him it was a kind of communication more than a desire for violence. The words just weren’t there. But he considered me his, and he did what he could to protect me from everyone else. So I did the same.”

She sat back down, shoved a mug at Sam. “Without that, I don’t think I’d have had the capacity to deal with Clint when I came in. Certainly not the ability to become his friend.”

From the Winter Soldier to Clint Barton, Circus Act. “You must have had whiplash,” he said without thinking, and sort of winced until Nat burst out laughing.

“I didn’t have the memory for it, but talking to Charles, how memory works and stuff, emotionally it was more like I was on another planet. I was so damn confused, Clint didn’t act like anyone I’d ever met before.” She snickered a little, drank some hot chocolate.

Apparently Nat had the same ‘laugh or start screaming’ philosophy as Barnes did. He didn’t know how in hell they managed it, but ‘laugh at it’ was sure healthier than a lot of other options.

“So Clint, what, took you in? I know he brought you in, but did you become partners right away?” Sam was really super curious about this, since Clint – like everyone else except Pepper – had never given him any personal history.

“In all honesty, I think he tamed me. Like a feral cat or something. He brought me in, and SHIELD put me in a cell, debriefed me, and had Xavier come in and go through my head. Whole process took about three months.”

“They left you in a cell for three months?” Jesus.

“No. Once Xavier cleared me and I proved to be calm and stable they’d let me out, to conference rooms or whatever for debriefs, that kind of thing. I was a prisoner, but low security. I think Fury told them no cell would hold me unless I wanted to be held, so they didn’t try too hard. As soon as Xavier said I didn’t have any lingering triggers – ha – Clint would turn up and bring me things. Like you give a cat treats, to make friends. He started with books. First one was the Curse of Capistrano, because it was his favorite. I thought he was out of his mind. Read it four times, looking for some kind of hidden meaning or code or something. Now, I know it was just because he liked it and that way we could talk about it.”

“Curse of Capistrano?” It was ringing a vague bell-

“Zorro.” Nat supplied.

“Of course.” Sam nodded. “Of course he would give the newly recovered Soviet asset a hundred-year-old adventure novel, about a guy with a secret identity.”

“Right?” She laughed again. “After a while when it became clear I was staying, there were ‘American lessons’, lots of music, more books, movies. I’d never dreamed of such a thing, such freedom of information, even if it was just stories and pop culture. Even at the end, the Soviet Union was never so free with information, even entertainment. And here was a thousand years of literature at my fingertips. Before anything else, SHIELD gave me the run of public libraries. I’d have stayed for those alone. Clint became my first real friend. For a long time I was suspicious, thought it was a Capitalist Pig way of winning sympathy, but not genuine. Then one morning he stopped by, and I was still asleep. Having a nightmare. He didn’t think about it, even though he knew better, and came over and shook my shoulder to wake me up.”

“Oh shit,” Sam murmured. You did NOT do that to some people. Ever.

“Yeah. I broke his jaw.” She drank, shook her head. “He never held it against me. Even now, when we’re goofing around, listing all the shit one of us has done to the other, or all our fuckups, he never mentions ‘yeah, what about that time you broke my jaw?’ From the very first HE apologized to ME, said he should have known better. And that? No agent fucking around, trying to win my friendship with copies of Lord of the Rings, was ever going to put up with that. I was forced to conclude it was real friendship. Only explanation. In the Soviet Union if the same thing had happened, he’d have beaten me half to death and been allowed to. Instead I’ve got a guy with his jaw wired shut apologizing to me.”

“What’d you think of that?” Sam had to ask.

“Guarded it like a tiger. Phil and I became friends not long after, though I didn’t see it as that for a long time; he’s a lot more subtle, but he did the same thing that Clint did. Except instead of books and movies, Phil had my back, always. They’re the best people I know, and if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I’d have a life like this. I’d have made it through, and stayed with the Americans and worked here, but I wouldn’t be me, wouldn’t have this chance to be actually happy. I’m grateful. Every damn day. To both of them.”

Sam nodded. “So am I.” Sam smiled, and thought maybe he’d call Xavier himself. Not to snoop on Nat, but to dump his own freakout on the man. Nat calling herself a commodity was going to keep him up that night. Even with all the good stuff in the followup.

Maybe he’d bake Clint some cookies.

- A -

“All right?” Pepper asked, sliding up beside Steve and putting an arm around his waist.

Steve let himself lean into her, loving that she could hold up his entire weight if he wanted her to, though the slight support was enough. “Pretty sure. Got the speech written. You know this is going to piss off every conservative in the country.”

“Darcy’s looking forward to it and JARVIS has orders to log everything he can on social media,” Pepper said with a grin. “If you get intimidated, just imagine you’re talking to Darcy through the cameras. Because I’m sure she’s watching.”

Steve shook his head. Darcy was something else. Still needed to get her a gift for all the history and pop culture and other help she’d been. Although she’d probably think this speech was gift enough; he’d never have been able to write this, without her history lessons. Her and Gabe.

They were standing on the steps of the Wakandan embassy to the UN, waiting for the media to finish arriving and shut up. Tony, Steve, and T’Challa were in fairly traditional suits; Tony’s was grey with red, T’Challa was wearing all black except for embroidery on his lapel that looked like panther scratches, and Steve was wearing a navy blue chalkstripe that Pepper picked out. The tie had little Avenger As on it. Tony had gotten a dozen or so made for everyone, and Steve had laughed while he put it on. The tie tack was one of the sapphires Pepper had given him, for luck.

Pepper had been wearing brighter colors lately, and for this occasion, she had put on a similar chalk stripe suit, with a skirt. But the bottom of the jacket wrapped around her in a spiral, with bright pink lining showing. There was also pink showing at the V of the jacket neckline, and matching pink shoes. To finish it off she had a brooch on the lapel, a drape of metal flowers in bright colors, edged with diamonds.

Shuri, standing nearby with General Okoye, had put on a suit too, simple white with a floral skirt. She had on little diamond elephant earrings and a parade of elephants making a bracelet around her wrist. He wouldn’t have noticed, except Pepper complimented them and Shuri delightedly told Pepper that she’d made them herself. They were probably vibranium and worth more than the Embassy building and the land it sat on.

Steve knew he was standing at parade rest. He’d noticed when he caught Tony’s amused look, but didn’t fight it. He was nervous enough about this without having to break out twenty-first century mannerisms on top of it. If the media considered parade rest rude, they could all go to hell.

Finally T’Challa either decided the media was there or he was done waiting for them, and stepped up to the mic. “Thank you all for coming today,” he said calmly. Things settled fast, because he was making no effort to raise his voice above the noise. “About a month ago, Captain Rogers helped recover stolen Wakandan vibranium from Latveria and Sokovia. Both those nations have since been honorably helping with the recovery, with the greatest thanks from the Kingdom of Wakanda. But while Captain Rogers was doing this task, he found out that the vibranium his shield was made out of, had been stolen from Wakanda in nineteen thirty-eight.”

Lots of buzz from the media at that. Steve and Tony had speculated on how widespread the knowledge had been, and assumed no one knew. It looked like that was true; good, because Steve had written his entire speech with ‘stolen from Africa’ in mind.

T’Challa ignored the buzz and kept speaking, forcing them to quiet down again, to hear what he was saying. “Being a man of great honor,” he paused to nod at Steve, and Steve bowed back, “Captain Rogers returned the shield to Wakanda with his apologies, explaining that he had only then found out it was stolen, and was returning it to its rightful place.”

Major buzz with that one. Some were glaring at Steve like he’d done something wrong. He kept his poker face on but tried to figure out which networks thought he should have kept the shield.

Looked like it was the hyper-conservative, overly white ones. Big surprise. (Weeks ago Darcy had demonstrated how you could figure out how conservative a network was by simply looking at their on-air staff. It had been fascinating, horrifying, and very very interesting.)

“Since then, I and my sister, Princess Shuri, have been working to have the shield returned to Captain Rogers; he acted with honor, and my sister and I agreed that honor deserved honor in kind, and a return of what he thought was his property.”

The buzzing died back a bit.

“Finally, my father, King T’Chaka, agreed that the shield could be returned, with several modifications.” T’Challa reached behind him and took the shield from one of the Dora Milaje who’d been holding/guarding it. T’Challa held it up, and there across the front of the red, silver, and blue shield, were four bright silver-gold scratches. Recognition from the Nation of Wakanda, in the form of the mark of the Black Panther.

There was more buzzing, mostly angry, mostly from assholes who thought the shield was a holy artifact of American freedom. Steve’s augmented hearing was picking up a lot of the mutters and it was good that Pepper was standing by to whap him if he started a fight with the press corps. Darcy would end him later, too.

Whoop, that was Steve’s cue, and he stepped forward and accepted the shield from T’Challa with another bow, using both hands in the Wakandan tradition of accepting something of great value. “I again thank you, your family, and the Kingdom of Wakanda.” He said it loudly enough that the mic picked it up, and there was more buzzing. “It is an unexpected gift, and I will always remember your kindness, generosity, and work to honor the trust shown by returning this to me.” Steve would bet if it had been a gun or a sword he’d have been shit out of luck; a protective shield, that had figured largely in the decision. He’d bet anything.

As expected, a whole lot of Americans didn’t want to know or face the VERY African source and heritage of one of their greatest symbols of freedom.

If they were unhappy now, they were going to be REALLY unhappy in a minute. Because he was going to make sure they knew it, knew they had Africa to thank, by shoving it down their throats.

T’Challa stepped back to stand with Shuri, Okoye, Tony, and Pepper.

Steve started out mildly, trying to do an easygoing version of Thor’s storytelling voice. “When I returned this to the nation of Wakanda, I didn’t expect it back. It wasn’t mine to have, it was stolen, and they regulate vibranium very closely, so that only those who are trusted friends of Wakanda are able to have it. I am very honored to be considered a friend of such a worthy nation.” He again turned and bowed to the group of Wakandans, and was very surprised when all the Dora Milaje who were doing security snapped to attention with a thump of spears to the ground. He turned back to the mic. “I’m glad they did the alteration to the shield, with the mark of the Black Panther on it.” He lifted it, where it was wrapped around his his left arm like an old friend, and ran a hand over those four deep scratches. “I think such a symbol is an excellent way to remind people that just as the nation of America was built with the help of Africa,” big, expected outburst of buzzing, “now America continues to fight with the help of Africa, and we all have a reminder of their support and my gratitude to them.”

Outright anger from about half the media now – the conservative half – and everything from shock to glee from the other half. He hadn’t planned to take questions, but a lady of color, probably African in heritage, had her hand up, was one of the gleeful ones, so he pointed to her and said politely, “Yes?”

She said “Could you elaborate on building America with the help of Africa, please, Captain Rogers?” it was half a dare and half an earnest request.

Steve smiled at her, and she seemed to understand and smiled back.

“As you know,” Steve said, “I’m credited with desegregating the American military. Gabe Jones served as translator for my team during World War Two; he had a master’s degree in history and another degree in modern languages, and if he’d been white, he’d have outranked all of us, including myself and Lord Falsworth, our English team member. Instead, when I found him, he’d been working as a cook. Because his skin was brown.” He let the disgust he’d always felt over that be heard in his voice.

Lots of buzz for that, too, but delighted glee was beginning to outweigh outrage, as the liberal half of the media realized he really was going to say what he was leading toward.

“War is notorious for bouts of frenzy, followed by days and weeks of inaction. We spent a lot of time sitting around campfires, camps, bars, bombed out buildings, and we’d tell stories or take turns teaching each other what skills we had. I learned to drive, and pick locks; I taught everyone how to draw accurate maps. Occasionally Gabe would teach us history. The history of HIS people, the history of theft and enslavement and Dred Scott and Jim Crow, that white kids were never taught in school. Do you know the White House and the older parts of Washington DC were built by enslaved people?” Bless Darcy for all those ‘terminology lessons’.

Outraged buzzing from the conservative crowd. Darcy would be enjoying the hell out of this. Among the people of color in the crowd, half were smiling widely, and the other half had their jaws hanging.

“There are records, if you don’t believe me. Westward expansion and the Indian Wars, the transcontinental railroad, Buffalo Soldiers, that’s all a disgrace for another day, those all involved FORMERLY enslaved African-heritage people with nowhere else to go. So much of our culture comes from all over Africa, filtered through people taken and sold, survivors of the Middle Passage. Food, music, art. Dance. Fashion. Language. Poetry, fiction, philosophy. Religion. African culture, African people, have been part of America from the beginning, before it was even a nation, built into the culture as surely as any other influence, and I think it’s more important than ever that we remember that.” He patted the scratches on his shield again, ignored outraged, shouted questions from a bunch of white men in the crowd. “Again, my deepest thanks to the nation of Wakanda for this incredible gift, and I will do all I can to honor the trust that you’ve shown in giving it to me. I will remember. Not only my history with the shield, but Africa’s history with the United States.”

He smiled. Thought of Sam. “Y’all have a nice afternoon.”

Then he turned, and T’Challa ushered all of them inside the Embassy, to wait for the furor to die down and everyone out there to disperse.

Each of the Dora Milaje nodded as he passed, which had never happened before. He nodded back. Once inside, General Okoye crossed both hands over her chest and gave a ritual bow. Steve, unsure of his footing there, returned the bow with a formal salute worthy of a five star general. She smiled, so Steve smiled back and they both let the formality go again. He was pretty sure he’d just passed a major landmark with the General, in terms of getting along with her.

Which was good, because he suspected she could work him over with that trick spear of hers.

They went into a small parlor with refreshments, and T’Challa said “My friend, had I known you were going to give THAT speech, I’d have gotten the shield back within a week.”

Steve laughed.

Then Shuri came over, handed him a cup of Wakandan coffee – it was very good – fist bumped with him, said “that speech was [something in Wakandan]!” that was clearly positive but phrased in a way that had all the Wakandans frowning at her. He laughed and said thanks. She began explaining all the upgrades she’d added to the shield; instead of leather straps, she’d replaced those with some kind of high-tech flexible cage sort of thing that automatically conformed to his arm, whether he was bare-handed or wearing a suit or a gauntlet. The shield also turned matte black now, so that it could look like the flag of Wakanda – and also be stealthy. His favorite was a nifty magnetic sort of thing, that could summon the shield to click onto the arm wrapping. Tony immediately huddled on her other side, asking questions about how it worked without browning out the city block or pulling in everything in the room made of iron and steel.

T’Challa looked Steve over again, gave a bit of a grin and shook his head a little. “That speech is going to be remembered in Wakanda for many years,” he told Steve.

“It’s going to set off a great deal of discussion here, things that need to be discussed. The history of slavery, the results of it. We’re going to do what we can to steer it in the proper direction,” Pepper told T’Challa, and he smiled warmly at her.

Best media conference ever.

His communicator beeped, and he looked down. It was from Sam. “You are the best angry little shit from Brooklyn, of ALL TIME.”

Then the communicator RANG, with a message from Darcy ‘PICK UP’, so he answered. “Yeah?”

“Oh my god Steve I have Senator Lewis on the phone wanting to talk to you.”

Darcy had explained that Senator John Lewis was one of the last surviving members of the Civil Rights movement that had begun after the war when black soldiers returning home decided they were done with being second class citizens. Gabe had served in the Senate with Senator Lewis for decades. He could feel himself standing at attention, couldn’t help it. “Put him on,” Steve told her. There was a click of phone lines connecting, then Steve said cautiously “Sir?”

“Captain Rogers,” said a deep orator’s voice, modulated with great skill after decades of public speaking.

“Senator Lewis,” Steve answered, and Tony and Pepper immediately turned to stare. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir, even over the phone like this.”

Pepper began explaining the significance to the Wakandans in the room.

“And I you,” the senator said easily. “I won’t keep you, as I suspect you’re quite busy. But I wanted to thank you for that speech, and tell you that Gabe would be delighted to know his lessons were still remembered.”

That was very nice of him. “You’re very welcome, Sir, and it was all simply the truth. A great many people in this nation need reminding, and I guess I’ll be picking up where I left off.”

“Indeed. I’ve given my number to your assistant, should you ever need anything,” Senator Lewis told him, holy crap.

“Thank you, Sir, I hope she gave you mine in return? If there’s ever anything I can do to help, please call.”

“I have the number, and I will. Thank you again, Captain, you’ve done equality a great service today, and I enjoyed it immensely.”

“It seems equality needs some nudges to get going, so I’m glad to help.”

They wished each other well and hung up. Damn, Steve was going to have to get Ms Arbogast to teach him phone etiquette, if SENATORS were going to be calling.

Steve put his phone back in his pocket, let himself smile, took another swig of Wakandan coffee, and let Shuri pull the shield off his arm to show him something. He couldn’t believe she could lift it; he watched the muscles bulge in her slim arms. She was stronger than she looked.

- A -

Tiger @T!G3R What did I just see? Did I just see Captain Steve Rogers shove American history down white people’s throats?

Les @Paratt Wow. That was a lot more honest than Americans usually get about their history.

Jamie @Jamez That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. He needs a statue. A really nice one. Face on Mt Rushmore is First Nations land. Let’s carve it into the side of the National Cathedral.

Mostly Bees @TrzaMary The conservative media is going to blow a gasket. He knows it, too. Look at his face when they all start yelling.

Jules @Cranky AMERICA’S ASS FOR THE WIN!

Sis @Butler The media is going to go nuts over this. I hope they include that grin at the end.

Liz @Eclaire OMG. He schooled the media on US history.

AJL @AJLZ You’re all missing the big picture here. Captain America knows American history. REAL American history, taught to him by a black future senator from Howard University.

      Dave @StLou I think he’s just getting started.

            AJL @AJLZ I think so too. I hope so.

Hats @FascinatorDomination Please please please stick him on Fox News and let him educate them on American history. PLEASE.

      KindOfRadical @partradical Or Rush Limbaugh. Not sure who’d be better.

Yarn @UnplannedKnitting Can we have him do more history lessons?

Avengers @Avengers Since there was an enormous flood of interest sparked by Captain Rogers’ comments today at the Wakandan Embassy, we recommend the book “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James W Lowen, it addresses the disparities in the teaching of history in the US. All the Avengers and support staff agree with and support Cpt Rogers’ viewpoint.

Sam @FalconAvengers Y’all, I have tried to tell Steve how great he is, he just doesn’t get it. He says it was the truth, as if saying it was the most simple thing in the world. He’s not listening to me when I try to explain the enormity, so maybe y’all can have a try. He’s at @Cap and I know he looks at his account even though he doesn’t talk much.

Chapter Text

It was the day after Steve’s media conference at the Wakandan Embassy. Sam had quit answering his phone, gave up on it entirely. JARVIS was scanning it for important calls from immediate family, and the rest of it was just a bunch of screaming about Steve’s speech. 99% good screaming, but he was still damn tired of his phone ringing.

When Steve wandered in for his morning painting – he’d finally gotten his cast off, for the press conference, with the order to take it easy – looking forward to a day of actually holding his palette, he gave a chipper “Morning!”

Sam glared at him over his cup of coffee. “Yeah, I bet you slept last night, too, asshole.”

Steve’s grin faded a bit and he put his paints back down, turned, and said “are you okay?”

“No. No, I am not okay. I got… JARVIS, how many phone calls did I get before we shut it down last night?”

“Two hundred and twenty-one,” JARVIS answered smoothly.

“I got two hundred and twenty one phone calls from everyone I know, used to know, went to school with, distant cousins of those people, every single one of my vet patients from DC,” that part hadn’t been so bad, even if they all laughed their asses off and said they forgave him for throwing in with Steve now that they knew what he was like, “a jillion mutants, maybe half of whom I’ve actually met, and any yahoo who could talk my phone number out of someone else who had it. The subject of every single one had been ‘Fuck yes Sam you are working with a white guy who schooled the media on African American history, kiss him on the lips for me.’”

“Oh,” Steve said, and laughed. “I appreciate the sentiment. You don’t have to actually kiss me, if you don’t want, Tony said something about cooties.”

Sam humphed and drank some coffee. “My mother also officially has forgiven you for everything.”

Steve brightened. “That’s good, then.”

“Was a pretty awesome speech,” Sam finally admitted. “Thanks.”

“It was the truth,” which was what Steve always said after he’d defended anyone or anything that wasn’t white western European.

“It totally was, and watching it come out of the white face of Captain America while standing on the steps of the Wakandan Embassy made the day of every single African-American person in the country, and I’m hearing pretty much every African person in the world who is hooked into culture enough to understand the ramifications. Storm, who was born in Kenya by the way, is now willing to work with the Avengers. She leads the X Men.”

“Excellent,” Steve said with a smile, and went back to his paints.

Sam shook his head. He wasn’t getting it. Even yesterday when he’d mentioned desegregating the military, Steve didn’t get how big a fucking deal that was in the hearts and minds of African-American people. He wasn’t going to understand the enormity of yesterday’s speech either. Or the fact that every single time anyone saw that shield with the new scratches down the front of it, well, his sister nailed it yesterday. She said they should turn the shield sideways so the scratches were equals signs. Because that’s what Steve had made them into with that speech, and that’s what every damn person who saw them would think, from now on.

Racist groups all over the country were not happy. Rhodey had also called, and after they squeed over how awesome Steve was for a while, he reported that there was now a bounty on Steve’s head. They didn’t know if it was worth the bother of telling him; half the world had a bounty on his head for one reason or another, including a skeezy bio research outfit in Madripoor who had been offering fifty million for a DNA sample since word got out that Captain America had been found alive.

One billion for viable sperm. EEEESH. Sam didn’t know if that’s why Steve didn’t date, and didn’t know how to ask. He wasn’t sure he wanted the answer anyway.

The symbol of White America (according to the media, not Steve), running around with a big old chunk of Africa on his arm. Happily. And acting (rightly of course, but not in the minds of the Fox News types) like the use of the shield was a privilege, not what he was entitled to in the usual colonial ‘finders keepers especially if the finder is white and the keeper is black’ kinda shit. Conservative news outlets of all kinds were going batshit, there was talk of revoking his “Captain America” title (which had only been propaganda to start with so Sam would enjoy watching them try), and Steve’s clear respect for the history of Africa and its link to the history of America was getting a lot of reaction. Of all kinds.

Steve just wasn’t going to get it. Maybe Charles could get it through his head. Sam had given up.

He shook his head to himself, and as the smell of linseed and turpentine bloomed in the air – he was starting to like it – he started opening the mail he’d gotten yesterday. Bills, a few personal notes from friends overseas where calling was difficult, an official looking letter from his credit union--

What.

He put down his coffee cup carefully, and re-read the letter.

And a third time, carefully counting the zeros. Yep. It really was four zeros on there. And too many numbers ahead of them.

“Jesus fuck. I gotta go talk to Tony,” Sam said, standing up.

In the zone, Steve hummed and swiped at some red paint with his brush.

@

Tony was in his shop, no surprise. He was actually reading something on a hologram, sounded like dictating notes to JARVIS. He paused in the door and realized he was watching Tony do something that he hadn’t seen yet; his actual job as head of R&D at SI. He was going through projects in progress, and either commending or correcting. He was good at it, too. Commendation was respectful and sincere (‘that’s really clever problem solving, I’m not sure I’d have thought of it, nice work, implement it’), and criticism stuck to the subject (‘aluminum is one of the most reactive metals in the world, you need to find an alternative that’s in the inert portion of the periodic table, see if gold works’). And Sam stopped to realize, this was who Tony Stark was supposed to be. This and board meetings, and sales stuff, even after he shut down the weapons end. Not in his personal shop building sensor packages and robots and prosthetic arms and wings.

“Should I interrupt him?” he finally asked Darcy.

She looked up from… Sam stepped around her desk a little, she had a screen full of memes from Steve’s speech the day before. The best one in Sam’s opinion was a nice photo of Steve speaking calmly, nice suit, shield on his arm, captioned “History, bitches. It’s there whether you like it or not.”

“I’m keeping the good ones,” Darcy told him. “I’m thinking we might actually manage a fund-raiser book of the best Avengers memes every year, there are enough out there. Maybe make posters available on the Avengers site. Get everyone’s permission of course. Put the money toward rebuilds or food kitchens, whatever. Most of our fans would be happy to do that, especially if it gave them an income tax writeoff.”

“Great idea.” Sam grinned over another one, this was the old photo of Steve with Sidekick on his shoulder, and then Steve yesterday as he rubbed his hand over the scratches on his shield, both together, with “you can trust a man who likes cats” on it. “Is it safe to interrupt Tony?”

Darcy looked at the clock. “Wow. Yeah, he’s been working for three hours, on actual SI stuff he’s been letting slip. He can spare a few.”

“Cool, thanks.”

Before he could leave, Darcy said “Sam, are you okay?”

She noticed everything, he swore. “According to JARVIS I got two hundred and twenty-one phone calls from everyone I know and everyone THEY know who could get my phone number out of them, telling me to tell Steve he’s wonderful. I’m just tired.”

“Ah. Yeah, I had a similar night. JARVIS, when did I finally give up?”

“Call four hundred thirty-six,” JARVIS provided.

“Yeah. THAT one was from the head of my poly sci department at Culver, informing me that I needed to arrange an appointment with Steve so the guy could inform Captain America of all the ways he was wrong. Can you imagine? Especially since Steve wasn’t wrong? I really enjoyed hanging up on that asshole. Hope I don’t ever have to deal with him again.”

“Fear not, Ms Lewis, the very illegal and… creepy… contents of his ‘entertainment’ computer folders were accidentally made public on the Culver University servers this morning. Most of the students got e-mails about it and it was seen by nearly everyone before the faculty could get IT to lock it down. I believe his career is, as Ms Potts would say, ‘toast’.”

Sam and Darcy just stared at each other, then Darcy burst out laughing. “Thank you, JARVIS. That was the nicest thing I never asked anyone to do for me.”

“Of course. I find I’m beginning to feel protective of the tenants here.” There was a pause, while Sam wondered just what that meant, and JARVIS read is mind or something and said “Don’t worry, Sergeant Wilson. I’m protective, not imitating Skynet. I didn’t create the folder of images belonging to the head of the Poly Sci department. I’m not even responsible for most of the e-mails. All I did was find it, make it public, and make all the activist groups on campus aware of it. He wasn’t popular before I got involved.”

Oh, that’s all, Sam thought. But still, dude sounded like slime and JARVIS didn’t create a damn bit of evidence, just made the asshole’s behavior public.

“Sir has gotten through eight hours of work in the last three, so visiting him would not be a problem, if that is your goal?” JARVIS added, and so Sam bumped fists with Darcy and went to talk to The Man.

@

Sam had been wondering how in hell to open the subject with Tony since he counted the zeros, so finally he just sat his bank letter in front of him.

It took a minute for Tony to surface from the three large rectangular spaces of diagrams, letters, and symbols. He was actually wearing reading glasses? They were tinted, too, maybe they were an eye strain thing? He glanced from the screens, to Sam, stared at Sam as if figuring out there was a human in the room and who the human was, then glanced down at the paper. He leaned in a little – was Tony near-sighted? - read the paper in a second-long flash, looked up at Sam, said “What?” and went back into the swirl of information.

“How the hell did I just get a warning from the FDIC that my account is going to exceed federally insured limits within six months?” Sam kind of exploded.

Tony didn’t look away from a giant chart, grabbed a stylus, and began marking up what might have been atomic bonds or could have been a diagram of a hexagonal building, or a soccer ball. “You need to transfer the money around, get a broker. Need somebody? Pepper would probably do it for you for free.”

“No, no, back up, that is not – I do not need a broker. How the hell do I have a hundred and ninety thousand dollars in my checking account?”

“When you filled out your W-4 and direct deposit stuff, that’s the data you gave us. If you want the money to go into a different account, talk to HR.” Tony sent off the hexagons and pulled up what looked like a circuit board, and he made some opening gestures and JARVIS zoomed in on parts of it. “What have I told them about electrical current needing one nano-meter? PHYSICS, people,” he muttered to himself, and began circling things in metallic red.

“Tony.” Sam got a grunt, and tried again. “TONY.”

“WHAT?” he replied in the same tone. “Do you know anything about the movement of electrons across atomic space?”

“No.”

“Then why are you here?”

“YOU GAVE ME A HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS!” Sam yelled, waving the paper. “Plus a twenty grand a month salary. What the fuck, man?”

Tony was muttering about “maybe with different atoms, but with copper you’re delusional,” and said absently “signing bonus, salary, salary.”

“WHAT?” WHAT?

“The hundred and fifty was a signing bonus. Pepper added the fifty because she was so damn happy everyone was getting psych support, take that up with her, I am not getting into it. I was not involved. Ten grand of salary – minus taxes – is for Sam Wilson, Avenger. Ten grand of salary is for Sam Wilson, counselor at large.”

Sam looked down at his bank forms again, boggling. “Are you paying everyone else like this?”

Tony growled and circled something else. “Yes. Don’t tell Steve, he hasn’t noticed yet. Pepper’s funneling it into a brokerage account on the sly. He’s living on his military pension. Spends most of it on paint, pencils, and food truck snacks.”

“But-”

“Take it up with Pepper, I am not CEO, I’m not CFO, I thankfully have nothing to do with HR. I am the lowly R&D head, and I can’t get my fuckin’ minions to understand that electricity won’t stay where you put it, in less than a nano-meter of metal unless you use vibranium we can’t afford to put into a goddamn cell phone. I’m going to be asking why THEY are getting paid so much. YOU are earning your keep.” Tony saw something else as he skimmed the image, actively snarled, and circled it.

Darcy came in, pulled Sam out by the hand. “Forget it. He’s getting through work he’s needed to do for a month, and the pay really isn’t his job. It’s Pepper’s. Well, Pepper decides it at our level, then HR and accounting take over.”

“But-” Sam waved the paper again, weakly.

“I know.” Darcy patted his back. “Pepper did the same to me, TWO signing bonuses, and the two salaries. One for running the labs, one for being Tony’s PA. She almost gave me a third for doing the PR for the Avengers but she was afraid I was going to pass out. So instead she paid off my college debt. All of it. Plus put in the contract SI will pay any more tuition debt I incur in the future. Lifetime, no matter where I work, even if I lose my mind, quit the world, and take horticulture to grow weed in British Columbia. Pepper said she’d been looking for a PA for Tony since she moved over to CEO and I was worth every penny and more.”

Sam made a little squeaking noise. Sue him. He’d never had this much money at one time in his life. His family COLLECTIVELY hadn’t.

Shit. He could get Momma a new house.

She wouldn’t want one and would refuse to move, but the idea of it made his head swim. He was definitely paying off the house she had when he got back to his apartment. “They aren’t even charging us rent. No power bill, phone and data, not even food.” Enormous income. Zero outgo. Who the hell lived like that?

“I know. Hick kid from the hills, here. I can’t grok it either. If you do need a broker and don’t want to bug Pepper, Kate’s handling my money. She makes me meet with her formally once a week in her office, listen to progress reports, sign stuff, makes it super formal because she says money is serious. She’s already doubled my money. I’m kind of afraid to ask for details but she swore it was completely legal, and all the explanations make sense and seem sane. Apparently playing the stock market for jewelry money was her primary hobby before going to work for Pepper. You should see the dragon bracelet she has from a Microsoft selloff. And there’s this giant collar thing after a lucky gamble, something about soybean futures, I don’t know. She collects antique archers’ rings. There is a two thousand year old jade ring in my apartment upstairs. When she makes me enough money, she says I have to go jewelry shopping with her.”

Sam looked down at all those zeros again. “This is insane.”

“This is Stark Industries,” Darcy answered, and patted him on the back again.

- A -

He’d been trying not to wonder if Natasha had been along when the Winter Soldier killed his parents. Tony knew there wasn’t really a good answer; at best, she wasn’t along, and they were still dead and nothing useful learned. And if she had been? Forty years of marriage to an utter bastard AND raised by torture in the Soviet State… who could blame her if she had?

Then Natasha turned up in his shop. “Have a moment?” Natasha asked from the entrance.

She was being extremely distanced and polite, and she seemed to expect Tony to tell her he was busy and to fuck off. He wondered why, then wondered why he was stupid enough to wonder why. “Yeah, sure, come on in, everyone else just barges in.” Steve was spending a lot of time painting, so Tony was alone with his bots.

U squeaked and backed into the corner behind the tool box.

He rubbed his face and sighed.

Instead of coming straight to him, Natasha went… to U. Stood a good distance away, and introduced herself, explained she lived here with Tony and was a friend of Clint’s. She charmed him enough, he edged out of his space and they high fived and she patted his actuators.

Black Widow skills worked on AIs. Good to know, Tony noted. Slightly terrifying, but mostly he was grateful to her for putting U at ease. U was adapting much more slowly than Dum-E did, but he WAS adapting. He’d quit having nightmares about the little guy turning himself off, finally.

Natasha finally finished up with the bots, came over, and leaned against the lab bench on the opposite side from him. Today she was wearing a tee that said ‘that which doesn’t kill me will regret not finishing the job’ and a loose pair of jeans.

“Whatcha need?” he asked, curiously.

“A favor? I can pay for the materials, but I’d like these made on the down-low so going to a jeweler is out of the question.” She pulled a piece of paper out of the baggy back pocket of the jeans and laid it on the bench.

Tony opened it, gave a glance, then slowed down and looked again. “Didn’t a jeweler actually make these once?” His mother had been quite an authority on jewelry back in the day, and he’d nerded out on the metallurgy and craftsmanship; then he’d enjoyed buying his own stuff, met and talked shop with watchmakers and then jewelers. And, well, not as clueless as the average guy.

He needed to dig out his mom’s stuff and give it to Pepper. He thought he might be emotionally solid enough to do that now; he’d had the contents of the Long Island and Malibu estates either packed up and put into storage, or auctioned off and the money put into the Maria Stark Foundation. He hadn’t kept most of his dad’s stuff but he’d kept the more durable of his mother’s things.

“They were made once or twice, in the fifties. They’re almost impossible to find, and buying them would be much more complicated than just slipping you the cash for the platinum. Plus they were usually made of gold and too soft for my purposes.”

Her purposes would be slicing and dicing. Tony nodded, turning the page a bit. “Hardest part will be the diamonds. I’ve got platinum laying around but diamonds are really hyper regulated and my normal buys are industrial-”

Natasha slipped another folded piece of paper out of her jeans and laid it on the work bench. When unfolded, yup, it contained a bunch of diamonds. “They’re unmarked, no serial numbers, so no jeweler would touch them,” she explained needlessly.

He stared at her for a second, and she met his look with one of her own. Without saying anything further, Tony slid them down the bench to his imaging equipment, took a look, and yep. Flawless with no serial numbers. “Where’d you get these?” he asked without thinking better of it. Whoops.

“They were a thank-you for killing an African warlord.” She considered for a moment, then added, “off the books from SHIELD. I did it to get him dead, but some folks insisted I have these as a thank-you, and in parts of the world it’s really rude to refuse a gift. I made a return gift, it’s a thing you can do, in the form of a school.”

Tony had wondered if she’d been on the straight and narrow while on the payroll there, and wasn’t surprised to find out she hadn’t (which meant Clint hadn’t, which meant Phil knew and let it happen). He looked at the design again; it was a sort of jeweled net that glued to the fingernail, with an edge to look like a French manicure. Meant to be decorative but would be knife blades by the time she was done ‘adjusting’ them after he made them. “Do you know how to use these without accidentally scratching your nose and bleeding to death?”

She laughed that surprisingly rich laugh of hers. “Yes, I was trained with them and I’ve used them before. If you don’t want to-”

He wondered what scumbag she’d go to. “No, it’s fine, we can scan your fingers, have the metal machined, pretty much drop the diamonds in easily enough.” He looked at Natasha’s drawing again, considered. “We can set the diamonds traditionally, but if we do a couple inverted, with the point out, you could cut through glass and stuff.” Merchant of Death. Improving weapons was what he did. “I’ll talk to Bruce and Betty about some kind of adhesive, all the old ones I know of were put on with super glue.” Super glue was really brittle and the bond broke easily; not what you wanted in a fight.

At least these weren’t for mass destruction; not even Natasha with razor-blade nails could do as much damage as a Jericho in the hands of terrorists. And she’d proven with Barnes, she could be pretty damn precise with the damage she did.

“That would be excellent, thank you,” Natasha said. “I can pay for the plat-”

Tony held up his hand, and she stopped. “No. Please, no. The platinum is just sitting here for any project I get a wild hair to make, and you’re a team mate.” He considered all the stuff Sam had been telling him, “and a friend, at least on my part. I’ll never be able to thank you for all the training you’ve given Pepper, not just the self-defense but the control. She’s been a lot more at ease since you started working with her.” He fussed with the diamonds, not meeting Natasha’s eyes, folded up the paper around them so they wouldn’t roll away, set them on Natasha’s simple but effective drawing.

She was still there when he finished. Damn. Okay. “We can scan your hands, J will take your drawings, make a diagram, and if they work for you, we can have them done in a day or two after your final approval.”

Natasha gently laid a hand on his, slowly enough to give him time to dodge, which he appreciated. He didn’t, though. She squeezed gently and said “thank you. I’ve never asked anyone to make these, because either I didn’t trust them or I didn’t think they had the skill.”

Tony wondered at how many arms dealers she must know. “...thank you.”

“I know you’ve been monitoring the violence around here, and I’ve been at the center of a lot of it. I’m trying to keep it out of the Tower from now on.”

Out of the Tower, oh yeah, that helped. “If you do it in the Tower, at least there’s skilled medical care and a shrink to discuss it with,” Tony pointed out.

She smiled a little. “Maybe I should ease off altogether, at least when it’s not bad guys.”

Tony just kind of nodded and smiled, and she said thanks again as she left, after JARVIS had done a quick scan of her fingertips.

That had been… friendly. He thought back to the comments she’d made on the way home from Sokovia.

What the fuck?

- A -

He wasn’t sure what woke him; Bucky never made noise any more. Maybe Steve had just sensed something was off, somehow. He got up, and Bucky wasn’t in bed. It took a quick search of the apartment, and Steve passed him once before finally locating Bucky curled into a ball, chin on knees, on the floor in front of the window in the living room. He was still, staring out at the city, shaking.

Not long after Bucky had come in, while he was still staying in the Hulk Tank, Steve and Sam had asked Bucky about some stuff in Eastern Europe, and it had ended with Bucky curled up much like this, but in a corner with his hands clawed outward, clearly defensive. Sam had calmed him down and talked him back into a chair and a dose of anxiety medication, and after that, Steve had Sam tell him what to do if it happened again.

This wasn’t quite the same, but near enough.

“Bucky?” Steve asked quietly, from about five yards away. He’d made sure to make noise when walking over, too. Rule one, don’t surprise the guy.

Bucky made a grunting sound, so he’d heard, was at least that aware. Not talkative, but aware, okay.

Unaware was a much bigger problem with a whole other set of rules.

The apartment was a little chilly, so Steve grabbed a fleece blanket off the back of the couch where they kept it – Bucky always seemed to feel the cold more, and given that photo of him frozen, Steve never asked, just made sure there were blankets everywhere. “Would you like a blanket?” he asked gently.

Buck nodded, so Steve got just close enough to drape it over Bucky’s shoulders, then moved away again as Bucky pulled it around himself. The shivering backed off almost immediately.

“Can I sit?”

Bucky nodded again, so Steve sat on the floor about a yard away, looked out at the night with Buck. It would make a nice painting, watercolor maybe, some time when he wasn’t worried sick about his oldest friend.

They sat a while, and after his shaking stopped, Buck sort of rolled to his side and laid in a ball, his head propped on Steve’s knee. They sat together a while longer, then with permission, Steve started stroking Bucky’s hair. It was so much longer than when they’d been young together, soft and silky. Buck had laid so that his arm was under him, clutching the sides if the blanket together. Steve wondered at that, figured he must be safe in Buck’s mind to do that. His other arm was off, with the squishy thing Tony had made stuck on the post.

Sidekick wandered in, stood in front of the two men for a moment, then made a noise in her throat, stepped onto Buck’s upper leg. Walked along it until she got to his torso, and laid down, paws tucked under, chin propped on the shoulder padding. Then she purred. Loudly.

Bucky’s hand came out from under the blanket, stroked down the cat once. She pushed her face against his hand, so he patted her head. Then wrapped up again.

All three sat together, silent.

“Nightmare,” Bucky finally said.

Steve didn’t know what to say to that, given what he knew of Buck’s past. He’d probably have nightmares every night. He sighed a little, thinking of his own nightmares, and said “yeah,” sadly, before he thought much of it.

“When they threw ‘Talia – Natasha – out, put a price on her head, they put me in the chair and fried me until I was catatonic, threw me in a gulag in Siberia.”

Steve leaned forward, pressed his head to Bucky’s, didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what to say.

“I came ‘round again about four years later, middle of… a torture session. No reason, they were just doin’ it for fun.” He sighed. “Those years are gone, not even Xavier could retrieve them. Or at least he said he couldn’t. If he lied, I’d thank him. I killed everyone, got loose, went through most of the prison. They hadn’t taken the arm off – didn’t know how – so they had to shoot me a couple dozen times to stop me. Shoved me into the freezer while I was bleeding. Hoped it would kill me. Every time they put me in the freezer I hoped it would kill me.”

He was silent for a long time, and Steve still didn’t know what to say, so he just kept running his fingers through Bucky’s hair, there, his friend through to the end no matter what.

“Woke up again, there’s this guy telling me we were going to change the world. I know now it was Alexander Pierce. They sold me to him, because I wasn’t Alexei Shostakov any more and they didn’t know what else to do with me.”

“Wish I’d gotten to kill him,” Steve admitted. “Nat was there, she says she’s positive he was dead, before the helicarrier rammed the building and vaporized it.” Even if he’d had the Formula, he was dead as Moses after that. The coffin at the memorial service had been empty. Clint had checked; he said that much and nothing more.

Bucky nodded against his knee. “I remember it. I remember all those years of being The Asset. They used me for terror. I committed atrocities. And I remember it all.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said. “Xavier says it wasn’t you. It literally wasn’t you, because of the brain damage. But I’m still sorry.” He wondered if Xavier could remove them again, or if Bucky would allow it.

Bucky simply sighed, and relaxed a little, his head getting heavier on Steve’s knee.

Steve stroked his hair.

- A -

It was the end of another workday. After a fashion. Those had gone sideways since the Avengers moved in and a whole lot of scientists set up shop with Bruce next door to his own lab. Tony hunched over a mock-up of a mini-repulsor (it wasn’t plugged in) and poked at it, took a swig of coffee. It was a little past five, but dinner wasn’t until six and most everyone on the floor didn’t leave until then, went directly from work to food. Darcy usually left at five, she had the most sense of all of them.

Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flash of bright color and turned.

Pepper was in the welcome area, talking to Darcy. Lately she’d taken to wearing color, and her jewelry collection. Today’s was a simple long-sleeved blouse-tunic number and a straight skirt, both in a somehow deep and bright at the same time, blue. Absolutely plain but perfectly fitted, similar to her old ‘invisible wardrobe’ as she called it, except for the color. Then she’d topped it with a necklace and earrings, made of diamonds and lighter blue stones.

Must have had meetings today, minor ones. These days he could tell the importance of the people she was meeting that day by the jewelry she put on in the morning.

Eventually she finished whatever she was talking to Darcy about, and came into his shop.

Since the switcheroo with her becoming his CEO, that didn’t happen nearly as much as it used to. (Tony wondered how much of her old invisible wardrobe had been disposable due to grease exposure.) He sat up straighter, she ALWAYS had that effect on him, from day one, smiled a little at that, and said “Can I help you, Ms Potts?”

“Yes, thank you, Mr Stark,” Pepper answered in her smooth Business Voice.

He’d always wondered what would happen if she used that on him in bed, but she never had.

Total meltdown, probably.

In her usual voice, Pepper continued, “I need a favor. Please.”

Oh. “Of course,” he said, and meant it. If it was in his power to give, he’d give it.

She smiled, and he knew SHE knew, it was awesome the understanding they had. “I need ten long-ranged weapons, identically rifled, capable of single-shot to full automatic firing.”

He blinked a little. That had never been done before, the rifling, but he already had some ideas. She’d also never asked for anything that would be considered a firearm, not even a BB gun. “If it’s possible to do the rifling, I’ll make it happen. What kind of range?”

“Four to ten blocks, in-city, would be ideal,” Pepper said.

He really wanted to know what in hell she intended to do with those weapons, but if she wanted him to know, she’d tell him. “So not a mile, long distance for snipers.”

“Oh. No.” Pepper shook her head. “Sorry, didn’t think. Longish range for weapons that can be carried, run with, that sort of thing. Should have specified that, too.” She smiled a little. “Ordering weapons was never my end of the business.”

“I get you,” Tony said. A modified SI assault rifle would do the trick, if he could work the rifling. “Give me a couple weeks?” He’d need to tinker with them, if she wanted all the bullets to look the same. The barrels would need to be replaced with something really hard, then identically ground, good thing JARVIS was hooked up to the C&C machines.

“Thank you, Mr Stark,” Pepper said, still in her everyday voice, and leaned forward to kiss him.

Yeah, he’d do anything for that. “Of course, Ms Potts.” And he kissed her again.

Chapter Text

“You sure you want to come along on this?” Clint had to ask, putting on his purchased-for-the-purpose cheap-looking Men In Black suit. Last time he’d had this on, it was a bodyguard gig for Pepper. White shirt, black tie, black suit, black shoes and socks. Black Widow tie tack and a bronze Roman-era archer’s thumb ring because he could. Under it all, they were both wearing the same version of the lightweight body armor Tony had made for Steve after he got shot. It fit better than any he’d ever worn before. SI .45 short-barrel in shoulder holster, another lower back with Billy’s ‘special loads’, a third right ankle. Knives… everywhere. Five poisoned darts, varied levels of toxicity, in a leather holder, inside the waistband of his pants, next to his left hand. Sunglasses Tony made, that functioned as a head’s up display for anything JARVIS felt like piping to him.

“Yes, so that later when all hell breaks loose I don’t have to rely on either of your versions of what happened. I know half of what I’ve ever heard about Budapest was bullshit.” Phil was wearing the same as Clint, except he’d added a garrote and knives on both wrists. Clearly he was in a mood.

“You know she’s saving the planet a world of hurt,” Clint had to point out.

“If I tilt my head and squint a tiny bit, I see election tampering, which is, if you hadn’t noticed, illegal as all hell. A level and variety of illegal we have never played with before.” Phil put on his own sunglasses, said “test,” then “thank you” when JARVIS sent him who the hell knew.

Was it tampering if the election was already being tampered with? Was counter-tampering as illegal as tampering? Did he care if it kept Donald Trump out of the White House?

Besides, they broke the law all the time. It was kind of weird that for them, election tampering felt like a bigger deal than killing someone. Maybe because they killed people all the time? He kind of wanted to ask Sam but he also didn’t want Sam to take up drinking because of them. He got that look on his face once in a while, the one he’d had during What Happened in Budapest.

After President Ellis’ go-round with AIM the previous Christmas season, he’d decided maybe Leader Of The Free World wasn’t as much fun as it seemed, and announced he would not be running for a second term. It hadn’t been expected, so in the sudden candidate vacuum, a bunch of nuts had thrown their hats in the ring. Dems were going to come down to either Hillary Clinton or some senator from Chicago, Obama? who Clint had never met but sounded solid. Senator Clinton had been out in the streets the day after the Invasion, talking to rescue squads about what they needed, and then getting it for them. The Clinton Foundation had picked up the medical bills for anyone who didn’t have insurance. City-wide. Clint would vote for her in the primary.

The Republicans had gone batshit, at last count he thought there were fourteen candidates in the primary? Ish? He didn’t pay much attention to the news, but Natasha watched politics like Clint watched ice hockey. When Trump had announced his plan to run, Clint and Phil had just stared at each other, knowing that there would be an explosion when Nat finally got back on her feet and they relayed it to her.

She didn’t explode. In retrospect, they should have hoped for that. Instead she’d seethed, she’d planned for a week plus, and now they were headed to a meeting with the man himself in Trump Tower, or as Tony called it, ‘that firetrap piece of shit on Fifth’.

Tony had moved in the same circles for decades and had a lot of uncomplimentary things to say. He’d told Natasha if her plan didn’t work, he’d start dumping dirt in public, and had JARVIS put together a packet of tax and legal sins for the media.

Donald Trump had been in the pocket of the Russian mob since he laundered their money through his Atlantic City casinos in the eighties. Clint couldn’t imagine the GOP could NOT know this, but they were letting Trump run, probably because they were such shit they’d rather have a Russian asset in the White House than a woman or a black guy.

Assholes.

Anyway.

There was no way Natasha was going to let a Russian asset into the White House, law, morality, or reality itself be damned. To be honest, Clint was one hundred percent good with that. He was leaving this to Natasha, because she knew how to be subtle. If it was left to him, Trump would turn up with a poisoned arrow in his ass on a golf course one day soon. They could make it look like Ronin, but it would still very clearly be murder. In fact, he honestly didn’t know why someone hadn’t killed the guy already.

“Look on the bright side,” Clint told Phil, “she’s not starting off with straight-out assassination.”

“She can escalate to that and you damn well know it,” Phil answered darkly.

Well, yeah. Definitely. Nat would arrange for him to get dead before she allowed a Russian asset into the presidency. She could make it look like natural causes, she had before.

He’d helped.

Still better than a poisoned arrow in the ass.

Maybe he’d save that option for later, if Phil got angry about this and he was sleeping on the couch anyway.

They all met at the elevator. Nat was wearing her black spider dress, by the Filipino lady they’d helped out one time. After that, she’d done a collection that contained a black dress, mid-length skirt, long sleeves. The entire back, sleeves, and front shoulders and neckline were covered in sheer black fabric embroidered to look like spider webs. It came with matching tights.

Natasha had seen the outfit and ordered three of the dress and twenty pairs of tights.

They all arrived without a bill and the designer blessed her in two religions and refused to take a penny of money. Natasha wore them when she wanted to be damn sure she was recognized, which wasn’t often. That explained why all three dresses and all but one pair of the tights were intact. (That had been one hell of a night in Istanbul.)

She’d paired this up with spiked diamond and platinum earrings he’d watched her pick locks with, and a two-fingered ring with a sideways spike that matched the earrings. The spike had once taken out a guy’s eye; Clint had seen her do it. Blue stone bracelet worth a jillion dollars that doubled as a loaded fist/non-brass knuckles, a necklace with a little perfume bottle pendant that had little blue matching flowers (Clint would not bet against the bottle containing ricin), and to round it out, a ring on her left hand with a golden stone in the shape of a coffin, outlined in black.

So she was in a mood, too.

When she and Phil got like this, Clint just shut up and followed along.

Clint and Phil got on the elevator, stepped to either side, Natasha stepped on and stood between and slightly in front of them, as if they were her bodyguards. (As if she needed one. Let alone two. This was to scare Trump and his idiot kids, not out of need.)

The elevator went down, headed to the garage where Happy would be driving them in an antique Rolls Royce Phantom Tony had tricked out with bullet-proof glass and tazer door-handles and the like.

On the way, the elevator doors opened on the lab floor, and Darcy was standing there in jeans and an old tee shirt, barefoot, holding a tablet. She looked up from it, took in the entire… Team Delta of it, said “good luck, don’t stick me with any PR,” and turned toward the stairs.

Clint pressed the ‘doors close’ button and they went the rest of the way without a word.

Down in the garage, they followed procedure they’d established with Happy; he did not get out of the car. Nor did he pop the locks until he saw them. He did so, and Phil opened the back door of the car. Clint went in first, ostensibly (if this was any other car) to check for hidden bombs, assassins, or surprises. He said “clear”, sat facing backward directly behind Happy. Natasha followed and sat across from him, their knees touching. Phil got in facing forward, and shut the door.

Happy breathed something under his breath that even right behind him Clint couldn’t make out, then put the car in gear and away they went.

“You have the papers,” Natasha said to Clint, not really a question. The papers were Tony and JARVIS’ information packets. Knowing them, Clint expected the data to be as effective as Nat’s threats.

“Yes,” he assured her. Operating out in the open like this, very blatantly THEM, was not something they were used to doing. So he went over his role to hopefully put them all at ease. “Phil gets out, clears the way as needed. You follow, looking above it all. I cover our six, hand out all the data to the most likely media people there.”

Phil continued, “when JARVIS sees the handoff, he will automatically send the data everywhere else, including the NSA, FBI, CIA, State Department, heads of all NATO nations, BND, JISD, and MI6.”

“Then we take the ‘vator.”

“I am in the building and will see to your safety once inside,” JARVIS said into the earbuds all three of them wore. “I will monitor through their audio and visual as well as yours and alert you to any threats.”

“Thank you, JARVIS,” Phil said.

“Of course. I quite enjoy assisting in these things, and I am very disturbed by the presence of a Russian server in Trump Tower.”

Natasha nodded, knowing JARVIS could see her in the visuals from Clint and Phil’s glasses as they looked at her. “Knowing he owes the Russian mafia billions of dollars and is so dirty the New York maggia won’t have anything to do with him, has me just as concerned.”

After that they fell silent. Clint could tell Nat had something up her sleeve, a plan she hadn’t shared with them. That would be exciting when it happened.

From the start, it went as planned. The media got a load of the Black Widow in full kill mode (she’d toned it WAY down for that senate hearing, no matter what the media had thought at the time), got the hell out of her way, then fell on the data Clint handed them like a pack of jackals.

It listed all Trump’s Russian connections, starting with the building of Trump Tower with mob cement, his casino money laundering, through the trips to Moscow, attempts to build a tower in Moscow through bribery, graft, and corruption, and finishing with the massive amount of Russian money being laundered through the NRA to Trump and other Republican politicians. “Data sent,” JARVIS announced in their ears, as they got onto the elevator.

Phil gave one stare toward the building security that tried to get on with them, and they scrambled backward like he’d pulled a gun.

Well, you got what you paid for.

It took forever to get to the penthouse office. “The elevator is in terrible repair, I am going as quickly as is safe,” JARVIS informed them. “There have been three attempts to intercept your elevator car, and three other elevator cars are full of goons headed to the penthouse office. Would you like me to arrange a breakdown?”

“Yes, thank you,” Natasha said. “No harm, just leave them stuck there.”

The fewer goons, the lower the odds they’d have to hurt some moron to get back out.

“Done,” JARVIS said simply. “We have arrived, tell me when you want the doors open.”

Clint and Phil rolled out their shoulders, and Natasha did the shimmy and hair shakeout that she always did right before she laid waste. “Now, please,” she said, and the doors rolled open.

Outside were two overweight guys in polyester suits trying to loom, and a blonde chick with plastic boobs and a voice like Minnie Mouse on helium. “Mr Trump is in meetings all day and says if you want to come back Monday-”

“Forget it, kid,” Natasha said gently. “You tried. If you need a job after this, apply here.” She handed the girl a card, probably to Svetlana’s off-the-books ‘job placement agency’ that was on the level but meant to help people get new lives and hide. An unofficial Witness Protection Program, Svetlana had started it before she ever met Team Delta through Nat, to help Russian immigrants without papers. Now they funneled all kinds of people through it, including mutants and retired spies.

The girl squeaked as they walked past her, took a right, and went down the hall. The dumbass had put his offices on TV for fifteen moronic seasons; the show was so bad, Phil had refused to watch it. But now they had a detailed layout of the entire floor. Hit the executive suite, Clint opened the door and went in first while Phil hung back and guarded their rear, and really this was all so pathetic Nat could have done it herself, not that they’d have let her.

Inside the office, Trump was at his desk, trying to look important, flanked by Don Junior and Eric. “Look, if you want to make an appointment,” Junior began.

“Amanda VanDerHorn,” Natasha said, and Junior turned white and shut up.

“Who?” Trump demanded.

“The Russian spy your son’s been cheating on his wife with,” Natasha said bluntly. “Stay there. Shut up.” She pulled her communicator out, sat it on the desk in front of her between them, and tapped the gold star JARVIS had put on the screen.

There was some scrambling on the other end, and an irritated Russian voice said “Da?”

Natasha leaned down and said “Ztravstvetye, Vlad,” in her ‘I am going to eat your liver while you watch’ voice.

Fucking hell, she had Putin on the phone.

It was the middle of the night in Moscow.

“Kto eto?” he demanded angrily.

“Natalia Romanova Shostakov,” she dropped it into the phone like a bomb, and it had the desired effect. Putin fell silent. Everyone in Trump’s office was looking outraged with confused terror under it; the longer the silence lasted on the phone, the more terrified the three Trump men became.

“What do you want?” Putin finally asked cautiously.

“I am in the penthouse office at Trump Tower,” Natasha said, showing her teeth to the man behind the desk. “Say hello, Donald.”

He wanted to say no, but was afraid to. Clint shook his head. Coward. Clint’s skin was starting to crawl, so he stepped back along the wall, so he could watch everyone in the room, the door, and be invisible to anyone coming up the passage beside him. Nat and Phil had a view of that.

“Say. Hello.” Nat repeated.

“I really don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m going to call the mayor-” Trump burst out.

Oh please, the MAYOR. Big authority there. The mayor owed Tony about ten dozen favors from the Invasion cleanup and was quietly doing a happy dance about having THE Asgardian embassy in her city, yeah, Don, CALL THE MAYOR. Great idea.

“That’s enough,” Nat interrupted. “Shut up.”

He did, though Junior and the younger kid both looked more and more angry, like the spoiled assholes they were, angry a woman was daring to boss them around. One or both was going to try violence before this was over.

Clint hoped he got to hit one.

“What do you want?” Putin repeated again.

“Trump will withdraw from the presidential race,” Nat stated. Not a question. Not a demand. A statement of fact.

Trump burst out with “See here-” and she talked right over him.

“I’ve already sent your involvement to all relevant parties. Including the UK, Germany, and NATO. Stay out of this election, Vlad, or I’ll start killing people. By the way, the control words? Have been removed. You can wonder who I’ll come for first. I’ve got my memory back. The Red Room. The Bolshoi. The KGB. I remember who was there when you personally threw me into the chair. And a lot of you are still alive. Including you. You may be the first body to drop. Want to try and see?”

Oh Jesus, they’d run Nat through the same chair they used to brain fry Barnes? No wonder her memory was gone. Clint hung on to his poker face for all he was worth, and saw Phil’s face go to Blank Special Ops Dude for the same reason.

If she decided to kill every person involved with that, he’d help. So would most of the Avengers, including Steve. They’d have to get past him, Phil, and Kate in line, though.

Probably enough to go around.

Long pause, while Eric looked around frantically for somewhere to hide, backing his idiot self into a literal corner, so dumb it was painful to watch. Junior got more and more angry, glaring at Natasha and balling his fist to make sure everyone looking at him would read that he wanted to hit her.

Subtle guy.

“Very well,” Putin said, and hung up.

Trump squawked and began rage blustering.

Nat nodded, picked up her comm, and put it in her pocket. “You’re done. You’ve been done. You try to interfere with the running of this nation again, and I’ll make you all the way into the ground, done. We clear?”

“How dare you threaten me,” Trump said, barely able to get the words out.

“Not answering my question,” Nat said.

Junior made a go for her, Clint punched him in the side of the head as he went by, and Junior dropped like a rock. There were feet pounding up the passageway beside him, and Phil casually threw a smoke bomb – that’s all it was, zero toxins, no flash, just some smoke, not even that much. Two people, one for sure a man, screamed and ran away again.

“I hate you,” Trump seethed at Natasha, still not standing. He looked old, terrified, and from his pupils, drugged.

“I do not care in the least what you think of me. Are. We. Clear. Or do I have to beat the concession out of you?” Nat took one small step forward, and Trump immediately backed down.

“Fine! I’ll tell the media I’m starting a new financial venture instead.”

Yeah. That’d work great with everything they’d just leaked.

When he got home, he was asking JARVIS to leak Trump’s taxes. All of them, as far back as they went. That should keep him busy.

Without another word, they turned, went back the way they came, and a lone security guard stood by the doors of the ‘vator, waiting on them. He looked reasonably intelligent and fit, probably the best they had. “I’m supposed to stop you, get violent, all that,” he told them. “If it’s all right with you, I’ll ride down with you and leave when you do. I’m never coming back.”

Natasha nodded graciously, and they all got on the ‘vator, JARVIS dropped it as quickly as possible without killing them, and all four of them walked out. As they crossed the lobby, the guard turned to Clint and said “Thanks for punching Junior, I’ve wanted to do it for years.” Then he exited the building and turned north, walking away at speed.

Clint let himself giggle just a bit as Phil opened the limo door. He stepped in and said immediately “Happy?”

“No trouble, clear, code spider, whatever you want me to say. We’re fine.” Happy told him. As Clint sat and Nat and Phil got in and closed the door, Happy added, “One guard came out and tried to get me to move the car. I didn’t. He grabbed the door handle, planning to drag me out I suppose, and Tony’s built-in tazer knocked him halfway across Fifth.”

He put the car in gear, and they all drove back to Avengers’ Tower.

“Feel better?” Phil asked, rather kindly for the shit they knew he’d be getting soon.

“I’m getting there,” Nat told him. “That dead pause? That Vlad did on the phone?”

“Yeah?” Clint asked.

“He only does that when he’s completely blindsided. And he gave in way too fast. He’s terrified. Of me.” Nat leaned back and smiled.

Well, Clint supposed that had been a constructive afternoon. Maybe.

He wondered how soon he’d be helping assassinate Russian scumbags.

- A -

JARVIS pinged Sam late at night, he wasn’t in bed yet, but he had to change out of his pajamas. He went down to his pub, wondering what the hell, and found Clint staring out the window, propped on one hand, despair in every line of his body.

Damn.

“Hey, man, you okay? Come sit, have something to drink.” Sam immediately began making the high-nutrient hot chocolate; with the calories they all burned through, even the baseline humans needed all the intake they could manage. Steve only had them doing drills two hours a day, but they were BRUTAL. When he got the drinks made, he went over to the table and met Clint there. Clint dropped into a chair, put his head in his hands.

Sam was kind of at a loss, so he just laid a hand on Clint’s shoulder – they knew each other well enough for that now – and waited.

“Found out how Nat lost her memory today,” Clint said through his hands.

Oh, fucking goddamn he was not going to like this. “Yes?” He wondered if this was about counseling Clint, Nat, or all of Team Delta. It’d probably be all of them, sooner or later. He wondered if taking them as a group would work.

“They put her in the same chair they used to fry Barnes.”

Sam sat back, felt his eyes water. Grabbed a kleenex, shoved the box at Clint. He took one too.

After the Sokovia debrief, when Barnes gave Ross his dossier to read, Sam had asked for it and read it, too.

He’d also puked. Jesus, he didn’t know how Barnes was sane with the memory of that. He genuinely didn’t. One reason he was so fucking scary was because he was that fucking tough. To have survived that and be able to pet a cat, enjoy a meal, joke with someone, do anything that wasn’t simply rage, terror, and violence, was a miracle.

So he knew just what Clint was talking about. “Nat told you?”

“Nat told Vladmir Putin she remembered him throwing her into it, during a phone call today in which she threatened to start killing Russians if Trump ran for president.”

“She really doesn’t fuck around, does she,” Sam marveled.

Clint half-laughed, blew his nose, and then took a drink. “No. I fully expect to be creating alibis or dead guys by next week, but she’s planning right now. Her plans, I don’t know what to tell you except whenever she took us off spec at SHIELD, things were ruthless, efficient to the point of terrifying, and destructive as all hell. She usually let Phil do the planning, though we’d both have input. But when she went off road, holy fuck. I’ve been an assassin since I was seventeen and I’ve never seen anything else like Natasha Romanov on the hunt. Phil named it Spectacularly Russian Dead, what she’d do to targets.”

Fuck. Sam also remembered the body of Helmut Zemo, and what Nat had done to him. “How is she? I’ve asked a couple times, but she told me she’s been talking to Xavier.”

“She has.” Clint sighed deeply. “She’s determined to plow through this, so she will. But goddamn. She called Vladmir Putin on what was probably his personal line and said she now remembers HIM putting her in that chair.”

“She’s gonna kill Putin and destabilize Russia.” Sam just sort of absorbed it. He wasn’t used to running in these kinds of circles. Not international power brokering. “Jesus. How’d she have his number?”

“It’s Nat. She’s probably got personal numbers for most of the world leaders. Fuck knows how.” Clint sort of shook himself. “Phil had a talk with her about the population of Russia and how many could die if there was a sudden power vacuum, because let me tell you, if she kills Putin she’s going to kill half the government. She told Phil she wouldn’t destabilize Russia for petty reasons.”

Sam couldn’t believe they were seriously discussing a single woman overthrowing one of the most powerful nations in the world but he knew without a doubt she could do it. “I hear what she did there. She’d make a good lawyer.”

“Yeah. So did we.” Clint went to the bar, poured a lot of Bailey’s in his hot chocolate. “I don’t even know why I’m here, not like you can fix anything, but maybe the knowledge will help at some point.”

Sam considered that. Considered Team Delta. “How are you and Phil doing?”

Clint gave a watery sort of laugh, swiped at his eyes in irritation. “If it weren’t for the population of Russia and the innocents that would be harmed? We’d be next to her on a QuinnJet to Moscow right now.”

Yeah. Sam bet most of the Avengers would feel the same.

He got another kleenex and wiped his eyes, and tried to figure out how to hug Nat without letting on why.

- A -

Every Friday evening since the start of the summer, there had been dancing lessons in preparation for the Maria Stark Summer Ball that they’d all be attending. Steve had found them difficult to follow when Phil and Clint were leading them with easygoing calm, with laughter and a clear enjoyment of dancing. Not impossible, but he had to concentrate. The lessons had been pleasant, though, a lot of friends in a group, joking and figuring something out together. Darcy usually partnered with him ‘so we can be confused together’ and they’d have a really fun evening, even if he still wasn’t sure about the difference between a cha-cha and a merengue.

Then Natasha got better and had her memory fixed, and Bucky had started showing up to bitch about everyone’s posture either in Russian, or with a Russian accent. He and Natasha would get into scathing arguments about how to properly do things, sneered in Russian Belomorkanal cigarette smoke over Mexican Coke-a-Cola, the stuff in bottles with real sugar in it. The languages varied, but the insults remained the same.

Bucky had told Steve privately one night it was like all the good things from his years in the ballet, without the threat of being a target, the torture, the tights, or the massive brain damage.

Steve had reiterated that if he continued to piss off Nat on purpose, he was going to shoot Bucky himself.

Bucky had laughed.

Steve wasn’t kidding.

Anyway, Fridays were dance lessons for everyone but Jane; apparently Clint was teaching her during midnight math sessions, or something. Lucky duck. Steve was stuck in early evening lessons with Clint and Phil calmly demonstrating steps and dancing with each of them in turn – Tony and Pepper both danced well and would also dance with those who didn’t know how, when they were home. In the corner, Nat and Buck would fight, not argue, in a hissed range of English and Russian, surrounded by a cloud of cheap, horrible Russian tobacco smoke. Three weeks in a row, now.

He could tell they were enjoying themselves immensely, and was about to shoot both of them.

Steve had looked some things up quietly, and found out that ballet dancers really did live on cigarettes and soda, especially back in the day before the research was in on just how bad tobacco was. They fought about that, too, but Natasha would always take Bucky’s cigarette at some point and start smoking it, and Buck would simply light another and go on bitching about someone’s form or the music or even their damn shoes.

The floor, he approved of. It was bamboo of all things, soft and sort of springy. It was the gym they were using, he assumed Tony had chosen the floor with basketball and running in mind, but it worked for dancing too.

Buck also bitched about dance frames, whatever those were, and modern music, which at least got Darcy swearing back at him. She had a surprisingly… effective… vocabulary. Kate would join in with Darcy or Bucky, depending on her mood, and Clint would jump in and things would stall for half an hour while debate raged over – usually – pop music as a background for formal dancing.

Pop music always won.

He was about to shoot Bucky for his own sake, not for constantly arguing with Natasha.

“All right, tonight we’re going over the dances we learned before, then learning a fox trot,” Phil said to the room, ignoring the Soviet assassins in the corner arguing over the Budapest Festival Orchestra vs the New York Philharmonic for the best version of Swan Lake. (Steve’s money was on Bernstein.)

Darcy asked, “are we ever going to learn something sexy?”

Natasha turned, mid-sentence with Bucky, and said “I’ll teach Salsa if you like, milaya.”

“Cool,” Darcy said, grinning at Nat. That friendship had blossomed and included Kate.

“Salsa my ass,” Bucky said in a Brooklyn accent and a voice completely different than the asshole he’d been seconds before, “I’ll do some lessons in swing dancing for those who want it.”

That got some enthusiastic sounds, and before Nat and Buck could fight over whose idea was more popular, Phil calmly announced “we can teach both, Clint and I have experience with those as well.”

Pepper smiled, “I know salsa pretty well, I can help with that too. And any other Latin dancing.”

Steve’s only experience with salsa was as something to dip tortilla chips into, sometimes the future was SO DAMNED ANNOYING.

Tony turned. “What?”

Pepper laughed, beautiful in her casual clothes, hair in a ponytail. “What do you think I did on weekends to blow off steam when I was working for you?”

Tony looked flabbergasted. “Double entry bookkeeping? By hand?”

“Nope!” Pepper said brightly, grabbed Clint, and they immediately fell into some kind of twirling, close together dance that looked like it should have a PG-13 rating at least. Maybe R. Clint made a ‘woohoo!’ noise when he realized Pepper knew what she was doing, spun her out, did some complicated twirl with both hands joined, and they went back to it again.

“The hell is that?” Bucky asked blankly, in his normal tone.

“Salsa, Grandpa,” Kate told him. “I can teach you, Nat will break your legs.”

Natasha cracked her knuckles.

Bucky just laughed.

He’d never had a lick of sense about dames.

- A -

Name: Steve Rogers

Title or job in the Avengers Initiative: Logistics, field leadership.

Favorite book: “Bright Earth” by Philip Ball.

Favorite movie: There are too many new ones I haven’t seen to really answer that. But I recently watched “The Princess Bride” and really liked it. The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movie series are beyond anything I could ever have imagined. Incredible. The special effects are seamless and the art direction is breathtaking.

Life Quest: I’m still working on that.

If you could get away with any crime, what would you do? Oh, the usual, I’m sure. Making trouble and rabble-rousing. I haven’t walked a picket line recently, I should fix that; I can’t really go on strike from the Avengers. Someone has to be striking in the garment district, right?

Fantasy vacation? I was born in 1918. I don’t do vacations. My last try, I watched a lot of minor league baseball. That was fun.

What temptation do you have the most trouble resisting? Kryptonite.

Person with the most influence on your life? Dr Abraham Erskine and my mother. It’s a tie.

Favorite thing about New York? Brooklyn.

Odd skill that might surprise people? I don’t think anything escaped the history books. [Written in another hand is ‘he’s a terrible dancer’.]

Favorite quote to close with? “Never fight a land war in Asia.”

Chapter Text

The whole gang piled into three vans that Tony happened to have sitting around in the Avengers’ portion of the garage. That floor was never going to be normal to Steve; purple Ferrari, thirty year old pickup truck, about five motorcycles of different makes and models including his Harley, Sam’s little conservative sedan, Natasha’s black corvette, an ancient English army truck that belonged to Jane, and others, parked into rows, as mis-matched as the Avengers were. Skye had apparently lived in her van for years and could still be found in it occasionally, working on a laptop. She said it helped her think.

Anyway, Tony had a bunch of vehicles for Avengers’ use, so they piled into three of the vans on Saturday morning and drove out to Xavier's for Steve’s birthday.

The first year out of the ice, the US Government had wanted to make it into a propaganda thing, have a parade through DC with him waving from some kind of vehicle, big concert on the lawn at the Mall, fireworks, the works.

Something about the look on his face when it was suggested made Natasha step in and make the whole thing go away. He didn’t know what she’d done, but he was still grateful as hell.

He suspected that was when her attitude toward him began shifting; before that it had been barely veiled contempt for a propaganda figure. (Russian. And he rather hated the propaganda figure himself. He didn’t blame her.) After that, after she realized he hated the propaganda, she started getting to know him as a person. That had been the start of a solid friendship, one he’d been thankful to have, even if she did obsess over his dating.

The kids at Xavier’s had sent – through Logan – a tee shirt that said “Honorary Mutant” on it. Logan had explained the reasoning, that no, he hadn’t been born with an X gene mutation, but he’d sure as hell gotten mutated by the US Government. He couldn’t argue the logic, and knew that coming from the kids it was a compliment, so he had it on now. They were going out on Saturday morning on the Fourth; plans for the day included a mutants vs Avengers baseball game (Steve knew Logan had suggested it, because he wanted to watch ‘his kids’ kick the Avengers’ collective ass), a cake for Steve among other things on an all-day barbecue, general hanging out. Then in the evening the kids would put on their own fireworks show, none of it using actual fireworks. Apparently the kids had all kinds of electricity, light-altering, and magical abilities that put simple fireworks to shame.

Then there was planned adult beverages and a nice visit, before everyone slept over and went home the next day.

It sounded like a great day to Steve; the only thing that would be better was Coney Island but he was recognized there and spent most of his time posing for selfies.

So yeah. Baseball and not-fireworks in privacy sounded great.

- A -

The "Maximoff" Mixed Nut goes HERE. After you read it, click the 'back' button on your browser and it should land you back here.

- A -

The Avengers lost the baseball game, four to three. The only reason they lost was because Sam, that fucker, had refused to play because he said it was day off and he wasn’t doing conflict resolution.

Then Logan declared himself the ump, which was bad enough, but then at the end of the fifth inning Barnes jumped Logan over a call and then Steve tried to break it up, took a fist to the face, lost his temper, and got into it.

The Avengers stood there in disgust.

Tony had to admit, the betting going on between the kids had been hilarious. ‘bet you a week’s laundry against a week’s dishes…’ Half were betting on Logan out of loyalty, half were betting on Steve because CAPTAIN AMERICA, and no one was betting on Barnes because “he’s not even trying”. There hadn’t been any clear winner. Phil had stepped up and given them the “what kind of example are you setting for impressionable young people?” in his Sgt Coulson voice, and all three sheepishly broke off the brawl and all the kids went ‘awwww’.

After dinner was the “fireworks” show, which Tony found interesting. Interesting as in ‘damn it, why didn’t he think to bring some sensors?’ interesting. Jane sat next to him, and they tried to figure out how in hell the kids were producing light out of fucking nowhere. After wishing for sensors together half a dozen times, they realized it would have been super rude, and just went back to speculating. That was all they had; it might has well have been magic, from all the rules of physics they were breaking or bending.

One of the kids – a girl with her hair an assortment of bright colors in the purple range – giggled and said “you shift sound waves up the EM spectrum into visible light, lengthen or shorten them until they’re the color you want, and let them go.”

Jane and Tony simply stared, Tony thinking that was utterly useless as an explanation, and the kid left a swirl of purple and pink around Jane and Tony, and ran off, laughing.

Billy came up behind them, swirled a finger through the light, which moved like water for him, and said “that’s how Dazzler does it.” He sat down next to them, pointed to a member of the faculty, a woman of color with striking bone structure that could have made her a model and a shock of silver – like twinkly silver – hair, in deep discussion with Thor. “Storm messes with weather. She and Thor are cooking something up, I think they’re waiting for the ISS to go over.”

TWO people playing with lightning. Jesus.

Billy probably read his mind, and patted Tony’s knee. “Don’t worry. They’re using the clouds to do sheet lightning. Storm’s cut loose a few times and she won’t do earth-to-cloud strikes any more unless she’s zapping bad guys.”

Oh, well then.

...what bad guys had they been zapping?

Storm was showing Thor something on her phone and explaining, and Thor was laughing so who knew what was going to happen.

Tony thought for a second what his dad would have thought of all this, but then realized Dad would have been a racist dick about it, and decided to just enjoy things. Apparently Steve – mutated with great deliberation by the US Government – was okay, but naturally born mutants were ‘freaks’. He’d first heard that opinion when he was about five, and that was the day he began thinking his old man was full of shit.

ANYWAY.

After a few minutes, Thor and Storm raised their hands, seemed to count off some time, and then there was an unholy blast that lit up the entirety of the cloud cover over their heads. Most of the lightning was on the top of the clouds, shining down through them so it was almost like daylight underneath them.

Everyone applauded.

Darcy held up a finger, watching her phone.

After maybe two minutes, she burst out laughing, and told everyone to check out NASA’s Johnson space center tweet.

Tony got on his phone.

@NASA_Johnson Uh… we just got this photo from the ISS. Did someone need a ride?
[Photo of the circle and hitchhiker’s thumb from the covers of the Douglas Adams books, in lightning, spread out over several counties of upper New York state.]

Darcy wouldn’t let it go, of course.

Avengers @Avengers in reply to
@NASA_ Johnson Just trying it out in case we ever need to hitch a ride.

@NASA_ Johnson in reply to
@Avengers You know we’re all willing to sell our firstborn to know how you did that.

  @Thor Your atmosphere is most conducive to what you call sheet lightning!

So the X Men were still a secret.

“My turn!” Billy said brightly from beside him, and hopped up.

Tony remembered everything the kid had said about playing with nuclear fission and couldn’t help the “No nukes!”

“What are our lives?” Jane murmured, trying to keep it quiet to avoid offending the kids.

“Hey, you’re the one sleeping with the space alien,” Tony told her, and got a half-hearted slug on the arm in reply. Several kids around them giggled, oops, needed to keep his voice down.

Billy struck a pose, then laughed a little bit, ruining it, then yelled “Abracadabra!” and the cloud cover glowed blue-white like a full-spectrum LED for a long moment, and as soon as it began to fade, he yelled “Alacazam!” and the cloud glowed again, this time pinkish. Entire cloud. Covering – Tony glanced at his phone – three states along the eastern seaboard.

@NASA_ Johnson What on earth are you doing down there?

  @Avengers It’s Cap’s birthday! Fireworks!

“What was that?” Tony had to ask Billy.

Billy probably sensed how twitchy he got about nuclear fission of any kind, because he tried to look harmless. “I broke apart the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, and then when they started to drift away, switched them back to water. Everything’s just how it was when I started, promise.”

But, no, Law of Conservation of Energy. That stuff didn’t just happen, it had to be powered. “Where’d you get the” Tony waved his hand vaguely “oomph to make it happen?”

“That was just me,” Billy said, and laughed.

Jesus. No wonder he wasn’t allowed to do ‘advanced’ magic. It probably also explained why the kid ate like two adults and was still so small. His brain was burning off all the caloric intake.

He’d send over a couple cases of the hot chocolate the nerd crew had come up with, see if they could get a few growth spurts going.

Billy probably read that off him because he was laughing while he answered his phone when it started ringing. “Hi, Ben!” There was a pause. “No, it’s Steve’s birthday. We’re doing fireworks.” Something of a pause. “I just switched the water to hydrogen and oxygen and back. Everything’s back where it was when I started.” Longer pause, a bit of a jaw drop. “Really?” More from the other end. “Okay, I’ll keep it toned down. We can blame it on Thor, he did the lightning show. He won’t mind, I’ll check. Yeah. Well geez, you need to explain these rules to me, I figured it was harmless.” He winced a little. “I’m sorry!”

Charles had rolled up and was waiting when Billy hung up the phone. Charles raised an eyebrow.

“Oops.” Billy said. “I left everything just how it was when I started, I figured that was ethical, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” Charles agreed. “What seems to be the problem?”

“Ben said that normally something like that would take between a hundred and three hundred mages to do, so now the entire magical world wants to know who in hell did it.” Billy winced a little. “If he’d explained the rules a little better… well. Oops.”

Ben Wong, the Sorcerer Supreme’s second, Tony remembered. Head of the largest magical faction on the planet. Billy had just sent up a giant “here I am!” flare to every mage in the world, probably in other worlds, too.

Tony turned to Charles. “If this turns into something, call us.”

Charles nodded. “My thanks. I think we’re able to handle anything that comes at us, but it’s always good to have backup.”

“Oops,” Billy repeated again, softly.

Tony had to admit, it was kind of like looking in a mirror. For him it was tech, but he’d been sending up flares like that since he’d been a kid, too, except for him it involved explosions. He’d make sure Billy had him on speed dial before they left, and patted the kid gently on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, I did stupider stuff at your age,” he tried to comfort him.

“Not reassuring,” Jane told him, and Billy giggled again.

- A -

After the kids had gone to bed, partied out, the adults were sitting around chatting quietly, with drinks of one kind or another. Steve was finishing off the birthday cake, simply sitting next to the table it was on and forking off bites slowly. Barnes was sprawled out in a recliner, prosthetic arm unhooked and sitting in his lap, with a glass of whiskey and a cigarette both held in his hand. He’d held off the cigarettes while the kids were up and around, but now he was setting a bad example for the faculty.

Logan was sitting next to him smoking a cigar and sharing the ash tray, so it didn’t matter much.

Sam had spoken to Bruce about DNA tests, and they couldn’t do them on the kids, but they were going to have to get Charles alone before they left, lay out his suspicions.

But until then…

Vision wandered in – he’d spent most of the day speaking to the kids, the kids had definitely taken him in – and sat in an empty chair. “May I make a request?” he asked baldly, still getting the hang of the whole conversation thing.

“Of course,” Charles said gently, sipping tea.

“I have been speaking with the students all day. They have answered so many questions I’ve had.” He turned to Charles. “As you probably know, I’m about a month old.”

Charles nodded.

“As such, well, I know I’m not human and so do not have an X gene to be mutated, but. I feel I could learn a great deal here. Is there an application process to become a student?”

Goddamn, Sam thought, why hadn’t any of them thought of this? It was perfect, from putting Vision with a bunch of kids who were also asking questions about what they were doing with their lives, to Charles giving them ethics classes every day. And he’d be as safe here as he was at the Tower.

“This pretty much is the application process,” Charles said gently. “If you’d like to stay, I think we’d have much to teach you, as well. You’re welcome here.”

“Thank you,” Vision said, with real gratitude in his voice. He turned to Phil. “If I’m needed I am available to you,” he told them. “But I would like to be here, learning, otherwise.”

“Of course,” Phil said.

Natasha, who’d been pretty quiet all day, said softly, “this is the free will I was talking about. You are absolutely free to do this. And if it matters, we all think it’s a good idea, too.”

Vision nodded to her. “Thank you. Yes. I think this is where I belong for now.”

So that was one major issue sorted, anyway.

- A -

After even the staff went to bed, Sam held back Charles and the group considered in charge of the Avengers, Pepper herself, Tony, Steve, and Phil. Bruce also hung back, which was interesting. Charles took them into his office, clearly picking up something from Sam. “You’ll find we’re private here.” He gestured for them all to take seats.

Pepper found herself between Tony and Steve on a couch and enjoyed how both men slumped against her. She’d arranged for the three of them to share a bed that night; no pressure because none of them would be having sex within hearing of who-knew-how-many youngsters with augmented hearing or who were flat-out psychic. But she was looking forward to cuddles.

“Yes, Sam?” Charles said calmly, in front of his desk, making a conversation group rather than behind the desk as an authority figure.

Pepper didn’t know how many of them picked up on that, but she did, and appreciated it. Getting to know Charles had been one of the pleasant parts of this Avengers gig.

Sam looked like he wanted to pace a bit, heaved a breath, wrung his hands -

Bruce spoke up. “Sam came to me earlier, said he thought it was possible Pietro and Wanda are related to Billy. There’s no ethical way to run a DNA test, but I’m guessing he wanted you to know his suspicions?”

Sam flopped back in his seat and waved a hand at Bruce, nodding.

“Ah.” Charles nodded slightly. “I really need to remember how perceptive you are, even without any extra abilities.” He gave them all what must be his Headmaster look and said “do I need to remind you these are innocent children, and ask for oaths of silence?”

Everyone assured him they’d keep their mouths shut.

“Given my past, I’ll kick the butt of anyone who holds a kid responsible for something a relative ever does,” Tony muttered, and everyone smiled sadly at him and nodded.

Charles nodded to Sam. “You’re very good. And correct. They’re half-siblings, Billy and the twins. Billy likely knows, he has ways. Whether he has told the twins, I don’t know. I don’t think so, but it’s likely just a matter of time; they’ve already become very close. Their father is an… old friend of mine.” He looked unusually sad. “It’s very complicated, but the fact that this person allows me to raise his children is an incredible act of trust. He hadn’t been aware he’d fathered children, in the case of Wanda and Pietro, until they arrived here; he and their mother had only a brief relationship. He didn’t even know she had passed on. When they arrived and I realized whose children they must be, I notified him, and we agreed that we’d keep things as they are. I hope I can rely on all of you to respect his wishes, that he is not revealed as their father until such time as they actually ask and wish to know. Preferably after they reach adulthood.”

Of course they would all respect kids’ privacy, but Pepper wondered what on earth would require such secrecy.

Tony of course, could be counted on to blurt it right out. “What’s the big deal that it’s being kept so quiet? Don’t worry, I’m not blabbing anything to anybody, but what’s the issue?”

Charles sighed, deeply, then said simply, “their father is Eric Lehnsherr.”

Oh. Oh dear god. No wonder they kept it quiet. Pepper knew the name because when she went to work as Tony’s PA she’d received an extensive security briefing. She’d been told by the Joint Chiefs, if she ever ran into him to be aware he was the number one mutant threat in the world and to call them immediately.

Everyone else looked confused. Pepper wasn’t sure whether she should say anything, but Charles did it for her.

“Magneto,” Charles said wearily. “Their father is Magneto.”

- A -

It was nice to have had such a lovely weekend with Steve’s birthday and a great many people Phil half-remembered now, delighted to see him and help him remember who they were. The kids would usually do something outrageous like wave a swirl of colors into the air, with a cheerful ‘remember?’ He’d had a low-grade headache the whole time they were at Xavier’s, but Phil was starting to get used to it. Whenever he put his memory to work, his head would hurt. He’d always gotten migraines, so maybe this was just something that Nick’s memory wipe had kicked up. Who knew. He was so happy he was starting to remember things he didn’t really care.

Which was good, that he’d had that, because Monday morning began with an irate phone call.

It had taken Trump two days to find the gonadian fortitude to complain to the FBI that Black Widow had threatened his life if he ran for the presidency. The Feds had looked at the wad of data implicating Trump in Russian mob dealings going back thirty-plus years, probably considered the odds of winning any argument with an international assassin or three, and dumped the whole thing on the State Department, for some damn reason.

The ONLY reason for the State Department to take up with them, was because they were itching for a fight to begin with. It should have gone to the Department of Justice, if it went anywhere. But the DoJ was busy following up on all their leaked data and ALSO didn’t want to tangle with known assassins. At least not without a good reason, and they weren’t sure they had one yet.

Director Flannery was on the phone now. “Election tampering is a felony offense,” he snapped, with almost no greeting at all.

“What’s running for president with the help of Vladmir Putin?” Phil answered.

Clint sat up from where he’d been dozing on the couch and mouthed ‘oh shit’ at Phil.

Phil rolled his eyes at Clint; what did he expect would happen? He was pretty sure he could hear Flannery’s teeth grinding.

“I want to know what happened during that meeting. The world’s media has the three of you going into that building and Trump’s two sons said you were there.”

“We told him that the world’s media and relevant intelligence agencies had been informed of his Russian connections and it would be wise to drop out of the race.” Other than the call to Putin, Natasha’s death threat, the smoke bomb, and Clint punching Junior in the head, that was fairly true.

Downright honest, for Team Delta.

“I don’t believe you,” Flannery said.

“I don’t care,” Phil replied without missing a beat, and grinned when Clint stuffed a pillow in his face to muffle his laughter.

“I’m coming over there right now for a debrief with all of you, and I’m not putting up with any more bullshit about-”

Technically making the State Department come to them was already an advantage, as well as the fact that this wasn’t their jurisdiction, but why be nice? “Tomorrow morning.” Phil told him. “Bring Ross, he’s the liaison between the Avengers and the State Department, don’t forget.”

Flannery literally growled and hung up the phone.

Clint dropped the pillow on the floor and whooped with laughter.

-A-

Steve @Cap
Been studying history, and I think the song that really gets the Aughts right is “The Press Corpse” by Anti-Flag. [clip of Steve Rogers jumping rope, ear buds in, singing “Was it WMDs or Democracy?”]

  Anti-Flag @AntiFlag
  We’re pretty sure we just had a religious experience, which was interesting ‘cause we’re atheists. Glad you liked it, Cap!

State Department @StateDept
For a full statement on Captain Rogers’ tweet, please go to-

  Steve @Cap
  @StateDept I’m more interested in a statement from the fella who was president at the time. I have questions.

    Darcy @CulverStudent23654
    @Cap All right, Champ, you made your point, don’t get cocky.

      Anti-Flag @AntiFlag
      @CulverStudent23654 @Cap DON’T STOP HIM! We’ve seen Jesus!

Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn @Cap
@TStark Darn it, Tony. Quit hacking my account.

Clint looked up at his phone over dinner. “Worst timing possible, dude. They’re due here tomorrow to bitch us out.”

Steve laughed, grabbed the rest of a pizza. “Yeah, and now they’re fending off questions about Captain America’s opinion of them, rather than concentrating on tomorrow’s interview.”

Natasha kissed him on the cheek and Steve KNEW he turned bright pink, and ignored all the laughter and sat down to listen to her plan for the meeting.

- A -

Natasha had announced she would be running the meeting with the State Department, and asked Pepper to be there. She’d politely asked Pepper to wear something intimidating, so Pepper put on another outfit she’d gotten while in Tokyo with Kate.

They’d had one hell of an afternoon of shopping, that day.

It turned out that people, especially blow-hard sexist men people, were intimidated by tall, assertive, articulate women wearing bright colors. So Pepper put on a nearly-fluorescent pink-to-black fade dress, pink at the Mandarin collar down to black at the hem below her knees, with a dragon bracelet and matching ring and earrings Tony had gotten her years ago, at exorbitant expense. He’d commented when he saw them, and she realized he’d wondered where all that expensive jewelry was, that she’d bought over the years.

She’d have to wear it more.

Anyway, she’d arrived at breakfast, and Natasha had smiled and said “that’s perfect, thanks.”

Pepper had said it was her pleasure. Given everything Natasha had done for her, helping Pepper learn to control Extremis and operate subtly, as well as the Null Project, she’d do far more than scare the State Department for her.

Natasha had taken her own advice, and was wearing black leather pants with artfully shredded legs, a vest of dark grey with spider webs picked out in red, and an artfully shredded black leather coat over top. It only cleared the definition of ‘suit’ in the literal sense of pants, vest, and jacket. Her earrings, bracelet, and ring were black opals wrapped in what looked like wrought iron. “You look terrifying,” Pepper told her.

Natasha grinned back.

“All I need you to do,” she addressed Pepper, Phil, Tony, and Steve over breakfast, “is sit there, look stern, and play it by ear. Your unrehearsed reactions will be exactly what I need.”

Why pretend Natasha couldn’t predict how every single one of them would handle this?

“You’re not going in there alone,” Kate told Natasha.

Kate had also dressed for war, black pinstripe suit, contrasting grey pinstripe vest with no shirt under it, Darcy style, and a feather brooch on her lapel that Pepper knew cost over a million dollars because it had been the featured piece of a major collection from a major jewelry house. Pepper had been considering it herself when someone else – who turned out to be Kate - bought it. With it she wore earrings that were spider webs with little spiders dangling from them. Nice.

“What’s the plan?” Darcy asked, walking into the room, wearing a sleeveless black dress that revealed a tattoo of a thurisaz rune – Thor’s mark – done in a way that made it look like it was carved into her upper right arm. With that and the torc, she’d put on black stilettos with metallic red heels and earrings that were gold curls wrapped around large white diamonds, curling up along the edge of her ear.

“Told you,” Sam said lazily from the table. He was also wearing a suit, the first time Pepper had ever seen him wear one, “we should just step back and let the women handle situations.”

Bucky made an agreeing sort of noise and said “I’d come along but that’d derail the whole thing. If you need me, I’ll be in Sam’s pub, watching the security feed. Send word through JARVIS.” He’d put on black jeans, black boots, and a short-sleeved black tee to show off the silver arm. Interestingly, sometime in the last couple days, he’d gained a pair of gold hoop earrings, one in each ear, that somehow added to the danger level.

And sexiness, if Pepper was being honest with herself. In a very small, very private corner of her mind.

Logan had stayed back at Xavier’s after Steve’s birthday, so they only had Bucky to act as bouncer today. Pepper doubted he would need help if it came to it.

“When are they due?” Tony asked through a mouthful of bacon.

“Nine AM. I’d like us in the conference room at five ‘til, they like to play games and show up early.” Natasha was looking more and more surprised as every single active member of the Avengers strolled in, each one wearing a suit, clearly intending to go to this meeting with her; she’d only requested the leaders, but she was getting the whole squad. Even Bruce was in a suit Keep and Betty had picked out for him, a very deep navy with a forest green stripe that was nearly invisible. He was wearing a tie with chemical symbols on it.

They went straight from breakfast to the public conference room, all the Avengers, plus Kate and Darcy.

Pepper wasn’t sure how the two of them had been included, except for the bond that had formed between the two of them and Natasha since they’d all moved into the Tower.

Maybe that was enough.

They’d arranged themselves at Natasha’s direction. Natasha was at the head of the table, Phil to her right and Steve to her left. Tony was on Steve’s left, and Pepper herself was on Phil’s right. They’d left the two empty spaces at the other end, between Thor and Clint; Flannery was next to Clint, Ross next to Thor. Because if Flannery decided to get violent, he’d underestimate Clint and go for him, and Clint had reminded Natasha of some favor or other and somehow won the right to punch Flannery in the face if given a chance.

Pepper still hadn’t figured out Team Delta’s relationships; she wasn’t convinced even Team Delta knew them for sure. They were whatever the others needed, whenever they needed it.

At fifteen minutes to nine, Carla called up and said Ross and Flannery were there. Natasha and Pepper were both on the line and Carla said she’d be happy to stall them there for fifteen minutes while the coffee bar suffered a mysterious drink shortage.

Natasha chuckled, thanked Carla for the offer, and sent Maria to escort them up.

Maria was dressed for intimidation too, in a simple black suit with her hair up and a handgun on her hip, right out in the open.

Pepper had known this crew could be intimidating. OBVIOUSLY they could intimidate. But they’d really gone the extra mile that morning.

She’d have felt sorry for Flannery except the man needed a major reality check.

What Pepper was most curious about, was how Ross would react. He’d be stuck directly in the center of conflict of interest, between the Avengers, whom he’d been protecting and helping, and his boss, who he was – obviously – supposed to be working for.

Well, technically as liaison to the Avengers, Ross was working for both of them, but Flannery was making it a hell of a tightrope.

All of them were seated except Natasha, who was standing at the head of the table, when the door opened and Flannery and Ross stepped in.

Ross gave a quick nod to everyone and sat down next to Thor, when Thor nodded at him and then the seat beside him. He looked relieved to be out of the line of fire, so to speak.

Flannery remained standing and announced “we are going to start with the invasion of Sokovia and you will answer every question I have-”

Natasha pulled a pack of papers from somewhere and carelessly tossed them on the table in such a way that the packets separated into bundles and slid to a stop in front of the major players at the meeting.

Nice trick, Pepper was going to have Natasha teach it to her.

Flannery sneered at the paper and didn’t pick it up.

Ross did, started his speed reading. His eyes widened, he looked up at Natasha for a split second of what Pepper would swear was astonishment and respect, maybe a pinch of delight, Pepper didn’t know him that well. Then he began reading intensely.

Darcy leaned over Tony’s arm to look at Tony’s copy of the packet and said “is this a KGB dossier?Sorry, SVR? FSB?”

And Pepper looked down at it and said the obvious, which she knew Natasha wanted someone to say, “who is Elena Miller?”

“SVR agent Elena Solokov. For today’s meeting, she’s the woman that Flannery here’s been dating.” Natasha smiled at Flannery and raised her chin slightly, the way she did when she wanted to start a fight.

“Don’t think you can falsify documents to manipulate me,” Flannery said.

“These aren’t false,” Tony put in. “If you flip through to page…” he squinted a little at the information packet, “eighteen? There’s a photo of her having lunch at the Russian Tea Room – hilarious – with Anatoly Antonov and… who’s this guy?”

“Vasily Nebenzya, Russian ambassador to the UN.” Darcy put in helpfully. “The blurry guy in the background, looks like a warthog? Sergei Kislov, he’s a general suckup and errand-runner for Putin. I recognize him from watching him go in and out of Trump Tower the last month; I’ve also seen him wandering through the UN toward the Russian offices.”

“They look friendly,” Steve put in helpfully. “Toasting each other, wonder what they’re so happy about.”

“Probably squeezing information out of Flannery here,” Kate put in with her Expensive Boarding School Accent, leaned over to read Pepper’s version just as Darcy was reading Tony’s.

Pepper remembered Natasha saying she wanted their usual reactions, so she went for it. “Sit down, Flannery, and explain to us why we shouldn’t pass this on to your boss.”

Ross made a noise that wasn’t quite a snicker and wasn’t quite agreement, flipped to the start of the information packet and pulled a pen out of his pocket to begin making his usual encrypted notes.

Natasha dropped into the seat behind her, laid back and crossed her legs lazily, going from confrontational soldier to dismissive femme fatale. “The US government is lousy with Russian agents right now, Flannery. Look at the data, accept that I’m right, sit your ass down, and start discussing like a rational government agent.”

Flannery snarled, sat down, flipped through the information at light speed, said “since I never discuss my job with people, there’s nothing she would get, and I will turn her in when I return to the office. This whole discussion is moot, it’s a non-event.”

“You never had sex, went to sleep, and left her free with the run of your apartment?” Natasha smiled. “Let me guess, she liked to drop in and visit you at work, or try to. Did she ever get as far as your office? Might want to have it swept, if she did.”

Flannery glared and didn’t answer.

This all seemed to arrive at something Natasha had been aiming for, and she moved on. “With all this in mind, it’s not so hard to believe that Trump is in the pocket of the Russians and has been since he bought Harrah’s in Atlantic City in nineteen eighty-four and began laundering money through the casino for them.”

“You have no proof-” Flannery began.

Clint produced a six-inch thick pile of paper in a plastic binder and dropped it in front of Flannery with a thud. He put a thumb drive on top and sat back down.

“The thumb drive contains the same documents in E, so you can correlate data. Or your minions can,” Natasha sneered the last part. “That is hard evidence for all of Trump’s Russian dealings, approximately three-quarters’ of which were illegal.”

“It was still election tampering-”

“Arrest me.” Natasha dared him.

Of course everyone in the room knew the State Department had no jurisdiction to arrest anyone, anywhere, particularly not on American soil. Darcy was having a coughing jag to cover up laughter.

Long staring contest between Natasha and Flannery.

Then he turned to Thor and said “What does ‘vinur’ mean and what authority does the title carry?”

“Super subtle bait and switch there, dude,” Darcy said. “Spent your career failing upward, huh?”

Then Ross had a sudden coughing jag. Kate got him a glass of water.

“The title is given to people who help Asgardians as they travel the universe. It is reserved for those who are especially loyal and helpful, and marks them a member of the family. Meaning the Lady Darcy is part of my household and you are wise to remember and respect that.”

“She was given diplomatic immunity for the entire planet,” Flannery almost whined.

“He finally thought to ask the UN what was going on,” Darcy said to Kate. “You owe me ten bucks.”

“Damn, I thought he’d take longer,” Kate complained, and threw a ten dollar bill across the table to Darcy, who picked it up and put it in the pocket of her dress.

Tony cackled.

“This is no laughing matter,” Flannery almost-shouted. “She was not given permission to have-”

“Dude, it’s the UN,” Darcy said with pity, “and I DO have permission. I filled out the forms for dual citizenship and got the okay for it, from the US government. Done deal. It’s not my fault no one paid much attention to who else the citizenship was with when the forms went through. Apparently divisions of the government aren’t speaking to the other, either. The UN has the authority to give me citizenship of the planet, and don’t have to ask the US’s permission to do it. It’s in their bylaws.” At least, it was NOW, because they’d just put them in place.

“No, but we can make it a rule that you have to ask permission, and we will,” Flannery told her.

“And have it work retroactively? Which is against every international law?” Pepper had to ask, and her voice came out perfectly rude because she couldn’t believe he thought this would work.

“You do not want to act dishonorably toward the Asgardian Embassy, Flannery.” Thor intoned in his Dead Serious Diplomat voice. “Mark it well. We have made great effort to operate within the laws of this planet, and any attempt to challenge the rights and privileges of my vinur will be seen as a grave insult to the Embassy, as well as the Throne of Asgard.”

“Flannery, you’re talking about going up against the UN and fucking with intergalactic peace treaties,” Darcy said. “Get a grip and a dose of reality. We’ve done everything within the law. It’s not our fault the US was too stupid to keep up with the arrangements the Asgardian Embassy made.”

Ross spoke. “Since the Asgardian Embassy is on US soil, the State Department assumed – without checking – that the UN would follow American rather than international law. Often the UN will do that, as a courtesy to the US since they’re based here, but they aren’t required to. And in the case of an embassy from another planet, they decided to follow international law as that seemed the most logical way to go about it. When State finally called the UN to find out what was going on last night, there was a lot of argument over federal versus international law, and the State Department is in a collective snit at the moment. Legally, the UN has acted entirely within the rules of their operation and done nothing illegal.”

“Thank you, Ross,” Thor said, and nodded politely.

Ross nodded back.

“Keep blabbing and I’ll fire you again you-” Flannery began on Ross.

“Right, we’re done here.” Natasha said, and stood.

Flannery turned to her and snapped “the bloody hell we are, I told you we’re going to debrief from Sokovia onward -”

The door to the conference room opened, and Bernie walked in.

“Flannery, meet the Avengers’ lawyer, Bernie Rosenthal. She’ll explain all this to you.”

Starting with how this wasn’t even in the State Department’s jurisdiction, and maybe send someone back from the Department of Justice if they wanted to argue over election tampering. As for the international law over planetary citizenship, that was the UN’s jurisdiction.

Everyone stood and began gathering up papers and other things, as Flannery shouted about getting a subpoena and coming back. That was all well and good but at the moment he didn’t have one and would need to get one out of the DOJ to get anywhere. Shortly they were all out in the hall, giggling, as the door closed on Flannery, Ross, Bernie, her paralegal, her PA, and a court reporter. The court reporter was making Flannery swear on a Bible to tell the truth.

Pepper hadn’t gotten a good read on him, yet, but was fairly sure Ross was enjoying the whole thing.

JARVIS was keeping an eye on things and would report any violence. Sam and Bucky had agreed to hang around in the pub in case violence or peace-making was needed.

“That was beautiful,” Tony told Natasha. “You ran him in circles until he got dizzy and then threw him in a cement mixer. Beautiful.”

Natasha smiled a little. “This isn’t the end of it, with the government. Once Bernie’s done with them, they’ll realize that the Trump thing is going nowhere and they have zero authority over the Asgardian Embassy. That’s when they’ll try to gain control through Darcy.”

“They will come to regret anything they try, that harms my vinur,” Thor said darkly, and thunder rumbled outside.

Natasha nodded, and patted Thor’s arm. “This isn’t over,” she repeated. “But Flannery’s done. I don’t know who they’ll send next but it will be someone with a clue.”

“Ross?” Darcy asked.

Natasha shook her head. “No. He’s proven himself sympathetic to other people, including us. And with us and Wakanda at his back, he has the freedom to be. State will find a hard-liner to come after us, next.”

“We’ve followed the law to the letter, expecting something like this,” Darcy told them.

“They won’t follow the law if they feel national security is in danger, though,” Steve pointed out. “That’s the risk.”

“The feds think rules are for other people when they feel threatened,” Pepper confirmed, having worked with, against, and around the fuckers during her years at Stark Industries. “And they define risk as anything they don’t like.”

“I shall let Forseti know he may be needed here,” Thor told them all. “He is the lawgiver of Asgard, and the logical one to explain this to anyone having trouble with Asgardian law, here.”

“And he looks like a combination of Gandalf and The Rock, so it will get interesting,” Darcy added.

“So we learned nothing,” Phil said with a sigh.

“We learned Flannery is a moron with a grudge, and the feds aren’t ready to arrest Natasha for election tampering,” Clint pointed out.

“Well, this was all interesting, I’m glad I saw it,” Pepper told them all, “but I’ve got an oil corporation to buy out and a hysterical robotics company to ignore, so I’ll see you at dinner.”

She and Kate hopped on the private ‘vator and took it to the executive floor.

“How worried should I be about Darcy?” Kate asked bluntly.

Pepper shook her head. “I don’t know. They will be VERY angry about the diplomatic status she has, as well as the authority she’s been given.”

“I’ll get Nat to work harder on the self-defense stuff,” Kate mused.

“And don’t forget the torc she’s wearing.”

Chapter Text

Carla was doing her usual, flipping through security cameras when she was bored. Someone walked in, small guy, nice business suit... uh oh. She pegged him as trouble at almost the same time her screen flipped red at the edges and a file came up.

Apparently the man walking toward her was a former Red Room operative.

Meaning skills on par with Black Widow, so he was LETTING them recognize him.

He also had on so much weaponry under his very nice suit, he should rattle when he walked. Carla was impressed.

She stood slowly as he walked up, and that was a signal to everyone else who worked in the lobby. They were now on full alert, but willing to let anything peaceful go by. “Welcome to the Tower. How can I help you?”

He smiled, and it looked genuine and understanding. “Can you please call up to whomever, and tell the Black Widow that Yuri's here?” He spoke with a very faint accent, something Eastern European but not quite Russian.

“Of course, Sir.” Wouldn't it be lovely if this was a simple visit?

Which she doubted sincerely, and she wasn't the optimistic type, but wouldn't it be lovely.

Yuri wandered over to the coffee bar and politely ordered a hazelnut mocha.

“Ms Romanov, we have a man in the lobby. Software identifies him as Yuri Belovich, he asked me to tell you that Yuri's here.”

Dead silence on the other end for a beat. Carla had a feeling the Black Widow was shocked, and that really wasn't good. “Ask him if it's all right for Alexei to come down.”

Oh good, she got to talk to someone who freaked out the Black Widow. “Of course, Ma'am.” As soon as she stood again, the guy's eyes focused on her, waited patiently as she walked over. She was surprised – he was only about Black Widow's size. “Ms Romanov would like to know if it's all right for Alexei to come down to meet you?”

That got one beat of profound shock. “That would be fine, thank you.”

She nodded, went back to her desk. “Ms Romanov? He says that's fine. All right.” He'd be down. Alexei. Whom she’d never met, and certainly never seen go through her lobby. But had been the target of every alphabet agency in the world.

As part of Carla's training, she'd watched videos of the surrender of Bucky Barnes to the Avengers, in this very lobby. Partly to discuss the strategy, sight lines and all that, (Hawkeye apparently loved rafters) but also to underline that THINGS happened in that lobby. She'd also watched the video of the lobby portion of Hydra trying to infiltrate. Had to sign about fifty NDAs to do it, but she watched it.

Kate Bishop was pure badass. Carla sincerely couldn't tell if her job was as PA or bodyguard, she was that damn good. She’d done some quiet googling at home, and the woman graduated valedictorian from Wharton with an MBA – just like Ms Potts had. That. Damn. Good. Both of them.

Carla was pretty sure she knew who was in that new blue Iron Man suit, and that was gonna be a mess that she was glad wasn’t her problem.

So this whole 'Yuri's here' thing had her wary. She was getting all kinds of vibes off the guy, and he moved like Romanov did. She gave a ‘stay alert’ sign to the baristas, and sat down.

Whoever Carla had expected, it wasn’t James Goddamn Barnes coming down. He’d only been identified to security as the recovered Winter Soldier, but she had eyes, and a brain. She also hadn’t expected him to have his arm off.

Huh.

He was wearing casual clothes, jeans and boots and a minor league baseball tee shirt. When his eyes met Yuri’s, he smiled, and it seemed genuine, which was encouraging. They shook hands, spoke a bit, and shit, Barnes was inviting him upstairs.

She fired off another message to Ms Potts.

- A -

It was the day after the non-meeting with the State Department, and Natasha was back in her apartment, writing down memories. Barnes had suggested it, said he did it before he turned himself in to them and that’s what his back pack held, the one he brought in with him. He’d done a lot more of it while he was in the Hulk Tank, checking what there was to check against the history books with JARVIS’ assistance. So she was trying it, and it WAS helping. She could repeat memories over and over and see if they were shifting. Mostly they weren’t. Which was more comforting than she could say, even when the memories were horrifying.

She was out on the gorgeous patio Tony had attached to her apartment, and not only did she have a greenhouse full of flowers off to one side (it was a walk-through to Clint and Phil’s apartment, as well), but Clint had confirmed, he’d told Tony to make it as much like a Parisian garret as possible. So it had French doors and wrought iron railings, and terra-cotta tiles on the floor. Furniture ran to more wrought iron, and glass on table tops for level surfaces. She’d set up shop at a small table meant for meals, angled so she could see the entrance door to her apartment, the view across the Hudson into Jersey City, and put her feet up on the railing to brood when she wanted.

That’s what she was doing at the moment, over a samovar of tea and a tot of brandy.

That State meeting had been so pitiful. Ham-handed attempts at threats that went nowhere, and then Ross – their own employee – spilled the beans and gave them useful data for moving forward, and they hadn’t even been ready for Nat to dare them to arrest her.

Hell, she’d dared the SENATE to arrest her, they should have been expecting it.

She almost wished someone would throw her into a prison somewhere so she could break out of it again, and make them insane. Supermax would be a fun challenge; it had been quite some time since she’d been held in a high-tech jail.

Maybe she could talk them into it as a security test, or a drill or something. She’d put Clint on it, he’d want to try it too.

They could time it and see who got out faster.

She was going to get Darcy some earrings for that “failing upward” crack, it had been beautiful. State’s move on her was coming, and she’d have to prep Darcy for it. Something underhanded would happen, and soon. The government was too stupid to realize who Darcy was to all of them, even aware of her title as Thor’s Vinur, AND Tony’s PA. That alone would give any smart person pause, knowing she had those two men backing her, even if they didn’t realize the rest of the Avengers would have her back. No. They were going to be stupid and see Darcy as the weak point instead of the key that made everything work, that would be guarded.

She shook her head over stupid government bureaucrats – she now had memories of them spanning nearly seventy years, and nothing changed in governments, nothing -

Her comm rang and it was Carla, telling her that Yuri was in the lobby.

Yuri Belovich was one of only two men to survive the training of the Red Room. After all, some men were homosexual and the Soviet State wanted weapons who were effective in any conditions. (She herself had been taught to seduce women as well as men. Her thoughts on it weren’t even considered.) The contempt the trainers had for men who were ‘taught to be women’ had been hellish and somehow even worse than what they did to the women.

During all her years in the Room, and again as an active agent, Natasha had done all she could to be friendly, or at least civil, with other graduates. They’d been through hell together, and while the Soviets strongly discouraged (with torture) anyone making friends, there had been differing levels of hostility between herself and the others.

She and Yuri had always been as friendly as it was possible for them to be.

Natasha had been sifting through all those memories, though, and Yuri was in quite a few, especially the early ones, and she didn’t want their first meeting to be in front of witnesses. Especially witnesses in a public place, who barely knew her.

She made a quick call to Barnes, who agreed to go get Yuri from the lobby and take him to the private conference room on the public floor.

Barnes had also been as civil and not-hostile as possible to everyone he could be.

And was continuing to be, even after she stuck a knife in him, though he’d admitted himself that Alexei Shostakov had deserved at least a knife in the shoulder.

With those things in mind, Natasha hoped this meeting would be polite. On all sides.

It wasn’t until she was on the elevator that she realized she was wearing ripped jeans and a tee shirt covered in cartoon cats dressed and fighting like ninjas, that Kate had given her.

Well, maybe it would throw him off and make him feel less cornered.

When she arrived at the conference room, Yuri and Barnes stopped their conversation but both were smiling when they turned to her. Yuri was in a lovely Italian suit; Barnes was also in jeans and a tee, this one minor league baseball, the Akron Rubber Ducks? his arm off, pouring vodka. “Want one?” he asked her.

“Yes, thank you,” Natasha said.

She hadn’t spoken to Barnes much after the big reveal and the stabbing. But he’d been polite, offered the memory advice and a few other tips, stayed out of her way, joined in on mutual Friday night dance lesson bitch sessions that were carefully feeling out their memories of each other, mostly easier memories from the Bolshoi. Now he was actively helping. So her “thank you” when he handed her the vodka carried more than just thanks for the drink, and it seemed to register that way with Barnes because he smiled.

“All of us out, with lives,” Barnes said, quietly pleased, and clicked his shot glass against Natasha’s and Yuri’s.

They all drank.

“It’s good to see you,” Natasha said to Yuri. “I know I wasn’t communicating these last couple decades, but my memory was wiped.”

Yuri smiled, friendly. “I’d wondered exactly what on earth you were thinking, when you showed up on my news feed.”

Yeah, if she’d had her memory, there was no way she’d have done… any of the Avengers stuff she’d pulled the last three or four years. Certainly not in public. Certainly not the Senate hearing. It was like a red flag before a bull, the bull being Vladmir Putin. “I got my memory back a few weeks ago. But before that, while we were in Sokovia-” she considered everything. “Hell, have a seat.”

They did, at a corner of the table so it was a friendly grouping. They needed a less formal public meeting space, she put it on her mental to-do list.

Natasha jerked a thumb at Barnes. “Alexei had control words, remember?”

Yuri nodded, looking understandably worried.

Natasha let herself sigh. “It turns out we do, too.”

Yuri muttered something very foul, poured himself another vodka.

“Yeah,” Nat agreed. “While we were in Sokovia, I ran into a Baron Zemo. He blamed Putin for killing his family.”

“Putin probably did,” Yuri commented.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Nat agreed. “Thing is, he’d been finding Red Room operatives and using control words on us, then sending us after Putin. I don’t know how many of us he found, I don’t know how many there are left to find. But I wanted everyone left, to know.”

“Of course.” Yuri nodded. “Zemo?”

“Dead. Painfully. I killed him myself.” Nat told him. All three gave satisfied assassin nods to each other. “He tried mine on me, but they didn’t work. I’d had some trigger word removal done when I came in with Hawkeye, and that kept them from working.”

Yuri nodded again.

“Charles Xavier is who did it.” Barnes told him. “He removed mine, too. He can be trusted. Not only to do the work, but be humane while he does it. You know I don’t say that lightly.”

“The mutant, who runs the school,” Yuri checked.

“Yes,” Nat told him. “I’ve known him for over a decade. After the first time, I let him work on me again, voluntarily. I consider him a personal friend. We can bring him in now-”

“No,” Yuri said calmly. “I will find my way to him, if it’s all the same to you. Call him, let him know I’m coming, please. Peacefully. He has a school of children, does he not? You can tell him when I got out, I vowed to never harm a child again, and have held that vow for several decades.”

Nat exchanged looks with Barnes. Red Room graduates were paranoid with good reason; this was probably the best they’d get. “All right,” Nat agreed.

“I will put the word out among those I know,” Yuri assured them. “Send them this way, have them check in with you before going to Xavier?”

“That would work,” Nat agreed. That way Xavier would know they were coming. He had some skills he kept VERY quiet, that would see everyone safe, if things got out of hand. She wondered how many more Red Room grads were out there, hiding. She and Barnes and JARVIS had only found two still alive, and Yelena was out there somewhere.

“Now, I was wondering since I was here, if I could speak to those who were with you in Budapest?” Yuri smiled a little. “I mean to thank them.”

Oh hell.

“JARVIS, can you have Phil and Clint come in?” Nat asked the nearest wall panel. Melinda hadn’t put a foot on the ground, she’d only flown the plane. No need to involve her. Right?

He beeped.

A few minutes later, Clint and Phil walked in, very much a partnership in body language and carriage. She’d last seen them in sweats and tees, when she left the apartment that morning, but Phil was now wearing one of his McQueen suits, and Clint was wearing a Black Widow tee with another of his dozens of camo pants of different styles. These looked like they were from the Kazakhstan army.

Yuri stood, shook both their hands, shared his own name so they would share theirs. (The spy biz had its own unique etiquette.) Barnes watched it all with eyebrows raised.

“I heard it was Hawkeye who shot my wife, ten times, was it?” Yuri asked, politely.

Yelena and Yuri had been – were, Natasha supposed - another married pair of operatives, but Yelena had hated Yuri from day one. They’d been a successful partnership, but in spite of their relationship, not because of it. She’d hated Natasha, too. As far as Nat could tell, it was because she was better. At everything. Fighting, ballet, and she landed a partner who wasn’t – well, she wasn’t even going to think the homophobic slurs she used against Yuri. But she’d resented the hell out of a man she considered lesser (he really wasn’t; Yuri was one of the best the Red Room ever produced at hand-to-hand and bomb building), while Nat got the handsome virile mystery Soldier.

“No, that would have been me,” Phil said, taking Yuri’s attention away from Clint.

“The rumors have it wrong, then, I should have known,” Yuri said easily, and offered Phil a business card. “Ten bullets into my sweet wife. I believe I owe you ten favors.”

Clint coughed back a laugh.

“Ah,” Phil said easily, masking his surprise better than anyone else. He took the card politely. “Maybe we start with one, see how it goes?” He put the card in his pocket, and offered one of his own. “I deeply regret not killing her, how about we keep each other in mind, in the future?”

Yuri gave a genuine laugh and accepted the card with a respectful head nod. “The stories about you are true, then. I had wondered.”

“What stories?” Clint asked with deep curiosity, and oh shit, he was going to turn this into a beer-and-bullshit session. He had the most unbelievable ability to turn anything into a group of friends. Natasha had studied it for years.

Barnes was in shock.

He had no idea.

- A -

Clint was cooking dinner again - he liked to cook for armies, and it took some of the load off the SI executive chef who was currently stuck with them. It also kept Phil a little mollified, after all the fucking around he’d done in the last few weeks. He did breakfast for dinner, and was running ten waffle irons, humming to himself, when Mack the Knife came on.

He didn’t even think, tossed the tongs to Nat and grabbed Phil. Swung him around, danced him into the space in front of the pantry. Phil fell in step with the foxtrot before the penny dropped. “Oh, right. Mack the Knife.” He laughed, took the lead, and dipped Clint. Pulled him up and kissed him.

“I don’t make the rules!” Clint said cheerfully, and the rest of the team cat-called while Nat threw waffles at their heads.

Clint in fact HAD made the rule that when Mack the Knife came on, they had to dance because it was Phil’s theme song. “Big finish?” He asked hopefully.

“Oh, fine.”

Nat kicked a chair over, because she knew them, and Clint and Phil danced up over it Fred and Ginger style, and finished with a ta-dah! Gesture.

Over the applause, Clint laughed and said “You remembered!”

Phil went white, swayed a little, and Clint caught his arms and sat him down in the chair. “Phil?”

Jem knelt beside them, checked Phil’s eyes, then started taking his pulse.

“It’s just the headaches, like I’ve always gotten,” Phil told them both.

Clint felt his veins ice over as his adrenaline kicked up, and he whispered, “Phil. You never got headaches before.”

“What?” Jem snapped, catching the first-aid kit Sam threw to her from across the room, jerked up Phil’s shirt sleeve, and took his BP. “Migraines. All through his medical records. Missed a month of work once.”

Clint felt rising anger, knew exactly what was going on. “March of ‘05, right?”

“Yes?” Jem pulled off the cuff, told Phil “normal,” and patted his arm.

“That was the month we spent in Copenhagen,” Clint told them both. “No migraine. He never had migraines, never even got mild headaches. Not even with the single concussion he ever received.” Phil had only agreed to take it easy after Nat and Clint had told him he had to set a good example or they’d ignore the doctors from then on. So Phil had accepted it with little grace, sitting around their apartment while Nat and Clint fussed over him.

“When? What concussion? His records said he had a dozen major ones,” Jem demanded, now doing a really thorough neuro evaluation on Phil of the ‘follow my finger with your eyes’ variety.

“Ah…” Clint closed his eyes, tried to figure back.

“August of ‘06,” Nat provided. “Slight conk on the head in the middle of a massive brawl. No symptoms, but the CAT scan looked a tiny bit iffy so we forced him to take a week off work.”

Darcy had turned off all the waffle irons and was throwing the mangled and burned remains into the trash. Everyone else had stopped what they were doing, waiting on Jem’s exam results.

“Stand up,” Jem said gently, “then walk toe-to-heel in a straight line, with your eyes shut.”

He did, without a wobble.

“There’s nothing there,” Jem said, after watching him. “Every reflex the excellent side of normal, and normal compared to the history I have with him. Nothing neurological that I can find. I’ve done a dozen exams over the years, whenever Phil said he felt odd. Though I guess now we have an answer for why migraine medication never worked for him.”

Phil dropped back into the chair. “Whenever I remember things, I get mild headaches. I figured it was an offshoot of the resurrection process.” Phil shrugged. “I remember having migraines. When I was out at the school, I had a low-grade headache the whole time, figured it was more of the same.”

“An offshoot of Fury dicking with your memory, more like,” Clint said bitterly.

“JARVIS,” Tony spoke into the silence, “hack SHIELD. Stomp through, don’t worry about stealth, just search everything they’ve got for Phil’s original medical records and anything on the resurrection process.”

“Happily, Sir,” JARVIS replied, and probably started right then.

“Project TAHITI, JARVIS,” Phil added. “I’ve got that much, that’s what they called the process.”

“Of course, Phil, I’ll add that to the parameters,” JARVIS said, gently. “I’m into your records now, and as suspected they’ve been extensively revised. Trying to find what was under the revisions.”

Phil nodded.

“In the mean time,” Jem said, frowning at Phil, “I’ve put him through every sensor array, medical test, and chemical anything I could think of. All I found was an odd protein, and a neurotransmitter I’ve never seen before. Never found it in anyone else on the crew I tested for reference, but there are so many we don’t know, I didn’t consider it that telling. How hard would it be to build a better sensor?”

“A super-powered fMRI?” Tony asked.

“For lack of a better term, yes,” Jem answered.

“I’ve already got some ideas,” Jane replied. “I’ll have more once I see the schematics for the one we’ve got. JARVIS, you can crunch the numbers, right?”

“Absolutely,” he confirmed, probably multi-tasking while raking through SHIELD’s medical records as their IT department screamed.

“What protein?” Betty asked. “And what do you have on the neurotransmitter?”

“I’ll get you the data,” Jem promised.

Pepper had her phone out. “I’ll have a Stark Medical fMRI machine delivered by tomorrow morning, put in the lowest level of the Avengers’ personal garage space.”

Clint leaned forward from where he was crouched next to Phil, and hugged him. “The brain trust is on it. If there’s anything to find, they will.”

Phil simply nodded. Clint could feel Phil shivering, just a slight quiver he’d never felt before, and rubbed his back.

In the worried silence, a communicator rang.

“Oh hey, it’s Fury,” Steve said in his fake-happy voice. He pressed a button, and immediately said “Fury, you flaming asshole. Get Phil’s original, un-falsified medical records over here by noon tomorrow, or I’m coming over there to get them, and you won’t like it.”

“Angry little shit from Brooklyn,” Clint whispered in Phil’s ear.

Phil laughed a little, so that was something.

Fury was going to wind up losing another eye patch to Natasha, Clint was ready to bet on it.

-A-

When the new fMRI machine was delivered, Tony had them put it in a corner of the lowest parking garage level. After the second discussion about load-bearing floors, Steve looked it up and after he checked that the weight wasn’t a typo, he didn’t ask why they weren’t on the medical floor.

Even now, sometimes things like this would hit him, how far into the future he was from anything he remembered. It was a machine that used magnets to move parts of people’s MOLECULES around, and then put that information together into a picture of a person’s body. Not even Asimov had thought of that. Clint’s habit of calling scientists ‘wacky’ was starting to make sense, and he always worried when Clint made sense.

The elevator doors opened again, onto a scene straight out of a movie; vapors of something crawled along the floor, gasses (he thought) hissed, and in the center of it all, lit up with flood lights, was an enormous machine in a snarl of conduit, hoses, pipes, and tools. It was a giant coil with a cot that could go through it; he tried not to shudder, given the memories of Project Rebirth and SHIELD’s scientists wanting to scan him for everything imaginable. Tony was in the middle of it all with Jane and Leo, waving his arms and enthusiastically directing everyone.

“Wow, does this bring back memories,” Steve said without thinking.

It took Tony a second, but when he got it, he had to sit down, he was laughing so hard.

After he’d shot his mouth off, Steve worried he wouldn’t like the comparison to Howard, but apparently in this case it was okay. Thank goodness. He’d been trying to joke himself out of the willies as much as anything.

Project Rebirth had looked a hell of a lot like this, though without the parking garage. The parking garage was very helpful when it came to avoiding flashbacks. So were the people working there, in their casual clothing and definitely-not-forties look. But the coil, the rest… “What are all these gasses?”

“Liquid nitrogen, we’re using it to cool the magnets.” Tony explained. “The atmosphere is almost eighty percent nitrogen, so as long as it’s not too cold, breathing some is harmless. Usually they use liquid helium but there’s a shortage and we’re overhauling everything else, might as well make that easier to maintain while we’re at it. Do you have a minute? We need help prying the casing off this thing, and we’ve got the magnets on so we can’t use steel anywhere near it.”

Which was how Steve spent the morning with a series of crowbars – he kept breaking them – prying the outsides off of all sorts of smaller coils of metal and other components. Every time he got one loose, Jane and Leo and Tony would crawl in like squirrels, checking everything against the schematics, and running the fMRI through another round of tests.

Instead of a brain, or anything remotely useful, someone had shoved a watermelon into the center of the circle of magnets.

Jane was twenty yards away – someone had spray-painted a giant circle on the floor around the machine - at a bank of computers, talking to JARVIS on an ear bud and showed Steve an image of every single seed’s location in the melon.

Insane.

Tony explained that with the fMRI running, the magnets got so strong that any steel anything would become a major hazard – they were known to pull shrapnel out of soldiers’ bodies, among other things. Other types of metal could heat up. Then Tony showed him a photo of the remains of a steel scaffolding rig that had been too close when someone accidentally bumped an on button. Good grief. So he’d used a series of not-steel bars Tony produced from somewhere, as pry bars. Apparently the titanium one he broke was unbreakable; Tony put that aside to study later, because of course he did. After that came a series of other bars and he strongly suspected Tony was doing some informal experimentation with his strength.

It wasn’t in a lab. He didn’t care.

Steve never knew when it would hit him. Not only how far he was into the future he was, but the brilliance of the people he worked with. Even Betty, who he associated more with plants and doctoring, had jumped in on the discussion of sub-atomic particles and frame rates and neurons and conductivity.

He just kept prying stuff apart.

- A -

He’d barely settled into his office for the morning, and Clint had trailed along and flopped out on the couch; Lucky waited until Clint was comfortable, and then hopped up and laid on top of him. As always Clint complained but didn’t make the dog get down.

Even after last night’s revelation that his medical records were falsified and so were his memories, lots of them, for sure, Phil wasn’t sure how he felt about everything. Clint had a StarkTab propped on Lucky’s shoulder and was talking to JARVIS about the modification of the software running the fMRI the rest of the science team was tearing apart in the parking garage. The discussion was esoteric in the extreme, and Phil let himself dote over Clint a little, so proud of his new math knowledge. He’d always known Clint was brilliant, and now the mathematicians of the world were looking at nominations for the Fields Medal and going “...who is Clint Barton?” and raging they were outdone by a man with a GED he got in the Marine Corps and no further formal education. (Everyone living in the Tower agreed that intensive education from Tony, Bruce, JARVIS, and Jane for three years should be good for at least one PhD, but no one else saw it that way.)

His phone rang; Carla, down in the lobby, telling him Nick was there with a folder of paper that had better be his medical records.

Steve had told him last night after dinner that if they didn’t have his records by noon, he really did intend to go over to SHIELD and throw a super-powered Captain America shit fit at Nick.

All those years of hero-worship over Captain America, and come to find out, Steve Rogers was even more amazing. The most unexpected part was the sense of humor that kept you from wanting to slap him for all the goodness, as Darcy put it.

Nick stalked in and tossed a three-inch-thick folder of papers onto his desk. “There. Now call off your dog and get him the hell out of my servers.”

“Woof,” JARVIS said from the nearest speaker.

Phil felt himself smile, impossibly, and Clint did that cackle of his when he was really amused.

“I’m not kidding,” Nick said, trying to gain control of the situation, as always.

Clint was still laughing, and Phil smiled some more. “Anything in here on TAHITI?” Phil asked Nick, watching him closely.

His eye widened the slightest bit – shock. So TAHITI really was a thing. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nick said.

“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” Clint choked out through his laughter. Lucky licked his face and he pushed at the dog, who ignored it.

“Every time you tell yourself that raising me from the dead was justified, remember that you may have put something major in play, rather than stopping it,” Phil told him.

Because Clint had crunched more numbers, plotted more of his ‘bell curve’, and said that Phil was the integral part of it and without him, it fell apart. So while Phil was very happy to be alive and shacked up with Clint in Avengers Tower surrounded by friends, he had concerns about what was coming. Major concerns.

Nick started to deny that, too. Phil was so done with him.

“Either share what you’ve got on the big picture, or get out,” Phil told him.

Nick left.

Clint quit laughing; they’d hoped to squeeze more data out of him.

Fuck.

Clint crawled out from under Lucky, nodded at the file on Phil’s desk. “You want to read that, or I can take it to Jem.”

Phil considered what was in there, how many more lies he would find. Whether or not he needed to know them.

He picked up the file, handed it to Clint.

Clint kissed him, then took off out the door at a jog.

Lucky came over and laid his head on Phil’s knee, and Phil stroked the dog’s fur, considering just what in hell they might find when the fMRI was working. The dog whined a little, nosed Phil’s hand, and leaned on him, the same way he did when Clint was upset.

“Good dog,” he told Lucky, and damn if the dog didn’t smile at him.

- A -

People were filing in for dinner that night, and Tony stopped to wash his hands at the sink they’d designated for that in the kitchen, closest to the door. He was covered in grime and metal shavings, from re-working the fMRI machine and had only come to dinner because Leo, Jane, and Bruce dragged him away.

Once they got Phil straightened around, he was going to patent that thing and they were going to make a bundle. Pepper and the stockholders would be delighted. They even had it running on liquid nitrogen which made upkeep easier. Theirs was using a mini arc reactor, to avoid any power wonkiness between the fMRI and the building and the rest of the city, but he was pretty sure the power draw would be lower than usual, too. Pepper and the Board would be delighted. So would Doctors Without Borders; it’d be easier to run in more remote areas than the touchy machines they had now.

Not to mention it being a hundred times more accurate than the last model that had been designed a decade ago.

He’d brushed the worst of the metal shavings into the trash can and had turned the water on, when Barnes came in, white around the eyes, both arms on, looking hunted.

Fuck, that was bad. SUPER bad. No one wanted to set off someone with his skill set.

“Bucky?” Steve said.

“Is there one of those cartoon monsters that keep turning up, that imitate people, except for a creepy as fuck smiley face?” Barnes asked hoarsely.

“Yeah, it’s called a Ditto,” Skye said.

JARVIS helpfully put up a picture of one on all the screens in the main common room and the dining room and kitchen area. Shit, that was fucked up. Weirder than DeadPool’s big eyes, and that was pretty damn creepy.

“Jeeesus.” Barnes sat heavily on an end table, put his head in his hands. “Yeah, that’s what it was.”

“Where?” Steve asked, going to Barnes and clasping a hand on his shoulder.

“Brooklyn, Neptune Ave.”

What the hell was Barnes doing in Little Odessa?

“What happened?” Steve asked, okay, better question.

“I was down there to check on some stuff,” fantastic, Tony wondered what new trouble was getting stirred, “was walking along, minding my own, when this thing came up to me, looked like a cartoon version of me, except for that fucked up smiley face.”

Lots of muttering about how that would, indeed, be unnerving.

Tony would have lost his shit, personally.

“What did you do?” Clint asked.

“Emptied an entire magazine into it, half the bullets were Billy’s special load. It poofed, and then I poofed, before the cops got there. Jesus fuck.” Barnes shuddered violently and Tony couldn’t blame him. Having that thing come at him, looking like a cartoon mirror image of himself, with that doodled smile? He wouldn’t be as calm as Barnes was. Half of Brooklyn would have wound up repulsored.

“I wonder if they deliberately sent it after one of us, or if they just kept sending them, to see what would happen,” Sam wondered.

“What do you mean?” Steve asked.

“Well, it’s someone looking for trouble, right? Some kid? For an asshole with no impulse control, sending those out could be pretty fun. Guaranteed to scare the hell out of anyone who ran into one.” Sam pointed out.

“Social media has a few mentions of similar things, going back about a week,” JARVIS put in. “Not much, and most of it phrased in a way that people thought they’d had too much of some kind of recreational substance.”

“And then you blew one away,” Sam said thoughtfully. “Yeah, I bet that’s making them think, whoever it is.”

Everyone looked at each other.

“If we took his fun away, what’s he going to do next?” Nat asked, the only other one of them with a solid grip on the psychology of assholes.

“Yeah, that’s a damn good question,” Sam nodded.

“I want to punch him in the face,” Barnes announced. “Flesh hand, don’t want to kill the little fuck, but I want a hit.”

“Dibs,” Tony said. “You didn’t watch that Deino beating itself to death.”

“We’ll hit him twice, then,” Barnes decided.

Tony thought that sounded fine.

“Three times,” Clint added from the stove.

- A -

The continuing series from The Gothamist:

Name: Thor Odinson

Title or job in the Avengers Initiative: Air support, consulting.

Favorite book: “The Phantom Tollbooth” is most uplifting and imaginative. With the author’s permission I have sent a copy back to Asgard for the children there to enjoy.

Favorite movie: I was unfamiliar with cinema before visiting Midgard; the entire medium is most enjoyable. Everything I have seen has been excellent. Storytelling is a favorite pastime among my people.

Life quest: Peace.

If you could get away with any crime, what would you do? If I were to say, I would not get away with it.

Fantasy vacation? I wish to explore jungles; those are unique to Midgard.

What temptation do you have the most trouble resisting? My lady Jane, of course. Though Midgard’s pastries are nearly as irresistible.

Favorite thing about New York? The enormous diversity of people, all living together mostly in harmony.

Person with the most influence on your life? My mother, Queen Frigga.

Odd skill that might surprise people? I have learned to knit!

Favorite quote to close with? “There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they grow up in peace.” -Kofi Annan

Chapter Text

It was an average day – or what passed for one at the Tower, anyway, when Rhodey showed up for dinner with no warning. He sat down to dinner, said he needed to talk to Barnes, Steve, and Sam after.

Sam seemed to be expecting Rhodey and Steve didn’t know if that was good or bad.

Steve could tell he was trying very hard to be casual, which did nothing for his stress levels. Or Bucky’s; he didn’t eat hardly anything at dinner. Which meant he’d have to eat before he went to bed or he wouldn’t be able to sleep, but he was worried. Rhodey ran errands for the president. The president Rhodey had taken the Kiev file to, at Bucky’s request.

Bucky had always been more of a gambler.

After dinner they went down to their apartment; Steve made nice with drinks and Tony had horned in and was helping him make coffee. The tension was thick enough to punch, and Rhodey sensed it and thankfully said “I’ll get straight to the point, then.”

He pulled a wad of papers from a briefcase he had with him – Rhodey had arrived by taxi rather than War Machine suit – and laid them on the coffee table, then withdrew the Kiev file and laid it down next to the other papers. “That’s a pardon, from President Ellis, acknowledging you were coerced, recognizing your POW status – there’s back pay and a bunch of promotions involved.”

Bucky just stared at the papers, not touching them.

Steve was pretty sure it was shock. Steve was shocked, himself, at how… easy this had been.

“Ellis asks you not bring this up until after he’s out of office, if you can help it. He’s going to turn in all the paperwork on the back pay and the promotions, on his last week in office,” Rhodey said gently. “He knows different groups will go crazy. But that’s the pardon, there.”

“I’m free,” Bucky said softly, so softly Steve wasn’t sure anyone else heard it. He’d seated himself on the couch next to Bucky, and he put an arm around him.

Before he knew it, it had turned into a bear hug, so tight he wasn’t sure a normal human could survive it, Bucky’s face pressed into Steve’s neck. Eventually Sidekick began meowing, upset, and pawed at both of them, trying to worm in between them. They broke things up, and Sidekick meowed some more and crawled up Bucky’s arm to his shoulder and began grooming him.

They both sat back, caught their breath. Neither was crying, it was too… big for that. He looked over and Rhodey, Sam, and Tony looked like they might want to do the crying for them. “Thanks,” Steve told Rhodey, rough.

“We got lucky,” Rhodey said quietly. “After Ellis got taken last Christmas, let’s just say he understands torture better than a lot of presidents would.” He smiled a little. “He threw up while he was reading the Kiev file, too.”

Bucky actually laughed at that. Because of course he did.

- A -

The next Equality for All protest in New York was happening Saturday. Sam had debated with himself about going, because maybe his fame and presence would throw it off, detract from the message. But he remembered that fierce look on Rhodey’s face, the conversation they’d had weeks ago. This protest was supposed to be enormous, one of the biggest ones yet, and Sam really wasn’t sure if showing up would even make a difference.

But the really big protests always brought out really violent cops. Sam also remembered the oaths he’d taken over the years, both formal and to himself. The ones when he became a medic, in particular.

So with all that in mind, he put on the lightweight body armor Tony had made for all of them (not the vibranium scale mail; the smooth, weird silky stuff meant to go under clothes). Then jeans and a tee, white with a red cross on the front and a blue asterisk on the back, with MEDIC written on both sides, jeans, combat boots. Wrote Bernie’s emergency number on his arm in permanent marker, got his medic’s bag Tony had put together for him and slung it over his shoulder.

He’d gotten a rubber chicken. Nothing like handing a rubber chicken to a patient on the edge of hysterics; their brain stalled and then he could talk them down before they thought about being injured again.

JARVIS assured him that no police software or hardware was going to get into his communicator and swipe the data, so he put that in his pocket with his Department of Defense ID and left his wallet on his dresser.

Steve was at the windows painting, and did a double-take as Sam started through his living room to the ‘vator. “Where are you going?” he demanded sharply.

Sam turned, and damn. Steve had that intent look on his face, where he was about to do whatever had to be done. Shit. “There’s an Equality for All protest-”

Steve put down his brush, flipped a damp towel over everything. “Give me five minutes.”

What? “You don’t have to go, man.”

“Yes I do.”

Sam followed Steve down the hall to his apartment, stepped inside to wait while Steve presumably changed clothes. By now he had learned the futility of arguing with Steve.

Barnes took one look and his face sharpened to the same exact intent look Steve had. Damn. “What’s going on? Who needs a medic?” He stood, and Sam knew he was planning to go too. Shit.

“Equality for All protest.” Sam held up his hand. “Steve’s going with me. You can’t, man. I’m sorry. Maybe next time. I appreciate the support more than I can say, but if anyone figures out it’s you, there will be panic of one kind or another. It’s highly likely you’d get shot by a cop, and nobody needs that. There will be other protests.” There would always be other protests.

Steve came out then, wearing his Captain America tee, the one with the shield on it, jeans, and combat boots. Sam could see the faint outlines of body armor under Steve’s tee. Good.

“I’ll keep you posted,” Steve told Barnes. “You can’t go-”

“He explained.” Barnes said, frowning. “I really hate that I agree with you.”

Sam nodded in sympathy, touched that BOTH these guys were ready to gear up and go to a protest with no warning. He’d say it didn’t affect them, but they’d both be insulted as hell, and after all their unit did to desegregate the military he wouldn’t argue. “I’ll call if we need anything,” Sam promised.

“Do you expect trouble?” Barnes nodded, Sam wasn’t sure if it was at the tee or the bag slung over his shoulder, cross-body.

“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” Sam said.

Barnes nodded approval. “Yeah.” He hesitated, then said “the cops are going to go nuts with you two there. They already see this movement as a challenge to their authority; with you two coming down on the side of the protesters, they’re going to take it personally, that you’re against the law.”

“I’m against bullies. I believe I’ve said it a few times,” Steve answered. “Publicly. I definitely am against shooting unarmed kids in the back, I don’t give a damn who is pulling the trigger.”

Barnes rolled his eyes and turned to Sam. “Keep an eye on him. And the other eye on the cops.”

Sam knew what Barnes did; Steve would stand out like… a really tall white guy in a bunch of black people and some extreme mutants, and every cop there would take it personally. And the protest was about cops shooting people for no reason and getting away with it. “I’ll wear my magic sunglasses, JARVIS can pipe the feed into here.” Sam decided on the spot, and rummaged for the glasses he’d tucked into the medical bag.

The glasses were classic Ray-Ban Wayfarers, even said so on the side. Tony had rebuilt the ear pieces to hold batteries and a transmitter. (Dude was a genius. Sam had started telling him so, and would get a wicked grin in return.) A small camera was in the hollowed-out centerpiece on the bridge of the nose. The lenses worked as a head’s up display. Weirdly, they didn’t weigh any more than sunglasses with glass lenses.

Sam put them on, said “test, please, JARVIS.” The room was immediately covered in a line-frame diagram of everything in it, then in red weapons were picked out; handguns down both sides of the couch and the left side of the wingback chair, throwing knives under cushions on every seat in the place including the kitchen chairs, flash-bang grenades inside potted plants, behind books on the shelves, and in the bar. There was a double-barreled shotgun on hooks under the edge of the counter of the kitchen island. High caliber handguns were taped under every table in the place. Good thing Tony was throwing money around, just to pay for the artillery. “Which one of you armed the joint?”

“We both did,” Steve said, then grinned. “I fought through World War Two. I’m allowed to be paranoid. Should I take the shield?”

It was hanging by the door, displaying the four scratches down the front. Sam’s heart squeezed a little, remembering that speech. He suspected it always would. “No, the cops would see it as a weapon, or claim to see it as a weapon.”

Steve nodded, then said “hang on a sec,” and went back into his bedroom.

When he came back out, there were four silver scratches painted on the shield on his tee shirt, and Sam had a moment of such respect and love for the contrary asshole, he couldn’t articulate it. “Nice,” was all he could get out without embarrassing himself.

“Acrylic paint marker. The future has the most amazing art supplies. Should dry by the time we get there,” Steve assured him.

And off they went.

- A -

Steve had been part of dozens of marches back in the thirties. You name it, he’d marched for it. Women’s rights, gay rights – that one had landed him in jail, and lots and lots of socialism and worker’s rights, trade union, anti-government stuff. During the Great Depression, protesting was one of the few things people had to do that didn’t cost anything.

The largest crowd he’d ever seen back then was a tiny fraction of the one in Union Square Park today.

Sam had tried to explain protesting to him, and it was exactly like the ‘some members of the team are gay’ discussion they’d had once, all over again. Just like the last time, Sam had been left speechless after Steve told him he couldn’t count how many marches he’d been arrested at, but Bucky probably had a count of how many times he’d bailed Steve out of jail after some of them.

He didn’t always bail Steve out. Sometimes he was at work or on a date or otherwise busy. Sometimes he just left Steve there out of annoyance. A weekend in the drunk tank never hurt anybody.

This time, Steve took out his phone and took a picture of Sam’s face. He’d put it on the Avenger’s server later. They had a folder of incriminating (funny) photos. It was the Avenger’s server that taught him what social media could be.

Union Square Park had the usual pre-march crowd of people milling around. Steve had been told the plan was to march down Bowery to Police Plaza, stopping traffic all the way (great way to get attention, they’d never had enough people to do it back in the day and traffic had been much lighter and completely different), and then stand outside Police Plaza and raise hell until someone with authority came out to talk to the organizers about Stop and Frisk, which still hadn’t been stopped even after the mayor had been elected on the promise to end it. Rumor was, she tried, and the Chief of Police told her he was in charge of the city, and to fuck off.

Having been tazed in the middle of an incident, Steve was quite happy to be part of this.

The crowd was ENORMOUS, and Steve was pleased to see that while yes, the majority of the crowd was black, there was a significant amount of people who were white or other heritages, including Asian and Middle-Eastern. There were also a LOT of extreme mutants, and most of them were making no effort to hide who or what they were. Wings, skin colors of all descriptions, fangs, you name it. Many had on X tee shirts. There was the usual swirl of languages he loved about New York, and Steve and Sam traded a glance and walked into the crowd, trying to get to where the lead organizers were giving out orders. When they moved into the group, he could hear and see the knowledge go out in waves. The closest people stopped, shocked, then smiled and stepped forward to greet them, make introductions, then those behind them saw and passed it back further, and so on. Lots of buzz, then cheering.

Then the organizers pushed through the crowd to them.

Steve remembered everything Darcy had told him one night, a two hour ‘crash course’ on ‘how to be an ally’. (Rule one: don’t call yourself an ally. Hope you’re doing it right and let others call you that, if you earned it. If you earned it, pat yourself on the back for not fucking up THAT DAY, and keep working at it.) He let Sam talk to them, standing behind and a little to his left, guarding his six without even realizing it at first.

Then he was introduced, and he was as polite and respectful as possible, and at the first opening, asked “please let me know if my being here is more distraction than help. I’m more than willing to go home again if I’m a hindrance.” He hesitated, knew Sam would give him shit, but damn it, Sam was the first real friend he’d made in this century, outside of SHIELD or the Avengers. “If I leave, though, could you shove Sam into a group of military guys? He’s a known face, I want someone watching his back.”

Everything stopped for a moment and he thought ‘shit, gonna be going home,’ then everyone including Sam beamed at him.

“Stay. It’ll be great. Will you march up in the front with us?” One woman asked.

“If you like,” Steve told her, and got more smiles.

Sam turned his head and said very quietly, “lots of white, not obviously mutant allies will get into the front row, between us and the police, kind of dare them to go through the white ‘normal’ people to get to the ‘threats’. And I appreciate the thought but I can take care of myself.”

“Oh, getting up in cop’s faces, sounds like something I was made to do,” Steve grinned. “Like old times.”

“Right, let’s get this protest going!” another of the organizers shouted, and Steve made his way toward the road with Sam, following Sam’s lead.

Someone in the crowd with a bullhorn shouted “THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED.”

And the whole crowd roared back “THE REVOLUTION WILL BE LIVE” and raised their fists in the air.

Okay, way more energy than old times. Way better organization, way better focus.

“Part of a song and poem by a black musician back during the first Civil Rights Movement, I’ll get it for you to read later,” Sam explained under his breath, referring to the shouted lines.

Steve nodded. He bet it was really something. He could see people with military training, of all colors and genders, getting between the crowd and the cops, all along the sides of the march, saw it in the look on their faces, the way they watched the cops. The way their hands patted their legs where weapons would have been in a war zone.

Cops making veterans feel unsafe. Steve was REALLY glad he’d come.

And that’s when about five police cars and a paddy wagon roared up, sirens screaming. In addition to the enormous police presence that had been there already. Steve would bet it was because he and Sam had been spotted. Everyone put their hands up and yelled “Don’t shoot!” and goddamn, these people were ORGANIZED. And sarcastic. He appreciated both qualities, should fit right in.

Everything got moving, and Steve and Sam hustled up to the front, where Steve found a large group of other white people, arms joined, standing in front of the protesters, while a bunch of cops with riot gear and shields formed a hasty line facing them. He slipped up between two women (he’d always have the urge to protect women, even after Natasha mopped the floor with him, it was built in) and said politely “uh, can I join in here?”

They automatically separated and stood to the side, took his arms. The line adjusted, they looked up at him, stopped for a moment, and one said “holy shit” and the other just laughed.

“This is much more organized than the protests I was part of in the thirties,” Steve told them. “I’m very impressed.”

They started walking straight toward the cops, and after one breathless beat -

The cops fell back.

- A -

Bucky was watching from the apartment, got to the roared out “the revolution will be live” and the wall of cops in riot gear, snipers on the roofs of armored vehicles (the fuck? Snipers against UNARMED CIVILIANS?) and the single row of courageous white people acting as a living shield between the cops and the protesters, and did what he always did when he was confused about the 21st century and what to do with it.

Called Darcy.

- A -

Darcy was at the UN, in a semi-formal meeting with Thor, S’Yan, and Ogma, one of Asgard’s chief negotiators who’d come in to decide on the contracts and laws and set things up, help hire and train both Midgardian and Asgardian staff, and generally guide Thor through the diplomatic process as a kind of teacher.

Ogma had opened the meeting by telling Darcy she was finally given access to the Asgardian Archives, on the condition she provided Mimir with a copy of Clint’s P = NP proof. She didn’t hold back the shout of ‘YES!” but it was okay. S’Yan was also an educator and wise man, so he respected her quest for information, and enjoyed hearing about anything she found. He was smiling and Darcy made a mental note to see what Asgard had to say about vibranium, she could pass it to him and back to Wakanda and Shuri. Take good care of some great allies, and share in the nerding out, there was no down side.

Discussion for the day was mostly about the State Department and what to do about it. Considering International diplomatic law had been very meticulously followed because they’d expected some country to pull some shit over it, try to get some kind of leverage with Asgard, there wasn’t much else for them to do.

Concern revolved around Darcy because she’d be seen as a soft target compared to the Asgardians, and a traitor (oh please) to some. There was discussion of a bodyguard, which she really did NOT want, but she remembered that attempted grab by the Hydra guy and didn’t know what to say.

Because yeah, trying to bully a space-going civilization that you were technically part of the empire of was a GREAT IDEA.

Darcy wasn’t sure that Midgard as a whole, or really any Midgardians other than herself and S’Yan realized that they were considered conquered territory, like Gaul in the Roman Empire. She and S’Yan had discussed it and agreed that when some governments figured it out – the US and probably EU, as well as China was their guess – people were going to go bugfuck. She couldn’t wait until these KKK racist assholes realized the rest of the galaxy considered them a backwater planet of hicks that was part of a barbaric empire of barely civilized Asgardians. People were gonna go nuts.

S’Yan agreed that so long as no one was hurt, the planet’s reaction was going to be very amusing, especially the reactions of the 1% and the white supremacists and the hard-core religious zealots.

The reason Ogma was there at all, was because this was Thor’s first embassy setup, on his own. In Asgard he was considered about the same age as Darcy and Jane, and this was part of his diplomatic education. It was considered kind of like doing it with training wheels, since Midgard was part of the Nine Realms, the only new thing was, Midgard was considered advanced enough to have contact with, unlike last time when they swung through to kill a couple dozen frost giants during the Dark Ages.

The teaching part was really subtle, so as soon as Thor had said teacher to explain the new Asgardian’s presence, Darcy had immediately swamped Ogma with questions and he had been delighted to answer anything she could think of. He was the guy who’d introduced writing to the Celts and was all about learning and organization, so they got along like peanut butter and chocolate. He’d even ask her questions in return. About once a week they’d share lunch and it was one of the best parts of the Vinur gig.

She’d told Ogma that, and he’d patted her hand and said Thor had done well, choosing such a wise woman for his first Vinur.

Darcy had no idea what to do with THAT.

Her phone dinged the important ding that meant the text had gone through JARVIS and been deemed important, so she subtly pulled the phone out of the pocket of her suit jacket, glanced down at it.

BUCKY: Call me. It’s important.

Shit. Whatever Bucky would consider important was possibly world-ending. “Excuse me, sorry,” she told everyone, and stood to go out into the hall to make the call.

“Trouble?” Thor asked immediately. He knew what that ding meant. (All her friends and co-workers had customized ring tones or sounds of some kind, so she’d know who it was, calling or texting.)

“We’ll see,” Darcy said, trying to sound soothing.

From their looks, not one of them bought it. S’Yan and Ogma knew her pretty well.

Out in the hall, Bucky picked up on the first ring. Like Steve, he had zero clues about phone etiquette. “Sam and Steve are at an Equality for All protest. Sam’s wearing a pair of Tony’s spy glasses and I’m watching from the Tower. They’re supposed to be marching from Union Square Park to Police Plaza, the hair on the back of my neck is standing up, and they haven’t gone a block yet. The fucking cops have got goddamn SNIPERS out, in plain sight. If I go down there it’ll be mayhem because I’m taking those rifles and feeding them to the cops holding them.”

Shit. She’d forgotten about that protest, and she shouldn’t have. Of COURSE Sam would go, and OF COURSE Steve would go with him. “You CAN’T cause any violence right now, Bucky, stay home. Please. Is Steve in the front, between the cops and the protesters?” It had become a common strategy in the larger protests. She already knew the answer.

“Of course he is. He’s wearing a tee shirt with his shield on it, and he painted four scratches onto it.”

Of course he had. Steve did not know the meaning of subtle and wouldn’t give a fuck if he did. Every cop at that protest would see those African scratches voluntarily put there, and see Steve as enemy number one. And Steve would see them all as bullies of the worst kind (they were) and react like Steve, if anyone went after him, or anyone near him.

“Okay, I’m on it. Stay at the Tower, if you go out and get recognized-”

“It’ll be a blood bath. I know.”

Shit, she and Thor were both wearing suits for this. Well, maybe the cops would find them authoritative-looking. She ducked back into the room. “I’m really sorry, we’ve got a potential problem on the boil. S’Yan, could you please explain to Ogma about Equality for All? And the significance of Steve being there, wearing a tee shirt with his shield on it? He painted the Black Panther scratches on it.”

S'Yan smiled broadly and nodded.

She turned to Thor. “I need you to fly me down to a little south of Union Square Park. Sam and Steve are in the middle of a protest and it could go bad any second.”

“Of course, my vinur,” Thor stood and grabbed Mjolnir, who he took to all official meetings, as a badge of office. Looked wild as hell hanging off the belt of a tailored chalk-stripe suit, but she was handy.

Darcy took Thor’s hand and pulled him along a couple corridors, then through one of the Asgardian offices halfway through being set up and out onto the balcony. “Okay, let’s go. You’ll see what the problem is when we get there.”

Thor wrapped one big arm around her, Darcy had a second to be thankful that she’d worn pants that day, and they took off.

- A -

Every instinct Sam had, said this was going to go south. Was GOING south, as they walked. The cops were pissed as hell; every two minutes another armored vehicle pulled up and they all had snipers on the roofs. Snipers for unarmed civilian protest. That alone made his skin crawl. He and the head of the organizers glanced at each other. “You think it’s me or Steve setting them off?”

She shook her head cynically. “Oh, you’re just another black face. No. It’s him. Him and that tee shirt.”

“Tony calls him the angry little shit from Brooklyn; apparently he’s spent his life stirring up trouble like this.” Sam said. “The Army white-washed his records.”

She laughed a little, bitterly. “In his day, the cops only used clubs. Usually.”

“I am not at all pleased about the snipers, and will be complaining to the mayor,” Sam muttered.

“Good luck,” she answered. “Far as we can tell, the mayor’s on our side. The police commissioner has told her to fuck off, too.”

The mayor was a black woman.

“You got a plan?” the guy on the other side asked.

“Yeah, I think putting the cops on a live feed might keep them honest, I’ll get to the side with my phone and put it on the Avengers’ Twitter feed-”

Right then Thor and Darcy landed in the no-man’s land between the living shield and the cops. The march stopped a little haphazardly and directions were shouted from the front to the back.

“And help just arrived,” Sam breathed out in relief.

“Prince Thor?” The guy asked, awed.

Sam laughed a little. “No. I mean yeah, Thor will do what he can, he’s had peaceful protest explained to him and he thinks it’s brilliant. But the help is that tiny little brunette beside him.”

“Some kind of goddess?”

“Yeah. She’s a local hell-raiser from the hills of Virginia with a poly-sci degree, diplomatic immunity through the Asgardian Embassy, and an attitude.”

“I like her already.”

Darcy held her communicator to her mouth and it acted as a loudspeaker. “Can I have your attention please,” she asked everyone politely. She turned toward the cops, not the protesters. She kept Steve directly at her back, so she was thinking of safety, good. “This is a peaceful protest. It will REMAIN a peaceful protest. I and Prince Thor will be transmitting a live feed of this to the internet. The Avengers’ research team will be tracking the badge numbers of every one of you, use facial recognition to identify those of you who are super ethical and have covered your badge numbers or not worn any ID. They will also track what you do, and report it to the FBI and SHIELD. They will also put it on every social media platform on the planet.”

“You can’t do that, bitch,” the cop in charge, in the center of the line, directly across from Steve, snapped at her.

“That’s Lady Bitch, Vinur to Prince Thor” she answered, pulled her passport out of her suit jacket pocket, opened it, and held it up in front of the guy’s face. “Diplomatic immunity. Touch me and you violate the peace treaty between Earth and Asgard. SHIELD will throw your ass in jail. I dare you to try. Or start some shit with Thor. I’d enjoy watching that.”

Thor, standing next to her, smiled and cracked his knuckles. Sam KNEW he’d picked that one up from Natasha.

“Holy shit,” the woman next to Sam whispered.

“We all kind of want to be her when we grow up,” Sam agreed.

Darcy paused to fist-bump Steve, then walked the line between the cops and the protesters, ignored the weapons on one side, and returned smiles to the other. She got to the sidewalk, shifted her phone. “I’m transmitting, you are LIVE, on Twitter,” she announced. “So is Prince Thor, who is transmitting live to the Avenger’s YouTube account.” After a short pause she added, “I just hit a hundred thousand viewers and the number is still jumping by thousands.”

Thor was at the other side of the line, sidewalk on the other side of the street, his phone out too. Mjolnir was hanging from his belt, and he was wearing one of his chalk stripe suits but with his hair loose and the build and all it was unmistakable that the prince of Asgard was taking video. When he saw a large portion of the crowd looking at him, he gave that broad, friendly smile he did, gave a respectful head bob, and waved a little.

Darcy caught Sam’s eye, smiled, and nodded.

“We’re green,” Sam told the leaders.

“Okay everyone, move out!”

And they did, surrounded on all sides by furious cops who’d had their plans for the afternoon ruined. No one knew enough about Asgard to be willing to push their luck.

Darcy and Thor were keeping pace, with their cameras focused on all the cops itching to use riot shields and batons and beanbag rounds and clubs and their bare fists.

Another minute went by, and then Iron Man was overhead. “Hi, all. I’m transmitting to my own Twitter account, which, if you don’t know, has a hundred million followers. The first person to pull a trigger will do it live in front of the entire planet, then gets handed over to Black Widow,” he announced. “She’s back at the Tower, sharpening knives, and says hi. Falcon, you want a soundtrack for this shindig?”

Sam had one of the protesters relay their ‘raise hell’ Spotify playlist.

“Also, Equality for All,” Tony said, and let it rip.

@

They arrived at One Police Plaza surrounded by a shitload of unhappy cops. Not one single violent incident had occurred, the entire march.

Because the cops were being held accountable. Finally. Maybe it was only for one afternoon, but it was a goddamn glorious afternoon. It was also a shining example that every black person and extreme mutant in America could point at, and say “this is what we do when the cops are forced to behave; we do no harm.”

At Police Plaza, the doors were barred, barricades were up, and the chief of police had issued a statement that very politely said he’d never end stop and frisk, and they could all go to hell.

But none of that mattered because the media had arrived in force. Name a network, they were there. Bloggers and YouTubers from all over the city had come in as fast as they could, also transmitting live from various accounts, to all over the world. Spider-Man had arrived about five blocks down Bowery and swung along overhead. He was now sitting on a window ledge about ten storeys up, keeping an eye on things himself. He also had his phone out.

You had to look really hard, but there were two Hawkeyes on rooftops, as well, arrows nocked, watching the cops with the sniper rifles.

At one point a cop started to reach for something – it may not have been a gun, but they’d never know because the guy wound up with his hand webbed to his chest.

Sam wondered idly how long it took for that stuff to break down.

Darcy had worked her usual magic, and a podium with a loudspeaker and a microphone were there, up at the top of the steps of One Police Plaza, and before he knew it Sam had been shoved in front of it.

“Hey, everyone,” he started out with, and all the protesters and about half the media cheered. “I came here today to lend my support. Equality for All. This is a peaceful group. I would like to emphasize that. Today, no one got so much as a scratch. There was no violence, there was no vandalism. The police didn’t have a chance to start anything and blame it on us. No one got to make up excuses to arrest people. And of course, the protesters were, as Equality for All has always been, peaceful. It was a privilege to join them, and I hope to do so again. Now I think the organizers of today’s march should come on up here, say what they have to say, and answer the questions of the media.”

More cheering. One of the organizers simply said “thank you” from the depths of her soul.

Sam patted her on the back. “Don’t leave without getting my number, we’ll organize our end of it it better next time.” They couldn’t improve on EFA’s organization, that had been perfectly done, the whole afternoon.

He went to stand off to one side with Steve, Darcy, Tony, and Thor. All of them were re-directing media questions to the organizers and protesters. As he got there, he heard Darcy say “I showed up to keep the peace. I support Equality for All and didn’t want anyone to get hurt. Yes, of course, if someone from the police had been injured I would support justice for them and get them help. But you know no one from EFA was going to do it. Now go listen to what they have to say. It’s important.”

All of them stood off to the side, watching the impromptu press conference. Tony had his helmet on, so he could use his display to take video for JARVIS to continue transmitting to the Avengers’ Twitter and YouTube channels.

Things were starting to wind down when Tony’s face shield popped up and he said quickly, “JARVIS says Darcy’s FEET ARE BLEEDING.”

All of them looked down, and shit, there was a bit of watery red, like broken blisters, seeping around the toes of the damn stiletto shoes she was wearing.

“Whoops,” Darcy said.

“You didn’t notice walking twenty-odd blocks in HEELS?” Tony almost screeched.

“No, but now that you mention it, they kind of hurt,” Darcy admitted. She yelped when Thor swept her up in his arms. “Oh geez, Thor, you don’t have to-”

“I will not have you do further harm to yourself.”

Sam pulled some heavy-duty shears out of his pack, moved to cut a shoe off, Jesus, and she said “no, leave it. I’ll go back to the Tower and have Jem do a nerve block or something and take the shoes off. They’re my favorites.”

Women.

“Happy’s on his way,” Tony told them. “He’ll pick you up around the corner. The rest of us will stay here until everyone clears out, make sure the fuckers stay honest.”

“My thanks,” Thor said, and began to walk off, and Darcy stopped him.

The media questions were slowing, so Darcy had Thor carry her up the steps to where the podium was, had a quick word with one of the protesters standing there. Of course someone handed the mic to her, because Sam was now convinced that Darcy could do anything, or talk someone else into it. She shared that gift with Steve. Thank goodness they were on the side of justice.

“Hey everyone. I’m sorry I have to leave early, miss the dance party. I kind of forgot I was wearing heels when I joined the march.” The crowd muttered worriedly at that. “But before I left I wanted to thank you all for letting this white chick join in on your protest.” She raised her other fist in the air. “Equality for All.”

Everyone cheered.

She shot a peace sign, handed the mic back to the person answering questions, and then let Thor carry her off to the limo.

- A -

Avengers @Avengers
“If there is no struggle there is no progress... This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” -Frederick Douglass

Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn @Cap
I have always hated bullies. It’s why I joined the Army, and it’s why I tried to intervene in a Stop and Frisk incident last month and got tazed and arrested for it. Until the police stop terrorizing people of color and mutants, I will continue to lend my support to #EqualityForAll My thanks to them for the hospitality this afternoon.

Winter Soldier @ZimniySoldat
Snipers for a group of unarmed civilians. @NYPD you’re a disgrace. A disgrace that resembles a terrorist organization. I know what terrorism looks like. I’ve fucking BEEN a terrorist. It looks like what you did today.

Tony fucking Stark @TStark
Every single one of you bitching about the cops being held accountable, are essentially saying you wanted violence today. And that you wanted the POLICE to cause it. We see you.

Col. James Rhodes @WarMachine
@Falcon @Cap THANK YOU.

Chapter Text

When Steve and Sam finally got back to the Tower – Darcy hadn’t been kidding about the dance party, apparently it was a thing now and he had been told to read a graphic novel for reference. (Graphic novel?) They immediately went to see Darcy, who was in the common room on the floor she shared with Thor, Jane, and Kate. JARVIS informed them that her feet were fine, other than badly blistered. He’d even put up x-rays in the elevator for Sam to look at. She’d changed into fuzzy sweats, and was propped into one of the giant easy chairs, both feet bandaged and propped high on a stack of pillows, ice packs all around. Just about the same as Tony after his flight home from Paris. There was a laptop on her lap, a tablet on the table next to her, and the TV screen on, showing CNN’s analysis of the day’s very successful and non-violent protest. “Hi!” she greeted them. “Those tweets were incendiary, I’m going to be explaining those for days. AWESOME.”

Bucky was in the corner, in a chair, feet up, pretending to be relaxed. He had his prosthetic arm on, meaning he was ready for emergencies. He also had his insane weapon harness on, the one with two machine guns, handguns, derringers, and grenades. Steve could tell he was mostly there to help Darcy in any way she needed, but god help any Hydra agents deciding to burst in the windows. He smiled to himself a little. Darcy was magical.

Her phone rang, she picked it up, looked at it, muttered “get thee behind me, Satan,” put the phone down again. “JARVIS, block all calls coming in from my family, except for Eddie, he can call through.”

“Very well,” JARVIS answered. “He has texted once, to tell you that you are a badass.”

Darcy smiled. “Thanks. Text back that you’re fielding texts and calls for me, I’ll text him more details, but right now it’s a media shit storm.”

“My pleasure,” JARVIS told her.

Kate was seated nearby on a couch, computer out, scrolling around. “Only negative reports are from conservative media and the usual nutjobs. Portions of Congress are lamenting the fact that Captain America has been corrupted by radicals.” She glanced over at Steve. “There’s now an official movement to revoke your ‘Captain America’ title.” She winced a little as she told him. “So far the only ones serious about it are right wing nut jobs.”

Steve was fine with it. “The title was never official, it was propaganda, and I hated the propaganda. I’m more than happy to be Captain Rogers again.”

“Captain Planet,” Darcy said absently, scrolling on her phone.

“Forget it, I watched a couple of those cartoons,” Steve told her. They’d been HORRIBLE. The art, the writing, all of it.

Darcy laughed.

Sam had seemed a little shocked the whole way home and finally just dropped into a chair and said “thank you.”

“’Course,” Steve said. “I’d meant to get out to some of the protests anyway, this was a great one to start on. Organizing has taken a big jump forward, that was impressive. I’m going to put that up on the Avengers website.” The sheer number of people had been amazing, and the organization of it all had been as good as anything he’d seen in the military. Tony had offered the head organizer a job at Stark Industries in the logistics division. She’d taken it with a squeal and then danced with Tony.

The dance party after had been the perfect ending; hundreds of police, guns everywhere, and they’d turned up speakers and played a great deal of music that could be summarized as ‘fuck authority’ and danced. The most fuck-you gesture he’d ever seen, and peaceful. It had delighted him, even if he couldn’t dance. (Several people had attempted to teach him ‘hip hop’? That had resulted in a great deal of laughing. It was friendly laughing, it had been a fun time.) That was when someone told him to ‘catch up’ and read V for Vendetta. Apparently Sam had a copy to loan him. So did Tony, both Hawkeyes, and Thor. Apparently Thor loved graphic novels and had assembled quite a library.

“Steve, that was the first Equality for All protest in New York that didn’t result in injuries,” Kate said gently. “Possibly the first one anywhere. It’s a big fucking deal.”

Thor had disappeared, but now returned with snacks, followed by Jane with drinks. Those were put out on the tables, and Steve got a drink since everyone else seemed inclined to stay. He’d never been in their part of the Tower before, hadn’t had occasion to visit anyone here at their homes, so he’d never seen their little common room. It was full of art. He wandered over to one of the pictures.

It was a scene from an alien planet, of woods and streams and flowered meadows. None of the vegetation was earthly. Overhead, two moons shone in pastel colors, the rubble of a third floating nearby; two suns set, creating a boggling sunset. The moons had cities visible on them. The work was exceptional, and - he touched a single finger to it gently, leaned in. It was woven, at a finer gauge than he’d ever seen before. From any distance, even a few inches, it appeared to be an exotic form of printing on a woven canvas.

“My grandmother’s work,” Thor said, coming up beside him. “My mother’s mother. It is Vanaheim, their home within the realms. I am told it is the view from my mother’s window, when she was a child.”

“It’s stunning.” As a piece of fantasy art it was amazing, and even without knowing a thing about weaving he could see the incredible skill in it; threads were run together to create new colors, metallics with shiny solids and matte finishes for a variety of textures and visual effects.

Knowing it was a real place? Mind boggling.

His comm rang, damn it, and he pulled it out of his pocket.

It was the police commissioner. “Uh oh, cops on the phone,” he told the room to quiet it, and answered “Rogers.”

“I’m sending two officers over to arrest you, you’re expected to give yourself up peacefully.”

Steve laughed, then held out the phone and put it on speaker. “You want to repeat that?”

Tony walked into the room, fresh from a shower. He should add to the entertainment significantly.

“I’m sending two uniformed officers over to arrest you and you’d better come peacefully,” Commissioner Kelley snapped.

“What charges?” Tony demanded.

“I refuse to speak to anyone but Rogers,” Kelley answered, angrier with every statement.

“Okay,” Steve said, “what charges?”

“The march today was illegal, you disrupted traffic, refused to take orders from a police officer when told to disperse. You told the officer in front of you that he was a disgrace to the uniform and had no honor. You called the snipers terrorists, to their faces, and threatened them with violence. You violated the gag order that was part of the bond you signed when you left jail last month after punching a cop. You violated it today ON TWITTER.”

Tony hooted out a laugh at ‘disgrace to the uniform’, then answered, “Yeah, no, nice try. He crossed out all that and initialed it, when I bailed him out. Revised contract. Legally binding. Doesn’t apply. The cops were so desperate to get rid of us they signed off on it. Go check your documentation before you call here and threaten anyone.”

Kelley actually growled. “Do you have any idea how many calls we’re getting-”

“No, but I’ll make sure to hack your systems and look it up,” Tony said. “For the rest, you want Ms Bernie Rosenthal, our lawyer. 646-555-5029.”

“You son of a-”

“Have a nice day!” Steve said brightly, and hung up.

Everyone in the room gaped, shocked at Steve hanging up on someone, Steve thought. Then they started laughing.

“You threatened the snipers?” Darcy asked.

“During the dance party,” Steve confirmed. Watching rifles, high caliber, very deadly rifles, trained on a bunch of people dancing, had angered him like few things had in this new century. “I told them that if they shot anyone I was going to wrap the rifle around their neck and make them otherwise regret their life choices.”

Everyone but Tony gaped at him a little. Well, Thor beamed at him, that ‘it’s an honor to know you’ face. Tony laughed.

“JARVIS, what have you got?” Tony asked.

“Apparently every single regular phone number at Police Plaza is ringing off the hook, demanding to know why Captain America had been tazed. One moment,” then the TV switched to MSNBC.

“I’m really very curious why anyone, particularly a police officer, would taze Steve Rogers,” some host or other asked. “And especially in the middle of a Stop and Frisk incident. Did the NYPD try to stop and frisk Captain America?”

On the other side of the screen, Sharon Carter smiled politely and said “SHIELD is unaware of any of the conditions surrounding the situation. But knowing how the NYPD profiles young black men for Stop and Frisk, and knowing Captain Rogers, I would guess that the Captain tried to step in and de-escalate a situation and got tazed.”

“We’re still having trouble believing anyone would taze Captain Rogers,” the host admitted.

Sharon continued to smile. “Captain Rogers is very hard to recognize when in regular street clothing like the rest of us. He looks like a regular millennial guy. A little on the tall and muscular side but nothing that really stands out.”

“So you’re saying the police tazed an innocent person trying to make peace?”

The way Sharon smiled, Steve knew she was leading this directly to that truth, while not confirming anything. “Captain Rogers has a long history of stepping in to fix situations. And the NYPD has a long history of violence against innocent people.”

“Boom, there it is,” Tony said. “I’m starting to like her.”

Steve laughed again.

“Oh man, the media on this is going to be insane,” Darcy complained behind them.

“Speaking of,” Kate told her, reading off her computer screen, “Vox wants an interview, five minutes ago. They say they can have someone here in ten minutes.”

“Do you mind an outsider being in this room?” Darcy asked Thor.

“Not at all,” Thor smiled at her. “However, since it is mine, I see no reason to leave.”

“Same,” Jane said shortly, putting a drink down next to Darcy and then sitting next to Thor.

“Tell Vox they can interview me but only if they agree to run equal coverage of the protest, and profile the woman in charge,” Darcy told Kate.

“Got it,” Kate muttered, and started typing.

- A -

From the Gothamist website:

After Saturday’s remarkably peaceful Equality for All protest, we’ve had a lot of questions about Sergeant Sam Wilson. So rather than waiting, today on Sunday we’re posting the questionnaire he filled out. We’ll continue releasing the rest as planned, one each Friday.

@

Name: Sam Wilson (Falcon)

Title or job in the Avengers Initiative: Medic, Air Support

Favorite book: Science fiction. Doesn’t matter what. I got hooked on it out in the desert under those stars. Now I work with a prince from outer space. It’s great.

Favorite movie: Do the Right Thing

Life quest: Have everybody get along.

If you could get away with any crime, what would you do? No, I can’t answer that. Captain America might give me his sad face. It’s a really sad face. His kitten rides on his shoulder and looks sad too.

Fantasy vacation? A couple weeks exploring a new place.

What temptation do you have the most trouble resisting? I dearly love to fly.

Person with the most influence on your life? My mother.

Favorite thing about New York: It’s home. I love New York, all these people from everywhere, co-existing in all kinds of great ways.

Odd skill that might surprise people? I can bake. Little known fact, you can bribe almost any person in the world with warm cookies. They also work on space princes.

Favorite quote to close with? “Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe you perceive is specific to you.” -- Douglas Adams

- A -

Sunday morning meant brunch, and everyone rolling into the kitchen/dining room of the common area in various forms of pajamas. Sam always wore sweats and an old tee shirt, with slippers.

Pepper had found someone to deliver brunch every Sunday, and they would get together and set it up before digging in; Sam didn’t want to know how much she was paying for everything down to eggs Bennedict with hollandaise sauce in a specialized thermos container. It had to be substantial. He didn’t much care, though, just loaded up on a little of everything, and sat down at the table.

Darcy was already up and around; Betty had tried some herbal treatment she’d cooked up (comfrey and lanolin?) and apparently the injuries had mostly been superficial; lots of blisters and inflammation, but nothing broken or damaged. Unfortunately the shoes were ruined. (Sam had gotten the size and details from JARVIS and ordered new ones for her. Insanely expensive, but he could afford it. He’d gotten three pairs, all the colors they came in. Then he’d thought about it and ordered all three colors in his mom’s size. She still wore heels, and he had to spend this money on something for her.) Darcy was wearing a pair of socks over some bandages, and assured everyone she was able to walk to the breakfast buffet and back. He kept an eye on her, and she wasn’t limping. She got her own food, wandered around the kitchen in a way a person wouldn’t if they had sore feet.

Betty was a genius, so Sam rolled with it.

They all sat around, grazing as Darcy called it, rehashing the previous day’s protest, and planning how to deal with comments and pushback coming from it.

Sam had to stare down at his plate and breathe deeply for a while when it was decided – by unanimous vote with him abstaining because he felt super biased – that the next protest, they would all go, support staff included. Skye had once told him quietly that she was half Chinese, so he wasn’t the only non-white person in the Avengers. Bruce had also mentioned that his other half was green, so it wasn’t the same, but he had Sam’s back. Steve told him stories of “NO IRISH” signs in windows of shops when he was an Irish kid, he said himself it wasn’t the same but he kind of had a glimmer. Pepper took him to lunch and made sure to treat him as a valued friend in front of the CEO crowd, he knew it had been very deliberate on her part, to send a message.

Darcy was giving them all the same rules that Steve had mentioned getting – don’t speak for others, whenever you’re lending your image/notoriety/fame to a group, to re-direct all media attention to the group, and so forth, and JARVIS dinged.

“I’m very sorry to interrupt, but we have a major problem.” The screen flipped on, and right outside FAO Schwartz was a herd of cartoon sheep. Cream curls of ‘fur’, blue face and legs, black and yellow ear-things and a black tail with a yellow ball dangling from it. Cute as hell, and everyone would want to pet one.

“Jesus fuck,” Skye jumped up. “Get a move on. Those little guys are electrified. They’re tazers.”

Fuck.

Everyone ran for equipment.

Darcy swore and teetered off for the elevator, yelling “Thor, don’t you dare leave without me!”

“You must stay home and take care of your feet,” Thor began.

“Do ANY of you assholes have any experience with sheep?” She demanded.

No one left said anything.

“I didn’t think so. Someone get me a broom, and meet me there. Thor, come on.”

- A -

Steve grabbed a regular old broom out of a cleaning closet on the way out to the landing platform where Tony was suited up and waiting on him. He’d put on his old body armor, with the cut up sleeve. Tony hadn’t gotten around to making everyone’s new vibranium armor yet, but the sleeve tucked into his gauntlet and barely showed.

“What’s the word?” he asked, stepping onto a foot peg that flipped out of one of the boots of Tony’s armor and hung on as they flew north. Thankfully the toy store wasn’t that far away.

“There are a bunch of Pokemon players who know how dangerous they are, mostly keeping everyone away, but one kid got through and petted one of the damn things. Got zapped, someone did CPR immediately and the kid is now at the hospital getting checked over. Seems okay, but JARVIS is snooping in the hospital and keeping an eye on it. The kid is barely five.”

A herd of adorable tazer sheep outside a toy store on a Sunday afternoon. “This asshole is deliberately trying to cause harm now. To CHILDREN,” Steve shouted over the blowing wind.

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “I’m punching them in the face for sure, when we find them. The parents of the kid are mostly okay but were damn near hysterical when it happened, not that I blame them.”

They landed next to Thor and Darcy. Darcy was wearing torn jeans, heavy boots, and an Avengers tee shirt. She took the broom immediately, made a ticking noise with her tongue against her teeth, and pushed one of the sheep off the sidewalk and out into the street. It made an annoyed baa sound, but it went. There was a crackle of sparks when the broom touched the sheep.

Steve got on the horn with New York’s emergency services and had them close down the area, a block in all directions. Then he called out “Everyone please fall back at least a block. All of you who helped secure the area before we got here, it’s really appreciated.”

“No problem, man, this is nuts,” a young guy nearby said. “What the fuck IS this? Is it like the Galvantula on the bridge?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, using a foot to nudge another of the damn sheep things out into the street, away from the sidewalk with people on it, grit his teeth through the zap to his nervous system. “We think someone’s summoning them, we’re not sure how.”

“Asshole,” the guy said, and disappeared into a nearby building.

Steve hoped he was leaving the area, but instead he came back out with a mop, and followed Darcy’s lead, pushing the sheep away from the sidewalk. “Where we putting these things?”

“The Meadow, Central Park,” Tony called. “Maybe we can keep them there with static electricity. I can generate a circuit, or Thor can do something.”

“Okay then,” the guy muttered, and joined in with Darcy, trying to herd the walking tazers into a small group.

“You don’t have to help…?” Steve tried.

The guy smiled, white teeth flashing against dark skin. “Leon Baker. Did a couple years in the ‘stans with the 107th. Nice to meet you, Cap.” He shook his head, poked a sheep trying to get past him. “Never saw anything this nuts, though.”

“Thanks,” Steve told him, got a spare ear bud out of a belt pouch, and handed it to him. “Avengers, be advised, we have assistance, military. Leon Baker. Be nice.”

“Nice to meetcha,” Clint said, coming up behind Steve with another broom. “Steve, we need whoever isn’t gonna get electrocuted to start moving these over to Central Park.”

Just then a sheep made a run for it down an alley and without thinking Clint whipped out an arrow and shot it. The sheep pixillated and disappeared.

“Fuck, hope no one saw that,” Clint said under his breath. “Get my ass beat for killing something cute.”

“How-?” Leon asked.

“Magic arrow,” Steve explained as Clint went to retrieve it, where it was laying on the ground in the alley. “Just remember for every dangerous mutant pulling this, there are-”

“-dozens of others living in peace. Yeah, I served with a guy. No idea how he passed the health checks but he saved our asses more than once,” Leon agreed.

Well, that was something anyway.

“Everyone,” Steve announced on comms, “we’re going to herd these little bastards over to Central Park, contain them there.”

“Clear the way, we can do it with brooms, it’ll be easiest, keep them all in one place,” Darcy told them. “Hi. I’m Darcy,” she told Leon.

“Hi, Leon,” he replied with a smile, and they shook hands.

Police had finally arrived and cordoned off the area, and over comms Steve heard Badass announce “Avengers and support, be advised we are now connected to New York EMS comms, for coordination.”

“Understood,” Steve replied. “We need a corridor between here and the Meadow in Central Park. We’re going to get them there, to contain them, unless anyone in EMS has a better idea.”

An unknown voice came on, “This is Captain Rossi, NYPD, head of the special threats task force. We’ll follow your lead, Cap.”

Cooperation. That was refreshing. “Thank you, Rossi.”

Steve took a broom that Natasha handed him, and copied what Darcy was doing. He’d watched cow herding – with men on horses – on You Tube one night when he was bored, so he kind of understood how they were doing this. Keep them in a group, push them in the direction they wanted them to go.

“Thor, come try playing Pied Piper,” Darcy said. “They might think you seem fun and follow.”

“I do not understand,” Thor said.

Badass spoke up, “It’s a legend. Use your static electricity to try to lead them.”

“Ah,” Thor replied. “One moment.”

- A -

What followed were some of the weirder hours of Tony’s life, and that was REALLY saying something. The mareep (JARVIS hit the Bulbopedia) (fuck his life) DID like static, so Tony generated a low-amp field around the armor, and then Thor stood further back toward the park, generating a stronger field, so they’d go to him, then keep going past him. Made the herding easier.

There had been about a billion images put on the internet, Tony told JARVIS to forget about scrubbing them, disappearing that many would get attention they didn’t need. So far no one had voiced the idea that the Avengers and/or Stark Industries had the ability to manipulate data on the internet at an international level, and he’d like to keep that on the down-low as long as possible. There was no way to deny this anyway. WAY too many witnesses.

The Avengers, Leon (Tony hoped to add him to the security team, and passed on his information to May), and a couple other volunteers from out in the country who knew sheep (bless every damn one of them), had gotten the mareep about two blocks (out of about eleven total, plus some distance into the park,) when SHIELD came roaring up in a couple-five vehicles. Agents in black swarmed, fanning out in all directions, and before Jasper could painfully haul himself out of the SUV he was in, six SHIELD agents had all grabbed mareep, lit up with sparks, and collapsed on the ground.

Shaking her head, Darcy used her broom to push the mareep away from the closest agent, bent down, “this one’s got a pulse,” she announced on comms.

Across the half-block they were occupying, others reported the same thing.

Six SHIELD agents down, all tazed, none in danger.

Camera phones buzzed, Tony let himself laugh, knowing JARVIS wouldn’t let it go out over the speakers or comm.

Clint whistled out an unmistakable five-note call and damn near everyone, including the cops and civilians, answered with “Manuh manuh” and they all kept singing for a couple lines.

Then Badass lost it. “CHATTER ON COMMS GOD DAMN IT HAWKEYE I AM GOING TO DUCT TAPE YOUR MOUTH SHUT AND MAKE YOU TAP OUT MESSAGES IN MORSE CODE WITH YOUR TEETH.”

Dead silence.

“Understood,” Rossi of the special threats task force – formed after the Invasion – said cautiously.

“Oh, you’ve all been very professional, thank you,” Badass told him. “It’s THESE ASSHOLES.”

Tony saw Rossi nod, about a block down, outside his support vehicle, where he’d been watching things with binoculars. He had a hand over his mouth, and Tony was sure he was either covering a grin or trying not to laugh.

Jasper limped up slowly, and Tony said “Look out, I’m running an electrical current over the surface of my armor, as bait for the tazer sheep.”

He stopped about two yards away, nodded. “Thanks.” He looked at his agents, still where they’d dropped, splatted out across a half block of Midtown, poked a mareep with his cane to move it away from himself. “With luck they’ll learn to ask for a sitrep next time.”

Tony laughed again. Jasper was okay, for a SHIELD agent.

He needed to talk to Jem about a painkilling exoskeleton for him.

“Thanks for those chairs, by the way,” Jasper added. “My back is much happier.”

Tony had sent one to SHIELD for his office, and another, bigger one to his apartment a couple weeks ago, and gotten a bottle of aged scotch in return. He'd appreciated the gesture and put it in the bar in the Common Room. “No problem, gotta bribe the SHIELD liaison to go easy on us.”

Jasper laughed and poked another mareep with his cane.

- A -

It took them over two hours to get from in front of FAO Schwartz to the Meadow in Central Park. There were twenty of the goddamn tazer sheep – Steve was calling them that and no one was gonna make him do any differently. Nineteen after Clint got the one. Jasper limped along for about three blocks before Steve couldn’t take it any longer and asked Rossi to help him out; so the SHIELD babysitter for the Avengers met the head of the weird threat task-force, which was good in the long run, and Jasper got a ride in the task force HQ van-thing.

Eventually the six SHIELD agents got up off the pavement, brushed themselves off, silently got brooms and brought up the rear with the herd of goddamn cartoon sheep.

No one said anything, and everyone knew the reason why was Badass’ earlier rant at Clint.

In the Meadow, Thor had seated himself and was doing something – Tony relayed through his sensors that Thor was using a giant electrical current to keep the walking tazers inside a sphere; for their purposes, inside a large circle on the ground. Tony called it a Faraday cage. They kept coming up and rubbing their faces on Thor’s, and he would simply smile and say something kind and pet them. “What the hell’s that all about? The face rubbing?” Steve asked Tony.

“According to the Bulbopedia – fan created and maintained, fuck our lives – it’s a move called ‘nuzzle’ that can paralyze your opponent for a turn? Or something?” Tony answered. “I think at the core of it they’re pretty sheep-like in terms of intelligence and are just doing something defensive to feel safe. Thor’s not a Pokemon though, thank… whoever… Walt Disney? Nintendo? and so nothing’s happening. We’d feel a static shock and get tazed but Thor told Darcy it tickles.”

No one getting painfully tazed worked for him.

Jasper limped up then with Phil and Rossi, and they all stood together for a long moment, simply watching the weirdness. Most of the rest of the Avengers wandered over, with Skye, Darcy, and the civilians who’d helped with the herding. Sam and their doctors, including Bruce, were carrying field medic bags and wearing tees with the medic symbols on them, with jeans and boots. The whole crowd had a friendly ‘go team, we did it’ feel to it. Steve needed to go give some sincere thanks there, though it appeared the other Avengers had remembered their manners for once and were being friendly and thankful with whatever civilians were near them. Darcy was in a group, all of them trading stories about raising sheep for something called “Four H” in high school, lots of laughter there.

“Now what?” Rossi asked.

“Fucked if I know,” Tony answered without thinking, then winced a little, probably over his own language. “Clint could shoot them all, or we all could, we’ve got specialized ammo that makes them pixillate and disperse, but.” He jerked his head toward the enormous crowd of people taking photos, held back by members of the NYPD task force and what seemed like a few military guys helping out. “Fastest way to make a crowd go nuts, start shooting cute harmless animals. They’d see this as cute and harmless.”

“I’d rather we not have photos of the Avengers shooting adorable animals go viral on all social media platforms,” Phil told Rossi politely. “At least not unless a bigger risk presents itself.”

“Me either,” Darcy agreed, then added, “Darcy, PR wonk for the Avengers” to Rossi and shook his hand.

“Understood, and I can’t blame you,” Rossi agreed with both of them, then added, “good work with the broom, it got everyone else equipped with something, fast.”

Darcy kind of nod-shrugged. “We used fan rakes when I was a kid, but brooms are easier to find in the city, and even less conductive. At least these are small; once sheep get to be your own weight, managing them is a real ass pain.”

“How long do they last, without any interference?” Tony asked Jasper.

“We don’t know.”

All the Avengers turned to glare, and Rossi watched with very intelligent interest, Steve noticed.

“How the hell do you not know?” Darcy demanded. “We gave you an Aron and a Dieno. DID YOU VIVISECT ROCK?”

Jasper held up his hands for peace, because Darcy was pissed and she still had the broom. Thanks to her training with Nat (among others) she’d gone from holding it casually in one hand to holding it like a quarterstaff, and Rossi had also noticed that. Steve thought they had a smart cop on their hands, one who wanted peace and would actively work with them to achieve it, so hey, finally someone they could call when they needed assistance, who would actually ASSIST. That would be nice.

“The Dieno beat itself to death against the containment cube before the agents even got it back to base,” Jasper tried explaining. “They’d called ahead, we were going to try sedating it.”

“I am definitely punching the shit who is doing this,” Tony told Steve, then said to Rossi, “I’m sending what data I have – sort of a dash cam vid of the incident, recording of my helmet visuals – to your phone.”

“My thanks,” Rossi said easily, pulled out his phone to click through. “So the giant spider on the Queensboro wasn’t the first one of these.”

“No,” Darcy answered for them. “The first we know of was a cute little Aron at the beginning of June, that we handed off to SHIELD.” She clicked around on her comm and held it up for Rossi to see. Of course she’d taken a selfie with the thing, she had her arm around it and her head laying on it as it ate a wrench. At least the photo demonstrated the thing was pretty harmless.

“We didn’t know about the task force then,” Steve added. “Now that we do, we’ll notify you of any other weird stuff happening in the city, since apparently SHIELD doesn’t.”

Rossi nodded, went back to his vid of the Dieno.

“He was sweet and harmless other than eating steel which was not his fault, so we handed him off to SHIELD for safety and WHAT DID YOU DO TO HIM,” Darcy snarled at Jasper.

Jasper winced. “One of the techs fed it titanium to see what would happen.”

“AND?” Darcy answered.

“It, uh, choked a couple times, fell over, then pixillated and disappeared,” Jasper admitted.

“YOU KILLED ROCK,” Darcy shouted.

“THEY WHAT?” Skye shouted from about thirty yards away, and stalked over with her own broom now held as a weapon.

Rossi paused the Dieno vid to watch this with interest.

“The Aron was pretty cute and harmless, and none of the support staff wanted to donate him to science,” Tony explained, and Rossi nodded. “He was eating wrenches, though, so we could hardly turn him loose in a city of high-rises. In retrospect we should have kept him and let him snack on an engine block or something. In the future, if it’s something harmless, we’ll just keep it contained.”

Rossi nodded agreement with that.

“I was NOT involved!” Jasper told both angry women. “The tech was reprimanded and put on leave and-”

“And we have no idea what the lifespan of these things is because so far we’ve killed all of them.” Tony finished.

“Looks like, yeah,” Jasper admitted.

Steve was pretty sure the only reason Jasper hadn’t gotten a good thump with a broomstick was because he was considered wounded already.

“Well, won’t this be fun,” Tony sighed.

“I’ll call in more crowd control,” Rossi agreed, and stepped away to do so. He paused. “Just so you know, there’s a lot of buzz about your comms specialist. Call sign Badass,” he smiled, “that’s going to make anyone curious. Then he shut down every bit of chatter with one quick rant at Hawkeye. It was impressive. You can let him know, if he’s ever tired of this job, I’ll hire him myself.”

Great. Klein was going to have an anxiety attack at the idea of being made public. “You realize we have to keep our support staff anonymous for their own safety,” Steve explained politely.

“Oh, absolutely,” Rossi nodded agreement. “I’d do the same in your place. I’m just warning you – there are going to be questions. A lot of people heard him, and a lot of people saw the Avengers behave after. That’s not something that happens every day.”

Jasper sighed, told Rossi “I know who it is, he’ll turn inside out if he’s made public. We’ll issue a statement.”

“Of course,” Rossi said easily.

Steve was enjoying a smart, cooperative cop.

“No, the AVENGERS will be issuing a statement,” Phil informed them all.

Chapter Text

Early the next morning, Phil took a deep breath, then stepped up to the podium they’d put up in the little park outside the executive entrance to the Tower. “I am here to make a brief statement, then will deny questions.” He wasn't kidding. If they still asked questions after his statement he was going to be rude.

The media laughed. They had a lot to learn.

“A transcript was leaked of the incident yesterday, and there has been some curiosity about the identity of the person using the call sign 'Badass'.” Because of course there was. Why hadn't he thought? Of course the public would want to know who the hell was on comms named Badass WHO THE AVENGERS LISTENED TO. At least, as much as they listened to anyone. “Badass is obviously a call sign, given to a private citizen who works for the Avengers Initiative, running communications for us. He is a trained tech, a good one. Not a superhero. He was hired from SHIELD, where his service record was exemplary. In fact he was hired on the basis of his work there. We consider him a great asset to our team, deeply respect him, and would appreciate everyone's understanding that he doesn't want to be a public figure.” Klein had been completely nonplussed at the reaction to his call sign and his demand that the Avengers shut the hell up already. (They had. He was legendary; varying government branches had all called with job offers, identity unknown.) He’d also had to put his head between his knees and breathe for ten minutes at the idea of being a public figure.

Phil glared at the gathered reporters like a dare. Go ahead, ask a question after he'd demanded privacy. One brave woman in the front raised her hand. Damn it. Phil was pretty sure she was the same woman who’d dared Steve to elaborate on the ‘stolen from Africa’ theme of his speech at the Wakandan Embassy.

He let himself sigh, then pointed at her and said politely, “Yes?”

“Who gave him the call sign?”

Fuck. He reminded himself truth was good.

Klein was going to kill him. Or faint. “Mr Shostakov.”

“The Winter Soldier,” the reporter clarified. She was good. Damn it. “The Winter Soldier decided to call this person ‘Badass’.”

“...yes.” Phil admitted.

All hell broke loose, wanting to know what the guy had done to impress the Winter Soldier.

Sorry, Klein. It’s what you get for being a badass.

- A -

Exactly twenty-four hours after they’d appeared (by JARVIS’ reckoning) all the mareep turned to vapor and disappeared from the Meadow.

“Thank all that is holy, I shall nap right here,” Thor commented, and fell backward from a seated to a laying position.

“Generating lightning, other forms of electricity, is tiring,” Jane explained, picking up a bag of blankets, pillows, and assorted snacks she’d brought over. She’d been sitting in a lawn chair for about two hours, waiting for something to happen so she could take care of Thor.

Tony had stepped out of his armor to sit next to her, on the grass, and now stood up with her. “I’d think. Energy’s gotta come from somewhere.”

Jane nodded as she finished gathering her things. “From how he’s explained it, a bolt of lightning is a half-assed, low effort fifty yard dash for someone really fit. This would have been about three marathons in a row.”

Tony stood, picked up the chair, and followed along, setting it down near Thor.

Jane lifted Thor’s head gently – looked like a heavy lift – and put a pillow under it, tossed a fleece blanket over him.

“Thank you, my lady,” Thor mumbled, two-thirds asleep. Jane sat on the ground next to him, and Thor wrapped an arm around her.

“Drink something before you sleep,” Jane told him gently. None of them had been able to get food or drink or anything through the force field for over twenty hours.

Thor leaned up on an elbow, slugged back three cherry Gatorades in quick succession, then flopped back down.

Rossi came over, a little weirded out by the armor, which had followed Tony across the field, clearly empty of a human inside it. “I’ll keep the area cordoned off for the day,” he told Tony and Jane. “The City of New York thanks you for your assistance, Prince Thor,” he called a little more loudly.

Thor made a flowery hand gesture, still flat on his back. “Of course. Can’t tolerate danger to children, can we?” Then pulled Jane against his side and conked out, light snores coming from him.

Against Thor, Jane looked impossibly tiny.

Jane grinned up at them, pulled out her comm, put it on her chest, then pulled out a StarkTab and propped it on her bent knees. “I’ll stay here, keep an eye out. He’ll recharge in a couple hours, at least enough to get home.”

“Call if you need anything,” Tony told her, and she nodded. They’d already decided it would be easier to let Thor sleep there than try and haul him home in an ambulance. Guy weighed about four hundred pounds; apparently his muscles were super dense and Jem had done scans and thought there was iron in his bones. Iron, not the stuff in human blood that used a few iron molecules.

“I’ll put the police officers at your disposal, Ms-?” Rossi told her.

“Doctor Jane Foster,” Jane said, with a polite smile.

Tony saw recognition at the name, good.

“Nice meeting you, Doctor Foster, we’ll leave you in charge.”

Rossi and Tony walked across the Meadow together, back where Rossi’s disaster-center HQ van sat on the road. He looked back at the armor once as it followed.

“Don’t worry, it’s trained to do that,” Tony said easily. He liked referring to the armor like a pet, it either put people at ease, or weirded them out enough to back off. Either worked.

“All right then,” Rossi said. He handed Tony a stack of business cards. “Please get these to Director Coulson, Captain Rogers, Badass, and anyone else you consider relevant.”

“Will do,” Tony took them, offered one of his own in return. “Call the number on the back at any time, that’s my assistant PA, he takes over when Darcy’s not available.” They were being careful not to use Darcy’s full name.

“My thanks.” Rossi held out his hand. “It was an honor and a pleasure to work with all the Avengers, please let them know, Doctor Stark.”

Well that attitude sure made a nice change. Tony shook his hand. “Thanks. It was a pleasure to work with a division of the police who seemed to get the point, for us, too.”

Rossi rolled his eyes and said “yeah, I saw Captain Rogers’ tweet the other day. Best of luck with the Commissioner.” He gave one last wave and away he went in his rolling office.

Tony stepped into the armor. “J, can you use the comm and StarkTab to make sure everything’s okay with Jane and Thor?”

“I am already monitoring.”

And thank goodness, that clusterfuck was over. He took off for home.

- A -

Steve had just finished a quick meet in Phil’s office over the press conference; Klein was there as well, head between his knees, doing yoga breathing. Steve had clapped a hand on his shoulder – Klein jumped, he felt bad about that – and told him he’d done well, especially getting Clint to shut up. That had gotten a giggle aimed toward the floor, at least.

He was leaving Phil’s office, to swing through his own and check his physical in box before going upstairs to paint, when-

“Captain Rogers?” Someone said behind him.

He turned, and two young men, wide-eyed, were standing in the hall, holding hands. The smaller one, he knew. “Hi, Chris!” he went over, shook his hand. “Come on, we shared a cell together, I think we’d be at first names.”

“Steve,” Chris said then, smiling. “This is Conor, my life mate.”

The taller man beside him blinked a couple times and held a hand out cautiously. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sir. Thanks for whatever you did to get us jobs.”

Steve had to laugh, ushered them back into his needlessly large office (he let Pepper design it; she did, and told him to put art on the walls), got them seated in his ‘conversation area’ he now saw a purpose for, with sodas all around. “It wasn’t me,” he told them. “You got hired on your own merit. We have a policy of running background checks on everyone the Avengers bump into, and both of you have great job histories doing things we need done around here.” He smiled a little at Conor, who seemed much more intimidated than Chris. “Have you met Darcy yet? She’s been doing our PR, and when she heard we’d found someone who passed the background check, she threw confetti.”

Conor blinked a little more. “Really? I met her, and she insisted she was happy to have me, but I feel like I took her job.”

“Darcy was really hired as Tony’s PA and to run the specialty labs. She got stuck with the PR because she grew up on social media, more than anything else, and she’s complained she felt unqualified the entire time she’s done it, though we were happy with how she did the job. I’m told it’s not so much we needed to find someone in PR, we needed someone in PR who could pass the background check, handle a space prince, me, Tony Stark, a couple assassins, a circus act, famous scientists… you get the idea.”

“He’s super excited about the challenge,” Chris told Steve.

That sounded VERY promising.

“And our head researcher here, he asked to have some assistance; he thinks he does best with a work partner, and he may be right. He’s done some other great work, assisting people with their own research. So after we saw the website you guys did, we thought we found the right people.”

Both smiled back, still a little in shock.

“In fact, has anyone given you an assignment yet?” he asked Chris.

“No. Conor’s going to be going over the usual stuff, to get a handle on things. Mostly I’m supposed to chat with someone named Jarvis? Doctor Stark’s PA who has agoraphobia, likes phones and e-mail?”

So that’s how they were playing that for now. Great idea. “JARVIS is amazing, he’s the researcher who asked for an assistant. We all consider him part of the team, and he has great data-processing skills. If you two want to do some sort of experimental research, get to know each other, see what you can dig up on the Shostakovs, Bolshoi dancers from during the Cold War. Probably Alexei and Natalia.” The Lindy Hop Champion, lead dancer (and choreographer!) for the Bolshoi goddamn Ballet. His mother would have had kittens.

Chris had a phone out, was taking notes. “Usual spelling on Shostakov, in English?”

“I think so,” Steve allowed. He hadn’t really thought about it. He was still getting used to two of his best friends having decades of history together. With him under, it shouldn’t have mattered one way or another, but somehow it did.

Bucky, married to Natasha. His mind still reeled when he thought about it. He hadn’t asked Bucky how HE felt, and Bucky hadn’t volunteered any info.

Maybe he’d talk to Sam. The shrinks at SHIELD had always wanted to talk about his ‘temporal displacement’. (He’d sung the ‘I’m psychologically stable’ song and gotten out as fast as possible.) Sam was good at listening, and didn’t offer bullshit advice. Often he didn’t offer advice at all, just commiserated. For some reason that worked really well.

Chris nodded, obviously happy to have a direction. “Will do. They’re letting me and Conor share an office, we’ll go get started.”

They all stood. “It’s great to have you here,” he told them both, sincerely, and kind of smiled at the ongoing shock on their faces.

He was damned curious about what Chris would dig up, and they might be able to use it for PR at some point. Even if not, Bucky or Nat might appreciate the photos.

Or have a brawl. Things were really on edge between them right now. And there had been knife-throwing before she even remembered the partnership. Everyone was staying out of the way.

He’d just gotten upstairs to Sam’s place to paint, when JARVIS dinged. “Captain Rogers, there is a Captain DeSoto on the line for you.”

Steve froze, brush in one hand, palette in the other. DeSoto. “Jog my memory, please, JARVIS.” It was a line Tony used a lot, and with luck-

“He is in charge of the uniformed officers at the Twelfth Precinct.” Bless JARVIS. And bless Tony for creating him.

Oh, right. DeSoto. That guy. Steve stared at JARVIS' pickup, thinking.

“Do you need anything, Captain?” JARVIS said, because he was amazing.

“I'm considering my approach. Can you put him through to my cell phone?”

“Of course.”

A pause, and Steve's phone rang. “Rogers.” If this guy thought-

“This is Captain DeSoto, Captain Rogers. Thank you for taking my call.”

Steve waited.

After an awkward pause, DeSoto continued, “I was asked to set up a meeting with you, Mister Stark, and Agent Romanov, for Commissioner Kelley.”

It was taking all Steve's energy to keep Sam, Clint, Thor, and Darcy from pranking the hell out of the NYPD for their behavior in the last six weeks. (Bucky had promised to stay in the building, but was feeding the others ideas.) Steve tazed and arrested, Natasha accused of prostitution by a skeeze (useful word learned from Darcy) on the force, and then the shouted phone call after the Equality for All protest. During which Steve had not broken any laws; it was still legal to tell a cop they were a disgrace. He’d checked.

Sharon had gone through the precinct with hob-nailed boots and the Wrath of Carter after the go-round with Natasha, and insisted everything had been straightened out and there would be no further problems. From the smile on Sharon's face when she'd said it, Steve was fairly sure her idea of 'straightened out' meant 'so terrified they won't bother you'.

Then she’d done that interview about Stop and Frisk, ending it by calling it a ‘gross violation of constitutional and civil rights’.

Carter women. Fear them.

“Really.” Steve said neutrally to DeSoto, whom he’d left hanging on the phone in dead silence for a few minutes.

Sam poked his head out of his laundry room like a squirrel scenting nuts.

“Yes.” There was a long, long pause. “May I speak off the record for one moment?”

Steve pulled his phone away from his ear and gave it a look, held it back up (Sam laughed). “Sure.” HE wouldn't be speaking off the record to the NYPD any time soon, but this guy could chatter like a magpie if he wanted.

“The Commissioner won't let me suspend the officer who tazed you. And the one who tried to assault Agent Romanov is the Commissioner's nephew. Any charges against him go nowhere. You called him a disgrace. You were right.”

DeSoto must be pretty damned irritated to rat out his boss like this.

There was a lot of that going around.

Steve hadn't been ready to cut anyone any slack whatsoever, but this sounded like the guy was ready to throw his boss to the wolves. He could work with that. “All right. I'll transfer you to Stark's assistant, you can schedule a meeting when we're all free. Give me a moment.”

“Thank you.”

“Mm.” Before Steve could do anything else, JARVIS made a 'holding' tone and his phone went to mute.

“Where would you like the call transferred, Captain Rogers? It would delight me to send it to Ms Potts. She's very busy right now.”

Steve laughed. “No, she's the CEO, I've got a better idea. Can you get Darcy for me?”

“Very good, Captain.”

A ding. “Yo, Steveo. Whatcha need?” Darcy demanded a second later.

“I need Tony Stark's PA.”

She huffed a laugh. “I might have one of those around here somewhere. What's up?”

“The Commissioner of the NYPD wants to talk to me, Tony, and Natasha about our experiences with the Twelfth Precinct. It's Captain DeSoto on the phone, doing his boss' work and subtly throwing him under the bus.”

“Oh yeah, I can DEFINITELY take this call.”

“Don't be too Darcy about it, okay? I think he's trying to work with us.”

“Really.”

“He said that he's not allowed to suspend the guy who tazed me, meaning he tried, and he called the crap with Natasha an attempted assault. And gave us the intel that the guy who moved on Nat is the Commissioner’s nephew. His brain might be in the right place.”

“I'm not being polite.”

None of the women around here ever really followed his orders. No one did, but the women in particular were completely uninterested in it, and didn’t hesitate to let him know. “Fine, just don't be beyond the pale. I know you. Schedule the meeting and keep it purely professional, you can work a lot of rude into it. You're resourceful.”

That got him a belly laugh. “Fine. It's like you know me. Put him through.”

It wound up scheduled the next day, after breakfast. It probably could have been right then, but Darcy.

- A -

It was nearing five o’clock and Tony in his playboy days had never looked forward to end of business more. The entire day had been chaos, media calling for comments on Equality for All, cartoon sheep, Captain America’s shield, you name it. At five on the dot he was rolling everyone’s phones IN THE ENTIRE BUILDING to voicemail and encouraging movies and snacks for the night.

JARVIS spoke. “Sir. I have concerns about Ms Lewis.”

Tony’s head whipped around, and Darcy was out at her desk as usual, but-

She had her head down, face covered with a hand, while she held a phone to her ear. Every bit of body language was sad and droopy, and that was unacceptable. “Who is on the phone?”

“Her mother. Ms Lewis has been dodging calls from her for weeks, but things got especially intense after the Equality for All march when Ms Lewis was all over the media. After the mareep, Mrs Lewis called every fifteen minutes, all night and into today. I took the calls, but she informed me this last time she would be coming to New York if I didn’t put the call through, so I did.”

Shit. This looked bad. Tony didn’t know what to do. “What’s the gist of the call?” Sure, it was eavesdropping. Well. Outright spying. But she was his PA and she looked so… sad. She ran his life, smoothly. In his view, it was only right to try to return the favor, paycheck or not.

“To summarize, Ms Lewis is to quit consorting with ‘freaks’, genetic, gendered, and racial slurs I will not repeat, and get her… backside… back to the hills where it belongs and quit shaming her parents and having ideas of being better than she is, or she’ll be disowned by her entire family. No explanation on who exactly the freaks are, but the racism and bigotry are very clear so I assume we’re all unacceptable. A quick search shows the Lewises, senior, are members of several of the newly-formed xenophobic anti-Asgard groups, as well as longstanding members of several hate groups against mutants, people of color, and immigrants.”

That would be awkward when they found out about the vinur thing. Tony was moving before he even thought, was at Darcy’s desk, took the phone out of her hand without asking. “Who the hell is this?” he demanded.

“AnneMarie Lewis. Who the hell is this?” a smoke-roughened, mean voice demanded on the other end.

“Tony Fucking Stark,” he said without thinking about it. “First and only warning, quit harassing my PA or I’ll sue your hair off.”

“It’s my daughter and I’ll say whatever I want. She’s to get away from all you freaks and come home.”

‘Freak’ was probably the nicest thing he’d ever been called by someone who hated him. Certainly the least hurtful. “Come home to what? Your shit attitude? Here she’s appreciated, respected, gets a solid paycheck, there’s not a single bigot or asshole in the area.”

There was a literal growl. “Tell her she has one month to decide if she’s a plaything to freaks or a real person and get her ass home. If she stays she has no family.”

That was when Tony lost it. “The hell she doesn’t. She has US. She sure as hell has family, right here.”

The asshole hung up on him.

Tony slammed the phone down, and with it reality caught up. Oops. He turned to Darcy, still sitting next to him. “Hey, sorry about that… I can call back and apologize after I calm down if that-”

Darcy stood and flung her arms around him, mashing her face into his chest with a single sob.

Well, hell.

Tony did as Pepper had directed him years ago, in a lesson on how to deal with crying women. He put his arms around her and rubbed her back. “You do have family here, you know. I mean not only has Thor literally adopted you, but the rest of us would be lost without you. And as my PA, well, in my mind you’re mine. Pepper’s precedent aside, you don’t have to date me. You’re invaluable. And a friend.”

Darcy nodded into his chest. The way she was breathing, he could tell she was working hard at not bursting into tears.

Shit, he hoped his tee shirt wasn’t completely disgusting with grease and metal shavings.

Sam sort of exploded off the elevator, Steve behind him, and everyone in the specialty lab came piling out. “JARVIS tagged me,” Sam explained. “What’s wrong?”

Tony opened his mouth, considered what rude things he’d say about Darcy’s mother, and shut it again.

Darcy took a deep breath, stepped back a little, rubbed her face. “Thank you,” she told Tony in a wavery voice.

“Any time. Any. I mean it.”

That got him another hug. He rubbed her back some more and kissed the top of her head without thinking. Well, no one frowned so that was okay.

“Your mom?” Jane asked, making things easy.

Darcy nodded, face still in his shirt. He REALLY hoped it wasn’t gross.

Apparently Darcy had been sharing with someone, that was good.

Team Delta had appeared from somewhere, all three looking ready to deploy on Darcy’s word, and Barnes was lurking near the stairwell, intent, wearing his arm and his weapon harness.

Darcy looked at all of them, grabbed a kleenex, and blotted her eyes. “Y’all are the best.”

Thor pushed past Barnes at the stairwell. “What has happened?” He said it in a ‘who do I kill’ tone of voice that Tony could get behind.

“Mom finally got through,” Darcy said.

Jane hugged her from the side that Tony wasn’t leaning on, and damn, Jane was tiny. Thor swept up and hugged all three of them, Tony included.

“My thanks for your assistance,” Thor told Tony.

“Hey, she’s your vinur, but she’s my PA, and a good friend to every damn one of us,” Tony answered, and Thor beamed at him.

Kate shoved off the elevator then, demanding to know what was going on, so she could tell Pepper, who’d also gotten the word from JARVIS. Kate looked ready to shoot someone.

“Did you tell everyone?” Darcy asked the sensor panel nearest her desk.

“Of course,” JARVIS replied. “Is there anything I can do? I would take great pleasure in re-routing all their mail to Alaska.”

Darcy, with tears still in her eyes, laughed.

- A -

At Darcy’s request, they all ate dinner first, so she could have some time to level off. Since she was very clearly upset, everyone agreed, and Steve helped Clint cook dinner as fast as possible. “You have any idea?” Steve asked Clint under his breath. He was peeling vegetables; Clint was doing everything else. He needed cooking lessons.

Clint did a head shake/shrug combo. “Jane has mentioned that Darcy’s parents aren’t just in the hills, they live up to the stereotypes. Beyond that, I got nothin’.”

Steve figured that meant the ‘freaks’ Tony had mentioned, was directed toward all of them.

Dinner was kind of quiet, people tried to talk about other things. Steve brought up the meeting with Commissioner Kelley in the morning, and they did a half-assed strategy session, during which he watched Darcy’s shoulders go from up around her ears to her normal posture.

Pepper caught his eye; she saw it too.

After, they all got herded into the common area, and Darcy sat down. Before she knew it, Kate plopped on one side and Jane sat on the other, and she grinned a little, leaned her head on one shoulder, then the other. “You guys are the best.”

“Tell us what we can do, milaya,” Nat said gently, as gently as Steve had ever heard her speak to someone other than a child. Steve had no doubt that if Darcy wanted someone’s legs broken or a body produced, Natasha would say ‘no problem,’ nod, and do it, no further questions.

“Not much,” Darcy admitted. She took a deep breath, a swig of tea. “I’m the fourth of five children. The four oldest are girls. My little brother, Eddie, he was the goal. I grew up knowing the only reason I or my older sisters existed, is because we weren’t the boy they wanted, yet.”

Steve felt the entire mood of the room darken, took some comfort in Kate and Jane leaning into Darcy on either side.

Darcy looked at Thor, then at Bucky. “I know you’ve both wondered why I was never afraid of you.”

Both men nodded. “You’re a little scary, doll,” Bucky added.

Apparently Darcy had taken to wandering into the Hulk Tank while he was there, to chat, as soon as he got the okay from Xavier. Bucky had actually asked Steve if she was sane, at one point; he couldn’t believe she knew his history and didn’t care.

That made Darcy smile a little, good. “Physical violence is nothing to me. I mean, I grew up with it. Bashing your spouse around is just a regular Friday night in the hills. Compared to your ‘loved ones’ beating on you? Two enormous guys who otherwise seem okay, never hurt anyone, are friendly? That’s easy. That’s nothing. But I knew from day one, my parents literally did not care if I lived or died. It’s a damned weird way to grow up. All else aside, it was just weird. My older sisters raised me, from as early as I can remember. Got me up for school, made sure I ate, all that. My parents didn’t give a shit about them, didn’t give a shit about me.” She stared into her tea for a long while.

Everyone in the room knew this was difficult for her, so they waited more patiently than their usual.

“Well, my sisters, they’re great. I love them. Dearly. But they aren’t intellectual powerhouses. Great people, not dumb, but not smart enough for full scholarships out of the hellscape. All three of them married early to get the fuck out of the house, but I’ll give them credit, they did choose good men to get the fuck out with. One’s with her husband in the military, stationed in San Diego. The other two live in town, try to shield my brother, Eddie, from all the shit our parents dump on him.”

“How old is he?” Pepper asked gently, and Steve KNEW she was thinking about age of majority and legalities.

“Seventeen,” Darcy answered. “He wants to finish his senior year with his friends, then he’s going to go to San Diego or here. Our parents don’t know he’s planning to bail, they think he’s going to stay and become a mechanic or something and take care of them the rest of their lives, carry on the family name. He wants to be an industrial chemist and has the grades to make it happen. They’ve told him he’s not allowed to go to college.”

Everyone sort of blinked. In this crowd, refusing an education bordered on obscene.

“My sisters realized I was smart, early on. Smarter than they were. So they encouraged me to use that, get a scholarship, get out. So I did. Got the hell out, stayed out. They slipped me what money they could, I worked a couple jobs, and once I left for college I never went back again. But my parents seem to think that even though they never gave a fuck about me, and there are thousands of Lewises in the country, what I do reflects directly on them.” She laughed a little. “It kind of does. They are getting infinite shit from their racist friends because their daughter was at an Equality for All Protest, on the side of the black people and mutants. Me leaving in the arms of a space alien really made things hostile.”

“Good,” Jane said fiercely.

“They’re also part of the newly formed zealot groups, of course,” Darcy said with an eye-roll. “News goes public that I’m adopted into Thor’s household, there won’t be any month long wait to disown me, they’ll denounce me to the entire town, on the spot.”

“What do your siblings think?” Sam asked.

“They all think it’s great, what I’ve told them. All five of us are in communication regularly but I’ve explained there’s a lot I can’t say, for security purposes. Eddie’s having a hell of a time not bragging at school, it’s just him and his best friend who know I’m working as Tony Stark’s PA and know all of you. My sisters know a little more, but not that I live here, in the Tower, and hang out with all of you. They think I met Thor through Jane, then the rest of you through them and somehow got hired on as Tony’s PA that way. No clue about the vinur thing, that I’m adopted into Thor’s family.”

“By our laws,” Thor allowed, “they have all been adopted as well.”

Darcy stared a moment, then laughed, a little horrified. “Oh my god, they’ll shit bricks.”

There was a long silence.

“What do you want us to do?” Clint finally asked.

Steve knew, if Darcy had asked for an all-Avengers circus act on her parents’ front yard, Clint would make it happen.

Hell, Steve would go and do his dancing monkey routine.

Darcy sort of nodded to herself a little. “My birthday’s not too far off from the Summer Ball. I’m definitely not going back to that shithole to rot, so I’ll wind up disowned next month. Can we make the Ball a giant ‘Darcy and the Avengers’ middle finger to the entire goddamn town?”

“We shall make it so, my vinur,” Thor announced, deadly serious and clearly taking an oath. He stood and bowed.

“It’ll be great, I have some ideas,” Clint told her.

Darcy laughed, genuinely, and Steve knew then it would be okay.

“This really is a family, you know, and you’re an important part of it,” Sam added.

After that there was a whole lot of hugging, and Darcy was visibly more relaxed after. They decided on a movie night, and wound up watching a movie, murder mystery, with three different endings. When shown in the theaters, it had been a random chance, what ending you got. Apparently it was one of Darcy’s favorites, she talked through the movie, bits of information about the different actors and how it was made.

Steve voted in favor of more “Darcy movie nights”, along with everyone else.

That also made her smile.

Chapter Text

The next morning, preparing for the meeting with the Commissioner, Darcy put on her favorite of the suits she had gotten from Keep. It was slacks and a jacket in navy chalk-stripe, simple and perfectly fitted. Under it, instead of a shirt, she put on one of the vests. She chose one of questionable cut, dark red brocade the color of Thor's cape and just a little too skimpy for daytime business. That was followed with deep red nail polish and matching lipstick, hair loose and curling in all directions, and flat shoes ‘cause her feet still hurt some. Nothing like they should have, whatever foul-smelling gunk Betty had given her to use on them, had worked miracles. But they were still a little sore.

“Good.” Kate nodded. “Wear these.” She held out two enormous ruby studs, at least five carats each. Darcy had been flipping through web sites, getting an idea of carats and cuts and now fully understood why Tony had been so interested in the stones on her necklace. Nothing remotely like them existed on Earth.

With nano-tech, Thor said they were super easy to make, diamonds. The raw material was everywhere, you just stacked up each atom into a three dimensional grid and you had a diamond. That’s why Asgardians used them for jewelry; not value, but durability.

“Where in hell did you get those?” Darcy gasped, not touching the earrings.

“Stole them from my step-monster. I grabbed them a couple weeks ago when my dad bitched until I went over for dinner. Take 'em, you're much more deserving.”

“I can't just -”

“She thinks she lost them, insurance is paying out. Insurance deserves to lose money, too. We'll get them re-set when we're done here and she'll never know. You need earrings to go with that necklace, my friend.”

Darcy gave up, and put the earrings in. Then she put her hair up so they could be seen.

After yesterday’s shit-fest with her mother, Darcy hadn’t slept too well. Kate had heard her wandering around at two in the morning and gotten up and they’d talked about fathers some, then taken a vow of sisterhood that meant more than Darcy could say. Knowing that Kate stole for her, before the shit with her mother even went down? Well, she should disapprove, but she was touched.

She went back to her makeup bench, lined her eyes with gold liner and put on even redder lipstick, because once she hit a couple hundred carats in gemstones she felt her makeup should be dramatic, daytime be damned.

“Perfect.” Kate nodded in satisfaction. “Thank goodness for Keep. We need to tip them more. And Natasha helped you pick out most of your clothes, right? We should do something for her.”

“More tee shirts. No one but us buys them for her.” Any time they’d found anything amusing on a tee shirt, the last couple weeks, they’d bought it and given to Nat. And she wore them.

“We can do that.”

“Fuck yeah.” They bumped fists and went off to raise merry hell with the NYPD.

For Captain America.

Darcy fucking loved her life. Sam had been right last night; her family was here, and it was where she belonged.

- A -

Nat was in the lobby, wearing one of her suits from Westwood with the tiny waist and the spilling-over boobs, and the highest heels she could fight in, which was about six inches including the platforms. (A little Russian man in Brighton Beach made them for her, custom.) The Commissioner was due any second and she was going to meet him and show him upstairs to the public conference room. And subtly intimidate the shit out of them every step of the way.

“Hey, Nat.”

She turned and Darcy was grinning at her, in full Vinur majesty. “Hi.” She let herself smile at Darcy, let herself drop her guard a little. Last night’s revelations had made her feel extremely protective. No, the abuse hadn’t been nearly the same as what she herself had dealt with, but knowing that she, Darcy, and Kate had all grown up in abusive situations made Natasha wonder if that’s why or how they’d clicked together as friends. Either way, they were the first real girl friends she’d had, and she valued them. “Nice earrings.”

Darcy smiled a little. “Kate stole them from her step-mother.”

Of course Kate stole them. “They look good.”

“We're gonna get the stones reset, you should come along. I don't know shit about that stuff.”

Natasha took a long, deep breath, and let it back out again. This was what having friends was like. Girl friends, with jewelry and makeup and fuss, not the hell-raising badassery she shared with Clint and Phil. That had been the only kind of friendship she was capable of understanding when Clint brought her in, and barely that. Sad that she was only now discovering this new camaraderie, but at least she was able to know what a blessing it was, appreciate them fully. She sounded like Sam. “That sounds fun.”

“Know any good jewelers?”

“Oh yes, darling, we'll hook you up. Many would give a finger to get to work with those rubies. They'll definitely work for free if you let them examine the necklace in trade. You have a lot to learn, and you have us to teach you.” She knew someone in Paris, and it would be fun to take Darcy and Kate for the weekend some time. Maybe Pepper could come along; after the Null training had begun, she’d begun feeling some kinship for Pepper, too.

Again, it would never be the same, thankfully. But Pepper had been kidnapped and experimented on. She understood.

She hated that so many of the women here had been abused in some way or other, but it made her life so much easier, not having to explain the horror of her own past. They didn’t know, couldn’t know the extensive violence, but they had the imagination to realize it was there, and the background to be compassionate about it.

“Cool. Should we-” Darcy broke off, straightened up, and took on the ‘Thor’s Vinur’ persona that Nat would have to compliment later. Kelley entered with an entourage. PA, Captain DeSoto, a couple cops who were probably security.

She wondered if the cops were there for actual security, or a show of force, or an attempt at intimidation. If they were going for intimidation, that was very… amusing.

“I have my tazer. And my necklace.” Darcy said softly.

So much for intimidating anyone; if Darcy wasn’t intimidated, the Avengers sure wouldn’t be. But it’d be entertaining. “Wait and see. We can ALWAYS taze them later. But if anything remotely harassing happens, take them down with prejudice. Stop short of permanent damage, otherwise make them think twice before they mess with another short chick with big boobs.”

Darcy hooted out a laugh and held out her fist.

Natasha considered everything the Red Room had taught her about image and tone and intimidation. Then she thought 'fuck them' and smiled and bumped Darcy's fist with her own.

“Agent Romanov. Thank you for meeting us.” Captain DeSoto stepped forward. “And...”

“Darcy Lewis, Vinur to Prince Thor.” Darcy shook his hand politely and gave a not-smile.

Everyone blinked and gave each other shifty eyes at that, not having any idea what the title meant, but afraid to offend a space alien.

Natasha and Darcy smiled vapidly and deliberately did not explain.

The Commissioner swept up then, now that the way had been paved, and nodded condescendingly to everyone. And you are?” Commissioner Kelley asked Natasha.

Natasha stared at him for a long, long moment, thought 'fuck it' again. She let herself laugh lightly, shook her head at him, then turned to DeSoto, ignoring everyone else. “If you could come this way, we're waiting in one of the Avengers conference rooms.”

Kelley's face went thunderous, all his minions looked half shocked and half terrified, and DeSoto didn't so much as blink. “Thank you, Agent Romanov.” DeSoto nodded politely. “After you.”

She led them over to the main elevator bank, put them on the largest one that went to the public Avengers floor. With a little extra sway in her walk, to give them something to think about. She loved when men stared at her ass. It meant they weren't looking at anything else.

Plus her ass was pretty goddamn magnificent, thank you very much.

- A -

“What the hell, you guys.” Steve demanded wearily. He'd arrived at the conference room to find it full. Of everyone. He’d expected the Avengers leadership, Natasha, and Bernie.

Tony had horned in of course, but all the Avengers, all the support staff, Pepper, several SI lawyers and Bernie, even Bucky. He was in one corner, his arms crossed over his chest in a very unwelcoming manner, his anti-face-recog glasses on. He’d healed, finally, and now moved smoothly, with a grace Steve was still getting used to. Partly ballet dancer, partly honed killer, Steve thought. Very much like Natasha. Neither of them were part of the guy he’d known, who grew up on the streets, worked on the docks, and then got drafted and became a sniper. That was new.

Every damn one of them was wearing whatever they had they considered most intimidating. Bucky looked exactly like a hit man for the Russian mob in one of Keep’s suits, which Steve privately admitted to himself was hilarious. It was deep blue, brought out the blue of his eyes, accented the blue-black of his hair. He’d gotten both ears pierced for some reason and wore small golden hoops, which made him look a lot like a pirate, particularly on days like today, when he pulled his hair back into a stubby tail.

Steve surveyed the rest of the room. “Take off the repulsor, Tony.”

“Aw, come ON. It's stuck on my hand, I was working on it just now and was in a hurry-”

“Nothing you ever build doesn't work. Take off the repulsor.”

“That's what YOU think.” Pepper laughed at him.

“No, seriously-”

“Tony.”

He grumbled, but he removed the repulsor and sat it on the table, pulled out some tiny tools, and started poking at it, proceeding to ignore everyone. He could probably convince everyone else he'd come straight from the shop, his hair was on end and he was in his usual beat-up work clothes. But Steve could still smell the soap and shampoo on him. Nice try.

All the support staff was wearing lab coats over button-downs and slacks, except for Skye. Skye was wearing her Avengers support uniform, black combat pants, black boots, and a black tee shirt, her hair scraped back and braided. Ready for a fight. Steve himself was wearing a suit that Pepper had purchased for him, and the newly lucky sapphire cuff-links she'd given him. Most everyone else was in very nice suits.

Clint was wearing ripped up jeans, work boots old enough to vote, a beat-up Black Widow tee shirt, and an old green hat with a gold deer on it. Natasha once called it 'his Deliverance routine' and Steve had tried to track down the pop culture reference but JARVIS refused to play the movie for him.

Steve knew he was missing something. A lot of something.

“Hi, sorry I'm late.” Sharon walked in wearing a knee-length blue skirt and a sleeveless collared shirt, with a tattoo of a baroque 13 on her left upper arm, and sat down near the head of the table. A handgun was visible, holster belted into the back of her skirt. He knew from Natasha, she was wearing shoes she could fight in.

“You're early.” Steve said.

“If you're on time, you're late.” That was an old Peggy-ism and they grinned at each other.

There was a discreet ding. “Kelley and his entourage have arrived.” JARVIS intoned, and flipped the security feed onto the wall screen.

Sharon immediately stood again, pulled a laser pointer from her pocket, and began identifying everyone on the elevator. The Commissioner, DeSoto, TWO aides (for a short meeting), an older woman in a suit Bernie identified as the department's legal counsel, and four cops.

“I assume they're for security.” Sharon rolled her eyes dramatically. “Since we're so dangerous. Including our old friend Soon To Be Former Officer Smith. Smith is a pseudonym, by the way. Shockingly, Kelley doesn't want anyone knowing they're related.” She rested the laser pointer on the one cop's face. “He's so adorable, he grew a beard and thinks he's in disguise.” She looked around the table at all of them. “Watch his jaw, it's still wired shut from when I broke it.”

Everyone burst out laughing.

Fantastic. Natasha was going to destroy that guy and Steve was going to wind up having to stop her. He hated that. She kicked his ass, sparring later, when he did that. And he was always rescuing a person who was scum to begin with.

Maybe this time he'd let her go off. Wasn't like she didn't know what she was doing.

“Strategy session.” Pepper announced, rising from the foot of the table. She pointed at Phil, Steve, and Sharon, and led them to a corner. Tony got up and joined them, uninvited, because of course he did. “If Smith is here, it’s to rub our noses in it. Kelley intends to keep him on the force.”

“Yes. When the current mayor took office, he entrenched his own position and is determined to remain in charge of the NYPD and in his view, the rest of the city. Really he’s been consolidating power since he took office in two thousand two. He's been very vocal about how we can all fuck off and quit telling him how to run the city. Not the NYPD, the city. His words.” Sharon nodded once. “Joining in on the protest last weekend has convinced him we’re all lawless scumbags to be treated accordingly. He’s said that publicly anyway. Really I’m sure he’s hated all of the Avengers since you appeared because you turn his power structure into chaos. Multiple mayors have tried to get him to follow the law or get rid of him. All have failed. I’ve been poking around, asking questions, and he’s also told the Mayor to go to hell. He’s out of control. Has been.”

“He'll be expecting Steve to take the lead on this, because Steve's Captain America, and if Kelley had that power he'd take over everything,” Pepper told them.

Steve snorted. Showed what an egomaniac the guy was. Only an insecure moron would want to be in charge. Of anything. It was definitely the worst part of the Cap gig. He wished everyone would just leave him alone and let him punch stuff, but no. They wanted ORDERS. And Bucky may develop amazing plans himself but whenever this sort of thing came up he'd laugh and tell him leadership was his problem. “Thoughts?”

Pepper smiled, sly. “Let the lovely, feminine, blonde woman from SHIELD take charge. It's an insult not to have Captain America negotiate with him as an equal. Steve sitting back and not engaging? He'll be angry. Right now Kelley’s desperately trying to gain the upper hand, and having us think he's so beneath us we won't even bother having who is in charge to talk to him? It's perfect. We've already got home field advantage and the fact that he's desperate enough to shut this down that he'd give it to us. Sharon can take the lead.”

“You're in charge.” Steve told her.

“Yes.” Pepper grinned this time. “But he doesn't know that. You're the figurehead, the public face, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and you can't be arsed to bother with him. Sharon will take the lead, and then Tony and I will step in as the opportunity presents. In fact, oh. Go. Change into your painting clothes, wait for us to call you. Eventually we’ll have you step in and lay down the law. The actual law.”

Steve looked at Pepper, Sharon, then Phil, who was grinning. “I've got an idea what Pepper has in mind.” Phil told him. “You're far too busy to bother with this. Then when we finally do call you in, he'll find out you're 'busy' painting.”

Steve laughed. “That'll be great.”

So he left.

It was so good to have a team he trusted at his back again.

- A -

Clint met them all at the 'vator, nodded dismissively at all the cops, and announced “we're in the conference room. Cap was busy.”

Without missing a beat, Darcy agreed, “yeah, he's got enough to do.”

Kelley was looking thunderous again. Natasha sensed Pepper's brilliant hand at work; thanks to her upbringing in Russia, she always forgot what an insult it was to have Captain America blow you off. He was dorky old Steve to her, and always would be; she lacked the respect the mythology demanded. (She’d never forget meeting him on the helicarrier that first day they all came together, and being so unimpressed; this was the big hero to save the day? A guy who couldn’t match his shirt and slacks? And then she learned.) Really, Steve might be the famous strategist, but when it came to business, Pepper ruled. Being Tony's PA for over a decade was a trial by fire, but after that, Pepper could do anything. Natasha respected the hell out of her abilities.

Darcy sailed into the conference room and Natasha decided that sounded good and did too, leaving the rest of their party in the hallway.

Natasha got herself to her seat before the cops came in, and she enjoyed the looks on everyone's faces when they walked in and realized they were facing down not only the Avengers, but Pepper Potts, a frowning Norse god, and a lot of other people they didn't know.

Curtain up.

- A -

Steve changed into his paint-stained, ripped jeans and tee shirt, left his shoes off with the reasoning it would be even more insulting and because he really did paint barefoot most of the time. He went to Sam’s office – the pub – that was on the same floor as the Avengers’ formal conference room and “JARVIS, please run the security feed from the meeting on the wall screen.”

“Of course,” JARVIS said politely, and Steve got full sound and a split screen from two cameras; one on each side of the room, so he could watch faces on both sides of the table. JARVIS was brilliant.

He burst out laughing.

Pepper – he saw her hand in this, maybe Natasha too, but Pepper was so brilliant at this stuff – had arranged everyone in such a way that there were empty seats scattered around the table. None of the NYPD representatives would be next to each other, couldn’t share quiet thoughts, without an Avenger or their support staff in the way. There was at least one Avenger next to every empty seat. Steve felt sort of sorry for whoever ended up next to Thor, who had his arms crossed over his chest and had done that thing he did that made him look twice as large as he looked when hanging out, laughing with them.

They filed in, and Kelley sat at the foot, facing Sharon across about twenty feet of table. Then along the large curves of the table (it had been custom made after the Sokovia debrief, with cramming several dozen people into a room again in mind), were four empty seats. Meaning none of the cops would have seats.

Kelley glared. “I need my aides and lawyer near me to consult them.”

No one spoke or moved.

Kelley was actively angry before anyone said anything, great work Pepper, and his people sat at the random seats around the table. If he was this easy to play, it was going to get lively.

Steve laughed again when the probably-lawyer sat next to Natasha, and the two aides landed next to Clint and Thor. DeSoto sat between Tony and Darcy. Tony grunted at his hello and continued to take apart the watch-looking repulsor in front of him.

“Your goons can stand. I am,” Bucky put in, and Kelley turned to snap something at him, his mouth was open. He did a double-take, probably realized it was the Winter Soldier looming there. He hunched up a bit, so he clearly knew who that was in the suit, leaning on the wall.

Steve continued to laugh as he watched as the cops station themselves around the room to have a view in all directions. Bucky smiled at them like they were all cute children, and the ones nearest him edged away a little. Steve dropped into one of the comfortable chairs at the pub’s main table, rolled it around for easier view of the screen, and waited.

On screen, everyone else was waiting, too. Sharon had taken the head of the table – he knew from playing poker that no one from the NYPD knew what to make of a SHIELD agent even being there, let alone taking charge. Pepper had her hands folded on top of a pad of paper next to her fountain pen, looking curious, yet silent. Everyone else had followed her lead with the paper version or data tablets and a stylus. Natasha was laid back in her chair like a jungle cat eyeing lunch, and Tony was hunched over his repulsor, pretending to be oblivious.

Phil was staring. His unblinking, unnerving, read your mind while figuring the best way to take you down stare, at Kelley.

After a couple beats, Kelley stupidly opened with “we’re here to discuss the Avengers’ continued behavior in New York, and arrest Rogers for his behavior at the Equality for All protest Saturday.”

Ah, that was going to be his power play. Arresting Captain America would clearly make Kelley more powerful than the Avengers and give him continued control of the city. In his mind anyway.

Steve considered strategies, ways to undermine Kelley, angles, and everything he’d learned from Darcy yelling at him about PR. She’d probably kill him for this. He pulled out his comm, opened Twitter. “JARVIS, let Pepper know I’m doing this.” Because he was sure that’s who was really in charge of this, no matter who was where at the table.

Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn @Cap
On June 9 of this year, I happened on a Stop and Frisk incident in lower Manhattan. I was on my way to Blick’s for a paint brush. I got as far as “Let’s talk about this” before the cop tazed me.

He sent a mental apology to Darcy and Conor, and hit ‘Tweet’.

About ten seconds later he got a text from Pepper, a laughing face and a thumb’s up.

On screen while he’d been doing this, Bernie asked “On what grounds do you intend to arrest Captain Rogers?”

“Unlawful assembly,” Kelley’s lawyer said.

“Really,” Bernie began, then dove into a list of things from the Constitution to local ordinances and half a dozen legal precedents. Steve tracked about half of it, but fully understood that the NYPD was going to have a hard time making any charges stick to him for the protest.

The NYPD lawyer’s mouth dropped open, then after a few “But… but…” noises, she glanced at Kelley, looked back at Bernie, and tried “The protesters didn’t have a permit.”

Which was pretty pitiful, on the face of it. Even Steve could see that. A couple thousand protesters without a permit, and they’re gonna arrest one guy. The one who happens to be the most famous. Yeah. Fantastic idea, that’d go over great with a jury. The media would love it, too.

Bernie countered with several pieces of paper slung contemptuously across the table at the lawyer, stating “Here are four attempts to attain a permit by Equality for All, all of them denied for no valid reason.”

“We don’t need a reason,” Kelley snapped. “We don’t want them in this city, they don’t get a permit.”

“That’s not how the law works,” Bernie replied, and started in with more codes, ordinances, legal precedents, and a few comments on Kelley’s racism.

Thankfully Darcy had showed him how to make a thread on Twitter. She’d probably regret it soon.

Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn @Cap
After I pulled the tazer contacts out of my chest, I gestured to the kid who’d been stopped and frisked, to run. He did. With no one else around to bother, the cop decided to arrest me. He slammed my head into the wall while he tried to cuff me.

 Naeem @NYMech
@Cap Holy shit, man, I didn’t even realize that was you. You look WAY different in casual clothes. Thanks for the save, sincerely.

Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn @Cap
@NYMech Absolutely any time. I hate bullies. Hope you’re okay.

Naeem @NYMech
@Cap I’m great but my Nana wants to bake you an apple pie.

Steve laughed and sent back that he loved apple pie, which led to a hilarious bunch of memes about what a cliché it was for Captain America to love apple pie. He explained they were impossible to get during the Great Depression and so anything like that was still a treat to him.

Then Food History Twitter (he hadn’t know there was such a thing) got involved, and discussions took off. It was the most socializing he’d ever done, and it was about pie.

On screen Pepper glanced at her phone, blinked, laid it back on the table next to her pad of paper, face down. She had a great poker face, but he could tell she was amused.

The back-and-forth between Bernie and the NYPD’s lawyer had continued, Bernie seemed to have a whole lot more to say than their lawyer, and as Steve looked up from his exchange, she finished with “I am more than happy to take this up as a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Equality for All, and unless things are resolved today, I will be doing so.”

Steve could tell from Kelley’s face this had all gone sideways on him; he’d come to take control of the Avengers (oh, if only that were possible), and instead been told a civil rights lawsuit was going to be filed against him and the NYPD, by a world-famous human rights attorney, on behalf of a major protest group.

Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn @Cap
I’d accidentally punched the cop when he tazed me. I really don’t like getting tazed, so it was reflexive. Proof of that is, he’s still alive. I pulled the punch. So I guess they had a right to arrest me, but they didn’t have to be assholes about it.

He hit Tweet, turned back to the drama on screen.

“Where the hell is Rogers?” Kelley demanded.

“Busy,” Tony said into his repulsor, with the same tone he used to say ‘asshole’. The asshole part was very heavily implied.

“We really saw no need to involve him in this,” Pepper said airily, nose in the air. Perfect tone.

Kelley was grinding his teeth and all his people were shifting around nervously; Steve found it very fascinating that they looked more afraid of Kelley than all the assassins and mutants they were surrounded by. “Get him in here, so we can settle this once and for all.”

“This?” Phil asked in his blandest don’t-give-a-damn voice.

Along the wall, Bucky was slowly edging toward the nearest cop, and the cop was clearly terrified and edging away. Steve knew him well enough to see the slight wrinkles at the corners of his eyes; Bucky thought it was hilarious.

“The Avengers thinking they can treat New York like any other town and do what they want,” Kelley snapped at Phil.

“New York IS any other town,” Tony said to his repulsor, a couple screws held in his teeth.

“Better chocolate nut cream citrus things than London, though,” Clint put in helpfully.

“Yes,” Thor chimed in, “the pastries are magnificent.”

Steve laughed as he typed,

Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn @Cap
Anyway, they arrested me. I suppose because of the cop punching, they slammed me into a couple walls and tried to break one of my fingers during booking. It took over an hour to get a phone call.

He checked the numbers on the first tweet, and it had already been retweeted a half-million times and the ticker was jumping by ten-thousand intervals.

There was also a lot of discussion going on over the food history; he threw in a comment about bananas being weird, and that sparked a whole other enormous discussion. There were a lot of food history nerds. They were really interesting, he might hang out with them more, and followed a couple, who got rather verklempt over it.

He hoped this didn’t crash Twitter.

“I believe you’re operating under a misunderstanding, Commissioner,” Sharon spoke for the first time. “This isn’t your town, and you don’t run it.”

“The hell I don’t. I run the cops. I decide what happens and what doesn’t in this town. Not the Avengers, not SHIELD, and not alien freaks are going to change that.” Kelley’s face was red and there was a vein throbbing in his forehead.

Interesting.

“JARVIS, can you send a gif of that exchange between Sharon and Kelley to my phone, just that?”

“Certainly, Captain. Can I say, I’m quite enjoying today.”

It popped up in his little camera roll thingie.

Angry Little Shit from Brooklyn @Cap
We’re having a meeting over that and a run-in Agent Romanov had with the NYPD later in the month right now. [Clip of exchange between Sharon and Kelley running on loop, with audio, even though gifs weren’t supposed to work that way.]

Steve held his breath and winced, watching the retweets go insane, hoping that Twitter had fixed their server problems since the last time they’d gotten going.

JARVIS read his mind. “Worry not, Captain, I and several friends are using spare server space and processing power on other systems to keep Twitter running.”

Steve wondered how illegal that was. “Thanks, and thank them for me, J.”

“Of course, Captain.”

On screen the lawyer’s phone rang. She pulled it out, frowning, and said into it “You know I’m not to be interrupted-” and then her face shifted to pure horror so Steve assumed a minion was giving her the bad news about Twitter.

She turned the phone off without another word and demanded “WHERE IS CAPTAIN ROGERS?”

Yep. Cat among the pigeons now.

Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn @Cap
By the time I got my call, I was a little irritated, so instead of the Avengers’ lawyer, I called Tony. (The meeting between the NYPD and the Avengers just found out about this thread and is going berserk, by the way.)

“Rogers is ON TWITTER right now, talking about how he was arrested for getting into the middle of a Stop and Frisk,” the NYPD lawyer told the room, and all the cops grabbed for phones.

Every member of the Avengers staff burst out laughing. Tony accidentally spit repulsor parts across the table but Thor grabbed them and passed them back as he – and everyone else – pulled out their phones.

Pepper, Phil, and Sharon maintained, simply scrolling on their phones a bit, and smiled before putting them down. Everyone else affiliated with the Avengers was laughing openly. Thor announced “It is a privilege to serve a man of such integrity and good spirit.”

Aw. Steve would get him an enormous beer for that later.

Bernie glanced at her own phone, shrugged, and said to the NYPD lawyer, “he hasn’t lied. It’s all covered by the first amendment.”

“We can wait ‘til he’s done, then I’ll tell my story,” Natasha said, and smiled at Kelley, all teeth showing.

“Do it and I’ll let you rot in a cell on Rikers,” Kelley snapped.

“You really have no idea who you’re talking to,” Natasha said in that silky voice that scared the shit out of damn near everyone, “but I’d ENJOY showing you.”

Kelley actually got offended. “Are you THREATENING ME?”

“She’s offering to gut you as you beg for mercy, to make you understand you’re dealing with an assassin who’s killed people WAY harder to get to than you,” Clint explained helpfully. “I’d offer to assist, but really she doesn’t need any help. I could shoot half your ear off some day when you don’t see me, though, if that would help get the point across. Ha, I crack myself up.”

“THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT,” Kelley bellowed. “THIS DISRESPECT WILL END. NOW.”

Wow, he was really out of control. He needed to get gone, for the good of the city.

Steve for one would be recommending they make the entire meeting public.

Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn @Cap
When Tony got to the precinct, he turned it into a circus, because he’s Tony fucking Stark. He also took photos, because he was enjoying himself immensely. Here’s one of me in the holding cell. [Image of Steve leaned against a cinder-block wall, arms crossed casually, rolling his eyes.]

In the meeting, Bernie pulled a thick folder out of a briefcase on the table next to her. “Wrongful arrest lawsuit, on behalf of Captain Rogers, as well as another lawsuit about the violation of his civil rights, revolving around the tazing and violence during booking.” Both slapped down in front of the NYPD’s lawyer. “Another lawsuit on behalf of Agent Romanov for physical and sexual harassment by a police officer.” Bernie kept pulling out thick stacks of paper and slapping them down in front of the lawyer. “An accusation of police brutality by Captain Rogers and Agent Romanov, making a case for a pattern of abusive behavior by multiple members of the NYPD. We will be adding the great quote from Commissioner Kelley,” and last “and the civil rights lawsuit for Equality for All, over your denying them the right to peaceful assembly as outlined in the first amendment, which was denied them.”

“You can’t do this,” Kelley snarled.

Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn @Cap
And that’s why Tony hacked my account here and named it “Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn”. I could figure out how to change it back, but I kind of like it. Y’all have a nice day. #EndStopAndFrisk

“Any threats made during this meeting will be added to the lawsuit by Captain Rogers and Agent Romanov, over the pattern of abuse shown by the NYPD,” Bernie told him in a bored voice.

“I demand to speak to Rogers,” Kelley demanded.

“He’s unavailable.” Pepper stated it in the same tone she used to get rid of people looking for Tony.

“We’re done here,” Kelley stood, clearly giving up, realizing he lost. All his people immediately rose. The lawyer scrambled to gather up all the papers Bernie had dropped on her, and they began to flounce out of the room.

Steve jumped up and grabbed his mug, ran for the door.

As the NYPD delegation was getting on the elevator, Steve wandered around the corner casually, drinking his hot chocolate, in his paint-covered clothes. “Oh, cool, meeting’s over. Tony, can I have your help with my phone? I can’t get the notifications turned off and it’s beeping like R2-D2 on speed.” Thank you Darcy for that pop culture reference.

Kelley looked like he was about to explode, and JARVIS closed the elevator doors on them.

Everyone high-fived each other, laughing.

Seriously, though, his phone was going nuts. Someone needed to show him how to turn that beeping off.

- A -

By the time the meeting was over and the Avengers were done putting the entire thing on their website, the hashtag #EndStopAndFrisk was trending internationally.

Natasha figured it was time for another hashtag.

Romanov @WidowAvengers
On June 27 of this year, I was outside Avengers’ Tower waiting for a friend of mine to meet me, because we were going to a summer ballet piece in the Park. Officer Smith of the NYPD tried to detain me for prostitution. I was wearing a modest evening gown and a great deal of expensive jewelry.

Romanov @WidowAvengers
He offered to let me go in return for a blowjob. We have since researched and found that he has done this to multiple women. Complaints filed against him go nowhere because he is Commissioner Kelley’s nephew.

Romanov @WidowAvengers
Given the possibility he could be a Hydra agent, I took him down, we interrogated him, and after ascertaining that he was instead simply a dirty cop, we returned him to the NYPD and demanded action be taken against him. I also demanded reimbursement for my ticket and my ruined shoes.

Romanov @WidowAvengers
At this time, no action has been taken against him, and I have yet to be reimbursed for the price of the ticket for the ballet I missed due to dealing with his behavior, nor have I been reimbursed for the Valentino shoes I ruined when taking him down.

Romanov @WidowAvengers
A lawsuit has today been filed against the NYPD. #HoldNYPDAccountable #MeToo

Angry Little Shit From Brooklyn @Cap
I have also filed a lawsuit against the NYPD for wrongful arrest, police brutality, and Agent Romanov and I have filed a lawsuit jointly over the pattern of abuse we see within the NYPD. #HoldNYPDAccountable

Equality for All @EFA
With the help of the Avengers and their lawyer, EFA has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD and Commissioner Kelley for their refusal to grant us permits whenever we’ve tried to get one. Our thanks to the @Avengers for their assistance. #HoldNYPDAccountable

Avengers @Avengers
Absolutely. We’re all about justice and fighting bullies over here. #HoldNYPDAccountable #EndStopAndFrisk

Both hashtags trended internationally for the rest of the day, with millions of tweets calling for an explanation and the resignation of Commissioner Kelley. There were as many demands for Officer ‘Smith’ to be arrested, put on trial, and then once all the facts checked out, tossed into a cell for whatever the maximum penalty was.

Natasha smiled and went back to her journaling. Darcy had given her a large pile of stickers, for good memories. Darcy had said gently that she realized that there probably weren’t many of those, so the ones there were, should be celebrated. With glitter stickers. She wrote down the day’s meeting, her feelings about the teamwork she’d been part of, and put smiling suns all over it.

Never too late to have a happy childhood, as Clint always said when doing things like this. He had a point.

The longer she wrote in this journal, the more she realized she’d learned from Clint. The important things, about how to live in the moment and find joy in the little stuff. She’d never repay him for what he did for her, and the miracle of it was, he didn’t want to be. He’d done it out of sheer kindness.

Owe or not, he was directly or indirectly responsible for every positive thing in her life.

Chapter Text

After the (hilarious) meeting with the NYPD and the ongoing internet drama after Natasha posted her own interaction with the NYPD, the entire internet went apeshit, screaming for Kelley’s resignation and prosecution. Tony watched as NYPD hashtags started and others began telling their own stories. At Conor and Darcy’s prompting, Steve and Natasha got back on Twitter to commiserate and sympathize and keep it rolling.

That’s where Steve was now, on the couch in Tony’s shop, using some of the holograms and a tablet to type new messages to people on Twitter. He had his big bare feet propped on the coffee table, was squinting at the holograms (Tony considered making him some glasses, hng), and Sidekick romped along the back of the couch after a wire pulled by U.

U was making the little peeping noises that JARVIS had confirmed was laughter.

When Tony had replaced the couch that Hydra had shot up when they tried to infiltrate the building (the damn thing had just gotten broken in; his old, beloved couch had gone over the cliff with Dum-E and U when AIM blew up his house, fuckers), Tony replaced the newish couch with a new one that was enormous, so Steve and Barnes would feel comfortable in it when they came to visit. Thor too, if he ever stopped by.

Tony was at his work bench, putting the finishing touches on Barnes’ newest arm.

It was the one they’d designed together. Tony was kicking himself; he knew better than to design blind, and should have asked for input on the first one. Barnes was wearing a copy of that one now. Well, when he wore one. This new one, though, he had to say it was even better than the last, and Pepper had called that some of his best work.

At Barnes’ suggestion, there was half a pound of C4 in a shaped charge along the front of the lower arm, under a skin of titanium alloy where the ulna would be, and backed by a ‘bone’ of curved carbon steel that directed the blast away from Barnes. So if he blew the C4, the blast would go outward, blowing the outer metal skin of the arm with it, though it’d still knock Barnes back a couple-ten yards. At least. The fingers all had retractable claws, a grappling hook would shoot out the underside of the wrist (inspired by Spider-Man’s webs), and the upper arm had a great deal of computer power, transmitters, batteries, and two homing beacons of different types he could turn on and off with his brain, imagining he was moving his hand or fingers instead. (The trigger for the C4 was to push and pull with his hand at the same time, for instance.) There was a single small drug reservoir of adrenaline and dilaudid, a narcotic painkiller, that he could inject into himself if injured. At Tony’s suggestion there was also what they were calling a Bluetooth option, giving him control over a few functions of the arm even if it was disconnected from Barnes’ body.

Including a self-destruct, because Barnes and Tony both didn’t want the tech in enemy hands. Tony had set it up so it wouldn’t self-destruct while hooked to Barnes, but he’d set it off with the “bluetooth” with a thirty second delay.

Tony had real qualms about explosives, he wasn’t gonna lie. The drugs also didn’t thrill him. But he’d laid awake in bed all night one night, thinking what it must be like to be Barnes, with the threat of being re-taken by the Russians (or a dozen other entities, probably including factions of the US government) hanging over him all day, every day. After that he’d agreed to add it to the build, with the agreement that he’d put in a blast shield, to try and deflect any harmful shrapnel away from Barnes. He’d also made Barnes talk to Sam about the drugs, and get the okay from Sam. Barnes had gone for that.

Sam had not been enthused either, but just like Tony, he gave his reluctant agreement after Barnes talked about the risks of getting re-taken. He gave the go-ahead so Tony had built it all in. They’d also involved Jem, to get the drugs.

Jem had been positive about the entire thing, which shocked Tony and Sam. Apparently she and Barnes had discussed drugs more than once while she put him back together and she assured them that he’d never use them unless he was in a corner and under threat.

Later, Sam had quietly pointed out to Tony when they were alone, not a single modification was with self-harm in mind. Only defense. Even the drugs were single-dose at Jem’s discretion and so wouldn’t cause him harm. A lot of people would be ready to die rather than be re-taken in Barnes’ shoes, so the modifications were more positive than Tony had thought at first.

Tony’d considered Natasha’s diamonds, but didn’t mention it to Barnes. He wasn’t a stealth kind of guy. Maybe if he started doing that kind of sneaking around, Tony could suggest a diamond tip on a finger, to cut glass with. Or maybe knuckles… the price of diamonds kept dropping as synthetics were developed. He needed to look into their properties more, with an eye toward weaponizing them for the team.

Good gods, the chaos Clint and Kate could get up to with diamond-tipped arrows. He wasn’t sure if he wanted that to happen or not.

He opened a new folder, threw some primary ideas into it. He’d learned more about arrows in the last three years than he could believe, but he’d give it to Clint; he knew his stuff.

Then to finish it all off, again at Barnes’ request (Tony felt like he should have thought of it), in place of the red star or the shield Tony had put there, on the bicep was the white wing emblem that all the Howlies had worn on their non-uniforms. They were made to imitate the wings on Steve’s helmet. During the build discussion, Barnes had relayed story after story of the Howlies making fun of Steve’s Spangle Circuit “uniform” and how they’d laughed until they cried when they found out he was going to keep wearing part of it. So because of all that, the Howlies had worn the stupid Greek-God wing on the sides of his helmet as their emblem, proudly on the shoulders of their coats.

With the occasional giggle.

Steve had put one on his uniform too and it became the official unit badge.

Tony double-checked all the safeties and relays on the arm again; the relays to the explosives had been made hard-wired, and as shielded as possible. He’d had a long talk with Barnes, and since the guy barely wore the no-frills arm around the Tower, it hadn’t taken much to convince him to only wear this when he went out. If it wasn’t for Barnes admitting that the idea of it around all the support staff bothered him too, he didn’t think he’d have built it.

But he did. Barnes now had an arm with one hell of a fail-safe in it.

Tony tinkered with it while Steve muttered over Twitter.

- A -

The fMRI had been finished in the wee hours the night before the meeting with the NYPD, and at Clint’s suggestion (he knew Phil), they waited until after dinner for Phil to be more relaxed before they put him in the thing and asked him questions. That alone would stress him out; if they put him into it straight out of a meeting where lawsuits were flung and Steve fucked with the NYPD by remote control, they’d never get any useful data.

With all that in mind, Clint had made pot roast – one of Phil’s favorites – and all the trimmings, and caught people one by one to suggest they linger a while at dinner, keeping it relaxing, before the fMRI. Everyone had simply nodded, he’d gotten a few shoulder pats.

Clint didn’t know if the teamwork was comforting Phil, he hoped so. But knowing he had this much brain, brawn, compassion, and firepower behind him was sure as hell helping HIM sleep at night.

Darcy came in, leading a tall, slim guy who looked about eighteen, with an arm around his waist. She wasn’t tall enough to reach his shoulders. She was doing a patter of “you did great, this place is a zoo, it’s to be expected. No one demands perfection around here and it was your second day on the job, you don’t really have your sea legs yet,” sorts of things. On the tall guy’s other side was a very slim person, maybe five feet tall, dressed in men’s clothing, wearing makeup.

Clint was pretty sure he knew who this was. The place wasn’t full to be worth doing a big public introduction, but.

He went over, making sure to smile – Darcy had commented before that his resting sniper face was pretty scary – and said “Darcy?”

Darcy gave him a grateful look. “This is Conor Allen and Chris Smith, the new hires in the offices.”

“The PR guy,” Clint said sympathetically, and shook hands. He was pretty sure Chris was going with he/him but was listening for it. “Hell of a day, huh?” He said sympathetically.

“I figured they could use a meal before they hauled home over to fricking Queens,” Darcy said in a tone that meant Conor and Chris would probably be sharing an apartment on Happy’s floor before she was done. “They got hired yesterday, so having to deal with Steve and Nat full blast, right off…” Darcy grinned. “They could use a good meal. I knew you were cooking. What are we having?”

“Pot roast,” Clint said. He looked at both men. “Hey, no pressure, but I’m trying to keep the meal mellow, because Phil’s having some medical testing after dinner.”

“Sure,” Conor nodded. “We don’t have to-”

“Nah, you deserve at least pot roast. Dealing with Steve on Twitter isn’t for the faint of heart,” Clint told him.

Both guys laughed; Steve as always had found good people. Clint wondered if there was a way to put him in charge of hiring, then immediately rejected the idea. It would be chaos.

“Is Director Coulson okay?” Chris asked, clearly worried.

Phil made an impression on everyone. Clint smiled. “It’s more a mystery than a problem. He was injured a few years ago and since then some stuff’s been wonky. Don’t mention it to him, he’s sensitive about it. But it’s more trying to figure out the mystery than him being really injured or sick.”

Both of them nodded in understanding, and Darcy gave him a thumb’s up behind the guys’ backs.

He ushered them in and explained getting your own drink and stuff, and they took seats toward the center of the table where they put the rare guest when they had them, so they wouldn’t feel cornered.

Darcy got them seated and then came over to help Clint finish dinner. “Pronouns?” Clint asked under his breath.

“He/him for both,” Darcy answered just as quietly.

More people began filing in, and started introducing themselves. Everyone was on good behavior, which made Clint happy because then Phil would be more relaxed rather than having to deal with one of the meals with shouting and food-throwing that were known to happen.

Phil appeared, hung his suit coat on a rack they’d put in the common room, then put his cufflinks in his pocket and rolled up his sleeves as he crossed over into the kitchen.

Clint had a thing for Phil’s arms so when Phil slid up to him at the counter, Clint tugged him in gently by the loosened tie and kissed him. “Hi.” He could actually feel tension leaving Phil’s body.

Phil kissed him and said “Hi back.” He lowered his voice “our new hires spotted this exchange of affection and are smiling and looking less nervous.”

“Win-win,” Clint grinned and kissed Phil again.

Steve rolled in then, and everyone applauded. Steve gave his Spangle-Circuit bow, which was always hilarious. Then he went over to talk to Chris and Conor, and Clint could read his lips, it started with ‘sorry about that, next time, should I contact you before I cause a scandal?’

Yep, welcome to the Avengers.

At least the pay was good. Pepper was the best.

- A -

After dinner was Phil’s fMRI test. Apparently those were usually done in the morning, and Jem would be doing that too, but she also wanted a look at Phil when he was tired. After dinner was over, Tony called a car for Conor and Chris, and then Phil went to change into sweats for the test. Not so much because he needed to be mobile, but to avoid metal of any kind near the fMRI. Even metals that weren’t magnetic could heat up.

Steve went down to the garage, and smiled when he arrived.

A giant wall of safety ‘glass’ had been set up between the fMRI machine and all the sensors, to keep people and computers out of the magnetic field. At the moment the machine was warming up, or whatever the term for it was, so Steve stayed on his side of the yellow line painted in a giant circle around the machine, skirted it to where the entire team, all the science crew, the Avengers, and management, were all milling around. Fifteen people, all arguing.

He stuck his fingers in his teeth and whistled.

Silence fell.

“Jem, how many people need to be here?” Steve asked.

“Me, and Betty, and of course Phil,” Jem answered.

Everyone began complaining at once, and Steve whistled again.

“Would it help to have Clint here? For Phil’s state of mind?”

“Yes,” Jem agreed, nodding.

“I built the damn thing, I’m staying to see how it works and in case it needs to be fixed,” Tony argued, and Jane and Leo threw in “SAME!” together.

He couldn’t really argue that. “I’m going to hang around in case y’all need brute strength” he decided. They still weren’t sure what would happen to Phil in that fMRI and he hoped to hell there would be nothing to fight, but he’d watched Bruce transform more than once. They had literally no idea what they were dealing with. Speaking of, “Bruce, if you could stay too, you and I are probably safest if we have to deal with anything unexpected. And Sam.” Because Sam was obviously needed any time anyone got emotional.

Ten people instead of fifteen. Steve didn’t roll his eyes at himself, but he wanted to.

Clint frowned at him but didn’t say anything.

“Other than that,” Steve said, “we appreciate your concern-”

Phil stepped off the elevator and paused, openly shocked at the number of people waiting to figuratively hold his hand through this. He was wearing ancient, torn up sweat pants and a US Marines tee shirt that looked relatively new; Clint’s. Phil was Army.

Easiest way to tell true love, between two military guys. Steve rubbed his chin to hide the smile.

“-but he needs some space. And the people who are staying, this is on Phil’s final word, there’s privacy to be respected.”

More grumbling, but people began leaving, hugging Phil on their way through to the elevator. Phil was hugging almost mechanically, visibly surprised by all the fuss.

Eventually he came over to where the entire bio-medical team, Sam, Tony, Clint, and Steve were left. “What was that all about?”

“Emotional support, Phil,” Clint said gently, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. “They want to have your back.”

“Oh,” Phil said, out of words.

“You aren’t a figurehead around here,” Sam added, and laid a hand on Phil’s shoulder for one quiet moment.

Steve envied the hell out of how Sam always knew just when and how to express his feelings, to make people feel better. Did it take a psych degree to learn that? If so, Steve was temped to get one.

Jem took charge. “We wanted the science team to stay in case we need to do any fixes, and Steve and Clint and Sam will be for morale. If that’s all right with you.”

Phil still seemed nonplussed about the number of people worried about him. “Yeah, that’s fine.”

“We also still need to do the isotope injection. JARVIS, Clint, and the rest of the science team has brainstormed for five days and we can’t come up with even a glimmer of an idea how to get around that.” Tony said apologetically. “We may yet come up with something, but it’s not going to be fast.”

“All right.” Phil spotted a small lab area they’d set up, cordoned off with heavy plastic curtains to keep out the worst of the dust and crud, with a rolling stool and a reclined seat in it. “Can we sit that thing up a little?”

“Sure,” Bruce said easily, went over, and fiddled until the chair was upright.

“I’m finding out – now – that my medical PTSD also involves being reclined for procedures,” Phil said evenly, probably trying to get it out and get it over with.

“On it,” Tony said. “Bruce, give him a Valium, by the time it kicks in, we’ll move the magnetic coils so it’s rigged for laid-down viewing. Phil, does laying work?”

Phil looked away from where they’d set up a rig so the patient/subject could sit in a chair, leaned back, with their head encircled by magnetic coils. The look on his face… Steve had seen that thousand yard stare before, and that was not good. He looked at Sam, and Sam was watching Phil too, and when he caught Steve’s eye he gave a tiny nod. He was seeing it. Okay then.

“You can move it around?” Phil asked.

They could, because Tony, also Mr PTSD, bless him, had insisted. For him laying down was the no-go, but he realized that the time may come they’d need to put someone unconscious in the thing, at which point, laying down was the only option. But for himself, there was ‘no way in hell’ he was laying inside a giant magnetic coil if he could possibly help it, and as an engineer he COULD help it, and anyway, it took about fifteen minutes with half a dozen hydraulic jacks but the entire works of the fMRI could be moved by forty-five degrees to allow both.

“It’ll take us about fifteen minutes,” Tony assured Phil, pointing between himself and Steve. “By the time your Valium’s kicked in and you’ve had the IV, it’ll be ready.”

Phil visibly relaxed. “Thanks.”

Tony’s voice softened as much as was possible with this giant machine running. “Hey. I built it this way because of my own PTSD.”

Phil grasped Tony’s hand for a long moment, then said ‘thanks’ again softly, and went to sit in the little lab area where Clint held one hand while Bruce gave Phil a pill and a bottle of water, then began doing an IV as slowly and gently as he’d once done for Bucky when he’d been in the Hulk Tank.

Steve went to the machine, and could easily see the rails the coils moved along, and the things like a fancy car jack at the bottom, holding them in place.

“Okay, only real hard part is moving both sides at the same time so it doesn’t get jammed. I’ll say down, up, and you just do that with these,” Tony handed Steve two long bars, shoved into the holes on the sides of the jacks. He placed one, and Steve placed the other on his side, took one in each hand. “You get it,” Tony nodded, went over to his side, did the same, then started chanting “down, up,” and Steve followed directions until the whole works was lowered for a laying position.

- A -

He held Phil’s hand, and could actually watch the Valium hit Phil. Clint wasn’t sure how much they realized this stuff freaked him out, but he was super glad that Phil felt comfortable enough around everyone to talk about any PTSD triggers. He’d be remembering them, himself. Bless Tony, admitting he made the damn thing adjustable for his own PTSD triggers. He’d have to see about doing some math for him, or cookies or something.

So he was standing in the little lab area in the lowest parking garage, holding Phil’s hand while a short IV ran into him and Bruce made small talk. (Topic? Best sunsets they’d ever seen. Bless Bruce.)

Clint wondered if Bruce had always been this calm and gentle, or if the Hulkening had separated his personality so much that his… Bruce side (he didn’t want to call it the human side, that would be mean to Hulk) was really half the guy he’d been and the Hulk was the other half. Must have had a hell of a temper if that was the case.

Eventually, they had Phil calmed and filled with isotopes, and Clint and Bruce walked him out to the rolling cot they were going to put him on.

“Normally for these things they strap you down,” Bruce began, and smiled and held up a hand as Phil and Clint both started to protest. “I know. I’d go bonkers. But we do need your head still,” he told Phil. “Promise to move as little as possible, and we’ll skip the rest. And we can do most of the head work with sandbags. Couple pieces of tape over it all, should work.”

Phil nodded. “That I can do.”

Clint could tell he was completely freaked out and hiding it, and did a one-armed hug and kissed him on the temple. Into his ear he spoke as softly as he thought he could – damn ears – and said “no matter what the results are, I don’t care.”

More tension leaked out of Phil’s shoulders. Bruce smiled at Clint; Clint wasn’t sure if he heard what he’d said, or if he could just tell it helped. Phil laid down, and together Clint and Bruce stabilized his head, making sure Phil was as comfortable as possible. Clint got a pillow from a stack of bedding, and put it under Phil’s knees; Phil’s lower back bothered him sometimes, from all those years of wearing rucks and hauling Clint around when he was wounded. He put a blanket over top, and kissed Phil. “Remember what I said.”

They all had retreated behind the glass, when Kate stepped off the elevator, wearing a tee shirt, an enormous sweater, sweat pants, and socks. “Darcy wanted to do this, but she can’t with the torc, so I’m doing it.”

She walked into the magnetized area, leaned into the tube and spoke to Phil for a moment, then took his hand, sat on the floor, and leaned her head against Phil’s hip.

Clint huffed out a breath. He should be doing that, but he couldn’t; he’d gotten inner-ear cochlear implants years ago to try and help his hearing. He’d never been sure they helped, but they’d ruled out any MRIs for him, ever. He probably shouldn’t have even been near the fMRI to tuck Phil in, but it wasn’t running at full blast yet. Kate was the best.

The magnets spun up, and Jem leaned in and spoke into the mic that transmitted sound into the fMRI to Phil. “Can you tell me what day it is?”

He did.

They went through this, and Clint stood toward the back of the area, leaving the experts to fiddle with equipment, but his vision was lasered in on the actual image that was on a flatscreen in the center of the counter. As far as he could tell – he and JARVIS had looked up what a normal fMRI looked like – everything was normal. Maybe some extra activity in the memory centers, but definitely nothing terrifying like black spots that would indicate burned out nerve tissue or a tumor or whatever. “Lesion” seemed like a mild, inaccurate, bullshit word.

He glanced at his watch, back at the screen. They’d been running Phil through all kinds of weird mental shit for forty minutes, including having him tell a short story and hum his favorite piece of music (The Fellowship of the Ring theme from Lord of the Rings. Nerd.)

None of them were asking the real questions, putting Phil’s particular brain through his particular gifts.

He shouldered through the crowd to the microphone. “You guys aren’t asking the right questions,” he told them all. He leaned forward, pressed the speak button, and said “Phil, run us through how you’d fight the Siege of Acre.”

More lights on in his brain, mostly the frontal lobe.

“Which crusade?” Phil asked.

More lights.

“The third.”

Every time one of them spoke, there was more activity.

“Crusaders or Saladin?” Phil asked.

Clint could actually feel the curiosity coming off Phil, and more and more of his brain was coming on line.

“Saladin. Come on, Phil, you know I’d never stick you with a butt like Richard the Lionheart.”

Phil laughed, and seemed to settle into himself. “Oh, well then. First, I’d have called in my navy, down to the last rowboat, and quit fucking around…”

And his entire brain lit up like the Christmas trees at Rockefeller Center.

There. That was Phil.

- A -

They all went up to the common room to talk about the results, and Phil would be more worried, but Clint had smiled, genuinely, when they’d pulled him out of the tube and Kate kissed his forehead (shocking but nice), and carefully picked at the tape on his head until Phil reached up and pulled it off. The whole time, Clint was grinning like a madman. Whatever was going on, it wasn’t cause for panic.

The science crew, he, Clint, and Kate (who’d slung her arm around Phil, and still surprised, Phil put his arm around her shoulders; it was the first time they’d done such a thing and he was shocked to realize she was as small as Nat was) went up to the common room to discuss the results in comfort, and the elevator doors opened and-

The room was full. Everyone was there.

Phil inspected his stocking feet for a moment, choked up by the concern on every single face. Kate hugged him from one side, and Clint put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him from the other.

Nat was right at the elevator doors. “I should have been there. I am so sorry. I’m still turned around from everything but-”

Since everyone was hugging anyway, Phil went with his first instinct, put his arms around her, and pulled her in close. “It’s fine.”

“It’s not,” Nat said into his chest, but hugged him back, kissed his cheek, and let him go.

Jem put her hands on her hips and glared at everyone in the room. “There are privacy laws involved here, I’m not discussing anyone’s health in front of an entire crowd of people, particularly not without their permission.”

Phil held up a hand to halt the explosion. “Is there anything negative in the scan?” He wanted bad news behind closed doors, but given Clint’s smile, he didn’t think there was an enormous tumor to be told about.

“...no. But there’s a great deal that’s odd.” Jem admitted.

“Odd we already knew about,” Clint put in, clearly trying to reassure him. Between that and the smile, Phil admitted it was working.

“When did you become an expert on interpreting fMRI results?” Jem asked Clint tartly.

“JARVIS and I spent about twelve hours in the last four days, going over what good and bad looks like. I’m sure I missed some detail, but I know what normal looks like,” Clint answered. “Together we must have looked at several thousand fMRI scans of different kinds.”

Hard to argue with a guy whose job was visuals. Whose eyesight was the best ever recorded.

Jem sighed and calmed a little. “There’s still some odd, Phil,” she said quietly.

“Memory centers,” Clint added. “You’re damn good at data processing, but we don’t have a baseline to compare it to, and you were always smart as hell.”

Jem glared at him, but didn’t argue.

“It’s fine,” Phil decided. If he was going to go off the deep end some night, or god forbid in the middle of a mission, these people deserved to know.

Everyone got off the ‘vator, and the people hanging around the common room got them food and drink. They tried to install Phil in his ‘throne’, the modern recliner they’d put the black leather rat stool in front of, but Phil wanted to sit on the couch with Clint, so Tony took the throne, of course.

It took a while to get settled because everyone wanted to hug Phil.

He had no idea what to make of that.

“All right,” Jem finally called them to order. “Slow run through the opening questions, please, JARVIS?”

On the screen were two views of a brain, side and top, made to look three dimensional with perspective. Sparks moved through it, actual traceable thoughts, and Phil marveled for a moment, that anyone’s brain could look so magical. It was like all the stars on the bridge to Asgard.

“As you see, there are no dark spaces. Those are the first, biggest problem to look for in a scan like this. They can indicate areas of brain damage, tumors, or missing tissue.”

Phil thought of Fury possibly removing chunks of his brain and nearly threw up. Clint seemed to read his mind and grabbed him, hard, with an arm around his shoulders.

“Pause a moment, Jem,” Nat said. She disappeared, and came back within minutes with a mug of one of her terrible herbal teas that tasted of grass clippings and mulch. She gently wrapped Phil’s hands around the mug, and he took a swig.

“Sorry, Phil,” Jem said gently.

He shook his head. Not her fault, and lord, Bruce had given him a whack of Valium that should still be working. “Idea of someone literally in my head,” was all he could offer.

“I’d puke up my toenails,” Tony agreed.

Everyone else made similar comments of agreement. Phil hoped they all knew how comforting they were.

Jem waited for Phil’s nod, and then continued more gently, as the sparks and lights flickered on the screen. “We ran him through standard questions, meant to use different portions of the brain. Story-telling and musical repetition use different parts of the brain in conjunction so they’re the obvious. Telling a story is one of the most difficult things for the brain to do. Musical recall and production is similar. JARVIS, the portion where Phil hummed the music?”

The image fast-forwarded a bit, and Jem pointed. “Occipital lobe and memory centers, as expected, but there’s a lot more action in the memory center than average.” She pointed out different portions of the brain. “Everything was on the excellent side of normal, as you’d expect from someone with Phil’s background and intelligence.”

When people looked confused, she smiled. “Phil’s not just smart, he multi-tasks. He has varied interests. He fills out paperwork, which is often storytelling and accounting, at the same time. He likes to read, watches movies. Strategizes and does logistics a great deal, both for work and in the electronic games he prefers.” She smiled at Phil. “I got to know you pretty well while we all lived on the BUS. I remember getting up that one night, and you were using the main screen to play Civilization.”

“Dude,” Darcy put in. “You and me, head to head. That’s my game, too.”

Phil felt himself smile, and relaxed some. “Did I do that before?” He asked Clint.

Clint hesitated, seemed to realize the room was waiting on his answer. “You never took the time to play games before. BUT, if you had, something like Civilization is exactly what you’d have gone for.”

Sam said gently, “You went through a lot, Phil. Change is normal. All the change is within the parameters of the person you were.”

Clint nodded. So did a lot of other people.

“You’ve mellowed, but you’re still the guy who threatened to taze me and let me drool into the carpet while you watched SuperNanny,” Tony put in.

Everyone roared with laughter.

Jem smiled, then met Phil’s eyes. The room quieted. “Everything’s normal, Phil, except for the extra activity in your memory center and frontal lobes, and we already could guess that by behavior.”

Phil exhaled slowly, nodded.

“And then,” Jem continued, and Phil stiffened up again, oops, “Clint told us we were doing it wrong, and asked Phil to re-work the Siege of Acre.”

“Which one?” Darcy immediately asked, because of course she did.

“Third Crusade, as Saladin,” Clint provided.

Darcy grinned, and Steve laughed.

“And this happened,” Jem said, and JARVIS played the next bit.

His brain looked like a goddamn disco ball. “Is that normal?” Phil had to ask.

“No.” Jem admitted. “Before you get upset, we don’t know how abnormal it is. We’ve got scans of other people, some mutants and the profoundly gifted can look like this, when doing something that’s their specialty. I’ve seen a clip that looks a lot like this from a chess master playing a game in his head against a supercomputer, and there’s another from a mutant volunteer, using her mind to levitate small objects. Professor Xavier’s fMRI looks like this all the time; he shared it with me as a sort of mutant base-line when he heard we were going to scan you. It’s long been speculated that many genetically normal people who are profoundly gifted could light up a brain scan like this, but no one’s much willing to share that their brain’s exceptional these days, let alone get shot up with an isotope and sit in a scanner answering annoying questions, so the research is very thin on the ground.”

“Is there any reason we can’t put some of us through it, see what we get?” Steve asked. “You’ve got a mixed bag of people here, should get a broad spectrum, right?”

“We don’t know what the Serum or Formula does to brain function either,” Jem explained gently.

“Well, we could learn that too,” Steve said with a smile.

“If we’ve got volunteers, you could get a hell of a paper out of it,” Sam grinned.

Jem seemed to think, hard. Glanced at Bruce. “Do you see a reason to say no?”

Bruce shrugged. He was everyone’s final word on ethics, especially medical ones. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t try it, if they volunteer. As for the paper, write it and get everyone’s permission before publishing.”

“All right then, we’ll try some other baseline humans first,” Jem said to Phil and the rest of the room, “see what we get. This is also an extra-sensitive sensor, it’s possible that we’re picking up normal activity that just hasn’t been detected before.”

Everyone nodded.

Tony, Phil would never get done being surprised by Tony’s generosity, said “I’m certified as profoundly gifted, for what that’s worth. And I don’t have the shrapnel in my chest to worry about any more. Or the arc reactor. You want me next?”

Jem smiled. “Let me work up a good series of test questions, then we’ll do that.”

“I’m super average, and happy to help, but I have the torc on,” Darcy said sadly.

“I’d be happy to take it off while you help your friends,” Thor said. “It’s rarely done, but this is an honorable reason.”

“Okay!” Darcy smiled. “I’m going to Asgard this weekend, but I’m free other than Friday morning to Monday morning.”

“You’re going to Asgard? Alone?” Steve demanded, and this made a nice shift from his own issues.

Phil had concerns though. “You should take one of us with you.”

“Fear not, Fandral has offered to look after the Lady Darcy for me,” Thor told them all. “She has won her way into the Archives, and will likely spend the weekend buried in scrolls and other readings.”

“Yep, that’s my plan. Fandral’s going to be really bored. Be great to see Frigg though.” At everyone’s blank look, she explained “Queen Frigga’s twin brother. He didn’t want her to live in Asgard alone so when she married Odin, he came along. He’s sort of second-in-command at the Archives, in charge of the history and social sciences section, basically. They don’t separate topics quite the same way we do.”

“And you’re friends?” Phil had to ask. They now had another set of aliens in play? Well, apparently they already did, if Queen Frigga was also from Vanaheim. Unless Vanaheim was a colony of Asgard’s?

“We got to know each other while I was giving Mimir hell about letting me in. Frigg enjoyed me badgering Mimir; they don’t get along. A lot of the Asgardians respect me for my ‘quest for knowledge’. I had someone write up the P equals NP proof, illuminated with gold leaf on vellum. It’s supposed to be here tomorrow. I’ll need all of you who are signing it, to sign it before I leave Friday morning.”

Having everything devolve into a meeting made Phil feel so much more himself. “All right. Thanks for letting us know. Coming back Monday, how long will you be there?” Time ran differently on Asgard, but he wasn’t sure if it was consistently faster or varied.

“Four days, ish,” Darcy said, glancing at Thor for confirmation.

Thor nodded.

All right then. He was starting to feel the Valium and Nat’s herbal tea, and he really very much wanted to take his boyfriend to bed and cuddle. “If there’s no further news tonight, I’m going to bed.” It was around eleven, so it wasn’t unreasonable. “Anyone?”

Nothing.

So he and Clint took the elevator down to their floor, knowing debate would rage upstairs over brain scans and Darcy going to Asgard alone, but Phil was suddenly just exhausted.

Clint sensed it – he was good at that – and tucked Phil into bed, dressed, because Nat would be coming in later. Clint himself stripped down to his boxers and climbed in and they cuddled together.

“Told you I’m not the only genius,” Clint said with a smile, and that was the last thing Phil remembered before he fell asleep.

He dreamed about walking through corridors he didn’t recognize, and knew he was on a space ship. No other details, just blank corridors.

Chapter Text

It had been a quiet day. Darcy was damn thankful for that, after the emotional roller-coaster of the day before. First handing the NYPD their own asses, the high of that, of Steve being peak pre-Serum little shit who started trouble for fun, then Natasha in her own succinct way being as bad or worse, and all of it burying the NYPD. That gif of Commissioner Kelley saying it was his city and fuck the laws, that was being used in multiple lawsuits against the city now. JARVIS had told her.

Then after dinner, the unexpected wait while Phil was scanned for brain tumors or worse. She’d known Phil was resurrected, but somehow the medical testing made it feel more real. And she’d been unable to help.

At least next time she knew she could get Thor to take her torc off long enough to be helpful, though Kate had immediately jumped at the suggestion, and after, once the discussion about the odd-but safe findings were over, and everyone argued about her going to Asgard, they came back to their apartment. Kate told her about sitting on the parking garage floor, holding Phil’s hand, not having any idea what they were going to find, while realizing Phil had been more a father to her than her old man had ever been. There’d been a few tears on Kate’s part, and Darcy didn’t think Kate would cry over a compound fracture.

So her day today had been lovely. The new PR guy was watching everything, she only had to look at a few tweets and tumblr posts that were so funny or amazing they had to be shared. That sort of thing, she enjoyed. She’d actually done her job, laughed with Jane over some pranks to play on Mimir. (Skye had offered to build a tiny gizmo that did nothing but beep randomly, to hide within the Archives somewhere. Maybe.)

Over lunch she talked Steve through the history of police brutality in New York post World War Two. It turned out Steve had hung out at the STONEWALL INN back in the day, whenever he was in Manhattan; she was now on his ass to do a living history of it once he ‘came out’. She didn’t have the heart to tell him the whole world already knew, having seen the photos of him and Tony. That was his issue to deal with. And really the hyper-conservatives were also in denial about it, so he was right in that respect - hell wouldn’t break loose until he made an announcement. At any rate, he’d enjoyed the hell out of the Stonewall Riots being the beginning of the Pride movement. She couldn’t believe she left out the history when they’d gone to the parade in June.

After lunch, Tony had gone over to the Main Lab to give Leo heck – not hell, Tony’s heart hadn’t been in it – about how he was a world-renowned scientist with a Nobel Prize nomination and several dozen money-making patents, and to quit being so nice to some scientists at LIGO who didn’t understand how repulsors worked.

Darcy waited until he went back to his own lab, shaking his head, and went in. She made small talk, waited for him to take a swig of coffee, and ended a sentence with “and I’m really impressed by how great a mentor you are to the younger scientists around here.”

Tony snorted coffee out his nose, and said “What? WHAT?” while Darcy smiled at him and went back to her desk.

She’d even been telling the truth.

The day had been so mellow, and she’d needed that. So she’d skipped dinner – dinner could be utter chaos, she loved the Avengers with her entire being but they were not restful people – and instead had a pizza delivered to the executive lobby. Went to get it herself – she liked wandering around the building barefoot, like the hick she was, pretending the whole place was her home. Had a casual ‘good evening’ discussion with the staff in the lobby, most of whom she knew. She introduced herself to the rest. More ‘feels like home’ to her. Upstairs again, she’d eaten too much pizza in front of the flat-screen, watching a couple Disney movies and played Civ. Brushed up on her strategies in case Phil took her up on her challenge because she knew he’d destroy her if they ever played.

Awesome day.

Darcy was in her pajamas brushing her teeth, when JARVIS said “Hawkeye is at the door.”

She assumed that meant Clint.

Out into the living room, the door slid open, and- shit. Clint was in full tactical gear. “Is Kate here?”

“KATE!” Darcy shouted back toward the hallway, then turned back. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

Darcy glared for all she was worth.

Clint wilted a little. “Okay, fine, nothing major. Just, the Russian mobsters in Bed-Stuy? They’re fucking with the tenants again. I’m going over to check on them.”

Kate came around the corner in a silk dressing gown, face covered in green cream, took one look at Clint, said “two minutes,” and disappeared again.

She did appear less than three minutes later, her hair braided into a tail, wearing-

“What is that?”

“Evening wear,” Kate told her. “Don’t wait up.”

“Wait-” They were out the door, so Darcy called “be safe” down the hall like it was an order, and let JARVIS shut the door.

Kate’s ‘evening wear’ had been a purple leather catsuit, ‘cold shoulder’ with the high neck cutting down diagonally to her underarms. The rest of her body was covered. Long darker purple gloves went up to her elbows and Darcy would bet they functioned as shooting gloves, arm guards, and kept her from leaving finger prints on anything. They also had padded knuckles. Matching dark purple boots laced up over her calves, and a dark purple mask covered most of her face. She had a quiver slung over her back, chock full of arrows, and a bow in her hand. She moved with the same swagger Clint did.

Jesus Christ. Russian mobsters. Never fuck with the fucking Russians; she’d seen that movie.

- A -

They’d handled the Russian mobsters – after a fashion – as well as the unexpected contract killer they’d brought in to kill him. It had been a while since Clint dealt with one of Europe’s high-end assassins, that had been an exciting wrinkle in the night’s events. Clint considered the wisdom of telling Phil as he laid on the couch in Phil’s office, petted Lucky, and tried not to wince at all the bruises all over him.

He’d told Phil he was going to check on his tenants – truth – and then put on his tac gear in the locker room before thinking twice and taking Kate. Thank goodness he had; the whole of Bed-Stuy was swarming with killers looking for Clint. Someone had put a million dollar price on his head, and spent more than quadruple that to bring in a full-on assassin. This was beyond stupid petty local mob shit, and had gone big-time. Which meant someone other than a bunch of low-level dumbass petty criminals were involved.

He was safe as long as he was in the Tower, and his tenants were probably safe short-term, but something needed to be done.

That something would involve bringing in Phil and Nat, and both would chew his ass. Nat would give him complete Russian hell, but the worst would be Phil getting upset. He was just now getting un-stressed from the damned fMRI. The science crew had wanted to do another on him first thing in the morning for comparison, but he’d been so stressed over the first one, well, they were all giving him time to chill without saying so.

Sam was going to try and talk to Phil later in the week.

JARVIS did his Star Trek ping and said “Ms Lewis asks that Hawkeye join her in the main lab, please.”

Huh. Wondered what that was about.

He hoped to hell she didn’t say anything about him and Kate going out in full tac gear last night.

Clint sort of rolled off the couch and tried not to cry as all the bruises from the fight he’d been in said hello. Damn, he was going to have to talk soon, because sooner than later Phil was going to want sex, Clint would never say no to him, and the instant his clothes were off the interrogation would begin.

Later.

Phil and Lucky tagged along down to the lab, and there was Darcy, smiling, with an old-fashioned dip pen and a bottle of ink.

Rolled out onto one of the workbenches, weighted at the corners with coffee mugs and beakers, was his and JARVIS’ proof. It had been written out in the style of an illuminated manuscript on thick, heavy papery stuff. At the top was “P = NP” and the entire upper title area of the page was illustrated, medieval style, with an archer wearing purple, a suit of armor in red and gold striking an Iron Man pose, an average-looking guy in a lab coat, jeans, and a green tee shirt petting a dog that looked just like Lucky, and a tiny brunette woman, dressed like a witch, looking up at the stars. JARVIS was represented by the circuit-board pattern painted inside the letters and symbol of the P = NP. Edges and circuits and arrow points and Jane’s telescope and Tony’s armor were picked out in gold leaf. Silver leaf was used for the stars in the upper edge of the illustration, that Jane was looking at through her telescope.

Below that, his proof was inked out in a fancy script, but it was something easier to read than the usual blocky lettering you saw in medieval books. “My stuff never looked so good,” he said, stunned.

“It’s amazing,” Tony agreed. “I’m going to take it next door, have a high resolution scan done, so we can all have reproductions.”

“That’d be great,” Clint agreed. Phil would insist on hanging a copy in their living room, and Steve, in a corner, voiced the opinion that one should hang in the common room.

“A good friend in college was an art major. She knew someone who does illuminated manuscripts like this, so I told him what I wanted, and he was delighted to make this. I didn’t tell him it was going into the Archives of Asgard until he was done. Less pressure.” Darcy smiled. “He almost fainted when I told him. Anyway, I love it. I was thinking if Clint and JARVIS sign first, and then the rest of you sign below, that would work?”

Clint and JARVIS had come up with the proof, but he’d have never done it without Tony, Bruce, and Jane teaching him math to begin with.

“Here…” Darcy laid a thick sheet of paper down at the other end of the lab bench, sat the ink and pen next to it. “If you’re unfamiliar with pen and ink, practice first before you sign.”

“Been years since I inked tech drawings,” Tony said to himself more than anyone. He went first, and Clint watched closely. Dip the pen, do a few test lines, then sign. Looked easy. “I still got it,” Tony said, then signed his name, in a surprisingly small space, in the center at the very bottom.

Jane gave it a few tries, “art classes as a kid,” she told them, then put her name in front of Tony’s. Both of them used their Dr and PhDs.

Bruce took more practice, which made Clint feel better, then added his own name on the other side of Tony’s also with his PhD and MD.

Clint tried about ten times, Tony and Jane both gave him tips, he tried another ten times, then gave up and inked “Clint Barton” neatly in all capital letters on the right side of the paper, below the proof.

“JARVIS?” Darcy asked. “Do you want Tony to sign, or…?”

“Could you place it in the laser cutter next door please?” JARVIS asked. “Sir, could you turn the laser down as low as possible, manually?”

“Yeah, I gotcha,” Tony nodded in understanding. “Bring the test page, too. Don’t want to accidentally fry the work of art.”

After Tony tinkered with the laser cutter for a bit, he laid the sheet of practice paper down, all of them turned their backs, and a bright light flashed.

“I think that will do?” JARVIS asked.

They all looked, and JARVIS had burned a sound wave into the paper, lightly enough it looked like brown ink. “That’s great,” Darcy told him.

“Thank you. It’s a sound wave of my name being spoken. It seemed right to do my name in a different way. Since a signature is done by hand, not printed.”

All of them nodded and smiled. Clint had one of those moments when it was really hammered home that JARVIS was a life form. Not human but near enough that they understood each other. He wondered what Tony thought of that. Tony put the manuscript into the laser cutter, gently weighted it down with some wrenches on top of sterile lab rags, and after they turned their backs again, it was done.

“Fabulous, thank you, more than I can say,” Darcy told them, rolling the page up and putting it in a fancy wooden holder worthy of it, carved with scroll-work that matched the surround of the painting on the page. “I don’t know if I’d ever have gotten in without this, but I know it would have taken FOREVER.”

“No problem, he did all the work,” Tony told her, and jerked a thumb at Clint.

“JARVIS did half the work,” Clint insisted, as always. Because he DID.

“Well thanks to you, I’ve gotten into the archives. So thank you again.”

“No problem,” Clint repeated. He had no doubt they’d be benefiting from something she dug up on Asgard sooner or later. Darcy was just that kind of person; he knew whatever her agenda was, it wasn’t the quest for knowledge in the abstract. She was after SOMETHING, and whatever it was, it would be something that helped people. He was curious how that would play out.

And fit into that bell curve and enormous map of connections. Shit, he needed to add the Archives as a location, see if Thor spent time there, start linking that in. As well as Frigg. And Mimir. Fuck.

Tony promised he’d get them all high-resolution copies of the art. Clint asked for an extra copy for the math lab and got a nod. Then he went to work down there, alone for now since Jane was in the main lab working with everyone else; all these people made him itchy. Especially when he felt guilty already.

- A -

It was Friday of what felt like the longest week of Tony’s life. The hashtags from Monday were still trending, Conor was fielding calls from just about every media outlet in North America, as well as quite a few international ones, and giving out a statement prepared by the legal department, supporting everyone who’d ever had problems with the NYPD and demanding Commissioner Kelley resign. Tony’d watched the Avengers’ director light up an fMRI like the profoundly gifted did, doing military strategy of course, and then he’d watched his PA disappear into a giant sky portal that morning, grinning happily and pulling a small rolling suitcase. THEN, because it hadn’t been enough of a week,

“Sir, Agent North of the US Marshals is on the line.” JARVIS was back to handling his calls, with Darcy on another planet.

Another fucking planet.

Tony frowned at JARVIS' sensors for a long moment. He was excellent with names and faces, it was part of his job and why he networked so well. It was the main life skill he'd learned from his mother; building from Dad, social shit from Mom. But that one... When had he ever tangled with the MARSHALS? For all his reputation of debauchery, it was usually local PDs picking him up for acting like a dumbass, nothing on a major scale until he became Iron Man, and then there was no law that applied to blowing up a terrorist camp in Afghanistan. The entire point of that senate hearing had been to scare him because no laws applied to - Oh. “Is that the very beautiful woman who served me with papers for that senate hearing during the Expo?”

“It is.”

Huh. She hadn't been so bad, all things considered. Businesslike, but not mean about it, even when he’d teased her a little bit about seeing her badge. “Sure, put her through.” He waited for the discreet chirp JARVIS did to let him know the mic was live, then “Agent North. Harassed any billionaires lately?”

There was a pause. “Just you.” It was said a little cautiously; she was trying to be nice. Good to know.

“Well that's too bad. Can I give you a list of suggestions?”

She gave a low, smoky laugh, which surprised Tony. North was definitely not in the same no-bullshit mood she'd been in the one time they met. He could work with that.

“I'm calling to ask a sort of favor, actually.”

And here it went. 'I served Tony Stark one time, let me give him a call.' Cops were the most bizarre people. “Oh?”

“A friend of mine at ATF has some bomb debris we were wondering if you could take a glance at, see if you knew anything about it? Informally. Very informally. I can send over a photo right now, you wouldn't have to even move. It's microscopic trace evidence. ATF is stumped. Don't tell them I said that.”

Well. That was... reasonable. Given his background and everything. “Sure.”

There was a pause, and JARVIS threw up a picture on the giant flat-screen they usually used for movies, as well as the one on his desk he used for high-resolution work. In case he wanted different views. It was a high-resolution picture of dirt. With a whole bunch of incriminating evidence mixed into it. Fuuuuuck. He buried his face in his hands for a second, since she couldn't see him. “You got yourselves a great h