It was a quiet night at the Millville Bird Sanctuary just outside New York City, the night it happened. Not unexpected, this late in the year; in spring and summer and even early autumn they did a brisk business for a bird sanctuary, but even a brisk business wasn't much, comparatively speaking. Dr. Nathalia was only on the overnight shift because there were campers out in the sanctuary, on a "night watch" with one of the docents, and someone had to stick by the phone in case of emergency.
Then, around eleven, hell briefly broke loose.
"Fuck, fuck, oh fuck," was the first she heard, and she heard it moving towards the front door of the single building that comprised the sanctuary's visitor's center, clinic, and storage shed. They did get people who'd been in car accidents once in a while, so she was rising and reaching for her phone when a man burst through the unlocked door, covered in blood and feathers, and yelled "I NEED A BIRD DOCTOR!"
The second thing he yelled was "I DIDN'T HIT IT WITH MY CAR!"
That was how Dr. Nathalia Berman met Tony Stark.
The barn owl was a beautiful little thing, just barely matured past juvenile and quite healthy except for her injuries. While she'd been screaming piteously when he carried her in, she settled nicely and took anaesthesia well. They'd had to take the wing off at the first joint past the shoulder, but it wasn't anything Nathalia hadn't seen before.
The poor man pacing the front office, still covered in feathers stuck to his very expensive-looking shirt with dried blood, was frantic to insist he hadn't hit her.
"No, we see this sometimes," she assured him, offering him a wet towel to try and clean himself up with. He held it distractedly, ignoring it as he focused intently on her. At that point she didn't know who he was but he seemed intelligent and very freaked out. "They're so hard to see, and they swoop very low. She probably got clipped by a truck. Usually we find them on the side of the road."
"It just landed in my passenger's seat, screaming," the man said. "I thought my sins had finally caught up with me."
Nathalia smiled and was about to reassure him when he added, "She? How do you sex an owl?"
"Carefully and tactfully," she replied. He snorted, then seemed to notice the towel. His next words were slightly muffled by the towel on his face.
"Is she okay? I mean I feel weird caring this much about an owl but lately this is my life, caring too much about everything. The things I care about now you frankly wouldn't believe," he said. As the blood and feathers came away, she could make out his goatee and cheekbones, which were very attractive and not unfamiliar.
"We had to amputate," she said, alarm bells going off faintly in the back of her head. "I'm afraid if she makes it through the shock she'll be a resident for life -- she'll never fly again."
"Oh," he said, and he looked absolutely destroyed by this little tragedy, the kind of thing most people didn't think twice about once they'd stuffed five dollars in the Suggested Donation box near the entrance. "That's -- that's really terrible. Not being able to fly ever again. That's awful."
"Well, it's not wonderful, but we'll keep her here. She's a beautiful bird; barn owls are very compelling. If she's good-natured at all, we can use her for education."
"She does not seem good natured," he ventured.
"Well, nobody is when they're in pain," Nathalia said. "If you'd like my business card, I can keep you up to date on her progress."
"Oh, I -- can I see her?" he asked, oddly earnest.
Normally they didn't allow visitors into the clinic, but normally people who found screaming owls covered in blood didn't rush to the nearest animal sanctuary to have them patched up.
"Sure," she said. "Come this way. Are YOU all right?"
"Traumatized, but what else is new?" he said, following her with a quick bantam trot. "I mean I was just going for a drive with the top down to clear my head. And possibly speeding, but who doesn't do that on the upstate backroads, and a demon from hell comes screaming out of nowhere and the next thing I know I look like the climax of Carrie."
"I suppose we should all be glad you were nearby," she said.
"Oh, I wasn't. I was like, ten miles out. My PA, Jarvis, told me a normal vet wouldn't take an owl, at least we thought it was an owl, so he sent me here. I find myself oddly concerned with owl rights at the moment, that feels like prejudice."
"No, it's not -- most veterinarians aren't trained to handle owls. They have different respiratory systems, complex skeletal structures..." Nathalia shrugged as she pushed open the door to the darkened recovery room, where the owl lay in a large cage, the remains of her wing wrapped in bandages. "They know better than to mess with bird anatomy without specialist training. So it's lucky your PA found us, really."
Mr. Stark -- he really wasn't easily mistaken for anyone else -- ignored her, went straight to the cage, and sat down on the floor in front of it, crosslegged, hooking his fingers on the wire mesh.
"Poor clipped-wing thing," he said quietly. "I know how you feel, sweetheart."
Nathalia watched him for a few minutes but, when it became evident he wasn't going to move, she left him there and went back out to the front to fill out her report.
The next morning, around ten, Nathalia walked into the Executive Director's office and put a check on the desk for ten thousand dollars.
"What," the ED said, staring at Tony Stark's signature.
"I may have let an untrained but very well-meaning billionaire take an owl home with him this morning," Nathalia said.
The first Pepper heard about the owl was when she came down to Tony's workshop after a week in Malibu to catch up and see if he was actually working or if he was still banging his head against one of the many walls that R&D was always trying to knock down. Last she'd heard he was working on compression algorithms, growing more frustrated by the minute, and she was so, so very glad she wasn't his assistant anymore.
"Pepper! Hi!" he called, setting down the small hammer he was using on something flat and metallic. "I will kiss you as soon as I don't smell like an engine. How was California?"
"Hot and unproductive," she said.
"Just like me."
"Still working on compression?"
He gave her a guilty look.
"Why don't you have any music on?" she asked, suddenly realizing that she hadn't had to either mute the music or shout over it. "Are you depressed? Are you dying again?"
"Oh my God, you almost die once, they never forget," Tony groaned. Pepper cocked her head. There was a sort of rumbling noise coming from somewhere nearby.
"By my count you have almost died eight times in six years," she said.
"Okay at least half of those weren't my fault," he said. The rumbling stopped, then started again when she spoke.
"Well, they weren't mine. What are you up to?" she asked. "What is that noise, anyway?"
"Modifying the Falcon rig," he said, twirling his hammer. "Playing with aerodynamics. I'm like Leonardo da goddamn Vinci up in here."
"I'm sure he never called himself that."
"Bet you he did."
"Seriously though, what is that sound?"
"Probably Lovelace," he said absently, returning to his careful tap-tap hammering.
"Lovelace?" she asked. "New project?"
At that moment a ghostly face with no mouth and two beady black eyes emerged from the collar of the hoodie Tony was wearing. Pepper screamed and threw the nearest thing at hand, which was a crumpled ball of paper. It bounced harmlessly off Tony's face.
"Jesus CHRIST," she yelled, as Tony wrapped both arms around his body and the horrible face began hissing wildly. Something thrashed under the hoodie. "JESUS CHRIST TONY."
"It's cool! It's fine! It's a barn owl!" Tony yelled, as the terrifying face fell silent, glaring at her with murderous intent. "This is Lovelace. She's a project."
"Why the -- you know what? No," she said, breathing deeply. "I'm not going to ask why you have a barn owl stuffed down your shirt. I don't need to know. I don't want to know."
"I rescued her," Tony said petulantly. "She loves me. I'm sure she'll get used to you."
"No she won't, because I am not going to spend my time around a human being who has an owl stuffed down his shirt," Pepper said, pointing at him. "No, Tony."
"But -- "
"Tony, no," she repeated. "Just -- just email me an explanation and eventually I will have stopped having a heart attack and read it."
"That's fair," Tony allowed, as she fled the workshop. "She's very pretty and well-behaved!" he yelled after her, but Pepper went straight to the Avengers common room and poured herself a drink.
Rhodey showed up in the workshop less than a day later.
"Okay, before you say anything, apparently now I have to give trigger warnings," Tony said, as he opened the door. "There is an owl sitting in the hood of my sweatshirt. She can't fly or do anything more threatening than scream really loudly so do not freak out."
"Pepper warned me," Rhodey said, and then added, "Actually, Pepper sent me. I was worried she'd lost her mind, but apparently that's just you. Again."
Tony's hoodie hissed.
"How long have you had an owl attached to your person?" Rhodey asked tiredly.
"About a week. She's nearly healed, she was hit by a truck."
"Of course she was."
"I rescued her," Tony announced.
"Of course you did."
Tony reached behind himself, in a move that proved he was keeping up with the yoga Rhodey had recommended, and produced a large white owl with bottomless black eyes and a bandage where one wing should be. She perched herself on Tony's wrist, spread her good wing, waved the stump menacingly, and screamed a few times.
"You know, I think warning for owls is a great idea," Rhodey said. "She looks like she wants to eat me."
"She only eats rodents," Tony replied. "Well, and high-protein dog kibble as a treat."
"And you learned this..."
"From Dr. Nathalia who fixed her up. Though I think I should find an expert closer to Manhattan. Every time I call her she's very nice and answers my questions and then I think she gets upset when I send her my standard consulting fee."
"Your standard consulting fee is ten grand per diem."
"You'd think she'd be happy, she works for the most well-funded bird sanctuary in the world at this point," Tony said. He held out his arm and the owl glared harder. "Her name's Lovelace. She doesn't bite. Well, she doesn't bite me," he added, as Rhodey extended a hand.
Rhodey gave Tony a look, but he still reached out, and the owl warily let him run a finger over the feathers of her outstretched wing. She flicked her head almost entirely upside-down when he touched the softer feathers of her breast, and that was really super creepy, but also kind of fascinating.
"She IS beautiful," Rhodey admitted, as Lovelace reoriented her head and began to preen. He hovered a hand over the bandaged stump but didn't touch it. "Doesn't look like she's going to fly again."
"Ye of little faith," Tony said.
"Please do not put repulsors on a bird," Rhodey replied firmly.
"I'm not a monster, oh my God," Tony said. "I'm making her a bionic wing. She's gonna be the world's first cyborg owl."
Rhodey looked up from Lovelace, and he couldn't help the grin that crossed his face. "You're just doing this for the Vine, aren't you?"
"I'm offended that you think I need such a shallow and self-serving reason," Tony said. "I'm doing it because I can."
"Uh huh. You know I always said you needed a pet but I was thinking more along the lines of a dog."
"Too needy. Cats are boring. I considered a panther but I don't think I could make a panther happy in Manhattan," Tony said.
"The sad thing is, I believe all of that is true," Rhodey replied.
Lovelace stopped preening, considered Rhodey carefully, and then whacked him in the head with her wing. Tony didn't stop laughing for a full minute, until Lovelace lost her balance on his wrist and had to be caught and wrestled back into the hood of his shirt.
It became evident to the Avengers and their assorted partners and friends that Lovelace loved only two things in the world: dead rodents and Tony Stark. She was a small, angry ball of controlled destruction. Natasha, watching Clint try to win her over with fresh mice, remarked that Tony had a type. Tony gave her a withering look, but it was nothing compared to the look Lovelace was giving Clint. He had tried for ten minutes to teach her to do tricks, and her scorn would probably last until she died.
"It's a very pretty piece of work," Bruce said, distracting Tony with praise as he studied the structure of the prosthetic wing he'd built for her. They hadn't tested it on anything other than very short flights in the workshop, but so far it was a success. Lovelace seemed perplexed by it, and Tony had been forced to lacquer it after she saw her reflection in the polished chrome and tried to attack it, but these were minor setbacks. (She also hated the owls in the side-mirrors on Tony's cars, and had valiantly done battle with them until Tony tied rags around all the car mirrors to protect them from her rage.)
"Of course it is, I built it," Tony said, petting Lovelace's head as she rumbled threateningly at Clint. "Nothing but the best for my pretty," he added. Lovelace twisted her head around and upside-down without moving her body, regarding him with visible adulation.
"Are you aware of how much you look like a supervillain?" Bruce inquired.
"Good," Tony declared. "A little fear would help me get things done around here."
"Nobody's afraid of the Evil Owl Man," Clint said. Lovelace bit him. "Dammit!"
"Lovelace, no biting," Tony said sternly. She gave him another pleading upside-down look. "No, not even Clint. Don't even think about it," he added, as she fluffed herself up. "Go on, you know you can't just poop anywhere, go poop over there."
She screeched at him briefly in protest but spread her wings and glided, almost silently, to the box of gravel and branches in the corner.
"You've trained her well, at least," Natasha said.
"It's not training, just rational cohabitation," Tony replied, as Lovelace, business concluded, returned to perch on his shoulder. "I'm not delusional," he added, as Natasha raised an eyebrow. "I know owls have a reputation for being stupid balls of homicidal rage. I mean, I know that NOW, anyway. Lovelace is just smarter than the average owl."
"You keep believing that," Bruce said, patting him on the shoulder that wasn't occupied by Lovelace, who was busily preening Tony's hair.
When Tony brought Lovelace home, the morning after the accident, she was still a little loopy from the anaesthesia, and honestly, he wasn't feeling all that sane himself. Dr. Nathalia had given him a huge cage that barely fit in the passenger's seat of the car, and as he carried it into the elevator to the workshop, he swore JARVIS to the strictest secrecy.
"I don't want everyone and their brother coming to rubberneck at her," Tony said.
"How very unlike you, sir," JARVIS teased gently.
"Well, we'll do a big splashy debut when I've built her a new wing. Which reminds me." Tony held a hand-drawn sketch, done in ballpoint pen on the back of an AUDUBON SOCIETY brochure, in front of the nearest camera. He'd drawn it around two in the morning, sitting vigil over Lovelace as she recovered from surgery and still aghast at the idea of the poor creature having its flight robbed from it by something as prosaic as a mack truck. "Scan and render for me, would you?"
"Shall I start a new project file?" JARVIS asked.
"Yep. Begin sourcing lightweight materials, too."
The elevator stopped on the workshop level and Tony hauled the cage into the central workspace, setting it gently on the big table in the middle of the room. He lifted a corner of the cover, checked on Lovelace (Dr. Nathalia had named her Snowy but Tony just knew she was too Byronic for such a name) and began owl-proofing the space.
"Order me up a gross of frozen rodents, lots of perches, bird toys, some kitty litter," Tony said.
"Kitty litter, sir?"
"Number one item of business is we're gonna build an owl toilet, because I've already seen what owl poop is like and it's horrifying," Tony said.
"Can she be trained to use it, sir?"
"If she can't, we're gonna build a flying robot that scrubs up owl poop. One thing at a time," Tony said. "She's very smart, you know."
"Clearly, sir," JARVIS said drily, as Lovelace snored in her cage.
"So our priority for this week – do I have any meetings or deadlines?"
"None that can't be moved."
"Clear my calendar. The priority this week is Owl Habitat Alpha. Hah. Owlpha."
Tony managed to scrounge up a wooden crate from the junk heap in the corner of shop, and set the bots to work sanding down all the rough edges while he made sure all the drawers had straps holding them shut and the cupboards had locks on them. Lovelace woke fully around the time Tony noticed he was hungry, and he scrounged up an elderly roast beef sandwich, passing shreds of it through the cage for her to snack on. Eventually, when she stopped nipping at his fingers, he popped the top on the cage and let her climb out. Her head swiveled constantly, taking in her new surroundings, and she hopped up and down a few times before raising her wings – which elicited an immediate scream of indignation and pain.
"Hush now," Tony said, offering her another strip of roast beef. "I'm not a miracle worker and we can't put the new wing on until you're healed."
She flipped her head around to regard him beadily.
"Don't give me that look, I have made the heads of half a dozen countries sit on hold while I fixed myself a martini, I'm not going to be dictated to by a bird."
Lovelace grumbled and clacked her beak.
"There's no use complaining, we all have our crosses to bear," Tony said, raising his shirt to show her the arc reactor. "If I can put up with this thing you can deal with a delay before we get you in the air again."
"Sir, if I may," JARVIS said. "You are talking to a bird."
"And you will note she has yet to sass me, unlike some people," Tony replied.
"Hey, Tony," Clint called from behind a giant box, as he stepped out of the workshop elevator. "JARVIS said there was a delivery for you, he said the delivery guy wasn't allowed up, so I hope you tip well because this isn't my oh my god why!" he finished, as he set down the box to reveal Tony Stark, wearing leather welding gloves and the Iron Man helmet, an owl clinging to the loose fabric of his thermal shirt.
The owl screamed. Clint, uncertain what to do, screamed back. The owl looked startled.
"Thanks!" Tony said, flipping the faceplate up. "Sorry, I couldn't leave the workshop."
"Are you a hostage? Should I be negotiating with the owl?" Clint asked.
"No, I'm training her to perch."
"And the helmet is because?"
"I don't want her to learn bad habits, head perching is dangerous to one's ears. She can't get purchase on the helmet"
"Okay, logical. And….why the owl, again?"
Tony gently disentangled the owl from his shirt and set her on the worktable, where she fluffed herself up and glared at everything.
"I rescued her and now I'm responsible for her," he said, grabbing a box-cutter and ripping into the box. "Look! Food!" he added, pulling out a styrofoam tray filled with neat stacks of dead mice. "Hey, do you know how to reheat a rodent?"
"Actually, I do," Clint said.
"Budapest?" Tony asked.
"Berlin, in fact."
"Well rip it open and fire one up, she's probably cranky because she's hungry." Tony rummaged in the box and pulled out two huge bags of cat litter, emptying them into a crate in the corner and propping some dead branches from the box in the litter. He picked up Lovelace again, settled her on one of the branches, and said very carefully, "Lovelace, pay attention. This is for pooping."
"You think that's gonna work?" Clint asked. An indescribable odor filled the air.
"Why do people always doubt my genius?" Tony wondered aloud, nudging a heap of litter on top of the puddle of poop.
"We keep thinking you must be exaggerating, it's kind of what you do," Clint replied.
"There's a sweet girl," Tony said, as Lovelace clacked her beak at him, apparently pleased with herself. "Clint, how's mouse a la microwave coming?"
There was a sudden popping noise from the microwave.
"Did you not poke holes in the mouse before nuking it?" Tony asked.
"In my defense," Clint said without looking at it, "I learned to reheat them on spits."
Lovelace was confined to the workshop for her recuperation; it was hard to owl-proof an entire complex of apartments, for one, and the workshop was dark with lots of warm nooks and crannies to roost in, plus Tony spent most of his time there anyway. Still, it wasn't long before Natasha had heard from Clint about Tony's newest madness, and Thor heard it from her, at which point he promptly came to investigate.
And he brought a present, which was more than anyone else had done.
"Well met, little one," he boomed, placing a small box on Tony's worktable. Lovelace, preening herself on a perch near Tony's main digital interface, looked up and made a sort of curious hacking noise.
"Hey, big guy," Tony said, rising out of the chair and offering his wrist to Lovelace, who hopped lightly onto it and tipped her head this way and that at Thor, as if she were trying to get all angles of him at once.
"I've come to pay respects to your new familiar," Thor said with a grin, offering his hand for Lovelace to inspect before gently rubbing her head. "It pays to be a friend of birds."
"I'm learning it pays better than being an enemy of them, anyway," Tony agreed, waving a bandaged hand. Lovelace had taken exception to his not sharing his egg that morning, and had managed to draw blood while trying to grab it off his fork. "You know many owls?"
"Not many," Thor said, offering him the box. "I understand they're a symbol of wisdom on Midgard."
"They should be a symbol for cranky assholes," Tony said, but he smiled affectionately at Lovelace as he said it. He took the box and opened it, cracking up laughing when he saw what was inside.
"You see this, gorgeous?" he asked, lifting out a shiny rat made of soft leather by its tail. Lovelace hooted at it, apparently delighted. "Look what Thor brought you!"
"It has a pocket for treats," Thor pointed out, as Tony pulled the panels on its belly apart. "She has but to disembowel it."
"You know," Tony said, slipping a few pieces of kibble into the rat and tossing it onto the table, letting Lovelace hop off his wrist to savage it, "you're the first person who hasn't been totally weird about my very rational pastime of keeping a pet."
"My father keeps ravens," Thor said. "It strikes me as no more ridiculous than many pets. More useful than some. See, she knows the way of things," he added, as Lovelace dug her beak into the rat and yanked out one of the kibbles. "A fine companion. Most suited to your position."
"Yeah, what's that, chief bird nerd?"
"Of course not. You are a wise man, respected for your cleverness as much as your wealth. Such a dark-eyed beauty lends gravitas to your presence."
Lovelace shook the rat vigorously, tossed it into her cage, then hopped past the cage and onto Tony's wrist again, where she promptly pooped on his hand.
"Gravitas," Tony agreed.
There were three ways Steve Rogers could have met Lovelace the Owl. It could have happened this way:
But it didn't.
It could have happened this way:
One day, about two weeks after he'd acquired Lovelace and perhaps a week after Pepper's near-meltdown over the surprise owl (Tony felt like he deserved a meltdown, it was him who'd practically caught a half-dead owl in his lap), JARVIS woke Tony with an urgent beeping.
"Captain America and the Falcon have returned from their journey," JARVIS said. "They had intended to surprise you in the workshop, sir."
Tony sat upright in bed, thoroughly and instantly awake. "Are they still alive?"
"I believe you should make haste to the workshop," JARVIS advised.
Tony paused only to throw on some pants and a hoodie, because Lovelace liked to land on his head and she had sharp claws, before bolting for the workshop. He arrived in slippers, pants hanging off his hips, one arm not quite fully in the hoodie –
To find Sam Wilson sitting at his workbench, StarkPhone held at eye level, filming Steve Rogers.
Steve had one arm held out in front of him, elbow crooked, fingers extended. Lovelace was perched on his fingers.
It took Tony a second to realize what he was hearing, which was Steve singing and Lovelace attempting to follow along with a combination of warbles, hisses, and screams.
Tony had never heard the song before but it had a catchy, Disney Movie kind of sound, and Steve had a strong baritone for it.
Let it go, let it go,
You've got to kiss the girl,
It's the circle of life,
I can show you the world...
Tony staggered over to Sam as Steve belted out the peppy chorus.
I know you, I walked with you
Once upon a dream,
Tale as old as time,
Song as old as rhyme,
My belle Evangeline
"Am I hallucinating?" Tony asked out of the corner of his mouth, as Lovelace screamed semi-melodiously along.
"I don't know, man, we got here and there was an owl, then Steve started singing," Sam said. "This is only the third weirdest thing to happen to me this year, so I rolled with it."
"Huh," Tony said, leaning an elbow on the table and resting his chin on his hand. It really was a catchy song. "Steve Rogers, real life Disney prince."
But it didn't.
This is how it really happened:
Steve had been out of town when Tony acquired Lovelace, off on one of his journeys with Sam to try and find Bucky. Nobody had mentioned the owl in their emails to him, since (as they all established later) nobody felt comfortable trying to explain Lovelace adequately by proxy.
And when Steve and Sam got home after three weeks on the road they both beelined for their beds. Sam tended to sleep hard and long when he could finally get to sleep, so he hadn't found out about Lovelace either by the time Steve woke the following morning.
"I've brought breakfast," Steve called, letting himself into the workshop and rattling a paper bag full of bagels. It was one of the faster ways to lure Tony out from whatever corner he was tucked into while he worked.
"You know, I do feed myself when you're gone," Tony complained, but he appeared from behind a half-assembled armor, so Steve counted it a success.
"In theory," Steve agreed, tossing him an everything bagel with veggie cream cheese. He took out his own breakfast, a ham-and-cheese egg bagel, and set it on the counter.
"How goes the quest for the undead BFF?" Tony asked. "I assume no success?"
"Could you maybe just once not be a jerk about this?" Steve sighed.
"Look, I support you in your mission to destroy Hydra, but the guy murdered my parents, I feel like I'm entitled to some bitterness."
"And I've told you for the thousandth time, that was Hydra, not Bucky."
"Which is the only reason I'm not out there trying to beat you to him in order to kill him VERY dead," Tony agreed. Steve reached for his bagel, but it wasn't where he thought he'd put it. He glanced at Tony suspiciously, but Tony was nibbling his own and didn't have any bagel-shaped bumps in his pockets.
Maybe he'd forgotten to take it out of the bag. He checked the bag and found no ham and cheese bagel, but there was a backup potato bagel with lox, so that was okay.
"You could help, you know," Steve said.
Tony gave him a level look. "No. I really can't. But you know I'm not a team player so you didn't come down here to convince me to be sweetness and light about this."
"I came to see how you were," Steve sighed. "And to make sure everything was smooth sailing while I was away. And I really th -- "
He stopped, startled, because an enormous white creature had come soaring silently out of the darkness, clutching his bagel sandwich in its beak, and landed lightly on Tony's head.
"You would have gotten all kinds of tattley texts from Clint and Natasha if something had gone wrong," Tony said, but Steve was distracted by the -- that was an owl, standing on Tony's head, now delicately holding the bagel in one claw as it tugged the ham out of it with its beak. Tony turned away, and the owl's body did too, but its face stayed put, staring at Steve with unnerving attention as it swallowed an entire slice of ham. Its expression seemed to say You're next, buddy.
"Steve? Did you hear what I said?" Tony finished, and Steve blinked. "Are you listening? It feels like you're not listening."
"You have an owl on your head," he pointed out.
"That's Lovelace," Tony said.
"An owl just silently appeared on your head," Steve felt compelled to repeat.
"Yeah, she does that. Did you know owls are nearly silent when they fly? Because I didn't. God knows she wasn't when we met. Don't mind it, though, she only ever lands on me. And if she does go for you you'll never hear it coming."
The owl, Lovelace, pulled out a second slice of ham and then extended her leg, disdainfully dropping the bagel off Tony's head to land on the floor of the workshop. She kept her eyes on Steve as she snapped the ham in half and swallowed it.
"I think she likes you," Tony said earnestly.
Potato, Clint's erstwhile Potoo who also features in the next section, is from a spinoff fanfic here by HistoryMiss.
And then there's Potoo Man. Nobody can truly explain Potoo Man.
The thing about Tony was that he was fully in earnest when he adopted Lovelace. As with most rich eccentrics, he was a keen, focused, and clever man who simply happened to have a blind spot in one particular area, and like most rich eccentrics it was large. It was also in the shape of a barn owl.
Being fair, Lovelace seemed to adore Tony with the same level of creepy intensity he lavished on her, but it also meant that Tony thought she was a lot smarter and nicer than she was.
Everyone had assumed that Lovelace, who was herself missing a vital appendage, would attach nicely to Bucky, but the truth was that Lovelace didn't much like metal for perching on, and Bucky didn't go out of his way to try and charm her. They existed in a state of mutual emotional distance from one another, which Tony made no attempts to alter, since he wasn't sure about Bucky himself and emotional distance was, really, his comfort zone.
Then Bucky brought home the terrible beakless muppet monster, Rocky Birdboa. Nobody knew where Bucky had found him, and Steve didn't dare ask.
Lovelace, who probably should have seen Rocky as a rival, instead decided that beggars couldn't be choosers in the Us Vs. The Humans department, and befriended the little Cock Of The Rock (Tony laughed endlessly every time anyone mentioned the bird's breed, and was known to actually speak to Bucky for the sole purpose of trying to make him say the name again). They would perch together on top of a cupboard or the back of a chair, occasionally sharing a little cupful of seeds or a largish mouse. And, to Steve's delight, this meant that Tony and Bucky started to acknowledge each others' existence and even sometimes eat a whole meal in the vicinity of one another.
Clint, who had enjoyed marginally more success than anyone outside of Steve in talking to Bucky, clearly could not let this stand. Bucky was a hot mess but he was Clint's hot mess (okay, he was Steve's hot mess, but Clint had dibs after Steve) and thus there was only one thing to be done.
He needed to acquire a bird. Preferably one that would scare off Lovelace. Googling "scary birds for sale" did not turn up quite what he'd had in mind, and apparently you couldn't buy living creatures from Etsy or even rent them from anywhere. He tried googling "what do owls hate" and finally "ugliest birds" and turned up the Potoo. Searching for a Potoo on Craigslist seemed daunting, so he had a few words with a friend who knew a guy and it turned out the same sanctuary that had rescued Lovelace was currently rehabilitating a Potoo they'd received from someone who no longer wanted it as a pet.
"I'm calling on behalf of Tony Stark," he said, when they answered.
"Is he sending us another check?" someone asked in a resigned voice.
"Not to my knowledge. We hear you have a Potoo. The Stark Science Museum at Stark Tower is doing a...an avian education segment with Lovelace and we've had an unusual number of requests for a Potoo as well."
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. "Normally we don't loan out rehab birds, but, well, Mr. Stark's been very generous and he won't stop texting us pictures of Lovelace, so clearly she's doing well. Do you need a handler to come down too?"
"No, we can come pick him up Friday and have him back to you by Tuesday," Clint said, googling "what do potoos eat" on the computer.
"What in the name of god is attached to your neck?" was the first question anyone asked him when Clint showed up to movie night with the Potoo, whose name was Potato, on his shoulder.
"It's a goat, what do you think?" he asked Steve, who was staring at the Potoo with a mixture of surprise and horror. "Apparently it's the hip thing now to have a bird, everyone's doing it. You should get yourself a bald eagle."
"I thought this place would get less weird the more time I spent here," Sam remarked. "I see I was mistaken."
"Being fair, it was getting less weird until the barn owl," Steve said.
"Not by a whole lot," Sam pointed out.
"The Stark Museum is doing a thing on birds this weekend," Clint said, because the lie still seemed useful. "They wanted a Potoo. I said I'd look after him. His name is Potato."
"That's cute," Tony said, but it was drowned out by a scream of indignation as Lovelace, swooping into the room behind Tony, noticed the interloper and took exception to him. Potato, who seemed like a very placid creature, opened his eyes, studied Lovelace, and then snottily closed his eyes again, not even bothering to fluff his feathers in her direction. Lovelace landed on Steve's head (she liked to stand on whoever was tallest), spread her wings, and rattled the metal one threateningly, stomping on Steve's hair.
"Tony," Steve said, with the voice of the long-suffering.
Tony whistled sharply, and Lovelace squealed back in rebellion. Tony whistled again, holding up his hand, and Lovelace reluctantly left off her harassment of the indifferent Potato, winging over to perch on Tony's fist. Tony transferred her to the arm of the sofa and fed her a tidbit of kibble.
"Is it a parrot?" a voice next to Clint asked, and he startled. He ought to be used to Bucky's sudden materialization at his side by now, it happened often enough, but he still jumped, every time. "Is it some kind of forest parrot?" Bucky repeated, pointing to Potato. Rocky Birdboa was peeping out from under the collar of Bucky's shirt inquisitively.
"I don't think so," Clint said, as Bucky circled him, staring intently at Potato. "I suppose he could be. He's a Potoo."
"Gesundheit," Bucky said.
"His name's Potato."
"Are you keeping him?" Bucky asked.
"Buck's into birdwatching lately," Steve said.
"Am not," Bucky answered without looking away from Potato.
"You sure watch a lot of them on YouTube," Steve said.
Bucky ignored him, extending his hand, poking Potato gently with a steel finger. Lovelace's favorite game with Bucky was Can I eat this hand today? and Bucky had learned to always approach birds with the metal one. Potato opened his eyes and Bucky recoiled.
"What's wrong with your bird?" he demanded. Clint twisted to see, and found Potato staring at Bucky with two wildly different-sized pupils.
"They do that," he said. "It's normal."
"It's not normal," Bucky replied.
"It is for a Potoo," Clint retorted.
"You just had to out-weird everyone," Tony said from the other end of the sofa. "Barnes has a bird with literally no beak -- "
"He has a beak!"
"And you got one that looks like some kind of anime monster," Tony continued, unperturbed. "Natasha, are you planning on getting a bird?" he asked, as she appeared from the kitchen.
"That's what I have Clint for," she replied, and made for the spot on the sofa next to him, but Bucky swung his butt around quickly and dropped into the spot, daring her with his eyes to say anything. "Children," she sighed, and went to sit in the loveseat next to the arm where Lovelace was perched. Lovelace fluffed and leaned over, begging for attention, and Natasha absently scratched her neck until her head turned completely upside down.
Rhodey, appearing in the doorway, took in the scene -- Lovelace grumbling happily and upside-down at Natasha, Rocky Birdboa staring unblinkingly at Sam from Bucky's shirt like some kind of tiny self-sufficient muppet, and Bucky and Clint bonding over Potato, who was accepting dead crickets Clint had stashed in his pocket -- and crossed his arms.
"You know, I'd write a tell-all book, but nobody would believe me," he said.
"He's a Potoo," Clint announced. "He's just on loan, I gotta give him back on Monday."
"You have a rental bird?" Rhodey asked. "And you rented that?"
"Is he some kind of genetic experiment?" Bucky asked Clint.
"Your bird has a nose like Gonzo," Clint told him.
"Who's Gonzo?" Bucky asked.
"Clint says I should get a bald eagle," Steve said. "I might get a turkey just to spite him."
"Why a turkey?" Sam asked.
"Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey should be the national bird," Steve replied.
"Well, sort of," Steve admitted. "I looked it up on Google."
"We should never have given him Google," Tony said to Natasha.
"He said turkeys were braver than eagles and were American native birds," Steve said, pointedly ignoring them. "He thought eagles were lazy cowards but turkeys were very earnest and courageous."
"And also delicious," Tony said. Lovelace, annoyed that Natasha had stopped petting her, squawked. "Nobody's eating you, pretty," he told her, and she hopped into his lap, metal wing turned in his direction, a pointed demand for him to give it his nightly inspection. "Anyway Lovelace is clearly superior to all other birds so I don't know why any of you even try to one-up me."
"Don't listen to him, Potato," Clint said to the bird, who was fluffing himself and deigning to allow Rocky Birdboa to share Clint's shoulder while Bucky petted them both. "He only likes her because she's brutal and needy."
"That explains why I tolerate all of you," Tony agreed.
Bucky, under the guise of leaning over to study Potato's freaky eyes, said, "If you wanted my attention, Barton, you could have just brought me some birdseed."
Well. Mission accomplished.
"This," Tony said, to the crowd of wide-eyed children, "is Lovelace. She's named after Ada Lovelace, who was the first computer programmer."
Steve had heard the speech so often, by this point, that he could probably recite it.
"Lovelace is a barn owl who was hit by a truck, and she lost one of her wings," Tony continued. "You can see I had to build her a new one, but it needs regular maintenance, so she can't be placed back in the wild. She lives here in Stark Tower."
The vocabulary sometimes got adjusted up or down depending on the age of the kids, but in this case it was six-year-olds, so Tony was talking slowly (for him) and carefully holding Lovelace well above the reach of little hands.
"If I were the reproducing kind," said a voice next to Steve, "I'd be spontaneously ovulating right now."
"Ms. Potts," Steve said, because Pepper Potts was the only woman who could say that kind of thing and make it sound conversational.
"Steve," she said, giving him a smile as she joined him at the back of the room. "What are you up to?"
"Tony asked me to ride shotgun, it's a lot of little kids to herd around," he said. "I don't think he needs my help, but if Lovelace has a moment it's nice to have backup. You?"
"Oh, I had an hour free, and I like to come see him when I can," she said. "We don't get much quality time sometimes."
"You, him, twenty schoolkids, one owl, and Captain America -- very intimate," he said, grinning.
"Well, beggars can't be choosers," she said, as Tony threw kibbles up in the air, demonstrating Lovelace's ability to swoop down and catch them. "Besides, sometimes I just like to sit and watch him."
"He's an attractive man," Steve allowed.
"That, but -- I think about how he used to be, too. This would be supermodels in a casino, a few years ago. I can't take credit but I do like to see him make progress," she said. "As much as I hate to say it, Lovelace has been good for him. Not as good as the Avengers," she added, patting his arm, "but right up there."
Steve was about to reply, but Lovelace balked at landing on Tony's wrist and instead made for Steve, dropping lightly onto his head.
"And she likes Captain America almost as much as she likes kibble," Tony said, grinning, and all the kids laughed. Steve reached up and carefully lifted her down, stroking her head before handing her back to Tony.
"She does like you," Pepper said.
"Lovelace likes anyone who feeds her often enough," Steve answered.
"I don't know, she's not real warm on me. I think she still thinks I'm a rival."
"Technically you are."
"Technically, she's the rival," Pepper said. "I'm the queen."
"Yes you are," Steve agreed, and then felt his ears heat.
"Aren't you the sweet talker," Pepper smiled. "No wonder Lovelace loves you second-best."
"Tony always comes first," Steve said ruefully.
"Especially for Tony," Pepper replied. "Come on, he's doing fine. I'll buy you some lunch at the museum cafeteria."
Steve caught Tony's eye, pointed to Pepper, and got a nod before following her out into the Stark Museum, through the History Of Programming exhibit, and around the corner into the cafeteria. A cup of potato salad, a ham sandwich, and a chicken caesar salad later, Steve was sitting at just the right angle to block Pepper from the worst of the cellphone cameras pointed in their direction.
"So what have you been up to while I've been running the world?" Pepper asked, and Steve was always amazed by how quickly she put people at ease -- like a politician, but she seemed to mean it, to be genuinely interested in the various Avengers and what they were doing, and him in particular.
They were halfway through a story about Steve and Clint's adventures chasing down a runaway horse in Central Park when Tony arrived, plopped down next to them with Lovelace still on one shoulder, and took the remains of Steve's potato salad.
"First-graders are exhausting. We're still never breeding, right?" he said to Pepper, who nodded and gave him a reassuring smile. "Thank God. What is it, beautiful?" he asked, as Lovelace battered him gently with one wing. "No, you don't like potato salad."
"Here," Pepper said, offering a bit of chicken on her fork. Lovelace took it daintily, then hopped over onto Steve's shoulder so she could beg from Pepper more efficiently. Steve scooted closer, quietly basking in the attention of Tony and Pepper, and angled his arm out so Lovelace could balance comfortably.
Third wheel he might be, but it was all right to be Tony and Pepper's third wheel, to protect them from the cameras and enjoy listening to them bicker.
"You are really terrible at modeling," Steve told Lovelace, a few days later, as he tried to sketch her from his seat on the workshop's sofa. Lovelace had been perched on the end of Tony's workbench, sleeping, but just as he'd gotten to her head she'd woken, and now she was fidgeting constantly, flipping her head around in a way that had stopped being disconcerting mainly through exposure. Lovelace seemed to like viewing the whole world upside-down.
"She's always in motion, like me," Tony called, from where he was working on digital draftings nearby. "Chip off the old block."
"You know how to sit still, you just don't like it," Steve said.
"Of course I don't like it," Tony replied. "Sitting still is boring."
"I'm sure you'd do fine as long as you were allowed to talk," Steve replied with a grin, flipping to a fresh page. "Take a break. Come over here and hold Lovelace still for me."
"Hah, wish me luck, nobody holds her still unless she wants to be," Tony replied.
"Just get over here, she's still sleepy, she'll calm down," Steve urged, and Tony rolled his eyes, but he drifted away from the projections and came over to hoist himself onto the table. Lovelace hopped immediately into his lap and began climbing his hoodie with her claws until he curled an arm under her and propped her up against his chest. She nipped the zipper of his shirt and hooted softly.
"Yes, I know, shiny things are just the best, I agree," Tony murmured, as Steve quickly sketched out the angle of Lovelace's head, the slight bulge of her prosthetic wing, the curve of Tony's arm and the tilt of his head as he looked down at her. Neither of them stayed still for very long, but it was long enough for him to get the outline of it, to capture the essence of the moment.
By the time they headed upstairs for dinner, Lovelace curled up in Tony's hood, Steve had filled in the shadows and some of the details. He went back to it after dinner, sketching in one of the wing chairs while the others watched television and argued about the news. Before he went to bed that night, he carefully slipped it into an envelope, wrote P. POTTS on the front, and left it outside Tony and Pepper's suite for Pepper to find.
"Hey, what're you up to with my girlfriend?" Tony asked him, the next afternoon, standing on the Stark Tower helipad. Lovelace had her wings spread wide and was squeaking excitedly, waiting for Tony to give her the signal to take off.
"How do you mean?" Steve asked, snapping a few photographs. His Starkphone technically had a camera and he didn't mind using it for his Instagram, but sometimes he liked a real camera with a lens and a shutter button and everything.
"She thinks you're wooing her," Tony said with a laugh, looking over Lovelace's spread prosthetic, making sure it was flightworthy.
Steve stuck out his tongue. "Yeah, with pictures of you. Clearly I'm tryin'a steal her."
"Well, that's the funny thing," Tony said, crouching slightly and straightening his legs, arm rising, pushing Lovelace into the air. She sprang, wings spread, and spiralled up into the evening air. "She joked that you were wooing her."
"Uh huh," Steve said distractedly, snapping picture of Lovelace as she circled and dove, stretching her muscles in a way she couldn't in the small flights she took in the workshop and the Avengers common areas.
"Whereas I think the fact that you're courting her with lovingly detailed drawings of me seems to indicate you're angling for a threesome," Tony said, and Steve nearly dropped his camera.
"You know I'd never come between the two of you," he said seriously, fumbling the lens cap back on his camera.
"That's kind of the point of the threesome, Steve," Tony said.
"That's not what I meant and you know it!"
"Which, that you wouldn't break us up, or that you wouldn't come between us?" Tony asked, waggling his eyebrows.
"What?" Steve asked, flustered. "No! Both!"
"Because we'd be interested," Tony said casually. Steve felt this was not a conversation they should be having while Tony put on a disposable glove, took a dead mouse from a bag in his pocket, and threw it for Lovelace to chase. "In getting you between us, I mean."
"That's in poor taste," Steve said.
"It's in earnest. Pepper adores you, and I'm not exactly indifferent," Tony said. Steve risked a look at him and saw he was smiling. "She nominated me to suggest it because I'm more experienced in these things. But she is genuinely...." he threw a second mouse, grunting, "...attached to you, and so am I. So it wouldn't be just a fun fling, even though I know you love one-night-stands. To be clear, we're offering you a relationship that I'm aware might freak you out." He turned a teasing look on Steve. "No pressure, Apple Pie. But if you're interested, the offer's open."
Steve was rooted to the spot, startled, and he didn't even notice when Lovelace dive-bombed his head, narrowly missing him.
"I told Pepper there was a risk we'd break you," Tony sighed, whistling for Lovelace to land. She fluttered daintily onto his wrist, preening.
"Why would you do this?" Steve asked.
"Well, call me crazy, because we both think you're amazing and it seems like maybe you reciprocate," Tony said with a shrug. "Also you seem lonely. Seems like this fixes a couple of problems at once. But like I said, offer's open, you don't have to say yes now. Or ever, if it's not your th -- "
"Yes," Steve blurted, and he could feel his face turn bright red. "I'd like. That."
Tony grinned. "Good," he said, and leaned in, kissing him. Lovelace, annoyed, flapped indignantly. "Come on, troublemaker, you're still not allowed in the suite," Tony told her. "Hey, go say hi to Pepper. I'm gonna put this one in the workshop, I'll be up in a few." He patted Steve's shoulder. "If you're naked by the time I arrived I promise nobody will object."
Steve stayed where he was as Tony left; it took him a good two minutes to get a grip and run for the suite, where Pepper was sitting on the sofa, reading her phone.
"Tony texted," she said, looking up at him, standing breathless in the doorway. She stood up and caught one of his hands, pulling him gently into the room and twining her arms around his neck. "Just take a deep breath and try not to think of any owls."
"My rave days are long behind me," Tony said, weeks later, not even bothering to try to get off the couch.
"Apparently not," Pepper said drily, standing over him with her arms crossed. Behind her, Rhodey was at one of the tables, occasionally throwing sparks as he worked, and Steve was nearby, trying fruitlessly to settle Lovelace down. Pepper had grabbed Lovelace and thrown her at Steve because if he was wrestling with her, he wouldn't be personally freaking out.
"Rhodey, do we have to disassemble the reactor right now?" Steve asked, as another shower of sparks set Lovelace off again.
"He's got his spare in his chest and that means no spare," Rhodey said, as the reactor that had just failed its way out of Tony's chest came apart in his hands.
"Take her upstairs?" Pepper suggested.
"Tried that, she screamed as soon as Tony was out of view," Steve called.
"Bring her here," Tony said, pushing himself up on the arm of the sofa, holding up his hands in surrender when Pepper moved to restrain him from any further effort. Steve shoved Lovelace into a headlock to get her wings under control and carried her like a quarterback with a football over to where Tony was lying.
"There's a good little one," Tony crooned, as she wriggled free of Steve's grasp and fluttered down to perch on Tony's belt buckle, bobbing her head and hooting at the steady blue light of the reactor in his chest.
"You want to explain what happened?" Steve asked, while Tony fussed over Lovelace.
"The Vibranium chip is still technically new," Tony said. "I didn't have any benchmark for how long they last. Now I do."
"Just letting it run in your chest was really the best way to figure that out?" Rhodey demanded from the workbench.
"I do regular checks. I just...missed the last one."
Pepper threw up her hands and turned away.
"So, what exactly would we have done if Lovelace hadn't come to find us?" Steve asked, stroking Lovelace's head. She nipped affectionately at his fingers. "Lovelace shows up in the middle of the afternoon screaming blue murder, and when I get down here your reactor's going haywire, strobing all over the place..."
"Aha," Rhodey said, flipping his goggles up and coming to join them. "Found it. Wasn't the chip at all. Here."
He held out the chip and pointed at a little shaving of steel embedded in it. "The power draw finally hit the steel, sparked a reaction. Shoddy workmanship, Tony, MIT is ashamed of you."
"Being fair to me, I was both dying and creating a new element," Tony said. "I wasn't super concerned with Quality Control."
Steve bent over until his face was very close to Tony's. Lovelace rumbled warningly.
"In the future, be concerned," he said.
"What? First of all, the second chip is fine, I made it last week, it's not going to short out the way that one did. Secondly, Rhodey is rebuilding my spare, so that'll be fine. Third, I have an owl-based warning system so if I do go all rave-child again, she knows what to do," Tony said. "Also I am enfeebled and ill, you should be nice to me."
"You are enfeebled and ill," Pepper agreed. "So Steve's going to carry you upstairs -- "
"Is not -- " Tony began.
"And put you in bed and you're going to stay in bed for the next few days," Pepper finished.
"Nooooo," Tony whined. Lovelace flapped, annoyed. "Bed is boring."
"You should have thought of that before you test-drove new tech on yourself," Rhodey said. Tony began to struggle to his feet, so Steve moved quickly, hefting him and ignoring Lovelace's outraged shriek. She took off from Tony's belt buckle and flew around Steve's head, scolding, until Pepper whistled sharply and she landed, startled, on Pepper's hair.
"If you behave and stay in bed," Pepper said, lifting Lovelace onto her wrist, "I will bend the No Owls In The Penthouse rule."
"Okay, spare's done," Rhodey announced. "And this is my cue to leave before the three of you get gross."
"Nobody's getting gross," Steve called over his shoulder. "Tony's not well enough."
"Oh my god, bed rest and no sex, my life is over," Tony groaned.
"Well, at least you have a neurotic cyborg owl to keep you company," Pepper remarked.
"Rhodey, help me!" Tony called.
"There's no help for you, Tony," Rhodey called back.
Tony grumbled and whined all the way to the penthouse bedroom, but as soon as Steve dumped him on the bed and piled him high with blankets, he curled up amid the pillows and dozed off, Lovelace fluffed up protectively against the back of his head.
"You will have a nice slice of ham later," Steve informed her. "Good girl."
Lovelace hooted softly and settled in to sleep, head propped delicately on top of Tony's ear.
"I KNOW THAT!" Tony yelled from the other room. "IT'S HER PUNISHMENT."
"For what?" Steve asked, investigating Lovelace's legs, which were sticking out of the top of the Christmas stocking.
"TRYING TO GET INTO A STOCKING," Tony yelled, emerging with a pair of scissors. "Stand back, I have to cut her out and she's going to be pissed."
"How long did you leave her in the stocking?" Steve asked, appalled.
"Long enough for her to get pissed," Tony said, carefully cutting the stocking open. Lovelace burst free with a scream, dove for Tony's shirt, and used it to climb up to his shoulder, where she began a long, loud harangue over him leaving her in the stocking.
Steve didn't tease him about it, but he did take a picture, and Pepper declared later that the photo of Tony, scissors in one hand and shredded stocking in the other, looking berated while Lovelace screamed at him, was the best Christmas card they'd ever sent out.
"The potoo's not mine," Tony said, and Rhodey rolled his eyes. "What! That's Clint's. And the dragon is Pepper's."
"Why does Pepper need a baby dragon?" Rhodey said, bending to study the little beast in the terrarium. "It's cute and all, but..."
"Watch," Tony said, and picked up the dragon. He held it out to Lovelace, who screamed bloody murder and took off for the other side of the room. "Pepper needs some kind of Lovelace repellent for when she's meeting with important people."
"And having a tiny lizard on her person is less weird than an owl?"
"She keeps it in a pocket. Some of the, you know, the older shareholders, they think it's a brooch," Tony said.
"This is some fucked up ecosystem shit you have going on here, you realize that," Rhodey said.
"Do you want an owl, Fluffy? I can get you one cheap," Tony replied.