I wake up to a pillow hitting my face. Immediately, I roll off the bed and into whoever’s beating me with something fluffy. That person crashes to the ground with a grunt. “G’morning.”
I freeze. That person is definitely not my mum. “Good…morning?”
“Actually, it’s afternoon, but it’s morning for you. Come on. Get up.” They grab my hand and drag me to my feet. “Thor’s making waffles.”
The person in front of me is a brown-haired blur; I’m half-blind without my glasses. They seem to realize this because they shove my glasses at me. I rub the lenses on my shirt before I push the glasses up the bridge of my nose. Then I stare. Short brown hair, all fluffy and sticking up; wearing a black tee with a drawing of the arc reactor on the front—“Toni?”
“Yup. Good mor—surprise hug?”
I’m clinging to her. I try to say, “Where did you come from?” but what comes out is, “I was hiding underneath your porch because I love you.”
Toni grins and messes up my hair. “Good! Come get waffles.”
“Kitchen, duh.” Toni drags me out of my room—is it my room? My room at home isn’t circular, and my computer is definitely not as fancy as the blue touchscreen sitting on the wooden desk—and into a glass elevator. If I were more awake, I would probably think to make a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory crack, or maybe say something about feminism, but right now I’m too fascinated and nauseated by the fact that I can see all the way down to the bottom of the building through the floor of the elevator. We’re in a skyscraper in New York City about a million floors up, and—
The elevator dings. A voice from the building itself says, “Sir, Toni and—” and then I tune it out because if I let myself realize that that’s JARVIS, I’ll start hyperventilating. Toni grabs my arm and pulls me into the high-ceilinged room when I don’t get out of the elevator on my own. I’m overwhelmed by all the noise that echoes off of the wide windows and metallic walls. A baby’s crying. People are laughing and yelling. A smoke detector is beeping, and so is the poor waffle iron, which is blackened. Toni sighs. “No waffles.”
“You slept a long time!” The accusing voice comes from around my midsection. I look down and stare at the unfamiliar boy who’s tugging at the bottom of my sweatshirt. When he smiles, he’s got dimples. “Better now? Thor’s tryin’a make waffles, but he set the waffle machine on fire. Boing’s beatin’ Unca Tony up. Hi, Aun’ Toni.”
While the little boy busies himself with attaching permanently to Toni’s legs, I’m nearly run over by a pair of wrestlers, a scruffy teenaged boy and a shorter girl who is nevertheless taking him down. The little boy—Alex, I realize, Ms. Jess’ Alex—squeaks indignantly at them, and the boy wrestler grunts what might be an apology before his opponent pins him. “This don’t mean nothin’. I could whoop your ass.”
“Yeah, right.” She twists his arm. “Give up?”
“No. Okay, fine, yeah! Jesus, Boing, get off me. Get off.” Eva smashes Little Tony’s face into the floor instead. When I laugh, he says something I assume is rude, but the floor swallows it.
“Hey,” a voice above me says. I jump and look up at the open air vent to see Clint freaking Barton hanging out of it. I halfway say “hey” back before I realize how terrible my voice sounds and shut my mouth instead. He keeps talking anyway, probably ignoring my strangled noises. “Could you get Thor away from the waffles? Please? I was trying to get Wally to, but—argh, no, Wally, motherfucking no—” A tan arm reaches out of the vent and drags Clint back into the air duct’s depths.
Toni reaches over and hits me under my chin so I’ll close my mouth. “He’ll be okay. Totally fine. Go save the waffles.”
Now I have a mission. I stare through the maze of people at my target: the burning waffle iron. In some spots, people are packed together, even on top of each other. I wind my way between them—a tanned guy who’s about the size of a hobbit eats a box of s’mores Pop-Tarts, that must be Pop-Tart; Natasha, oh, shit, that’s Natasha Romanoff, is speaking Russian into the open air vent, probably threatening Clint and Wally with disembowelment; another teenager with glasses and an eager expression, Kaylee, is throwing bits of charred waffle at Thor’s face. I grin at her when I hop up on the counter beside her. She grins back and throws a piece of waffle at me. “Thor can’t cook.”
“I can,” he protests. “I just am not used to Midgardian technology.”
“You burned the waffle iron.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll fix it.” I reach for the charred waffle iron, then hesitate. “Kaylee, do you have a fire extinguisher?”
“Right here. I stole it from Dummy.” She holds it up and shakes it. “Tell me when you want me to spray it.”
“Will do.” I’m not stupid, but I’m not the brightest crayon in the box when it comes to hot things, so I manage to burn my hand on the waffle iron while I’m unplugging it. I tell myself don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, you damn idiot, so of course I start crying, little hiccupping whimpers. Suddenly, a pair of huge arms wraps around me, and I give up on trying not to cry because Thor is hugging me, and he’s a giant. I’ve never thought of myself as a tiny person before now, but I’m miniscule. I lean my head against his chest, and it feels like I’m a baby again. I can’t decide whether to feel safe or frightened.
“Hey, kiddo. What happened? Show me what happened.”
Thor’s hug is amazing, but I recognize that voice, and I have to duck away from him to launch myself at Ms. Jess. She laughs and hugs back. I bury my face in the crook of her shoulder, mindful of my glasses, and cling. “What did you do?” she asks again. I wave my injured hand in her direction. It doesn’t hurt as much as it did just a second ago. She sighs. “You klutz. Come here. Go warsh your hand—shut up—go wash your hand,” she amends, careful not to say the “r” she always puts in “wash,” “and then we’ll put milk on it to make it hurt less. Where’s the milk, Thor?” she asks while I gingerly wash my burned hand.
“I believe Wally drank—” Thor’s cut off by two high-pitched battle cries. A curly-haired toddler and Alex jump from the counter onto Thor’s shoulders. Thor roars with laughter and throws them in the air one at a time. They nearly touch the ceiling before falling back into Thor’s arms.
“Careful,” a voice calls from the other side of the room. Ms. Jess and I both jump; she rubs the back of her neck and rummages in the refrigerator. She’s blushing. I close my eyes and take three deep breaths to calm myself down before I turn around and see Bruce Banner relaxing on an overstuffed couch. He’s fixing Thor with a stern look over the rim of his glasses. “Be careful with Alex and Beth.”
“Of course,” Thor says. He tickles Beth, who squirms and giggles.
“We’re bein’ careful with Bethie, Bruce!” Alex kisses Beth’s cheek. She laughs and pushes his face away with her hand. “Real careful.”
Bruce sighs, pushing his glasses back up his nose. “Please don’t throw my daughter into the ceiling.”
“Or my son,” Ms. Jess adds, “no matter how much he likes flying. Here, dear heart.” She hands me a cup of milk. After a minute trying to understand how I’m supposed to get the milk on my hand, I just stick my whole hand in the glass and lean my back against the counter so I can study the room.
That must be Mattie, curled by Bruce on the couch. A red-headed toddler is sprawled across their laps—Ana, must be, Clint and Natasha’s daughter. Bruce, Mattie, and Ana look so at ease that it loosens the tension in my own spine. Two girls sit in the middle of the couch, holding what looks like a touchscreen computer; when one of them says “Loki” with a Scottish accent, I realize she’s Lauryn. Loki must be on the other end of the call. Peter and Nicole sit on the other side of the couch, feet entwined, lost in a pile of textbooks and term papers. There are even more voices coming from the room adjacent to this one. I can’t imagine how many of us are here.
Despite my stomach-turning fear, I want to say hi to everyone. Instead, I’m squished by Toni, who falls into the counter while trying to tug a waffle away from Wally. When Wally loses possession of the waffle, she flops face-first on the floor and makes sounds I generally associate with dying animals. One of the Avengers’ babies toddles over and sits on her back. Wally groans. The baby climbs off of her again, startled, and then wanders out of the kitchen.
“Did somebody fix the waffle iron, J? Yeah, good. Okay. No, wait, not okay. What the hell happened? Did it catch on fire? What did you do to my waffle iron, Toni?”
“I didn’t do anything, Dad. It’s Thor’s fault.”
“I’m not buying that.” And there’s Tony Stark, standing in front of Toni with his arms crossed in front of his chest. She mirrors him, arms crossed in front of her arc reactor t-shirt. From her spot on the floor, Wally makes another dying whale noise. Tony flinches. I drop my glass of milk. “Wally, what the hell?”
“I’m sorry!” she and I both say. I jump over her to grab a roll of paper towels from beside the sink. I wad up about half of the paper towels and start patting Wally’s milk-soaked back. “Are you okay?” I ask.
“Is that milk? Why is there milk on my back? Daddy Tony, Daddy Tony, Toni stole my waffle. She took it from me! And Clint was being totally mean. He wouldn’t let me crawl through the air ducts.”
“Because you’re fucking insane!” Clint yells from the air ducts. Tony pinches the bridge of his nose. Behind him, Thor throws Beth into the air again.
“I’m sorry,” I try to say to Tony. It comes out twice as high as it normally would. Wally lifts her head from the puddle of milk to stare at me, wide-eyed. Then she bursts out laughing. In a second, I’m caught in hysterical laughter, too. I laugh so hard that I start to cry again. “I spilled the milk.”
“Yeah, I can see that. It’s okay, just—go—go towards the couch. Get out of the kitchen.” I scramble out of Tony’s way, trying to breathe and not think about that being Tony fucking Stark. “Why did I let you people into my Tower?” he says a bit desperately. Wally laughs maniacally from the floor.
“Are you okay, doll?”
I freeze six inches from someone’s chest. A white t-shirt is stretched across their impressive pecs. I don’t have to look up to know who it is, so I look down at our tennis shoes instead. “Yes, Captain Rogers. Wally’s not, though. I spilled milk on her.”
“I think she’s all right.” I can hear the smile in Captain Rogers’ voice.
“Yeah. I’m going to, um,” have a meltdown because I’m not allowed in the kitchen, but I can’t sit on the couch because Bruce is there and Nicole is there and there is no way I won’t be even more of a stupid fangirl around them, “harass Little Tony.” Once I say it, it sounds like a great idea. Little Tony’s sitting over by the elevator all by himself, probably stewing since Eva kicked his ass. I take the time to look up at Captain Rogers and smile before I run over to Little Tony and sit beside him.
“If you start singing that fuckin’ One Direction laughing shit, I swear to God….”
“What? What are you going to do?”
“I hate you.”
I grin wider. “I know. That’s why I came over here.”
“’Cause you want to bitch at me?”
“Mm…basically. It’s easier than…people.”
Tony tilts his head. For a second, I think he’s going to agree with me. Maybe he does, in his head, but what he says is, “Don’t you be bothering my sister none.”
“Yeah, right. You—”
What could turn into our routine argument—You ain’t got no right to bother her. –She’s my friend!—is interrupted by JARVIS announcing new visitors. When the two women climb out of the elevator, laughing, Toni whoops and dashes across the room. “Aunt Andie!”
Captain Rogers smiles at the other woman, who blushes and grins. “Hello, Miss Carol.”
“Hail, hail, the gang’s all here,” Clint sings from an air vent directly over the couch. Pop-Tart flings an Eggo box at his face; it bounces off the vent and opens, showering Nicole and Peter with defrosting waffles. Natasha hauls herself into the air duct, presumably to kick Clint’s ass. Bruce sighs and gets off the couch to scold Pop-Tart, leaving Ana with Mattie. When Mattie crosses her eyes, Ana laughs.
“Okay, that’s it. Road trip. Come on, kids, get in the van. Let’s go.” Tony makes broad sweeping motions with his arms. “We’re going to the park before you break my Tower completely.”
“Our Tower,” Bruce reminds him. Tony shrugs but kisses him all the same.
“Hey, PDA! PDA!” Little Tony yells. Eva jumps off the side of the couch to tackle him. I roll out of the way just in time to avoid their flailing limbs.
“Take it outside! Hey! Listen to me. You call me your dad, right? So why aren’t you listening? Kids!” Tony throws his hands in the air.
Ms. Jess laughs. “Because they’re teenagers. Try this.” When she starts to clap, I know exactly what’s happening. It’s like eighth grade all over again. Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap—I repeat it as soon as she finishes. Clap-clap, clap, clap-clap—clap-clap, clap, clap-clap. Alex joins in, and so does Beth, though her claps aren’t on the beat. Toni joins in the next round as she sits on the floor by me. Then Kaylee, Mattie, and Ana clap along, then Andie, Lauryn, and Carol. Finally, Ms. Jess has everyone’s attention. She cups her hands around her mouth. “All right, munchkins, listen up. As per your dad’s orders, we are going into the elevator, riding it down to the ground floor, and then we are going to the park. If you are under the age of 18, no wandering off. I’m looking at you, Anthony Brent.”
“You too, Toni,” Tony says. Toni makes a ‘what did I do?’ face. Tony raises an eyebrow at her. “Seriously. The last thing we need is you loose in New York.”
“What about us?” Peter asks indignantly. Nicole takes off her oversized glasses to wipe waffle bits off of the lenses. “Nicole and I walk around by ourselves all the time.”
“We need to do our homework,” Nicole says a little frantically. “Midterms.”
“Please come with us, Aunt Nicole? Please come with us, Peter?” Alex widens his eyes. It’s the expression kids use when they know they’re adorable and want to use it to their advantage. “You can go on the swings with me and Bethie.”
“Swings!” Beth says, raising her arms in jubilation. Toby and Ana echo her cry, and the other babies look up with interest. Tony sighs and lifts both Beth and Toby off the ground, making them giggle.
“Come on, Peter,” Kaylee says. “Please?”
Wally jumps onto the counter. “You have to come, Peter, ohmygod you have to come with us, you don’t understand, it’ll be the best—”
“You have to keep us from killing each other,” Pop-Tart says.
“—it’s not like we’ll be here forever, c’mon, am I not sexy enough for you? We could even go to Wal-Mart—oh my God, Papa Bruce, Daddy Tony, can we--?”
“No,” Bruce and Tony both say. Wally deflates a little before perking back up.
“We can chase pigeons!”
“Oh, God.” Tony hangs his head. “Bruce, talk her out of that.”
“She’s eighteen.” Bruce shrugs. “She can do what she wants with pigeons.”
“If we’re going, let’s go,” Steve says. Carol offers her arm to him; he blushes before he links his arm with hers. “Get in the elevator, everyone.”
I hesitate. “Do we all fit?”
“Sure we do.” Toni hauls me to my feet. “C’mon. Let’s go to the park.”
Steve and Carol are the first ones in the elevator. Mattie follows them, carrying Ana, who’s blowing spit bubbles in her dad’s direction. Clint perches on the elevator railing and blows spit bubbles back until Natasha elbows him in the ribs. We all crowd in around them. It would be uncomfortably close around anyone else, but here, it’s nice. Ms. Jess wraps an arm around Eva and Little Tony while Toni tugs on Tony’s arms and Kaylee hangs on to Nicole and Peter. I’m so close to Bruce that I can touch his back, so I do, tentatively. He looks back at me, and I try to grin and hide my face in Toni’s shoulder at the same time. I think he smiles back.
There’s a moment in dreams, sometimes, right before I wake up, where I know that I’m dreaming but can still control what happens in the dream. That sensation hits me just as the elevator reaches the ground floor. I know that I only have a few minutes before I wake up, and it hits me right in the gut that this isn’t real. Even so, as soon as we’re out of the elevator, I race around the group, trying to hug as many people as I can before I wake up.
I hug Toni first, squeezing as tightly as I can. Then I hug Wally and Pop-Tart at the same time, nearly getting strangled in return. My hug for Natasha and Clint is quick and nervous because even in my dream, they’re dangerous. Bruce makes a surprised sound when I hug him, and Steve and Thor both try to hug back. Carol laughs, and Eva pats my back, and Little Tony jumps out of my way. I hold onto Ms. Jess for a second too long, and I know I’m wasting time, but it’s the hug I want to give her every day. Then I grab Tony, sort of, around Toby and Beth. Beth pats my head while Alex latches onto my waist.
I can feel myself waking up as I grab Mattie’s shoulders. There’s just not enough time. I nearly trip over Alex as I’m reaching for Andie. Lauryn catches me and pulls me upright. Peter hugs me of his own volition; I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry. The dream fades as I start to grab Nicole. I cuss and try to hold onto her, try to force myself back into sleep, but then—
Sunlight streams into my bedroom. I stare at the clock, which is just a blur of blue without my glasses. It must be a Saturday. My parents are awake and rattling around the kitchen, making either breakfast or, more likely, lunch. I sigh and roll out of bed. Instead of heading to the bathroom like I usually do when I first wake up, I open my laptop.
I’m not sure what to write. “I dreamed…” I dreamed what?
Finally, I type:
Then I press “Ask.”