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Soft Skills

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Monday: You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.

Tony and Pepper had spent half the night working on the tower design. (The other half of the night had gone even better.) It took a little persuasion, but he managed to get almost everyone there - Thor was ruling his planet or wooing his girlfriend or something, Hill had told him, but he hadn't really been listening once he got the 'no Thor' message. But everyone else was together in his favorite conference room, sitting around the big table. It looked good. Team-y. He pulled up the blueprints, and they rotated over the conference table in 3D. "So, what do you think?" he asked. "Avengers Tower."

"So," Bruce said carefully. "You're saying that your tower became a big target for an alien army, so you're going to rebuild it as an even bigger target?"

"Well, when you put it like that, it sounds stupid," Tony said. Pepper giggled behind him, and that was just insulting. "This was your idea too, Potts, don't try to get out of it now."

"I wouldn't dream of it," she said, brightly amused. "You might want to explain why you thought this tower was a good idea, though."

"It's a central point of contact," Steve said. "That isn't involved with SHIELD. It'd give us independence."

Tony pointed at him enthusiastically. "That. That is it. That is exactly it, Captain, thank you. You're still a guest of SHIELD, aren't you?"

"Yeah," Steve said, sounding as happy about it as Tony might have guessed.

"And Bruce is already working with us--"

"On a very short-term basis," Bruce qualified.

"And we work for SHIELD," Natasha said. "So why would we--"

"Ah, you work for them," Tony said. "But do you trust them? Hawk? You?"

Neither of them answered.

"Right. Sometimes we might need to go off on our own. Be lone wolves, so to speak. Free agents." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Pepper and Steve exchange sympathetic glances. Which meant he was bombing. "Cap, you get it, you talk."

Steve sighed like a martyr. "Sure," he said. "Having a centralized base of operations serves two purposes; one, we can concentrate resources. If we're lucky, anyone going after us will go straight to the tower, not go hunting for our friends or loved ones." Tony caught the tiny glance he gave Pepper. "Second, as Mr. Stark noted, it gives us independence. We'll be using Stark resources, not SHIELD's. Ms. Romanoff and Mr. Barton can have plausible deniability if -- and it's likely to be a question of when -- they're caught in the middle. It's a symbol, a statement."

"So instead of being SHIELD property, we'd be property of Stark Enterprises," Clint said. "Not so sure that's a great idea."

"You wouldn't be property," Tony said. "I'll just provide the building and the technology. You can take anything you want in or out, or have nothing here that's yours at all. I'm not going to hide any information."

Clint looked over at Steve. "You believe him, Cap?"

"I believe he's smart enough to put anything he wants hidden in another building," Steve said wryly. "That work?"

Pepper grinned. "I like him. Why haven't you brought him over here before?"

"Not helping, Pepper," Tony said. "What do you think, Captain? You in?"

"I'll have to think it over," Steve said.

If Steve was in, the others would follow. Tony had figured that much out. The stories about him being a 'natural leader' were true, in part simply because Steve didn't seem to have much interest at all in being in charge. He didn't lead because he was ambitious; he led because someone needed to, and he was good at it.

"What about you, Miss Potts? How do you feel about opening your doors to the Avengers? Don't tell me you go along with every idea Mr. Stark has, I won't believe you."

Pepper smiled, the smile she chose when she didn't want Tony -- or anyone else -- to know what she was thinking. "I'm flattered, Captain."

"You know I'm dating her, right?" Tony said. No one seemed to listen.

"At any rate," Pepper continued, "Dr. Banner is willing to work for Stark Industries, but would prefer a ... less crowded environment than our normal work facilities. He could continue his research here, and the Avengers would have a base of work. From the point of view of Stark Industries, it's excellent PR -- you're familiar with the concept?"

"I was publicity for quite some time, Miss Potts," Steve said. "I'm familiar."

"So you understand. Everyone wins," she said.

"Give me a couple of days," he said. "What do the rest of you think?"

Bruce shrugged. "Like Pepper said, I'll be here either way."

"A couple of days sounds good," Natasha said, and Clint nodded in agreement. "What about Thor?"

"I dunno, I'll send him a voicemail," Tony said. "What do aliens use? Signal lights?"

"We can handle that," Natasha said. Of course SHIELD knew how to contact an alien. Tony made a mental note to search the files he'd copied over during the Loki mess, just in case he'd overlooked it.

So, overall, not a bad meeting. Pepper asked Steve to stay behind; Tony figured that would work better.

"We were wondering," she said, "if there's anything we can help you with. You know, with ... adjusting. I know SHIELD has done some work but--"

"When the military briefs you, they stick to 'brief,'" Steve said.

Pepper smiled sympathetically. "Exactly."

"And they tend to stick to what they know. They told me about Kevlar, but not that I could legally marry Mr. Stark in the state of New York."

Tony raised an eyebrow. "Captain, are you asking for my hand?"

Steve shot him a glare. "Do you have to do this?"

"I don't know," Tony said. "Are you okay with it?"

Steve crossed his arms over his chest. "With what, with the fact they told me close to nothing and want to keep me within a five-mile radius when the world's not ending? Or that you think I want to marry you?"

"The marriage thing. Gay rights. Women giving birth out of wedlock. The fact a whole sexual revolution came and went without you. All that stuff." Tony waved a hand expansively.

Steve sat back. "I fought a war so people could live the way they wanted to, Mr. Stark. I wouldn't be much of a man if I changed my mind now."

"That sounds good," he said. "But do you believe it?"

A shadow crossed over Steve's face. "You know, SHIELD did tell me about the camps. In Germany. We'd heard rumors about it in the field. People would just disappear, communities taken away. Gypsies - Roma, sorry, and Jews, and people the government didn't like. I served with a man who'd lost...well, he said he was his best friend, but we knew. We all knew. It didn't matter. They were just people. And they deserved to live, just like anyone else. And if you think your generation invented giving birth out of need to brush up on your history."

Sounded good on paper, but it always did with Captain America. "A lot of people from your generation didn't think that way. Don't think that way."

Only Steve could make a smile look so bitter. "It's not my generation any more, Mr. Stark. People came back home and almost fought another war to stop black people drinking from 'white' water fountains. That wasn't me. It never was."

The Howling Commandos had been more than international, they'd been integrated. The records didn't say at whose command, but it was a point in Steve's favor.

"All right," Tony said. "Fair enough. You're still going to have to get used to men holding hands in public."

"Mr. Stark," Steve said, and there was a little less bitterness in his smile, "what I wouldn't give to have that be the biggest shock in my life."

"So you'll be all right when Bruce and I get married?"

The smile grew more genuine. "Does that mean Miss Potts is free Saturday night?"

"Very funny."

"I've been learning from you."

"Seriously, though," Tony said. "We should work on this. Have they even given you a laptop yet?"

"I think they're afraid it'll scare me."

Tony grinned. "Let's go down to the supply room. I've got just the thing."


He'd heard a thousand stories about how brave and strong and handsome Captain America was; it'd taken him longer to realize that the guy was pretty smart, too, even if he was seventy years out of date. It took Steve about ten minutes to go from learning how to point and click on a laptop to a Google search for 'possible weaknesses Iron Man armor.'

"Very funny," Tony said.

"Just gathering information, Mr. Stark."

"Oh, don't worry," Tony said. "We've got plenty of information for you."

"You should come to dinner," Pepper said. "It'll get you out a little, and we can keep bringing you up to speed."

"If you'll be there, Miss Potts, I'd be delighted."

"I told you," Tony said, not that anyone was listening. "We're dating."

"I'd be delighted too," she said.


Tuesday: Believe it or not, I'm walking on air

Most Tuesday nights, there were four of them: Dr. Banner, Mr. Stark (his brain still resisted calling him "Tony"), Miss Potts (who had tried to insist on "Pepper," but didn't seem to mind "Miss" rather than "Ms."), and Steve himself. They'd eat and then go into the tower's large, ridiculously luxurious screening room, and watch something that had been deemed sufficiently educational.

One night it was a Captain America TV show that ran in the 1980s for three seasons.

It was very, very bad.

"I'm not just misremembering, right?" Steve asked after the third episode, where "Betsy," or rather the blond, buxom actress who had apparently been cast as an American version of Peggy Carter, had gotten kidnapped by a Red Skull mercenary. She'd spent a good half of the episode tied up in the most ridiculous-looking pasteboard cave Steve had ever seen. "Movies weren't as bad in my time, were they? I mean, some of them were, but not all of them."

"All of them weren't this bad in the Eighties, either," Bruce said from the back of the screening room. "This is just Tony's way of making us both suffer." He'd said no to the 'microbrew' Tony had offered earlier, explaining that 'the other guy' was more likely to show up as his blood alcohol level rose. (And then explaining to Steve what 'blood alcohol level' meant, and that yes, he could still get drunk, even if Steve couldn't.)

Steve had tried one, though. It wasn't bad, the flavor was good, though it didn't seem to have much actual alcohol in it. Maybe he just didn't notice it as much any more. Even the mini-lecture Tony gave him on the history of brewing in America had been okay. Tony mostly used words he understood, and -- as with most of the lectures -- Steve felt a little more capable of going out on his own afterward.

Not that he went out much, except to the bodega around the corner where they knew his name and had gotten used to his stupid questions. But he was learning. Maybe he'd get the hang of it. "So can we watch something good from the Eighties?" he asked. "Maybe something that's not supposed to be about me?"

"Put on the Cosby show," Miss Potts suggested.

"Was that funny? I don't even remember any more."

"Shut up and put on the Cosby show," Bruce said.

Tony put on the Cosby show.

It was pretty good.


Wednesday: Plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth

Sometimes, Bruce thought Steve was actually doing a better job adjusting than he was. Steve was younger, sort of, and he'd clearly had some kind of steel that'd gotten him into the ice in the first place (Natasha had dug up the files; it'd been before the days of black boxes, but it'd been pretty clear Steve had put the pedal to the floor crashing that damn plane.) Still, it was weird that when he was living in the most distant backwaters he could find, most of the residents knew more about 21st-century America than Brooklyn-born Steve Rogers.

"You sure this is a good idea?" Steve asked, again, as Bruce drew another vial of blood.

"You ask that every time."

"I wonder every time."

"We were all flailing around," Bruce said. "All we had were charred old lab notes and some vets who were convinced you could walk on water."

"I can't," Steve said.

"I know." But Tony's R & D people had needed to mill special needles just to get a good sample of Captain America's blood.

"Kids are wearing Captain America t-shirts," Steve said, "and all I can think about is what they did to try to make another Captain America, after I was gone."

Bruce caught the darkness in Steve's voice, the weight there. That was about more than Bruce making the other guy. "How much have they told you?"

Steve didn't meet his eyes. "Some. Found out some of the rest on my own. I met Isaiah Bradley last week. His wife is nice. Their grandson was there too. Little guy. About ten. He asked me why his grandpa had to be so sick. I didn't know what to tell him." He shook his head.

"We might be able to help him," Bruce said. "SHIELD banked his blood years ago. If I make some comparisons...."

Steve was younger than him, but he looked his age for a second, wary and tired. "Just don't make anything worse, all right? If SHIELD, or anyone, got hold of what they thought was a better serum--"

"They'll never touch it. I don't even save this in Tony's computers. I promise."

Steve smiled, and Bruce saw the weight ease a little.

Bruce found himself smiling back. "You trust me?"

"I think I do, Dr. Banner."

"I keep telling you," he said. "Bruce."

Thursday: Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.

She'd spent a long time wondering what she could do for him. She could speak a dozen languages and she was the best interrogator in SHIELD, but those skills really didn't seem to be Captain Steve Rogers' style, and they weren't what he needed. Not at all.

SHIELD had brought him up-to-date with most of the technological changes in warfare. It was the other things he was having trouble with; movies, music, life. Soft skills. She'd been trained to fit in, but she guessed Steve wanted to belong again.

"You could take him to get clothes," Clint suggested.

She rolled her eyes. "That's not stereotypical at all, thank you."

He shot her a look. "Would you trust Tony to do it? Or want Bruce behind the counter at Macy's?"

Okay, that was a fair point. "You could do it."

He grinned. "I don't think we have exactly the same sense of personal style. And I don't know how to fit in like you can."

She grinned back. "I can't fit in as a guy. And I'm not sure Captain America's the 'fit in' type, anyway. Maybe seventy years ago."

He checked his arrows again. "You don't have to do anything special for him, anyway. I think just, you know, hanging out with him helps."

"I know," she said. "Good luck in Mogadishu."

"I don't need luck, remember?"

After he left, she went through Steve's file again, hoping for ideas.

Finally, all the way back, she hit the jackpot.


Steve looked at the hipster girl manning the counter. "So this paper really came from bananas?"

"Yeah," the girl said, cracking her gum in his direction. "It's pretty cool, huh? This kind is from Costa Rica, but we have some from Africa too...." She had purple striped arm warmers and hair dyed coal black, and Natasha guessed she rarely sold to guys wearing perfectly pressed khaki pants. But artists came in all shapes and sizes, and she'd clearly found a kindred spirit.

"I probably should just get some things for sketching," Steve said. "I ... haven't really had time to draw for a while. But--"

"C'mon," the girl said, leaning closer. "Treat yourself. This stuff isn't too expensive, and -- oh, do you like watercolor?"

"Yeah," he said, "though I need supplies again--"

"You can get all that downstairs, the Cotmans are really nice for the price." She walked over to a shelf and reached up. "There's this Japanese paper that's just amazing, you have to try it--"

Natasha wasn't sure she'd seen Steve look this relaxed before now. This -- the store, the shelves full of paint, the people who spoke his language -- was his world, and by the looks of things, any changes in this area were for the better.

"I'm not sure where I'd keep it," Steve was saying to the girl, as she tried to sell him a giant sheet of cold-pressed watercolor paper with, she claimed, "perfect tooth."

I'll have to talk to Tony about that, Natasha thought. He wanted an Avengers tower. He wanted them to think of it as home. Why not have an art studio?

"You got enough to cover it?" Natasha asked Steve discreetly, as the girl packed up what looked like ten pounds of paper.

"I had a savings account when I went in," Steve said. "Not much, but I put my first paychecks in it. Figured someday I'd be able to retire. The military didn't want to declare me dead for whatever reason--" his tone indicated he knew exactly what the reasons might be-- "so it accumulated quite a little interest. I think I can cover it."

"You're starting to get the hang of this century," Natasha said.

Steve winked at her.

Friday: "Sometimes it's a little better to travel than to arrive."

Clint decided they should teach Thor to ride a motorcycle, because it would be hilarious. "Besides," he said. "He can't just fly everywhere. It draws too much attention. He'll think the bike looks cool, and it's not like he's gotta worry about road rash."

"I cannot wait," Thor said, when they'd gotten to the practice track out in Jersey. "Is it true the engine has the power of a thousand horses?"

Steve and Clint exchanged glances. "We could just teach him to take a taxi," Steve suggested.

"Don't back down now, Captain."

Thor was currently crouching down next to Steve's vintage Indian. Steve eyed him suspiciously. "Don't tip it," he said, in a tone of voice that wasn't quite a threat.

Thor looked up, all blond hair and innocence. "That is important?"

"Very important," Steve said. "Like, 'we want the motorcycle to keep running' important. And that bike is a classic."

"It's almost as old as the Captain here," Clint said. "Maybe you should start with mine, I'm not as attached."

They started with Clint's bike. He'd chosen one from SHIELD that was fairly lightweight and low-horsepower, so Thor wouldn't get too crazy with it. "Okay, first we're just going to get you on it so you can see what the controls are and what they do."

Steve watched over Thor's shoulder. "They haven't changed that much, huh?"

"Yeah, you should be able to handle this without much trouble. Some changes under the hood, especially if you have a hybrid."

"Hybrid's the gas/electric, right?"

"You got it."


It took less time than Clint feared it would. For all of Thor's meathead bluster, he could pay attention when he wanted to, and that persistence he'd shown the first time Clint had seen him helped a lot.

"Well?" Thor asked, after he'd made a first careful loop around the track. "Was that adequate? I feel I can increase the speed."

"Yeah," Clint said. "You look pretty good. Go for it."

Thor let out a whoop and went to do the loop again. Clint shook his head and hit the vending machine.

When he came back, Steve was watching Thor, on his third lap and picking up speed. "He's looking pretty good."

"Yeah, he picks up fast."

"We should let him do some of the back roads on the way back," Steve said. "Maybe hit a diner. You can ride behind me."

"He'll need a license before we let him go too far." Clint paused. "Do you have a license?"

"I did," Steve said. "It ... may have expired."

Clint laughed and offered Steve the bag of Fritos. "Want some?"

"All the food tastes different," Steve said. "I read in the Times they add extra sugar and fat to everything now, and most of the snack food's unhealthy. What about these?"

"Oh yeah," Clint said, taking another handful. "Basically go straight to your arteries."

Steve nodded appreciatively and reached into the bag.


Saturday: A kiss on the hand may be quite continental

"Miss Potts," Steve said, taking in the view, the candles, the table set only for two, the wine she'd poured while he was coming up the elevator. "This seems a bit intimate, wouldn't you say?"

"It's entirely intentional, Captain," she said. "We're practicing dating tonight." Someone had to talk to him about dating. With that face of his, he probably got three offers a day and didn't even realize.

"But you're dating Mr. Stark," Steve said, lifting a finger to object. "He's pointed it out. A few thousand times."

Pepper winked. "He's promised to behave, and I've promised not to kiss you. I told you. Practice." Technically, she'd bribed Tony, but she wasn't about to share what those terms had been.

For a moment, Steve looked as lost as he had the first time she met him. "The girl I was in love with aged almost seventy years, and it felt like overnight to me. I'm not sure I'm ready to do this again."

It was one thing to read about it in the file. It was another to see the look on his face. "I'm sure you're not," she said gently. "That's why we're going to practice now, so you'll have it all down. You ask me questions, I'll answer them, and by the time you want to ask someone to dinner, you'll -- I hope -- feel a little more comfortable."

She watched Steve's expression change as he weighed her words. At last, he nodded. "You're very kind, Miss Potts."

"Pepper," she said, taking his elbow and guiding him to the table. "After all, we're on a date."

He smiled, and Pepper mentally revised her estimate to five offers a day. "All right," he said. "Pepper."

"And you can ask me anything," she said, as he held out her chair. "You're a gentleman, Captain."

"Do girls still like that?" He paused. "Did they ever?"

"If it means that you like them, yes. If it means you're trying to get them into bed, or that you think they're only good for cooking, cleaning and sex, not so much."

"That's more than fair," he said, settling into his own chair. He lifted his wine glass. "To your health, Miss-- Pepper."

"To your health, Captain," she said, as they clinked glasses.


Sunday: Whatever happens tomorrow you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are.

"Team-building," Tony said dubiously, as they walked to the new training room.

"Team-building," Steve agreed.

"You know I don't play well with others, right?"

Steve kept pace with him. His expression didn't change. "That's been well-established, yes."

"This isn't going to be rock-climbing or something, is it?"

"It's not rock-climbing."

"I don't climb rocks," Bruce said, opening up the door. "Come on in, Tony, relax for once."

The room was dark. "I don't like this," Tony said. They'd paid a lot of money getting this place into shape. He wanted to see it.

"Shut up and start team-building," Clint said, pressing something into his hand. It felt like a gun.

"Jesus Christ," Tony said. "This is not what I think it is."

"Depends." Christ, he could hear Clint smirking. "What do you think it is?"

"These weapons are strangely lightweight, but they are appealing nonetheless." That was Thor's voice. "I believe I should warn you that I am about to 'take you down.'"

Tony rolled his eyes. "I am not playing Laser Tag with you jerks." Was that Natasha laughing out there? It was. Oh, he was going to get her back for this.

"Mr. Stark," Steve's voice said in the dark. "I believe you already are. The first round is winner take all, after that we'll be breaking into teams. I suggest you find some cover, as your chest presents a rather obvious target in our current conditions."

"I'll get you for this," Tony said. "All of you."

He ran.