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"But I don't see why I need a -- " Tony began, and Pepper gave him The Look.

Nobody talked over The Look.

"You need an assistant because you are no longer running Stark Industries, but I am," she said, adjusting her seatbelt in the back of the car.

"Exactly, so what do I need -- "

"Because you won't stop treating me like yours!"

"You're getting pretty bad about it, boss," Happy said from the front.

"You, be quiet," Tony ordered, then turned back to her. "Aw Pep, come on, I don't -- "

Pepper held up her phone and pushed a button.

Pepper, hey Pep, I need you to pick up some dry-cleaning and a microsurgery kit. Can you be here in like, twenty?

"Got that one during a board meeting," she said.

"Yeah, but that was just once and it was really pretty urg -- "

Pepper pushed a button.

Okay, you know what we need, you and me? Chinese. Bring it down to the shop, I will totally pay you back.

"Tw -- "

Pepper, it's Tony. Do you know where I can get an oil change for a Ferrari at two in the morning? Oh, PS, I'm in Germany. Outside Berlin. I think. Call me back!

Tony gave her a defeated look.

"Everything's set up," she said, tucking her phone into her pocket. "MIT sent its best and brightest to the interview suite. All you have to do is show up and point." She patted his cheek. "You never know. Maybe you'll even end up with a sidekick."

"I'm not building some scrawny, pasty dorkface from MIT a suit," Tony said.

"You graduated from MIT."

"Well, I'm an exception."

"So find yourself another one," she said, as the car pulled to a stop in front of the hotel. "Out you go. Try not to hire anyone based on their measurements."

 

 

It was like some kind of New England convention in the hotel.

If Mike Ross had turned left while running from the cops with a briefcase full of pot, he might have ended up in the Harvard interviews for Pearson Hardman's new personal associate to Harvey Specter.

But instead he turned right, and ended up at MIT's interviews for Tony Stark's new gofer.

When he burst into the room he found fifteen people -- mostly men, but a few women -- clustered together around a whiteboard on which an older man was sketching out mathematical equations.

"Now this is an easy -- you!" the man said, pointing at him without looking at him. "Late. Scram. Wait, no, don't scram, why are you late?"

Mike blinked at him.

"Do you talk?" the man asked. "Are you supposed to be here?"

"Probably not. I'm just trying to shake the cops," Mike said. About half the group laughed nervously. The man at the whiteboard looked startled for a minute, and then laughed as well.

"Hey, as excuses go, that's one you may need to use if you work for me," he said, turning back to the whiteboard. "Try and catch up. Hands up if you can solve -- "

"Twelve to the second power over E," Mike blurted.

The man turned around again slowly. He cocked his head, tapped the pen against his lips, and then tossed it down.

"You. Out. All of you. Go show your work in the other room. You, stay," he added, pointing to Mike. The others filed out, peering at Mike as they passed. Eventually it was just him and the crazy-haired man at the whiteboard.

"I'm -- "

"Tony Stark," Mike said, taking the offered hand. "Former CEO of Stark Industries. You operate the Iron Man prosthesis."

Stark's lips quirked. "You watched the congressional hearings."

"Survivor was a rerun."

"You know my name, but I don't know yours."

"Mike R -- " Mike got that far before the briefcase, to his horror, opened. Pot spilled out.

Stark looked down at it, faintly amused. "I haven't seen that much weed since college."

 

 

Pepper got a text in the middle of lunch with investors.

Non-MIT college dropout drug dealer Tony Stark's new assistant = how scandalous?

She sighed and texted back. I thought I said no hiring based on measurements.

His IQ = at min 175. Good enough measurement for you?

We'll discuss this later.

2 late. Hired him. Run bg check "Michael Ethan Ross" DOB 2.15.85, please ensure not a supervillain.

Sometimes Pepper thought she wasn't paid enough for this. (Then she remembered she was CEO, and could give herself a raise.)

 

 

"So that's done," Stark said, putting his phone away. He sat back in the couch with a glass of scotch and studied Mike. "Here's what we're going to do. You're going to quit smoking pot, it makes you stupid, dump that boat anchor who almost got you arrested, and buy yourself some clothes that don't look like you're on Baby's First Job Interview."

"Trevor -- "

"Is a punk, I know because I was one, drop him."

"He's my best friend!"

"Get new ones," Stark said ruthlessly. "Report to Stark Tower at nine on Monday and HR will molest you for a few hours. Your job is to hand me tools when I want them, get me to at least half of my appointments on time, not make any unnecessary noise, and not bother me if I'm working. Where do you live?"

Mike gaped at him. "Williamsbur -- "

"No you don't. You live in Stark Towers now."

"Excuse me?"

"I'm a public figure. I get a lot of flak for being myself and a lot of threats for being Iron Man. If you're going to be working with me, you need security that Brooklyn can't provide. The top twelve floors are condos, you can pick one. Grab your granny and bring her too if you want, we'll get her a private nurse."

Mike gave him a mulish look. "And if you decide to fire me in two weeks?"

"Oh, good point. Okay, you move in now, she can move in whenever you want."

"I'm not moving in -- "

"Then you're fired." Stark grinned at his expression. "Come on kid, you just blew the technological brain trust of the country out of the water. Carpe diem."

Which was how Mike ended up in the office of the CEO of Stark Industries on Monday morning, being scrutinized by Virginia Potts.

"You look harmless," she said finally.

"Thank you," he answered.

"Tony wanted me to make sure you're not a supervillain."

"Way too much work," Mike replied.

She smiled. "I can see why he took a shine to you. All right," she added, putting a StarkTech tablet in front of him and offering him a stylus. "Keep signing your name until it tells you to stop."

"Should I be a little worried I don't get to read it?" Mike asked.

"Absolutely. To assuage your worries," she said, and tapped a finger at the top of the screen. "That's your salary."

Mike signed.

 

 

Stark's tour of his workshop was...haphazard.

"So, there's things over here, and this is stuff, and that's -- um, don't touch that -- oh, this is Dummy, and Butterfingers -- ah ah, don't bug him, Butterfingers, or I'll scrap you and build talking dolls from your parts. Also, Jarvis, say hi -- "

"Hello, Mr. Ross," said a voice over the speakers. Mike looked up.

"Are you the AI?" he asked.

"Indeed."

"You call him Mike, he hasn't earned Mr. Ross yet," Stark put in.

"As you wish, sir. Welcome to Stark Industries, Mike."

"Thanks," Mike replied.

"And this is -- okay, don't touch that either -- and...some cars..." Stark waved dismissively at a collection of cars worth more than the gross national income of some small countries. "Keep up, are you keeping up?"

"Yessir."

"Okay then," Stark said, and pushed a button. A new door opened. Mike thought there might have been angelic trumpets. "And these are the suits."

There were four of them, each slightly different from the others in form. One was polished chrome, two were the classic red-and-gold Mike had seen in the newspapers or on television, and one was solid matte black.

"You're going to be tempted to try one on and take it for a spin," Stark said. "Don't. They have built in safeguards to prevent theft and they're not designed for amateurs."

"You were an amateur when you built it," Mike replied.

"When you can build one of these babies, you can wear it," Stark answered, but his eyes were distant; there was an affectionate smile on his face, the kind of deep affection Mike usually only saw in people who really, really loved their cars.

The tablet Mike was carrying beeped. He looked down at it, startled.

"What, you haven't memorized my calendar yet?" Stark asked, peering over his shoulder. "Oh, Fury. Whatever, he can wait."

"No he can't," said a voice, and both of them turned slowly. A tall man stood in the doorway, leaning casually against the jamb. He had an eyepatch. Mike swallowed.

"Who's the mini-me?" the man asked -- presumably Nick Fury, with whom Tony had a 2 o'clock appointment. "Actually, I don't care. Get lost, kid."

Mike looked up at Tony, and there was a moment where Tony looked at him like...he'd done something especially well.

"Yeah, go get acquainted with the robots," Tony said, jerking his head at the workshop. "Fury, we've had this little debate about your fan club, I'm not -- "

"Captain America's been found," Mike heard Fury say, before the door shut behind him. "Alive."

 

 

Stark spent half an hour in the suit room with Fury, and when he came out again he snapped his fingers at Mike and said, "GTO."

"You have two," Mike replied before thinking about it.

"Black one. Take it out, bring it around front. I'll drive."

Tony Stark drove like a maniac. He didn't say where they were going and Mike didn't ask, just tried not to pay attention to the likelihood of them crashing, or to the presence of the Iron Man suit in the attache case in the back seat. He focused instead on memorizing Stark's calendar and answering his questions, which seemed designed to explore Mike's mental abilities and ranged from the liquid mass capacity of a medium-sized bong to a brief history of New York City to his favorite place to get a sandwich.

"Is it true what Mr. Fury said?" Mike asked, when Stark stopped for breath. "That they found Captain America and he's alive?"

Stark glanced at him. "If you tweeted that -- "

"Come on, dude, give me some credit."

Stark looked like he was fighting a smile and muttered, "Dude."

"I signed all the confidentiality clauses," Mike reminded him.

"Not SHIELD's."

"But is it true?"

"According to Fury," Stark allowed.

"He's gotta be like, what, ninety-five? My granddad had all the Captain America illustrated adventures they did in the forties. Where'd they find him?"

Stark gave him a measuring look.

"Eyes on the road!" Mike said nervously. Stark turned back, but he still looked thoughtful.

"Again, according to Fury, the ice preserved him in suspended animation. He's still young."

"Wow." Mike sat back, trying not to flinch as they cut off a semi. "Your dad worked with him, didn't he? That was in one of the books granddad had."

"Dad used to bitch they never got his face right," Stark allowed.

"Do you think it's really Captain America? Not some kind of hoax?"

"Guess we'll find out," Stark replied, screeching to a halt. He climbed out of the car, tossing the keys to a guy who clearly wasn't a valet but was wearing some kind of paramilitary uniform. "Don't scratch her!" he called at the bemused SHIELD agent, and strode into the Manhattan headquarters of SHIELD like he owned it.

(Mike checked the tablet and found that he had access to Stark's bank accounts and holdings. He had extensive properties in Manhattan; apparently he did own it.)

Stark flashed an ID card at the security gate inside the lobby and then said "He's with me" with a wave of his hand at Mike; that worked for three more checkpoints, while Mike stared around wide-eyed at the huge, muscular people filling the halls, most of them with guns on their hips. There were also men and women in suits, carrying tablets or piles of paper, most of them keeping well out of the way of the armed SHIELD agents.

They passed a glassed-in laboratory and Mike tried not to look too closely at what was going on inside.

What finally stopped them was a small, nondescript man in a suit, who put a hand on Stark's chest to physically prevent him from moving and said, "You brought me an intern? That's sweet, Mr. Stark, but I have several of my own."

"He's an assistant, not an intern, and he's mine, and he wants to see Captain America, and so do I," Stark replied. Mike tried to look cool.

"You, briefing room," the man said to Stark. He turned to Mike. "You -- "

"No, kid stays with me," Stark said. "You can't send him to play all alone with the big dogs, Coulson, he's liable to get shot or irradiated or something."

About ten minutes of fighting, one nondisclosure contract, and two threats of tasering if he got out of line later, Mike met Captain America. He was very tall and very blond and Mike would have liked him a lot more if he wasn't such a douche to his boss.

Much later that night, he called his grandmother, and she asked him how his first day at work was.

"Oh, you know. Just settling in," he said.

 

 

Mike's phone rang at two in the morning. He picked up and groaned, "'Lo?"

"Just checking," Mr. Stark said, and hung up.

 

 

He spent his second day mostly locked out of the workshop. He sat in an empty office on the second floor of Stark Tower and and spent a long day wrangling with people who wanted a piece of Stark's time, a piece of his fortune, or just a piece of him. Ms. Potts had also emailed him several interesting guidelines, including the SOP for kicking women out of Mr. Stark's penthouse condo, and he feared the first time he'd have to do it.

Occasionally Stark sent him math to do, which was challenging, but after he sent the answers back there'd be radio silence until the next request came in. Probably just as well Stark hadn't hired someone from MIT. Mike didn't think engineers had a lot of experience as administrative assistants. He didn't either, but he'd worked in retail a few times, which made for a thick skin.

He had planned to put off moving into Stark Tower as long as possible, just in case, but when he got home from his second day, at half past nine at night, Trevor had broken into his apartment and searched for the briefcase of pot. Mike stood in the middle of his living room feeling ragey and violated, and made a decision.

He packed a bag, slung it on his back, shoved the briefcase on top, and rode his bike back to Stark Tower. The doorman let him in, and he didn't realize he had no idea where to go until he got in the elevator.

"Jarvis?" he said hesitantly, feeling weird talking to an empty elevator.

"Yes, Mike," Jarvis answered.

"That offer of a condo in this place..."

The elevator started to move.

It opened silently on the 52nd floor, into a hallway with a handful of doors. The one at the end swung open. Lights inside flicked on.

"Thanks," he said.

"Think nothing of it. Mr. Stark will be pleased."

Mike tossed his bag on a couch that was still covered in plastic from the factory. "Bedroom?"

"To your right. Mr. Stark is in the workshop, if you'd care to speak with him."

"In the morning," Mike said tiredly.

"I apologize; I was unclear. Mr. Stark is in the workshop, and would like to speak with you."

Mike sighed and went back out to the elevator bank.

When he got to the workshop he expected Stark to be working, but instead he was standing in the middle of the open floor. For reasons Mike didn't want to look into, he was shirtless, and wearing the bottom half of the Iron Man armor. His arms were crossed over his chest, but Mike could see the famous arc reactor glowing gently above them.

"You brought the briefcase," Stark said, without preamble. Mike's jaw dropped.

"How -- Jarvis," he said, before Stark could.

"I thought I told you to drop that asshat and stop smoking pot."

"I'm not smoking it!" Mike protested indignantly.

"I could give a sweet fuck what you're planning to do with it."

"Then -- "

"You think I don't know what it means?" Stark demanded.

Mike stared at him.

"You don't get a backup plan when you work for me," Stark said, pointing at him. "You don't get the option of failure when you work for Stark Industries."

"I wasn't -- "

"Shut up," Stark ordered. "You've got that pot just in case, and I don't care whether it's in case I fire you or in case you just can't go without smoking up. If you come in expecting to fail, you've already failed."

Mike gave him a stubborn look.

"So either you've failed, and you're fired, or you're going to be here, and do this, in which case you don't need it. Flush it, give it back to your dealer friend, I don't care." Stark turned away. "There's only room for one addict in this building and the position is filled," he added. "Get out of my sight. Get rid of it tomorrow or don't come back."

"It's not that easy, you know," Mike said, but Stark fired up a blowtorch, and the roar drowned him out.

Mike slunk back upstairs.

 

 

"Mr. Stark."

Tony groaned and rolled over, pressing his face into his pillow.

"Mr. Stark," Jarvis repeated.

"What time 'sit?" Tony mumbled.

"Four o'clock, sir."

"AM?"

"PM."

"Ngh, in that case I might as well sleep through."

"I thought you would wish to know that Mike has disposed of the package," Jarvis said, a tactful note in his voice.

Tony managed a bleary grin, tipping his chin up momentarily. "Good boy," he murmured, and went back to sleep.

 

 

It wasn't that Stark was a bad boss. Or even a rude boss. He was a demanding boss, and as he got the measure of Mike's mental abilities he started demanding more of him, which was when Mike started on what Ms. Potts referred to as "the first breakdown".

"The rest are easier after the first one," she assured him on a rare visit to Stark's garage, Mike's second week on the job. Mike was rescheduling a meeting by email, fielding two phone calls simultaneously about renewed interest in promotional deals for Iron Man, heating lunch that he was going to have to force Stark to eat, and fending off Dummy's affectionate head-patting, all at the same time. He gave her a panicked, I can't handle this look.

Ms. Potts took the phone, said "No," hit call waiting, said "No," again, hung up, reached across Mike to open a form email and send it, batted Dummy away, and hit the microwave release button with her elbow just before it beeped.

Mike stared at her in awe.

"Take this in to him, and don't let him give you any orders for fifteen minutes," she said kindly.

"But he'll -- "

"Fire you? If he tries, ask him who does his laundry."

"I don't do his laundry," Mike said, outraged. "He has a service!"

"But does he know that?" She smiled. "Listen, you were hired to nurture his genius and make sure he's wearing clean underwear."

"Uh, I don't -- "

"Metaphorically. He might have wanted someone brilliant to assist him in the garage, but your primary duty is to his health, not his brain. Don't let him loop you into holding wrenches for him when you should be replying to his emails."

"Thanks," Mike said, because I love you was an inappropriate remark to make to the head of one of the most powerful tech companies in the world.

 

 

"How's the new boy toy working out?" Natasha asked Tony, and then kicked him in the face.

Sparring with Natasha was bullshit. It helped, he guessed -- he was certainly learning new moves -- but Tony was still leery of this whole Avengers thing, and he hated being kicked in the face. Still, Captain America had changed the game; that kind of leader, with this kind of backing, was something Tony couldn't resist being a part of. Even if it meant he had to let Natasha beat him up and listen to Steve Rogers give orders.

"Well, he's no Pepper," he grunted, grabbing her thigh and flipping her. She rebounded with a growl. "But what he lacks in tits he makes up in ass."

"Pig," she told him, as they circled each other.

"Not telling me anything I didn't -- hey there sexy," he remarked, as she feinted left and then jabbed right, barely missing his shoulder, " -- already know. Whatever, he keeps my inbox clean."

"Is that what they call it now?"

"I would never hit on an employee, except for all those times I did." Tony ducked a little too late, trying to get the last word in, and went over backwards hard, wind knocked out of him. He kicked up but Natasha dodged, and he had the singular pleasure of being pinned with her foot on his neck.

"Uncle," he wheezed. She pulled him up effortlessly, and he leaned forward, hands on his thighs, struggling for breath.

"Truth is," he said, around deep, desperate pulls of air, "he's -- hnnnnh! -- great. Kid's got a photohnnnh!graphic memory and a fucked up hnnn! personal life. Almost no friends. Huge insecurity complex. Terror of -- hnnnnh -- success. It's like hanging out with me at -- haaaah -- fifteen."

"Try not to warp him further," she said, patting him on the back and walking away.

"Don't think I could if I hnnnntried," Tony breathed.

 

 

Mike moved Gram into Stark Tower three weeks after starting work.

It wasn't that he wanted to, but Tony Stark worked long hours, and Mike could barely get away to eat and sleep, let alone visit his grandmother across town. This way he could leave if she needed him, or even work from his living room when he wasn't needed in the workshop. Gram wasn't annoyed with him for not visiting, and Stark wasn't pissed that he was across town if he needed someone to bring him dinner or hold tools for him while he built things (amazing things, things Mike barely understood, things other people seemed not to comprehend at all). Jarvis found him a reputable home nursing service; Stark kicked them out for two days and had his builders install ramps and a wheelchair-accessible kitchen. And...and they were a family again, him and Gram, in a way they hadn't been since she'd had the stroke.

Which came with its own perils, as it turned out.

"Mike," Jarvis said, two days after Gram had moved in.

"Little busy here, Jarvis!" Stark yelled over the whoomph and flare of the forge. Mike, holding the crucible cup carefully, walked with exaggerated wariness to the mold, where Stark took the cup from him and poured.

"My apologies. Mike, your grandmother wishes to see you."

Mike looked up, peeling back the heat-resistant mask. "Is she okay?"

"All her vital signs are within acceptable limits."

"Then she can wait fifteen minutes," Stark grumbled.

"She wishes to see you as well, Mr. Stark."

"What, now?" Stark grinned at him. "I finally get to meet the Duchess, huh?"

"Oh, my God," Mike muttered, but the double-invitation was apparently enough to distract Stark from their makeshift Vibranium refinery. Stark yanked off his gloves, pulled a discarded dress shirt on over his sweaty t-shirt, and made for the stairs.

When they reached the condo, Gram didn't seem to be in any particular peril; she was in her wheelchair, seated at the dining-room table.

"Go wash up," she said.

"Buh?" Mike asked.

"Both of you, you're filthy. It's dinner time. Go wash up."

"Did your grandmother just make us come home for dinner?" Stark asked him a minute later, standing at the kitchen sink, scrubbing grime off his hands with dish soap.

"I'm sorry, she has ideas about family dinner -- "

"Don't talk about it, she might hear you," Stark whispered conspiratorially.

"She's big on regular meals," Mike whispered back.

"You do realize you're a grown man, right?"

"Michael! Mr. Stark!"

"Coming, Gram!" Mike called. Stark laughed and dried his hands.

"Ma'am, this was a very nice gesture," he said, as they emerged from the kitchen. "But I have some pretty delicate -- "

"Don't be rude, Mr. Stark," Gram said. Stark stopped mid-word, something Mike rarely saw and kind of cherished. "Sit down, your porkchops are getting cold."

There was a moment of crackling tension as they locked eyes.

Stark caved.

Mike watched with a mixture of fear, glee, and wonder as a billionaire ex-arms-merchant superhero playboy sat down at the table across from his grandmother and folded his hands in his lap. Gram reached over and patted his arm.

"Now then, there's chops there in the pan, and mashed potatoes in the bowl, and green beans," she said. "Michael, you serve."

"Yes'm," Mike said, and found himself having family dinner hour with his grandmother and Tony Stark. Who, it turned out, could actually mimic someone with good manners when you put him in the right setting.

It wasn't every night -- well, Mike was expected to come upstairs and at least kiss her on the cheek and steal some food to take to the workshop -- but at least twice a week, Gram summoned them and made them sit and behave themselves and eat a good meal. Stark unfailingly called her the Duchess, but he ate the food she put in front of him and usually behaved himself.

"I think it's very character-building for poor Mr. Stark," Gram said to him one evening, after Stark had excused himself to go back to the workshop. "Someone clearly needed to teach that man to respect his elders."

 

 

Mike slowly got used to the rhythms of life with Tony Stark, such as they were. Stark would emerge from his garage for Ms. Potts or Colonel Rhodes ("Jesus, how old are you, nine? Call me Rhodey, it'll make you sound post-pubescent"), bouncing around them like a dog demanding attention; he'd come out, but only sulkily, for Nick Fury or Phil Coulson. He would emerge for parties, or if Mike nagged him long enough about a meeting.

It took him a while to feel comfortable doing that; the second time Stark yelled at him for making him miss a meeting (one of the important, as opposed to the irrelevant, ones) Mike snapped back Well if you'd just turn the Def Leppard off for two seconds and pay attention to what I'm saying, you wouldn't end up missing these things!

Stark had eyed him, grinned, and said, "Yell like that next time you want me to do something. I obey threats better than requests."

Sometimes he found himself locked out of the garage. JARVIS was always nice but firm about it: Mr. Stark had work even his nimble-minded assistant was not privy to.

The first time Mike got his picture in the paper, trailing behind after Stark with his ever-present tablet as they left a lunch meeting with the Mayor, Stark threw the newspaper at him -- it was an affectionate throw, really -- and barked, "How much did you pay for that suit?"

"I dunno," Mike said.

"I've been neglecting you. It's my fault. You're small and impressionable, you can't be expected to know these things. Give me the blowtorch."

Mike picked up the blowtorch and moved it well out of reach.

"The two thoughts were unconnected," Stark assured him. "You ready for your to-do list?"

"My to-do list already has eight things on it."

"Fine, starting at nine: finish the stress calculations on the new fiber experiments; help JARVIS calibrate thrust on the black suit's repulsors, they're pulling to the right; I want something plant-y for dinner, but not a salad, like an artichoke or some asparagus, wait, no, broccoli chicken."

"Fried chicken and broccoli is still mostly fried chicken," Mike interrupted.

"Shh. Am I going somewhere tonight?"

"If you are, it isn't in the calendar."

"Okay, in that case, you leave here at four o'clock and go here -- " Stark threw a digital business card at Mike's tablet, and Mike didn't think he'd ever get tired of seeing Stark's holograms disappear as JARVIS integrated tablet and data smoothly. "Tell Rene I sent you and get yourself at least three suits that don't look like your dad bought them for you at JC Penney's. Wait, no, come find me before you leave, if I haven't blown anything up we'll go together."

Stark had blown something up by four, but Mike was used to it by now, and since the fire was already out they both went.

 

 

Fate was a strange mistress, for superheroes even more than ordinary people. While Mike may have barely missed Harvey Specter while running from the cops, he ran smack into him when given a second chance. Literally.

They were leaving Rene's shop -- Stark excited because new clothes! and Mike exhausted for much the same reason. Mike was turning to tell him something about one of the shirts when someone bounded up the steps and they collided somewhere in the middle, Mike grabbing onto the man's expensive-feeling lapels before they could both tumble down the stairs.

"Sorry -- sorry!" he gasped, trying to smooth down the man's lapels without looking like he was feeling him up. "I'm so sorry -- "

"Is it yours?" the man asked, looking over his shoulder to where Stark was losing it, laughing loudly on the step above.

"Yeah, nominally. God, kid, really," Stark said, yanking Mike back by his collar. "Don't you have innocents to be corrupting, Specter?"

"How's world domination coming, Stark?" the man asked.

"Well, thanks," Stark said, still laughing. The man he'd called Specter looked amused. "Mike, this is my lawyer, Harvey Specter. Harvey, this is Pepper 2.0. He's still in beta."

"I'd say it's my pleasure, but it's not, really," Specter told him.

"I'm so sorry, Mr. Specter -- " Mike started, and Stark cuffed him on the back of the head.

"You'll never get anywhere with an attitude like that," he said. "Harvey, why were you mowing down my assistant? Are you late or something?"

"Roadblocks are for lesser men," Specter said, grinning. "Got a fitting. Hey, are you gonna be at the science museum reception this weekend?"

"Yes," Mike answered for him. Both men looked at him. Mike glanced at Stark and tapped his temple. "Calendar."

"He has his uses," Stark told Specter.

"So I see. I'll find you there, we'll catch up," Specter added, moving past them towards the door. "Hey, by the way, you owe me Knicks tickets."

"Fuck I do!" Stark yelled over his shoulder. Then he bent down over Mike's ear and said, "Make a note, Knicks tickets for Harvey Specter."

"Noted," Mike said, as they began walking again. "Why do you have a lawyer? Doesn't Stark Industries have a whole legal department?"

"Harvey's my personal lawyer. He makes would-be babymamas get DNA tests, runs off the grifters, and administers my personal estate. He's not actually Satan, but he's probably related. Scary effective."

Mike glanced back. Specter was watching them from the top of the stairs, a speculative look on his face. When he saw Mike looking, he gave him a sharp, ruthless grin, and turned to go inside.

 

 

Mike's condo in Stark Tower came furnished, down to a bookshelf full of pretentious books he knew the inhabitant was never meant to actually read, just show off. Some of the furniture, in addition, was totally hideous.

"Hired a decorator for the units," Stark said, when Mike brought this up. "Not my fault. Throw it over the balcony if you don't like it."

He didn't throw it over the balcony, but he did slowly weed out both the books and the chairs he didn't like, dropping them off at the nearest homeless shelter. Whenever he had a spare moment, which wasn't often, he borrowed one of Stark's less pretentious cars and went back to his old apartment, ferrying out his books first.

He was just going to pick up the last of them, and maybe some of his posters, when he reached the landing for his apartment and found Trevor standing there, waiting for him.

"You haven't been home in a while," Trevor said. "Find yourself a sugar mama?"

"Jesus Christ," Mike groaned, rolling his eyes. "Are we really doing this? Because if I remember, you're the one who fucked me over."

"Jenny dumped me."

"Good for her." Mike went to elbow past him, and Trevor shoved him back.

"You never should have told her I was dealing."

"I never should have had to hide it," Mike retorted. "Why the hell are you, anyway? You have software clients, and I can -- "

"Seriously?" Tevor looked honestly surprised. "You bought that bullshit? I don't have clients, Mike. I never did."

Mike pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, if you need money -- "

"What?" Trevor asked. "This isn't about money. This is about you and me. And Jenny." He scowled. "You always liked her."

"She deserved to know the truth," Mike said.

"You always thought you were better than me."

This was getting personal, fast, and Mike decided he could get his books some other day.

"Does it matter?" he asked tiredly, and turned to go.

Trevor grabbed him and pulled him around -- he didn't have time to react, didn't even have time to think about it before he was shoved into the wall. Someone down the hall yelled for them to keep it the fuck down, but nobody came out to see what was going on.

Mike shoved back, but Trevor had always been bigger than him; they grappled for a few bare seconds and then Trevor drew back and punched him.

Punched him.

The shock of it froze him more than the pain did -- this was Trevor, practically his brother, his best friend. He didn't even think to lash out, just stumbled backwards and tried to dodge away from a second swing. It caught him a glancing blow against his jaw.

He kicked, but Trevor had the upper hand and was pushing it, trying to grab him by the lapel of his suit, and Mike threw his weight backwards to avoid it. They went down together; Trevor slammed his head into the floor and then scrambled to his feet.

Mike looked up, more stunned than hurt, and saw the horror on Trevor's face.

But something in him -- some defiant, self-destructive flicker that had grown from embers in his time with Stark, made him ask, "Hey, that the best you got?"

Trevor kicked him. Hard. Then the pain did flare, and Mike curled in on himself. He braced for another blow, but instead all he heard were footsteps, running, Trevor's shoes on the staircase, and the distant slam of the building's front door.

He fumbled for his phone, hands trembling, and managed more by chance than intent to hit the red panic button on the side, the one that definitely did not come standard with Stark-issued cellphones.

"How can I be of service, Mike?" Jarvis's voice came tinny over the speaker.

"I think I need an ambulance," Mike groaned.

 

 

"You are a total mess," Stark said, about an hour later. "You're a tragic heap of a human being."

Mike couldn't argue. Sitting on an ER bed, with livid purple bruises on his (fortunately undamaged) ribs and an ice pack held gingerly to his face, he felt like a tragic heap.

"What happened, anyway? Why were you even in that part of town?" Stark asked, more gently.

"I was getting some books from my old apartment," Mike said.

"Were you mugged? Did you anger a feral urban bear or something?"

He almost told the truth. He almost said, My ex-best-friend just jumped me and I could use a very gentle hug. But he saw the look in Stark's eye, pissed off and dangerous, and after all this was a guy who'd singlehandedly wiped out a terrorist cell once because he was having a bad day. He had a feeling if he told the truth, Trevor would not just be an ex-friend; he might be an ex-Trevor.

So he lied.

"Yeah. Mugged," he said thickly.

Maybe Stark bought it. Maybe he let him get away with the lie. Either way, he just pressed his lips together and glowered.

"Is Gram freaked out?" Mike asked.

"Nobody's told her. That honor falls to you," Stark said. "Get up, Happy's waiting with the car. Let's get you some really strong opiates and take you home."

In the car, Stark poured himself a drink, offered the bottle to Mike, then nodded when he waved it off and offered him a Coke instead. Mike drank slow sips, letting the sweetness wash the tang of blood out of his mouth.

"I'm locking you out from now until Friday," Stark said. "No workshop, no phone, no email. If you're a good boy I'll let you have Wikipedia."

"I don't need -- "

"Well, maybe email," Stark allowed. "Nobody important ever calls me anyway. Urgent business only, though."

"You don't have to," Mike said sullenly.

"Yeah, I do. I want you up and on your feet by Friday, because on Friday I'm going to teach you how to do more than take hits and cower like a kicked dog," Stark continued. "You know any hand-to-hand?"

"Wrestling team in high school," Mike muttered.

Stark laughed. "I bet you looked awesome in those stupid unitards they make you wear. If I have to get my ass handed to me on a regular basis in the name of self-defense, so do you."

"I'm not a superhero."

"You're not a billionaire, either, sucks to be you, it's still happening. You're my assistant, you can't go around getting beat up for your bling."

"I don't -- " Mike started, then grimaced as his jaw twinged. "I don't have bling!"

"Wow, the point of that just flew by you, didn't it? Not your fault. Okay," Stark added, as they arrived at the Tower. "Go upstairs, try not to give your sainted ancestor a heart attack, see you on Friday."

And he was out the door, back to his workshop.

"I'm glad to see you in one piece," Jarvis said, on the elevator ride up.

"Nice someone is," Mike sighed.

Mike's belongings -- all of them, neatly packed in well-labeled boxes -- showed up in his condo the following morning.

 

 

It turned out that in addition to being a genius, a billionaire, a superhero, and the kind of guy who regularly slept with supermodels, Tony Stark was a ninja.

For five weeks after "the asskicking" as Stark insisted on calling it, he spent at least an hour a day throwing Mike around a small workout room, trying to teach him to fight. It worked, on some level, but it left Mike constantly bruised. Gram was totally unsympathetic, and Jarvis just offered ice packs and told him his vitals were within the normal range.

The only days they had breaks were either the ones where Stark was so buried in work he forgot, or ones where the Avengers were called out on missions. Mike tried not to think about those. He'd see the news reports later, but he preferred not to know when it happened, and not to think about it if he knew it was happening.

It scared him.

But Stark was always telling him not to be a gutless wimp about it, so he just tried to ignore it as best he could.

 

 

Tony had expected to hire someone with few social skills and no management skills. He'd expected to hire an engineer who wouldn't be able to handle the administrative side of his life, and expected them to quit, and then he could tell Pepper it was a failed experiment and go back to demanding things of her. It wasn't that Tony liked tormenting Pepper; it was just that he was used to her. Pepper was comfortable.

He'd hired Mike on a whim because the kid seemed bright and capable, and sounded like he had nothing to lose, and Tony liked people who lived on the edge. He hadn't anticipated him also being competent and organized, which was a failing on Tony's part, because Tony had kind of based his entire existence around being able to anticipate things.

He hadn't anticipated liking him so much, either. The night Mike got beaten down by Trevor (who did he think he was fooling? Mugged, really?) Jarvis had alerted Tony at the same time he'd called an ambulance for Mike, and Tony hadn't felt really settled until he'd seen him with his own eyes and assured himself he was fine. He'd toyed with the idea of finding Trevor and setting him on fire, but Mike seemed to be against it, and anyway superheroes weren't allowed to do that kind of thing unless their opponents were actual facts evil, not just dickheads who beat up said superhero's favorite employee.

It should have made him more uncomfortable, how much he liked Mike. But after all, most of the people he really liked were his employees, so he was used to it.

He often forgot, because Mike didn't seem to like to show it off, that his assistant had a sideways-moving, innovative mind. When left to his own devices in the workshop, Mike sometimes came up with downright surprising observations about his projects.

He'd really just been dicking around that afternoon, clearing away some old scraps of work and considering what project he wanted to mess with next, when he happened to glance up and see Mike sitting at one of the holotables, a distant look on his face. Tony set down the cords he'd been winding and moved closer, quietly. Mike didn't often use the holotables.

He was doodling a draft in the air, turning it occasionally to get new views, sketching arcs and squares with his finger in a familiar-looking shape. Tony watched as it took form: something resembling a sleek version of a VW bug, the Iron Man armor inside it, hunched and with his knees tucked up as if he were riding a low-to-the-ground motorcycle.

Mike noticed him watching, finally, and looked embarrassed.

"Ever seen Tron?" he asked. "The part with the video game cars? I always wanted one."

In the corner, he'd been doing specs, Tony saw; retractable wheels that could pull back into the Iron Man gauntlets and shin-shields.

"Not bad," he allowed. "You'd need to reinforce the helmet, add some camera feeds so you could see with your head down." He drew a reinforced helmet and then just as quickly rubbed it out, redrawing the regular helmet and adding two arcs running from forehead to nape. "Impact displacement. You'd break your neck otherwise. Bracing here, as well."

"It was just a cartoon," Mike said with a shrug. But he'd drawn the Iron Man armor perfect, every plate and hinge in place, from memory. His mind never ceased to surprise Tony, who didn't consider him an equal mentally but couldn't deny there were some resemblances.

"So was the Ourobouros, and Kekule figured out the Benzene Ring from that," Tony replied, leaning forward. "Jarvis, slap a title bar on that with Mike Ross as the designer, stash it in the projects folder."

"As you like, sir," Jarvis replied, and the doodle faded from view.

"I'm in the mood for steak," Tony said, cutting off Mike's halfhearted objection. "Bring me rare steak. Go."

Mike went. Tony watched him until the door clicked shut, then grinned.

"Bring it back, Jarvis, and do a search of Stark and personal proprietary designs, see if we have anything for retractable wheels."

 

 

World-threatening evil wasn't as common as you might think.

In the months Mike had been working for Stark, he'd only gone out on Avengers missions a handful of times. Some of those weren't even strictly-speaking Avengers business; natural disasters were terrible, of course, but only fell under the SHIELD jurisdiction because a flying robot, a Norse god, two assassins and a super-soldier came in handy rescuing people from mudslides and volcanoes and stuff. Mike was willing to bet that Stark wouldn't even see the Avengers that often if they didn't have weekly briefings and semi-weekly sparring matches mandated by Captain Rogers.

He was allowed to come along to the meetings on sufferance; mostly, the idea that if Stark couldn't bring his assistant to meetings, everyone would suffer. As Stark put it, "Thor gets to bring Mjolnir, and Mike's at least twice as smart as a hammer." Only Mr. Fury (scary in a kick-your-ass way) and Mr. Coulson (scary in a ninth-grade-math-teacher way) really objected, and while they were truly terrifying the Avengers tended to outvote them when it came to "Oh god, just let Stark bring him, it shuts him up."

Also Mike was useful in fetching coffee, and sometimes making photocopies.

Usually, after the official meetings, the Avengers hung around, loafing in the conference room and bickering or chatting about SHIELD business. Stark would needle Captain Rogers, Clint and Natasha would smolder at each other, Dr. Banner would distract Stark from his needling, and Thor would sit there looking majestic and making pronouncements.

The weird thing was, they seemed to find Mike fascinating. After all, they were the superheroes. Mike was just the assistant to the most annoying superhero.

Natasha treated him with placid indifference, but then she treated everyone that way. Captain Rogers said he reminded him of a guy he knew in the war (only a tiny bit creepy) and Dr. Banner sometimes had Mike take notes when he and Tony were deep in discussion. Clint teased and prodded him, but it reminded him of Trevor back when they were actually friends.

Thor, once he understood the nature of Mike's memory, was utterly fascinated.

"You are like unto a Skald," Thor declared, and Stark looked annoyed.

"Stop calling my puppy names," he said.

"It is an honorable position!" Thor protested.

"You're a philistine," Clint told Stark. "A Skald's like a bard."

"I dare you to say that again and not laugh," Stark replied.

"Regale us!" Thor insisted. "Mike, assistant to Tony Stark, you must know many battle songs and epic poems."

Mike fidgeted. Technically he could recite Julius Caesar, but...

"Lay off him," Stark said. "Go watch a DVD if you want an epic poem."

"Don't mind them," Captain Rogers said to Mike in an undertone.

"Skalds are well-respected in my realm," Thor continued. "Particularly known for their taunting wits and the fire and power of their mockery!"

Somehow, this led to Mike sitting in a boardroom of the most powerful law-enforcement agency in the country, surrounded by superheroes, explaining the concept of the yo-mama joke to a Norse god.

Thor caught on pretty quickly; apparently Asgardians valued the honor of their mothers even higher than American teenagers did.

"Your mother was defiled by Sleipnir!" Thor boomed. "And she liked it."

"Well, your delivery could use some work, but -- "

Mike broke off as a klaxon sounded over the loudspeakers. As one, everyone in the room stood; Stark went for his phone, Captain Rogers began barking orders, and the boardroom cleared quickly.

"What's going on?" Mike asked, grabbing Dr. Banner's arm in the hallway.

"Assembly call," Dr. Banner replied. "We're needed."

"Where should I go?"

"Comm room," Dr. Banner said. "Down that hall."

"Mike!" Stark yelled over his shoulder, already running the other way. "Stay here and sit still!"

"Good luck!" Mike yelled back.

Which was probably some kind of curse.

He found his way to the comm room, which turned out to be some kind of central dispatch and radio headquarters; scary-looking people in SHIELD uniform were pouring in, pulling headphones on and sitting down at advanced-looking computers. Mike found himself pushed to the back, and then he felt a hand on his arm.

"Get out of the way!"

The woman hissing at him couldn't be any older than he was, probably younger; she had pretty brown hair and hipster glasses, and she pulled him along through a door and into another room, this one with two huge television monitors and an array of mismatched chairs.

"Interns aren't allowed in the comm room," she said sternly, when they stopped.

"I'm not an intern!" Mike retorted. "Why does everyone think I'm an intern?"

"Well, you look like one. Okay, maybe in a nicer suit," she said. "Who are you, then?"

"Mike Ross," he replied. "I'm Mr. Stark's assistant."

Her eyebrows raised. "So you're the freak with the memory, huh? Thor mentioned you. I'm Darcy," she added, offering her hand. "I am an intern, so you don't need to sound so insulted about being mistaken for one."

"Sorry," he said.

"No harm, no foul. Have a seat. Is this your first time seeing a live broadcast?"

"A live broadcast of what?" he asked, perturbed.

"Of the fight! We get radio too, as soon as the Avengers are at the drop point. That feed is Mr. Stark's helmet," she added, pointing at the monitor on the right. "The other feed is SHIELD cameras. You know what they're fighting?"

"Not the faintest idea," Mike said. "Why, do you?"

"No, but I don't think it's good," she answered, as the right-hand monitor flickered to life. Mike could see the interior of some kind of helicopter, or maybe a cargo jet; if this was Stark's helmet cam, that meant he was looking at Captain Rogers at the moment, who was pulling his infamous cowl over his head.

"Check, one two," Stark's voice came over the loudspeaker, startling Mike. "HQ, let me hear your dulcet tones."

"We read you, Iron Man," someone else said.

"Comm check. Captain America?"

"Reading."

"Hawkeye?"

"Reading."

"Bruce?"

"Why am I here?" Dr. Banner asked weakly, rhetorically.

"Because we love a man in a lab coat. Widow?"

"Reading."

"And Thor."

"I hear you well, my metal-clad brother!"

Stark sighed. "Check complete. Visual?"

"Visual is a go, Iron Man."

"You have any idea what we're about to jump into the middle of?" Stark asked. It was strange to hear him sound so...professional. No excess babbling, no messing around. Mike sank into a chair and watched as the other monitor came to life as well.

"Looks like a mutant," SHIELD reported.

"Great," Mike heard Natasha mutter.

"Anyone we know?"

"Negative, Captain America. First reports are coming in now, might be someone losing control."

"Okay, let's try to contain first," Captain Rogers -- Captain America -- announced. "If intelligence is right, terminal force is a very last resort."

"And if intelligence is wrong?" Stark asked.

"Then we'll reassess. Everyone on my mark. Ready?"

The thing about watching a battle live was that it was confusing. The news stories always made it so clean-cut; there was a bad guy or a bad situation, the Avengers did something suitably dramatic and photogenic, and the forces of good triumphed. In reality it was a lot of shouting and shaky-cam.

Stark sounded like he was in his element. Apparently professionalism only lasted until the battle began.

"Oh, someone brought his biceps to the fight," he called, about halfway through their attempts to contain some kind of super-strong, super-fast mutant. "Lookin' sexy, Hawkeye. Don't they pay you enough to buy shirts with sleeves?"

"Fuck you, Iron Man!" Hawkeye growled. On one camera, Mike could see him crouched, stock still, waiting for a shot.

"No glove no love, baby!" Stark howled.

"Can we please pretend to be grownups on the comms?" Captain America interrupted. Stark's helmet-cam landed on him, looking vaguely embarrassed. "Thor! On your six!"

Mike didn't realize he was gripping the arms of the chair, taut with tension, until the wood actually creaked. Darcy looked over at him and gave him a reassuring smile.

"They're really careful," she said. "Well, most of the time."

"I'm pretty sure I didn't want to be watching this," Mike said through gritted teeth.

What happened next was confused, a series of yells and camera-cuts on the surveillance screen, and later NBC News would do a computer-generated recreation that made a little more sense. But all Mike would remember afterward was a sudden shriek, like a car braking at high-speed, and Captain America's yell of Tony, look out! and then the sickening crunch of metal.

And the explosion.

 

 

Mike was on the first chopper out to the scene, which turned out to be somewhere on Long Island. He didn't necessarily want to be -- not that he didn't want to see Stark, but he was afraid of what he'd find. Coulson just grabbed him, said "You, with me," and dragged him onto a helicopter.

He understood the urgency better when he arrived; he could hear Stark yelling over the whip-whip of the helicopter blades as they landed.

"Get off me get off me you don't know what you're -- stop -- don't touch that!" Stark was shouting, surrounded by a cluster of EMTs, sitting on the back of an ambulance, still in his suit but with the helmet retracted. His left arm was hanging at a decidedly unsettling angle, and the shoulder of the armor was shoved inwards, metal curling viciously from an impact.

"Mike!" Stark yelled when he saw him. "Michael! Get over here and get these morons off me! You, Captain Giant A On Your Forehead, stop hovering!"

Mike pushed through the crowd, elbowing EMTs and SHIELD agents out of the way, and even Captain America stepped aside.

"Good. Okay, now that someone who knows what they're doing is here," Stark called, "You guys go hover around Banner or something. Mike, here," he said, and pointed with his right hand at his left shoulder. "I don't want the armor damaged."

"I think it already is," Mike said.

"I want the impact preserved, we need to run some stress tests on it," Stark informed him. Mike already had his phone out and was snapping pictures for Jarvis to analyze. Stark fumbled in the thigh-compartment of the suit and produced his on-the-go kit: small socket wrench, hex-key, screwdriver, one-shot cutting torch. Mike selected the socket wrench and set to work.

"Okay, careful, careful," he said, as Mike applied the wrench to the wrist joints, which had to be opened before he could access the upper arm. "Easy..."

"I got it," Mike muttered, pulling metal off hurriedly. He knew every inch and plate of the armor by now, and he could see the exploded diagrams in his head. Wrist bone's connected to the arm bone...

"Watch that edge," Stark warned, as Mike pried the plates off carefully. One of them came away scorched and twisted. "Ugh, I think I'm bleeding into the under-suit."

"Hurt much?" Mike asked, pulling the shoulder cap off, wiggling it a little to get it out from under the bent-in edge of the chestplate. Freed from the clamp of metal, the chestplate retracted, along with the other arm; it left Stark in his neoprene under-armor suit to the waist.

"No pain at all. I'm flying for at least another ten minutes," Stark informed him. Mike grabbed a pair of shears from the back of the ambulance and began slitting the under-armor sleeve from the wrist, peeling it back slowly. When he got to the elbow he found blood matting to the fabric, and worked more carefully.

There was a long gash along the underside of his arm where the metal had bent in, but otherwise he looked okay until Mike reached the shoulder. He snipped the other side of the collar, pulling the entire top of the under-armor down for a better look, checking the arc reactor for cracks or dents.

"Diagnostic, professor?" Stark drawled. Mike took his time.

"Shoulder's dislocated," he said finally.

"Well, pop it the fuck back in, don't take all day about it -- mother of shitting hell," Stark yelled, as Mike put his hands on the shoulder and shoved without warning.

"Language," Captain America said.

"Oh fuck you twice!" Stark yelled some more, panting. "Jesus sodomy Christ that hurt." He tested his arm. "Back in?"

"Looks like it," Mike said. He was pretty accustomed to Stark swearing, and even he was blushing at the language. "Couple of stitches and I think you'll be fine, Mr. Stark."

Stark looked up at him, eyes narrowing. "You just stripped me down in front of half of Long Island and relocated my hellfucking shoulder," he said. "I think you're allowed to call me Tony now."

Then he passed out.

 

 

Mike -- and, to his surprise, Captain Rogers -- rode with the medical transport back to SHIELD, carrying the busted pieces of armor in a body bag one of the agents rustled up from somewhere. Stark -- Tony -- slid in and out of consciousness, but the SHIELD medics assured Mike he was doing fine. He busied himself getting the initial analysis from Jarvis and studying the scorch-marks on the armor.

"It was very heroic, what he did," Captain Rogers said earnestly. "Stupid, but heroic. That guy must've slammed into him going a hundred miles an hour. Then he exploded." He looked vaguely sad. "We're going to get another angry letter from Professor Xavier about mistreating mutants."

"Why didn't he dodge?" Mike asked.

"Hawkeye was behind him," Captain Rogers said. "I told you. Heroic."

Mike looked down at the armor, then over at Sta -- at Tony, pale and still on the gurney, and felt sick.

He followed the medics as far as they'd let him, until they took Tony into x-ray and told him to stay put. Mike stayed put, standing in the middle of the hall, until a hand fell on his shoulder. He looked up into the terrible single eye of Nick Fury.

"This way," Fury said, and pulled him away, down one of SHIELD's endless corridors and into the debriefing room. All chatter inside ceased.

"Michael!" Thor called finally. "Your mother wears clothing inappropriate to her gender and demeaning to her station in life!"

Clint broke first. He let out an undignified giggle into the shocked silence, which set off a few of the SHIELD agents, and there was a moment of relieved, almost insane laughter before Captain Rogers cleared his throat.

"Why don't you take a seat, Mike," he said.

Mike had never sat in on a debrief before, but he figured he could just skim out the useful parts for Tony later. It wasn't until Captain Rogers looked at him after listening to Dr. Banner's analysis of the situation that he realized they were expecting him to fill in Tony's portion of the debrief.

"Ah, uh," he said, clearing his throat. "Mr. Stark's recovering, he should be fine, I'll be taking him home when Medical lets him go. Um, an initial look at the Iron Man armor, uh, seems to indicate some vulnerabilities in the joints. I'm not sure what Mr. Stark's going to do about that but we'll...do...something?" He faltered briefly. "The under-armor suit held up really well, probably prevented some pretty bad burns, but we'll be taking a look at that too, or I guess have Stark Chemicals take a look, they synthesized it."

"What's your ETA for having the suit back in the field?" Fury asked.

Mike blinked at him. "We could get a functional suit up and running in half an hour. Mr. Stark's probably not going to be able to operate it for at least a few weeks. I doubt he'll want to repair this one as-is, but if he wants to address the joint vulnerability issue -- maybe ten or twelve days? Depends on how his shoulder does."

"I'd like to recommend tapping some of our reserves for a replacement for Iron Man temporarily," Captain Rogers said. "War Machine's on duty in Afghanistan, but we could probably recall him for standby."

"Can we discuss putting someone else in the Iron Man suit?" Fury asked.

Mike laughed outright. Nobody else did.

"You're serious?" he asked. "For starters, the suits are locked up and he's not going to just give you one. Second, it runs on the arc reactor, and outside of War Machine there's only three of those: one of which is a half-functional antique, one of which is in Mr. Stark's chest, and one of which hasn't been tested." He started in on specs and statistics, only half-thinking of it, and was about three minutes into a lecture on the declassified aspects of arc reactor technology when he realized everyone was staring.

"So um," he said, breaking off. "No. We can't discuss putting someone else in the Iron Man suit."

"Then you better hope nobody tries to destroy the planet in the next few weeks," Fury said.

"I think we'd all better hope that, don't you?" Mike asked, wildly daring.

"Let's close this line of thought," Captain Rogers said, before Fury could verbally flay the skin from Mike's body. "Mike, send us a status report as soon as Tony's got an idea of a timeframe. Moving on..."

From across the room, Thor gave him a thumbs-up. Coulson looked like he was developing a migrane. Mike knew the feeling.

The rest of the meeting passed in a blur, until Captain Rogers released them and Mike hurried back to Medical. Tony was awake, his arm wrapped in gauze, shoulder braced and set in a sling over a scrub shirt.

"Hey," he slurred, when Mike approached. "Home?"

"Vicodin?" Mike asked.

"Oxy-fuckin'-contin," Tony answered.

"Score," Mike said, hoisting himself up onto he bed next to him. "You're a total mess," he added. "A tragic heap of a human being."

Tony laughed, leaned on him and then rested his head on Mike's shoulder. "You gon' take me home now?" he asked. Mike glanced at a nearby medic, who nodded his permission.

"Sure. Want me to call Happy, or should I drive?"

"Home," Tony said, ignoring the question. He nuzzled Mike's shoulder. "Put me t'bed."

Mike had the distinct impression that his doped-out boss was making a pass at him.

"Okay, come on," he said, and slung an arm around Tony's waist, helping him up.

He fell asleep in the car on the drive home, though it took Mike a while to notice, thrilled as he was to be driving the Jag. When they arrived, Happy came out to help him haul Tony inside and up to bed.

Mike thought about Tony's sterile, empty penthouse at the top of the Tower, the one he only really used for parties and rarely slept in.

"Jarvis," he said in the elevator. "Take us to my place."

"Very good, Mike," Jarvis said, and started the ascent.

 

 

Gram fussed over Tony like a particularly severe mother hen. She installed him in the spare bedroom and somehow kept him from leaving it too often; made him soup and told him to stop whining; sat and played Go with him for hours and called him a big baby when he sulked about Jarvis locking him out of the workshop so he wouldn't overexert his shoulder. Not a great pill-taker herself, she made sure he got a painkiller every six hours (and only every six hours).

When Fury called to see if Tony was ready to get back in the suit, three days after the injury, Gram hung up on him.

Mike hadn't thought the Avengers even particularly liked Tony, but one by one they came to visit, and Gram accepted the presence of superheroes in her home with equanimity. She made sandwiches for Dr. Banner, told Clint there was no running with compound bows in the house, complimented Natasha's nail polish, and accepted Thor's reverential treatment of "an elderwoman!" as her due. She was polite and firm with Phil Coulson. She invited Captain Rogers to stay for dinner, and Mike had to admit she was right when she said he had the nicest manners of anyone she'd ever met.

Even Harvey Specter showed up, flirted with his grandmother, and presented Tony with a fruit basket, compliments of Pearson Hardman. He said a few words in Tony's ear, and then glanced at Mike; Tony dismissed him, and when Mike left they were casually throwing an orange back and forth across the room, talking codicils. He heard Tony laugh, low and pleased, as the door shut.

Mike spent his time bouncing back and forth between catering to Tony's imperious demands and working on the suit repair in the shop. It was soothing; Tony was working out the kinks in the joint vulnerability issue, and Mike got to do the physical end, assembling and disassembling the new prototypes, even testing out a new elbow-joint. Sometimes Tony would call down to the workshop and they'd yell back and forth at each other.

One night, assured that Tony was sleeping and his grandmother was watching a late-night talk show, Mike crept down to the workshop and opened the lockbox where the spare arc reactor was kept. It was one of only four in existence, and the only one of its kind; Tony had one mounted in a glass case, the one he'd built in Afghanistan, and he wore the second one. The one in War Machine was permanently embedded in the suit.

This one was meant to be worn independently, attaching over the chest on a strap like a bandolier. They'd managed to create enough vibranium for twelve chips to power it, but there was only one in the case, which was strange. Mike slotted the chip into the reactor, closed the housing, and pulled it over his head, tightening the strap around his chest. He held up his hands in the classic defensive pose Tony used -- left hand pulled back, right forward, elbows cocked.

"Pew!" he said, jerking his hands as if he were firing repulsors. "Pew, pew! Take that, Whiplash!"

"Having fun, are we?" Jarvis asked. Mike startled.

"Jarvis!" he said.

"It compliments you," Jarvis answered. "I don't know that Mr. Stark would approve of your use of it, though."

"I was just playing around," Mike said, hastily shedding the reactor and popping the chip out. "You don't have to tell him, right?"

"I think we can overlook some...youthful enthusiasm," Jarvis said. Mike carefully packed the arc reactor away. "Your progress on the new armor is ahead of schedule."

"I like working on it," Mike said. "You know when I was a kid, I wanted to be either a lawyer or a mechanic."

"Very divergent fields."

"Not really. It's all about how things fit together. Seeing what's not there as much as what is." He grinned. "Besides, as the protege, I have an image to uphold."

Jarvis flashed an image up on one of the display screens; it was a photograph that had made national news the day after the injury. Someone had managed to snap Mike disassembling the armor after the fight (and if Mike ever found out who Photo Credit P. Parker was, he'd kick him in the nuts) and it had run in the Bugle with the tagline Stark protege Michael Ross assists Iron Man pilot Tony Stark after an injury taken while attempting to apprehend an unnamed mutant. He'd fielded calls for days from old high school aquaintances and distant relatives eager to cash in on Mike's sudden notoriety.

In the photo, Mike had one hand on Tony's shoulder to steady him while the other worked a socket wrench just above his elbow; Tony's face was turned, watching him. Mike's head was bent but his profile was clearly visible, hair ruffled in the light wind.

"At least they got my good side," Mike said. "Hey, do you know what happened to the vibranium chips we were pouring for the arc reactor? There should be more in the case."

There was a pause, which was strange; Jarvis was usually instantaneous with any information he was authorized to provide.

"Mr. Stark has been making some modifications to one of the suits," Jarvis said finally. "The information is not classified above your clearance level."

"Really? Which one?" Mike asked. The door to the suit room popped open, and Mike peered inside.

There was the shiny chrome suit, as well as the two red-and-gold Iron Man suits; the fourth suit, the all-black one Mike assumed Tony was designing for night use, was in its case as well, but the glass was retracted from in front of it and it looked...different.

He stood near the case, studying the new design changes. It had bronze-colored accents now, and one of the arms was missing, sitting disassembled on a table in the middle of the room. It was the helmet that struck him, though: matte black but with two ridged crests running across the crown, starting where the suit's eyebrows would be and extending behind the back of the helmet. When Mike reached up to touch one, it sang a clear, soft note in the air, like rubbing the edge of a glass. It was the same sound Captain Rogers' shield made if you shook it lightly, the sound of tempered vibranium when touched.

"They can't be solid Vibranium," he murmured.

"Vibranium-plated steel," Jarvis said. "Designed for impact resistance."

"The ridges disperse the stress," Mike murmured, feeling the bumps in the metal. "Adamantium would have been better than steel."

"Mr. Stark believed the advantages of Adamantium did not outweigh the added weight or difficulties presented if the suit should require repair at the stress points."

"No, of course," Mike agreed. "Why waste Vibranium on a non-necessary mod, though? Why didn't he put it on the regular suit?"

"I'm sure I couldn't say, Mike."

"Classified?"

"Mr. Stark has not confided in me the reason for these modifications."

"Very Tony," Mike said. "Okay, well, he has his own reasons, I guess. I'm going to bed. See you tomorrow, Jarvis."