1. A Monday.
Pepper says, “I think there’s a naked man on the beach.”
“Cool,” says Tony. “Can you see anything?”
“Tony,” she says.
He looks up. Pepper stands at the big picture window, looking down as she cranes her neck this way and that. Tony gets up from where he sits cross-legged on the carpet, attempting to make better, faster, stronger household appliances for the two of them, and he goes to join her. He looks out; sure enough, there’s a naked man on the beach.
“Damn,” Tony says. “Should we call the cops?”
“I can’t tell if he’s breathing.” Pepper presses her hands against the window, as if that will help somehow. “Tony, we have to help him.”
“The thing is I don’t think we do,” he tells her. “He’s probably just a vagrant.”
Pepper levels a particularly impressive glare at him. “He’s on your property and you’re a superhero. I think you’re contractually obligated to help him.”
“It’s your property too,” says Tony. But the point of the argument is already failing, what with Pepper now en route out of the house, snatching up a blanket as she goes, and Tony trails after her.
Their bare feet are quiet on the tile and then the sand as they wind their way down the natural staircase of earth to the strip of seaside they call their own. Tony stumbles a little, because he very rarely comes down, but Pepper is sure on the ground. She, Tony knows, likes to go down to the beach for her runs or to get a little light tanning in—and, probably, to get away from the house when things are exploding in the basement and Tony is singeing off his eyebrows again.
The naked man—very, very naked, Tony can’t help but notice—hasn’t moved by the time they get to him.
Pepper throws the blanket over him and kneels, putting her fingers in the hollow of his neck—which, like the rest of him, seems completely fine, no gaping wounds or even interestingly shaped bruises on his body.
They wait. Tony digs his toes into the sand.
“How d’you think he got down here without us noticing?” he asks.
“He’s got a pulse,” says Pepper.
“And his chest’s moving,” Tony adds.
“Let’s get him into the house,” she says.
“Can’t we just call an ambulance?” he asks. “He’s probably some drunk kid from UCLA who thought he was at Pirate’s Cove. And, also, I’ve got an experiment—”
Pepper says, “Tony,” in that way only she can. She stands, continuing, “You’re taking apart a toaster.”
“I want to burn little Iron Man faces onto the toast,” he says. She stares at him. He toes the sand again. “I thought it would be good marketing, and I’m really not helping my case, am I?”
“No,” she says. “And by the way, public nudity hasn’t been legal since the 80s in California.”
“Seriously?” he said. “Even Pirate’s Cove? Man, I should have gotten arrested way more in the early 90s than I did.”
Pepper glares at him.
“Let’s get Naked Guy into the house,” he relents.
They manage to get the man wrapped tightly into the blanket so it doesn’t fall off him when they begin their ascent and the people who constantly watch Tony’s home don’t get a show; and, between the two of them, carry him up to the house. Tony, being the stronger member for their team, takes the bulk of Naked Guy’s weight, his shoulder and arms and torso, while Pepper takes the legs. They almost drop him twice and accidentally hit his head off a rock at one point. Naked Guy doesn’t react.
It takes them around forever to climb back up, both of them sweaty and out of breath by the time they reach the driveway, but they eventually find their way into the house and the closest guest room.
Tony all but hurls his half of Naked Guy onto the bed. He’s only stopped because he can’t get very far with Pepper staring in disapproval as she holds her half.
“So now we’re gonna call the cops?” asks Tony after they get all of him on the bed.
“Of course,” she says, adjusting Naked Guy’s blanket and turning to rummage through the dresser that’s in the room.
“I mean, Coulson is probably on the way so we might not actually need to,” he points out.
“Mhmm,” says Pepper.
“Are you listening to me?” he asks.
“Never,” she says.
“Here.” Pepper turns around and hands him yoga pants and a Megadeth t-shirt that apparently live in the guestroom for situations like this—or if Tony is too drunk to make it back to his bedroom and calls it quits right there. Which, admittedly, has happened. Pepper is, and has always been, a goddess.
“What?” he asks.
“Put these on him,” she says.
Tony scrunches up his nose. “No, why me?”
“Because you’re the superhero,” she says and then leaves, presumably to call the authorities and leave Tony to his shame.
“Goddamnit,” he says. Then, Tony crosses himself and begins wrestling the unconscious stranger into the clothes.
When Naked Guy wakes up, Pepper and Tony are leaning over the stranger. Pepper has a cup full of ice chips she’s been slipping through his mouth and Tony is trying to fingerprint him. (Pepper had not called the authorities to come and take him off their hands, which surprised Tony for half a second until he remembered Pepper had a thing for strays: it’s how he ended up with a no-kill shelter in Silver Lake as part of his company and also Happy. It’s probably also why she’s stayed around Tony this long.)
Naked Guy—not so naked anymore and Tony needs a better nickname or maybe a real name—blinks a few times and then tries to scramble away. He opens his mouth and seems shocked when nothing comes out. He tries again and still nothing.
“Hey,” says Tony. “I’m Tony. This is Pepper.”
The stranger opens and closes his mouth. He frowns, and then points at his throat.
“I don’t think he can talk,” says Pepper, a little frown between her brows. “Are you mute? I know a little sign language—”
The stranger frowns at her. After a long moment, he shakes his head and shrugs inelegantly.
She smiles gently and says, “So this is a new development.”
“We found you on our beach,” Pepper says. “Do you remember anything? Maybe from before?”
The stranger looks at them blankly.
“You can’t remember anything at all,” she deduces. “Not how you got here or even if you have a before.”
He nods again.
“You’re like me with machines,” says Tony to Pepper, “but with people instead. Wow, that’s—that’s magical, is what that is.”
The stranger cocks his head, confused.
Pepper nudges at Tony until he stands. She walks him into the corner, saying, “We’ll be just a second.”
“This is weird,” he says.
“It is,” she agrees.
The stranger is watching them, his eyes narrowed and still coiled up at the headboard, like he wants to run but doesn’t know where to yet. Tony waves a little.
“I’d like for the record to show that this terrible idea, for once, was not mine,” he says. “I would also like permission to send that in a company email and also maybe a text to Coulson. I bet he’d love it.”
“No,” she says.
“Worth a try,” he says.
“Not really,” she says.
“Yeah,” he says. “What did the cops have to say?”
“I made calls to all the local hospitals and the sheriff’s department about missing persons,” says Pepper. “I gave them his description but I’ll call in and add that he’s apparently a mute. And amnesic, so maybe the mute thing isn’t a recent development he just can’t remember how to sign.”
“So we’re not keeping him?” he asks.
“What?” she says. “Tony, he’s a person, we can’t keep him.”
“You kept me,” he says.
“I had very little choice in the matter,” Pepper says.
“Yeah,” he says. “You’re more like a hostage.”
“Anyway,” she says, rolling her eyes, “no one has been reported missing with our stranger’s appearance in the past forty-eight hours. They’ve offered to send an officer around to interview and pick him up, but I told them that he’s still in shock and that we could take care of him.”
“Pepper,” says Tony. “I’m shocked at you. Normally, I’m the one who lies to cops and comes home with total strangers.”
“Shut up,” she says and leaves, adding, “I’m going to go make that phone call.”
Tony and the stranger look at each other. Tony goes to the bed and sits at the foot of it. The stranger moves slightly away, edging along the headboard.
“Sorry about trying to fingerprint you,” says Tony. “Didn’t know when you were going to wake up and I figured it might expedite the identification process.”
All he gets in return is that blank, narrowed-eyed look.
“Here, let’s try this,” he says as he stands up and goes to the bedside table. He riffles around a moment and then comes up, triumphant, with an old book and a pen someone left behind one night. He rips out one of the back, blank pages of the book and hands it, and the pen, to the stranger. “You might not be able to talk but you probably know how to write. Hopefully you haven’t lost that too. So.” He snaps his fingers. “Name, where you’re from, all the deets.”
The stranger smiles a little, like he doesn’t quite know what Tony means, but begins to write anyway. Halfway through, he starts frowning and finishes by throwing the pen to the table in a fit.
“Whoa, whoa, it can’t be that big of a deal,” says Tony, taking the paper back.
It’s Bernoulli’s equation for flight.
“Well, that’s weird,” he says.
The stranger shrugs.
“And I’m guessing your name’s not Bernie or anything,” Tony adds.
He makes a face.
“It’s progress,” says Tony.
The stranger makes an even better face.
“Maybe you were an engineer,” he says, trying to be helpful.
The stranger sets his jaw and returns to the paper. He tries to write three more times, but only more equations pop up, each increasingly more intricate. The stranger looks frustrated beyond belief and at one point does this horribly creepy silent scream thing, just opening his mouth and then snapping it shut in fury when nothing more happens.
It freaks Tony the hell out but he puts a hand on his shoulder anyway, like Obie sometimes used to do, before.
Because he’d be lying if this didn’t make the stranger all the more interesting.
Voiceless and whenever he tries to write, it remaps itself into complex physics?
Dude might be a psychopath, but Tony’s never let that stop him before.
The stranger falls asleep again shortly after and Tony goes out to find Pepper, ordering Jarvis to keep an eye on things.
“As always, sir,” he says.
“You’re not gonna make a wise-ass joke about someone else coming into the house naked?” Tony asks.
“I would dream of it, sir,” Jarvis says.
“Of course you wouldn’t,” he mutters.
Pepper, when he finds her, is in the living room. She has pushed all of Tony’s toaster detritus to the corner and is pouring tea for Rhodey and Natasha.
“I know you and your people watch me like a hawk but really?” he asks.
“I don’t actually work for them,” says Rhodey.
“Sure,” says Tony.
“People were concerned,” says Natasha, ignoring them.
“People?” he asks.
“Apparently,” she tells them, “this isn’t the first stranger to literally fall out of the sky in the past few weeks.”
“Oh?” says Tony. “Do tell.”
“It’s above your pay grade,” Natasha says, her voice half sweet, half beat-the-shit-out-of-you. Man, if Natasha had come into his life just a little bit earlier and before Pepper—well, actually, no, thought Tony. He’d probably be dead if she’d come into his life a little bit earlier and before Pepper.
Natasha was saying, “But, suffice it to say, a town got blown up.”
“I like it when I can’t get blamed for stuff like that,” he says.
Rhodey snorts. “I think it’s safe to say that if your guest blows anything up, you’re gonna get blamed.”
“Man,” Tony says, “guy can’t do more than sleep and equate.”
Natasha eyebrows go up impressively high and Pepper says, “Equate?”
Tony frowns. “Oh, yeah, fun fact I just learned: he can’t write his own name but he knows, like, theorems that would make scientists like Erik Selvig drool. In fact, I took a picture of one, emailed it to him, and he just sent me back a frowny face.”
“You know Erik Selvig?” Natasha’s voice is now fully in ass-kicking territory.
“We know all the Desert Crackpots,” says Tony.
Rhodey nods. “Selvig guest lectured when we were at MIT.”
“Foster’s got some game though,” Tony continues, “even if she’s all into alternate universes or whatever. Me, I like the hard stuff.”
“Me too.” Rhodey holds out a fist to Tony, who obliges with a fist of his own.
Pepper rolls her eyes and smiles winningly a Natasha, “Would you like to stay for dinner, Natasha?”
“I would love to,” she begins. “Unfortunately, I have to go to Budapest to pick up a friend.”
Tony raises his eyebrows.
“He’s a disaster,” she says. She drains her tea, thanks Pepper, and leaves, adding, “We’ll be in touch about your stranger, Tony.”
“I’m into dinner though,” says Rhodey.
They have pizza delivered. Pepper checks in on their guest briefly but he was still sleeping. Rhodey says around his slice, “Head trauma?” and both Tony and Pepper stare at each other until Jarvis calls out, “I have done a full scan and there appears to be nothing wrong with him. There perhaps may be a glitch in my systems though, sir, for his physiology seems to not be reading correctly.”
“How’s not correctly?” he asks.
“He has two hearts, sir,” Jarvis says.
“This is a kindness,” says Rhodey.
“Oh my God, why would you say that?” Tony demands and the subsequent discussion about the tragedy of Time Lords and Amy Pond and Rory Williams carries them through the rest of the night, Pepper rolling her eyes the entire time though Tony knows for a fact she wept like a child over the whole “boy who waited” thing.
Rhodey excuses himself around one a.m., saying that he has to go to another base for the next few weeks for a prototype testing and needs to rest before the flight.
Tony and Pepper see him off to his car and then return to the house, checking in once more on the stranger. He is still sleeping, legs tangled in the sheets and one hand stretching out over the side of the bed. He looks little and boyish.
“How old do you think he is?” asks Pepper.
“Can’t be older than twenty-seven,” says Tony.
The stranger shifts and frowns in his sleep. Tony gets the impression that’d he’d mumbling, if he could.
“God, what happened to him?” she says, running a hand over the stranger’s tangled black hair.
He shrugs. “Let’s go to bed.”
They have a half-hearted argument the next morning about what they’re going to do with him, whispering heatedly outside of the kitchen as they watch their silent houseguest, his brow furrowed, poke at the toaster. They’d both been up half the night, pretending to sleep next to each other and clearly thinking about their mute houseguest; and Pepper says it’s their duty to try to find out who he is and where he’s from, to get him home safely, and Tony feels that, really, SHIELD seems super into him, why can’t they just hand him over. And, also, that the guy seems kind of like a psycho, never smiling or blinking and he’s worried maybe he’s just waiting for the opportune time to murder them in their sleep—except his physics, Pepper, it’s remarkable.
“Then why are we even doing this?” she asks.
“It was your idea,” he says.
“Okay, let’s blame it on me,” she says. “I’m not the one who wants to make him his assistant.”
“He could still be a psycho who’s good at science,” Tony says.
“If he was gonna kill us,” she says, “he would have done it last night.”
“True,” he says,
“So he stays,” says Pepper. She looks a little shocked at her own vehemence.
“Okay,” he says. “If you want, Jarvis’ll keep an eye on him and if he starts going Full Metal Jacket, we call in the authorities.”
She nods. “We’re doing this.”
“Yep.” He shrugs and adds, “It was still your idea.”
“Whatever,” she says. “You get a new lab assistant and I get someone that keeps you out of my hair.”
“Hey,” he says.
Pepper smiles and says loudly, “Let me show you how that works,” as she walks into the kitchen.
Tony stands for a moment, watching Pepper explain how to work a toaster—to be fair, with Tony’s frequent and never quite, well, useful alterations, it is a bit of an adventure—and then enters too.
“So we gotta call you something, man,” he says, “cause Naked Guy and the Stranger just aren’t gonna caught it ‘cause, let’s face it, we’re not in a Swedish crime novel.”
“Tony,” says Pepper.
“I’m thinking Humphrey,” he tells them. “Like, after Bogie. Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Both Pepper and the stranger stare at him like he’s grown another head.
“I am also open to suggestions,” Tony says. “And we’re having a movie night.”
They spend the day throwing names at him, to which he almost always frown or pulls a face if they are weird enough (and Tony gets bored pretty easily so his are always frequently pretty weird). They watch Casablanca and eat grilled cheeses for lunch. At one point, Tony says, “Elsa?” He gets two separate remotes thrown at him and a dark mutter of, “You are ruining this for everyone,” from Pepper. Later, after Tony takes him to play in the lab for a bit while Pepper works, they order in another pizza. Pepper starts guessing Apostle’s and the stranger makes a kind of shrug at Luke, so Tony has Jarvis run the name for any possible variations or even anything that sounds like it while they sleep.
“Lukas, Luc, Lucien,” says Tony while Pepper and the stranger stare at him from the other side of the table. It’s been forty-eight hours since he washed up on the beach and Pepper has, as far as Tony can tell, imprinted on him or something in that space of time. She’d gone out at one point and found him a whole set of clothes and what appeared to be the entire stock at a Dunkin Donuts for him to try, and has already made him an appointment at her salon. She presumably did all of this using one of Tony’s credit cards but he can’t remember any of the passwords to look into it so he’s made his peace with it.
“Lucio, Lucious, Luck, Lucky—”
The stranger points.
“Really?” asks Tony.
The stranger waves his hand.
“Good, because I was gonna say you just get to pick a whole new name if it’s Lucky,” he says. “That’s just cruel.”
“What else?” says Pepper.
“Um,” says Tony, “Lake, Lige, Locke—”
The stranger points again.
“Locke?” Pepper asks.
“Last name or first name?” says Tony. “Because Lucky Locke—you’re a stripper or a superhero at that point, and I don’t think Pepper can handle another superhero in the house without developing a heart condition.”
The stranger frowns.
Tony turns to Pepper and before he can even say anything, she says, “I probably already have a heart condition, thanks, and you can rent The Stripper and Superman and I will also provisionally accept Showgirls, but over my dead body will you take him to a strip club for educational purposes.”
He shrugs and says to the stranger, “It was worth a try, man.”
Time passes. They develop a weird, comfortable life among the three of them in the Malibu House. Pepper disappears to Stark Industries during the day, to run the company, and sometimes Tony goes with her, for board meetings, but mostly she glares at him when he suggests coming along, like she thinks he’ll somehow burn the building down if he shows up. And so he stays home with the stranger and they work in the lab together. He’s an exceptionally quick study and after three days, Tony can’t quite imagine what life would be like without him. They work in tandem, building whatever takes their fancy and making modifications to various equipment around the lab and, of course, to the suits.
Sometimes, to get ideas, Tony takes the stranger out in one of the cars and they speed around the canyons as fast as they can. The stranger leans his face out into the wind, his eyes closed and something approaching a smile on his face.
He teaches him to drive shortly after.
Tony tries out new names for him each day; he even moves on from L names and starts getting creative. He tries John and Hobbes and Calvin and Arthur and Yorick and Hal, if just for the looks Pepper gives him.
(Pepper still calls him Luke, has him looking like a hipster with his hair styled into topknots, and smiles at him so fondly when she thinks no one is looking.)
But the stranger—their mute friend, Tony supposes, maybe even genius mute friend—just shrugs and goes with it. He almost seems happy to be nameless among them, unknown and unquantifiable. And because Tony hates the unquantifiable, he stabs in the dark with a new name a day and Luke-Locke-Hal-Watson-Copperfield lets him do it.
When Pepper comes home at night, she brings various things back for their mute friend. At first she brought library books, but they found out pretty quickly that he couldn’t read the words, not really, just like he couldn’t quite write; so now she picks up DVDs and clothes and fresh fruit for him to try.
For their part, they’ll have made dinner when she gets back (or try to pass off take-out as their own when they burn the food, which Pepper always knows but is too kind to say anything) and the three of them will eat as Tony tells Pepper about their day. Their mute friend will occasionally gesture to add something. After, they watch the movie Pepper brings home on the big screen and their mute friend always excuses himself first, going to the room they gave him when he first arrived for the night, and Pepper and Tony are left alone until the morning.
Around week two, they’re having dinner and Pepper is saying, “Luke, don’t let Tony forget to feed you during the day, you’re still too thin,” and Fred-Chandler-Shakespeare smiles bemusedly at Pepper as he eats garlic bread and she makes faces at both of them and Tony thinks, Holy shit, we’re parents to a twenty-five year old mute.
He excuses himself to the bathroom to have a brief, minor freak out but when he gets there he just stares at himself in the mirror.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
At least they never had to deal with midnight feedings, the terrible twos, and paying for college.
He might still have to talk to him about girls, though, but Tony figures he’ll make Pepper do that.
2. A Captain Calls.
A month after Tony’s bathroom mirror epiphany, they are at the beginnings of the classic rock portion of Luke’s musical education—Tony was working in chronological order after discovering the guy knew nothing at all about music outside of what Tony regularly played in the lab or something that appeared in a movie they’d recently watched—when Luke decides upon his name.
He has his head cocked to one side as he helps Tony make a modification to the new gloves for the Mark Ten and he suddenly puts his wrench down. He taps Tony on the shoulder and he points at the CD. Specifically, he points at Cash. He turns his finger to point at himself and then back to the CD.
“Okay,” says Tony. “The man in black. That’s what you wanna go with?”
Tony smiles. “Badass. Folsom Prison was always my favorite too.”
Luke—Cash—smiles at him and turns back to the gloves.
They keep working for a few more hours and eventually break to emerge for food when Jarvis mentions that maybe it would be a good idea to see some sunlight. Tony’s still not sure how Pepper got him on her side but she did.
As Cash breaks out a Panini press to show Tony his new skills, the woman in question wanders in, Blackberry in one hand and water glass in another.
“You’re home early,” he says.
“I worked from home today,” she tells him.
“Cool,” he says. “Also, we were rocking out in the lab earlier—”
“I heard,” she says.
He continues without missing a beat, “And our friend here was perusing the classic rock LPs and has decided he would like to go by Cash.”
“Cash?” he asks.
“Yeah,” he says. “He read it off the Folsom Prison cover and liked it. I told him it was pretty fucking awesome. You should too.”
Pepper, of course, is pretty busy noticing the important things. “Wait—he read the name? You didn’t just say it and he liked it? He read it?”
Tony digests this. “Well, yes. Oh my God. Wait.”
“Yeah,” says Pepper. “Do you think this means he’s—”
“Getting better?” he finishes. “I honestly don’t know.”
She closes her eyes and shakes her head. “What if?”
He thinks about a name, a real name, what it means; and he thinks about what would happen to their house on the edge of the sea if, suddenly, the fingerprints came back with a life attached.
In the corner, deftly arranging mozzarella and tomatoes, Cash looks up at them and, briefly, smiles his small little smile.
“I don’t know,” Tony says again and it sits in his mouth like ash.
A couple of days later, mid-morning—or late afternoon, Tony had lost his watch a couple weeks back to an experiment and the lab didn’t have all that much natural light for him to judge that way—Jarvis intones, “You have a Skype call from Colonel Rhodes.”
Cash looks up from his lab table, blinking owlishly, as Tony throws down his wrench and says, “Patch him through.”
Jarvis obligingly throws up a screen on which is Rhodey, far too close to the camera as he says, “Oh, hey, it’s working.”
When he leans back, Carol Danvers, Tony’s favorite test pilot and one of his oldest friends, is waving at Tony. They haven’t seen each other face to face in over two years, what with her being trapped out in the Mojave as chief of security for the NASA outpost and Tony becoming a superhero.
“Hey, Tony,” says Rhodey. “Look what I found out in the desert.”
“You make that joke at least once every three years,” Tony says.
“Yeah, because that’s how often you people get trapped in goddamn deserts,” he says.
“Twenty points to Rhodey,” says Carol. “Mostly for accuracy but also for burn value.”
“It’s accurate to you too,” Tony points out. “Even more than me. I got kidnapped and forced to build something. You got the full-on POW tortured and presumed KIA treatment.”
She shrugs. “I mean. Yeah, that is true.”
Making jokes had always been the way Tony dealt with things; and, now, it was far away enough that he didn’t feel the need to go out drinking after the mention of both his and Carol’s experiences in the desert. He didn’t know exactly how Carol felt about it anymore, having been packed away to the Mojave before further questions could be asked of both incidents, but she’d always been good enough to play the Costello to his Abbot, even when she was in college and he was her TA.
He remembers, though, when she came back, airmen around her whispering how she’d crashed through a fence, two months dead, and had recited her name, rank, and serial and started laughing until she cried, how there were dark bruises under her eyes and her lips had been chapped and bleeding. She’d been in a wheelchair for weeks, walked with a cane after, and it had felt like forever before her fingernails grew back in.
And he knows, despite of it, or perhaps because, Carol had been with Pepper every step of Tony’s kidnapping, a tall, blonde bombshell in dress blues in the corner of every press briefing Pepper had to give, had to attend. She made them dinner, let Pepper fall apart, and had Happy take them for silent, long drives through the canyon. She never once brought up her own two-month stint in a desert and she’d never once given up. She’d personally flown several of the helicopters that searched for Tony, had been the pilot of the one that had found him, and she’d called Pepper from the cockpit as Rhodey held him in the desert.
(The two of them, Pepper and Carol, had become fast and true friends, too, and they actually exchange weekly video mail with each other now, hour-long sagas that Tony knows exists but it never allowed to see. He’s pretty sure that, between the two of them, they know everything about him—personally, professionally, sexually—and the only way their relationship could possibly be more embarrassing for Tony is if his mother were alive and friends with them too.)
Ultimately, Tony figures that Carol is Boston-Irish Catholic to the bone and if she isn’t okay with it, if sometimes she wakes up in a cold sweat surrounded by the ghosts of strange men and feeling like she’s missing her fingernails, she’s too New England to do anything but bottle it up and wait until she dies to deal with it.
He wonders, briefly and horribly, if Cash is somehow part of their disastrous club.
“But more importantly,” Carol says, “I have been led to understand that you cold kidnapped a dude. Is that him?”
“I found him on my beach,” he says, “and have graciously taken him into my home. Hey, Cash, c’mere.”
Rhodey and Carol share a significant look.
“Also, this happened like a month ago,” Tony says. “Your intelligence needs updated, Captain.”
She shrugs. “Walter fucked up the computers with his last experiment for, like, three weeks. I also may have recently dropped my phone in a river for reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture.”
“I mean, not for nothing since I’ve repeatedly set fire to LA, but I don’t understand how you and your boyfriend haven’t blown up the Mojave yet,” says Tony.
“He’s not my boyfriend, he’s my science bitch,” she says. She adds, almost sadly, “And I really don’t know either.”
“I thought you were going to become responsible,” he says.
“So did the brass when they promoted her,” says Rhodey.
“This was a promotion?” Carol asks. “I thought I was being punished for that time I got shot down and became a POW and all.”
“Maybe a little of both,” Rhodey allows.
“Cash, c’mere,” he calls again. “This is Carol and Rhodey, two of my oldest friends—”
“Only friends,” they say together as Cash finally starts to come closer.
“Who I counted as a brother and sister but will now, sadly,” he continues smoothly, “have to murder. Cash, Carol and Rhodey. Rhodey and Carol, Cash.”
Cash waves. Rhodey waves back.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Cash,” says Carol. “I am glad to know that Tony did not kidnap you because you are good at science.”
He looks over at Tony, who shrugs and says, “She’s a crazy person.”
“Oh, ha ha, Stark,” she says. “By the way, you come at me, I toss you like a bag of potato chips.”
“It’s true,” says Rhodey, mostly to Cash. “Carol’s a stone-cold badass.”
“I’ve got a suit now,” says Tony, “I’m pretty sure I could take you.”
“Hey, when do I get one of those?” she says. “Cause I know Rhodey has one and I thought I was your favorite test pilot. Let’s call this one the ‘war bird’.”
“Well, you crashed one of my planes, you can’t be trusted,” he tells her.
Carol rolls her eyes. “Girl gets shot down one goddamn time.”
Cash is looking more and more confused by the minute.
Rhodey takes pity on him and says, “Yes, Cash, this is the long lost Stark daughter. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that there are two of them but you get used to it.”
“Hey, what the hell are you doing out there anyway?” asks Tony.
“Testing,” he says.
“Keeping Walter from killing himself,” says Carol.
Tony nods. He has seen Walter precisely once: in a photo-booth strip of him and Carol where they are making increasingly stupid faces at each other and he is also missing an eyebrow. Through it all, Walter is still looking at Carol with such affection that even Tony can see the dude is madly in love with her, while Carol remains stubbornly oblivious.
“You I knew,” he says. “Rhodey I didn’t.”
“Fair enough,” she says. She points at Cash. “So, you can’t talk?”
He looks mildly put out at her forwardness but nods anyway. Tony says on his behalf, “He woke up that way. We took him to a couple doctors but nothing is physically wrong. They suspect some sort of psychological trauma.”
“Given that he’s rolling his eyes pretty hard, I think Cash disagrees,” says Carol, grinning wryly. “I like you.”
“And the writing thing is pretty freaky,” notes Rhodey. “But you said he read an album cover the other day?”
“Johnny Cash,” he tells them.
Carol is staring at something over the laptop screen and starting to move away. “Okay, well, Walter just set the lab on fire so I gotta split. Keep me updated on the genius mute situation and if the suit shows up.”
“How do you know about the suit?” he shouts.
She dodges back on camera. “Cause I know stuff. And then weird stuff happens to you and then he shows up. Is a genius mute naked on your beach not weird enough for this to warrant a suit situation?”
“Allowed,” he says.
Carol nods and leaves again, saying, “Great meeting you, Cash!”
“I keep her in the loop,” says Rhodey.
“When she has internet and a phone,” says Tony.
“Well,” he says, “you know how she worries. Also—I got an interesting phone call the other day.”
Tony tries very hard not to look at Cash, feeling a little pissed. He’s not exactly proud that he went in and started attempting to bury Cash’s existence—because no matter how much Pepper loves getting her mom on, she’d probably be pretty mad if she found out Tony was the only thing standing between Cash and his past—but how the hell did they figure out he’d been snooping around their systems for information? Of all the times for SHIELD to start implementing better firewalls…
Rhodey sighs and shakes his head. “Yeah. You’re gonna get a visit again, dude, and it’s not gonna be Natasha.”
“So you’re being punished too,” says Tony.
“The Mojave is where Air Force officers go to die,” he agrees.
There is a crash. Carol says, “Walter, Jesus Christ.”
“Sorry,” says a man, presumably Walter. “I had no idea it was going to be that flammable!”
“Or where they send the people too crazy to be allowed in gen pop,” Rhodey adds.
There is another crash. Rhodey winces.
“Should you go help?” asks Tony.
“Probably,” says Rhodey. “I’ll call you later.”
“Yeah, let me know if the lab is still standing,” he says.
Rhodey throws him a salute and the call is ended.
Tony shakes his head.
Cash is staring at Tony in confusion.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Let’s go find Pepper and food.”
“What are they doing out there anyway?” Pepper asks after they indeed find her (and leftover pizza). Tony has updated her on another episode of Carol and Walter, with bonus Rhodey, and she is shaking her head in bemusement.
“She says they’re building satellites and trying to keep a group of clumsy scientists alive, but. Honestly?” says Tony. “I’m like eighty percent sure Walter: Human Disaster is a cover and the two of them are hunting aliens. That’s how I think she knows about the suit. Rhodey thinks Carol might secretly be SHIELD and is keeping it from us because she knows we will no longer let her sit at the cool kids table if she is.”
“Can’t you find out?” she says.
“Rhodey’s made me promise not to hack SHIELD anymore,” he tells her, “despite the fact that it is interesting reading for all concerned, ‘cause apparently Fury takes it out on him.”
Cash points at himself.
“Yeah but that doesn’t count,” Tony says.
“What?” says Pepper.
“It was one of my early attempts at finding out if anyone knew who Cash was,” he says. “Which, given its altruistic purposes, does not count.”
“Oh, God,” she says. “I’m going back to the office for the rest of the afternoon. Try not to break any more laws when I’m gone.”
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep,” he tells her.
Pepper rolls her eyes. “Cash, you’re in charge.”
She leaves and Cash smiles, almost smugly, at Tony.
“Listen,” he says, “Pepper likes to believe you’re an innocent flower, but I know you’re a criminal mastermind. I’m onto you.”
Cash keeps smiling and returns to the lab. After a moment, Tony follows.
Around what Tony’s body assumes is dinner time, he shouts to Cash that they’re going to wrap it up and, when he turns around to see Cash nod his confirmation, Cash is pretty busy staring at the black man with an eye patch with something approaching trepidation.
“Of course,” says Tony.
“Nice to see you too, Stark,” says Fury with a snort.
And not but fifteen seconds later, Tony’s phone vibrates. Because he is a world-class texter, trained in the fires of boring ass board meetings, he barely even needs to pull it form his pocket in order to see and reply to the texts.
We tried to warn you, says Rhodey’s text.
that, says Carol’s.
i hate both of u, says Tony’s. jarvis is no longer allowed to hang out with either of you.
If Fury notices any of this, he does not let on.
“Natasha says he’s been working in your lab,” he is saying.
“What, no pleasantries?” Tony asks.
“I said it was nice to see you,” he says.
“I suspected that was sarcasm,” says Tony. “And yes, this is my new assistant, and he happens to have a name. It is Cash.”
“Did he tell you that?” Fury asks.
“He picked it,” he says. “If you must know.”
Fury raises an eyebrow.
“Cash is like genius level,” says Tony. “And he washed up on my beach so you can’t have him.”
Fury looks like he’s about to say something, so Tony cuts him off before he can. Let it never be said that he didn’t pick anything up from those meetings he never really quite paid attention at; a few things had to sink in somehow after all.
“Listen, Colonel, I know what’s up,” he says, “and I have, many times now, turned down your invitation to your leather clad club. And you coming in here to make vaguely intimidating comments about my new research assistant isn’t gonna endear me to you anymore.”
“I pay attention,” says Tony. “Sometimes. And this is one avenue you can’t go down because Pepper happens to be pretty fond of him and Pepper is the only person who can scare me into doing anything.”
“Good to know,” he says.
“Yeah,” Tony says. “She doesn’t like you much either so good luck with that. You know, you should have sent the suit. Coulson. We like him.”
Fury rolls his eye. “I was actually just coming in to check on my consultant, really. Make sure he’s happy.”
“I’m very happy with my new assistant,” he says.
“Good to know,” says Fury again. “You know, we have a doctor on payroll that might like to sometime speak to your assistant.”
Tony smiles blandly. “Really.”
“Her name is Jane Foster,” Fury tells him.
He snorts. “You think Cash fell out of one of Jane’s wormholes?”
Fury looks at him like he doesn’t think it’s so funny. He hands Tony a card and says, “We won’t make you, but feel free to contact her, if you, you know, get your head out of your ass. She might have answers for both of you.”
Tony shoves the card into his back pocket. “I trust you can see yourself out.”
“Of course.” Fury backs out of the doorway and disappears into the darkness.
Tony waits a few seconds before he shouts to the ceiling, “Classy, Jarvis. Maybe next time you can warn me before my, like, nemesis shows up.”
“I thought your nemesis was Justin Hammer,” says Jarvis.
“He’s a tool,” says Tony, “and I use the term loosely. But, seriously, he came into the house.”
“I couldn’t,” says Jarvis. “So I told Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes.”
“Okay, well, you’re gonna get a massive security overhaul later,” he says.
“I would expect nothing less, sir,” says Jarvis.
“In the meantime,” says Tony, “let’s go troll Tumblr for funny cat pictures. I need something to make me feel less dirty.”
When Pepper gets home that night, Cash is scrolling through Tony’s favorite Tumblrs and Tony is ruthlessly altering Jarvis’s code, muttering to himself—and to Cash, when Cash looks up in concern. She stares at them for a long moment before shaking her head and going to order in dinner.
Actually, Tony doesn’t have favorite Tumblrs, per se; he likes Tumblr, thinks it’s pretty hilarious, and reblogs anything about himself religiously. But he doesn’t have favorites. He has one favorite: it’s called physicist stranded in india and it’s this guy, calling himself Bixby, and he just fills it up with pages of equations and theories and Instagram photos of little backwater Indian towns and the occasional rant against government funding. Tony loves it.
He never says why he’s in India; he makes it sound like he’s some NASA scientist trapped out there, looking at stars and distant planets in their unpolluted sky. Sometimes, he takes pity on physics majors in the middle of their finals who send him mass pleas via email and answers their questions, and sometimes he posts scanned copies of journal entries that he’s corrected in red pen.
Tony’s pretty much convinced that Bixby is his platonic soul mate and accordingly sends him regular emails and has bimonthly chat sessions with him, going on four months now.
They discuss science and math, the utter bullshit that is publish or perish, and they talk about how Bixby really wants a decent slice of pizza and the continuingly hilarious adventures of Tony and his genius mute scientist and the government agencies that want to hang out with them.
He wonders if it’s time to call him Bruce yet or if that’s gonna be too presumptuous at this stage in their relationship.
Maybe he’ll wait until Bixby calls him Iron Man.
As always, they are in the lab when Fury makes his next move, just two days later. Tony is upgrading the Iron Man software and thinking about nanotechnology, while Cash is building something with spare parts at his workbench. Tony had no idea what the fuck it is; it looks like a weird box.
Then, a man says, “Uh, hello?”
Tony and Cash turn as a unit. A tall, handsome blond man is in the doorway. Next to him is Natasha, wearing that black cat suit of hers, and a brown-haired guy with a bow slung over his shoulder. They have matching black eyes.
“Can you have that within city limits?” Tony asks, pointing at the bow.
“This isn’t city limits,” says the guy.
“Well played,” he says.
“Tony,” says Natasha. “This is Agent Clint Barton and Captain Steve Rogers.”
Tony looks at Cash. Cash makes a swirling motion with his index finger while staring at Rogers. Tony looks back at Natasha.
“I’m assuming you think bringing the long dead Captain America will deflect my attention from your black eye,” he says. “And you would be wrong. What happened to your face?"
“Budapest,” she says. Beside her, Barton twitches bodily.
“That was a month ago,” Tony says.
She blinks, very slowly. “When I left, yes.”
“The life you lead,” he says. “And the Capsicle?”
Rogers, who has had a hand outstretched the entire time, finally retracts it. “Agent Romanova has told me a lot about you.”
“All of it patently untrue probably,” says Tony. “Except unless she mentioned that we were screaming geniuses. That’s completely accurate, though she probably undersold it. Because, I mean, home of the sexy, crazy smart people.”
He holds out a fist to Cash, who stares for a minute before remembering what he’s supposed to do. Tony’s been trying but it’s been a rough road, introducing Cash to decades’ worth of pop culture.
“What’s up?” he asks Natasha.
“We can’t just be here for a visit?” she asks.
“I wanted to meet Howard’s son,” says Rogers.
There is a long moment of silence. Cash glances between Tony and Rogers.
“You knew my old man?” he asks.
“In the war, yes,” says Steve.
“Cool,” says Tony. “Anyone hungry?”
Barton says, “Oh, God, yes.”
They retreat to the kitchen, where Cash immediately begins making sandwiches. He had become deeply fascinated with the Food Network early on in his stay with Tony, something which Tony is loathe to disabuse him of given how many delicious sandwiches came out of it. He’s yet to master anything else, though, but given his antagonistic relationship with the oven, Tony is willing to let that one slide.
As Tony starts attempting to pump Natasha for information about her various and sundry acts and Barton laughs and laughs while she gives him nothing, Rogers wanders over to Cash and watches him make sandwiches.
He speaks softly to Cash and doesn’t seem at all weirded out that Cash isn’t talking back, just nodding and occasionally gesturing with his free hand.
“I briefed him,” says Natasha before Tony can bring it up.
“Oh,” he says.
“He really hasn’t said a word?” she asks. “And still nothing writing wise?”
“No,” says Tony. “I would have thought Fury briefed you.”
Natasha stares at him for a moment and then says, “He did mention he stopped by.”
“We don’t need babysitters,” he says.
“Haven’t you set fire to LA, like, five times now?” Barton asks.
“Twice,” says Tony.
“And Rogers really did want to meet you,” says Natasha.
“Though I think he likes your assistant more,” says Barton, jerking his thumb in there direction.
Both Tony and Natasha look over.
Rogers is smiling at Cash. He says, “These are gonna be really great sandwiches.”
Cash smiles. It is a little brighter than normal.
Tony narrows his eyes and thinks, Huh.
3. The Captain, the Mute, and the Strange Box.
Tony supposes that they think they’re being pretty smooth about the whole thing; and that the little touches and sideways smiles and the picture books Rogers brings for Cash when he finds some super important reason to come to the lab from New York—he supposes that they think all of that just goes under Tony’s radar because he’s always busy in his lab.
Which, in fact, is pretty accurate.
Pepper, on the other hand.
Pepper is a very observant woman, with little to occupy her time (as she’s fond of saying), and she’s Tony’s forever kind of girl and so she tells him all the little things that pass him by, including the unseemly crushes superheroes have on mute scientists.
“I don’t think they actually know though,” says Pepper after she gives him the latest update on the Cash-Rogers Problem, which has somehow become their pillow talk. Tony supposes this is what being a parent is all about. “I tried to talk to Cash about it but he just looked at me like I grew another head. And Captain Rogers—he’s from the forties.”
“Not a lot of man-on-man action then,” agrees Tony.
“I mean,” she says. “It is very sweet. That he doesn’t quite understand he’s courting Cash. Or, if he does, he doesn’t have the skill set or even vocabulary to talk about it like we can.”
“I know what you’re saying,” he says. “And I’ll take care of it. I’ll pick up a copy of Brokeback Mountain tomorrow and send—”
Pepper, laughing, hits him with a pillow.
“Why are you abusing me?” asks Tony. “That was a very serious suggestion!”
She both laughs and hits harder.
Over time, these are the things Rogers sends Cash: sketches of people in parks and cafes, done on notebook paper and backs of coasters and napkins that have been stained with coffee. Sometimes there are more elaborate ones, pastel sunsets and charcoal bridges. There is a watercolor of the Angel of Waters that is so breathtakingly beautiful Pepper has it framed and hung in Cash’s bedroom.
Over time, these are the things Cash sends Rogers: mix-tapes, a map of the constellations, a bit of copper wire fashioned into a shape like his shield.
The morning after Pepper commits several heinous acts of spousal abuse, she announces to them at breakfast that it has been almost a year, to date, since she looked out of the picture windows and announced that there was a naked man on the beach.
Tony and Cash look at each other in varying degrees of unsettled to know that much time had indeed passed. Tony is used to being holed up in his lab for weeks on end, Pepper bringing him food and the board yelling at him and people trying to recruit him for things; he realizes that he might actually like it, having a buddy, that’s right there and not a voice in the ceiling or the hands typing at the other end of an email, for the long nights and the chemical burns.
While Tony feels something almost fond stretching his cheeks, Pepper is saying, “I think we should throw Cash a birthday party.”
Cash blinks at her, confused.
“Hell yes,” says Tony.
“Not one of your birthday parties,” she says. Tony pouts. She continues, “Something tasteful. I’ve already called Phil, Natasha, Clint, and Steve. They said they’d love to come if they’re not on mission. Steve was particularly excited. I don’t think he gets out much besides his trips here to attempt to recruit Tony.”
Cash is staring at his nails. Tony manfully resists the urge to sing Steve and Cash, sitting in a tree.
“I figured,” says Pepper, eyes narrowed at this development, “you don’t remember when you were born so we’ll give you one, and what better than your anniversary with us.”
“It’s almost like a birthday,” agrees Tony.
Eventually, Cash nods and sends them his little smile.
Pepper grins and grabs her Blackberry.
A week later, a catering company has invaded Tony’s kitchen. It does not faze Tony, who is used to many people rotating in and out of his home on a regular basis; but Cash wanders around wide-eyed and confused. The cards people have sent to him are especially confusing (though, to be fair, it could be because he is illiterate).
When the time comes and Pepper is running around making sure everything is perfect, Tony starts their small birthday party by piping in a playlist made special for the occasion—containing mostly Cash’s namesake but also Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, Neko Case, and Kate Bush because the guy is nothing if not eclectic in his taste.
Coulson arrives promptly, with Rogers at his side as they’d come in together. Rogers immediately breaks off to go wish Cash a happy birthday and give him his gift, and Coulson watches after him almost wistfully.
“You know,” he says. “I was there when he woke up.”
“You shouldn’t tell people that,” says Tony.
“No, I mean,” Coulson says. “What I mean is, I respect him, more than I respect a lot of people, and I had to tell him a lot of bad news. And this happens to be the happiest I’ve seen him since his war films. If you know what I’m saying.”
“I do,” says Pepper as she runs past. “They’re sweet, right?”
“Except for the fact that they don’t actually know they’re dating,” says Coulson.
“Right?” says Tony.
Rhodey shows up shortly thereafter and gives Cash a quick, awkward hug. Tony figures it is equal parts unfamiliarity, Cash not liking to be touched, and the badass giant boyfriend—though, admittedly, Rhodey does strike up a conversation about the army with him fairly quickly.
Natasha and Clint show up half an hour late. They come through the balcony doors. No one asks.
Everyone mingles and talks and smiles at Cash, who gives his little smile in return. Rogers very rarely leaves his side, fascinated with the iPhone that Tony has reprogrammed for Cash (to the point where it was only an iPhone in resemblance, having made it completely picture based, with photos for Pepper and Tony, and Rhodey and Carol for emergencies), and has created a series of images to work as a dictionary of sorts. He is proudly showing it off to anyone who will look at it, which is, of course, mainly Rogers.
Other people start to notice when they all sit down to the meal, and glances are exchanged. Tony thinks Natasha and Clint may have even started a bet of some kind, and the theory is solidified when he sees Rhodey pass them a five-dollar bill.
Tony stares hard—which might border on glaring, given the frequency Pepper steps on the top of his foot—at Cash and Rogers the entire time they eat, watching as Rogers give a soft running commentary on how good he thinks the food is, how he’s enjoying the party, how he hopes Cash likes his present.
After the cake—a ridiculous tower of vanilla cake covered in peanut butter frosting and chocolate ganache that Tony is pretty sure God himself whipped up in the kitchen—they go back into the living room and Tony begins forcing presents into Cash’s hands.
“You open them,” he says after Cash just stares at the boxes.
“With or without wild abandon,” says Clint. “Some people like to save the wrapping paper after all.”
For the first time that night, everyone’s attention is removed from Cash and his patriotic shadow.
Clint crosses his arms defensively, ears growing a little pink. “I grew up weird.”
Tony resists the urge to make fun of him when he sees that Cash has taken this very seriously, peeling the tape slowly away and setting it all to the side gently.
When he manages to get through the presents, eons later by Tony’s calculation, there is a pile of increasingly odd things on the coffee table.
Rhodey has supplied Cash with a few books on mechanical engineering, all of them having discovered through arduous trial and error that he can in fact make sense of them. Natasha has gifted a handsome set of throwing knives that bring a smile to Cash’s face and a look of horror to Rhodey, Pepper, Coulson, and Rogers. Clint has promised archery and cooking lessons when he’s in town and tickets to a Johnny Cash tribute coming to LA. Coulson presents him with several bags of high-end coffee, and Carol (unable to make it at the last minute as Walter had somehow concussed himself) had sent him the complete Battlestar Galactica series on DVD, as well as series one through four of Doctor Who. Bixby sent a long birthday email (a new equation he was working on inside) that morning. Pepper and Tony give Cash a new set of soldering tools.
And Rogers—that son of a bitch—had done a series of charcoal portraits of Cash, as well as Pepper and Tony. Cash had almost, sort of blushed, smiled, and thanked him in sign (the only actual ASL that had stuck from their first few weeks of attempting to communicate).
Everyone else had been appropriately moved, commented on the realism and beauty, and Pepper had looked dangerously close to tears. And Tony—well, he honestly couldn’t understand why the hell Cash hadn’t pulled Rogers into the downstairs bathroom yet. Had he learned nothing from Tony?
God, he thought. I feel like a failure. Is this what everyone else feels like all the time?
Across the room, Rogers laughs. Cash smiles. Pepper pulls a face. Even Coulson rolls his eyes.
And Tony agrees.
We need a plan, he mouths.
Pepper mouths back, It has to be foolproof.
Rogers’s hand brushes against Cash’s. He blushes, pulls away, and goes to talk to Natasha and Clint.
“Oh my fucking God,” mutters Tony. Foolproof is not going to be enough.
In the middle of their weekly chat a few days later, Tony had filled Bixby in on this most recent episode of The Captain And The Mute and Bixby suggests, You should make a flow chart.
Flow chart? asks Tony.
Yeah, he says. I find flowcharts help me keep track of ideas and events, especially in experiments. I figure, in this case, you can track the development of their relationship and the events that have occurred and gifts and all that stuff—and then you can present it to them.
And say what? Didn’t know if you guys knew this but the data says you’re dating, Tony says. Congratulations!
And? says Bixby.
Tony thinks about it for a second and then types, No, you’re right. There are no other avenues available to me but this. The two of them are totally hopeless. Did I tell you Rogers did a damn charcoal series of him? I feel like I have failed Cash somehow by not helping him get laid.
Ah, Bixby says. The true meaning of parenthood.
Damn straight, he says. I can’t let him devote himself only to science and that weirdo box when some blond number blushes when he looks at him straight on. I’m gonna have to lock them in a closet or something.
Maybe try the flowchart, Bixbytypes, before graduating to kidnapping.
Tony sends a frowny face.
Man, Bixby says.
I’ll make the flowchart, says Tony. But I’m blaming you if it fails.
I recommend heavy pasteboard, he says. It’s hard to rip even when you’re angry.
Natasha and her lunatic not-boyfriend or whatever are in Tony’s kitchen, eating Tony’s cereal. When he questions this, Natasha points her spoon, currently full of milk and Golden Grahams, at him.
“This is now our home base,” she says.
“You have the best food on speed dial,” agrees Clint.
“Also you’re tasked with keeping an eye on me,” Tony says, grabbing one bowl of Golden Grahams for himself and one for Cash, who’d been found by Pepper passed out over a lab table with his box project and ordered to eat, with Tony as supervision.
“What?” says Clint. “We can’t just be on Team Tony?”
“Natasha hates me,” Tony says.
“I like you fine,” she says.
“Your tone begs to differ,” he says.
“I like everyone,” says Clint.
“You hate Wales,” Natasha points out.
He shrugs and says, rather pleasantly, “Wales knows what it did.”
Natasha rolls her eyes so hard Tony thinks it has to hurt.
“Do I want to know what Wales did?” he asks.
“No,” Natasha and Clint say at the same time. Natasha continues, “It’s classified.”
“And I get retroactively punished whenever it’s brought up,” Clint adds.
“I gotta introduce you two to Carol and Walter,” says Tony.
“Danvers?” asks Natasha.
“Air Force pilot?” asks Clint.
Cash points at Tony, who hisses, “She is SHIELD. I knew it.”
“Carol Danvers is not SHIELD,” says Clint. “She did, however, once fly me out of Wales. I heard she got shot down a couple years back.”
“She did,” says Tony. “Now she is trying to keep a NASA scientist from blowing himself up, with limited success.”
Clint grins. “Oh, that’s a story I have got to hear sometime.”
“But, seriously,” Tony says. “Why are you in my kitchen?”
Natasha and Clint exchange glances. She says, “Well, we didn’t have anywhere to go.”
“What?” says Tony.
Cash taps him on the shoulder and presents him with the screen of his iPhone. There is a picture of an orphanage. Cash points at himself, then at Natasha and Clint, then finally at Tony, and nods, eyebrows raised. Because Tony is used to going for days at a time with a mute as his main conversational partner, he immediately frowns.
“This is not Stark’s Home For Orphan Grown Ass Men and Women,” he says.
Cash shrugs his shoulders.
“It’s not,” says Tony.
Cash turns his hand this way and that.
“I could kick you out at anytime,” he says.
Cash snorts, eyebrows even higher.
“He’s right,” says Natasha. Clint nods beside her and she continues, “Pepper would kick your ass.”
“I can’t win,” says Tony.
“Chicks, man,” says Clint. He grunts immediately thereafter and Natasha looks smug. Cash shoots her a thumb’s up.
Later that night, Tony turns to Pepper in bed.
“We may have taken in a couple more strays,” he says.
“Clint and Natasha?” she says. “Yeah, I knew that. I have the maid keep a room ready for them.”
“So they are sleeping together,” he says.
Pepper shrugs. “I think he might actually sleep on the floor.”
“I would too,” Tony says.
“I’m actually waiting for Captain Rogers to move in,” she continues, like he hadn’t said anything.
“He’s probably too scared that you’ll murder him and hide his body,” says Tony, “if he tries anything with Cash.”
“I’d probably slow clap if he tried something with Cash,” she says.
“And then kill him,” he says.
She thinks about it. “No, I wouldn’t kill him. I’d have Natasha break his arm or something.”
“I wonder if she can,” Tony says. “Oh, wait, never mind. That’s a terrible mental avenue to go down before bed. I regret it. I regret it a lot.”
“I have a question,” she says.
“If it’s about how badly Natasha could kick my ass, it’s real bad,” he says.
“No,” says Pepper. “You and Cash—you’re working on the suit, right?”
“Sometimes,” he says. “But, other times, we do other stuff. I made these electric toothbrushes the other day that are gonna sell like hotcakes. Total stock bump waiting in the wings.”
“That’s great, I’ll bring it to the board next week,” she says. “But, what’s that box?”
“Cash’s box?” Tony asks.
She nods. “I saw it this morning. I asked him what it was and he just shrugged.”
“Well, even if he wanted to tell us,” says Tony, “he couldn’t. I’ve looked at it and I agree, it’s kind of totally weird and oddly ornate for something he’s been building out of random scraps. I’ve had Jarvis scan it and it doesn’t appear to be dangerous. Hell, for all I know, he could be making you a jewelry box.”
Pepper is silent for a very long time. Tony watches the ceiling. Then, she says, “I think it might be time to take him to Foster.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, maybe.”
Nearly a week later, Pepper orders them out of the lab after they spend nearly forty-eight hours cooped up there, Tony crouched over his suit and Cash with his box which grows bigger and stranger with each day.
They’d gone reluctantly, with Pepper muttering, “God, two of them,” and after driving around the canyon for a while, Tony had decided to take them to the closest boardwalk.
After sampling almost every booth of food and Cash displaying a terrifying proficiency with water pistols, they’re heading back to the car when Tony realizes Cash is stopped. He turns to call to him when he sees Cash is looking curiously at the box with curtains people are flowing in and out of.
“Photo-booth,” says Tony. “We’re doing it. Pepper would kill me if I don’t.”
He drags Cash into the booth, deposits him, and begins to insert a couple dollars and press a bunch of buttons. Cash stares, wide-eyed, and Tony instructs him on the finer points of what will happen when they hit the final button.
“I am old hand at this,” he adds then. “Danvers spent the mid-nineties dragging me into every single one of these that exists in Boston and I have the strips to prove it.”
He hits the big button and the countdown begins.
When they get home, Cash has started to look a little green and his mouth is a tight line. Tony asks him if he has a headache and Cash nods, but when Tony goes to get him some aspirin, Cash ignores him and runs down to the lab to check on his strange box project. At this point, Tony has sent out scans to both Rhodey and Carol to take a look at, but not even Carol’s Walter could make heads or tails of it.
Pepper is waiting in the kitchen for them and Tony is momentarily distracted from Cash’s headache. He proudly presents her with the strip of photos and she snorts with laughter as she looks at them. The first photo is a perfectly respectable photo of them smiling, and the second is Tony shooting a peace symbol with Cash mimicking him. The third one they are pulling faces and the fourth one—
“Raptor hands?” asks Pepper.
“You should have heard my raptor impression,” he tells her. “Frankly, it’s epic.”
Pepper is still laughing and Tony is making a drink for himself when Cash slides into the room, sweating, breathing hard, and his box in his arms.
“Cash, what’s wrong?” asks Pepper.
He waves a hand frantically and shoves the box at Tony, who stares at it with a kind of dawning horror.
“What is it?” she asks. “Tony? Cash—”
The box is a window, Tony sees, a window into another world where it is snowing and dark and there are shapes moving in the shadows.
“Please tell me you just found Narnia,” Tony says.
Cash shakes his head, eyes huge and terrified. He rips the grocery list off the fridge, grabs a pen, and sets his jaw.
Pepper moves to stand by Tony and peers in too. “What is it?”
“I think,” says Tony.
Cash shoves the paper into Tony’s free hand and points, nearly putting his finger through it.
Frost Giants, it says. They’re coming. Need help.
“Holy shit,” says Tony. “Pepper, he wrote something. And it’s—oh, shit, we have to call Coulson. We have to call him now—”
“Oh my God,” says Pepper. Her voice is small and Tony turns, his heart in his throat.
“Cash, you’re bleeding,” she is saying and Cash is, a line of red leaking out his nose and down onto his mouth.
He touches it gingerly, pulling his hand back to look, and both Pepper and Tony take a few abortive steps closer to him, hands outstretched.
Cash is still staring at the blood on his fingers when he hits the floor.
4. Another Monday.
Forty-eight hours later, Tony and Pepper have camped out in Cash’s private hospital room, terrified at least three nurses and doctors each, watched Steve Rogers, Natasha and Clint, a dude in a red cape, and a big green dude save the planet from big blue dudes with an ice box on the news, and are in the middle of a furious argument when it becomes apparent that Cash has woken up and has probably been awake for a while, judging from the look on his face.
“We’re not arguing about you,” they say at the same time.
Cash looks back and forth between them.
“We may have been arguing about something relating to you,” says Tony.
Cash rolls his eyes.
“Pepper wants to take you to Foster,” says Tony.
“I don’t want to,” says Pepper. “I just think it might be the only option we have, not knowing what wrong. And after all of this and your involvement—”
Cash frowns at her.
And so they give him to Reader’s Digest of events: after he had passed out, Natasha, Clint, and Phil Coulson had been called to the scene and updated that Cash had been subconsciously building some sort of view finder into another world and that he saw aliens there planning to invade. A small force was put down by Fury and his super secret boy-band (plus one girl and a monster who Tony was personally pretty stoked was finally in country) and they are all relatively certain no one is going to try anything again. Tony had volunteered to go into the field too, but Pepper had gripped his wrist tight and Fury also declared him in to volatile a state to be useful, and one of the boy-band was apparently also an alien, who assured them it was the acts of a group of rebels.
Cash had looked a little terrified at the mention of the alien in the group, but had covered it pretty quickly. Pepper and Tony, who basically had degrees in reading the mute’s facial expressions, let it slide and didn’t mention it.
He did however point at Tony and make a flying gesture. Then, he pointed at both himself and Pepper, back at Tony, and slashed his neck.
“Exactly,” Pepper had said.
“Wait, how did I just lose?” Tony had asked.
“You always lose,” she replied.
Cash had nodded.
Now, Pepper is saying, “Do you want to go see Doctor Foster after you get released in a couple days?”
“It’s your choice,” says Tony. “I wanted to lock you away forever and maybe build a mote but Pepper has argued that it will be impractical and that when I became a superhero, I gave up megalomania.”
Cash cracks a small smile and turns his hand about in the air.
“I know,” he says. “Megalomania is amazing. But she has a point. I will only build the mote if you agree to it.”
“That’s not what we,” she begins.
“Mote or therapy,” Tony all but shouts.
“It’s not therapy,” Pepper yells, “he’d be finding out about his past.”
“Mote or therapy,” he shouts again.
Cash buries his head in his hands, shoulders shaking. It’s his laugh, they’d discovered a long time ago, rare and silly and a little frightening. Being soundless, it’s hard to tell it apart from crying.
“I thought you liked Jane,” she shouts.
From the doorway, Nick Fury says, “You’re scaring the nurses.”
“They’re used to it,” Tony and Pepper say together.
“Okay,” says Fury.
“How’d you get in here?” asks Tony, perching on the edge of the bed. Pepper moves to stand at Cash’s side. Tony has a brief, horribly clear memory of over a year ago, Cash crouched feral and scared in a stranger’s Megadeth t-shirt against the headboard of a guest bed. Now, he is crouched feral and scared in a hospital gown, straight dark hair swinging into his narrowed eyes.
“It’s a hospital,” says Fury, “and I have a pretty impressive badge.”
“I got a pretty impressive team of lawyers,” says Pepper, “and they’re on speed dial.”
“Oh, sassy,” says Tony.
“I’m just here to check in,” Fury says. If he didn’t know any better, Tony would say that Fury had been cowed by the mighty Potts.
“That’s what I’m calling you,” he says to her.
“Half of that was an inside thought,” says Pepper. “What are you calling me?”
“Anyway,” says the Colonel. “I had someone I figured you would want to meet.”
A small, disheveled man with round little glasses appears from behind Fury. He has a clipboard and is reading it.
The man blinks, looks up and around, and fixes in on Cash. He says, grinning, “Did you know you have two hearts?”
Cash glares. Fury looks at Pepper and Tony.
“In our defense,” he says, “Jarvis did say he thought that was a computer error.”
Fury rolls his eyes. “One pain in my ass, meet another pain in my ass.”
Beginning to connect some particularly awesome dots in his brain, Tony asks, “Right cheek or left cheek?”
“Bruce Banner,” he says. “You cool if I take left?”
“Perfect,” Tony says. “Also, green rage monster?”
Bruce raises an eyebrow. Tony grins.
“They found him in India,” says Fury.
Tony cocks his head and says blandly, “Hey, wait.”
He shrugs and says, equal parts defensive and calling Tony on his shit, which Tony really likes in a person, “I was planning on telling you.”
“Dude, I figure it out two emails in,” he says. “Bixby, Banner—not the best cover, bro. And I would have figured it out before I was told but I’ve never seen pictures of you in glasses. Or without that bombshell, Betty. Not offense, Nick, but, Bruce, you’ve clearly traded down.”
Bruce blinks. “Well. I also knew that you were Iron Man.”
“Everyone knows,” Tony says.
“Can’t you let me just have this one thing?” he asks.
“Anyway,” says Fury. “Can we get back to the matter at hand?”
Bruce blinks again. “Two hearts? Because if we’ve found the Time Lords, there’s nothing left for me in the world and I’m going back to India to die happy.”
“I knew we were gonna like him,” Tony whispers to Cash. Cash nods.
“No,” says Fury. He no longer sounds like a general; he’s an exasperated father, probably about thirty seconds away from shouting that he brought them into this world, he can take them out of it. “Your assistant created a viewfinder into another world.”
“Inadvertently saving all of us,” Pepper adds.
Fury stares at her. “And while I do appreciate that and respect that, it doesn’t go a long way explaining why, or how, he was able to build it and how he knew what he saw was.”
Everyone stares at Cash, who stares at his hands.
Tony wishes he had the Suit Case. Or that he knew for sure Clint was a sniper on a nearby roof, instead of just hoping he’ll be there to give them an opening.
Cash taps Tony’s wrist. It takes him a minute to realize that what is being tapped into his skin is half Morse code, half binary. It’s strange and almost indecipherable but then Tony’s mind works on levels he’s pretty sure haven’t even been charted yet; and, apparently, so does Cash’s.
I’m sorry, he is saying. I’m probably going to have to go away soon. No, don’t say anything. I’m not from here and I think they were trying to find me. Someone is trying to find me. I don’t want to go.
Meanwhile, he is gesturing with his other hand, fingers sketching in the sky. Tony watches that too. He knows what Cash is trying to do.
Tony says, his fake heart pulsing in his chest, “He says he has no idea. He says he just built it. He says he just knows.”
Both Fury and Pepper narrow their eyes; Bruce is pretty busy dying over the medical chart.
After what feels like an impossibly long time, Fury says, “As soon as he’s released, Doctor Banner is going to visit to take further tests. Then, he’s meeting with Foster.”
“Okay,” says Pepper. She is still staring at Tony and Cash.
“Banner,” says Fury, turning to leave.
“It was nice to meet you in person,” says Bruce.
“Likewise,” says Tony. “See you around.”
“Of course,” says Bruce. He smiles briefly at them and then returns his eyes to the file. Fury leads him away.
As soon as they round the corner, Tony climbs up into the hospital bed.
“Yo, shove over,” he says.
“Tony,” says Pepper.
But Cash is already inching to the side so that Tony can get up beside him. Tony grabs the remote, clicks on the TV, and smiles at her. Cash does too.
“Fine,” she says and settles herself at the foot of the bed.
“Dr. Phil,” says Tony. “Or The Young and the Restless?”
“Y and R,” Pepper says. Cash points at her and nods.
“All right,” he says.
Into Tony’s arm, Cash taps, Thank you. I didn’t think that would work. I’m sorry.
Tony taps back, Don’t be. I’ll figure something out. I always do.
They look over as a unit.
Steve Rogers is in the doorway with flowers.
Tony cannot even with his own life.
After a few genuinely painful (for Tony) hours of watching Rogers smile at Cash and Cash smile shakily back and Pepper makes him go get them all coffee, Tony drives them all home, despite his protestations that Happy should come pick them up, so Tony could be the human buffer between Cash and Rogers. Pepper had shot him a look, the Tony, I Will Pull This Relationship Over Even Though I Love You look, and Cash had blinked absently at him until he relented.
Judging from his looks in the rearview mirror, and they are frequent, nothing is happening in the backseat.
He’s used to feeling a variety of emotions where Cash is concerned. He has goddamn heart palpitations when Cash has gone to the grocery store unsupervised and his concern hasn’t even yet begun to enter the territory of aliens, nosebleeds, and I don’t want to go—so the thought of Cash having a boyfriend of an impressive vintage, he feels, is a perfectly acceptable reason to feel like he’s about to have an aneurism, unsure whether to be glad nothing is going on or feeling like a failure because his boy won’t make the first move.
Fatherhood sucks out load.
Bruce, under the supervision of Fury and his jackbooted thugs, makes exactly two house calls before their entire world is upended. Tony isn’t sure how it happens, but sometime between the first and second visit, Bruce (or Rogers, who knows) says something about Cash, the mute genius houseguest of Iron Man, nee Tony Stark, and Pepper Potts. He imagines it was something about the description of Cash or the story of how Tony and Pepper had found him one day, nearly a year ago, washed up on their beach, unable to say a word but could write the most beautiful equations. Or maybe it’s the fact that Tony once confessed to Bruce, typed out in the middle of the night when Tony pretended Bruce was some scientist called Bixby, that sometimes Cash’s eyes would flash bright green and a tool would appear in his hand.
But in the end it really doesn’t matter—a year, a medical mystery, and two house calls later, Pepper leads Bruce and Rogers into the lab, a huge blond dude behind them.
It takes Tony and Cash the same amount of time to clock their presence.
Tony says, “Hey, Bruce, Cap. Who’s the big dude?”
Cash drops—something, Tony isn’t sure what he was holding.
The big guy stares, mouth agape, and says, “Brother?”
Cash grabs the nearest piece of easily replaceable lab equipment and whips it as hard as he can at the big guy—which is, Tony has discovered when working daily with Cash, pretty damn hard. The silent type is strong. Then, he does that open-mouthed, soundless scream thing that gives Tony the fucking creeps.
Pepper runs over, grabs Cash by the shoulders, and begins to calm him down as Tony points at the big guy, saying, “You need to get the hell out before you upset my favorite scientist further.”
The big guy looks like he’s going to protest, so Rogers yanks him out before he can, smiling at Tony like that can make everything better.
Tony makes a mental note to inform Fury that, as far as first meeting go, this is one of the worst Tony’s ever been to, and he used to go to first meetings where he routinely blew shit up.
Once the big guy and Rogers clear the room and Bruce makes a series of deeply apologetic faces before leaving too, Tony puts the lab in lock down and turns around.
Cash has always been extremely composed, to the point that it was actually a little weird how much emotions never got in the way. Outside of those first instances of trying to get him to write, he’d never had any sort of outbursts and Tony and Pepper have bet each other a thousand dollars on who will first be able to get him to smile, really smile (Rogers has, of recent, been closest to the win, even without being in on the bet).
So it is, naturally, deeply upsetting for Tony when he turns around to find Cash, with his face crumpled up and furious and scared, pressed into Pepper’s clavicle as she rubs his back and pets his hair.
“Is he crying?” asks Tony. “Are you crying? Do you want me to buy you NASA? Or get Natasha and Clint to murder people? Because I can do both of those things.”
“Tony,” says Pepper.
“I’m trying to be helpful,” he says, “and in this situation and I have no idea what the fuck helpful could be so—”
Cash pulls himself out of her arms, despite the hold she’d had on him. He stalks away, hands balled into fists at his side. His entire body is shaking and his pupils are blown huge and angry. He gasps. Nothing else follows.
In a voice as steady as she can make it, Pepper says, “I’m going to get you some water and make some phone calls. Tony?”
“Wait here,” he says. Cash, his back turned to them, a thin, dark exclamation point in the lab, nods.
They leave and make it halfway up the stairs before Pepper suddenly sits down. Tony sits next to her too, and together they hear the rush of air that signals the lab has gone into lockdown.
“Fuck,” says Pepper.
“Fuck,” agrees Tony.
Outside, it has begun to thunder.
After Bruce, Rogers, and Thor give a quick rundown of the story so far—and holy hell, Thor and Norse gods and Cash is one of them, a runaway brother they all thought killed himself after throwing himself off a bridge after trying to take over their world—they take Thor away to calm down at their hotel. Bruce is still shooting Tony apologetic looks and Rogers looks shell-shocked himself.
Then, Cash—shit, not Cash, Loki—locks himself into the lab, the lights all off, the occasional bang or hiss makes it past the door, and Tony hopes Ca—Loki is working on something productive—but last time Tony was that angry, he blew up a town so he’s not holding out much hope. He could get in if he wanted to, but Jarvis has the proverbial eye on things. And he figures if Loki doesn’t come out by the morning, Tony will break in with breakfast cereal and the keys to the Aston.
Pepper disappears to the office, tight lipped and quiet. Tony thinks of following her to but he doesn’t. He tries calling her but her Blackberry goes straight to voicemail every time.
He sits in the living room for a little bit, looks out the windows, wanders aimlessly. He picks up knickknacks, puts them down, and moves around the artwork for an hour before putting everything back in the original spots.
He sends Bruce a few texts, wtf and how and dude and what, and Bruce says, im sorry and i didn’t realize and Steve and Thor are both sulking in the kitchenette and Thor said something about his dad coming to the planet whatwhatwhat. And Bruce sends him files on Thor and New Mexico that Bruce probably shouldn’t have access to and neither should Tony but what the hell. Bruce is already making visual aides for the whole thing too.
He gets a voicemail from Natasha, where she calmly tells him what Fury says on the situation—it’s a lot less calm on his end and the word vivisection is mentioned—and Clint is yelling in the background about Team Tony and exit plans.
He makes five drinks and forgets them the moment he puts them down. He lurks outside of the lab for fifteen minutes before going back upstairs.
In the kitchen, on the fridge, Pepper has put up the photo-booth strip of him and Loki. Next to it, there’s a picture of Pepper and Loki sitting out on the beach, that Tony had taken from his suit one test run. He spends a lot of time staring at them, a mixture of things brewing under his skin. He feels the panic, the anger, and this overwhelming sadness until he can’t bear it and stomps away towards the lab, hell-bent for something. He’s not sure yet but he’ll know it when he gets there—he always does.
As he passes the living room, he sees that Pepper has come back, early and without his notice, and she is watching a movie. He’s about to go to her when he sees what she’s watching is Kramer vs Kramer, and she has her face set and a hand firmly grasping a tumbler of scotch, probably one that Tony had orphaned somewhere along the line.
He backs away from the doorframe and slips out into the driveway. He stares up into the sky, at the stars beginning to appear in the post-rain dusk. He pulls out his phone and texts the number he probably shouldn’t even have: what do i get if i join you.
Almost immediately, Fury writes back, Stark. What do you want?
Tony thinks about world peace and bigger labs. He thinks about freedom for Bruce and his father’s memory. He thinks about unlimited pizza and solar power and flying cars. He thinks of binary and Morse code tapped into the flesh of his arm, of I don’t want to go.
they can’t take my scientist, he types.
Loki? says Fury.
yes, says Tony.
Thor, says Fury.
left him, says Tony.
He’s an alien, says Fury.
you know, pepper tells me i have the most amazing lawyers on retainer, says Tony.
There is a very long silence. Then, Fury says, I’ll see what I can do.
Tony stands out in the driveway for a while longer, hands curled around his phone and staring up at the sky. There are whole other fucking worlds out there, thick spirals of stars that are universes and planets with people on them that look just like him and Pepper. He wonders if they ever see them, bright dots in the morning sky that they mistake for Venus.
It must be killing his father, wherever he is, that he wasn’t the one to find them. Hell, maybe the old bastard had—he needs to go through those notebooks again with a fine-tooth comb.
Lightening streaks across the sky suddenly and Tony’s phone buzzes.
Bruce’s text reads, Company’s coming.
“Mother fucker,” he says and storms into the house.
“Tony?” calls Pepper as he thunders on by.
“We’re gonna have guests,” he hollers. “Put the kettle on. Also if you hear breaking glass don’t be alarmed.”
“What?” she shouts but Tony is already halfway down the stairs to the lab.
When he gets there, it is still dark inside, Johnny Cash singing, “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”
A lot of things happen to Tony in the span of a few seconds and all of it reminds him of watching a news report a couple of years ago, with crying children and his name on the sides of boxes. He yanks on the doors of the lab with enough force that he does in fact break one of the glass panels.
It didn’t even slow him down as he climbed through the hole, a really impressive rant readying itself, when the lights come on and someone from the back of the lab says, “Odin’s nut.”
“My thoughts exactly,” says Tony. “Wait.”
Loki stares at Tony. Tony stares back.
They both shout, “Pepper!”
By the time she gets downstairs, holding a teapot like a weapon, Tony and Loki are sitting cross-legged on the floor and talking about astrophysics as fast as they can.
“I think the most simplified answer is that I tumbled through the branches and roots of the world tree, through the secret passages between words, and came to rest on your beach,” Loki is saying.
“Foster is going to shit herself,” Tony is saying.
Pepper is saying, “Cash,” in a very small voice. The teapot hangs at her side.
“Loki,” Tony corrects mid stream. “What about the averaged null—"
Pepper starts crying.
Tony and Loki stutter to a halt, staring.
“What,” says Tony.
“Pepper,” says Loki.
“You’re talking,” she says, hiccupping. “We waited so long and you’re talking and your real name is Loki and your brother Thor is upstairs and he says he’s come to take you home Asgard to your father, who is Odin, and I just.”
“Home?” says Tony. “Take Ca—Loki?”
Loki stands, making to go to her. Pepper points a finger at him while she tries to get her tears under control.
“I don’t want to go home with him,” he says to her.
It might be disuse or it might just be Tony hearing what he wants to hear, but there is something careful in Loki’s voice as he stares at Pepper, who is now sniffling and wiping at her face.
“This is just a lot for me, I mean I can handle a lot, I can handle Tony Stark and Iron Man and the business of a Fortune 500, but it’s just you’re ours and I don’t know if Tony and I can let you go,” she says, like she hasn’t noticed he’s speaking. To be fair, they’re not exactly used to it.
“But I want to stay with you,” he says.
“You do?” she and Tony say at the same time.
“I did something,” starts Loki, staring at the floor. “I wasn’t. I wasn’t a good person before I met you. And I—I like who I am now, here, and I don’t want to go back there. I like working here with Tony, even though I assume he refuses to accept magic as a tried and true scientific method—”
“Because it fucking well isn’t,” Tony interjects.
Loki steamrolls him, “I can’t imagine not having dinner with you, Pepper, and listening to you yell at Tony. I can’t go back to Asgard. Not when—this—Asgard is no longer my home. This is my home now. With you.”
Pepper smiles, watery, and Tony jumps up from the ground.
“Great,” he says. “I’m gonna put on a suit and break the news. You guys stay here.”
“You’re not gonna need the suit,” says Pepper.
Loki makes a face. “You might. Thor is what you might call excitable.”
“See?” says Tony.
Pepper looks at Loki. “So you really want to stay with us?”
“Of course he does,” says Tony. “Yo, Jarvis, suit me up! We’re his new parents.”
“Parents?” says Loki.
“Yeah,” he says. “We adopted you months ago. I mean, not legally but then again I don’t think we can legally adopt someone your age. How old are you anyway? We thought twenty-five, twenty-seven, but, surprise, you’re an immortal god. It might be time for you to get your own apartment though. After all, now that you can talk, I’m sure you want somewhere to knock boots with the captain that we can’t possibly walk in on.”
“He hasn’t even tried to kiss me yet,” Loki says, sounding put out. He makes a face. “Wait, I didn’t—”
Tony throws a fist into the air. “Knew it!”
“He’s old fashioned,” says Pepper gently. “Give it time. Bruce is making a flowchart.”
Tony, halfway into his suit, watches as Loki pulls a face and then softens, reaching out to wipe the tears still finding their way out of Pepper’s eyes.
“Why are you still sad?” he asks. “I said I would stay.”
“I’m not sad,” she says. “I have my boys.”
“Oh,” he says.
“We’re the boys,” says Tony. “And you’re my boy too. Just, like, so you know.”
When Loki smiles at them, this time, it is wide and blindingly bright.
Things are looking up for Team Tony, he figures, and smiles too.