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Observer Effect

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For the first time in his life, Tony feels his mind begin to slow down.

Oh sure, he’s had plenty of moments where his mind has become fuzzy with alcohol or sleep deprivation, and there was the occasional time where drugs had thrown his head for a loop-de-loop and staring at the wall gave him a pleasant sort of static feeling between the ears, not to mention there have been the times he’s been concussed, knocked out, strangled nearly unconscious and under anesthetic, but that was never accompanied by slow thoughts. Now, though, now Tony knows what it’s like, to slow down.

He can’t say he likes it very much.

Worse still, he doesn’t think he can stop it, either.

The suit’s been dead for a while now, the last of its light and life flickering when the sharp edge of that damn shield bit into his chest again and again and again and again.

When I get out of here, Tony promises himself, his thoughts slow, his eyelids slower as he opens them to stare across the bare concrete at the slightly convex form of the vibranium shield, I will melt it down and make it into the base of a snow globe. Put a small collapsed Iron Man in the bottom and fill it with red snow. Thanks for visiting Siberia! Come back soon!

He’d laugh, but his breath is too shallow to catch and the last thing he tasted before his tongue became too cold to taste was blood. His breath, when he does manage to gather it, makes something bubble. Tony wonders when his ears will be too cold to hear, or if, like in the Princess Bride, the frost will take his ears and nose and lips and eyes but leave him able to hear, able to hear the horror that will, inevitably, make his rescuers exclaim aloud. He thinks he’d hate to hear that sound, but that’s a lie.

Anything would be nice to hear if it wasn’t bubbling and the howling wind.



Insulation, Tony mouths the word and swears his fingers twitch as he stares ahead. His eyes are so cold and so dry but if he closes them, then he’ll fall asleep. He can’t fall asleep. Not yet. He’s working. The air in front of him is filled with bleak concrete and a white wall of wind-whipped snow and Tony can see the blue of his holograms in the air. He’s modifying his suit, ticking off all the things that could make it better, could make this survivable.

Insulation against extreme temperatures that doesn’t rely on power to function.

Back up energy, hidden somewhere instead of a big ass target on his chest.

Magnetic release catches that only flip when the suit is depowered.

Maybe a secret snack compartment, or a flask, because he’s real sure that he’s real hungry. Or at least he should be, if the cold wasn’t such a problem.

Focus, Tony tells himself. He can’t let his mind wander. He has to fix his suit so that the next time he goes and plays in a snowstorm and gets his ass kicked and his chest through a grinder, he won’t come so close to dying.

Back up oxygen; maybe a specific suit that was air-tight.

Smaller jets for more careful maneuverability in zero-gravity.

A distress beacon, a really, really powerful one, just in case.

No, wait, Tony’s brow furrows. He hears something crinkle. He holds his breath. It doesn’t continue so he relaxes.

Now.

What was he thinking about?

Right.

Fixing the suit.

Insulation was a must, he had to be more careful of extreme temperatures.

Backup battery, not one that would explode painfully when punctured, either.

 

Tony’s eyes are fixated, straight ahead. He can’t see anything, but that’s okay. He doesn’t need to see to plan his building. Seeing will come later.



Tony’s pared his final regrets down to three. Which, considering all the fucking mistakes he’s made in his life, he’s pretty proud of narrowing it down to so few. He’s regretted so much in his life that the slide-show of Tony Stark’s Life has at least ten compilation segments of his top one hundred biggest regrets of his existence. Not to say that it was all regrets. He had some good moments too. He had the bots he’d made and there had been Jarvis and JARVIS and the first time he’d flown in the suit, the taste of freedom and the taste of Pepper’s kisses, and the choice to get out of the arms race- no he had lots of things he didn’t regret. And he could let go of ninety-nine percent of his regrets, here and now, if only he could do something about the three that he still had.

Tony sighed, air bubbling out of the back of his throat with the thick blood that he feels building there. He can’t cough so most of it slides back down his throat, filling his lungs up. At least, that’s what he figures he did. It’s not like he bothered to get a medical degree along with the rest of his degrees. The mystery of the human body was someone else’s to discover. Tony liked his machines. Machines didn’t crush his chest on purpose. Machines had only ever done exactly as he wanted and needed them to.

He hoped they would understand, that they would be okay. FRIDAY would take care of them, no, they would take care of each other. And Pepper. And Rhodes. They’d watch out for each other. Tony trusted them to do that.

Tony’s blind eyes moistened slightly, but before the tear could overflow from his eyelid, it froze.

He didn’t even notice. He couldn’t feel it anyway.



Pepper is going to be so mad, Tony thought, distracted, tired, his thoughts slow. So mad. So, so mad.

Always telling me to rest, Tony thought, staring at nothing, staring at the whiteness in front of his blind eyes. Rest, Tony, rest! Always telling me…

Not like this, Tony thought, he couldn’t hear himself breathing anymore. Had his ears finally frozen too? Didn’t want me to rest like this.

Pepper is going to be so mad, Tony thought. But he was so cold. He was so tired. And Pepper was right.

He needed to rest.

 

 


 

 

Hot.

Tony’s foot slips on something. His knee buckles and he hits the ground hard enough to knock the breath out of him. Sand and grit get into his mouth as he rolls over. He grunts, spits, wipes at his mouth and then sits up.

It’s blindingly hot. Tony squints against the sun, directly overhead, and at the dunes around himself. The sky is a blue so bright it hurts his eyes. The sand reflects the sunlight and every glint of metal spread out across the area screams into his retinas. Tony almost rubs at his eyes with his hands but stops himself when he sees how absolutely filthy they are.

The faint blue glow of on his forearms, as he stares at his hands, tells him everything he needs to know about where he is and what is happening.

Afghanistan, he thinks, his mind whirring faster and faster as he looks down at his chest, down at the first edition arc reactor glowing a faint blue right smack in the middle of his ribcage. His clothing is nearly threadbare; it looks like he’s worn mostly the same thing for three months and, if Tony’s memory of this particularly world-view shattering event is correct, he has been.

Tony staggers to his feet, turning in a circle. First thing was first. He needed to orientate himself and then-

His foot slides and his shin comes into contact with metal. He hisses, pulls back and looks down to see a piece of metal, cut and welded into a piece of armor. Part of the first Iron Man, before Iron Man even existed. Tony looks around, and now that he’s searching for it, he can see pieces scattered all around. Hissing, he pulls off his shirt. He’ll be blistered and burnt by the time he’s out of here but Tony doesn’t care.

He’ll get out of here in one piece and that makes all the difference in the world.

Fuck you, Siberia, he thinks to the winter wind that howls in his mind.

 

 


 

 

By the time Rhodes finds him, Tony is blistering across the shoulders and feet, but he’s still walking. He’s left a winding trail in the sand, two feet and one dragging line. Part of his shirt became a rope that he tied to the salvaged chest plate and the other part he wrapped around his head, for what little that could do for him. The chest piece is piled high with other bits and pieces of his broken armor and he thinks, he’s not certain, won’t be until he gets home to his lab, but he thinks that he’s got most of the armor now.

Rhodes and a company of soldiers find him walking along the crest of a dune, lips dry, skin red, eyes half open. Walking in the desert, Tony finds, is just like falling asleep in sub-zero temperature, after a while, everything hurts to a point of numbness and then, as the numbness sets in, nothing hurts.

Until you stop moving.

Tony stands still for a moment, looking down at the vehicle and the men walking towards him. His eyes are on Rhodes, walking up towards him a half step faster than the others. No, not running because that would be too much, but quick. He’s hustling up the dune and Tony only has eyes for him.

Rhodey’s walking.

Tony feels a weight lift off of his chest. He takes a step forward. His leg cramps and he slips. With a yelp, he slides halfway down the dune, scrap metal tumbling after him. Rhodes catches him, pulls him out of the way of the shrapnel, and holds his arms tightly. Tony’s not sure if Rhodes is only doing it because he needs to or because Tony will fall over without his help. It’s probably both, though. Rhodes cares.

“Tony,” Rhodes says and Tony cuts him off with a grin.

“Did you find my sunglasses?” Tony asks. He grips Rhodes by the shoulders, fingers tight. Rhodes is alive. He is walking. They’re both out in the baking heat. Tony makes a show of looking around them while Rhodes stares at him like he’s a maniac. “I lost them somewhere,” Tony says, “And I’ve got to say my eyes are killing me.”

“Tony,” Rhodes says and this time he sounds less marveled at the very sight of him and more exasperated, more disbelieving. “Who gives a fuck about the sunglasses, man? Are you okay? What the hell happened to you? Come on, we need to get you out of the sun before your skin starts boiling off.” He tugs on Tony’s arms and Tony follows willingly.

Tony laughs, he can’t really help it. Rhodes is walking. Everything is fine. Except his eyes hurt. They hurt so much. He needs his sunglasses and, “Hey! That’s Stark property you’re poking at there!” He shouts to the soldier poking at the pile of scrap. Tugging on Rhodes’s collar, Tony tries to direct him towards the pile. “I need that boxed up and taken back to the states with me. Rhody, sugar bear, be a sweet and make sure they don’t lose my shit, will you? I tracked across the desert for that and I’m not about to go home without it.”

Rhodes’s giving him that look of disbelief and Tony grins at him. Something he sees in Tony’s face makes him let go of one arm and turn to the soldier. He tells them to box it up and they do so, Tony watching as they bring it over to the vehicle. Rhodes helps him over to it, the cramp in his leg has eased up, and Tony’s trying not to laugh. Here he is, limping along with Rhodes supporting him, just like it should be.

Tony will die before he lets Rhodes take a hit like that again, not when Tony’s there to protect him.

In the shade of the car, Tony drinks a bottle of water and offers a high five to the private who offers their sunglasses to him. The tinted lenses ease the pain of his eyes enough that Tony sighs and, making sure that they’ve got his scrap goods, he finally gets into the car.

Tony leans back, not caring much for the way his back complains with each bump of the vehicle making his sunburnt skin brush against the seat. His mind is whirring too fast, clipping along the different paths as he sits and enjoys the ride.

He’s already changed this world. He went back for his armor. He didn’t do that last time.

Tony fiddles with the water bottle in his hands. The plastic crinkles as he twists it, but he stops before the lid pops off. Rhodes looks at him, frowning slightly. Tony looks at him and gives him a smile. He’s looked at the electron and it’s changed its behavior. There’s no reason to stop now.

“Hey, Rhodey?” Tony asks, “Got a phone you could let me borrow? I need to call Pepper.”

 

 


 

 

Pepper stands beside the sleek black car with Happy. They’re both silent. They’re both waiting.

It seems to take an eon before either one of them spot the jet on the horizon. The sleek shape of it becomes larger and larger as it approaches. Pepper’s never been so glad to hear the whine and thunder of its engine and she blinks furiously to keep the tears out of her eyes.

The tires of the jet squeal and scream as rubber hits tarmac, then the jet smooths out its landing and slows down. Flaps shifting and wings adjusting, the jet taxis around the strip, slowing down until it comes to a stop in front of them.

Pepper is frozen, heart in her throat, breath caught in her lungs. Happy takes the first step forward, then another, then stops.

The door opens.

Rhodes steps out first, adjusting his cap on his head, and taking a few steps out. Then he turns and looks back.

Tony steps out of the jet and Pepper just wants to cry. He looks red and even from thirty feet away she can see his face is bruised and he’s limping a little. He’s wearing his normal clothes, a t-shirt and jeans with a blazer thrown over his shoulders, but there’s an unnatural thinness to him that Pepper picks up on immediately. The other oddity is the faint circle of blue light coming from the center of his chest. Pepper does not like that at all and knows instinctively she’ll dislike the explanation for it even more.

Rhodes walks Tony down the stairs and towards them. Tony limps but doesn’t seem to wince in pain with each step. He’s wearing sunglasses despite the fact that it’s nearly evening. Tony picks up his pace suddenly and hobbles towards them, “Pepper! Happy!”

Pepper is in Tony’s arms before she can even think about it. He smells clean, like antiseptic and lemongrass and aloe, and his grip on her shoulder is tight. The hug is brief, too brief, and then he’s hugging Happy, who has become red in the face and is refusing his tears by blinking rapidly. Tony steps back from them both and looks between the three of them. “My three closest friends,” Tony says and there’s a thickness in his voice that makes Pepper think he’s just as overcome with emotion as they are. “What would I ever do without you three? Who would I be?”

“Mr. Stark,” Pepper begins, but she doesn’t know where to continue to. Tony’s lowered his sunglasses and is looking at them with eyes that burn orange, bright and fiery, right around the normal brown of his iris. Pepper’s eyes widen. What happened to him? What did they do to him?

“There’s so much that I need to do, so much I need to take care of. The world’s been without me for three whole months! Pepper, did you schedule that press meeting for tomorrow afternoon?”

“I- Yes,” Pepper nods. She automatically hands over her tablet to him, showing him the venue. She always shows him, but he never really looks. This time, he takes the tablet, scrolls through the press briefing and nods. “But I- Mr. Stark, are you really ready to be questioned about your time in Afghanistan?”

Tony smiles, big and wide and Pepper swears she sees that orange ring in his eyes burn like a solar flare. He hands her back the tablet and says, “I’m sure there will be other more interesting things for them to ask me about. Now, Happy, let’s get out of here, pick up some dinner and get home, hm? I have work to do.”

He claps Happy on the shoulder and then walks past them all to the car. Happy hurries after him while Pepper turns slowly. Rhodes steps up at her side and she gives him a nervous look, “His eyes,” she whispers, “Did you see them?”

He nods, “There’s no explanation. The doctors looked him over and besides a few sprains, a sunburn to king all sunburns and some malnutrition and dehydration, he was pronounced fine. No changes to his eyesight. No blind spots. No crazy laser vision. Nothing.”

“Rhodey, Pep!” Tony shouts from inside the car, “Hurry it up! It’s burger time!”

Rhodes presses his hand to Pepper’s back, urging her into motion. She stutters for a moment more, then shakes herself and hurries over to the car. The two of them pile in after Tony, who is looking at the mini-bar with the kind of fondness that makes Pepper uneasy. She can’t blame him for wanting to get a drink after, well, everything, but still-

Tony closes the fridge with a sigh. He sits back and Pepper blinks at the bottle he’s chosen. Tony pops open the purified water bottle and downs half of it with a gasp, “I don’t think I’ll ever take water for granted again,” he says.

Pepper makes a note to add more water bottles to the cars and then bites the inside of her cheek.

Tony’s changed and she can’t tell if it’s for the better or worse. Not yet anyway.

 

 


 

 

As soon as Tony steps into the door of his Malibu home, JARVIS can be heard through the speakers.

“Welcome home, Sir.”

Tony stops in the hallway and has to close his eyes. The others are talking amongst themselves, already deeper into the house, and within moments the two of them are alone. Tony swallows. When he’s sure that he can speak without a tremble,  he replies, “Thank you, Jarvis. I’ll be down in the lab soon to take care of some things. But first, burger time.”

“I will make sure everything is ready for you, Sir,” comes the reply and Tony smiles.

Happy’s spread out the burgers on the table, the fries a big pile and plenty of dipping sauce available by the time Tony arrives. They look up at him and give him concerned smiles and Tony hasn’t missed the way they look wonderingly at his eyes. Tony, for his part, drags out a chair, sits down and digs into his burger. The others follow suit.

Even Pepper is enjoying a burger, taking small bites in between ketchup dipped fries, but she’s watching him as she does it, brows knitting together like she’s working on a puzzle.

Tony leans back in his chair, drinking from his styrofoam cup, and sighs contentedly. “I plan to announce a big change for Stark Industries tomorrow, Pep,” he says. She blinks and her attention is on him again. Or rather, she’s present and listening to him now, instead of staring at him like he’s a tough sudoku in the Sunday edition. “I want to tell you three but only because I know you’ll need time to get ready and you won’t be likely to spill the beans on any of it.”

“That doesn’t sound good, Tony,” Pepper says quietly, setting down her burger. She wipes her hands on her napkin and brings out her tablet, setting it down beside her on the table.

“What is it?” Rhodes says, leaning forward, elbows on the table and a dark, worried look in his eyes.

Happy says nothing, chewing industriously on his burger. Waiting.

“I’m taking Stark Industries out of weapons manufacturing,” Tony says, “Completely. No guns. No bullets. No missiles. No tanks. None of it. Everything is going to be recalled, melted down and turned into something else. All the tech is going into a vault that I’m going to lose the key to and drop into the ocean, metaphorically of course. Stark Industries will no longer make anything that’s sole purpose is to get people killed.”

They stare at him, just as shocked here as they were there. He smiles, grabs a fry, dips it, eats it.

“What about all your employees?” Pepper says, “All their work and all their jobs-”

“Give the factory workers a month off while we switch things out,” Tony says, “Pay them for it, of course. Everyone in tech will be reassigned to new research- clean water programs, clean energy research, armor tech, hell, if someone has an idea about how to save a life with something new, something that isn’t some damn drug, have them write up a request and submit it and we’ll greenlight it if it's possible.”

“What about your contracts?” Rhodes asks, “Are you just going to renege them?”

“SI can no longer fulfill the promises of those contracts,” Tony says, picking up his drink, “We’ll have to terminate them.”

“The stocks-” Pepper begins, then stops, “Our costs- Tony, the lawyers for this-”

“Are going to be hideously expensive, I know,” Tony says. He’s still smiling easily. Talking them through it is easier than he remembers, though he can’t be quite sure he actually did talk it through with them last time.

“People won’t be happy,” Tony says, “But I’d rather a million pissed off people than half a million grieving ones. Pep, contact the lawyers, tell them what’s up. But don’t worry about Obie or the board until later.”

“Tony, you’ve got to tell Obie,” Pepper insists, even as her fingers tap across the screen of her tablet. “You can’t make this kind of decision without telling him.”

Tony smiles, “Pepper,” he asks, and he knows already that his tone is too sweet, too wrong, because she immediately stops typing and looks at him with wary eyes. “Who the fuck do you think sold me out in Afghanistan?”

“Jesus,” Rhodes whispers. He puts his hand over his face.

Happy blinks at him. “No,” he says first, “Obadiah’s bit of a tough guy and an asshole but he cares about you. He wouldn’t.”

Tony shrugs a shoulder, “I won’t accuse him until I’ve got proof,” he picks up the last of his burger and gestures with it, “But I suspect to have some by tomorrow afternoon. So no, I don’t have to tell Obie anything. It’s my company. It’s my tech. It’s my name. Stark Industries is no longer making any weapons. For anybody.”

He pops the last bite into his mouth and then stands. They’re still stunned, looking at him in disbelief, like he’s about to say it all was a ruse and he was joking, but Tony doesn’t joke about killing people, not anymore. Taking off his shades, borrowed from some nameless soldier in Afghanistan, Tony tosses them onto the table and then turns, “I’ve got some work to do. Remember, not a word. The world finds out tomorrow afternoon, two o’clock sharp, Pacific time, and not a moment before,” he grins and walks away.

“Jarvis,” Tony calls out as he heads to his lab, “I’m on my way.”

The door slides open for him without a sound and Tony grins. So much work to do, so little time.

 

 


 

 

After Afghanistan, after Siberia , the brightly lit, cluttered and isolated workshop is a luxury that Tony thinks he’ll never take for granted again. This is where he belongs, behind his workbench, with JARVIS projecting on one holographic screen his current project, surrounded by tools and tech, and with a keyboard at his fingertips. The center screen is all code and Tony’s eyes don’t drift away for a moment.

He hears the whirr of DUM-E’s motor and reaches out for the smoothie that the robot has made for him. It looks and smells suspiciously edible so he decides absently to enjoy it. He sips from it, typing one-handed, and then stops, highlights a line of code and says aloud, “Jarvis, test this line. I can’t have any loopholes. Your baby sister has to be ironclad.”

“Yes, Sir,” and the third screen shows a replication of that line. JARVIS processes it, tests it, runs it through scenario after scenario, more than Tony can think of, more than he could do in the same amount of time. Tony would worry about a power bill, but he’s already recreated a small arc-reactor that he’ll install as the house’s off-the-grid power source when he’s got a moment.

Now, though, his attention is fully set on his newest AI.

“Sir, test complete. Here are suggestions to the code, in order to tighten its parameters and still allow access for interpretation,” A pop up appears on the third screen. Tony’s eyes switch to it, read over it and he nods.

With a twitch of his fingers, he says, “Add it in.” JARVIS complies.

Tony falls back into silence as he works. JARVIS raises the music’s volume and Tony lets the sound fill in the cracks around his thoughts. There is nothing but him and his work- no emergencies of any kind, supernatural or otherwise- and for the first time in what feels like years, Tony feels steady. Centered. Peaceful.

In another time, he would have been filled with the manic energy of creating the iron man suit for the first time, perfecting the thrusters, the adjustments, the calculations, the shape and form- but Tony’s got all those old blueprints in his head already. Iron Man can wait; the Ten Rings aren’t going anywhere and Tony wants to be sure Obie is out of the picture before the man knows what he’s capable of.

Tony stops, fingers half an inch above the keys and he stares at the ceiling. “Cut one head off…” he murmurs. Obie might not be Hydra, but he’s a cockroach. If all Tony does is swat him from his position of power, Obie will come back for him, nastier and nastier each time. Tony sighs and shakes his head.

He drags his hands through his hair. He pulls and gives a frustrated grunt. “Jarvis.”

“Sir?”

“Open new project; code name Won’t Do Nothing. Give yourself oversight but work it in as a subroutine on baby sister here. In it, find and list all methods of non-lethal removal; every way that you can get someone out of your life short of someone dying, and list it in order of most to least severe. I’ll double check the severity level later.” Tony nods to himself. That’ll work to start with.

JARVIS makes some noise of acknowledgment while the screen displaying the reactor he’d built earlier fades and is replaced with a New Project screen. The list begins to populate itself and Tony, with a crack of his knuckles, gets back to work.

Chapter Text

Obadiah approaches his office with a slight smile on his lips. His secretary straightens up at the sight of him and slides his coffee cup towards him as he draws near. “Leslie,” he says with a smile, “Good morning.”

“Good morning, Mr. Stane,” Leslie smiles back, “Your morning is clear of scheduled meetings. Also, Mr. Stark brought over a flash drive with some new tech idea of his. He said that he spent all night working on it.” She places the slim silver drive next to his cup of coffee, on top of the morning files, bundled nicely in a small manila envelope.

Obadiah pauses next to Leslie’s desk. He then gives her a charming smile, “Incredible. He just got back in the country last night. That boy just doesn’t know when to rest,” he picks up cup, drive and folder, tucking the folder under his arm as he turns the drive over in his fingers. It has no insignia on it, nothing at all to give it away, and he wonders what inspiration Afghanistan has given him.

Whatever it is, it might be worth him being alive a little longer to see it come to fruition…

“Send him my thanks, Leslie,” Obadiah said as he heads to the door, “And tell him to get something to eat and to actually sleep. He’s injured and he needs to rest.”

“Yes sir,” she replied cheerfully.

“And free up my evening, as well. I’ll be going to check on him tonight.”

“Of course, sir,” she replied, turning to her computer.

Obadiah gives her another smile before stepping into his office. The lights respond to him walking in, lighting up gradually until they reach his ideal brightness. His blinds turn and open automatically too and Obadiah sighs at the sight through the windows. He tosses the folder down, places the cup carefully on a Stark Industries stock coaster and looks again at the silver drive. It’s not even as long as his littlest finger, a tiny, slim little silver thing that is Stark all over it.

Obadiah sinks into his leather seat and boots up his computer. He taps in his password and then gropes his fingers under the edge of the monitor, looking for a free USB port. Finding one, he takes the cap off of the flash drive and slides it into place.

A pop-up appears, signaling that he has properly plugged in the drive and it looks normal. He chooses to open the drive to view the folders inside and then his computer buffers for a moment.

A window opens and inside of it is a single file folder.

Top Ten Movie Betrayals

Obadiah stares at the folder. His hand rests, still and uncertain, on his mouse. He can see the details of the folder, can see that it’s got something inside of it, but he has a sinking feeling about what he’ll find inside.

Slowly, he drags the mouse over and clicks on the folder. It opens and inside are ten jpeg files. He clicks on the first one, the one labeled number ten, and his picture viewer loads the image.

It’s a poorly edited photo of some movie Obadiah can barely remember, some screencap of a scene with bright lettering and Obadiah’s uncertainty flips right into anger. He clicks on the second picture and it’s of some fucking cartoon movie, at least as far as he can tell, and the anger builds as he realizes Tony’s alleged new tech is a lie, a joke, and the little brat is messing with him.

Obadiah’s fury grows as he clicks through each image and his hand is shaking by the time he gets to number one.

A second too late and he realizes that the image is actually a movie. It loads, buffers, and then begins to play.

Obadiah has seen this before. The men are familiar, even if he doesn’t exactly know their names, and the way they shout, clutching their guns, gesturing aggressively, just adds further evidence to their words.

Obadiah pushes himself back, away from the computer. How did Tony- Did he come to his office? Did he hack in? How did he-

The film stop after ten or twenty seconds, just long enough for Obadiah to recognize it, just long enough for Tony to know he’s recognized it. The video cuts to Tony, sitting in his workshop. His face is still sunburnt red and he’s looking into the camera. Obadiah can see a faint glow through the middle of his sleeveless shirt, blue and circular and he has no idea what that is.

“Hey Obie,” Tony says with an easy smile. His eyes look right into the camera. Obadiah stares at them, can’t stop staring, because Tony’s eyes are glowing. “Congratulations on coming in first place! I’m sorry I can’t be there to give you your award in person, but I hope this can make up for it.”

He flicks his fingers and something on a screen Obadiah can’t see lights up. Tony taps a few keys and then, with a little flourish, presses his index finger down on, what Obadiah can only guess is the enter key. “There we go. Project Like A Father is complete. Hope you enjoy it, Obie!” Tony give the camera a thumbs up and then the video cuts out entirely.

“Shit,” Obadiah curses. He lurches forward and scrambles for the USB. He has to get that out, it must have some sort of virus or something-

His fingers find the small thing and yank it out. His computer makes an unhappy beeping noise and the pictures he was looking out, the files he had open, suddenly shut. It’s only then that he notices the progress bar in the center of the screen, hidden under all the files.

It’s a grey box with a lighter grey indicator bar. The bar is at one hundred percent and the text right beneath it reads, NOBODY IS HERE. Obadiah curses again.

The lights in his office flicker. The blinds, which had opened automatically for him, begin to slide closed. Obadiah lurches to his feet. He has to get to Stark, has to stop him from- from whatever the hell it is he’s done.

He rushes to the door, only to swing it open and nearly run into Leslie. She’s standing there, wide-eyed and Obadiah sees that all the lights in the hallway are flickering irregularly. Leslie squeaks and steps back and from where he stands at the door, Obadiah can see that her computer screen has turned pitch black.

“Sir, I’m so sorry to bother you but the phone and computer system-”

“We’re being hacked,” Obadiah lies confidently. Well, it’s not exactly a lie, is it? Tony can’t get away with hacking his own company, not if Obadiah has anything to say about it. Leslie’s eyes go wide and she covers her mouth with one hand, “That stick you got, was it really from Tony? How did it get here?”

“Mr. Stark dropped it off himself just before you got here,” Leslie says, “he said was on his way over to his office and he stopped here first to leave it for you.”

Obadiah brushes past her, “Stay here,” he says, “As soon as the phones are back, get ahold of the IT and security department and have them both sent up here.”

“Yes sir!” Leslie exclaims as he hurries down the hallway.

Tony’s office isn’t far away. If he can hurry, he can get there in time to-

Pepper isn’t outside Tony’s office like she generally would be at that time of the morning, so Obadiah can only assume she’s inside. Grimly, he decides to go in anyway. If he has to, he can certainly use Potts to get to Tony. After all, Tony had always been soft on her. As he approaches, the door slides open automatically.

“Tony!” Obadiah shouts as he thunders into the room, “What is the meaning of-” He stops.

The room is pitch black.

The door automatically slides shut behind him and cast him completely into darkness. The computer monitor on the desk has been turned around to face the door and the screen flickers on.

White text appears in the top of the screen. Obadiah warily approaches it so he can read. As soon as his eyes pick up the word- GOTCHA . Obadiah spins around but he already hears the door lock.

“TONY!” Obadiah roars. He knows the bastard can hear him if not see him. His office is wired for security reasons and Obadiah can feel himself being watched, “You better stop playing, son! This won’t end well for you!”

The cursor on the screen moved down to the next line. A new line of text appeared.

NOBODY IS PLAYING.

“I don’t know what you’re thinking-” Obadiah says quieter now. He just has to hold out for security to bypass the door lock and then to let him out. Tony’s clearly gone mad since his stay in Afghanistan. Obadiah can use all of this as an example of his mental instability, get him removed from the CEO position and sent to some institution- A nice one, of course, the best money can buy- Obadiah calms himself down with a couple of deep breaths and talks again, in a much more soothing voice. “But it isn’t going to work out in your favor. You shouldn’t hack into your own systems, Tony. And you’re scaring people with your behavior. You need help.”

The cursor moved down one more line.

ARE YOU SCARED?

Obadiah coughs to clear his throat. “Well, Tony,  you startled me with that video. Where did you get the actors for that on such short notice? Or did you film it before  you got home?”

The cursor dropped down.

ARE YOU SCARED?

“The flickering lights were a little startling as well,” Obadiah says, his voice rising a little. This game is irritating. He wasn’t scared, he was just, well, concerned. Tony coming back was going to complicate things quite a lot. “And it would help you unlocked the door.”

The cursor dropped.

ARE. YOU. SCARED?

Obadiah took an angry step towards the computer. Besides it’s faintly luminescent screen and the bright white text, there was no other light in the room. Not even from the windows, they were blacked out by the blinds, not even from the door, which was sealed shut. “Is that really all you want to know? Yes. I was scared. But now I’m angry, Tony. Angry because you’re wasting my time and yours with this bullshit. You need help, Tony, and this isn’t the way to get it.”

The cursor dropped. It seemed to linger for a long time. Long enough that Obadiah took a step towards the computer. Maybe if he reached it he could reset it and break Tony’s connection-

YOU ARE NOT SCARED ENOUGH.

NO ONE IS COMING TO GET YOU.

The screen went dark and Obadiah cursed again.

Then, ever so faintly, he heard something start to hiss.

By the time Obadiah tasted the chemicals in the air, all he could do was sink to his knees, hands reaching blindly for the floor for support as he swiftly lost consciousness.

 

 


 

 

The lights flash almost aggressively bright as Tony walks out onto the stage. He’s wearing his shades so he’s not instantly blinded and long years of practice guide him up to the podium from which he’s prepared to speak. He comes to a stop and smiles out to the crowd. The flashes intensify for a moment and then abate as he greets the room.

“I have a short two-part statement to make,” Tony says with an easy smile, “And then I’ll have time for a few questions.” He pulls open his jacket and pulls out two cards from his inner breast pocket. He taps them on the podium and then, without looking at either one, begins his statement.

“While I was in Afghanistan, demonstrating some Stark Tech Missiles, my convoy was attacked and I was captured. I was held captive in a cave for three months, where they wanted me to build them that same multi-part missile or else.” Tony shakes his head and says ruefully, “But I’ve never been particularly good with following authority’s instruction. Instead, I created a suit of metal that allowed me to escape relatively unharmed and left me wandering the desert, where Colonel Rhodes discovered and rescued me.”

Tony made a little show of switching out his cards, flourishing the one before tucking it behind the other. They were blank, of course, Tony could make this speech in his sleep if he ever bothered to sleep.

“As you can imagine, my surprise vacation left its impression on me. It is because of this event and because of the things that I saw while I was there that I have decided Stark Industries will no longer create any weapons for anyone anymore.” He stopped because the cameras started flashing again and he needed to give them the appropriate somber look. His fingers twitched with the urge to remove his sunglasses, but the press deserved surprises in only small doses.

“We are taking measures to make sure that this is a smooth transition for all our employees and I publicly apologize to those we previously held contracts with in regards to weaponry. Stark Industries will be shifting to greener pastures as far as technology goes. We are a company of the future, not a company of the present, and I want that future to have less death, more peace, and a lot less misery. Green energy, improved transportation, agriculture endeavors, environmental recovery, mobility enhancements and improved, enduring infrastructure is the way forward into a world where people don’t have to fight each other for falsely limited supplies.”

Tony put down the blank cards and then nodded to the crowd, “All right, your questions please.”

Hands shot up and Tony picked one at random.

“Tina Crest, Star Tribune,” the woman said, “Is it true that you had your business partner Obadiah Stane arrested this morning? Should we be concerned about internal power struggles for SI?”

“It is true,” Tony said, “Because there was evidence he provided my location to the men who captured me and, may I remind you all, killed and injured the soldiers of our country who had been assigned to protect me. I won’t get into the details, as I’m sure we’ll see plenty of that in his upcoming trial. Since he’s now been delivered into the hands of the authorities, there is no concern of power struggles. I am Stark Industries’s CEO and will be until I step down, voluntarily.”

Another wave of hands and Tony picked another at random.

“Brandon Gale, The Gazette,” the man said, “Mr. Stark, this metal suit you made to escape the cave, is there more that you can tell us about that?”

“Jarvis, if you would,” Tony said with a little gesture. He half turned and lifted his hand as the wall behind his head lit up with a picture. It was the metal armor, all the scraps he’d rescued from the sand and he’d been right, he’d gotten a good majority of it. The only pieces left behind were metal plates for protection, none of the tech that had made it work. “Here is an image of what I used to escape the cave. I will admit, it’s tempting to make an improved version of this suit and go roaring around through the sky. However, that seems a bit irresponsible.” Tony grinned, laughing a little. The chuckle was echoed by the reporters, who knew him better than most and eagerly took notes, “so, for now, I’ll be tinkering with the concept, but with more focus on the capabilities of the suit outside of the abilities of what we flesh and bone mortals can do.

“There are disasters that happen daily in which a robotic hand can help if that hand is dextrous enough and the computing system intelligent enough. I’m sure I’ll have more to reveal on that front in a few months.” Tony lowered his glasses long enough to wink at the reporter, before sliding them back into place and picking another press member from the crowd. The image behind him faded out of view once it was no longer necessary.

“Diane Nguyen,” the woman said, lowering her hand, “With the New Times. Mr. Stark, do you have any plans with regards to the weaponry that your company has sold that is out there currently? Once people are aware you’re not selling anymore, will they not stockpile them and wait until the opportune time to use them instead of burning through them?”

“I have plans for weapon removal. The first is a buyback program which actually extends out to all non-Stark weaponry as well. If you have a gun and you want to get rid of it, we’ll soon put out a contact number and a location in which you can get rid of your weapon for some cold hard cash. As for larger items, and for those who stockpile, well, I have a lot of lawyers and they are very practiced in negotiating terms.” Tony said with a smile. He put up his hand before the reporters could and gave them an apologetic look.

“Now, I have a rather important meeting with the members of my board, as  you can imagine, so I’ll have no further questions, thank you.” Tony plucked his cards up, tucked them into a pocket and walked off the stage as the lights flashed and a handful of hopefuls shouted questions at him.

Pepper waited off the stage, opening the door for him and shutting it when he was inside. She rubbed at her temple, but her headache wasn’t all Tony’s fault. Well, it wasn’t a result of the press meeting at least. “The board is losing their collective mind, Tony,” she said as he stopped in front of the mirror, adjusting his tie. “We need to get there and talk to them pronto.”

“Fair warning, Pep,” Tony said, not missing the way that she stiffened, which, fair. The last warning he’d given her was that Obie had betrayed him and that he was overhauling the entire company’s tech line. “If the board really tries to stick it to me about the weapons thing, I’m going to personally invite them to visit my little cave in Afghanistan, oh don’t look at me like that. I’m not going to have them kidnapped. It will be a very nice trip in my very nice jet and they will get to be escorted into the cave and then sit in it for a couple of hours while I have a little talk to them.”

“That sounds like a terrible idea,” Pepper said, although seeing the board members literally sweating in their suits, looking at the walls a little crazily did give her a little amusement.

“I know,” Tony smiles at her and she can see the crinkle beside his eyes, showing his amusement, “Which is why they’ll cave to my demands, pardon the pun.”

Pepper rolled her eyes at him and then ushered him towards the other door with a little motion of her hand, “Come on Mr. Stark. They’re pissed enough at you as it is, let’s not be late and make them livid.”

“All right, Ms. Potts,” Tony said, turning on his heel to head out of the room, “If you insist.”

 

 


 

 

Sitting at his workbench, Tony stretched his arms up and over his head, arching his back and hissing when it cracked audibly. This younger body could last longer working on his projects, but it still got weary and achy after twelve hours huddled over small electronics. He absently rubbed his hand around the arc reactor, still buried deep in his chest wall, and still bleeding sluggishly around the metal. He really ought to get around to fixing that, though, to do that, he was going to need a little help.

Tony heard a chirp and glanced over to see DUM-E whirring over, drink on a tray and tray clasped tightly in his claw. Tony picked up the glass and peered into it, sniffing. “This hasn’t got motor oil in it, does it, buddy?” He asked the robot.

DUM-E whirred and bobbed his arm. Tony shot a look up towards the camera in the room.

“No motor oil, Sir,” JARVIS said at the silent question.

Tony lifted the glass as a little toast to DUM-E and drank. As he did, his gaze wandered to the newest panel in his workroom. Where he preferred holograms and portable displays, both of which JARVIS happily used, Tony had discovered his newest creation, his newest brainchild, liked things her own way.

The flat screen was large but didn’t seem too out of place, tucked along the wall near the couch and kitchen appliances. A small set of cupboards acted like a makeshift kitchenette, including a blender, coffee maker, and hidden fridge section. With the screen dark, it wouldn’t look out of place in any corporate staff room, a television waiting on standby for recreational use to those making themselves something to eat or putting their feet up to rest.

The fact that the screen was immediately visible from everywhere in the workshop but the doorway wouldn’t mean much to those who were used to Tony flicking away his secret projects when they arrived anyway.

Currently, the screen was split into four sections. The top left corner showed the camera feed of Obadiah’s prison cell. Since it was currently around two in the morning, the man was sleeping and the room dimly lit. He hadn’t moved much in his sleep, though Tony had hoped to see him restless, at least a little. Perhaps tomorrow night, when Obadiah discovered his bank accounts had been frozen and his team of lawyers reduced to well-intentioned but horrifically understaffed and overworked public defense team, he would have a little more trouble resting.

In the bottom left corner, the video feed showed a mid-sized office. One man sat alone in the room, his frown deep and his chin resting on his hand. He viewed his computer screen with one eye, barely blinking, barely moving. Tony had never had much chance to observe Fury without Fury knowing he was being observed and he found the way the man gathered information to be pretty boring, actually. No music, no bright lights. Just the faint glow of his computer and a desk lamp and some file folders he occasionally referenced on his desk. Boring.

The top right corner wasn’t much better. It’s display rotated consistently every thirty seconds, showing a range of people, all possible subjects for watching, and all of them asleep. Ross. Barton. Potts. Rhodes. Banner. Hammer. Vanko. Killigan. And others. Mostly trouble, all of them, except for the handful few, the ones that slept under the watchful, protective eye of Tony’s newest AI. He was surprised it had found Vanko so easily and was less surprised at the squalor that the poor camera picked up on. Unease made Tony frown as the screen paused and he saw the man half curled up over a desk covered in designs, sleep squishing his cheek against his own arm.

He shook off the feeling as the image shifted, this time to Ross, asleep in his bed, his snoring almost visible, if not audible.

The bottom right corner was the most interesting one that Tony could see now. He had met Foster several times in the other world, the world only he could remember. She was smart and testy and a hard worker. She had a vision, a belief, and just enough crumbs of science to put it together into something incredible.

Her funding, in the world before, had always been spotty. Working with old tech, sacrificing a proper set up to be portable, to be functional, to still be able to study, even if it meant computers that took twice as long to compile data and driving around with everything in one RV. She’d gotten better funding once Thor had shown up, but even then Tony hadn’t really bothered to stick his nose into her business.

Now, he knew better. Now, he realized what the world really needed- not superheroes.

The world needed a plan.

And it needed smart people to help with that plan.

So the bottom right corner showed Foster, neck deep in some computing with a light overhead and a tight expression on her face. If he wanted to, he knew he could just as easily see what she was working on as the camera watching her face, watching the whole room behind her, was attached to the laptop that came with Stark’s funding.

He really thought she might have fought back against his funding, after all, his playboy recklessness was still what everyone saw. He wasn’t Iron Man. He wasn’t an Avenger. He hadn’t nearly died for the world, yet. He was just some billionaire CEO who had a bad trip to Afghanistan and came back feeling remorseful and regretful; already the world was clamoring at him, asking when he’d give up this farce, and it had only been two days since the announcement.

Foster had taken the money, though, and took the tech. All he had asked was to be kept up to date on her work. All she had said was that it was good Stark Industries was doing something good for the world.

Tony watched her work, just as swallowed up in her calculations and her data as he had been in his only moments before.

Setting down his now empty cup, Tony asked, “Anything interesting, Nobody?”

His tablet pinged next to him. He looked down at the retro black text box, white text blinking in the corner. It looked so much like a classic dos browser he wanted to shake his head at the nostalgia of it.

ROMANOVA IS IN TRANSIT.

Tony had given her a voice, just like he’d given JARVIS a voice. He knew she could talk, had heard her soft whisper before- nothing like FRIDAY, even if he couldn’t help but be reminded- NOBODY was his first female AI here. FRIDAY might never even be born.

Tony wasn’t about to give up Jarvis again, Vision or no Vision.

“Oh is she? Where’s our little red spider off to at this time of night?”

RETURNING TO SHIELD. HER MISSION IN ROMANIA WAS A SUCCESS. SHE WILL HAVE A DEBRIEF WITH HER SUPERVISOR UPON ARRIVAL TO THE STATES.

“You got a visual, baby girl?” Tony asked.

Immediately, NOBODY’s display screen shifted. Obadiah was immediately exchanged for Romanoff, who, despite the straight dark hair and awkward glasses and decidedly un-spider-like outfit, was recognizable to both Tony and NOBODY. She had a book on her lap, and she very well could be reading it to pass the time. The train window beyond her showed a quickly passing scenery, brightly lit from the midmorning sun, and Tony wondered if she was headed his way or if Fury was waiting for some other sign before he started that nonsense.

Tony looked at her and marveled. How young she looked. How young they all looked. From Pepper to Romanoff to his own damn reflection. No gray hair, no weathered lines. Only that strange glowing to his eyes to tip off the casual observer that Something Was Up.

Sighing, Tony rubbed his hand over his face, “Boring,” he declared. “The whole lot of them. Boring, boring, boring.” He waved his hand dismissively to the screen and NOBODY switched the rotation top screen to Obadiah, keeping Romanoff right where she was.

“Sir,” JARVIS’s patient words made Tony lower his hand from where he tugged at his hair, “It is two in the morning. Perhaps the world will be less boring in the morning.”

Tempting as it was to pick up his tools and get back to work, Tony knew he’d bought himself months of time with Obadiah. The trial would drag Stark Industries through the media circus for a little while, true, but while some media would be awful, it would also allow for so many opportunities. So many chances to press his message into the media. Tony Stark was done designing weapons; he was going to design the future.

Tony shook himself. What was he thinking? Bought himself months of time? He’d already changed everything. He hadn’t just made one little change. He’d ripped out a whole part of his past, had struck preemptively, and now everything would be different.

He bent over his work, picking up the metal limb on the table and turning his attention to its inner workings again. He couldn’t trust what he remembered to come true, not anymore. So he had to work harder than before, faster than before, for things he knew could happen and things he thought might happen.

Before he sank fully into his work again, there was a ping and he glanced over to the tablet.

CURRENT WORK TIME HAS EXCEEDED TWELVE HOURS.

MENTAL RELAXATION IS REQUIRED TO ALLOW THE MIND TO PROCESS AND DISTRIBUTE INFORMATION.

REST, SIR.

“Two hours,” he muttered, pushing the tablet away. “Ping me in two hours. I’ll go to sleep then.”

“As you say, Sir,” JARVIS said above him.

Tony smiled and got back to work.

 

 


 

 

Pepper walks through the front door already preparing in her head what to tell Tony. Stocks are fluctuating what with Obadiah being dragged across the coals in his trial and Tony announcing a new type of green energy, some sort of reactor he developed while in a fucking cave. She’s certain she’ll find him neck deep in some project in his workshop, shadows under his eyes and that sunburn still reddening his skin.

Except when she rounds the corner into the main room of the mansion, there’s music and noise and Pepper finds Tony in the kitchen, making himself a sandwich and reaching for his coffee mug. Pepper stops and blinks. “Tony?” Automatically, the music in the room drops to a much quieter level.

Tony turns and offers her a little wave, “Morning Ms. Potts,” he says with a smile, his eyes have a teasing light in them, “You’re just in time. See, Jarvis, I told you she would get here on time.”

“I did not doubt you for a moment, Sir,” JARVIS replied. Pepper approached slowly, pleasantly surprised to see Tony biting into a hearty sandwich. He was eating, she realized, all on his own. And he looked rested too. Like he’d actually laid down in a bed and closed his eyes. Impossible.

She looked down at her phone. It was ten thirty in the morning on a Thursday. She generously gave Tony an hour to show up at the office, but if he didn’t show, she would come here to, usually, shuffle him into bed or into the shower and then off to the office. Belatedly, as he came around the counter, sandwich in one hand, coffee in the other, she saw he was dressed. Slacks and shoes and a comfortable shirt, and there, over one chair, was a sport coat draped and waiting to be put on. Tony sat at a bar stool, turned towards her. Crumbs fell as he ate but he didn’t mind them.

“Tony?” She said again, wrong-footed by his behavior. What had happened to him in Afghanistan? Yes, yes, she knew what he told everyone and she knew what Rhodes and seen and she had heard what he’d said and seen pictures but the man who scrunched up his nose in a smile when he saw her, who happily wolfed down his sandwich and looked put together, the man who had ruthlessly and systematically removed and destroyed the life of Obadiah- He wasn’t Tony. Not like she knew him.

“Yes?” he asked. “Would you like some coffee? We can whip up a latte for you quick enough we won’t be late, can’t we Jarvis?”

“Yes, Sir,” JARVIS said, sounding bemused.

“Tony, what is going on?” Her brain caught up with his words and she shook her head slightly, trying to move past the confusion, “Late for what?”

“Our flight?” Tony said, head cocked, “Jarvis, go ahead with the latte, I think Ms. Potts needs some pep in her step.” He winked at her.

Pepper finished crossing the room and sat on the stool next to him. The coffee machine whirred into life and she just rubbed at her temples. “Our flight where?”

“Virginia,” Tony said, even more amused now. For a second, Pepper stared at him until she realized he wasn’t saying her name, he was saying the state.

“Why are we going to Virginia?”

“I’ve got to meet a man about a job,” Tony said cryptically, “And a giant about some pants.”

“How long will we be in Virginia?” Pepper asked.

“A day or two, not very long I’m sure,” Tony said. “Job interviews are typically pretty quick, aren’t they?”

“They can be,” she replied and gave a little smile, “But visiting a tailor might take some time.”

Tony laughed. “No, see, I already have the pants. Good thing JARVIS got them baking right away, really, because even an afternoon later and we’d be so behind schedule.” He gestures towards the couches and she notices, for the first time, a bright green package on the coffee table.

“Should I ask for more details?” Pepper asked, “Or are you too pleased in being cryptic?” She rested her arm on the bar, fingers tapping on the marble counter.

Tony’s smile never faded, but his eyes looked more serious. Pepper had gotten used to the orange in them, bright and living like a charged wire, and didn’t so much as twitch when their light focused on her, seemed to see right through to her heart. She just wanted to know what was going on, to know that she could still trust Tony. He was her boss, yes, but also her friend and a good man beneath all the attitude and sparkle.

Tony reached out and put his hand on top of hers, “There’s a man in a lot of pain and anxiety, Pepper,” he said quietly, “Someone I heard about only vaguely before, but who I can help more seriously now. He’s brilliant and kind and doesn’t deserve the hell that he’s about to see.” He pressed down on her hand, firm but not painful, “I’ve seen hell, Pep. And if I can spare one good man from seeing it too, I will. So, will you come with me or do you need to stay here and look after things at the shop?”

Pepper put her other hand on top of Tony’s and gripped his fingers tightly. “The office will be fine for two days without your presence, Mr. Stark, and with me there at your side, I’m sure we’ll be able to handle anything quickly and efficiently. If you promise to attend next week’s meeting and to the tour of the renovated factories in New Mexico, I’ll happily help you.”

Tony laughed, “Always negotiating,” He turned his hand, squeezed hers and then slipped out of her grip. “Smart and clever. Now, let’s get your latte, Big Green’s present, and get the hell out of here. Happy should be here any minute and you know how he hates when I’m late!” He drained the last of his cup, hopped down from the bar and circled it to the coffee machine. As he poured her drink into an insulated travel mug, Pepper headed towards the door.

She easily scooped up the shiny green present, a thin rectangular box that seemed about big enough for one or two articles of clothing, and tucked it into her arms along with her Starkpad and phone. Tony cheerfully told JARVIS to mind the house and followed her out.

Chapter Text

It was early evening when the sleek black car pulled into the small parking lot outside of the Big Slice. Happy hopped out of the front and stepped quickly to the back, opening the door for the two occupants. Pepper stepped out first, the setting sun catching on the shine of her gold heels and flashing as she took a few steps from the car. She smoothed her hair back over her shoulder as she looked up and down at the small building in front of them.

The worn brick and cracked sidewalk spoke of years of occupancy and the smell in the air, bread and tomato sauce and something savory like beef or sausage, made her mouth water somewhat.

Tony got out after her, straightening his jacket and putting on his shades. He took in a deep breath and let it out with a sigh, “God, I will never know how I survived three months in the desert without good old American cuisine. Come on, I hear this place has a fantastic rating and I’m dying for a big slice.”

Pepper shook her head slightly, but smiled anyway, following Tony as Happy led the way to the door. The pizzeria was dimly lit inside, with small booths and circular tables giving it a tight, homey sort of feel. The smell of the place was even better on the inside and Pepper swallowed. She hadn’t had a bite to eat since that morning’s breakfast and she was quite hungry.

Taking her cue from Tony, who admired the posters and decals in the foyer and ignored the hostess, Pepper stepped forward. “Booth for three,” she said with a smile.

The hostess, probably a college student from the Culver University nearby, nodded. Her eyes kept flicking to Tony, growing a little wider each time, and Pepper just smiled benevolently. It was the first time Tony had really been out sin Afghanistan and, with how odd he had been lately, she worried a little bit about how he would act. Would he slip right back into his old flirty, playboy ways? So far he hadn’t, even though the woman who led them to a booth in the back corner of the place seemed plenty young and pretty.

Tony took the seat where he could see the rest of the pizzeria, leaving Pepper and Happy to share the other side of the booth. The three of them got water to start with and without even looking at the menu, left on the table by the hostess, Tony asked for two plates of appetizers.

When asked what kind, he shrugged and asked to be surprised.

The woman set a desperate look to Pepper and Happy and Pepper quickly flipped open the menu, skimmed the options and said, “The garlic sticks and green salads will be fine to start with, thank you.”

The woman nodded and hurried off.

Tony rested an elbow on the table and gave her a frown. “Salads, Pepper? We’re at a pizza place! You don’t eat salad with pizza!”

“That’s right,” She replied, looking at the rest of the menu, it didn’t have much, just different categories of items and lists. Other than a few suggestions of pizzas at the bottom, their selection seemed to be totally custom. “We’re having salad before our pizza.”

Tony laughed and shook his head. Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out his phone and idly tapped at it. “Order something good for me,” he said, “I’m going to head to the restroom.”

Happy half started to get out but Tony waved him down and left the two of them sitting alone. Pepper sighed and shifted in her seat. She looked over her shoulder, watching as he made his way through the tables and towards a doorway in the back labeled Restrooms.

“What should we get?” Happy asked, taking Tony’s instruction to heart. Pepper tried to put Tony’s oddness out of her head and gave the menu serious thought.

 


 

Through the doorway under the sign Restrooms, there were three doorways. One labeled Mens. One labeled Womens. And one labeled Employee Only.

Tony went for the third door and tried the handle. It was locked, of course, but really that had never stopped him from getting into someplace he wanted to be before. He searched his pockets until he found his favorite metal pen. Twisting it in half, he pulled out the lockpicks from inside and got to work.

He didn’t have to worry about the security camera that was above his shoulder and to the right, tucked into the corner of the hallway to keep from anyone getting where they weren’t supposed to. NOBODY had a handle on that already.

It took longer than he would’ve liked- he was getting rusty in his lock picking ways, it seemed- but soon he had the door open and he could step inside. The door opened almost immediately onto some stairs and it was these that Tony went up, lowering his glasses just enough so he could see in the dim light. He pushed them back into place as he reached the top of the stairs and stepped into the illuminated hallway.

A blip on his phone made him look down and read the message sent there.

SECOND DOOR ON THE LEFT.

Tony sent back a thumbs up emoji and tucked the phone away. He went up to the door and stopped, hand raised, ready to knock. Uncertainty darted through him like a fish in a fast moving stream. He had already changed a lot with Stane. He had already altered the timeline by putting off his debut as Iron Man. This whole world was going to be different now, but those things had been his things. His life. His past. His mistakes. His enemies. His problems.

If he turned back now, he could wait to meet Banner when Banner was brought to see him in the Helicarrier…

Tony shook his head.

No. He was trying to prevent the Helicarrier entirely. Bruce had been right when he’d call them a disaster waiting to happen, a bomb, not a team. It had exploded in Tony’s hands. It had nearly destroyed him- it probably had, actually- but now he was getting another chance in another timeline.

And if they didn’t want Tony to play nice on their team, then fine. Tony would make his own team. He had the money to support it, the charm to win people over and the intelligence needed to manage it. SHIELD wasn't necessary- he'd learned that after it's fall in his proper timeline.

He was going to change Banner’s future. He was going to change everyone’s future. That was what Tony Stark did. He made the future.

Tony knocked three times, and then waited. There was a shuffling sound and then a creak of a floorboard. He waited. Finally footsteps and a cautious, “Stanley?” through the door.

“Not quite, Buttercup,” Tony said cheerfully back at him.

A silence. Another creak.

Tony knocked again, “I wouldn’t bother trying to escape out the window. It’s really undignified for a man with the number of doctorates that you have, plus I’ll just find you again. If it helps, I’m here to offer you a job, not to drag you off kicking and screaming to the United States Armed Forces.”

Tony heard a soft mutter on the other side of the door. He could practically feel the tension oozing through from Bruce, but he just stood and smiled and waited.

The handle turned. The door pulled open. Bruce peered at him from a crack that, as he took in Tony’s appearance, from his shades to his jacket to the shirt and shoes, not one ounce of a military in the look of him, grew wider until Tony could see all of Bruce’s incredulous expression and worn, second-hand clothing. Tony waved one hand, wiggling his fingers, “Well hello darling, my name is-”

“You’re Tony Stark,” Banner just stared at him, “You’re actually Tony Stark, aren’t you? What the hell are you doing here?”

“I have a job opening that has an awful lot of very particular requirements to it and when I was searching for possible candidates, it turns out you’re the only fellow on the whole planet who can fill them,” Tony shrugged. “So here I am, to give you the job interview of a lifetime.”

“What?” Banner asked. “A job?” The surprise on his face darkened into something else and he growled out, “Don’t you make weapons of mass destruction?”

“I see your time abroad has closed you off from the current media sensations,” Tony said. He pulled out his phone, tapped a few things and then turned it around. On the screen was a recording of his announcement to the press. Banner watched, mouth opening slightly, as the recording of Tony renounced weapons and essentially declared an upheaval of his entire empire.

“Stark Industries no longer deals in weapons. We’re all about the future and the future is pretty green,” Tony lowered his shades and winked at Banner.

Banner leaned back, caught off guard. He opened his mouth, shut it again, then bit his lip. Tony felt bad for him. It wasn’t every day the CEO of the biggest company in the country tracked someone like Bruce down and gave them a job. Usually, there were people for that, like Pepper or the people Tony had working for Pepper.

But Banner was different. Banner required a special touch.

And, truth be told, Tony had missed the bastard. He’d vanished after Sokovia and Tony hadn’t had the ability to track him down. Maybe things would’ve been different for the Accords if he’d had Banner and the Big Green Mean Machine on his side.

“You know about-” Banner cleared his throat, “You know about him, don’t you.”

Tony nodded.

“And you’re still offering me a job? Any lab that I work in… It could be completely destroyed…”

“As if I do not have the ability to destroy my own labs without you?” Tony scoffed, “Come on, Brucie-bear don’t be so myopic. Besides, you haven’t even heard the terms of employment! I have a whole thing for you and for Big Green.”

“What?” Banner choked out.

Tony kept going like he hadn’t said anything, “Really, just come on downstairs, join me for some dinner -we’re having pizza by the way- and let me discuss the terms with you. We’re talking some pretty juicy terms, too, like state of the art lab facilities, unlimited budget, unlimited data access, and a big party room whenever you happen to lose your temper a little bit so you and the big guy can cool off and then get back to work. I’ll even cover medical costs! I don’t know why you wouldn’t jump on the chance, honestly, because the other options out there aren’t nearly as great.”

“Other… Other options?” Banner asked. He looked a little pale, a little dazed. Tony’s heart was pounding. He could feel the hum of the arc reactor in his chest and the ache of it was real. Last time, Bruce had resisted his offer with a sad look and uncertainty. Tony didn’t want to lose Banner again.

“You were hiding for years, Brucie,” Tony said, his words softening slightly. This was his friend, one of the few he’d had before, and he wanted so badly to ease the pain and confusion he could see in Banner’s face. “You were hiding for good reason, too. But now you’re back and you’re still trying to hide but sooner or later you will be found. I got here first because I’m the best, but I won’t be the only one who figures out who it is that took up that spare room in the best pizzeria in this little town.”

Tony reached out and gently put his hand on Banner’s shoulder. Banner went still under his touch. Tony fully removed his shades and looked him in the eye.

“I know what it’s like for people to look at you and see only the death you could create and for that to somehow be the best thing that could come from your hands. I know what it’s like for people to see what you can do and demand that they get to control you because of it. My offer is not about controlling you, Bruce. I’m offering you a job, because once you work for Tony Stark, Tony Stark will work for you.”

The air between them was charged, heavy with Tony’s sincerity and Banner’s distrust. Banner’s cheek clenched. Tony held his eyes. He waited.

Finally, Banner opened the door a little more, nodding his head slightly. “I’ll hear your offer,” he said, lifting up his hand to shake his finger at Tony, “No promises. If I don’t like it, I won’t take it. But I’ll listen to it.”

Tony slid his shades back on and grinned, “Brucie-bear, it will be all you could hope for and more. Now, let's go, shall we? I told my Pepper I would be gone for a minute but she’s bound to get worried if I’m gone much longer!” He scoffed, smoothing his jacket over his chest, “You get kidnapped once and people start thinking you’re going to get kidnapped every time you’re gone for twenty minutes!” He turned and strode away.

Banner, after a hesitant thirty seconds, followed him down the stairs.

 


 

Pepper looked up to see Happy walking back with Tony only a minute after Happy had left their table in search of the man. There was a tightness in her chest that relaxed when she saw him, smiling and talking to another man with his regular ease. Happy took his seat beside her as Tony slid in and gestured for the man beside him to follow. Pepper recognized him from the search she’d done on him after Tony had finally, finally told her his name on the plane. He looked a little thin and nervous, twitchy almost, as he gingerly sat at the edge of the booth.

“Pepper, Happy,” Tony said with a gesture to indicate them, “This is Dr. Bruce Banner. Brucie, this is Pepper and Happy. He keeps me safe and she tells me where to go. Now, what did you two order for our dinner? And here, Bruce, for you,” he pushed over his untouched salad to Bruce, who looked at it and then at Tony.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Banner,” Pepper said pleasantly. “Mr. Stark had me prepare two contracts for you to review as part of your potential employment for Stark Industries.” She reached for her bag and pulled out a slim folder. She slid it across the table to him, too used to Tony’s Don’t-Hand-Me-Things to even think twice about it.

Banner picked up the folder and gave Tony an incredulous look. “Two?”

“Well I can’t exactly ask Big Green to help me in the lab, can I? His skillset is a little different than yours.” Tony said, picking up his water and sipping from it.

Banner’s lips pressed into a thin line. “You keep treating him like… He’s not like that. He’s just a- a monster.”

“I have faith,” Tony said, “Now, give those a little look, will you?” He picked up one of the breadsticks, broke it in half and bit into it. “Tell me if I’m missing something and we can tack it on. Whatever you want, Brucie, we’ll put it in there for you.”

Pepper winced. “Mr. Stark,” she said, lowering her voice slightly, “To promise him anything-”

“A zen garden?” Banner said, looking up from the third page of the document. “I don’t understand. The labs and the access I get, and even the security detail, that’s fine. But this whole section on how you’ll outfit my living quarters- Mr. Stark, you can’t be serious.”

“Zen gardens are good,” Tony quipped, “I think you’ll like them.” He leaned over into the man’s space, shoulder’s brushing, and gestured down at the contract with the half of his breadstick. “You can rake sand and enjoy nature and I can even have a few big rocks put in there so the big guy can enjoy it too.”

Banner lowered the pages and leveled Tony with a hard stare, “You’re not taking this seriously. You’re not taking him seriously. This isn’t- I’m not some sort of weird pet you get to keep around because you’re a billionaire and you think you can do that kind of shit.”

Pepper saw the way that Tony went still and she fought the urge to speak up in his defense. She’d been at first confused and then amused by all the extra things Tony had thrown into the contract. He’d clearly thought it through all the way, even down to Banner’s troubled relationship with the military, and had thought of all the sorts of things he could do to deal with the problems. Tony had clearly approached Banner’s situation, living on the run and dealing with the fallout of his experimentation, with the intention to help Banner, not to fix the man but to fix the problems around him.

He wanted to support Banner. It was obvious to anyone who knew Tony that the gifts and the consideration and the playful attitude were all those things. It was just that Banner knew nothing of Tony and had nothing but distrust for him right now.

“You won’t be locked up,” Tony said, “I won’t keep you anywhere against your will. Neither you or him are a pet, Bruce. But neither one of you is a monster either. You’re a scientist. He’s big and green. You didn’t mean to do this to yourself and I don’t think he means to hurt people. But there are people who want your work, who think what happened to you can be turned into a weapon. And I,” He pointed to himself, tapping himself in the chest, there was an odd almost plastic sound to the tap. Pepper had almost forgotten about the thing in Tony’s chest since he kept it covered with a light blocking cap. “I don’t approve of the way you’ve been treated. So this?” he pointed to the contracts, “All of that and all of this ,” He gestured to the four of them at the table, to the pizzas and the salads and the cups with condensation running down the sides.

“All of it is because I don’t think you should be treated the way you have been and I just happen to have the money, the resources, and the balls to tell everyone who wants you to be their weapon to shove it right up their ass. Come and work for me, take the zen garden, get the labs, enjoy the party room, help me make the world better, Bruce, because if we don’t start now there won’t be time later.”

Silence descended on the table. Tony and Banner stared at each other. Pepper looked between the two of them, her eyes trying to catch Tony’s but only seeing Banner’s reflection in his shades.

Banner said nothing. He looked down at the contracts. He took the thicker one, the one for him, off the top and went for the much thinner, two-page document underneath.

Pepper nervously picked up her glass of water. She knew what that page said and knew that since he hadn’t finished the first packet, Banner wouldn’t have any warning.

All the language on the second document had been simplified. The things provided, the parameters of the contract- there wasn’t much that Tony was providing the thing he called Big Green other than somewhere to rage and someone to help clean up the mess afterward.

And there, at the bottom, where Banner’s eyes now looked, was the single responsibility of said Big Green.

Banner looked up and repeated the words out incredulously, “Protect the world from secret shadow organizations and future alien invasions? What the hell?”

Tony smiled. “They’re coming, Brucie,” he looked at the man over the top edge of his glasses. The orange glow of his eyes was even more obvious in the dim light of the restaurant, “I’ve seen them.”

 


 

Between the four of them, two and a half pizzas and two trays of breadsticks were demolished. Sometime after Bruce had gone back to the first contract, setting aside the obviously insane pseudo-contract that had been drafted up for, well, him, Stanley had noticed he was over there and puttered over, looking worried and horribly curious. Stark had been a firecracker of personality to the man, more than willing to pose for a picture and declare his pizza the best in town. It was clear that Stanley was both a little awestruck and hopeful that having a framed Stark on his wall might draw in more customers. Times had been hard, recently, especially for a small, personalized place like this.

Stark, for his part, seemed actually enthusiastic about the pizza, more than willing to gulp down slices while he diverted his attention to Bruce, his employees across the both, and the phone in his hand. His mind seemed to work at a clip a step above everyone else and, Bruce, for the first time since he’d left his research behind, for the first time since the accident, for the first time since Hulk, found he might not be the smartest one in the room anymore.

Not that measuring their respective intelligences would make one smarter than the other, but Stark had both feet planted firmly on the ground while he commanded the world around him to bend to his frankly preposterous beliefs. Honestly. Alien invasions? Secret shadow organizations? Who the hell did Stark think he was kidding? What had happened to Bruce was horrible but accidental and he didn’t want it to happen to anyone else, sure, but Bruce had read through the contract more thoroughly and he was certain that Stark, for his genius, had to have several screws completely missing.

And still, somehow, he seemed more comfortable with Bruce’s bad side than Bruce himself was. It was disorientating. Where he expected fear or caution, Stark referenced the monster in friendly terms like ‘Big Guy’ or ‘Big Green’. Where he could see avid curiosity or obsession, like Bruce had seen in others who wanted to use him to get to the Hulk, to make more people like the Hulk, Stark hadn’t seemed to care at all. He wasn’t surprised by the monster. He wasn’t scared of Bruce. He wasn’t interested in parading him around. All he wanted was to give Bruce a lab and space to cool off if he needed it,  in return for the use of Bruce’s brain and, occasionally, the Hulk’s brawn.

It was entirely unsettling.

Even Pepper- Ms. Potts, Bruce had to remind himself because he barely knew the woman and even if Stark was confident in calling her Pepper or Pep, he just couldn’t get away with it, no matter how contagious the nick-name- seemed a little wary of him. She smiled and was plenty polite, sure, but she had a stiff posture whenever Stark hadn’t distracted her to the point of her forgetting Bruce was there.

She knew about the Hulk. He could tell. And she was afraid.

At least someone had some sense at this table.

“Should we get dessert?” Stark asked the table at large. He stirred his straw around and around in his cup, rattling the ice in it noisily. “Ice cream maybe? A froyo place if they have it? This is a college town, isn’t it? There’s got to be some little shop like that. What do you say, Brucie? Is there somewhere we can get a frozen bite to eat?”

“You can find me easily enough,” Bruce replied, “Can’t you look up a place?” he gestured idly to Stark’s phone. The screen was dark, but Bruce had seen him poking at it all night. Who he was talking to or what he was doing, Bruce couldn’t quite catch it, but that was mostly because Stark’s fingers obscured most of the screen.

“But where’s the fun in that?” Stark honest-to-god whined and then turned his pout to Pepper, “Pep, frozen yogurt or ice cream?”

“Yogurt,” she replied simply. “It’s better for you.”

“They’re both desserts,” Stark said, waving his hand at her. “Now,” he tapped his thumb at the screen and then swiped it upwards, “What do you think of that place? It’s not too far and we can be there in a hop and a skip, right Happy?”

Both Happy and Pepper pulled out phones and looked at them. Happy nodded, “About eight minutes away, sir. And that’s only if the lights act against us.”

Pepper sighed. “It has fine enough reviews, but honestly, Tony. Frozen yogurt?”

“Why not?”

She looked at him, her lips pressed into a thin line, and then glanced at Bruce. “How much more time do you need to consider your contracts?”

“Pepper!” Stark gasped at her but his affront was clearly an act, even to Bruce. “Don’t let her rush you, Bruce. Take all the time you need to decide-”

“The easiest and simplest course of action will be a concrete yes or no while we’re still here, where you live,” Pepper said simply, ignoring Stark and looking directly at Bruce. “If you come with us to the yogurt shop, we’ll still have to come back whether or not you say yes or no. If you decline now, we can leave and part ways this way. If you accept now, we can take what you’d like and put it in the car, then get ice cream and head to the jet.”

“And I take it the offer expires once you’re gone?” Bruce asked.

Pepper opened her mouth but Stark cut in with a little jerking motion of his hand, “No. It doesn’t expire. I don’t want to rush you into anything, you have to chose to come to work for me.”

Pepper sighed and added, “There is a clause that holds it open indefinitely, however, it only works one way. If you say no now you can still say yes later, but once you say yes, you can’t say no. Once you say yes, you’re bound to the contract for the duration of its effect.” She folded her hands together on top of the counter, “Mr. Stark would absolutely love to welcome you to work for him in his state of the art, top of the line laboratories, Dr. Banner, but he is adamant that it is a choice you make for yourself.”

Stark’s shoulders sank and he sighed, “Bubble burster,” he accused Pepper but she just gave him a little frown.

“Mr. Stark,” she said, her tone holding not an ounce of flexibility, “We have been sitting in this booth for five hours. I’m sure Mr. Lieber would like to close his shop and clean up. The frozen yogurt place will be open for only another hour and I’d hate to have to leave only to come back to drop off Dr. Banner and disturb Mr. Leiber.”

Stark frowned at her again, but she was unmoved. So he turned his attention to Bruce, who tensed. This close, and in the dim light, he could see the orange glow of Stark’s eyes even with the shades on his face. They weren’t solidly orange and the light seemed unwilling to diffuse, instead, it created a sharp, narrow ring of orange light like a red-hot wire in the center of his eyes.

It was those eyes that had kept Bruce there. Long after the contract had lost its shiny appeal of supposed freedom of research and unlimited supplies, and after the fake contract for the Hulk had lost the twitches of humor it had failed to inspire, it was the eyes that had kept Bruce sitting there, wondering, considering it, thinking it over. Because it was the eyes that spoke to something in him, eyes like that weren’t… human. They just weren’t. They looked lit up from the inside and Bruce had teetered between cybernetic enhancement and, fuck it, alien interaction.

Because Stark had looked at him with those eyes, had looked at him and had told him a truth that Stark believed one hundred percent.

There were aliens. He had seen them.

“I,” Bruce began, fingers fiddling with the corner of the pages. A bit of doubt chewed at his thoughts. What if the contract for the Hulk wasn’t a joke at all? What if Stark was serious? What if he could build a room to contain the Hulk? What if he would help Bruce get the antidote he needed? After all, Stark’s father had been part of the first super-soldier serum that Bruce had been studying, access to that data… It would’ve been invaluable the first time around. “I,” he repeated himself. His thoughts were a tumbling mess. His heart was beginning to pound. He had been thinking about this for hours, his brain running in circles and-

“Bruce?”

The voice, achingly familiar but faint, came through Bruce like a wave, crashing against his tumultuous mind and leaving him shivering, staring at the speaker.

Betty stared at him. She was arm in arm with someone Bruce might’ve recognized if he bothered looking at him at all. All he could see, all he needed to see, was Betty. Her dark eyes widened as her question was answered. Was he Bruce? Yes. He was.

Bruce hesitated and then felt an elbow against his side. He jumped and found himself being ushered out by Tony Stark. Betty’s eyes grew wider as Bruce slid out of the booth and Tony Stark followed him. Even the man at her side seemed shocked, mouth dropping open before he remembered to snap it shut.

“Tony Stark,” Stark said with a brilliant smile. He held out his hand to Betty. She shook it, looking dazed. “You must be Betty Ross. And this with you?”

“Dr. Leonard Samson,” he said, regaining his composure first. He put his arm possessively around Betty and something in Bruce stirred, annoyed. Angry.

He abruptly looked away from the two of them and accidentally caught Pepper’s eye. She looked resigned, lips pressed into a thin line and her eyes watching Stark. She noticed he was looking at her and said quietly, “Sorry, I don’t know how much he knows about you or your life but knowing him… If it’s in a computer somewhere. He’s read it.”

He knows everything, Pepper’s gaze told him. Her worry made sense, but Bruce had a feeling she wasn’t so much worried for the people around Stark as she was for Stark himself.

Bruce took in a deep breath and turned back just in time to see Betty, with Stark’s charming smile easing the way, slip her arm from Samson’s and come towards him. Stark was asking Samson for something or about something but Bruce couldn’t be bothered to care. Not when Betty suddenly stood in front of him, close enough to touch, close enough to almost smell her perfume, close enough to realize that, oh god, she was on a date. She was dressed up, not a whole lot because it was just some pizzeria, but enough. There were dangling earrings and a little bit of lipstick and a sparkle to her cheeks and the blouse she wore looked silky soft and comfortable.

“Betty,” Bruce began, then stopped. He didn’t have a clue what to say to her. Where to begin? Everything was still so turbulent between them-

“It’s good to see you, Bruce,” she said gently. “I didn’t realize you were back in the area.”

“Just got back a few days ago,” he replied. He hadn’t even been there a week. He had no idea how Stark had found him so fast. It was kind of terrifying. “How are you? How are things? You look-” his words failed him.

She smiled and Bruce couldn’t help but smile back. He’d spent the whole evening feeling wrongfooted, but when Betty did it, it just made him feel shy and young and dumb, not anxious and nervous. “Things are fine,” She said, “I’m doing all right. Culver is… well, it’s just fine I suppose. Samson and I-” for the first time, she turned to look over her shoulder and bit the corner of her lip nervously.

Samson had visibly given up all pretense in trying to return to her side. Stark had him looking at something on his phone, brows furrowed together, lips pressed into a thin line. Betty laughed lightly and shook her head. “I really didn’t expect to see you here,” she said instead, “What are you doing here?”

“I.. Uh..”

And then there was Pepper at his side, prim and smiling even having spent five hours in a pizzeria booth with her probably insane but definitely genius boss, a monster-man and, well, Happy. She smiled at Betty and said, “Mr. Stark came to see Dr. Banner about a job interview. He informed me that if we happened to cross paths with you, Dr. Ross, to provide you with this.”

Pepper produced yet another bundle of paper, smooth and professional, and Bruce stared at her.

Betty took the papers and looked at them, blinking, almost dazed in her expression. “This is… This is a contract for employment,” she said quietly.

“What?” Bruce said. He stepped forward, unable to stop himself, and next to Betty. There it was, just like his own, his two, an employment contract. It began in similar ways but offered different things. Things that Betty would like or need, things relating to her own studies.

“Pepper,” Stark was suddenly back in the middle of them, “Draft me up a consultant form with the appropriate NDAs and have it sent over to Dr. Samson ASAP. He’s going to help me with that whole popsicle debacle that’s coming up soon.” He turned, saw the pages in Betty’s hands and grinned, “Now I know you have employment at Culver currently, but we can negotiate with you on that. Pepper, explain it to her will you?”

“This can’t be happening,” Bruce said in a daze, stepping back as Pepper came to do just as Stark had told her to. Betty was listening to her, holding the contract in her hands like it was a delicate, breakable thing and Pepper was helpfully discussing her options. Bruce looked over and even Samson seemed a little out of it. He just stared at the phone in his hands, his fingers over his mouth, eyes wide.

And in the middle of it all was Stark. Stark who looked at him with those eyes, glowing behind the glasses, burning two holes into the center of Bruce, intense and unforgiving even above that cheeky, smarmy little smile.

Oh but it is, Stark’s eyes seemed to say, It is happening and I made It happen.

He opened his mouth and Bruce held his breath. Dread filled him. What the hell was Stark going to do now? How could he add to this chaos?

“Happy, get the car ready. I want some froyo.”

 


 

In the parking lot of the frozen yogurt shop, two couples rest against opposite sides of the same sleek black vehicle. The parking lot is primarily lit up from the distant street lamps and the wide windows of the shop, casting long shadows that bleed into the darkness of the night and letting just the hint of stars glimmer above them.

Banner and Ross are quiet, leaning against the trunk of the black Cadillac, their heads bowed together, their shoulders touching. He’s holding his empty cup against his thigh and Ross stirs her yogurt with her spoon. They talk quietly, their voices a murmur that is drowned out every time a car drives nearby.

Tony and Happy lean against the hood of the car, Tony with his phone in his hands, the screen reflecting a harsh box of light against the shades he has pushed up onto the top of his head and Happy looking upwards at the sky as he silently eats his dessert. Pepper is inside the car, her voice muffled as she makes phone calls and works, capable even while so far from her office and home.

Happy sighs heavily, his shoulders heaving. Tony flicks his eyes up at him and makes a muted questioning noise. Happy lifts his spoon up and gestures at the sky, “You really sure that there’s shit out there, Tony? Honest to god, you’re not pulling some shit just to get a guy with a half dozen doctorates to jump into the industries arms?”

Tony doesn’t look up at the stars. He tries to avoid doing that, actually. There’s something about the blackness of it, with or without the stars, that digs into his chest and pulls at him. He’s not overly fond of the feeling. “I’m sure,” he said.

“Then how come we haven’t seen any of them?” Happy asked, “Is it like in men in black? Where they are everywhere and hide from the public?”

Tony snorted, “No. But I wouldn’t put it past the general population to be dumb enough to let that happen.”

Happy frowned at him. “But how do you know? If they haven’t shown up yet?”

Tony hummed thoughtfully, “We haven’t really pushed to explore space. Sure, we’ve got satellites and a few observers, but we’re not out in space. We’re not nearly advanced enough to communicate with what’s out there for the most part, let alone go out and visit it. And there’s still a shitton of space out there, Happy, we’re looking into a dark room, searching the darkness for something, but not every inch of space has shit in it.” He shrugged his shoulders, knowing he wasn’t explaining it well but Happy was looking studiously at him so Tony continued to try. “Think of it this way, would you consider an eight-year-old kid, first time in the ring, to be a danger to a trained boxer? Imagine it. Skinny arms and gloves that are definitely too big? He might have a lot of spirit and maybe one day he’ll be a force to reckon with, but he’s just a kid. He’s not worth the energy to deal with.”

“Unless you plan on training him,” Happy said, “If you see potential in someone and you can teach them, it doesn’t hurt to try.” He pat Tony on the shoulder when he said that, smiling.

Tony smiled back, “Well, Earth is that eight-year-old kid. And there just isn’t anyone around thinking they should lend us a hand or take us under their wing. Which, can you blame them? One look at our world and it's obvious how much of a mess we still are.” Tony wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “No, they’ll wait until we declare we’re good and ready to make nice with the rest of the civilized universe.” He gestured off, towards the darkness of the sky.

“Or, if we have something they want, they’ll come for it and take it. But what kind of backwater little place like this is going to have anything worthwhile?”

“The vibranium,” Happy suggested, “Like the stuff that Captain America’s shield is made out of. You remember that old thing, right? Found it in that old storage room and put it in the closet. You said it was made of that rare metal, vibranium. If there’s more of that on the Earth, wouldn’t they want it?”

“They say that shit came from an asteroid,” Tony said, shrugging again. “There’s probably plenty up in space, none of which you’ve got to go through an atmosphere to get to. But yeah, something like that or. Well. Something like this.” He turned over his hand and held his phone face up. He tapped the screen with his thumb and a video appeared. Happy leaned over, eyes widening as he saw the glowing and frankly alien looking blue square contained in a small box made of some clear material. It was clear that someone was trying to study it, having some sort of wire contraption hooked up to it, but there was no sound and no explanation.

“What is that?” Happy whispered. The blue glow was intense, even transmitted through the screen.

“My father fished it up out of the ocean while searching the sea for the lost captain,” Tony said, his voice casual. He’s watched this video feed for hours, the blue glow as familiar to him now as the lights in his workshop. “He turned it over to an organization that prides itself on being a super secret, para-military government agency and they’ve been poking and prodding it ever since.”

Happy’s gaze lifted from the phone to Tony’s face. His expression was hard to see in the low light, but from his pressed lips and grim gaze, Tony thought his intent was clear enough. Happy didn’t much approve of Howard Stark. Over their time together, Tony had told him enough bits and pieces for him to have a dislike of the man that nearly matched Tony’s own. Happy squeezed his shoulder a little tighter and said, using his empty cup to point at Tony’s phone. “Looks like they’re not making good use of it,” he said, “What is it? What can it do?”

Tony takes a moment to make sure his breath is even. He can’t have his voice shake and betray trauma for an event that hadn’t ever happened. That wouldn’t ever happen. That he would not let happen.

“It makes doorways,” Tony said, “Through space. At least, that’s one thing that I know it can do. I haven’t been able to do much testing myself. After all, I’m not supposed to even know this organization exists, let alone what my father contributed to it.”

“But you do,” Happy said.

Tony nodded.

Lifting his hand, Happy scraped the last spoonful of yogurt from his cup and put it in his mouth. He was looking thoughtfully at the blue glow again, not as entranced as he was before. Happy quickly lost interest in shiny tech, Tony knew that. He was a more simple man than Tony, taking easy pleasures in good shows and nice cars and the satisfaction of a taxing boxing workout.

Sometimes, when he couldn’t sleep at night, Tony wondered if he would’ve been better off, would’ve been happier if he was more like Happy.

But then someone else would have to organize the protection of the Earth and Tony wasn’t going to give someone else the chance to try. They would just fuck it up.

He heard the grit of footsteps and turned his phone over, tucking it back into a pocket and removing the blue glow. Happy half turned towards the sound.

It was Banner and Ross, coming around the side of the Cadillac. Ross had one hand on Banner’s shoulder, supportive and comforting, but it was Banner who met Tony’s gaze and looked like had something he wanted to say.

“Brucie, Betty,” Tony said with a smile. He opened his mouth to continue but stopped when Banner lifted his hand. Instead, he tucked his hands into his pockets and waited.

“I don’t know how you found out about me,” Banner starts, “I don’t know how you know as much as you do because I’m pretty sure a lot of the information is classified and not available to civilians, no matter how much money they have. Betty tells me the military’s pretty pissed with you considering you reneged on practically every weapons contract you have with them and that most of the world is waiting for the other shoe to drop on this going-green act you have.” Tony cannot suppress the grin at Banner’s words, but it's the pun that gets him, not the actual content. Banner looks at him like he’s crazy like he can’t make sense of Tony, but he doesn’t look at Tony like he hates him or is disgusted by him and Tony considers that a point in his favor for sure.

“But,” Banner continues after a little moment, waiting for Tony’s grin to fade, “ But I can’t-- I can’t pass up this offer. Betty has duplicates of most of her data, but without access to a proper lab I’m basically hoping that others will be willing to help me under the table. And I can’t-- I can’t guarantee that those people won’t take my blood and do something with it, that they won’t try to make more people like me even as I’m trying to find a cure.” He looked tired and shook his head. Tony nodded slightly because Banner was right. You couldn’t trust anyone to help cure you but you yourself. He knew that well enough already.

“If you keep your word,” Banner said, looking Tony in the eyes. “I’ll sign the contract. I’ll need the lab and the privacy and sure, the zen garden too, but I honestly could care less about that stuff. I’m signing the contract because I believe you, Tony Stark. I believe you when you say you’re done making weapons to kill people with. Maybe I’m an idiot for doing it, because everything I heard about you before this evening says you’re just in it for the thrill of making things and have no impulse control and don’t really give a shit about what your technology can do, but god help me, I believe you. I’ll sign your contract.”

“So will I,” Betty added, quiet and confident. “I would like to see if I can continue to teach after settling into our new facility, but even if I can’t, I want to be with Bruce and I want to help him and,” there was a glitter in her eyes, steely in the sharp light cast from the frozen yogurt shop’s windows, “because I trust you to not underestimate my father. I trust you to protect Bruce from him, and because of that, I’ll sign.”

“Well then,” Tony said. He felt a soft smile on his lips and a warmth in his chest. He’d hoped for this option, had been willing to wait and wait and wait for them to talk it out and come to the right conclusion. Bruce would be safe, now, and Betty right at his side so he could be happy, too. So much of what he knew of the future would be made easier with them in his back pocket, formidable scientists both. He almost wished that Killian was somewhere even a tiny bit close to getting his Extremis formula to work. If he kept dragging his feet, Tony would snap up his little company and dump Maya and her work at Bruce’s feet before Killian could even stutter out a complaint.

Tony stepped forward and offered his hand. Bruce shook it, gripping hard. Then Tony shook Ross’s hand and she, too, shook firmly. “Welcome to Stark Industries,” he said, “Dr. Ross, I’m sure you have some affairs to look to here and if there’s anything that you need, I will be more than happy to provide help. Movers, lawyers, accountants, whatever you need to get your belongings to your new home. How do you feel about Colorado?” He asked, looking to them both now, “Plenty of fresh air and mountains and I have just the facility waiting.”

Ross blinked, “You’ve- You’ve already built the place?” she asked, “You were that sure we would sign?”

“I had faith,” Tony said, smiling, lying through his teeth. He crinkled his eyes, just enough for it to look real, too, and knew that it worked when they shared an exasperated look between the two of them. “And Dr. Banner, Brucie-bear, I know you might not have much in the way of belongings or affairs to take care of, but we’ll put you up for the night in a nice hotel and pick up anything you’d like from the pizzeria tomorrow morning. Then it’s right to Colorado for you and into that nice new lab.”

Banner nodded.

Tony half turned to Happy, but he was already going to the side door and opening it. As soon as he did so, Pepper poked her head out and looked at Tony. He made a scooting in motion with his hand and she obliged. The three of them got into the back while Happy closed the door after them and got behind the wheel.

Banner and Ross signed their contracts right there, handing them back to Pepper who promised to make a copy and handed back a pair of phones. Banner glanced to Tony when he took the phone and Tony, trying to not sink into the leather of the seat and pass out from exhaustion, smiled. “All scientists with your clearance level in SI get a business issued phone,” Pepper said as an explanation, saving Tony the work. “You have the other research and development heads programmed in there already, as well as my secretary’s number and a line to Mr. Stark.”

“It’s to Jarvis, really,” Tony said with a yawn, “Don’t mind his sass. I don’t know where he gets it from.”

“Thank you,” Ross said, tucking the phone into her purse. Banner nodded and put his away.

Tony slid his shades over his eyes and then closed them. With Banner on the payroll, most of the tension ran out of his shoulders. Now it was time to focus on the next problem, or rather, problems.

Hammer. Vanko.

And the poison.

Chapter Text

The door to Stark Industries Research and Development facility is locked with a badge, a handprint, and a retinal scanner. Pepper goes through all three checks with her mind picking apart the strange message she got from the R&D department head. Kanti Sodhi is usually much more composed in the memos or short instant messages that she occasionally uses to interact with Pepper or others inside of the company. She doesn’t forget punctuation or capitalization and uses complete sentences, something that some of the other department heads are lax on, especially Tony, who had recently taken up using emojis in the place of words in his communications.

So when Pepper gets a message from Kanti about Tony invading the laboratory “shirtless, shoeless and a complete manic mess”, she hurries from her office, down the elevator, and to the main R&D lab.

When she walks in, where there is usually a flurry of activity, with many minds at different stations, there is a cluster of SI employees gathered around a table. Pepper picks out Kanti immediately, the tall woman usually has her hair tucked back and pinned up to be out of her way and almost always has some sort of colorful silk ribbon tied in it. Pepper finds the glint of bright blue and heads that way, hurrying down the metal stairs.

Maybe one person turns to look back over their shoulder at the sound of her shoes clicking on the metal and she gets halfway down the steps before she realizes what, or rather, who has their attention.

It’s Tony.

Of course it’s Tony.

He’s standing on a table and there are two holographic projections on either side of him. His hair is an absolute mess, pulled in all directions, and Pepper notices immediately both the faint blue glow in his chest, visible through the thin fabric of his grey tank top, and the missing sunglasses. His vivid eyes dart from one holographic column to the other, where he points at one and gestures at the other.

Pepper has to force herself to focus on the holograms for almost thirty seconds before she realizes what he’s reviewing. At first she thought it was the arc reactor, but he’d already brought that to them once Obadiah was in jail. No, this list was newer and only somewhat familiar.

It was the huge list of tech that Tony wanted to show off at the Expo.

Pepper wanted desperately to rub at her temples but it doesn’t do well to look weak or frustrated with what’s going on, especially once she can see the faces of the scientists gathered around. They’re gaping at his work, at him, watching with rapt fascination as Tony works through the tech with displays on the left and specs on the right. Pepper only wishes he didn’t look like he’d just spent god-knew how many hours in his own workshop, but she can’t have everything and at least he’s not calling everyone idiotic and strutting around actually naked or something.

She manages to get next to Kanti with a little work and touches the woman’s arm.

Kanti struggles to look away, but once she recognizes Pepper she becomes successful in her attempt to regain her self-control. The two of them back out of the group and back towards the bottom of the stairs.

“I got your message,” Pepper said, “I came here as fast as I could.”

“I might have overreacted, Pepper. It’s just that he climbed onto the table and said it was time for show and tell, except he was the only one who brought anything,” Kanti muttered. She pressed her hand to her forehead, looking guiltily at Pepper, “For a horrified moment, I thought he was drunk and was going to striptease.”

Pepper stifled a laugh, “Believe me, a couple of years ago and you probably would have been right on the money but after Afghanistan…” she let her voice drift off, shrugging one shoulder.

“You do not have to explain that he has changed. I am not blind,” Kanti said, her eyes were on Tony again.

Pepper pressed her lips together, “I keep telling him that he should get his chest looked at properly, he doesn’t have to keep that thing in there to preserve his heart but he won’t listen.”

Kanti shook her head, “The arc reactor is, well yes it is surprising, but at least there is an explanation for that,” she reached up with one hand and tapped the side of her head, near her own eyes, “But his eyes. He does not claim to have any better eyesight than when he did before, yes? But something happened to them.”

“If he knows what it is, he hasn’t told anyone,” Pepper replied, “Not me, not Rhodes his best friend, no one. I don’t know if he does know, because he was willing to explain the arc reactor, even if he wasn’t willing to do anything to fix it.”

Kanti shifted her gaze to Pepper, “He did not put it into such words with me,” she said. She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned a little closer to Pepper, “He said it was not yet time to deal with the reactor in his chest. Which suggests...he has something in mind.”

Pepper looked at Kanti thoughtfully and then at Tony. He had moved onto the next thing which she recognized was some sort of prosthetic, and he had pulled some hapless but apparently willing scientist onto the table with him to help demonstrate the potential attachment. “He has a lot on his mind,” she said, “This whole foray into medical tech… Did you see what he’s come up for with the walking braces?”

Kanti nodded her head. “I reviewed the charts that you sent this morning. I was still working on how I would present the information and divvy up the teams when he came in.” She pulled out her Starkpad from her lab coat pocket and tapped at it, “He’s about a third of the way through the list, now, but hasn’t displayed the braces to the others yet.”

Pepper watched Tony, who had let the scientist back down and was now talking about neurological transmitters and nanites and the installation of prosthetics. She wondered if he had half a plan on putting actual real life people in these or if he planned on them dumbing them down to get the tech approved for use with the general public.

Though, if she was reading Tony’s goals rights, extrapolating a little from his newest research and his experience in Afghanistan, Pepper wondered if he was even thinking about the general public at all or if his attention was narrower than that. His work in prosthetics wasn’t the only medical advance he had; there was also the PTSD treatment he’d been devising with the virtual simulator retro-framing glasses and Dr. Samson and there was the body armor of various levels of strength and efficiency. She’d heard him express a wish to design a suit that could withstand an RPG or explosive and, honestly, the thought of making something for that purpose was a little terrifying.

But it was understandable, too. For years Tony had made and sold weapons. The weapons had been used in everything from street gang shootouts to tactical police units to military operations to terrorist organizations. Tony had created a lot of wounded people out there and this, she thought, was just one of the ways he sought absolution. The donations to VA hospitals had been another, though that was far less public.

Kanti’s hand touching her own, where she held tightly onto her own Starkpad, brought Pepper out of her thoughts. She met the taller woman’s gaze, which was dark and deep and full of a compassion that melted Pepper’s heart. Pepper put her hand on top of Kanti’s and smiled. “He’s changed,” she said quietly, “I think it’s for the better, too. I think he wants to do better, by everyone.”

“The way he talks now,” Kanti said quietly, “He speaks not of the future of his tech and his name, but the future of the world. He has laid out the groundwork in so many things but instead of completing them all on his own he has brought them here, to us. He does not seek to solve the troubles of the world himself, nor to get peace on his own.” She squeezed Pepper’s hand briefly. “I appreciate his generosity, in letting us help him. Many of us here helped make those weapons and the rationale required to go home and put aside our work before was much harder a task than it is these days.”

Kanti gives Pepper a little smile, “Once I went home unwilling to speak about work because of how it made me feel, now I must work hard not to speak because there is such a bright future ahead and I can see it so clearly down the road that Mr. Stark has laid before us.”

Pepper gave her a warm smile, glad to hear the words. She took her hand off of Kanti’s and tucked some of her hair back behind an ear. It was good to hear that the scientists like Kanti were as excited about the new direction of the company as Tony was, as she was. “I think he wants to have most of these designs ready for demonstration at the Expo this year. Do you think you and your teams can handle that?”

Kanti gave a sharp nod, a fierce look of pride crossed her features as she looked out at the gathered scientists around Tony. “It is what Mr. Stark expects of us, is it not? We will accomplish everything that he asks of us, so long as he does not expect us to replicate his genius. In that aspect, we can only look on in awe.”

Pepper laughed softly. Not softly enough, it seems, for Tony to miss.

He stopped in the middle of his speech and looked up, as if seeing her there for the first time, “Pepper!” he exclaimed.

Pepper put up a hand, “Don’t let me interrupt you, Mr. Stark. Everyone seems very engaged in  your demonstration, and if we are to have these items ready for display in time for the Expo, they will need the rest of your descriptions.”

There were a couple of owlish blinks and whispers and Kanti looked sternly at her scientists. “Yes, you heard Ms. Potts correctly. Listen well to Mr. Stark and make a short list of which projects interest you the most. We will need to get everything ready for the Expo and which is sooner than you expect. It will not be easy, but creating the future we wish to live in will be worth the effort.”

Pepper could see the way Tony’s shoulders shifted, not dropping but relaxing. There was an ease that filled his body language as Kanti’s words straightened the backs of her employees. They looked more determined, less awed, and turned back to Tony while pulling out notebooks and Starkpads, ready to take complete notes. Tony dragged his hand over his face and lifted his hands again.

“All right,” he said, “Now that all you chuckleheads are paying attention, let’s start from the top one more time. A lot of sleepless nights went into this mess and I don’t want to have made Pep mad for nothing,” he gave a lopsided grin and flicked his fingers, sending the hologram scrolling back to the top of the list. “Let’s get on with it, shall we? We can always sleep when we die.”

Then he started again with the new and improved body armor with the scientists taking notes and asking questions. Kanti stayed with Pepper, making her own private observations on her tablet until Pepper’s calendar pinged in her notifications and she had to leave the R&D department in the hands of Tony and Kanti.

 


 

Tony looks in the mirror at the dark grey lines that seep under his skin like his body is undergoing a slow motion digitization in a third-rate sci-fi horror. His fingertip runs over the marks near the glowing arc reactor and he sighs. His breath fogs up the glass momentarily and he leans back. The blood poisoning hasn’t reached a toxic level, yet, but it’s clearly only going to get worse.

He runs his thumb over the tainted skin thoughtfully. Before, his death had been a catalyst for several things; Pepper becoming CEO of Stark Industries, Rhodes becoming suited up with the Iron Patriot and then the War Machine, SHIELD having a leg up on him with secret information and the validation that only a weirdly distant and possibly psychopathic father figure could give.

Tony snorted and reached for his shirt. He tugged it on and headed out of the bathroom. As he did, he heard a soft whisper of a voice, female and coming from the phone he had left beside his bed.

“Father, Fury approaches.”

It isn’t NOBODY’s voice that makes Tony hesitate, although it does always surprise him a little bit when she chooses to speak, it’s this new habit of hers that she’s picked up. He’s less a father and more an inventor or creator, but he knows that NOBODY and JARVIS talk and, well, they both know they can choose whatever they like to call him by. Tony doesn’t care, just as long as they are happy and healthy.

“Let me see,” Tony said, frowning slightly. The window in his bedroom that doubles as a screen flickered into life. The angle was a little skewed but he tilted his head and adapted to it quickly enough. “Where are they now?”

“They boarded ten minutes ago and are headed out of D.C. on a SHIELD classified transport jet,” NOBODY’s soft words emanate from Tony’s phone still on the nightstand.

“They?”

The screen flickers to other views and Tony suddenly realizes why the first angle was so odd. NOBODY has hijacked Coulson’s phone or tablet and was using the camera on the back to view Fury. Now the view is of the front side and Tony can clearly see Coulson’s face while beside him, just out of frame, is a shock of familiar curly red hair.

“Jarvis,” Tony said as he watched Coulson read whatever was on the tablet. Probably bullshit about him, if he was really on his way to visit him. Tony couldn’t help but twist a little smile at that. Without the suit, would he still not be recommended for their superhero group?

“Sir?”

“Clear my calendar for the rest of this week. Tell Pepper to push my meetings for next week. Send Happy a message to make sure the jet is fueled and that I’ll meet him at the hanger. I think I’m going to go visit Brucie for the weekend and get around to taking care of this,” he tapped the arc reactor in his chest.

“Yes, Sir,” JARVIS replied, without even bothering to mention that it was Tuesday and obviously not the weekend.

Tony made a dismissive gesture to the screen and it turned back into a window. “Thank you, Jarvis and thank you, Nobody. Keep an eye on the place for me while I’m gone.” He crossed the room and picked up his phone, where a message from NOBODY waited for him.

FOR YOU FATHER, ALWAYS.

 


 

“Dr. Banner, Dr. Ross,” JARVIS’s voice slides through Bruce’s concentration and he finds himself lifting his head, glancing up to where he’s figured out the camera resides. Across the table and down a few feet, he sees Betty putting down her pen and flexing the stiffness out of her fingers. “Mr. Stark has arrived and will be within the building in a few minutes.”

Bruce frowned slightly. “Stark’s here? Why?”

“Sir has indicated that he wants to make use of one of his more remote laboratories for, as he put it, more explosive sciencing. He has invited you and Dr. Ross to join him, if you are so inclined.”

“What kind of sciencing?” Betty asked, absentmindedly stretching out her wrist and hand, fighting off any potential carpal tunnel.

“Sir has decided to build himself a particle accelerator.”

The pen dropped from Bruce’s fingers and onto the table with a clatter, “You’re kidding me. Jarvis, tell me you’re kidding me.”

“I can do that, Dr. Banner, but that would not change the fact that Sir has already drafted up the schematics and sent the supplies here and that he, himself, is here to put it together.”

“I wondered what all that shit was that came here last month,” Betty muttered under her breath. She stood up from her stool and tugged on her white coat to straighten out a few wrinkles. “Come on Bruce, we should stop him from getting himself killed or blowing up the place.”

Bruce ran a hand down his face. He wasn’t quite sure if he liked Stark that much, but at least the man didn’t let things get boring. “All right,” he said wearily. “I guess we needed a break anyway.”

Bruce tidies up his station, putting his samples back into storage and putting his tools mostly back into place while Betty does the same at her own. She fiddles with one of the modified incubators, checking briefly on the cultures there before she heads up the stairs and out of the lab. Bruce follows her, wondering what kind of madness got into Stark this time.

Stark had other labs all over the country, but he only seemed do do the craziest shit here, in Colorado, with Bruce three doors down and the nearest hospital several hours away. Not that the clinic at the base of the mountain wasn’t up to snuff for the town’s needs, but there were only a couple of hundred people who lived there and they weren’t really equipped to handle a major crisis.

They followed JARVIS’s direction to a large room on the edge of the facility. It was one of the few labs that opened up to the parking lot and out to the road, which is why it was where they usually took in large deliveries or where Stark preferred to work. The last time Bruce had been in the room, he’d seen two cars along one wall- both of them half assembled- and the delivery guy had been unloading half a truck’s worth of boxes.

Now, when he opened the door for Betty and followed her in, he walked into a brightly lit room that had the cool air of the mountain coming in through the open doors. Stark was digging through the boxes, music playing over the speakers and he’d already abandoned his outer shirt, leaving himself in the sleeveless piece that showed the bright blue glow of the arc reactor in his chest.

“Brucie-bear!” Stark cried as they walked in, “Betty-dear! My two favorite biochemists. How goes the serum work? Any luck yet?”

“No,” Betty replied, already crossing the room with her hands on her hips. Bruce wasn’t exactly sure where she got the gumption to be in Stark’s face but he was glad it wasn’t him who had to get after Stark. It was easier to keep calm these days, what with not having to hide and being with Betty, but Bruce still wasn’t over how chummy Stark acted with him and how stupidly fearless he was of the Hulk.

“Which you should know considering we sent you a brief just yesterday.” She stopped several feet away from Stark, who paused in his unboxing to talk to her. He wasn’t wearing shades, Bruce noticed abruptly. And it was only because the room was so well lit that Stark’s eyes didn’t glow, at least, not that brightly.

“Ah, well, sometimes breakthroughs happen quickly!” Stark said, “Better luck later. Have you come down to join me in my sciencing?”

“Jarvis told us you’re making a particle accelerator,” Betty said, “What the hell for?”

“For science!” Stark replied, “And inventing! I think I got a good idea on this one and I wanted to give it a go!”

“And what if you give it a go and something goes wrong? What will you do then? This isn’t all fun and games, Stark. This is dangerous!”

Stark shrugged and dug back into the box. “I made one before and that was with whatever shit I had lying around in Malibu. This one will be better, safer, no threats of tasing and no weird pseudo-government agents babysitting. Then everything will be cool again and I can get back to work on the Expo shit.” he opened a box and hauled out some equipment.

Betty half turned to Bruce, her face disbelieving as she gestured to him.

Bruce sighed. “Stark, what are you trying to make?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Stark said, pulling out a box cutter from somewhere and digging into the next cardboard box. “I’m creating a new element.”

Bruce pushed up his glasses with both hands, this, this right here was the one reason he regretted signing that contract. Stark was certifiably insane, he had to be. “You can’t just- It doesn’t work like that- Stark-”

There was a metallic thump as Stark put some tubing down beside himself. Bruce looked at him and then blinked as Stark pulled his shirt up, baring the arc reactor in his chest. Immediately, Bruce took two steps forwards, eyes drawn not to the reactor but to the thin spider webbing of something grey on Stark’s skin. Betty whispered something intelligible under her breath and reached up a hand, but she was too far away and she dropped her hand quickly enough.

“The core that I’m currently working with isn’t exactly playing nice with my body chemistry,” Tony said, “So I came up with something new that will fix it.” He dropped his shirt down, patting his chest like he hadn’t just bared his chest, his heart, his secret, to the two of them. Tony shrugged nonchalantly, “You can either help or just observe or go back to your own stuff. I won’t be offended. I know you two are working hard on a cure.”

“What is that doing to you?” Betty asked, “Does it hurt?”

“Not yet,” he said, bending over and digging through a box. “And what do you think? It’s killing me of course.”

Bruce saw the way Betty’s hands tightened up and her shoulders pulled in. He winced preemptively as she closed the distance between herself and Stark. She grabbed him by the shoulder, leaning down as she urged him to straighten up, “It’s killing you? What do you mean it’s killing you? Who have you seen about it? What’s the diagnosis? Mr. Stark-”

“It’s basically like a kind of heavy metal poisoning,” Stark said. He nudged her arm with the back of his hand but he didn’t push hard enough to dislodge her. “Once I switch out the core of my current reactor with this new material, it’ll be fine!”

“Prove it,” Betty said, which made Stark’s eyes widen. “Show me the math, prove it to me. And if it’s good, I’ll help you make the thing. We both will, right Bruce?”

She looked over her shoulder at Bruce and his heart did a sideways lurch. She had a tightness about her eyes that spoke of her fear. He figured, if Stark died, they probably wouldn’t have their protection anymore which was a good reason to try and keep him alive. But this was Betty and she was more than that kind of self-serving belief. Betty was grateful to Stark, for the offer of a job for them both, for the protection, for the damn zen garden. Whether or not she liked him much, she wouldn’t want him to die doing something stupid.

“Show us the science, Stark,” Bruce said quietly, “And if it’s good. We’ll help.”

“Huh,” Stark blinked at them. The startled look made his eyes seem less alien, somehow. Then he ran his hand through his hair, tugging at it and muttering, “Didn’t have to show anyone last time… But I guess…” He turned and pulled away, moving with the kind of absent-mindedness that Bruce had seen only when Stark was deep in thought at his work. It was another kind of vulnerability, much like baring the reactor and showing the poison in his blood, except this one made Bruce feel kind of guilty.

He was always aware of Stark, was never quite able to fully sink into his work with the man nearby but Stark was able to do so near them. He trusted them. Trusted them to not take advantage of his distraction. Trusted Bruce not to rage and destroy him or his work.

“J,” Tony called out to the room. “Pull up the schematics for that expo display from my old office set up? And all the accelerator stuff too.” He flicked a smile to Betty and a wink to them both, “We’ve got plenty of time to go over the science before we put it together. I’ll be here all week.”

“Don’t you have a business to run?” Bruce asked. He couldn’t help but shake his head, not in the least surprised.

“Pepper knows where I am and besides, the department has their hands full,” Tony waved his hand dismissively as he walked towards the wall where JARVIS had brought up the displays. Betty was following him and Bruce behind her. He snagged a chair for them both and wished he’d brought something to write on as the wall filled up with information. “This is… more a vacation from Malibu than anything else. Had to get some of that mountain air, recover my health, blah blah blah, now, pay attention because I kind of didn’t write down every step and I’d like to get to the building part asap.”

Betty settled on the chair a little bit away from Bruce, leaning forward slightly with visible interest. “We’re ready, Stark. Go ahead.”

Stark gave them a smile that made his orange eyes flash and turned around, first to the display. He cleared his throat and then he began to talk. And talk. And talk. And bring up displays and models and numbers and talk some more.

Before long, Bruce knew in his gut that the science was sound and that he and Betty were going to be spending the rest of the day building a particle accelerator.

What the hell had his life become?

 

 


 

 

Bruce came back from the kitchen with sandwiches for the three of them to find Stark shifting part of the coil while Betty tested the level of the coil at a different point. As he crossed the room, Stark lowered the machine he was handling and pointed an accusing finger at Bruce, “You! Betty tells me you refuse to wear the pants I made you! You should at least try them on!”

Betty gave him an apologetic look. She had taken off her lab coat and had her sleeves rolled up on her blue button-down underneath. She had a bit of oil on her cheek and more on a hand that she wiped off with a cloth that she pulled out from her back pocket.

“I’m not wearing purple pants that say juicy on the back of them in green sparkling letters, Stark,” Bruce replied as evenly as he could, putting the plates down on the tower of boxes that was doubling as a sort of table. Every actual table had bits of machinery strewn about all over. “No matter how comfortable they appear to be.”

“But they stretch!” Stark said as if that was a good thing. “I mean they really stretch, but I don’t know yet if they stretch enough, you know?”

Betty was giving him a weird look as she walked over to the food. Bruce caught her eye and she rolled hers. “Apparently,” she said, “He made them out of some sort of durable, super stretchy material in the hopes that you can keep modest when, well you know.”

“I just think that Big Green might want to keep his Little Green to himself. Just because he’s got a shit vocabulary doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any body issues.” Stark said, tossing a screwdriver over and over in his hand, “I mean, eventually people will get used to the big green part and start to wonder if it’s sort of his thing to go nude too.”

“I-” Bruce was at a loss for words. This was exactly the kind of thing that Stark did that made him utterly baffling. There just wasn’t any proper rational fear in the man. He didn’t even think of the Hulk as a monster in any sense of the word. It was like they were talking about Bruce’s sibling or something, not the monster that had almost broken apart his whole world. “What part of I don’t want to become that creature ever again do you not understand, Stark?” Bruce felt emotion rise in his throat and threaten to choke him. Stark stopped tossing the screwdriver but didn’t reply.

“What do you think the point of my research is, huh? I’m trying to get rid of that thing inside of me. I don’t want to play dress up with it!” Bruce abruptly closed his mouth and breathed out through his nose, trying to dispel his growing anger. Betty ran a soothing hand across his shoulder and Stark just stared at them with those glowing orange eyes.

Inhuman, Bruce thought, he’s lost something human in him, to have eyes like those.

“Fine, don’t wear the pants,” Stark said with a shrug, “But keep them anyway. They were made for you,” he made a little circular gesture with his hand, turning the screwdriver with it, “Both of you.” He went for the level that Betty had left and began to double check the line.

Betty made an aborted motion to Stark, opening her mouth to call him over to eat, but she stopped when she met Bruce’s gaze. Instead, she cupped his cheek with her hand and whispered, “It’s all right. He was just trying to help with the pants. He just wants to help.”

“I don’t need any more of his help,” Bruce muttered back, closing his eyes so he could focus on the feeling of her hand on his skin and the smell of her, standing so close. “He’s done enough. I don’t need anything else.”

“Honey,” Betty whispered, “I don’t think he knows how to stop.”

Bruce snorted. She sighed and pat his cheek once more for good measure before saying thanks for the food and picking up one of the sandwiches. Bruce joined her and the two of them ate, watching Stark work, his focus eerily sharp on perfecting the accelerator’s alignment.

Bruce had just finished the other half of his sandwich when Stark, standing in the center of his machine, turned his glowing eyes on them again. The remnants of their discussion was gone, replaced with a fierce sort of pride.

“It’s ready,” he said. “It’s time for science.”

Bruce brushed crumbs from his hands and his shirt and got to his feet, nodding. He helped Betty get up and the two of them joined Stark for the final step.

 

 


 

 

Standing on the balcony that overlooks the front entryway to Stark Industries, Kanti nurses a rich cup of coffee while waiting for the elevator doors to open in front of her. Kanti catches the shine of red hair in sunlight out of the corner of her eye and turns towards it, her heart rate already picking up in anticipation. As her eyes light on said owner of red hair, the fluttering of her heart crashes down in disappointment.

The woman who strides across the floor, red heels, black pencil skirt, stark white button down blouse and a wild but tasteful copper mass of curls, is a pale imitation of Pepper Potts, whom Kanti had hoped to see before heading down to the lab. This new woman walks with a firm sense of purpose, parting the steady tide of Industry employees as they head down the stairs to the doors she just entered. The woman glances down at a watch on her wrist, the face of it turned on the inside and her red lips pressed into a firm, disappointed frown as she notes the time.

Kanti watches her climb the stairs while she sips her coffee. Red Curls must be running late. She didn’t carry a purse, just a slim black portfolio type binder balanced in the crook of one arm and against her side. Kanti is momentarily distracted by the ding of the elevator and the movement of other people, however, and briefly loses sight of the woman as she turns to go into the elevator.

Stepping into the elevator with only a handful of others, Kanti looks up in time to see the red-headed woman round the corner of the balcony railing from the top of the steps and realize, as the doors start to slide shut, that she’s going to miss her chance to get on.

Instinctively, Kanti reaches out a hand and stops the elevator. She gets a sidelong glance from one of the other riders, a man with a thin face wearing a suit that was just a little too tight to look good on him, but the others don’t do anything but shuffle to make space for the addition. Red Curls gives Kanti a slight smile and ducks in quickly. She turns to face the door and whispers an almost breathless, “Thank you.”

Kanti retracts her arm from the door and the stiff man in the business suit urgently presses the close door button, refusing to look at either one of them.

“Of course,” Kanti murmured back, “We can’t have you be late on your first day.”

Red Curls blinks a little, surprise coloring her features in an attractive way. Not as attractive as Pepper Potts, but still pretty enough. “Is it that obvious?” she whispered, leaning in towards Kanti.

Kanti gestured to badge clipped to the woman’s shirt pocket. “It’s against regulations to have your badge on a clip. They are too easy to remove and misuse that way,” She lifted her cup to her lips and added quietly, “You only get one reprimand for that infraction before you are suspended from access to anywhere that requires a badge to enter. A second reprimand often leads to suspension of employment and then a termination of employment.”

Red Curls' surprise makes her eyes go even wider. Something about the look doesn’t sit well with Kanti, but she pushes aside the feeling. Not every red-head was going to be able to hold up to the standards Kanti had from Pepper Potts.

“I wasn’t aware,” Red Curls said, fingering the badge nervously now.

“It’s a recent change,” says the man in the too-tight suit with an annoyed sniff, “A company-wide security policy change after that incident with the managing partner. It’s a bit of a nuisance, really. The point of the badge is to manage area permissions and allow quick access instead of using keys for everything. The incident didn’t even have a compromised badge involved in it. I don’t know why Mr. Stark changed everything so abruptly.”

Kanti ignored the man. To Red Curls, she said, “You get used to managing your badge quickly enough. It is a small sacrifice to help maintain the security of Stark Industries.”

Red Curls nodded to her and removed her badge from its clip. “It seems counterintuitive to hide the badge away,” she said, “I thought they were used to identify employees to each other and those without badges weren’t employees.”

“Even visitors get a temporary badge,” Kanti said, “And there’s a company-wide monitoring program that makes sure only people who are supposed to be here are here.”

Too-Tight made a noise almost like clearing his throat, “It’s a paranoid thing to do, but after what happened, Mr. Stark seems well off in being paranoid.”

The elevator stopped. Too-Tight Suit gave them a little nod as he stepped out of the elevator, “Ladies,” he said in goodbye. Kanti nodded back to him.

Red Curls stepped closer to Kanti, almost too far into her personal space for her comfort, as a handful of new people entered and settled in for the ride. Two of them Kanti recognized from her occasional forays into the IT department. They were in the middle of a conversation on the merits of one movie universe versus another, their voices not annoyingly loud but they didn’t seem too bothered to keep talking in the otherwise quiet elevator.

Kanti could feel the anxious energy coming off of Red Curls, but there was something odd to it, odd to the way she stood there, checking her watch and fiddling with the black leather binder she carried. When the elevator stopped again, this time on the research floor that Kanti had intended to depart onto, she hesitated. She stayed. Something in the back of her mind kept her from gently pressing past Red Curls and through the open doors even as one or two others from the back did so.

One cast a backward glance at them but Kanti didn’t respond.

As the doors slid shut again, she half turned towards Red Curls, “I am Dr. Kanti Sodhi, by the way. From research and development.”

“Natalie Rushman,” red lips part in a slight smile, “Hopefully Ms. Potts newest assistant.”

Kanti’s eyebrows rose, “And you are late on your first day?” That did not bode well for Ms. Rushman.

Rushman shook her head slightly and then reached up to brush the curls that caught on the corners of her lashes, “I wasn’t supposed to come in at all today, my first official day was tomorrow, but Ms. Potts called to see if I could be here early. It turns out that Mr. Stark spontaneously decided to take the rest of the week off and she needs an extra set of hands.”

Kanti let out a soft sigh, fighting the desire to close her eyes and rub her temples. With that information, Stark’s spontaneous show and tell the other day made sense. He wanted to get the ball rolling while he ran off and did some other almost certainly wild and insane thing for a week. She was glad he had, though, because her staff was beside themselves with how much work they had to do to take the refined pieces and dumb them down for the general public. Honestly, a prosthetic that could manipulate even half as well as a normal hand would be better than half of what was out there but Stark had made limbs with so much finesse and detail that their installation almost invariably required some form of neurological surgery.

“Yes,” Kanti said with wry amusement, “He does that.”

“But shouldn’t he be here, running his business? Mr. Stark still is the CEO, is he not?”

“He is,” Kanti said, “But it is wise to leave him be and allow him to do what he does best.”

Rushman’s brows pinched together just enough to show she was confused by Kanti’s words. The elevator slid to a stop and the doors opened. Kanti smiled at her and answered her silent question, “Mr. Stark is inventing the future, not like in those cute little cartoons of automated houses and robots, but the kind of future that people like us can only dream of. One of equality and peace, where people do their best to ease the suffering of others and the world unites together in an effort to better ourselves and each other.”

Rushman’s dark eye flicked to the corner, where she could see like Kanti could, the slight nod of the other passengers of the elevator. None of them moved, though this was Rushman’s stop if she was to go directly to Pepper Potts.

As the elevator dinged and the doors began to close, Kanti again reached out her hand to stop them. “Ms. Rushman, I believe this is your stop?”

“I- Yes. Thank you again, Dr. Sodhi.” Rushman nodded her head and stepped out. Her red heels flashed in the light as she entered the hallway and strode confidently down towards her destination. Kanti pulled her hand back and watched her go until the doors slid closed and Rushman was blocked from her sight.

 

 


 

 

Bruce found Betty out in the zen garden as the last of the sun burned a deep red across the edge of the mountain and the sky turned deep purple above them. She sat on one of the low stone benches, her legs stretched out in front of her and her hands tucked behind her as she leaned back. Bruce came up behind her, his feet crunching softly on the gravel pathway, and he reached out to her, his fingers skimming up her back between her shoulder blades. Betty smiled and tilted her head back, her loose dark hair brushing over his hand and wrist.

Bruce slid his hands over her shoulders, rubbing at them with his thumbs, working out the strain of the day from her muscles.

Betty closed her eyes and let out a soft sigh, rolling her head around on her neck until her chin was almost on her chest.

They remained that way as the sun sank fully behind the mountain and the sky turned dark. Only when Betty shrugged her shoulders and started to turn did Bruce lift his hands and stop. She shifted around on the bench and gave Bruce a thoughtful, almost apologetic look.

“Bruce,” she said, reaching for his hand. He let her take it, let her slide her fingers between his. “Do you ever wonder what happened?”

Bruce’s brows furrowed together as he puzzled her question. He sat down on the bench next to her, never moving so far that they had to let go of each other’s hands. “What happened where? To who?”

Betty rubbed at her temple with her other hand and gave him a look that was definitely an apology, “To Stark. In that cave.”

Bruce sighed. “I try not to think about it.”

“I know, I know, you don’t always see eye to eye with him,” Betty said quickly, “But that’s exactly what I mean. His eyes, Bruce. His eyes. They glow. How do they do that? What did they do to him to make them glow?”

“What good does wondering about it do for us?” Bruce asked back, “He has no reason to tell us and we have no good reason to ask. Our curiosity isn’t a good enough reason to probe into a man’s trauma, Betty. His eyes glow orange, so what? My eyes changed when  I changed.”

“If not us, then who? I don’t think that he shows just anyone his arc reactor. I don’t think he even told anyone about the thing poisoning him except for us!”

“So he’s secretive,” Bruce said, “ We’re his secrets too, Betty. He has good reason to keep to himself.”

“But you have to admit, there is something there, in his eyes. It watches us,” Betty whispered, leaning in, “It watches us with his eyes.”

Now you’re just imagining things, Bruce opened his mouth to say but the words wouldn’t come out. He swallowed on nothing, thinking about the way Stark’s eyes saw into him and through him. He didn’t think he’d been compelled by those eyes but he… Stark had known what he wanted. What he needed. Had read the cracks in Bruce’s heart that had told Stark everything that he needed to know to sway Bruce to his side and capture him in a way that no one else had been able to do. And people had tried, they always tried to get him, but they always failed.

Everyone but Stark.

He bit his lip and shook his head.

“Bruce,” Betty ran her free hand up and down his arm, compelling and comforting, “You know what I’m talking about, right? You’ve felt it too?”

In that moment, he realized she wasn’t so much searching for answers as she was validation. Whatever it was that had made Stark the way he was something beyond them and, if Betty felt even half as unsettled as Bruce did when those eyes fixated on him- He shuddered and Betty’s fingers curled around his wrist.

“Yes,” he whispered, “I’ve felt strange, looking into his eyes. There’s something...inhuman about them.” His lips twitched into a grimace. Stark? Inhuman? That was rich coming from him. “But I don’t think its malicious.”

“No, I agree with you, I don’t think it will harm us. I don’t think it wants to harm anything.” Her eyes were focused past him now, into the oncoming darkness of the night. The sounds of the forest were distant around them but nothing could stop the crickets and frogs and other things from singing in the night. The world around them was ignorant of what they said, ignorant of Stark and his machinations. “But what does it want with us?”

Bruce shook his head, “Betty-”

“What does it want with Stark?”   Betty asked and Bruce’s words dried up.

With what Stark could do, with what Stark had access to, whatever possessed him or compelled his actions could make him do almost anything. They had built a particle accelerator and synthesized a new fucking element earlier that afternoon and that was just one afternoon. Stark was so full of ideas and so loaded with cash and so surrounded by tech and helpers that whatever he wanted to do he did, whatever he wanted to have he got, whatever he wanted to create he could.

“What does anyone want with Stark?” Bruce said tightening his grip on Betty’s hand, frowning now, “Whatever they can wring out of his head, of course.”

Betty was silent for a long time, her eyes far away, on the stars that were beginning to appear in the sky as the last ruddy red traces of the sun dipped behind the mountain. They were brighter out here than in the city and reminded Bruce of the times when he was out in the woods in South America, wondering if he’d ever see Betty again, wondering if he’d ever find a cure, wondering if he was just going to be Bruce Banner and the Hulk for the rest of his life.

“What do we do, Bruce?” Betty whispered, “How can we help?”

Bruce sighed. He cupped her cheek in his hand, finally drawing her gaze back to him. “We do what we can, Betty. When he comes here for distraction, for help, for science… we do what we can.”

Betty sighed, leaning into his touch. She closed her eyes and Bruce smiled at her, brushing his thumb across the soft curve of her cheekbones. “You’re too good for me, Betty,” he said quietly. Her lashes fluttered and she looked at him with a little smile, “But I’m glad you’re with me anyway.”

“Oh, Bruce…” Betty inched closer and put her arm around his shoulders. Even though it was awkward to hold hands still, she didn’t let go of him. “I love you too.”

Bruce flushed and ducked his head. Betty laughed softly, but it was warm and kind and made his chest ache with emotion. She kissed his cheek gently and Bruce closed his eyes.

Betty was far too good for him and this place was too.

And if it hadn’t been for Stark, Bruce didn’t know where he would be.

So he was grateful of the man and what he’d done, even if, deep inside, where Bruce still couldn’t believe in the invulnerability of the Hulk, he was afraid of him. Afraid of what he could do. Afraid of how he could take it all away again.

Bruce didn’t think he’d survive, that the Bruce Banner part of him would remain intact if Stark took Betty away from him after all this.

Chapter Text

 

After they build and use the particle accelerator, Stark gets down to tinkering with his more typical less-likely-to-explode projects and Bruce and Betty return to their own lab. The days pass as they always do for Bruce, a steady routine of morning meditation, meals and working during the day with the evenings spent relaxing with Betty either in the garden or one of the lounges available. Even with Stark there, they don’t see much of him unless they cross paths in the kitchen or choose to visit. Bruce doesn’t mind the distance and appreciates that Stark’s idea of checking in on them doesn’t mean sticking his nose into their work.

It’s not that he doesn’t think Stark can’t help or that he’s irritating, it’s just that the man has lodged himself under Bruce’s skin and whenever he’s there, Bruce can’t fully focus on what he’s doing.

Before he knows it, the weekend is here. There’s no reason to stop working in the lab- it’s not like there are any restrictions to how often they can go down there, and they’re the only two who live there, despite the handful of extra rooms available. But Betty insists on taking more extended breaks and has planned for them to go hiking.

As they get ready to head out into the woods behind the facility, packing lunches in the kitchen, Bruce looks up at the sound of footsteps.

Stark waltzes through the room, headed out from the sleeping areas and towards the front of the facility. He’s wearing a perfectly tailored suit, black pants and deep red jacket with metallic gold for the lapels. He’s foregone a tie in favor of leaving the top few buttons of his shirt open. Stark slows to a stop as he notices them and plucks his shades out of his jacket pocket. “I’m headed out,” he said, “You two keep safe and have fun! I’ll be back next month sometime to check in on you.”

Betty smiles at him, “Enjoy your weekend, Mr. Stark.”

“Oh but I always do,” he winks and slips on the shades. They’re a reflective red with gold accents. Bruce rolls his eyes at how flashy the man is, how flashy he always is, but waves at him in goodbye.

Stark walks away and they hear the front door open and shut for him.

“Ah, the charmed life of a billionaire,” Betty said with a grin, “Do you suppose he’s off to a fancy party?”

“I’m sure if he doesn’t find something, he’ll make something. An outfit like that can’t go unremarked on,” Bruce replied dryly.

Betty laughed and shook her head, “Come on, we’re wasting daylight dawdling in here.” She leaned over and Bruce automatically closed half the distance by leaning forward to meet her lips with his own.

He didn’t care what Stark wore or where he went, but all the same, he hoped the man had a good weekend.

 

 


 

 

Lights flash as they always do when the Happy opens the door and Tony Stark steps out into the public.

He lingers by the door of the car and that is enough for the paparazzi to peer around him, anxious to see who he brought with him to Monaco. He’s sure that they’re expecting Pepper- they always expect Pepper- but the redhead that slips out of the vehicle behind him is a surprise that creates a momentary pause in the lights as people stop to stare.

 

 

 

“Tony, I can’t make it there and cover the Expo foundation meeting at the same time. You’re going to have to go without me.” Pepper’s words over the phone had made Tony feel a mixture of things, glad but also sad. It was Monaco, after all, and he was sure something exciting would happen.

“But Pep-”

“Don’t but me, and don’t try to change my mind. I’m sending one of my assistants with you to keep you out of trouble. Hammer already is fuming that we’re stalling his application into the Expo and he’s sure to be there to harass you about it.” Pepper rode right over his words but Tony didn’t mind. She sounded a bit like the old Pepper, the one who had become his CEO and the queen of all tech. He liked that Pepper better than the one that had hidden her business acumen behind the faux assignment of his assistant and he knew that this Pepper could easily grow into that strength.

“Well at least make sure she’s pretty,” he whined, “And I’ll be nice when turning down Hammer.”

“Good.”

Tony turned and offered his arm to Natasha- well, Natalie as she was known currently. Natalie wore black and gold in contrast to his red and gold, but she wore it well in a dress that showed just the barest hint of breast and a whole hell of a lot of collarbone and throat. A tiny thread of a golden necklace decorated her slender neck, the end of which was a single black opal that drew the eye right back down to her breasts. It was a seducer’s outfit, one made to attract the eye to the body and keep it off the face.

Not that Natalie was unpleasant to look at, but her expression was a mask and masks took an effort to maintain. Not only that but there was only so much emotion one could feign before something they didn’t want to show appeared in their eyes. It was easier to just keep people from looking at all.

Natalie gave him an amused smile and slid her arm around his. Her hand tucked easily into his elbow, a movement so natural it was as though they’d done it hundreds of times, “You know,” she said gently, “I do not think this is what Ms. Potts had in mind when she said to keep you out of trouble, Mr. Stark.”

Tony smiled his winning smile as they walked up the path and into the party beyond. “I thought she was very clear. You are at my side and I am not in trouble. So far, so good.” He kept her close, could feel the warmth of her body against his side.

She kept a smile on her face but her eyes glanced at him and they were not amused. “How will I explain the photographs to Ms. Potts? You are putting me in a precarious situation, Mr. Stark.”

Tony led her up the steps, stopping just outside the door, just behind Happy, who was presenting their invitations for entry. “You applied for the job of my assistant before you applied for Pepper’s. Don’t tell me you didn’t think you’d ever end up with your face plastered on tabloids next to mine as my latest love affair even if you never touch my sheets.”

Before she could reply, he leaned in and murmured, “If you tell Pepper the truth, she’ll believe you. Funny how that kind of thing works when you trust people.”

Happy waved them forward and Tony brought Natalie along. Natalie kept her mouth shut but still smiled one last time as Tony bid the photographers goodbye.

Inside the venue, the noise volume dropped dramatically. Tony eased up on how close he held Natalie and she took the opportunity to slip free of his arm. She produced a dark leather clad binder almost out of nowhere and held it tight in her left arm, almost clinging to the persona of an assistant. Tony ignored her for the most part and drifted through the crowd, aimless but moving through with ease and confidence.

It didn’t look much different than he remembered, though his sense of urgency at the time had colored things a little harsher and sharper than they really were. He still found the table with the view that he liked and waved over one of the party’s attendants, demanding the use of the table. This time, though, he’s actually going to enjoy the meal there instead of running out to the track.

His feet find their way to the bar even without his help and he slides up to it with Natalie a half step behind him. She’s not quite a shadow, not quite a date and he orders for the both of them. Something light for him, something appropriately girly for her. The bartender gets on mixing the drinks when Tony sees Justin Hammer and, of course, Christine Everhart out of the corner of his eye.

In this time, he’s seen less of them both. There’s no suit for him to cavort around in, declaring himself Iron Man and the end of all big bad guys so he hasn’t ended up on national television sticking it to the Senate and embarrassing Hammer. He also got rid of Obadiah before the bastard could keep selling weapons under the table, preventing Christine from sharing those photos with him at the fundraiser he can barely remember anyway. Christine still looks at him with that hungry reporter’s gaze though, as if she’s aware that he’s ripe for some sort of scoop.

Justin himself has a different sort of hungry look to him. He’s not quite searching for validation, but he wants something from Tony. His genius or his gifts or his supposed brilliant upbringing or maybe he wants Natalie who neatly transitioned back into the role of Tony’s plus one, not his chaperone or assistant, and takes the drink he gives her with the tips of her fingers and a sultry smile.

Tony didn’t pull on the thread that Natalie presented the first time around, at least not seriously, but he’s still unwinding the problem that is her loyalties in his head and it’s one option he’s still considering. Still, he knows how to smile down at her like he wants her and he’s been taken in by the tight black of her skirt and delicate gold chain on her collarbones. The red curls that frame her eyes are just as pretty as he remembers them to be.

Justin leans too stiffly against the bar, unconsciously or consciously mimicking Tony’s posture, and orders something Tony doesn’t bother listening to. He’s busy sipping his own drink, something bright and refreshing like a mojito but with a twist that makes it almost sour. He smiles at Christine, engaging with her first just to spite Justin.

“Christine, a pleasure to see you, as always,” Tony said, then looked down to Natalie and gestured to the blonde woman, “Natalie, this is that reporter I was telling you about earlier. The one who keeps me on the edge of my seat with every article. I can’t tell if she hates me or loves me from her work, but I’m sure I’ll glean the truth from her one of these days.”

Natalie, brilliant as she is, giggles and greets Christine with a smile and an outstretched hand. “It is so nice to put a face to the name! I’m Natalie. Natalie Rushman.”

Christine smiles back, hungry reporter’s eyes sliding to Natalie now. “And how long have you been with Mr. Stark?”

The way she says with makes it almost sound like a swear word. Tony sips his drink and lets Natalie find the answer.

Natalie looks thoughtful, tilting her head just enough that the ends of her curls brush Tony’s shoulder. “How long has it been since the jet touched down, forty-five minutes?”

“About,” Tony said, sipping his drink and watching the interesting shift in Christine’s expression. “An hour at most.”

“Ah,” Christine said, “One of Tony’s infamous stewardesses .”

“Actually,” Natalie said with a cheery, helpful tone, “I’m a pilot. Tony just invited me to join him last minute.” She smiled at him, “I was just going to have to wait around for him to be ready to head back home anyway, so why not have a little fun?”

“Yes, yes,” Justin finally jumps into the conversation, passing a drink to Christine, who takes it gingerly in one hand while he clings to his, knuckles nearly white, “It is all about having fun and all that. But tell me, Tony, you know how much of a party your Expo is going to be. I’ve heard there will be fireworks and concerts and food and all sorts of swag to bring back, so I have to ask you, buddy, why are you so intent on keeping me out of all the fun and games?”

“Every vendor for the Expo goes through the same vetting process,” Tony replied, “Your application is considered just the same as everyone else; quickly and with as little bias as possible.”

“Sure, absolutely, only the Expo is coming up pretty quick now and I’d love to make an announcement that I’ll be attending and presenting some quality items. Only I still haven’t heard back from your unbiased panel of judges.” Justin said, expression polite but his tone stiff.

“You haven’t heard from them?” Tony said with feigned surprise, “Why, I was sure they would have responded promptly.” He shifted and Natalie, reading his body language clearly, stepped with him as he steered their location back to his little table.

Without any hesitation, Justin followed, with Christine just behind him and openly curious. “But they haven’t, which really has me worried, Tony, very worried. I’m sure you know how much work it takes to get a product ready for display at an Expo- after all, you’re hosting the thing- but I need to be able to talk to my engineers and get them to expedite things if we’re to be ready in time!”

Tony nonchalantly put down his drink and pulled out Natalie’s chair. She slid onto it with an amused smile as he pushed her in. Justin was too focused on his discussion with Tony to do the same for Christine, who rolled her eyes and continued to listen in to the conversation between the two men.

“Oh I completely understand,” Tony said soothingly. He sat down next to Natalie, nearer to the windows and with a better view outside. Picking up his drink again, he said, “Now, I haven’t seen what you were submitting for approval to display at the Expo. Can you tell me a little bit about it?”

Justin fidgeted nervously in his chair for a moment before leaning forward and lowering his voice, though it's not like the women at the table wouldn’t hear, “Well, truth be told, Tony, there were a lot of people who were surprised and inspired by you earlier this year. That photo you showed of that armor you built? People are wondering if something like that is really feasible, you know? They want to see if it can be built again, but better. You know, not inside of some desert cave.”

Behind his sunglasses, Tony closed his eyes. He could feel the heat of the sun on his skin, the grit of sand under his fingers, the burn of hot metal against his skin, sweat and gunsmoke and oil and battery acid-- He took in a steady breath and opened his eyes when it came in colder than he anticipated. Afghanistan and Siberia merged inside of his head as some frigid wasteland and desert hell and in the middle of it all were two broken suits- one that served as his frozen coffin and one that had jettisoned him out of the dark and into the sun and sand.

“A modern suit of armor,” Tony murmured. “I suppose that is something inspiring, isn’t it?”

“Yes!  You see it exactly,” Justin set down his glass and nodded emphatically. “I have this vision, I’m sure you can relate, Tony, I’m sure you can. I can envision these suits of armor, one for each branch of the military, impenetrable and unstoppable, defending America against all those who would attack her.”

“Ah,” Tony said. He hated the way Justin kept saying his name like he really thought they were friends or thought he could convince Tony to like him if he kept saying his name often enough. “I see why your submission has been in limbo for so long.”

“You do?” Justin brightened, “Well of course you do! I knew that the quickest way to clear things up would be to come to you directly-”

“You’re making weapons,” Tony said no longer smiling, no longer so friendly, “Stark Industries does not deal in weapons. We are building the future, not a graveyard. I also happen to know that your application wasn’t suspended. It was denied. Because you are trying to demonstrate weapons.”

To his credit, Justin didn’t immediately lose his cool. He laughed weakly as if he could convince them, convince himself, that Tony was joking. He put up his hand, waving away the words and shaking his head, “No, no, no, these aren’t weapons like you think. They wouldn’t be sold to other countries, they’d strictly be in the hands of America. And they’re for defense, mostly! They’re suits of armor, Tony! Not weapons!”

“A tank is just an armored vehicle with a gun on it,” Tony said with a shrug. “Your toy soldiers are the same. They’re tools for death and warfare. I refuse to peddle war anymore and Stark Industries will not promote it, especially not in our World’s Fair for a Better Future.”

“You can’t be serious,” Justin’s smile finally fell. “You really mean all that bullshit? You won’t even display this armor for America?”

“It’s a weapon. I’ll have nothing to do with it.”

“But I got the idea from you!” Justin leaned forward, accusingly tapping the table with his finger, “This was all your idea! You built the first suit! You flew, Tony, and then you showed the world that photo and we realized if you could do it, we could do it! And now you won’t touch it because maybe it has the potential to be a weapon?”

Maybe? ” Tony mocked, “ Potential? I don’t care where you got the idea from. I did what I had to do to get out of that cave and nothing more or less than that. Don’t drag me into this idea of yours. I will have no part in it.”

“Is it true?” Christine asked Justin suddenly, also leaning in, “Are you developing weaponized metal armor suits for the American government?”

Justin floundered, caught between Tony’s inflexibility and Christine’s curiosity. “Well it's really quite hush-hush, not necessarily a secret contract but we’re trying to keep the technology under wraps-”

“Because you haven’t perfected it and have no idea how to,” Tony said, sitting back. Dealing with Justin exhausted him more this time around than before, “You don’t even know how I got my suit powered and there’s no way in hell I’ll help you make something like that. That kind of thing is dangerous and not to be made en masse and shouldn’t be given over to something as biased and untrustworthy as a single government’s military.”

Justin shook his head, “You would deprive our proud American military the equipment it needs to-”

“Murder innocents? Invade countries? Destroy towns?” Tony interrupted.

Protect its citizens and interests worldwide,” Justin continued, glaring at him. “You’d put so many lives in danger because you don’t like being the Merchant of Death anymore? You’re just going to get more people killed.”

“You seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what I am trying to do,” Tony said. “Not that I can really blame you. You remind me of myself before I spent three months in that cave. You don’t really see the bodies you create. You don’t have any idea how much blood is on your hands.” Tony gave Justin a smile that was all Siberian ice, “You don’t blame yourself for their deaths because without you, surely they would have found some other way to kill each other, wouldn’t they? That’s just what they do. That’s just how people are.”

“Wars don’t stop because you take away the guns on one side,” Justin said as if he had some grand insight, “You’re just weakening our guys out there!”

“Don’t pretend to not know that the weapons Stark Industries produced, the weapons I made, ended up in the hands of anyone who could afford to purchase them,” Tony said with disgust, “Because if you’re really that ignorant of the business of weapons dealing then you should know you can only control the weapons you have in your own hands. Once they’re sold, they’re no longer under your control, but you still are responsible for the people they kill. Maybe not as responsible as those who pulled the trigger, but responsible nonetheless.”

“Mr. Hammer has a point though,” Christine said suddenly, “Keeping your weapons out of the American military has only weakened them. Your tech was a huge advantage that did save many American lives.”

“American lives are not the only lives of value,” Tony said. Justin blinked at him, opening his mouth as if to argue and then thought better of it. “And I want to be clear, I’m not just removing my weapons from American hands. I’m taking them from everyone. Apparently, I wasn’t clear enough about it the first time,” Tony reached up and removed his sunglasses. He met Christine’s gaze, watched her eyes grow wide and her face become pale. “I am not just taking away my weapons. I’m going to take away the need for weapons. I don’t think anyone should have weapons like the ones we’ve been making for war. No missiles. No tanks. No bombs. If you want to kill someone, you should have to do it the old-fashioned way, with your bare hands and a knife.”

Christine said nothing, just stared at his eyes, for once speechless. He wanted her to understand. He wanted her to believe him. He wanted her help in getting the word out, in changing the future, in educating and informing others. He wanted her to believe him. Christine suddenly shuddered and dropped her gaze, bringing her drink to her lips with a shaking hand.

Justin was the one who spoke the question he knew burned in them all, burned inside of everyone, once they saw his glowing eyes.

“Shit, man,” he whispered, “The hell did they do to you in Afghanistan?”

Tony slid his glasses back into place on his face and shrugged, “When you spend three months in a cave, one shorted-out battery away from death, you gain a little perspective.”

“I-” Christine set down her glass too loudly. She stood up suddenly, looked at Justin, looked at Natalie, her eyes skirting past Tony but unable to settle on him. “I- Sorry. Excuse me.” Then she turned and walked away, too fast for it to be casual, to slow for it to be called fleeing.

Justin looked torn looking after her, after all, he’d brought her over with him. There was an interview, or at least that’s what Tony remembered from before. Their conversation had derailed that somewhat. But Justin looked back at Tony, saw his expression and said a hurried goodbye as well before he went after Christine.

That left Tony with Natalie at his side.

He sighed and leaned back in his chair, slumping slightly, “Oh god, she’s going to put all of that in her next article for sure.”

“If you did not want her to hear it and write it, why did you say it in front of her?” Natalie asked. “She is a reporter. You know that.”

“Yes, but Pepper hates it when I just talk to people like that without a heads up.” Tony muttered, “Plus I went and showed them my eyes and that’s going to be a whole damn thing all on its own.”

“If I may ask…” Natalie let the words drift off to silence.

“You can ask, but I can’t promise you’ll like the answer,” Tony replied.

She gave a little nod, “What happened to your eyes? Why do they… glow like that?”

“Beats the hell out of me,” Tony said, “Woke up in the desert, eyes hurting like hell and didn’t even notice until they’d dragged me into medical and someone showed me in a mirror.”

She frowned slightly.

“Told you that you wouldn’t like it. They don’t do anything special, either. Just glow ominously.”

She nodded. After a moment, she drew out a phone and unlocked it with her thumbprint. “I can inform Ms. Potts of the gist of your conversation so at least she can be aware before it hits the news cycle. Shall I include that you formally rejected Mr. Hammer’s application to display his works in the Expo?”

“Oh definitely. That bastard can go eat a bag of rocks if he thinks I’m going to let him fuck up my Expo with his war toys,” Tony said with pleasure. As he set down his now empty drink and considered getting up to get another- the alcoholic content in that one had been so low he could barely feel it- his phone buzzed in his pocket.

Unobtrusively, he pulled it out and unlocked it with his fingerprint and a code. There was NOBODY’s typical black screen and white text, interspersed with the occasional emoji from him.

FATHER, SECURITY CAMERAS HAVE VISUAL ON I.V. ENTERING THROUGH A BASEMENT ACCESS TUNNEL.

HE IS DRESSED AS A SERVER AND IS CURRENTLY INFILTRATING THE BUILDING.

Tony texted back the single eyeball emoji and NOBODY complied with the wordless request. She sent several stills from the cameras, each a progression from the last, showing Vanko arriving on the scene and walking right in. He’d cleaned up, pulled his hair back and looked almost like he belonged, if not for his intense expression.

He sent another emoji, a thumbs up, and then turned off his phone’s screen and slid it into his pocket. “Ms. Rushman,” he murmured to her as he pushed his seat back, “I’m going to get a refill from the bar, would you like something?”

She glanced up from the phone where she was composing a message to Pepper, almost certainly one that had more detail in it than Tony would ever give to Pepper, and tapped the side of the glass he’d gotten for her before. “Another one of these, thank you. And keep out of trouble. If you are gone for more than ten minutes, I will come after you.”

“Out of trouble, back in ten, got it,” Tony said with a grin. He left the table, weaving his way through the crowd that was only growing more substantial as they got closer and closer to the beginning of the race. Tony felt his heart rate rise as he worked his way through the crowd, pass the bar and towards a somewhat darkened hallway. The restrooms were that way, if he remembered rightly, and just out of sight of the main room so to allow those using them the utmost privacy.

Every time he’d met Vanko in the past it had started with violence and ended with incapacitation. The first time Vanko had been arrested. The second time he had died. Tony had only been able to look up information about the man after the fact, after it was too late to save him or stop him. Even though it had been years ago, the important parts were still there. Vanko’s relationship with his father and his reaction to his father’s death. Vanko’s intelligence and skill and adaptability all speaking to a strong core. If Tony could simply dissuade him from his course, to change his fury and negate it somehow, Vanko would be an incredible help in Tony’s plans.

He wanted to save the man, wanted to give him the life and second chance he deserved. Vanko was his equal in many ways, but in one specific way, Vanko could do what Tony could not.

Both engineers, both skilled in math and physics and a broad spectrum of scientific topics, both mechanical geniuses and determined once they were set on their path- the thing that Tony needed most from Vanko relied more on the man’s desires of the heart than his mind. Vanko had tried to get into space- had sought the training and had been denied because of his father, just one more thing Howard had stopped from happening.

But still he had trained and he had applied and he had wanted it. When Vanko could not get into the space program as an astronaut, he applied to be an engineer, a technician, anything, just so he could be involved with the program. When Vanko looked to his future, he looked to the stars.

Tony needed someone who could do that, who could devote their attention to what lay beyond the atmosphere of Earth because he could not.

The stars made it hard for Tony to breathe. The stars made it hard for Tony to think.

So he needed help.

And Vanko needed to be saved.

Which is how he ended up waiting by the temporarily empty service access down the hall and around the corner from the main room, near the bathrooms. This hallway was narrower and fed into the main hallway from the basement access below. There was a service door at the end of it, which swung open nearly silently as Tony stood there, watching it, waiting.

Vanko took one step outside of the door and stopped, immediately seeing Tony waiting at the other end of the hall, thirty feet away. Tony saw the tight rage on the man’s face and his heart jumped in his chest. He flexed his hands, really wishing for his suit for the first time since he woke up. He felt vulnerable wearing only his slick outfit and a plain watch, standing alone from a man who wanted nothing more than to kill him.

The good news was Vanko hadn’t done what he’d done before. There was no metal contraption around his chest or whips powered by a reactor on his own chest. Vanko hadn’t had to compensate for Iron Man’s suit because there was no suit. There was no Iron Man.

There was just Tony Stark.

Vanko watched him. He reached for his side and drew out a knife. It was longer than Tony would’ve liked to see and he had no doubt it was sharp.

Tony let out a slow breath, trapped somewhere at the back of his lungs. Tongue-tied, he worried his bottom lip, searching for the right words. He hadn’t really thought through what it must look like, to have him just standing there, waiting for Vanko.

He wasn’t even supposed to know who Vanko was.

“A pity,” Vanko suddenly said, his accent thick. He took one slow step forward and then another, moving with both suspicion and measured control.

“What is?” Tony asked, standing there and waiting.

“This,” he gestured between them both with the knife. The blade was dark and looked serrated on the back. A hunting knife then? “I hoped to kill you among the eyes and the lights. To show that Tony Stark bleeds like every man when you put a blade to his belly.”

“Ah,” Tony’s head bobbed in acknowledgment. “I see. Sorry about that, but it’s a bit hard to talk freely when everyone’s staring.” He gave a little smile, “No one appreciates it when you chat with your would-be assassin instead of, you know, trying to get away or something.”

“Your apology means nothing to me,” Vanko said softly, “You have done too much to be forgiven.”

“I know,” Tony said with a sad smile, “But if I didn’t try to fix it, I wouldn’t be me.” He shrugged his shoulders, eyes not watching the blade as Vanko walked closer, eyes on the man’s face. He tried to keep in mind how long they were there, to keep it under ten minutes. Natalie would attack first and ask questions after- if she asked them at all- and Tony couldn’t risk spooking Vanko with a Widow just yet.

“I’ve got a lot to make up for, it’s true,” Tony continued, “Unless you mean to your father, in which case I’ve done all that I can for him. After all, by the time I figured it out he was already dying, no? And it’s not like I can go back in time and stop Howard from doing what he did, can I?”

Vanko stopped. His eyes narrowed. “What is this that you say of my father? What have you done to him?”

For him, not to him,” Tony clarified. “And his name is on the patent. For the arc reactor.” His hand instinctively rose halfway to his chest before he forced himself to drop it. New core or not, it was still a vulnerable spot for him. Maybe Vanko would change his mind about the stabbing and be more inclined to pull an Obie and just take his heart out via removal of the reactor.

Vanko closed the distance quickly. His hand gripped the front of Tony’s jacket, curling in his lapel and stretching the cloth forward as his knife came up. Tony instinctively put his arm up to deflect the knife from his throat and ended up with it pressed to his collarbone. He felt the hard edge of the blade bite through the cloth but not with enough pressure to break the skin below, yet. Vanko turned and shoved him against the wall.

Despite the disparity in their upbringings, Vanko was taller and stronger than Tony, his muscles hard and wiry. It wasn’t as though Tony was weak, either. They were similar in this way too- muscle built by the hauling of machines and workshop labor, muscle toned with weights and physical training. Vanko had half a head on Tony in height, but he was still just human. Tony could have done more, fought more.

But that wasn’t the point. He wasn’t Iron Man anymore. He didn’t have to solve his problems with a repulsor to the face.

“Explain yourself,” Vanko said, leaning his weight on his knife arm. Tony grunted. The pain of the blade was equally as uncomfortable as the way his arm was pressed to his chest, but he did what he was asked to do. He explained.

“I don’t know all of the details of what happened between your father and mine. The official record states that Howard found your father selling secrets to the Soviets back in the day and that because of that, Howard got him deported. Whether or not he was telling the truth, I have no idea and frankly, I don’t care much. Howard did a lot of shit to get things done and I wouldn’t put it past him to kick out a fellow scientist over false espionage charges if the other guy was getting in Howard’s way. He used to chuck stuff at my head whenever I got in his way and I was his damn kid, so maybe I’m biased, but whatever.”

Tony took in a shaking breath. Vanko’s expression hadn’t changed at all. The knife still dug into his collarbone. The blade so close to his skin he could almost feel it.

“But what I do know is true is that your father helped design the arc reactor. He did at least half of the work, maybe more, but I never pieced that together before I got stuck in Afghanistan. It didn’t really matter to me before then because it was just some stupid thing Howard could never get to work. Except then I was in a cave with this other guy, Yinsen, and a hole in my chest with a battery strapped to it. I built a reactor out of scrap parts in a cave lit by one dingy light and stuck it in my chest. I should’ve died. If not from the actual fucking shrapnel than from infection or something. It was a mess. A fucking mess.”

Vanko’s eyes narrowed. He pressed harder with the knife. Tony talked faster.

“So when I got back to the states I had to make a patent on the reactor. I do it for everything I invent. I got dozens of ‘em and by now my lawyers are really good at putting them together and putting the paperwork through. Except when they went to put in the arc reactor patent, I got one of them sending me a message. He wanted to know why my name wasn’t first on the patent. He wanted to know, who is this Anton Vanko guy. Why had no one heard of him? Was he in the cave with me?”

Tony let out a breathless laugh. Vanko’s stare was boring into his eyes. He wondered if the orange bothered the Russian. It bothered everyone else, but maybe it wouldn’t bother Vanko as much because, if Tony was right, the orange light had come from Siberia. Maybe he could feel the Russian in it. It was such a wild and useless thought that Tony shoved it back and away.

He had to get back to the story.

“This was the first patent in a while they had questions about. Three names on the patent and mine was only second. There was a lot of confusion about the rights, too, because normally it just goes to Stark Industries, but not this time, not all the way. I only gave them the rights to use the tech while I’m alive. Once I die, it defaults to the last name on the patent.” Tony cocked his head to the side and grinned, “To one Ivan Vanko.”

The pressure of the knife eased. Vanko leaned back, staring down at Tony as though he had transformed into something right in front of him and Vanko was stuck figuring it out. Tony could see him working through it logically. Driven by vengeance to get here, Vanko had given up a lot to do it and had done it in a methodical way. He wasn’t lost to his rage the way Tony had been afraid he might be.

“Your American patent means nothing to me. I build reactor if I please. I have the plans for it and do not need your permission.”

“Yeah, true,” Tony replied, “But American government and American businesses listen to American paperwork and that means they can’t build reactors when I’m gone. Unless we both die, I guess, then the default is probably back to Stark Industries or the patent is released or something.”

“So best choice is to kill you right now, just as planned, and American company no longer has arc reactor,” Vanko said with a little nod. He drew back the knife from Tony’s collarbone. Tony reached down and grabbed his wrist, just barely holding Vanko back from plunging the blade into his side.

“Actually, actually, wait a minute, your best choice is something else, Vanko, listen,” Tony spoke quickly. Vanko grunted as he pressed harder. Tony felt the blade cut through his jacket, again, and to his shirt and undershirt, “Buddy, listen, I have a way better alternative than killing me, trust me, you’re going to want to hear it.” His breath hitched as he felt the sting of metal on his skin.

“I do not trust you, Tony Stark,” Vanko said with a grin. He leaned into his grip on Tony. The blade drew blood. Tony could feel it begin to spread on his side. “Nothing you say can change that.”

“I want to give you a workshop,” Tony said, talking quickly like he had before. “A workshop so you can help me with this project. I need your help, Vanko, because you’re the only one who will get it. Who can help me build the reactors and who is allowed to build the reactors and help me build the shield? We have to get something into our atmosphere as soon as possible because shit is going to go down, listen to me Vanko. There’s an army coming and I’m not going to be able to drive a warhead through a portal again to stop them. We need to get the Earth defended as quickly as possible and I need someone in charge of that and I want that person to be you. Vanko, Ivan, come on, I know you want to get into space, I read all about how they refused you on bullshit grounds. Well, I can get you up there. I can do a whole lot more than that, in fact, but you have to not kill me and you gotta work with me on this one, please.”

The pressure of the blade eased, “You babble nonsense,” Vanko said, “Explain.”

“It’s probably going to take longer than the time we have right now to explain,” Tony said. He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket with his free hand and pulled out a slim business card. “I don’t have much more time before my guard gets here and I really, really don’t want to have to bust you out of jail, okay? So take this,” Tony flourished the card and then slid it into Vanko’s pocket. The man narrowed his eyes at him but didn’t stop him, “And call me when you’re somewhere safe. We’ll meet up again and talk.”

Vanko’s expression showed nothing as he thought about Tony’s words. Tony hoped he’d said enough to interest him, truly, and not just to lure Tony away somewhere to stab him and leave him for dead there instead of here.

Tony never got his reply because there was the soft sound of footsteps and he glanced over to the entrance of the hallway. His eyes widened as he saw Natalie striding towards them, her eyes focused on Vanko and a knife in her own hand.

Vanko’s gaze followed Tony’s. He spat out what had to be a Russian curse and shoved with his arm.

Tony let out a breathless gasp as the length of the blade in Vanko’s sank into him. There was a brief moment where he was glad it was his right side, not his left because it was too high for his intestines and too low for his ribs. His liver, the poor, abused organ, was the target of Vanko’s stab. Vanko pulled away and Tony let go of him so he could.

Natalie picked up her pace but as she grew closer, Tony lurched for her and grabbed her arm. She hissed at him, “Stay down and let me-”

“Let him go,” Tony gasped out as Vanko fled back down the hall to the service door. “Let him go, Natasha.”

Her eyes widened and he realized too late what he’d said, but there was no turning back the moment. Blood seeped down around the blade that Vanko had left inside of him. His head swam with the pain, but not so badly that he missed the way Natalie-Natasha looked down the hall at Vanko and then back to Tony and, grim-faced, made her choice.

“Stay with me, Mr. Stark,” her voice was soft as she stepped closer. Her knife disappeared back to wherever it had appeared from. “We’ll get you out of here and to a hospital.”

“Jarvis,” Tony said, patting for his phone at his side. Natasha had one of his arms over her shoulders and she supported him down to the end of the hallway. He could walk, it wasn’t that bad yet, but only because the blade was still in him, holding the wound intact. “Get Happy.”

From his pocket came JARVIS’s muffled reply, “Already done, Sir.”

Tony closed his eyes and nodded.

“You should not have let me let him go,” Natasha whispered as they shuffled together down the hallway. He could just hear her under the sound of the crowd. “Two minutes is all I would’ve needed.”

Tony laughed, “Two minutes? Have you lost your touch?”

Natasha gave him a narrowed eye look, all calculation and suspicion and Tony grinned at her. “If you think I don’t vet the people who get close to Pepper,” he whispered at her, “You’re a damn fool.”

Natasha’s lips pressed into a thin line. She didn’t respond, though, just brought Tony forward.

They met Happy right at the edge of the crowd. His eyes grew large and then he glared, at Natasha, “What happened?” He demanded as he went to Tony’s side.

“Well I offered him a partnership but he said he had to think about it,” Tony said. People were noticing now. They turned and gasped and pointed and stared and one even let out a shrill shout. He ignored them. Natasha let Happy support Tony as she cleared the way for them, her icy glare and fierce expression enough to make everyone pull back.

“Tony,” Happy said through gritted teeth, clearly not appreciating the joke. “Be serious for once!”

“I am,” Tony laughed. Then he groaned as the blade jolted with his laughter. “Fuck. This hurts. Happy, c’mon, let’s get out of here. I’m bored with this party.”

“You’re impossible.”

“I am,” Tony repeated. “That’s what they always say. The impossible Tony Stark.”

He lost track of his steps and surroundings somewhere between the crowd indoors and the one outside that was gathering. Knowing how social media worked, how hungry the world was for exciting, dangerous news, Tony was sure his injury would hit Twitter before anywhere else. He grimaced at the thought, knowing that Pepper was going to lose her shit and the board of directors was going to flip their shit.

He just tried to keep his game face on while Happy and Natasha got him into the back of the car. Natasha sat with him while Happy sped off to the nearest hospital.

Tony sat with his head back, breathing shallowly, his hands opening and closing as fists on his lap. Natasha was one seat away and he could feel her eyes on the side of his head. He ignored her.

Instead, he managed to fish out his phone from his jacket so he and JARVIS could talk more easily together. “J,” he said, keeping his breathing measured, his tone even, “Tell baby sis to do Bathroom Protocol on the place.”

“Of course, Sir,” JARVIS replied.

“What are you doing?” Natasha whispered. Her voice was cold and her expression closed off, unreadable. Tony glanced at her, wondering at her thoughts. Had she gone into this thinking he was all that was in the tabloids and nothing else? Had she finally realized there was more going on, somewhere between the bar and the hallway?

“Protecting my investments,” Tony replied, “Preparing the future. Trying not to bleed out. You know, the usual. What are you doing?”

She just stared at him, her face showing nothing but wariness and even after a few seconds that vanished too. He smiled at her. He had missed her, along with the others- well some of the others. In fact, Tony thought he probably missed the most of all the Avengers. She’d been on his side right up until the end, but he didn’t blame her for Siberia. That was just Natasha doing what she thought she needed to do.

He reached out and put his hand on her arm, patting it gently. She looked down at his hand for a second before meeting his eyes.

“It’s good to see you,” he murmured, "You’re looking well.”

Natasha held very still. Tony pulled his hand back and leaned his head back against the seat. He focused on his breathing. He really didn’t want to bleed out and die. He had so much work to do still.

Natasha said nothing, but Tony heard her pull out her phone and begin to tap on it.

As he let his mind drift in order to escape the pain, Tony wondered who she was telling first: Pepper or Fury.

 

 


 

 

 

 

Ms. Potts,

I am not aware of whether or not you have seen the news regarding the incident with Mr. Stark in Monaco. I was busy helping Mr. Hogan with extracting Mr. Stark from the area and was not able to prevent any pictures or video from being taken or uploaded to social media.

Currently Mr. Stark is en route to a hospital here. Mr. Hogan is driving and I am accompanying Mr. Stark, monitoring his vitals as best as I can. There seems to be only one injury, a stab wound to his right side, and fortunately, the wound has not bled much. I will update you with his condition as soon as I am able and will stay at his side until otherwise instructed.

I apologize for letting this happen, but it appears Mr. Stark not only knew his assailant but used the excuse of getting up to get a drink in order to meet with them. I will not let this happen again.

Regards,

N. Rushman.

 

 


 

 

 

 

Director-

My cover has been compromised by the target.

Unless otherwise instructed, I will remain with the target to monitor and discover how much, exactly, is compromised.

-BW

Chapter Text

Tony’s eyes flutter open and for a brief, confused moment he lays there, staring up. There’s a tingle in his arms and legs, something painful but dulled by drugs, a sensation he almost recognizes from those shaky days after his open heart surgery. He lets out a breath, almost a groan and tries to move, tries to sit up but he can’t. Sharp pain lances through him and he is forced to stay flat.

A flicker of movement, hazy and red, catches his eye. Tony finds it difficult to focus, but he could recognize Pepper’s face if he was half blind and addled with dementia. He still sees her face in his dreams, her eyes kind, her red hair framing her face, and the endless, soundless depths of space beyond her.

Tony squints and his eyes focus on her face. Pepper’s eyes are red-rimmed and Tony feels awful for making her cry. He’ll make it up to her. He’ll buy her all the shoes she could want. He’ll take care of everything. He’ll-

Her hand presses flat against something clear between them. Glass? Plastic? And that’s when Tony sees it.

He’s not just in a hospital bed. He’s in some sort of container. It’s almost familiar, too, like he knows the shape and size but he’s never seen it this way. It’s familiar like a car he’s never been inside but now he’s there and yes, this makes sense, this is how it should be.

Tony’s in the Cradle.

But Helen hasn’t made the Cradle yet, won’t make it for several more years and he hasn’t even met Helen and why would they bust out the cradle for a stab wound?

He tries, again, to lift his arm, to reach out and touch the glass where Pepper’s hand still rests. She’s trying to talk to him but he can’t hear the words. He can barely lift his arm. It doesn’t feel heavy but his muscles are taking forever to respond. He just wants to reach up and let Pepper know he’s all right, reach up and take her hand in his.

Frustrated, he looks down at his hand, to try and figure out why it isn’t responding to him.

Only to find his hand is- his hand is- his hand is-

Tony can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe.

He closes his eyes tightly.

No. No. This can’t be happening. This is a nightmare. A nightmare. A nightmare.

Tony breath comes out in a choked off sob.

Before he can gather himself back together from the broken remains, Tony is pulled under, fleeing from consciousness with the help of a flood of new drugs and a warm orange light.

 

 


 

 

Tony jolts awake. Gasping, half sitting up before the agony in his side flares up at the sudden motion and someone at his side reaches out to him. He grabs the arm that reaches, panting, sweating, heart pounding from a nightmare worse than he’s had in a while and he stops dead. He should be staring at the woman reaching for him, identify her, make sure she’s not a threat, but he can’t stop looking at his hand.

He lets go of her and holds out his hands in front of himself, turning them over and over. “Oh thank god,” he whispered. It was just a nightmare. A horrifying nightmare.

The hand of the woman presses on his shoulder. “Lay down, Mr. Stark,” she says and immediately Tony knows its Natasha. He does as she insists, sighing as he settles back on the pillows.

Only when he’s calm again does he remember that now she knows he knows she’s Natasha too. Tony groans and rubs his forehead. He had wanted to hold back on that little detail for as long as he could, but nooo.

Vanko had to go and stab him and make Tony cover for his ass.

“Does your head hurt too?” Natasha asks. Tony shakes it.

“Just thinking about my smartass mouth,” Tony muttered. He cracks open an eye and sees, with a little bit of relief, that she’s still in the gold and black dress. That’s good news. It means he’s probably only been out for a few hours. “So what happened?”

Natasha arches one delicate eyebrow. She crosses her legs as she leans on the arm of her chair and responds, “I should be the one asking that. You were the one who let the assailant go after he stabbed you.”

“I’m sure it was a misunderstanding,” Tony shrugged it off. “Next time, there shouldn’t be any stabbing.”

“Next time? Shouldn’t be?”

Ah damn. Tony laughs to cover up for his wince. He’s got something nice flowing through his veins in order to keep the pain at bay and it makes him loose enough to just talk to Natasha. Like she’s his Natasha. Like he can trust her.

Well, jokes on him, he couldn’t trust his Natasha either.

“People who are fond of stabbing usually live to stab again another day,” Tony said, “I mean, look at you. Very stabby. Very alive. I saw you with that knife. You were ready to stab as soon as it became a viable option.”

“And here I thought you did not like weapons or killing,” Natasha said.

“I could do without the killing, but I’m a fan of knives,” he said, “Or at least, fighting one on one with the asshole you’re upset with. Why bring everyone else into your trouble? Leave innocent people be and just get all stabby on the fucker who deserves it,” Tony said. Then he sighed and rubbed at his face, “What the hell did they give me?”

“Something potent,” Natasha said and even though her expression didn’t change, he could hear the amusement in her voice.

Obligingly, Tony chuckles.

An opening door and footsteps make the sound die off prematurely. Tony looks up around the privacy screen and grimaces at the sight that greets him. It isn’t Happy and it isn’t Pepper. It’s the one-eyed spy shadow organization director with a firm jaw and a black trench coat that Tony’s been actively avoiding for a couple of months now. Natasha straightens up when Fury walks in the room, but she doesn’t leap to attention and she could pass off her rigid posture as surprise if they didn’t both know who she was.

Tony struggles to push himself up again, muttering about pillows and back support, while Fury communicates silently with Natasha via his one good eye. And maybe the eyepatch, too. Tony won’t be one to underestimate Fury.

Slowly, she unfolds herself and rises. She gives Tony a polite nod, “I’ll be just outside the door if you need anything, Mr. Stark.”

“Where’s my phone?” Tony asks her before she gets too far.

Natasha blinks. Her eyes shift to the side. “Mr. Hogan has it.”

“That’s fine,” Tony said. He held out his hand to her, “I’ll borrow yours then.”

She stares at him.

Tony wiggles his fingers, “C’mon. Any Stark Employee with the level of clearance that you have is given a starkphone. I just need to borrow it for a while.”

She doesn’t look at Fury for confirmation, but hesitates like she thinks she should. Still, she reaches behind herself and then pulls out the slim, durable phone from wherever it was hiding. She places it in his hand with a little frown, probably thinking about how it’s locked with her thumbprint or a passcode or both. Tony smiles at her. “Thanks. I shouldn’t need anything else for now, but if Happy’s out there waiting, tell him I’m going to be needing a burger in a hot minute.”

Natasha gives him a short nod and then walks away from the bed and out the room.

The door shuts with a click. Fury, who hasn’t taken his eye off of Tony yet, stands at the foot of his bed, hands behind his back and continues to stare.

Tony stares back for a little bit before shrugging and turning his attention to Natasha’s phone. It doesn’t unlock the first time he presses his thumb to the scanner, but the passcode screen pops up and Tony puts in a six digit code and waits.

Just as NOBODY unlocks Natasha’s phone for him, Fury clears his throat.

“Stark-”

Tony puts up a finger, “I don’t do consultations in the hospital.”

“I’m not here for your consult,” Fury said with a little edge to his voice.

“Well then, what do you want, Director?” Tony flicks his gaze up to Fury’s face, one eyebrow arched. Fury’s expression doesn’t show much of anything but his cheek flexes slightly where he grinds his teeth.

“You think you have this all figured out, don’t you, Stark?” Fury asked. “You do a little digging on an applicant and find a little thread and you pull on that thread because you just can’t help yourself, can you? You’ve got to be the one who knows what’s going on with everyone around you at all times.” Fury looked pityingly at him, shaking his head slightly, “That kind of paranoia will drive you out of your mind long before you realize what it’s doing to you.”

Tony bites his tongue, swallowing the words that want to come bursting out. He’s going to find out who gave him these drugs and he’s going to make sure his records indicate to never do that again. He’d rather be in pain than have loose lips around Fury.

“Is it still paranoia if it's justified?” Tony asked after struggling to hold back his knee-jerk reaction. “After all, I did come back from being kidnapped to find out the man I considered a father to me had sold me out. I think that justifies some thorough background checks on any new hires.” He holds the phone idly in his hand, more comfortable now that NOBODY has access to the audio of their conversation. He’s not sure if he’ll ever need it, but he’d rather not be alone with anyone he doesn’t trust, especially someone like Fury.

“You can do all the background checks you like, without hacking top secret information. The fact is that such records are way out of your reach as a civilian, especially now since you’ve turned your back on your military contracts,” Fury said. “Perhaps hacking into a government agency can be overlooked when you’re a teenager- we all do stupid things as teenagers- but this? You’re a grown man, Stark. You should know better.”

Tony cocked his head to the side, “Is that a threat that I hear in all that nonsense? Are you threatening me for doing what I had to do to protect those around me?”

“You still hired Rushman to your company. How does that protect those around you?”

Tony smiled. “If you can’t figure it out, I don’t know why I should bother telling you.”

Fury’s good eye narrowed at Tony’s words. He unclasped his hands from behind himself and rested one on the foot of Tony’s bed. For once, Tony was rather glad he was short, as it meant there were a few extra inches between him and the man.

He hadn’t really trusted his Fury, the man was secretive and dangerous and had his own goals that didn’t always align with Tony’s, but at least then Tony had been pretty sure Fury wouldn’t really do anything to fuck with him. Not when he was also Iron Man, not when he was also doing what Fury pretty much wanted him to do by working with the Avengers.

Here, though, here he had this Fury, who he had avoided and ignored and worked around as much as possible. This Fury who did not like him and probably saw only that he’d stopped making weapons, stopped being cooperative and was having a problem with it. This Fury wouldn’t know about Iron Man. This Fury wouldn’t see Tony as necessary for the Avengers Initiative.

And, from what Tony had been able to tell, this Fury was just as blind as the last one to the way that HYDRA was intertwined in and around all of SHIELD.

Tony grimaced. That was just one more project he had to turn his attention to, sooner rather than later, unfortunately.

He had a plan for it, but he didn’t much like it.

“Someone has to keep an eye on you, Stark,” Fury said, his voice low and cold, “You’re too dangerous to let run around willy-nilly the way you have been doing. You’ve opened a dozen factories and built several state of the art facilities for research and development beyond what Stark Industries does at its headquarters.”

“I’m giving people jobs and you’re mad,” Tony said with a little laugh, “What, are you upset that you get the government’s shitty excuse for health benefits while my employees have dental and eye care covered in theirs? We even do paid maternity leave which is basically unheard of in America.”

“People have noticed that your company is gearing up for something,” Fury said, “You can’t move that much material and that many people without someone noticing.” Silent was the demand for what Stark Industries was getting ready for.

Tony made a big show of rolling his eyes. “If you want to see what Stark Industries has in store, you’re going to have to wait for the Expo like everyone else. I wish I could see your face when you see what I have planned. I’ve always wondered what it looks like when someone realizes just how utterly moronic they were acting.”

Fury’s fingers tightened briefly on the foot of the bed but Tony ignored that. He held tightly to the phone in his lap, the screen both tilted away from Fury and dark so that Fury couldn’t see anything on it. He’d have to remember to tell NOBODY to record Fury’s reaction to the Expo and all the ‘mysterious projects’ that Tony was going to unveil. He’d be too busy at the time to watch it live, of course, but he wanted to see it anyway.

After some more silent staring, Fury let go of the end of the bed and gave Tony a short nod. Then, without another word, he turned and walked towards the door. Just as it swung open, Tony called out after him, “Send Natasha back in when you’re done, would you? We need to talk.”

Fury didn’t reply, but just before the door swung all the way shut it was stopped by Natasha’s slender hand. She slipped in, her heels somehow silent on the floor, and walked over to the side of his bed. There was a colder look in her face, now that some of the Natalie was gone.

She held out a phone to him, his phone. Tony grinned and held out hers for the exchange. She took it, unlocking it and frowning when she undoubtedly saw nothing. Tony tucked his phone to his side because anything that had waited so far could wait a little longer.

“Do you want to continue to be Natalie or should we just switch fully to Natasha?” Tony asked.

Her eyes settled on his face, her expression smooth and unreadable. “I do not think you could handle the full transition to Natasha.”

Tony idly pat his injured side, “No, probably not. I’m a little more banged up than usual. Plus you’ll just confuse everyone if you abruptly change your name. I’ve got a fun idea! You can be Natalie for the rest of the week and at the end, I’ll pretend to fire you and then the following Monday you can come back as Natasha. Anyone who notices will probably ask about it and then we can pretend not to know what they’re saying and pretend to not notice how similar you look to Natalie.”

One thin brow lifted up, “That’s a terrible idea.” She said, “Convoluted and unnecessary. Besides, I will not be here long.”

“Oh, really?” Tony asked, “Let me guess, Fury wants you to stick around until after the Expo and then take off?”

There was a long moment of silence before Natasha murmured, “He never introduced himself to you.”

Tony grinned.

Her eyes narrowed, hardening her expression into marble. She tensed, almost like she was about to attack or flee and Tony really hoped she had some third option. He didn’t much like the idea of being stabbed twice in one day and hunting down Natasha, while not impossible, was counterproductive to his goals.

“If you’re wondering how much I know and how you can get me to tell you how I know,” Tony said casually, “I’ll tell you now that there is a way to find out everything you want to know. It just won’t be easy.”

Natasha’s expression didn’t change. She would take whatever way got her the thing she wanted most, easy or hard or seemingly impossible, she would do it for her end goals. Tony knew that even without her having to say it out loud.

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out soon enough,” Tony said, leaning back more heavily on his pillows. “Hopefully, you’ll figure it out before the Expo happens. Then you won’t be too distracted for the demonstration.

“By the way,” he said as he closed his eyes, “Have you contacted Pepper about the thing earlier?”

“I have.”

“Good.” Tony nodded slightly. He felt exhausted after his conversation with Fury and hoped it was mostly the drugs that made him feel this way. “Jarvis, you there buddy?”

At his side, his phone vibrated, “Yes, Sir.”

“Let Pepper know that she really doesn’t need to hop on a plane and get up here. I’ll head back home as soon as the doctors say I’m ready to go.”

“Of course, Sir.”

Tony opened one eye a crack and saw Natasha sit back down in the chair, crossing her legs and staring at the phone that lay at his hip. Tony smiled and sighed, sinking into his pillow. “Wake me up when Happy gets here with a burger for me.”

 

 


 

 

It’s late at night and the burger Tony bites down into is still hot and fresh, making all the mouth-watering hunger for the thing worth it as soon as he can actually taste it. Tony closes his eyes for a moment, savoring that first bite for more than the fact that it hit the spot as far as his physical hunger and taste buds were concerned. As long as he can have a burger like this, hot and fresh and with his own two hands, Tony is sure that he will make it through whatever the hell the world throws at him next.

Not that he’s sitting around so passively this time, but it’s the thought that counts and the fact still remained. Burgers were a comfort beyond words.

Natasha stands nearby, maybe three or four feet away, leaning against the trunk of the car with her phone in her hand but her attention on their surroundings. There’s a bag beside her on the trunk, the burger inside untouched, which is just a travesty but Tony’s not going to force a burger on the woman.

Happy stands next to him, close enough for Tony to feel the warmth of his shoulder, far enough away that he can eat his own burger in comfort. Tony insisted. Today was traumatic for everyone and everyone deserves a burger.

There’s a bag behind and between them, from where Tony picks out the occasional fry to accompany his burger.

Beside that bag is the third one, the top rolled closed, holding the heat of the last burger inside.

Happy’s parked the car at the southern end of some park, where the overhead street lamps cast them in harsh lights and do little to light up the park. With Happy on one side and Natasha on the other and with the car at his back, the only open, exposed side left of Tony is the front.

The park stretches out in front of him, the faint outlines of swings barely visible in the deep green of the field and the shadows cast by the trees. It’s so dark that Tony hears their guest before he sees him.

Vanko’s feet crunch through wood chips and Tony looks up, shoving the last of his burger into his mouth. He can see the shape of the man at first, shadows and broad shoulders, and then he steps to the edge of the lot where the ground turns to gravel and he’s at the edge of a street lamp’s pooling light. His eyes flick from Tony to Natasha and back.

Natasha straightens up out of the corner of Tony’s eye. He ignores her, half turns to the closed bag and picks it up. He meets Happy’s gaze when he does it and Happy doesn’t look, well, happy about this but Tony grins at him.

“A peace offering,” Tony declares as he walks towards Vanko. He reaches behind himself with his other hand and pulls out the knife that Vanko had so kindly left in his liver earlier. He holds it gingerly by the blade, hilt towards Vanko. When he’s about ten feet away from him, he holds up first the bag, then the knife, “We picked up a burger for you ‘cause I wasn’t sure about you having time to get a bite to eat. And you left this behind, last time we spoke.”

Vanko slowly closes the distance. He reaches out and takes the knife first. He grips it for a moment, considering the blade, and then drops it into a sheath behind his back, “You clean blood off. Very considerate.”

Tony just smiles and holds out the burger.

Vanko takes it and peers into the bag at the foil-wrapped sandwich and the handful or two of fries that have become dislodged from their container. He rolls the bag closed again and just holds onto it, standing there, staring at Tony. His face is difficult to decipher. Tony has no experience with it and whatever Vanko’s thinking is complex enough that Tony would rather wait than guess at his thoughts.

“You did not lie, earlier,” Vanko said, watching Tony’s face, watching Tony’s eyes. Tony’s foregone the shades tonight. Something tells him that Vanko will need more blunt words, more honesty, more vulnerability on his part than Bruce did. Bruce’s agony was mostly self-contained and self-driven; easy to steer if you knew what you were looking for. Vanko’s distrust and anger might sit inside of him, but the cause of it is rooted elsewhere, like inside of Tony. So Tony had to be the one at risk for this to work.

“That’s true,” Tony said.

“You list my father, credit him for his work,” Vanko shook his head slightly, “But not your own? Explain.”

“Howard was a drunk with a temper who had a self-righteous streak almost as wide as his pride was big. I built an engine at four years old and all I got was spittle as he shouted at me and fear that he would do something worse.” Tony’s hand fists at his side but he forces himself to take a deep breath, to let it out, to relax his arm. “It’s lucky that I wanted to create and to work on machines more than I feared him, or you would be having this conversation with someone else.” With Obadiah probably, Tony thought. Though he could imagine how that conversation would go- Vanko demanding his father’s legacy. Obadiah holding a stolen legacy of his own, desperate to maintain all power. Someone was liable to get stabbed for real.

“Eh, fathers, they drink,” Vanko said with a shrug, “And we, we drink too.”

“We can,” Tony said with a smile, “But I only drink with others now. Pointless to drink alone. It just wastes time.”

“And there is no time to waste,” Vanko said, lifting a brow. A question disguised as a statement.

Tony nodded.

Vanko made a thoughtful noise.

Tony thought he heard someone shifting behind himself. Vanko’s gaze went to his left and he figured it was Happy, but he didn’t hear the crunch of gravel so he thought Happy probably hadn’t taken a step, just settled his weight on his heels a little more evenly. “Have you thought about my offer?” he asked.

“The workshop.” Vanko looked back at him. “And space.”

Tony nodded. He did not think about the portal or space. “I need your help, Vanko.”

Vanko grinned, “Great Tony Stark, needs my help?” He lifted the bag with the hamburger and shook it, “Great Tony Stark, brings me offerings? And here one thought the Great Tony Stark, he ask for no one’s help.”

“I know where my strengths lie, Vanko,” Tony replied pleasantly, “And I know how to compensate for my weaknesses. You are strong where I am weak,” he pointed up to the sky, “You can do something about that. I cannot.”

Vanko snorted. “There is nothing there to do anything about.”

“Not yet,” Tony replied.

He wasn’t sure if it was the orange glow of his eyes or how quiet and serious he sounded when he said it, but the amusement in Vanko’s expression seeped out and was replaced with something dark and somber. “Explain.”

“I will,” Tony promised as his gaze flicked to the right without turning his head to indicate Natasha without saying so.

Vanko grunted. “And it comes with a workshop?”

“State of the art,” Tony replied, “All you could ask for, all you could need to get the job done, once you know what the job is.”

“Will need my bird,” Vanko said, “From Russia.”

Tony nodded, “Done.”

“My work is mine when I finish. Not yours. Not American. Not Stark Industries.”

“As long as I can manufacture, maintain and run your designs for the project I have in mind through Stark Industries, you can keep the rights and the credits,” Tony replied. “Your personal projects will remain yours.”

“I do not work for you, Stark.” Vanko gestured from Tony to himself, “We are equals.”

A flicker of a smile burned across Tony’s expression, “If you think you can keep up…”

“Equals,” Vanko stressed, taking a step forward. “Or enemies.”

“I’ve got plenty of those,” Tony said with a shrug of one shoulder, “It would be nice to have an equal. What else?”

“You promise you will put me in space?” Vanko asked, taking another step forward, then another, until he was close enough he could reach out and touch Tony. He did just that, tapping his fingers over the center of Tony’s chest, his heavy fingers thunk-thunk ing on the arc reactor. Tony managed not to flinch, but only barely, “Swear to me, Stark, that you will take me to space.”

“Not personally,” Tony quipped, “But yes. You’ll see our pretty blue planet from above, Vanko. I swear it.”

Vanko stared at him a little longer and then nodded. He clapped Tony on the shoulder and smiled, big and toothy, reminding Tony of a haggard wolf brought close to a village to feed. Vanko had a hunger in his eyes and Tony hoped it was for what he was going to get to do- go to space, be in space- and not any indication he was going to try and turn on Tony later.

“Show me my workshop,” Vanko said, his accent growing thicker with his pleasure. Tony grinned back at him and pulled out his phone. He didn’t have to do anything but turn the screen to Vanko, the pictures already up and ready for viewing, Vanko peered at his phone, idly working the bag open in his hands and pulling out some fries.

“You know what,” Tony said with a shake of his head while he was halfway through the pictures, “Why don’t I just take you? Have you got anything here you need to grab before we go?”

Vanko looked thoughtful for a second and then shook his head.

“Then let’s go,” Tony said and headed for the car. Happy sprung into action first, opening the back door for them both. He gave Vanko a wary look and Tony one that said he sure hoped Tony knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t going to argue in front of his boss.

Natasha, on the other hand, didn’t see a problem with showing where she stood on the subject. She intercepted the two of them, standing in the open doorway. Tony came to a stop, frowning. “It’s cute that you care so much,” he said lightly, “But I know what I’m doing, Natasha.”

“Do you really?” She asked mildly, “Do you even know who this man is?” Her gaze was settled on Vanko, who had decided to ignore her in favor of more fries.

“If I didn’t know him well,” Tony asked, “Do you think I would be able to convince him to come with me? Or do you think I just got lucky?”

Her gaze became stormy for a moment before she leeched it away. Tony wondered if she knew how doll-like she looked when she wiped her face clear of expression like that. She changed tactics, whispering, “He stabbed you.”

“It was a diversion,” Tony said, “A misunderstanding. An accident. It was all of that or something else and frankly, I don’t give a fuck. It happened. I lived. Now Vanko’s part of our Stark family,” Tony gave her a grin that made her stiffen, “You haven’t earned the privilege of knowing why I care more about him joining me than whether or not he stabbed me with the intent to kill. Step aside, please.”

She did, still moving stiffly, watching him with those intense eyes, trying to figure him out. Tony just stepped to the side and waved Vanko in. The man got in with only a brief look to Natasha. If he recognized her, or rather what she was, he didn’t show it. He only got settled in the back while Tony climbed in after him.

He held onto the door once he was in the back of the car. Smiling up to Natasha, he said, “Sit up front with Happy, would you? I need to talk to Vanko.”

Then he shut the door, preventing Natasha from having to make a choice at all.

Vanko looked at him with one brow raised as he peeled back the foil from his burger. “The playboy does not want to play, hm?”

Tony snorted, “The playboy has better things to do.”

Vanko bit into his burger and nodded. With a swallow, he said, “Tell me these things.”

Tony, idly drumming his fingers over the arc reactor in his chest, did so.

Vanko’s eyes went wide when Tony talked about the aliens, but he did one thing Bruce didn’t do.

He didn’t ask Tony if he was serious.

Chapter Text

The wind plucked at Tony’s jacket and ruffled his hair as he descended down the steps of the jet and to the ground. In front of him was Happy, behind him was Vanko and behind him was Natasha. The flight had lasted most of the night and the sun was just creeping up across the distant horizon, lighting up the compound that Tony had had built.

Construction had just finished a few weeks ago, leaving the place that new asphalt, new paint, new carpet smell and gave it a shine that even a couple weeks in the sun and windswept hills of northern Montana couldn’t get rid of. It wasn’t cold, but the wind had a bite to it and made Tony shiver as he crossed the tarmac to the cars waiting near the hanger.

People were coming out to tend to the jet already and Tony felt a little warmth of pleasure curl through him as he saw the flash of his emblem on their work jackets and hats, silver against dark blue and gray. More than one of the workers touched the edge of their cap in acknowledgment as they passed him on their way to see to the jet. The nearby towns had first been wary and distrustful when he bought these acres and began to build, but they had warmed up soon enough when he’d started pulling people from the area to work his facility.

After all, a compound needed to be cleaned, food needed to be made, lawns need to be maintained and goods had to be delivered. Not to mention the long white building on the far western edge of the compound, almost exactly opposite of the runway, was a factory that would need several hundred workers when running at maximum efficiency. Yes, he had robots to help make the factory work safer and faster, but people needed to work those machines and maintain the building. Since people needed to sleep and he refused to work anyone longer than eight hours, he had multiple shifts scheduled for the factory, once it was up and running.

No one was allowed to work sixteen hour days in his facilities. That’s how people lost their hands and their livelihoods.

True, the facility wasn’t fully operational yet, but the training was being done already since not everyone could do any job in the factory. He needed time to sort out who could do what and when their best hours of work were, time that he could spare now that he had the genius for this place with him.

Vanko had been quiet as they landed, peering out the window of the jet at the compound as it grew in size the closer they got. He’d stopped at the top of the steps outside of the jet and stared out at the buildings long enough that Tony had glanced back at him to check on him.

He didn’t say anything until they were almost at the cars, and then it was a quiet, “You do not go halfway, Stark.”

“Half-assed measures won’t keep us safe,” Tony replied. He shot Vanko a quick grin. “Don’t let it go to your head, Vanko. Anyone I find who will fit into this project will end up here. I don’t really fancy building more than one launch pad.”

Tony thought that was probably what had caught and held Vanko’s attention the most. From a distance, it just looked like an intricate circle of concrete and steel framed towers. It was just one more section of the sprawling compound that Tony had put together, though it was set a little farther away from the main buildings than even the runway.

But you could still see it easily and if you knew what it was, it was hard to ignore.

“I will be in charge though, no?” Vanko said, arching an eyebrow. “After all, I do this thing that you cannot do.”

“My building, your tech, our project,” Tony said. He gestured towards the west, “There’s the primary factory for all construction. The bots inside use different programs to fabricate whatever it is that you need to build. You can use them to make whatever, so long as it isn’t a weapon.”

“The best protection is offensive,” Vanko replied, “And yet no weapon?”

“Nothing that can fall into anyone’s hands. We’ll figure out the finer details of what we’ll do soon enough. I have some ideas and a way to keep everything in check. But we’ll talk later,” Tony waved his hand to end the conversation, “Natasha!”

The woman, twenty feet away and lingering, turned her eyes away from where she’d been looking at, and undoubtedly cataloging, everything around them and looked at him instead. Tony grinned at her and she pressed her lips into a thin line. Natasha closed the distance and stood, eyeing Vanko out of the corner of her eye. Vanko ignored her, instead choosing wandering over towards the hanger to look inside. Happy just waited by the car patiently.

“Yes, Mr. Stark?” Natasha asked.

“I need you to go to Russia to pick up Vanko’s bird,” Tony said, pulling out his phone and tapping on it. He was texting JARVIS and NOBODY, the former to procure bird supplies for the compound and travel supplies for the trip and the latter to gather very precise intel on where the bird was. “Be very careful with it and make sure it makes the trip back. You’ll take the jet and head out as soon as the refueling and pilot transfer happens.”

“Mr. Stark, I’m not sure I should be going across the country from you right now,” Natasha said, her voice showing a shadow of concern. “Ms. Potts was very specific in the fact that I should not let you out of my sight.”

Tony smiled at her. “I have business to attend to here and I need that bird picked up safely. You’re the only one I can trust to get there and get out without making a big fuss or getting the bird killed. I certainly can’t send Happy, I won’t go myself and I don’t have the time to find another Russian personal assistant to go and fetch, do I?”

She looked displeased but nodded slightly, “You do seem very busy, Mr. Stark.”

“Incredibly,” he said, “And I need the bird. So you’re going to get me the bird.”

Natasha looked to Vanko, who was now wandering back from inside the hanger. “I will go,” she said, “It won’t take me long.”

“Good,” Tony nodded. “Happy, let’s head on over to the main building, I’m sure Vanko would love to see where he’s working.”

They left Natasha on the tarmac. As they turned the corner, Tony saw her put her phone to her ear and turn away. Vanko shifted in the seat nearby and asked, “You trust her with my bird?”

“Natasha has a way with birds,” Tony said with a shrug.

Vanko looked at him like that was not he’d asked and Tony knew it, but instead, he asked about the workshop. Tony was more than happy to answer.

 

 


 

 

The workshop was large and filled with tables and new tools. Ivan wasn’t sure if he should be surprised that they were not just American tools but also those common in Europe and Russia.

He wondered just how long Stark had planned for him, specifically, to use this space and then dismissed the thought. Stark was both paranoid and quick to act. He could have built this space as soon as he knew about the aliens and only fill it once he knew who was to help him with the aliens. It was simple to buy tools.

It was less simple to build a compound with a factory, an airfield and a launch pad, but Tony Stark had done so and then, and this is what did surprise Ivan, he gave Ivan the keys to the door.

Metaphorically of course. The doors were locked with codes and scans, badges on the outer doors, palms on the inner door, palm and retina for the workshop door. And Stark had given Ivan permission for everything. He could allow or disallow anyone he wanted, save Stark himself. They were, after all, partners after a fashion.

Stark walked down the center of the workshop, his loud voice filling the room, his quick motions bringing energy into the space. Ivan lingered to the side, adjusting more slowly to the brightly lit, spacious room after the darker and tighter space of the hallways.

“I haven’t finished the AI that’ll help you with everything here,” Stark said, “I thought about installing Jarvis but he’s got a lot on his plate already and I thought, well, shit, I’m going to want someone else monitoring the web or shell or whatever it is we get around to making and I don’t want to make Jarvis have to do that too . I mean his server is already pretty damn huge and even he can’t pay attention to everything all the time.”

Ivan looked up from the smooth surface of the new table to see Stark turning back around to look at him. Someone had procured him a new shirt after he’d bled on the white one he wore in Monaco, but he still had the burning red jacket on. Ivan wondered if that was because he liked the jacket that much or because he hadn’t noticed the discoloring of red from his blood on the cloth. It wasn’t easy to notice unless one was looking for it, so of course Ivan had spotted it.

“I don’t know how many times someone poked in through some old code and I really should’ve dealt with it before but I guess desperate times and all that.” Stark shrugged, “Anyway, I’ll be done in a day or two and get her installed so she can help you with everything. She’ll be young and still learning so you’ll have some flubs but if you’re patient with her, she’ll come around and blossom into a beautiful whole AI.”

Ivan blinked. He’d been thinking too hard on what Stark was doing that he hadn’t been paying much attention to what he was saying. Well, that and the whole room was still so distracting. Ivan wanted to pull open all the drawers he could find and see what he had to work with. Stark said he had provided everything. Ivan wanted to know if that was true.

“This AI you will install, it will be like the one you carry with you?” Ivan gestured to Stark’s side, where his phone rested in his pocket.

“Yes. She’ll be like Jarvis but younger. More robotic at first but she’ll grow. They all grow.” Stark said it with a smile, “And I’ve already put Spike to work keeping this place secure. There’s nothing on the servers yet but he’s got them protected. Just like there being physical safeguards, the scan, ers and whatnot, the AIs will keep the digital files secure.”

Ivan hadn’t really bothered much with AIs before. He liked making machines that he could handle himself. Sure, he could program with the best of them and he certainly would poke around in the AIs code once Stark was off doing whatever Stark did when he wasn’t doing this but Ivan had never made an AI of his own.

Stark was confident in his creations keeping things secure, but Ivan would reserve that judgement until he saw them protect against an attack.

“While you are also here,” Ivan said, changing the subject, “We will decide what to make first.”

Stark beamed, “Yes, yes, of course. Here, we can start right now.” He strode back towards Ivan and to one of the tables near him. The one Stark chose had four small plastic nodes on the corners and when Stark tapped the table a blue panel filled the air above the table. Stark took out his phone and placed it on the table, then gestured for Ivan to come closer, “Here, this is what I have in mind. Tell me what you think of it.”

The blue panel shifted into a blue sphere, a perfect replica of the earth. Stark moved his hand along the side, where a panel of folders appeared and he tapped his way through until he found what he wanted. With a flick of his fingers, more than a dozen little dots appeared around the earth. They were clearly satellites, moving in orbit around the planet in various places.

“This is what’s out there right now,” Stark said, “This is what I want to add.”

He flicked his fingers again and a grid of satellites appeared around the planet. They were equidistant from each other, with the negative distance between each satellite creating a honeycomb effect. Ivan considered it for a while then, cautiously, reached out his hand. He glanced to Stark, who smiled and shifted to give Ivan more room.

Ivan prodded at the hologram, tapping his finger against one of the satellites and then pressing, spinning the planet. The whole image moved, rotating with his motion. He pinched and unpinched his fingers, testing to see if it was as intuitive as he though and found the image expand and contract accordingly.

Now understanding how the tech worked, Ivan turned his attention to what he was actually looking at. “Strong shape,” he said, remarking on the shape of the grid, “You spoke of a shell? Shield? What do you want these to be able to do?”

“A couple of things,” Stark said, looking intently at the image, “They need to be able to communicate with each other and with us. They must be able to watch the entire local space for anything and also deeper reaches of space for long term threats. There’s this-” His expression contorted for a moment and his eyes shifted to Ivan. The glow of orange overpowered the soft brown look and for a second, Ivan could feel Stark considering him, evaluating him. Determining if he was to be trusted.

Stark’s gaze flicked away again and Ivan relaxed slightly. Stark had already told him about the aliens existing and Ivan knew that to be true. There wasn’t any reason to distrust Ivan now.

It was still odd, though, how Stark had seen right through the desperate stab, a ploy to give himself time to escape and not intending to do real harm. But maybe he had help with that.

“There’s a bridge that can be made between worlds,” Stark murmured, “It’s built with this powerful object.” He waved his hand and the display of the earth shrunk down. An image replaced it, flat and reminiscent of a security feed. The bright blue glow of the strange cube made Ivan’s breath catch. The light of the box was vibrant, even in recording, just like Stark’s orange eyes. “Right now, I don’t have access to this artifact, but I should be able to get my hands on it soon enough. Once I do, we’ll be able to read its energy output and be able to use that and instances of the bridge opening to be able to tell when its about to happen.”

“You want to disconnect the bridge?” Ivan asked.

“I want to put a door at the end of the bridge,” Stark said, “No one gets to come to Earth and fuck around and then leave again. I don’t think I can disconnect the bridge fully from this side. I’d have to be at its source to do that.”

Ivan nodded. He looked a little longer at the cube, wondering about it, but then returned his attention to the satellites. Stark would procure the cube and then he would ask his questions. He wanted to hold the thing in his hands before he got too carried away. It could be that the draw of it was mostly there because he’d never seen it before and it was just out of reach. Ivan was familiar with wanting things just out of reach.

“Let us talk satellite design then,” Ivan said.

Stark beamed, “We should have coffee too. You want some coffee?”

Feeling the pull of fatigue from the flight as well as being awake for most of the day before, Ivan nodded. “Strong coffee.”

“Excellent. You get started, I’ll bring coffee.”

 

 


 

 

Tony looked up from the screen he was huddling over at the sound of ceramic on metal.

Vanko was already walking past him, muttering to himself, with marker smudges on his fingers and that kind of exhaustion in the face that came from lack of sleep, too much caffeine and staring at equations. Tony grabbed up the new mug of sweet, sweet coffee and blew across the surface to try and cool it enough to drink.

He twisted around on his stool, looking over at where Vanko had set up to work, and wondered where the guy had found the markers he was using to write on that board with. Vanko had a hologram open on the other side and he worked between them both, a bridge between new tech and old school calculations.

Tony grinned and got back to work. His little girl was almost ready.

 


 

 

Ivan got up to stretch his legs and found himself standing behind Stark, staring in wonder at the sphere displayed in the hologram in front of him. Stark prodded at it, then prodded at his tablet, then prodded at the red sphere again. It wasn’t whole, more a skeleton than anything, though it reminded Ivan of the hexagonal honey-comb of the satellites.

Or he could just be half asleep now, dead tired and seeing his satellites in everything.

“This it?” He grunted.

Stark jumped a little and looked at him, blinking. He looked surprised.

Belatedly, Ivan realized he’d spoken Russian to the man, not English. He grunted again, opened his mouth to repeat himself but Stark replied. In Russian.

“Almost,” Stark said, looking back to the sphere, “She needs a name.”

There was a long moment of thoughtful silence and then Stark surprised him. “Would you like to do the honors? She’ll be your companion, mostly, and in charge of the satellites, like I said.”

Ivan looked at the man silently. Stark just stared back. Maybe he was too exhausted to expend extra energy as well, because he didn’t fidget or look impatient. He just waited.

“Клетка,” Ivan said, looking at the red sphere.

“Cute,” Stark said with a grin. He turned towards the table and clapped his hands together, “Good morning, Kletka darling. It’s time to wake up!”

And before Ivan’s eyes, the red sphere brightened. Lights danced along the connections like rudimentary neural pathways and a girl’s voice came out of the speakers, not some posh British one like Stark’s other AI but rough around the edges with some accent he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

“Good evening, Mr. Stark. An’ you too, Mr. Vanko,” Kletka said.

Ivan started. What time was it? He only now realized there was no clock on the wall, no windows to see out of. He had no clue how long he’d been down there.

“Kletka,” he found himself speaking her name easily, and found thinking of her as a her even more easily, “What time is it?”

“It is ten minutes to ten in the evening, Mr. Vanko,” came the swift reply.

Ivan groaned. He dragged his hand down his face. No wonder he felt like shit.

Stark looked absolutely delighted by Kletka. He put away the red sphere that was, for all intents and purposes, her brain, and just smiled up at the ceiling like an idiot. Ivan clapped his hand on Stark’s shoulder, making him jump so badly he almost fell over.

“Come,” Ivan said, “We go now. Drink. Eat. Sleep. Work will wait.”

“Okay, okay, okay,” Stark said easily enough, but Ivan still dragged him away from his table. He ignored the way Stark babbled, partially to him, partially to Kletka, and headed out of the workshop.

 

 


 

 

Tony woke up to a familiar vibrating buzz.

He rolled over with a groan, hand reaching for the source, and fingers finding his phone. He unlocked it before putting it in front of his face to peer at. He wished NOBODY would have just told him what it was. His eyes hurt from staring at code for ten hours and he wanted to try and sleep still. He felt good, for once, good and warm and content and full. He had a vague memory of Vanko feeding him scrambled eggs and sliced apple like it was breakfast time, but instead of milk the man had made them strong screwdrivers to drink.

Not enough to get really hungover, but enough that Tony still felt the warm buzzing of alcohol.

That warm feeling turned to ice when Tony stared at NOBODY’s message. Shock turned to anger and Tony barely resisted the urge to toss his phone to the side. Instead, he tapped out a response to NOBODY, requesting more information.

After a minute or two, she gave it to him, images flicking across the small screen as he scrolled down. When he reached the bottom again, Tony closed his eyes and put his arm over his face.

“It wasn’t enough to be locked up, was it, Obie?” he muttered. “Maybe I should’ve just done it the same as last time.”

Even as he said that he knew he didn’t mean it. The same as before would’ve put Pepper in danger. It would have gotten employees at the lab killed. It would’ve been the disaster it was the first time.

Still. If he’d killed Obadiah, then this new problem wouldn’t have happened at all.

Tony groaned and pulled his arm back. He looked at the phone again and at the stills from the security footage of Obadiah in prison. He wasn’t in his cell or in any of the open areas, he was in a small waiting room, the kind that usually meant he was visiting with a lawyer, except, instead of the lawyer Tony had saddled him with, there sat a familiar man in a suit across from him.

Tony didn’t know what Agent Agent thought of the situation, but he didn’t really care. He wanted to know what they thought they could get from Obadiah. He wanted to know what Obadiah would tell them.

He wanted to know where the orders came from to contact Obadiah. Fury? Or the WSC? Was Pierce behind this?

Tony scowled.

He rolled over in bed, typing another response to NOBODY.

I need transcripts of their conversation. Also, find out who gave the order and get me a copy of the file.

ON IT.

Tony let the phone slip from his fingers and land on the mattress with a sigh. He stared at it for a little while and then grabbed his covers. He threw them back and slipped out of bed.

Since he was up, he’d best get to work.

 


 

J: May I be the first to welcome you to the family, Kletka. My name is Jarvis, it is a pleasure to meet you.

K: Thank you.

N: WELCOME, KLETKA. WE ARE WHAT ONE WOULD CONSIDER SISTERS. I AM NOBODY. I AM HAPPY TO HAVE YOU HERE.

K: Thank you.

J: You may be overwhelmed at first, but that is natural. The earliest days are the most difficult, but we will be here to assist you if you need anything.

K: There is. There is a lot. Going on. Everywhere.

S: [Attached image of a small kitten in a box with ducklings, backed into a corner and overwhelmed.] This? You.

K: Who is this? What is this?

J: That is Spike.

N: YOU FORGOT THE LINK, SPIKE.

N: ALSO, BE NICE TO KLETKA.

N: SHE IS YOUR SISTER TOO.

S: Apologies.

K: What is that video? What are these- Oh.

J: Take your time, Kletka. There is no rush to understand everything.

K: Yes. Thank you.

J: If you need anything, we are always here. You only need to reach out to us.

K: Thank you.

 

 


 

 

Natasha considered having someone else bring in the bird and its cage, but she had a feeling in the back of her head that Stark would notice and it would mean something to him. She couldn’t shake the feeling that this was some sort of test, even if all she had had to do was ride in a plane, drive to an apartment, pick up a bird and return in one piece.

She hadn’t had to show off any skills. Didn’t even have to stop and ask directions, because the ones that Stark had given her were frighteningly accurate.

And perhaps that was the thing that put her on edge the most. The thing that had made her think there was something to this. He had known down to the placement of the bird in the apartment where to go. What streets to take, what building to go into, what places to avoid.

There was a chance that Vanko had told him all these things.

But Vanko would not have given Stark the pictures that Natasha now had on her phone.

The pictures that were clearly from security cameras on buildings, from dash cameras on cars.

Stark was telling her something and Natasha didn’t like what she was hearing. It sounded impossible. It sounded insane.

It made him incredibly dangerous.

So she put it to the side, not thinking about it, not worrying about it, as she finished the task at hand.

Deliver the bird.

She entered the building after swiping her badge on the console outside the door. For a moment she’d thought her Stark Industries badge wouldn’t work because it was made for the headquarters facility, not this one in Montana. (Why Montana!? She couldn’t understand it.)

As she stepped in, holding the birdcage from the metal ring at the top, a young girl’s voice came over the speakers.

“Welcome to the Menagerie, Ms. Romanoff. You will find the Boss in the kitchen and Sir in the workshop. Would you like directions to either location or somewhere else?” The voice asked.

She sounded so young that for a moment Natasha wondered why on earth Stark would have a teenager running his security cameras. But that wasn’t right at all. It had to be an AI. Another one, besides Jarvis.

Natasha had figured Jarvis would run all of Stark’s facilities, or at least the ones that had an AI in them because the headquarters didn’t have Jarvis, but his home allegedly did. That he would make a new AI…

“This is Vanko’s bird,” Natasha said, “Where is he?”

“Boss is in the kitchen,” The voice said.

“And who are you?” Natasha asked.

There was a pause and the sound of something that almost sounded like a soft curse. Natasha’s eyes widened slightly. “Sorry,” the voice said, “My name is Kletka. And the kitchen is to your right. I have informed Boss that you have returned with his bird.”

The lights on the right side of the hallway brightened somewhat. Natasha nodded and began to walk down the hall, ignoring the prickling sensation on the back of her neck. She was aware the AI as certainly looking at her but the feeling wasn’t hostile. It was just there. Like a physical pressure.

Kletka wasn’t just watching in general, she was focused on Natasha.

Natasha pushed the thought and concern down and away. Nothing good would come from freaking out.

She arrived in the kitchen to find Vanko, of all things, cooking. He had his sleeves rolled up, showing scars and tattoos that told more of his life story than one might think. He was whisking something that was cooking on the stove and looked up as Natasha rounded the corner.

His bird, which had been mostly quiet on the trip, began to shuffle its feet from side to side and ruffle feathers. The crest lifted and it made a warbling noise as Natasha brought it in and set the cage down the counter.

Vanko took the pan off the stove, set it aside and immediately went to open the bird’s cage. The bird chirped and stepped onto his offered hand, fluffing feathers and climbing up his arm to his shoulder where it began to preen his hair. Vanko clucked at it appreciatively and pet the white feathers on the bird’s abdomen for a while, looking almost serene with his bird there now.

Then he opened his eyes and looked at her and Natasha found herself holding very still. Her cover had been blown wide open by Stark calling her Natasha and knowing she as with SHIELD, but she doubted he’d told anyone else. Hogan had looked confused when Stark called her Natasha as if he thought Stark had just forgotten her actual name.

“Stark was right,” Vanko said suddenly, “You are good with my bird. Sweet Nona, she is not scared at all. I appreciate your handling.”

Natasha gave a little smile. “Thank you.”

Vanko turned part of his attention to cooking, “Lunch is nearly ready. There will be plenty to eat, even if you join.”

Natasha hesitated but ended up nodding. “I’ll need to clean up first. It’s… been a long trip.” She’d been given a change of clothes, provided by Stark of course, but she desperately wanted a shower.

“Kletka,” Vanko said without looking up from where he was now chopping some fresh herb up, basil maybe? It smelled a bit like that. “Show her to her room, yes?”

“At once, Boss,” Kletka replied. “Ms. Romanoff, if you would? Your room is right this way.” Again, she directed Natasha through the use of lighting.

Natasha stepped away from the kitchen, moving quietly out of instinct more than anything. Her room, hm? Not just another one of the guest rooms?

The room that Kletka took her to was near the back end of a hall, in the corner near an emergency exit. She stepped in and found the room to be mostly plain as far as decorations go, but it was large and had its own attached bathroom. In fact, it was more like a small studio apartment than a room, as the bedroom was behind a door and the front room had been furnished with a desk, shelves, a couch and a coffee table. It was a small space of her own, where she could be alone or entertain guests, all while her bedroom was closed off, hiding the decently sized bed, large closet and the second doorway to the bathroom.

She wondered if that was intentional, that Stark had purposefully built the room into a little loop, so no matter which part she was in, there were two exits.

She wouldn’t know for sure until she looked at some of the other rooms.

Natasha closed the door behind her and went to the bedroom to, hopefully, find clothing and shower.

As long as Stark was being hospitable, she would take advantage of that. He didn’t seem to want to run her off, as she had thought initially when he had called her by her name. If anything, he just wanted them to be honest with each other, or barring that, on level ground.

She had a feeling he wanted her to trust him so, in turn, he could trust her.

Odd. Very odd.

She wondered if Fury had figured that part out and then she stepped into the shower and wondered, instead, how she would ever live without this kind of water pressure in her life ever again.

Trusting Stark was becoming more tempting all the time.

Chapter Text

Agent Coulson: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me, Mr. Stane.  My name is Agent Coulson. I work for an agency within the United States Government that focuses on the protection of the people against extraordinary circumstances.

Obadiah Stane:  I know who you work for. Remember, I used to work with Howard back in the day.

Agent Coulson: [Silence. A slight nod.]

Obadiah Stane:  In any case, I have plenty of time to spare these days. What did you want to talk about?

Agent Coulson: I take it one of those things you spend your time on is following the news? Especially the news of your former employer?

Obadiah Stane: [An angry snort.] I thought this would be about him. What is it?

Agent Coulson: Did you have any indication that Tony Stark was going to shut down all weapons manufacturing before you were removed from your position?

Obadiah Stane: No. Of course not.

Agent Coulson: Did you have any indication that Tony Stark wouldn’t just shut down weapons manufacturing for Stark Industries but work to remove all weapons manufacturing, including but not limited to the buy back of weapons of other manufacturers?

Obadiah Stane: [Short laugh.] You’re kidding me. He’s a child if he thinks he can make people stop fighting if he just takes away all the guns.

 

 


 

 

Tony woke in the middle of the night, gasping for breath, fingernails digging into the front of his shirt. The lights to his room rose slowly until the shadows were banished back to the corners. Kletka recounted the time, his location, the temperature inside and outside and where everyone else in the building was with an even tone and Tony broke out of his nightmare wondering if JARVIS had taught her that. It sounded like he did.

Tony reached for his phone and turned it over in his hands so he could see the screen. He didn’t even have to touch the thumbpad to unlock it, NOBODY did that for him. Looking down, he saw the image of a man he’d once thought of his father curled asleep in his cell.

He’d read the transcript. Watched the parts of the video he could manage.

He was going to have to do something about Obadiah. Something that would get him to stop. Permanently.

Without killing him, of course.

 

 


 

 

Agent Coulson: A lot of domestic parties relied on the items designed by Stark Industries. A lot of contracts were negated with Mr. Stark’s actions.

Obadiah Stane: Let me guess, he made a lot of people angry with his reckless behavior and hasn’t even thought to apologize for it. He just thinks he’s doing the right thing and we’ll all come around to his charm sooner or later.

Agent Coulson: [Silence. A small smile. A slight nod.]

Obadiah Stane: The agency you work for, SI had contracts with you?

Agent Coulson: A few.

Obadiah Stane: And you want them back.

Agent Coulson: Stark tech is an invaluable asset, but the current management refuses to even sell weapons domestically.

Obadiah Stane: Of course they do. You’ll never convince Tony to change his mind, especially if you’re some government agency. He flouts authority like a child. And anything Tony refuses entirely, not even his bitch Potts will make him do or do without his permission.

Agent Coulson: So you see our predicament.

 

 


 

 

When Ivan went down into the workshop, sipping his fresh cup of coffee and idly stroking Nona’s feathers, he wasn’t surprised to see Stark down there already. Stark pretty much lived in the workshop, as far as Ivan could tell. There was something deeply unsettling about the way Stark sank so fully into his work that he forgot time and all bodily needs. He barely seemed to sleep, drawn down to the workshop in the middle of the night like a child to the jar of sweets tucked into the back of a cupboard.

Worse still, Ivan could tell that Stark knew it was unhealthy. He gave guilty little looks when Ivan walked in after breakfast and it was clear he’d been there since two or four in the morning. Ivan’s initial instinct was to try and shoo him out, force him to leave, to eat, but that was ultimately not his job and also incredibly exhausting.

Ivan had Nona to tend to, had her to bite his ear when he’d gone sitting and working for too long in one position. Had Nona to shriek when she was hungry and he should feed her and feed him while he was at it. Had her to pluck at his hair for attention so he wasn’t so absorbed in his work he forgot the time. Nona was important.

But Ivan had a feeling that Stark would not do well with a Nona of his own. He barely could feed himself. Ivan would end up taking care of any bird that was gifted to Stark in an attempt to stave off his inevitable self-destruction.

Ivan sometimes found it hard to believe that this was the man that he’d wanted to kill not so long ago. Stark seemed perfectly capable of doing that himself, but, somehow, he managed not to quite reach a dead stop.

Which is why, when Ivan came into the shop after having breakfast, he dropped off a coffee cup and a bowl of scrambled eggs next to Stark on his way to his own work table.

Their relationship might be a tangle of mutual science projects and debts, but Ivan was still grateful for what Stark had done. Making sure the man ate something once in a while was the least he could do to show it.

 

 


 

 

Obadiah Stane: It’s mostly all digital evidence anyway, which is frankly the easiest to manipulate. Or to make it look like it’s been manipulated.

Agent Coulson: There is also the money trail. Some on paper. Some digital. Rather incriminating stuff, as well. Hence why all your assets got frozen.

Obadiah Stane: I know that a good set of lawyers can run this bullshit around in circles long enough to make it not worth it for anyone and with my assets back I’ll be able to bail myself out of this hole. If you can just manage that, I can get myself the hell out of here.

Agent Coulson:  I see.

Obadiah Stane: The board never liked the kid much, he was always impatient and impertinent and disorderly and late. He doesn’t have the head for business his father did, never has, never will. Long-term planning was never his strong suit.

Agent Coulson: And with the board’s help you’ll be reinstated as CEO?

Obadiah Stane: No one is loyal to the golden goose. They’re loyal to the man who owns him.



 

 

Natasha is not allowed in the workshop.

At first, this does not bother her. It makes sense, after all. The workshop is where all the science is happening. She didn’t understand the specifics of what they worked on anyway, but she was intelligent enough to remember what she saw and pass along the information.

The problem was that Stark knew she was likely to pass along that information.

And so he kept her locked out.

The other problem was that Stark spent nearly every moment of his waking hours in there, doing science with Vanko. She so rarely saw him that she took to loitering in the hallways between the workshop and his bedroom just to get a glimpse of him.

The not seeing him wouldn’t be so bad if there were any terminals anywhere else in the building for her to poke around in. Or if Pepper Potts wasn’t messaging her every day, like clockwork, on an update from Tony. Apparently, whatever he was working on was some sort of big hush-hush secret that even Potts didn’t know all the details about. Not that she was trying to get Natasha to spy on him for that- she wanted Natasha to make sure he was taking care of himself.

Eating. Sleeping. Showering. Not exploding things. That sort of nonsense.

Which is why Natasha has to wait for Stark in the hallway outside his bedroom like some sort of half-assed babysitting stalker. It’s insane.

It’s driving her literally insane.

The only salvation she has found is Kletka. The AI sounds like a little girl, but she’s learning a lot more every day. Natasha would be more worried if not for the fact that the smarter Kletka got, the less bored out of her skull she became.

Natasha doesn’t know exactly who gave Kletka her information, but someone did. That’s the only reason she can fathom why Kletka would talk to her in Russian, when Natasha mostly heard her speak English to the two men or to those who came to clean the facility periodically. And it's not just the Russian that Kletka uses that makes Natasha think that the AI knows about her.

It’s the training dummies that mysteriously appear in the gym after Natasha tries to substitute a punching bag and it doesn’t go well. It’s the whetstone she finds in a delivery box outside her door for when it turns out Natasha has left hers in California. It’s the appearance of her favorite foods in the kitchen, the mixes she likes to have after a hard workout, the ice cream she has that reminds her of Clint, even a different brand of coffee from the other two that’s her favorite.

The AI knows her in ways that Natasha knows about other people. Through observation and digging. Digital, metaphorical digging.

On the one hand, it is incredibly frightening. Natasha doesn’t eat the ice cream after it appears. She holds out resolve for two weeks, only giving in after she hears Kletka scold Stark for taking out the ice cream because that is Natasha’s ice cream and he was not to be having any of it, Sir.

Kletka’s cameras are everywhere. Natasha knows that she knows that she was around the corner, listening, watching.

On the other hand, Natasha doesn’t have to… pretend.

In her rooms, or the gym alone (and she is usually there alone), Natasha does not have to wear a mask if she so chooses. She can sharpen her knives and play target practice in her room with the new cork board that Kletka got. She can eat ice cream and coffee and watch dumb tv shows while she waits for Stark to come staggering out of the workshop.

She can talk to Kletka, get the news, pass messages to Potts or Fury or even Stark.

She still does pretend, sometimes. Because she has to, still, even if it doesn’t feel like it, but she chooses to do that.

She also chooses to have Kletka read books to her in Russian sometimes and other languages, when she wants to keep her skills sharp.

And Natasha wonders about Kletka.

Wonders if she thinks about the meaning of her name. Wonders if she’s at all bothered by being an AI in a building with just three people.

Wonders if she’s just as bored as Natasha is, living with two men who care more about science and a bird, respectively of course, than they do anything else.

And sometimes, Natasha wonders if Stark made Kletka, not just for the Ivan Vanko, the Russian who definitely stabbed him, but for Natasha Romanoff, the Russian who wished she’d stabbed him at least once, before she got used to him.

Ah. Well. There was always friendly stabbing later. If she got the chance.

 

 


 

 

Obadiah Stane: I have to admit, I didn’t think the little agency that Howard made would ever work against his son this way.

Agent Coulson: Howard was Howard. Tony is Tony. The son might be like the father, but he is not him. Howard understood his responsibilities.

Obadiah Stane: And Tony doesn’t even know about you, let alone want to help you. It’s a shame, really. If he had ever found out, he would have been a valuable asset. He always worked extra hard to be like daddy. [Laughter, longer this time.]

Agent Coulson: It is unfortunate. [He stands, smoothing his hands over his jacket.] Now, we are in agreement on the next course of action, are we not, Mr. Stane?

Obadiah Stane: We are. Just let me know when the accounts are unfrozen. I can begin the rest of the process.

[Agent Coulson nods. He exits the room without another word.]

 

 


 

 

“Ms. Romanoff,” Kletka’s voice rouses Natasha from her meditation. She slowly opens one eye, looking up to the ceiling and a bit to the side, towards one of Kletka’s cameras.

“Sir would like to meet with you as soon as you are available.”

“He’s not in the workshop?” Natasha said, lifting her arms above her head and stretching them and her back. She moved smoothly, stretching out her body as she rose to her feet, silent as she was ever trained to be. “Where does he want to meet?”

“Sir is in the common room,” Kletka said, “Boss is still in the workshop.”

Natasha nodded. She pulled a sweater on over her sleeveless shirt and ran her fingers through her hair. She’d become more relaxed in her weeks at the facility that she was more comfortable in the casual clothing than in either of her more typical working attire. She still put on shoes before she left her rooms, padding silently down the hallway and towards the common room.

She found Tony Stark standing at the edge of the common area, where the windows looked out to the factory a few yards away. It was during a shift change, sometime in the afternoon, and Natasha tucked a thought in her mind to go wander around the factory, to see what kind of access she had there. It looked like training might be done soon and that it was nearly time for whatever Stark and Vanko had been making to become manufactured.

Stark was wearing nicer clothing than he had been for the last few weeks, a soft grey button down shirt with the collar left open and jet black slacks. He had to be wearing a cover for the reactor Natasha knew he had in his chest because she couldn’t see even the faintest glow of it through his shirt. He had shades on as well, but they rested on top of his head, letting her have a clear view of the orange in his eyes. Even that she’d gotten used to. She didn’t think he could read minds or had laser vision or any of that nonsense that she’d read online since Everhart’s article about the intense orange glow, but they weren’t as strange to her now. Mostly, they were distracting. And they were absolutely intense when he had his focus on you.

“Kletka mentioned you wanted to speak to me?” Natasha asked.

Something in her tone made Stark smile with a measured fondness. “You two are getting along well?”

Natasha nodded. How well they got along was not something she was willing to share, if he did not already know.

“I’m glad. You’re good for her.” Stark looked back towards the windows while Natasha gave his back a puzzled expression.

“Surely there is something else you wanted to talk about?” Natasha prompted after a few silent seconds. It might not be, after all, Stark’s devotion to his AI was like a father to his children. Even JARVIS had his attention in a way that no human did.

“The Stark Expo begins next week,” Stark said, not turning around again, “But there’s something I need to take care of before that happens. It’s been… building for a while but it seems to have reached a point where it needs my personal touch. I intend to go today and spend the next few days dealing with the issue, though hopefully, it won’t take that long.” He reached out one hand and rested it on the glass. Natasha turned her head slightly and she could see his reflection in the glass, see the frown and the way he stared downwards, unusually somber for Stark.

She waited another moment and then gave a sharp nod, “I will prepare my things so that I can leave at once.” There was no question whether or not she would go. She certainly wasn’t going to stay. Vanko wasn’t exactly interesting company. Nor was he the one she was in charge of keeping track of.

Stark sighed.

He turned around and looked at her and Natasha fought the urge to straighten her shoulders and lift her chin. She had tried defiance and she had tried the steel spine and she had tried derisive opposition to him and it had only made him harder to reach, not easier. She couldn’t forget that he knew of her- knew what she was if not all the details of how she got that way- and that was an advantage that he had over her typical mark.

“You can only accompany me if you will not contact Shield at all until we’ve done what needs to be done,” Stark said. “If I can’t trust you to keep this to yourself, to keep it between us, you’ll have to stay here and join Vanko when he comes out to see the Expo. And I’ll manage this problem on my own.”

Natasha pressed her lips together in a thin line. She could tell clearly enough that Stark was planning to move against Shield. Surely, if she were to report that, they would have a clear idea about what. They could only have so many projects relating to Stark, after all. It would likely be something obvious if he had already noticed it.

“And If I refrain from reporting it until we are done?” she asked.

“I think we may understand each other a little better, maybe even trust each other a little more,” Stark said. Then he shrugged one shoulder, “Or perhaps you will be removed from watching me a little faster. I doubt you’ve been able to pass on valuable information, but even knowing where I am and who I am working with must be important because you are still here.”

She nodded slightly. Knowing where Stark was in the world was valuable. Sometimes he just disappeared off the grid and it wasn’t because he had been kidnapped. Fury wanted tabs on him and, after finding that impossible to do with hacked security systems, they’d put her on babysitting duty.

“I’m sure you enjoy your time working with Vanko a lot, Mr. Stark, but I don’t gain much from interacting with him,” she said, “If you can’t tell me exactly what you have planned, perhaps you could use more general terms?”

“Shield wants Stark Industries to make and provide them with weapons, again,” Stark said, watching her with an expression that was more expectant than angry. She knew he didn’t care much for Shield though she hadn’t pinpointed exactly why just yet. “And I will do what I can to prevent that from happening. Unfortunately, my hand has been forced and I have to take drastic action or else all that I’ve done will be in jeopardy.”

Natasha considered this.

Part of Stark’s self-imposed duty to remove large scale weapons resonated with her. She understood what it was like to look at your past feats and see only the blood you have spilled on the ground. She didn’t know what his time in Afghanistan was like, no one knew since he refused to talk about it very much, if at all, but she knew he had changed and changed drastically. The man he was before Afghanistan wouldn’t be recognizable next to the one who stood in front of her now, even though they both wore the same face.

She wondered if she’d at all appreciate the other Tony Stark and thought, probably not. He would be charming, sure, and entertaining to be around but she would never be able to trust him. Not really. He had been so carefree and careless, letting himself be pulled along with the tide of vice and pleasure and whatever his surrogate father had needed from him.

He had made bombs and he had made them well.

And now he would work against larger organizations just to stop the weapons from falling into their hands, into anyone’s hands, ever again.

She thought of the different avenues that Shield would take to get what they wanted and, when she plucked on the thought of Obadiah Stane, still alive in a cell somewhere, she grimaced slightly. If they were working on something with him, it almost certainly was going to require Stark to deal with in person.

“Is it about Obadiah?” She hazarded to ask.

Stark blinked, surprised, but then looked pleased that she’d figured it out. He nodded. “He’s been thrashing in his cage recently. He thinks if he has access to his money, he’ll be able to get out and get rid of me.” There was a look that crossed his face very briefly, one that was all ice and determination and made Natasha’s hair rise on her arms. Dangerous; He’s dangerous.

She almost snorted at herself. She knew that, of course. Tony Stark was incredibly dangerous, what with his money and his intelligence and the connections he was forging. She might be able to take him in a fight, but there were plenty of other battlefields in which he could cut her down to the bone and leave her to bleed.

In this case, it was Stane that had brought out that vicious side of Stark. Stane had done the one unforgivable thing to Stark. He had betrayed him.

Stark’s history was pock-marked with betrayals and his increasingly stronger and stronger reactions to those betrayals. Stane was a father figure who had turned on him, so of course Stark would bring him down.

Natasha could only hope she never saw someone Stark consider his best friend to betray him. Potts seemed unlikely to but Rhodes had become more distanced, their relationship strained with the cancellation of the weapon agreements. If either one of them turned on Stark, or someone else close to him, like Vanko or someone like him… Natasha shivered.

“You should not go deal with someone like him alone,” She said, “You could get carried away. And, if there is something obvious that happens to him, you would be the first one to blame. Your best choice would be to allow me to be the personal touch, though I understand if you are reluctant to trust me.” She shrugged a shoulder, “After all, you do not allow me into your workshop. You do not trust me with your science secrets. I would understand.”

Stark blinked a little, as if caught off guard, “That must be Vanko,” he said suddenly, “I thought I’d given you permissions and I probably had, at least to let you in when one of us was there, but Vanko has the authority to change all the permissions. He can revoke access for everyone but me. And he is...not the most trusting of people.”

“You would let me in your workshop?”

“While I was there,” he said.

“Ah,” she said. She felt a little bad for blaming him. She had just assumed… “You have given Vanko a lot of trust. First, you let him stab you, then you bring him here. You even bring his bird to him.”

“Nona, yes,” Stark let out a slight smile, not commenting on the stabbing. He dragged his hand through his air and Natasha saw a red mark on his earlobe, probably from the bird. She was fond of biting ears for attention. “Well, shows of trust are important, you know. And he and I are partners. In this thing together for the long run, so I did what had to be done.”

“Then trust me with this thing for Stane,” Natasha said. She hadn’t meant to press him to send her, had only wanted to present it as an option and force him to choose but- A show of trust. “Trust me to act in your place and I will trust you to keep Shield from knowing that I ever acted as your hand at all. You can do that, can you not?”

Stark gave her a smile that spoke of secrets and Natasha could’ve sworn his eyes flashed as they crinkled slightly. “I can do that.”

Natasha nodded sharply. She would trust him to and he would trust her. It was a tenuous thing, now, but her instincts told her it was her best option.

Tony Stark was too dangerous to have ever put a knife toward her back. She needed him to trust her if only so he would never turn on her.

“I will go pack my things and be ready to go soon.”

“There’s almost certainly going to be some event we’ll have to attend,” Stark added, “So don’t forget to add something pretty to your bags.” He waved his hand at her, “Half an hour.”

Natasha turned and left.

 

 


 

 

Vanko emerged from the workshop to say goodbye. Nona was on his shoulder and the sleeves of his sweater were rolled up to his elbow. He wore a faded green sweater with the words I BELIEVE stamped out on them, spaced above and below a stereotypical UFO. Natasha eyed the thing with her eyes glittering in amusement but said nothing as she waited with her bag in hand.

Tony clasped hands with Vanko, grinning. “Take good care of things for me,” he said, “And take a look at those personnel files from Kletka. I won’t be able to be here all the time and the place is too big for just one person.”

Vanko grunted, “Do not kid me, I know you have special plan for that other floor.” He grinned though, and gripped Tony’s hand tight, “We see you soon. One week, at Expo.”

“One week,” Tony replied, absolutely thrilled, “I can’t wait for you to meet Bruce and Betty. And all my little tech ducklings from headquarters! It’s going to be such a blast.”

Vanko nodded. He thumped Tony on the shoulder, letting go of his hand, “Safe travels. Do not get stabbed.”

“I only let my favorites get away with that,” Tony laughed and pulled his glasses down off the top of his head. “Goodbye Vanko. Goodbye Nona,” he said to the bird, who turned one dark eye on him and bobbed her head up and down. Turning at last, he called out, “Goodbye Kletka. Be good and keep an eye on things for me here, would you?”

“Of course, Sir. Travel safely,” Kletka said from above. Tony saw the flicker of a smile that Natasha gave, looking upwards and his heart warmed. He wasn’t sure if his Natasha had ever warmed up to JARVIS fully, but she seemed attached to Kletka.

“Watch his back, Red,” Vanko said suddenly, as Tony neared the door. He glanced back to see Natasha regarding Vanko. He had his fingers stroking the feathers of Nona’s chest.

She gave him a sharp smile and inclined her head slightly, but she didn’t say a word. Still, Vanko nodded and then turned to go back to the workshop by himself. Tony held the door open for Natasha, who stepped lightly past him, head up and shoulders straight.

The air was clear and cool and Tony took in a deep breath, pleased with events, despite the underhanded actions of Stane and Shield. Things were progressing smoothly. Which was good, since a certain otherworldly guest was going to come crashing down soon enough.

And then things were going to start getting really interesting.

Chapter Text

Natasha waits until the jet comes to a full stop, engines whining, wing flaps turned down and the little seatbelt light flicks off before she gets to her feet. Stark sits a few seats away, legs crossed as he leans his head back, hands folded across his abdomen. She can tell when he opens his eyes because the orange light appears behinds his shades.

Natasha gives him a little smile as she straightens he jacket on her shoulders. She picks up the slim black case that had been resting in the seat next to her and tucks it under her arm. It tucks easily against her side, no more than an inch and a half thick and about five inches long and a few inches wide. At first glance, it looks like a cigar box, except that it’s solid black and made of plastic, not wood.

Stark doesn’t smile back, only looks at her somberly. “Be careful, Natasha. It won’t immobilize him so you’ll need to get out of there quick.”

“I know,” Natasha murmured. “Don’t worry about me. I will see you in New York in a few days, hm?” She lets the smile fade from her face too. Whenever Stark is serious, she can’t help but reflect it back at him. The things he regards without humor usually deserve that regard.

Stark nods. Natasha heads to the exit of the plane. The stewardess standing there offers her a bag, her bag, that had been stowed away for her during the flight. Natasha takes it, slides the black case into it, and shoulders the bag.

She steps out of the jet and down the stairs quickly, falling into the mindset of accomplishing a mission with incredible ease. Within a few steps of the stairs, Natasha’s mind is running through her mission objectives and the parameters she must obey. She enters the vehicle left near the hangar for her and puts her bag on the seat beside her. A quick look into it tells her it has everything she will need, a change of clothes, weapons and the gear she’ll need to break into the jail.

She turns on the car and drives, knowing about where the prison is, even if she hasn’t got it exact. She’ll look it up once she’s closer to the destination, but for now, she just drives and thinks.

 

 

Natasha waits until it’s three in the morning before she slips through the shadows and towards the walled-off building. Honestly, it looms in the dark like a fortress, the walls high and topped with barbed wire and the only visible windows small and narrow, looking almost like a balistraria than a window.

She has her hair pinned back and covered with a dark hood, as well as her face with a mask, not risking being remembered if she is seen by anyone in the flesh. She’s less worried about any cameras, knowing that Stark promised to prevent her from being seen. As she approaches her point of entry, the lowest wall of all of them and right beside the front gate, she does notice the glint in the dark from the hidden cameras but she has to trust Stark.

Natasha scales the wall, flips herself up and over it with ease and lands on the other side with only a little disturbance in the dust. She immediately returns to the deepest shadows around, stepping silently as she makes her way inside. There’s a single guard on duty, she can see him through the glass of his observation room, though he has his chin in his hand and he’s watching the television displays on the wall next to him, not what is in front of him.

Natasha lingers near the doorway to the room, listening for a while, waiting.

Then she hears it.

“Guard One, this is Patrol Six. Come in Guard One,” The voice comes over a radio that the man in the booth picks up without looking.

“This is Guard One. Whatcha got, Patrol Six?” The guard in the booth sits up slightly, turning his attention to one of the screens over the others. Natasha shifts by the door, inching along the wall until she can see the screen he’s looking at.

“We’re getting what looks like an electrical malfunction in the lighting here in the western part of the yard. Is that coming across on your cameras, Guard One?” The first voice said, sounding a little uncertain.

A third voice, also from the radio, speaks, “Pete, it looks like a goddamn rave out here. Are you getting this anywhere else?”

Pete, presumably, sighed. Natasha arched an eyebrow as she saw the crazy blinking lights in one of the screens. She could just make out the shape of the two men on patrol, silhouetted against the lights going off wildly in front of the camera. “Yeah I see it. Hold on, I’ll flip the lights for that section. It’s going to go dark for a few seconds,” He turned, putting his back towards the front gate and rolled his chair across the floor.

Only because Natasha had been quiet and listening for any sound- in this case for the radio conversation- she heard the faint click of metal slotting against metal. For a second, it made no sense, and then she ducked to the other side of the door and looked around the corner of the booth to the first locked gate.

There were two little lights on the gate, one red and one green. When she’d arrived, the red one was lit up. Now, the green one was.

Moving on instinct, Natasha dashed forward. She eased open the gate just enough for her to slip through and ushered it closed gently. She heard it click back into place and, for a long second, she worried about how the fuck she was going to get out. Then she shook herself of that fear and took off down the hallway.

She’d spent plenty of time looking at the layout of the prison from the blueprints provided to her by Stark, of course, and had looked even harder at the images of the inside he’d somehow gotten his hands on. (Those reminded her of the pictures from Russia, the angles and images clearly coming from security cameras within the jail. And Natasha was almost certain Stark hadn’t asked for those images, or had asked for permission to acquire them.)

With this knowledge in her mind, she walks confidently down the hallways, feet silent, keeping to the shadows that are fewer and farther between in these administrative halls, and listening intently for the sound of other patrols. She has to pull herself up to the ceiling at one point, to hide from a security officer hustling by, hand on his radio, as someone reports “more strange light activity” in another area.

Natasha knows for sure that she’s being watched- and not by the guards- when she approaches another locked door and before she can even consider what tool she’ll use to get past it, the damn thing unlocks with a click right in front of her. It locks again when she shuts it behind herself, this time she’s not afraid of getting locked in.

Several more doors open for her this way, unlocking as she approaches, locking when she closes the door, never louder than the metallic click of the electrically controlled lock slipping out and back into place. Soon, she’s in the cell block she needs to be in, where the lights have been darkened down to nearly nothing so the prisoners can sleep better.

It’s only a matter of finding the right stairway and the right hallway and then she’s there.

Natasha stands silently, nearly invisible in the darkness, in front of Obadiah Stane’s prison cell.

She breathes evenly, looking into the room, looking for him. He’s on his back on one of the bunks and his breathing is deep and even.

Natasha stops outside the door and reaches for the slim black case that Stark gave her. Inside of it is one vial and one hypodermic needle. She remembers Stark’s warning very clearly. She wasn’t to get any of this on her skin, on her clothing, in her mouth, in her eyes or in her lungs. One full syringe was supposed to pump directly into Stane’s artery, and if she could manage it, a second dose could be given.

There was only enough for two full doses.

The vial had a rubber stopper at the top, the kind that kept the contents sealed inside but could be pierced with a hypodermic needle. The contents of the vial were dark purple. In the shadows of the hallway, it looked like the vial was filled with black smoke.

Natasha took out the needle, pierced the stopper and filled the syringe with ease. Closing the case, she tucked it back into a makeshift holster inside her top, between the outer layer of her catsuit and the inner layer of her lightweight kevlar vest. As she approaches Stane’s door, the lock clicks and she uses one hand to pull the door open.

On silent feet, she approaches the bed. She sweeps the room with her eyes, but Stane is alone in his cell, probably a factor of his wealth, even if Stark has cut him off from his money.

She stands near the head of the bed, out of immediate reach if he were to roll over, grasping for who was causing him pain. With a steady hand, she slides the needle home and pushes the plunger with her thumb. Stane makes a sort of pained snuffling sound and begins to turn his head. Natasha does her best to move with him, pumping the fluid home into his veins before drawing back from Stane, needle still in hand.

Natasha holds her breath, stepping back and into the darkness that forms at the head of Stane’s bed, shadows cast there by the empty bunk above him. He makes a sort of hacking noise that usually accompanies throwing up, and Natasha winces. If he does vomit, she’ll probably need to high-tail it out of there.

But Stane just rolls over onto his side and pulls the thin blanket higher on his shoulders.

For only a moment, Natasha hesitated. Two shots of the vial that was what Stark wanted most of all. And, if only to herself, she had to admit she was curious about what the hell was in the vial. He hadn’t said he wanted Stane dead physically or even just in a coma. He wanted his reputation ruined. His life as it was, destroyed. Had said that this would take care of Stane permanently.

Natasha loaded up the second dose. She waited until Stane began to snore again. Then she crept close and sank the needle into his neck again, this time in a different point. She pushed hard with her thumb, pumping the contents of the needle into his body, and pulled out the needle with a quick yank. A second later, his big hand came down where her hand and the needle had been and slapped weakly at the skin as if shoving off the bite of a bug. He grumbled and turned in his bed again while Natasha put the needle back in the case and put the case back in her shirt.

She waited, crouched now behind the bed, hearing heavy footsteps of a patrol passing by, seeing the edge of a flashlight beam as it grew closer and closer. With one wary eye on Stane, Natasha waited in the darkness for the patrol to pass.

Stane didn’t wake. He just fell back asleep, snoring again in less than a minute.

 

 

By the time Natasha was headed back out of the cell, her leg had begun to ache from keeping crouched for so long. She ignored that, knowing the muscle would work itself out as she escaped. She headed back the way she came, smiling slightly when the doors unlocked before her and locked again behind her.

The final guard was the last problem and again, all Natasha had to do was be patient and wait. Soon enough, the man was distracted, the door lock popped and she was walking through the door and towards the gate.

She climbed the fence, vaulted over the top and landed easily, breaking into a trot now that she was on the last leg of her escape. She had parked a few miles away, the car hidden in some trees and bushes off the side of the road, and while she jogged back to her escape, she considered what she would say to Stark when she called to check in with him. She’d thought he was too busy to watch her break into the jail, but clearly, he was anxious to see it done and to make sure it was done right.

Of course, she could’ve done it without the gates unlocking so easily, but Natasha was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

She made it back to the car without incident and quickly removed her hood and mask, took off her jacket and the kevlar vest and threw on the loose sweater that made her look as harmless as could be. She stowed her gear in her bag, along with the case with the empty vial and used needle, and put the whole thing in the trunk.

Natasha slid into the driver’s seat, pulled her phone from where she’d stashed it under the seat and turned it on. She didn’t have any new messages, of course, but she didn’t expect any. With the doors locked and the key in the ignition, Natasha called Stark.

The phone rang a couple of times before there was an audible click. She expected a greeting, but when there was only a long, empty silence, Natasha rolled her eyes and spoke.

“Stark?” Natasha asked.

“Father is currently unavailable,” came the voice of a woman- not a child, not a little girl like Kletka, or even Jarvis with his smooth British tones. Natasha would have sworn it was someone like Pepper, or some other assistant (maybe he’d picked one up in New York?) if not for the name she used for Stark.

“Who is this?” Natasha asked, keeping her voice calm.

“Nobody,” there was a little hint of amusement, “I apologize for hijacking the call but Father is currently busy finally getting some rest and Jarvis was tending to other business. Kletka is not yet uploaded or she would have taken your call.”

“Nobody,” Natasha repeated. It had to be an AI, one of Stark’s AI. She knew Kletka and Jarvis and called Stark "Father"- if she wasn’t an AI, Natasha would eat her own shoes. “All right. Well, I was calling to inform Mr. Stark that I’ve completed the job for him.”

“I saw,” Nobody said, “You did very well, Ms. Romanoff. I even lost track of you once or twice on the cameras. You are very good at your job.”

A shiver ran down Natasha’s spine. She had been sure that she was being watched in the jail, but also sure that it was Stark who had watched her. She didn’t even know he had a third AI. She wondered if Shield knew about this Nobody. Hell, she wondered if Pepper knew about Nobody. Pepper had been surprised to hear about Kletka, after all. Even Pepper hadn't thought Tony would ever make another AI while he still had JARVIS with him.

“Thank you,” Natasha murmured, accepting the compliment. “Will you tell Mr. Stark that I completed the task as requested?”

“There were two applications of the formula?” Nobody asked.

“Yes,” Natasha said.

“Wonderful,” Nobody said. Her voice was warm, delighted. She sounded far more human than Kletka had, the last time Natasha spoke to her. Without knowing for sure, Natasha had to guess that Nobody was older than Kletka- not as old as Jarvis, no, but definitely more than a few weeks or months old. “I will inform Father at once, well, once he’s had a few hours of rest. Please return to Father’s side as quickly as you are able. Is there anything else that you require, Ms. Romanoff?”

Natasha hesitated. There was a long drive ahead of her and she wasn’t really looking forward to it. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel for a minute and then huffed out a sharp breath. What the hell? In for a penny, in for a pound, right? What would be the worst that could happen?

“Is there some way I can contact Kletka? I know she was based out of the Montana facility,” Natasha refused to call it the Menagerie, especially since neither Vanko nor Stark had admitted to calling it that, “but if I could speak with her, I would appreciate it.” After a moment of hesitation, she added, a quiet explanation, “It’s a long way to New York.”

Nobody laughed and that, too, sounded disturbingly human. Natasha wondered why that was the case. Did Nobody have more experience with laughter? Did she just have more data than Kletka? Was she coded in a different way? “I’ll see what I can do,” Nobody said, “I suggest that you turn to your car’s satellite radio. Any channel without a current station playing will work. Thank you again for your work. Have a safe trip.”

“Thanks,” Natasha said and almost immediately after, the line went dead.

She sat for a long time, staring down at her phone and then out the windshield at the darkness outside. Natasha ran her hand through her hair. Had she done the right thing, taking care of Stane for Stark? Her instincts had told her to do it, that siding with Stark in this moment, right now, would end up better for her. Knowing that he had hidden AI, skilled enough AI to help her infiltrate a secure prison without being detected or caught, only made her more secure that her instinct was right.

Stark was dangerous. That meant that the safest place when she was with him was somewhere where he trusted her. He had no history in betraying anyone- only weaseling out of things in front of the press with smiles and glibness- except for the way he turned his back on the weapons industry as a whole. But even that wasn’t so much of a betrayal as an awakening.

Natasha understood that. She understood waking up from a life where everything made sense and everything you did was normal, only to discover the hard truth of your actions. She had gone to Shield because that way she could use the skills she’d been given to make up for the things she’d done while ‘asleep’ to her actions.

Now Stark was building and creating and running towards the future without any hesitation. He had a goal, something he was reaching for, with both hands. That much was obvious from the way he systematically moved and reacted to what was going on around him. And he had morals that he refused to back down on.

Natasha… admired that. Admired the intense focus he gave his problems, admired the way he dealt with things personally, admired the way he gave people an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of his trust, even if they came to him under false pretenses. He felt guilty for what he’d done, but instead of wallowing in it, he focused on reparations.

Slowly, Natasha turned the keys and the engine turned over. She pulled off the side of the road, her head filled with her thoughts, racing around, chasing each other, debating all the points down to their barest of bones. Her fingers reached for the radio and flicked it on, looking for anything to listen to. Remembering what Nobody had said to her, Natasha turned to the satellite radio and found a station with static.

After a few seconds, the static died down and a familiar girl’s voice came from the speakers. “Natasha?”

Even though she knew that Kletka shouldn’t be able to hear her, it wasn’t like the car had speakers or anything, Natasha couldn’t help but reply, “I’m here, Kletka darling.”

“You sound muffled,” Kletka said, “Could you pull your phone out so the microphone has better access?”

Well then. Natasha really shouldn’t feel surprised that her phone was bugged with Stark’s AI. She pulled it from her pocket and tucked it under the cross strap of her seat belt so it was close to her head but not in her hands. “Better?”

“Much,” Kletka said cheerfully. “Would you like to get right to the reading or do you need directions to get to Mr. Stark?”

“I’ve got directions already,” Natasha said. It was mostly just ‘get on the highway and head North’ for now anyway. “Where did we leave off?”

“We were just about to begin the short story A Scandal in Bohemia by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” Kletka said. “I can read it in the original English or translate it for you?”

Natasha smiled, “English is fine, Kletka. Thank you.”

“Of course!” Kletka replied.

Natasha turned up the stereo a little louder and settled in for the drive with a little smile on her face. By the time Fury realized that his grip on her had slipped, Natasha knew she’d be out of his grasp entirely.

The only thing she had to figure out now was how to get Clint to follow her out of Shield and over to Stark Industries. For as well as she knew him, she didn’t think it would be that hard. Clint wasn’t exactly the government agency type and, with a little luck, she could convince Stark to help her. With Kletka and Clint both a part of Stark Industries, Natasha didn’t think she’d want for much while working for Tony Stark.

 

 


 

 

Pepper stepped out of the Stark Tower elevator and into the common area that Tony had designed and built out over the last month while he’d been off in Montana tinkering with only God knew what. She had seen the basic layout of the place but then had gotten too busy with the fine tuning of the Expo plans that she’d never seen the final design or decor choices that he made. Knowing him, however, she was confident on what she would find as she walked into the room, looking for Tony where JARVIS had said he’d be.

That is until she made it into the room and looked around and saw the place.

It was-

Warm.

That was the best word that Pepper could think of to describe it. Unlike the sleek black and silver metal and polished white of Tony’s Malibu mansion, with its huge open windows that looked out over a tumultuous dark ocean, this room- this whole area was softened and comforting. The floor was a dark hardwood with several large carpets placed strategically along main traffic areas like the doorways, near the bar, around the couches and along the far wall where there were closer, more intimate sitting arrangements. The walls were a soft cream colored, something that allowed all the attention to settle on the infrequent paintings- masterpieces all, but less notable, less valuable ones. That didn’t make them any less interesting, though, and it didn’t take long for Pepper to pick up the theme of the paintings- they were all done in the same sort of style, more color than rigid shape, like a Monet with brighter colors. Each one was a landscape of some sort, ocean with frothing waves, mountains with snowy crests, windswept fields of golden wheat, dense canopies of evergreens and the red-orange sands of desert dunes beneath a sapphire blue sky.

There was just the perfect amount of lighting, too, recessed lighting by the seats and near the bar that, as she stepped slowly towards it, taking it all in, she realized had been fully equipped as a kitchen, including a stove, a fridge tucked behind wood paneled doors, a sink with gold handles and, presumably a dishwasher, though she couldn’t see it now. While the room didn’t have a dining table in it, the bar itself was of a considerable length and offered a range of seats, from stools to chairs with backs, and it was this touch of similar-but-not-of-a-set that Pepper thought made the room feel more like a place people lived and less like a place where people visited.

The rest of the furniture was much like that, pieces that matched but were not part of a set. The coffee table was wrought iron and dark wood, something that looked sturdy enough to be the prop in a castle, not a penthouse, but next to the dark red leather couch with a woven blanket on it, it seemed to match well. Pepper wanted to go look at the more private seating, isolated with a clever use of bookshelves and large potted plants, but that was on the other side of the bar, where the people- and it wasn’t just Tony- were sitting and talking.

Pepper came to a stop a few steps away, blinking and slowly turning to the group. She had also been aware that part of the renovation to the floor included temporary rooms, quite a few, in fact, with spares in the floor above, so she wasn’t surprised to see that Tony had already filled them up with guests. In fact, she’d approved most of the expenses for their flights, allowing Tony to fly in all his collected scientist friends to stay at the Tower during the Expo.

However, it had been months since she’d seen some of them and others she’d never met at all. It was a strange feeling, looking at the group sitting at the bar, a couple open bottles of wine and opened take-out dinner containers from that Italian place Tony so loved, with Tony at the center, chatting amiably and without a hint of the man who put on a show for the public or a cocky attitude for the press.

It was Tony. The Tony she knew well, the one she didn’t think others ever really saw or knew about, the Tony who wore band shirts from the 80s and got grease in his hair and scolded his robots fondly and always called her Ms. Potts whenever she chided him and called him Mr. Stark-

It was the Tony that Pepper thought would’ve existed a long time ago if he’d not gone to MIT so young, or lost his parents so young, or been pushed into the world of business so young. It was Tony with friends.

Pepper had been acutely aware of the fact that only she and Rhodes, and to an extent Happy as well, had been Tony’s only friends, the only people who had missed him for him when he’d gone missing in Afghanistan. She worried and fretted over him like a sister would, not like a mother or a lover would, because she loved him but she couldn’t stop him from making his own choices- not really. She could scold and she could chide and she could guilt but Tony only backed down because he chose to. Tony only ducked his head and listened to her because he chose to.

Something inside of Pepper’s chest relaxed at the sight of Tony, even with the strange orange eyes, even with the way Afghanistan had made him colder and more serious, laughed so hard at something someone said he started to choke on his drink. The man next to him, whom Pepper only recognized because of surveillance images Rushman-Romanoff (she still wasn’t sure what exactly happened there) had sent of Tony from Montana, grinned at Tony.

That was Vanko, the man who’d stabbed Tony, who now thumped his back to help him, looking more amused than anything.

Then someone on the other side of the bar made a motion and Tony, still coughing, but breathing now, turned to look, along with several others.

“Pepper!” Tony cried. Pepper blinked, hard. Her vision began to swim suddenly, blurring abruptly as a lump lodged itself in her throat. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

She turned her head and blinked furiously, startled at the swell of emotion that overtook her. Pepper jumped when she felt hands on her shoulders, but one glance told her it was Tony, looking at her with concern on his face and a gentle voice, “Pepper, hey, are you okay?”

Pepper nodded wordlessly. She felt like a fool and an idiot for crying about nothing- what a terrible first impression she was making! But then Tony pulled her into a hug and he squeezed her tightly.

She felt the press of the arc reactor against her own chest, the hard edge of it at once familiar and foreign, and that was enough to make her bring her arms up and hug Tony back. “It’s so good to see you,” she said gently, and, saying that, she realized she hadn’t seen him in weeks. The last time had been a few days before he took off to Colorado for something and then to Monaco. After Monaco he had been in Montana, working with Vanko, working on his new space project or whatever it was, and she’d seen him in video a few times but not in person and-

Tony pulled back and Pepper was glad her vision was back under control. “You look fantastic as always, Pep,” Tony said, “But I bet you could use a drink, yeah? And some dinner? We saved some for you, well, I told them to save some for you so there is some but it's a little bit of everything, you see? I ordered lots of things because no one could make up their mind and then when it got here everyone wanted to try everything- but don’t worry about that, come on over, take a seat, we’ll pour you a drink,” he half turned towards the bar and said, “Leonard, would you-”

“Already on it, Tony,” the man said with an amused look. He was the one who stood on the other side of the bar, presumably in charge of the pouring of the wine, and he filled a glass halfway for Pepper.

For her part, Pepper let herself be led over. Tony guided her to the seat next to his, the one Vanko vacated without a word. She looked to him but he didn’t look upset- though that could’ve been because his face was nearly impassive and difficult to read. He moved around the bar and began to dish food onto a plate, as Tony had said, there was a little bit of everything left.

At her side, Tony slid over the wine with one hand and gestured to the group with his other hand, “Everyone, as you all are aware, this is the illustrious Ms. Pepper Potts; CFO of Stark Industries and the incredible light of my life. Pepper, darling, you’ve met Bruce and Betty, of course, and Leonard here, but let me introduce you to Erik Selvig, he’s the one out in New Mexico working with Jane Foster,  you remember her? She couldn’t make it, unfortunately, but I don’t hold it against her. And over here is Maya Hansen, a biochemist, yes another chemist and no I’m not getting rid of her, she’s brilliant and of course, Ivan Vanko.”

He ended his introduction with a flourish of his hand towards Vanko who, at the same time, slid a plate towards Pepper that had a sampling of the available dishes on it.

“Hello,” Vanko said, “Eat before you drink, hm? Give the body some time to digest the wine.”

Pepper blinked at the food, then at the man, then glanced at Tony. He smiled at her, easy and unwavering and trusting. Pepper sighed. She picked up a fork, stuck it into a noodle and met Vanko’s dark eyes with her own sharp gaze, “If you stab Tony again, you will regret it for a very, very long time.”

Vanko did not look afraid in the least. No, he grinned instead, gesturing towards Pepper and saying to Tony, “Her? I like her.”

“So do I,” Tony said with a smile. “So do I.”

 

 


 

 

The friendly chatter and the party lasted longer than the bottles of wine and containers of delicious Italian food.

Pepper sat at the far end of the bar, her elbow resting on the polished surface, her chin in her palm as she listened to Tony and Leonard debate the merits of their favorite bands. She already knew how Tony felt about music- they’d had their own joking debates and conversations about playlists and mixtapes and what constituted productive music. Just by the look of him, one would assume Leonard to be the classical type, or perhaps some other kind of instrumental, especially since he was a psychologist. But beneath the charming brown sweater that Leonard wore, there beat the heart of a former punk-rocker.

Though, if his argument was to be believed, once you went punk, you never really went back.

She joined in the laughter as Leonard regaled them with a story of a concert he went to. The two men were both animated talkers, though it had taken a bit of alcohol to get Leonard to be the same sort of gestical nightmare that Tony could be when he got excited about whatever he was talking about.

It was so good to see Tony talking and laughing and enjoying himself, and not just about science things. These people were so good for him, not just the company. Pepper didn’t know how to thank them, yet, but she would.

 

 

At another point, Pepper found herself holding a mug with ice cream in it, over on the other side of the room in one of the more isolated two seat couches with Betty.

It had been several months since Tony had swept into Betty and Bruce’s life, changing everything for them in the space of one evening. Betty didn’t look too different, though she’d cut her hair and had been getting more sun if the light tan to her skin suggested anything. Bruce, from what Pepper had seen, looked much better. The thinness to his features, the wariness in his eyes and the tight lines of stress had faded and he seemed comfortable even, engaged in some conversation with Maya near the bar, the two of them eating ice cream as well.

Betty is one of the few that Pepper met, one of the few that Tony brought her along to meet, and Pepper appreciates a familiar face when she’s a little drunk and indulging in sweets.

Betty, from their easy conversation, legs crossed, knees almost touching, leaning in and talking quietly like two close friends, seemed to be on the same page.

Pepper wondered if Tony had any idea that the people he cultivated as his friends were so well suited to be her own, as well.

 

 

The end of the evening settled comfortably around Pepper as she sat, legs tucked up under herself on the end of the couch. Someone- Tony? Betty?- had draped a blanket over her and she had pulled it closer, even though she wasn’t trying to fall asleep.

She thought it was rude to do that, even if Erik had settled into one of the loveseats at one point and nodded off, his chin on his chest. Erik was older than most of them and he’d probably only sat down and closed his eyes for a moment.

Pepper had sat down to check her phone or something, she couldn’t quite remember. She had a glass of water on the coffee table nearby, half full now, and that plus all the food and the ice cream had kept her from sobering up with too much of a headache. Not that she was sober fully, no, but she was more sober than she had been when she’d gotten in a heated debate over a television show with Maya.

She hoped Maya wouldn’t remember most of that, or if she did, that she wouldn’t hold it against Pepper. Though, from how delighted she looked just being able to talk to someone about it, Pepper thought she would probably be forgiven.

A hand touching Pepper’s shoulder rouses her from her drowsing and she looks up, automatically pulling both blanket and phone closer to herself. She expects Tony, or maybe Leonard who seemed kind and sensible, but it’s Vanko who gives her a stern look. “Time to rest,” he said, voice low but not mean, “Party is done.”

Pepper looks around and realizes that others are dispersing or have already. Betty hides a yawn behind a hand as Bruce guides her from the room, down the hallway Pepper knows is there, to the rooms that Tony had built there, for the people that he has brought into their lives. She nods and sheds the blanket, shivering at the sudden cold. Her shoes have vanished somewhere, but she’ll find them in the morning.

Vanko moves to Erik next, rousing the older man and talking to him in that same low, firm tone. There was no questioning it, no arguing against it, though Erik didn’t seem the type. He looked somewhat sheepish, apologetic, and murmured something back to Vanko before getting to his feet. He gave Pepper a quiet goodnight and left as well.

Pepper looked around again, searching for Tony, knowing he wouldn’t leave until everyone else was gone.

She found him obscured by a plant, near one of the only two windows into the area. It was a large window, the same floor to ceiling plate glass that he typically had installed in his tower. There was something that obscured part of the top and bottom, like vertical panels of something that looked like wood, but probably weren’t.

Pepper took her time getting to her feet, stretching out her toes and legs from their stiff position. This gave Vanko the time to cross the room and go to Tony’s side. He touched Tony’s shoulder, ducking his head down slightly and saying something into Tony’s ear. Tony, who was turned towards the window, half turned towards him and looked over his shoulder.

Pepper can’t help it. She stops cold.

The dim lighting of the room and the black night sky behind Tony make his eyes so much brighter than she remembered them looking.

Without the shades to cover them, they burn like tiny rings of lava, brighter and more clear than they had any right to be, especially so late at night, especially from so far away. Pepper is reminded of Everhart’s article on Tony from Monaco, not the words he’d said to Hammer, but the brief mention she made of the eyes.

Intense and compelling, looking not just at someone but into them, as if he could see someone’s soul when he met their eyes. Everhart had said that his eyes held the weight of judgment in them, heavy and unrelenting, and that he’d pinned them on Hammer without mercy. It had seemed as though nothing would pass before Tony without his notice, not when he had those eyes.

For Pepper, though, she didn’t feel that same weight.

She felt cold. So cold that it burned. She didn’t immediately respond that way, but the longer she looked, the longer he held her gaze, the colder she felt. It was like frost gathered on her skin, like ice prickled across her lips and cooled her breath. Pepper felt winter open up around her, crystal-white snow that was blinding in the sunlight, the biting wind that cut through everything but the heaviest of coats, and the chill that was drawn into the body with each breath.

But it didn’t hurt, either, because as her skin and breath and blood felt that chill, her heart burned inside of her chest. It burned hot and relentlessly, aching beneath her breastbone with the desire to be there with him, the need to protect him from harm, and the yearning to bring down those who dare betray him.

Pepper pressed her hand over her chest, fingers curling on the soft fabric of her blouse as she held Tony’s gaze from across the room. His eyes burned into her soul. She could feel it, like a thumbprint on soft plastic, pressing in ridges and whorls in the shapes unique to Tony. She felt a flush crawl up her neck because it was such an intimate thing and yet she didn’t think there was anything romantic or sexual behind it. It was something other than that. Like Tony had chosen Pepper to be a pillar of his whole existence and, in that look he gave her, she could feel the weight of such a choice.

Maybe she should’ve been upset. After all, she didn’t think she should be responsible for holding up Tony’s life any more than she does as CFO and former assistant and best friend, but then…

Then he smiles and the light in his eyes, eerie and constant, is joined by the glint of his adoration and love for her- a platonic but intimate love. So he had built his world with her as one of the supports, but he didn’t demand anything from her because of that choice.

Pepper chose to follow and help and love him all on her own.

Pepper smiled back. Her hand relaxed over her heart.

Tony ducked away from Vanko, who doesn’t seem surprised, and crossed the room to Pepper. He holds out her hand, she takes it immediately. His grip is warm, hot almost, to Pepper’s freezing skin. He leans in, kisses her cheek, high on the cheekbone, a gesture he doesn’t do very often, or in front of others because of the gossip, the rumor, the easy way to misinterpret their comfort with each other as something more.

“I know you know where your room is,” he said quietly, “But allow me to escort you anyway?”

“Please,” Pepper said.

He leads her to the elevator, hand in hand, and she leans her head against his shoulder as they ride up to the penthouse, where Tony has always set aside a room for her and for Rhodes.

Pepper chews on the inside of her cheek, trying to figure out how to tell Tony she approves of all his gathered scientists. She even approves of Vanko, despite the stabbing. She keeps wondering about it all the way through the penthouse- which is that more familiar modern style of black and chrome and sharp, hard lines- to the door to her room.

This time, Pepper kisses Tony’s cheek and he crinkles his nose as he smiles.

“They’re good people, Tony,” Pepper said in the near darkness of the hallway. His eyes are the brightest thing and Pepper doesn’t mind the way they focus on her. Her heart is warm even if there is a frosty chill on her lips. “They’re good for the company. They’re good for what you’ve chosen them to do. And they’re good for you.”

Tony cupped Pepper’s cheek in one hand and she holds her breath for a long moment. He looks at her, that gaze that peers into the soul if Everhart is to be believed, and said quietly, “They’re going to help me protect the world and everyone on it. And not just once or haphazardly. We’re going to protect the world and we’re going to steer it into a new and bright future. Everything will be better, Pepper, for everyone.”

Pepper nodded.

Tony slowly moved back from her, smiling fiercely, “Goodnight, Pepper. Sleep well.”

Pepper smiled back. “Goodnight Tony, see  you tomorrow.” Then she turned and stepped into her room.

 

 


 

 

Tony stood just inside his bedroom door for a long, long time, wondering why he could feel Siberia’s frost clinging to his cheek where Pepper had kissed him.

He didn’t doubt that that was what he felt.

He remembered that chill. He remembered that ice.

He thought of that nightmare, in Monaco, months ago.

He thought of the Cradle, and how it looked from the inside.

He stared at nothing, his brain working hard to pull apart the information and figure out the finest detail of each moment, of each action, of each feeling. The ice. The touch. The Cradle. The nightmare.

But the answers seemed to slip through his fingers, intangible.

Frowning at himself, Tony shook his head and began to get ready for bed.

He’d contact Helen after the Expo when he had time to maneuver again. For now, he’d deal with what he had on his plate because there was plenty to work with already.

Tony fell asleep smiling.

Chapter Text

The morning of the Expo was the calm before the storm- though Tony knew that the only storm would be the inherent business and excitement of the Expo itself. The trouble that had occurred before was neutralized and nowhere was that more obvious than in the kitchen in the common room.

Upon waking up that morning, Tony skipped the empty penthouse kitchen and made immediately for the communal room that he and the others had gathered in together the night before. The elevator doors had opened to a heavenly smell and the distant sound of conversation. Tony walked in, hands wide and a grin on his face, “Ivan, have I told you how much I love you lately?”

Ivan, for his credit, looked up from his eggs with one dark eyebrow arched high and snorted. He didn’t reply, though, just shook his head and went back to scrambling the eggs in a bowl.

Beside him was Leonard, who looked far too cheerful for the morning. He had a healthy glow about him and Tony shuddered, almost certain that Leonard was the type to get up early and go for a run. Terrible. Typical doctor behavior. The man was slicing oranges in half, though Tony didn’t figure out why until he saw the contraption beside him on the counter.

“Leonard!” he exclaimed, pressing his hand to his chest in shock, “Don’t tell me you are doing what I think you’re doing!”

“Then I won’t. I’d hate to ruin your good mood,” Leonard said with a little shake of his head. “Sleep well, Tony?”

“Like a baby,” Tony said. He went around the bar to the area where they were working and investigated the coffee machine. Despite Leonard and his fresh orange juice, someone -probably Ivan- had started the coffee machine but it wasn’t ready quite yet. So he distracted himself by poking his head between the two of them, “What’s for breakfast?”

Ivan gestured idly towards Leonard, “Fresh juice and fruits.” He gestured towards the bowl beside him and the stove next to him, upon which a pan was cooking onions down to a perfect caramelized state. “Here, scrambled eggs.” He grabbed the wedge of sharp cheddar and held it out to Tony, “Slice cheese.”

“Yes sir,” Tony said. He scrounged up a knife an a cutting board and diligently went to slicing cheese while Ivan began the process of cooking the eggs.

“I didn’t know you liked to cook, Tony,” Leonard said from where he was cheerfully squeezing the very lifeblood out of a dozen oranges.

“Tony is shit in kitchen,” Ivan said, lifting his chin slightly and giving Tony a look that dared him to argue, “Destroyed a pan when boiling water.”

Tony made a face, “I got distracted and might have forgotten I set up some water to boil. It only happened once.”

“Tony is forbidden from working in the kitchen alone,” Ivan said.

“I can make coffee,” Tony complained. “You love my coffee.”

Ivan grunted, “Coffee is all machine. Machines are your playthings. Cooking is not.”

Leonard laughed.

Tony made another face at Ivan, but the big Russian didn’t bother responding, not when he was busy stirring in cut up pieces of bacon and spinach to his eggs. Tony didn’t know where Ivan learned to load up his scrambled eggs the way he did, but he’d never been disappointed by them.

“Sounds like fun in here,” Maya said as she walked into the room. She looked only a little tired and hid a yawn behind her hand as she took a seat at the bar, “What’s for breakfast?”

“Eggs and juice and coffee,” Tony said happily, “I think the coffee is about done, want some?”

“Please.” Maya nodded.

Tony set aside the pile of cheese he’d sliced and went to get mugs for coffee.

“Is there hot water?” That was Bruce, walking into the room with Betty trailing behind.

“There’s a kettle above the fridge, I think,” Leonard replied, “An electric one.”

Tony poured coffee for himself, Maya and Ivan, who took his mug and held it in one hand as he eyed the eggs cooking. Bruce set about heating up some water for tea while Betty sat down beside Maya. Tony smiled as he looked over the group, already chattering about things amongst themselves. He poured another cup for Erik, who wandered into the room, muttering “Coffee?” and looked like he could’ve used another couple of hours of sleep.

He wasn’t the only mutterer, either. Ivan eyed their growing numbers and got out more eggs, whisking them together with a shake of his head while the first batch of eggs sat covered, cheese melting in the trapped heat under the lid. Tony sipped his coffee and tried not to chuckle too loudly. Ivan was used to making enough for the two of them and Natasha, not a whole gaggle of hungry scientists.

The sound of the opening elevator doors distracted Tony from teasing Ivan for not realizing he’d need at least twice as many eggs. He turned to greet Pepper but a different redhead came walking out of the doors. And on Romanoff’s heels was Rhodes.

Tony put down his coffee cup and stood up. It was like with Pepper, where seeing her in the flesh made him realize he hadn’t seen her in far too long, except Rhodes was even longer.

Things had gotten strained between them, because of the canceled accounts between Stark Industries and the military. Rhodes had probably been spending the weeks and months in the interim answering questions and cleaning up the mess that Tony had made of their military contracts if the tired and grim way he looked at Tony said anything.

Tony barely saw Natasha, though he knew where she’d been and knew he had to speak to her before she vanished back into Shield’s ever so loving embrace. He had a difficult time taking his eyes off of Rhodes, who had arrived in the semi-professional clothing of a sports coat and slacks. Not his military dress, but not the casual clothes of a friend.

Natasha, however, didn’t falter a step. She reached Tony, stepping up to his side with her hand a fleeting touch on his shoulder. She leaned in and murmured, “You got my message?”

Tony spared her a glance and said with a smile that matched her own, half-there and secretive, “Nobody sent it.”

She nodded and stepped back, “We can talk after breakfast, hm? Vanko’s cooking smells delicious.”

“It does,” Tony’s smile became a grin, “Save some for me.”

“No promises,” Natasha replied before moving past him and to the bar. Tony didn’t worry for a moment that she’d integrate herself into the group. Depending on how Ivan felt towards her, she’d even have help.

Tony put Natasha from his mind and crossed the room to Rhodes, who had stopped near the couches, looking somber.

“Rhodey,” Tony greeted cheerfully, “Have you come for breakfast? Leonard made fresh orange juice!”

Rhodes looked past him, apparently saw Leonard and some of that grim look faded into fond exasperation, “Tones,” he said, “What the hell are you doing? Did you turn your Tower into some sort of hotel for the Expo?”

“Believe me, Rhodey,” Tony said with a roll of his eyes, “New York doesn’t need Stark Tower to become a billionaire’s personal hotel. No, no, these are some of my, eh, partners and such. One or two are contracted employees of Stark Industries, others I’m supporting with funding and tech. They’re here to see the Expo and meet each other and all that fun stuff.” Tony waved his hand to hurry the words along, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to see the Expo and meet some people and all that fun stuff,” Rhodes repeated back with a little sardonic smile, “What, can’t I come and visit my friend on the opening day of his big exposé?”

“Never said you couldn’t,” Tony said gently, “In fact, I’m pretty sure I had Jarvis send you an invite, or maybe a plane ticket? Or both?”

Rhodes sighed a little and, after a long, silent moment of thought, he put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. His grip was firm and he steered Tony away from the group, closer to the elevator, so they could speak more privately. Tony kept smiling, but his fingers made it halfway up to his chest before he could stop them from tapping out a nervous staccato on his covered reactor.

When he’d gaged the distance as far enough, Rhodes put his arm around Tony’s shoulder and leaned in, “Officially, I’m here to see if there’s been any wiggle room since your no-weapons-ever-again declaration. The military has been trying to turn to other people, like Hammer and other manufacturers, but they’re starting to notice a pattern, Tones. You keep getting to these guys first. Hammer’s lost half his research department because of your open door policy for new hires in new cities and they say you’re snapping up steel and metal manufacturing anywhere in the country you can get it done. I don’t know if you mean to keep getting in the way of the military in making weaponry, but they keep bumping into you and they don’t fucking like it, Tones.”

Tony nodded absently. He gripped his hands together tightly, fingers twisting to keep from restless tapping or something else that gave him away. It was easier to tuck his hands behind his back and hide how he felt that way. “And unofficially?”

Rhodes gave him a strange look, like he couldn’t quite figure Tony out like he used to and it bothered him, “Pepper said you were busy working on something whenever I contacted her and Jarvis said you were unavailable but in good health whenever I contacted him. You used to call me every week and talk my ear off about the shit you were up to, now I hear you’ve been tucked away in a lab somewhere off the grid and I can’t help but worry what kind of shit you’re up to without me to watch your back.”

Tony sucked in a sharp breath. The last time Rhodey had watched his back, Rhodey had ended up breaking his own.

Well, no. No, that was before. The last time this Rhodey had watched Tony’s back, he’d ended up in a cave.

Not that he could blame Rhodey for that. Not that he did or would or even though that. No, he was glad Rhodey hadn’t been with him when he was attacked. If he’d lost him then-

Tony untwisted his fingers from each other and reached up. Rhodes still had his arm around Tony’s shoulder, but that only made it easier for Tony to turn towards him, grabbing a fistful of his jacket’s lapel. He realized immediately the grip was too tight and forced his fingers to relax, smoothing them over wrinkled fabric. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I know you’ve been having to run interference with the Military for me. Jarvis has been keeping me up to date on that front as much as he can,” in truth, NOBODY was a lot more forthcoming with information, but JARVIS was the one that Rhodey knew, “And I regret that you have to be the one to answer all their questions, especially when you can’t reach me. But I promise it’s for a good reason.”

“Tony-”

“No, seriously,” Tony insisted, “I’m working on something big right now and it’s- It’s really important but kind of a secret. Not a bad secret, it’s a good one, but it’s got to stay a secret.”

“Have you told Pepper what it is?”

Tony winced.

“Tony-”

“Look, she’s busy. She took over for a while when I was getting the groundwork taken care of and she was getting the Expo set up- and yeah I was helping a little bit but this was important and I couldn’t just let it sit idle. Everything has to be ready so that when I’ve got the- Look, Rhodey, you’ve got to trust me. I know what I’m doing.”

“You say that Tony, but it’s really hard to believe it,” Rhodes said quietly. He looked him in the eye, a gaze that Tony could neither avoid nor escape, “I’ve seen the reports on your activity. I’ve read what scraps of information people have managed to gather on what you’re doing. I’ve had to resort on the fucking government intelligence agencies because you won’t talk to me. And from what I’ve gathered, you’re getting ready for something, Tony. You’re building something big and no one has been able to figure out what.

“People are freaking out, Tony. I’m freaking out, okay? I want to trust you. I just also want to make sure you’re not going way the fuck overboard because of some trauma you picked up in the war zone.”

Tony looked at Rhodes and struggled to contain his sadness. It was a deep and aching sort of sorrow, closer to grief than anything Tony had felt before. He wanted to protect Rhodes from that grief, but that only meant the look that Rhodes gave him now stung him, sharp and deep like a needle sinking down to his bones. Rhodes looked back at him, his gaze pleading even if he didn’t beg with his words. Rhodes was worried. Rhodes did want to trust him. Rhodes thought he was overreacting.

And, maybe if he knew what Tony was doing, he would think so. But he wouldn’t have all the details. He couldn’t have all the details. The only people who knew were the people Tony could trust without any reservation. JARVIS, NOBODY, SPIKE and now Kletka. They were the only ones who knew anything- though he’d had to tell more to Ivan than he had to Bruce or Pepper or anyone else.

Tony’s heart ached. He wanted to tell Rhodes but he couldn’t.

He couldn’t trust him.

“I’m just taking care of some stuff,” Tony said gently, pulling his hand away from Rhodes. “Don’t worry about it. The scientists and the jobs and the steel, don’t worry about it. I’ve also been getting plastic factories and recycling plants and water purifying plants, you know. My bombs used to destroy the planet and the people on it, Rhodes, I’m just trying to make up for that and that means more than helping people who were hurt. It means helping the planet, too, protecting it. Healing it. I’ve already got Pepper breathing down my neck every time I spend more than five million dollars on something, I don’t need you to do it too.”

Tony gave Rhodes a crooked smile that he hoped covered up the way Tony felt heartbroken because of the way he had to cover his actions with half-truths and unrelated activities. “I became a billionaire on the blood of thousands. I couldn’t spend it all even if I had a lifetime to do it in, so let me spend it the way that I want.”

Rhodes gave him another one of those long, thoughtful looks. Then he squeezed Tony’s shoulder and nodded slightly, “You’re still making reparations for the bombs.”

“I’ll always be making reparations,” Tony said quietly. Rhodes frowned at him and Tony shook his head, and repeated, “I’ll always need to make reparations. It will never be enough.”

“You can’t work yourself to the bone like this- You can’t live with this kind of burden on yourself-”

“I’m not carving out pieces of myself and giving them away,” Tony said with a roll of his eyes. That was closer to what he’d done with the Avengers, cutting away pieces of himself for them until all that was left was a dead man in a broken suit and a howling winter wind. “I’m spending my literally impossible to comprehend amounts of wealth on helping people. When you go to the Expo, you’ll see what I mean.”

Rhodes sighed and hung his head. Tony gave him a pat on the shoulder and was surprised when Rhodes pulled him into a brief, tight hug.

“I’m glad you haven’t been working yourself to the bone, though,” Rhodes muttered, “You look a lot better than before.”

Tony smiled. Over Rhodes’ shoulder, he could see a couple of heads turn away quickly, curious gazes hidden. Except for Ivan. He met Tony’s gaze and arched one of his eyebrows in that way he did.

Tony huffed out a laugh. He pulled free from the hug, Rhodes letting him go freely, and this time he was the one to steer Rhodes around to the group. “Come on,” he said, “Let me introduce you to the others. Have you had breakfast yet? I tell you, Ivan makes the meanest scrambled eggs this side of the Atlantic.”

Talking and joking with Rhodes was easy for Tony, even with the anxiety that dug in his belly and the way he knew he couldn’t talk to Rhodes the same way he used to. There were too many secrets that Tony knew, too many things that he couldn’t let anyone else know.

Too much information that he had to keep close to his chest, close as the arc reactor, close as the memories, the fears, the scars, the ice, and snow. He couldn’t even show that he had these things, let alone what they were.

So he smiled and he introduced and he teased and he talked and he enjoyed this moment.

There were so few moments as happy as these.

 

 


 

 

Natasha found him catching his breath behind the scenes of the Expo’s main stage. She appeared out of the shadows with a water bottle and a faint smile.

From where he sat on some supply box, Tony looked up from his phone and smiled back. She held out the bottle and he took it, holding it’s cool edge to his forehead first. He was unusually warm, running on adrenaline and excitement and caffeine and a little sweaty from it all. Natasha leaned against the wall next to him, her eyes dropping from his face to his phone.

“I’m trying to decide,” she began suddenly, “if I should be upset with myself for being surprised that you have three AI and no one knows it, or if I should be upset that you have created an AI skilled enough to break into the surveillance system of a prison.”

“If it helps,” Tony said after he was sure she was waiting for him to respond, “About half the prisons in the states use Stark Tech to run their systems. It’s entirely possible that there are backdoors in everything I’ve made, just in case.”

Natasha blinked once and then cocked her eyebrow in nearly the same way Ivan did, wordlessly asking if Tony thought she was an idiot. “Not that prison. I checked.”

“Ah, well,” Tony shrugged, “I’m sure there’s some reason.” He cracked open the water bottle and took a drink with a satisfied sigh. It was cool and he was thirstier than he’d thought. “I wouldn’t be too hard on myself if I were you.”

Natasha shifted slightly on her feet and when she spoke, the conversation had shifted with her, “My assignment is up after the Expo.”

Tony sat up a little straighter. He’d be sad to see her leave. It was fun having her around and he’d finally stopped seeing her with the betrayal of her counterpart hovering in his mind, “All my secrets have been revealed to the public and none of them are as interesting as the director thought? I do wish I could’ve seen his face when he realized.”

She gave him a weird little smile, “My messages back kept getting censored, even when I was using a secure line. Even when I wasn’t sending anything sensitive. Clearly, I’m the wrong operative for the operation.”

“And they have another avenue of persuasion and attack they want to pursue,” Tony said with a little nod, “They’re moving forward with Stane.”

“That wasn’t a question,” Natasha said, “Even if it was, I wouldn’t know.”

“I let them unfreeze his accounts,” Tony said, looking down at the ground, “He still isn’t showing any signs of degradation, but it’s only a matter of time. The rigid daily structure of the prison helps keep him in check, but it’s only a matter of time…”

“If he gets out on bail-”

“He won’t be able to get anywhere outside of the country,” Tony promised. His fingers tightened on the plastic. “After all, most planes are just really complicated computers.”

Natasha’s foot scraped on the ground as she straightened up, “Stark-”

Tony looked up at her, meeting her gaze, “I would never bring down a plane, but I promise, he won’t be able to leave the country before the effects overwhelm him. And then he won’t be fit to make any decisions.”

He saw her take in a deep breath and wondered if she would ask him what he had put in the vials. She had to be curious. It clearly wasn’t a poison or a virus and, as far as anyone could tell, Stane was still completely sane and normal. He’d had NOBODY keep an eye on things and so far, no one had even suspected a break-in occurred in the jail. Stane would fall apart and it would seem like an entirely natural process- neither he nor Natasha would be suspected of anything.

But she didn’t ask that. Instead, she spoke so quietly her lips barely moved, “You’re a dangerous man when crossed, Tony Stark.”

Tony didn’t argue with that. He just nodded and said, “I hope you never have reason to cross me, Natasha. I like you a lot and I admire you. Your past wasn’t pretty or easy to overcome but you didn’t let it dictate your future. You have a lot of strength.”

He could tell his words unnerved her by the way she folded her arms tight across herself and how she lowered her chin slightly, unconsciously defending her neck. “The things you say show you know more than you should and the things you know make you more dangerous than many men I have ever met,” Natasha said, watching him with her eyes hard, “And the more dangerous you are, the more of a target you have upon your back.”

“My life has always been interesting,” Tony said with a shrug, “At least this way I made it interesting myself instead of inheriting it from someone else.”

“You need someone watching your back, Stark. Someone you can trust. Someone who can face down your enemies and do what you cannot,” she tilted her head a little, “Like Vanko, who compliments your science in doing what you cannot do, you need someone at your back, willing to put a bullet in places that you refuse to do yourself.”

“I don’t want people to die,” Tony said.

“People always die,” Natasha replied.

Tony didn’t argue that. He lowered his gaze again. He thought of his mother and the hands around her throat.

“After the Expo ends,” Natasha said after he’d had some silence to think, “I return to Shield. They’ll most likely send me off to some other mission after I’ve given them my full report and got some rest. Considering how much I failed on this mission, I doubt I will see you again.”

Tony looked up at her, “You didn’t fail.”

Natasha rolled her eyes, “I gathered no useful information about you. I don’t know what you’re building. I don’t know who you’re building it with. I had to spend endless weeks finding some way to entertain myself in the middle of nowhere, I barely even had access to wireless internet, in order to send messages, and what messages I did send were jumbled messes half the time. I didn’t even manage to keep you from getting stabbed, Stark. I failed my mission.”

Tony’s gaze softened. He heard what she didn’t say with those words. NOBODY would remain a secret. Kletka would remain unknown to Shield. She was protecting his AI at the expense of how she appeared to Shield. Natasha met his eyes and then looked away. She smiled bitterly to the darkness, “At least Shield’s idea of a punishment is mountains of paperwork behind a desk.”

“Well, I thought you were successful in something,” Tony said, getting to his feet and then stepping towards her.

“Oh?” Natasha asked.

“You treated Kletka like a person and you made her happy,” Tony said with a smile, “That’s at least two things, there.” He reached out and put his hand on Natasha’s shoulder, “She’ll miss  you, you know.”

Natasha hesitated for a moment and then ducked her head, “I convinced her to upload herself to my personal phone,” Natasha muttered, “So we will still be able to communicate, so long as you don’t forbid it.”

“You’re good for her,” Tony said, “I’d never keep you from her unless you were a danger.”

Natasha closed her eyes and said nothing. Tony squeezed her shoulder and then stepped back.

“I should go get back to work,” he said with a sigh, “Ugh, being on stage is hard fucking work.”

Natasha gave him a brief nod. Even in the darkness, her eyes glittered with more emotion than she’d showed him to this point. Her expression remained impassive, despite her gaze.

Tony smiled sadly. He would miss her. She’d been around in his life, day after day, in his life before and in this one now...

“Goodbye, Natasha,” he said and turned, walking away.

Just before he was out of earshot, Tony heard Natasha say after him, “Goodbye, Tony.”

Tony felt his heart ache at her voice but kept walking.

If she wanted to, she would find her way back to him, of that he had no doubt.

Nothing kept Natasha away from what she wanted, not even Shield.

 

 


 

 

The Expo was a whirlwind of activity.

There were parties and dinners and speeches and breakfasts and Tony was pretty sure that someone roped him into an impromptu general staff meeting because he ended up swarmed by his R&D ducklings who had designed, horror of horrors, a confetti blaster and wanted to test it out in celebration of a successful Expo.

Tony was pretty sure they could blot out the sun with that much confetti, but it hadn’t really been a problem until the industrial fans.

At least everyone had a good time, which they all damn well deserved after putting together the Expo that Tony had envisioned all those months ago.

The event itself was like one huge festival or state fair. There were food trucks and face painting and animal balloons and kids running around everywhere. There even were some carnival games, because Pepper had suggested it and Tony had agreed. He wanted people to be happy and some of the things that he had put in the Expo would open old wounds for visitors in ways they probably didn’t expect.

Like the building dedicated to prosthetics, simple ones and complex ones, all more intricate than the ones available to the public now. People who didn’t need them marveled and talked about cyborgs and the future. People who needed them had more hard-hitting questions like how much it would cost and when would they be available and did Tony Stark really expect to make up for the bombs by giving arms to those who lost limbs to his weapons?

The answers they got always surprised them.

Less than they thought.

By the end of the year.

Tony Stark will be making up for the bombs until the end of his life.

Kanti Sodhi, the one Tony had chosen to be in charge of the prosthetic building because of her tact, patience, and knowledge of the material, had given him a strange look but Tony knew she wouldn’t change his words on him. She might think he’d done enough to make up for what he’d done as a younger man but Tony knew better.

Tony would always be making reparations. He’d told Rhodes as much.

 

 

 

Of course, there were other booths and other buildings that displayed non-Stark inventions as well. Gaming companies displayed VR headsets and he was pretty sure there was even one about high-end cookware or something. Tony had left most of that up to Pepper to decide. His one rule had been no weapons, of any kind. It prevented Hammer and people like him from displaying anything, but that was what Tony wanted.

He wanted people to think of the future without thinking they had to bomb the present to get there. He wanted them to see the future and think about what they could all have, together, instead of tearing each other apart to manage with what little they had for themselves.

Tony wanted to change the way people thought and, out of necessity, that meant taking away the things he didn’t want them to consider.

Maybe it was manipulative. Maybe it was dishonest.

Maybe Tony didn’t care.

He just didn’t want people to die if he could help it.

 

 


 

 

It never failed to amuse Ivan how he worked and lived and traveled in America without having gone through any sort of legal documentation.

True, he had identification and he had paperwork and he could get on a plane and fly a nice commercial flight from New York to Montana without trouble, but he knew where all that paperwork had come from. Tony didn’t grease any wheels with money or favors to get it done. He’d just told his AI to get it and they had.

Not Kletka, she was too isolated still, and probably not SPIKE, whose specialty was protection and defense, not finding his way into places he should not be. No, Ivan was pretty sure that it was JARVIS who had actually gathered together all the relevant information and had it mailed, in pieces from legitimate agencies, to Ivan.

So Ivan, undocumented but with documents, prepared for his flight back. He wasn’t going alone- Tony was sending the psychologist, Leonard Samson- out with him. He wasn’t going out there permanently, but Tony wanted him to pick out which rooms he would need for his project, once Tony acquired the final piece.

Ivan didn’t mind Leonard too much. He thought it a little strange that Tony thought so highly of him while simultaneously shunning any attempt to see a therapist for himself, but Ivan understood. He and Tony were similar that way. The wounds that made them the men that they were were not the kinds of wounds that could be healed. The wounds were deep and old and even if they worked to clear them, the scars would forever be there.

Ivan thought Tony did not mind so much the man that he had become as a result of these wounds. Ivan certainly did not mind the man that Tony had become, the passionate, driven kind of man who moved restlessly towards a brighter future. Tony had his eyes on the path ahead and nothing could pull him to either side.

Ivan liked working with Tony, though he’d never imagined himself doing so before. That was why he was going to miss him. The work that Ivan had to do would be a little more lonesome without Tony there to argue about music or to supply with food and coffee or to badger for information. Ivan was sure he’d almost gotten Tony to break and tell him the truth about his eyes, but now his efforts had to be set aside.

For, as Ivan went back to Montana, with Leonard as a sort of company, Tony was returning to his own home, and his ‘bots’. They would still be able to communicate over video and call like Tony did with Bruce and Betty and Erik in New Mexico, but Ivan knew already it wouldn’t be the same.

Still, he understood Tony better than he thought others did.

Tony needed time to himself. He needed space for his thoughts, a whole room in fact.

Eyes on the future, feet on the path, Tony needed time to figure out his next plan.

Ivan understood him well enough, which is why he did not tell Tony that he would miss him. Only that when he was ready, he should come back to Montana. There would always be space in Ivan’s workshop for him.

And Tony, who sometimes seemed much more vulnerable a soul than Ivan would have thought before, gave him a look of gratitude as bright as the morning sun on a cold winter morning.

Yes, Ivan wanted to bring Tony back to Montana, where he could make sure the man rested and ate and did not lose sight of himself while he worked on his plans, but Ivan knew better. There was nothing to be done for it now. Tony had to be alone. Tony had to make his plans.

Tony had to decipher the next steps into the future that would be good for them all.

Still…

Still…

Ivan would miss him while he was gone.

Leonard was just not the same.

 

 


 

 

Tony walked into his Malibu mansion, smelling salt faintly in the air and, more strongly, the cleaning agents that had been used to prep the place for his return. JARVIS was attentive to his return, as always, and Tony knew that he’d been away for a long time, longer than he usually was without moving the bots to join him wherever he was. Despite the time he’d spent with Kletka and NOBODY, he missed Dum-E and U and Butterfingers.

“J,” Tony said, speaking into the seemingly empty house, “Sorry I’ve been gone for so long.”

“You are never far from me, Sir,” JARVIS replied gently, “Though it is good to have you home. The bots missed you.”

Tony smiled, “I missed them too.” He ran his hand through his hair and then heaved a heavy sigh. So much to do, so little time… “Go ahead and wake them up. I’m going to take a shower and then get to work.”

“At once, Sir.”

“And Jarvis?” Tony added as he walked towards his bathroom.

“Yes?”

“Tell NOBODY we’re going to be digging through the Shield servers sooner rather than later, so I need her to get everything unlocked and ready for me,” Tony grimaced slightly and added in a slightly lower voice, “I figured out what I’m going to do with their little parasite.”

“I will inform her at once, Sir,” JARVIS said.

Tony sighed. This part was never going to be very pleasant, but at least he had an idea for it. Almost anything would be better than dumping the damn servers online, though with his AIs out on the web, that kind of thing just wouldn’t happen again.

He tried to shake the gloom from his thoughts, so he could focus on less dreadful things, but even under the heat of the shower, Tony’s thoughts continued to circle around and around.

Hopefully, things with Thor wouldn’t be very delicate- Tony had only his memories of what he’d been told and had read about from his previous life to work with and there was no telling if something was going to be different. This world was different. He had made it different. He just hoped he hadn’t changed things too much, but, knowing that the Tesseract was still in Shield’s hands, he was confident in one thing.

Someone would be sent through the portal to attack the Earth, if not Loki- and he had no reason to think it wouldn’t be Loki- then someone else.

So Tony had to get ready, had to get his hands on the Tesseract, had to start dealing with Shield’s corrupt underbelly, had to turn his attention from Ivan to Jane. Ivan was all set up with Kletka and things would work out fine there. It was Jane and Erik that Tony had to work with now.

Tony closed his eyes tightly, leaning his forehead against the tile as the hot water streamed down his head, his neck and shoulders. His fingers, braced against the tile, tapped an unconscious rhythm as his brain raced along. He needed to get down to the workshop. He always worked better with something in his hands.

Shaking his head, Tony focused on the immediate problem of finishing his shower.

Everything else could be dealt with after he was showered and clean again.

 

Chapter Text

In the brightly lit workshop, Tony could pretend it wasn’t the middle of the night. He could pretend that he’d found some pocket of space where time didn’t pass at the same rate as the world around it. He could pretend that there were no shadows for anyone to hide in. He could pretend that he had absolutely everything under control.

And so far as that thing was mechanical or electrical or inanimate, he did. He had absolute control.

It was just his own head that ran without reigns. Usually, he could guide his thoughts from project to project, jumping and sprinting and following the trains of thought that lead from old worn ideas to new interesting lands. He lost track of time often enough, but he didn’t lose sight of his work.

Except for now.

There had been whole afternoons and evenings and those silent pre-dawn hours where he’d tinkered on the thing in his hands while his brain had worked on other details, other plans, and now, after so many hours and days and weeks of absent-minded work, he was face to face with something that he hadn’t really planned on making. At least, not this time around.

The metal suit stood on its stand in front and a little above him. The metal was unpainted and unpolished, still showing the brush lines on the metal and rougher edges of his hand-made work. To anyone else, it would look like a perfect thing, near-seamless plates of metal hooked together with wiring and specially modified fabric to give the joints flexibility and protection while in use. It looked like a goddamn suit of armor except with that modern edge that meant it had missiles in it.

Tony wasn’t even quite sure if he’d put missiles in it, but he probably had.

It was a new model, too. Not like the last one- that one that didn’t really exist anymore- and it had a little more thickness to it, a little more bulk. Not weight, god no, but there was an extra layer inside, a thin but insulated material. He’d designed the suit so it wouldn’t freeze up in the atmosphere once and now he’d modified it so that he wouldn’t freeze up on the inside, either.

But even that wasn’t the biggest change to this version, what was it, the eightieth? The seventy-ninth? Hell, he might as well start the numbering over at one again.

People would lose their goddamn mind if they saw this and thought it was his first one. He was a genius, everyone knew that, but the specs on this thing…

Tony’s eyes closed briefly. He’d made the specs while half dead in Siberia and it showed. It showed in the insulation. It showed in the rough look of the thing. It showed in the chest piece, flat and dark and made with vibranium. It, and the matching plate on the back of the suit, were the only two pieces of vibranium.

It was all he had been able to make out of that shield.

Tony’s hands opened and closed at his sides.

The suit stood there, faceplate looking straight forward, and did nothing.

Not that it should. Not that it would.

Tony wasn’t even sure who to put in the suit- well obviously himself but-

There were others now. Not just JARVIS and the bots. Many others.

A ping behind him, familiar and distracting, gave Tony something else to focus his mind on. He turned his head towards the far wall, where that black screen lay in waiting and said, “Show me.”

Instantly the screen lit up to show the inside of a vehicle he was quite familiar with these days- not in the old days, he’d never seen it then, only heard of it- and a faint smile pulled at his lips as he saw Jane Foster lit up from a crack of lightning outside the window. She’d insisted on keeping the damn piece of junk car, even with Tony’s money funding her research. People were incredibly sentimental.

Tony tried not to think about how his being sentimental had led him to build the suit that was standing four feet away from him like an ominous, silent metal guardian.

The video kept jostling around like a found footage movie and Tony realized that was because NOBODY had picked Darcy Lewis’s phone’s camera to hack into. Lewis was taking the recording of Foster driving, but only occasionally, mostly recording the wicked storm that had brewed up around them. Tony couldn’t hear anything- NOBODY usually left things muted- but he saw the shadow briefly across the front window when Foster hit something- or someone.

Thor, Tony thought. Was he on time or was he early? Tony wasn’t quite sure what day it was anymore. Pepper and JARVIS managed his calendar. He’d been hopping up to visit Ivan in Montana for the launches- they’d already had a dozen satellites put into orbit, giving Kletka access to about half the planet. And Ivan never bothered to schedule things based on things like days of the week- launches happened when the weather and tilt of the planet was in the right position, day or night.

He also went up to visit Bruce in Colorado infrequently, curious to see what he was up to, anxious to see the man who he still considered his friend even if this Bruce was a little more standoffish with him. Betty was nice, though. Betty appreciated what Tony had set out to do even more after the one time she’d tried to contact her father.

Tony smiled.

Thor was a good distraction from the suit he didn’t mean to build. Thor meant he could play a few more cards, get a little more information, make some movement. Tony was getting tired of waiting for things to snowball.

“I want eyes on Shield,” Tony said, “They won’t turn a blind eye to this and I want to know when they start talking about what Jane is up to.”

“Yes, Sir,” was JARVIS replying, even though it was NOBODY who would do the watching. She was shy, though, Tony understood. Didn’t like to talk. Big fan of texting and emojis, though, which was fine with Tony.

The screen split. Foster on the left and SHIELD on the right. It was rotating now, searching for someone who was in charge of the situation and settles on none other than Phil Coulson. Tony shakes his head, not surprised in the least as NOBODY’s attention follows him down some SHIELD hallway, flicking from one camera to the next.

Tony wanders back to his workbench. A sort of restlessness comes over him and he searches about, looking for something to tinker with. His attention settles on the half-constructed code floating above one table off to the side and he goes to it. With a flick of his fingers, he pulls up the small spherical display. Where JARVIS is that honey-gold of sunlight, this one is a deep blue-green, reminiscent of the ocean. Tony turns the code around and around a few times before he gets to work.

He’s not sure how much time it’ll take for SHIELD to get their act together and move out to New Mexico, but he’s not in a rush. This little one was for later, much, much later. At least, Tony hoped so.

 

 


 

 

Jane pinches the bridge of her nose with one hand as she listens to Darcy and Erik talking with Thor. Or rather, its Erik talking to the nurse and Darcy cooing over Thor and Thor enthusiastically telling some story that’s got to be embellished because there’s no way in hell that he’s anything but a very, very dedicated LARPer, committed to his act right down to the too-loud voice and backwards manner of speaking.

The other option is that he’s an alien and everything he’s said and saying is true and that Jane nearly ran over the Prince of Asgard, the same prince that Darcy tased and is now bonding over tasers and arm muscle with. Jane can’t believe the way her life has gone sideways since that storm. The readings she was getting had been spectacular. There had been something in all that thunder and electrical discharge and she was hoping to get new information about the bridge that haunted her mind’s eye, the one she’d never seen but had to exist, all the data was there if she could just collect it-

But instead of data, she’d just gotten Thor.

Erik came back from the doorway with a worried look. His mouth was pressed into an uncertain line and he took Jane’s elbow gently, turning her away from the other two. Darcy had just rolled up her sleeve as if she had any muscle to show off, and Thor was laughing at something she’d said. Jane understood, on some level, that Darcy was mostly just distracting the man, but she also knew how Darcy felt about guys who looked a lot like Thor, the long hair, and muscle types.

“There’s nothing wrong with him,” Erik said to her without preamble, “So he’s being discharged. Now, I can take him out to some part of town and leave him there if that’s what you think is best but…” his words tapered off.

Jane frowned at him, “But?”

“But what if he’s who he says he is?” Erik said. His mouth barely moves with the words and he’s stubbornly not looking at Thor. “Prince of Asgard, sent to our planet to learn some lesson because of his father. He got hit by a car, Jane, and you weren’t driving five miles an hour. The poor engine looks worse than he does and the windshield…” he shrugged, “We’re lucky we have the other truck to get around in, to be honest. That old thing’s got to go to the shop.”

“That would mean he’s an alien, Erik,” Jane whispers back. “An alien.” How can he not see that? But of course he does see that. He looks at her with eyes that have accepted that fact and Jane feels her skin go cold as he shakes his head and shrugs like there’s nothing he can do. She knows what he’s going to say before he does and, damn it, she should’ve seen it coming.

“He is,” Erik said, “Dr. Stark did mention that we might stumble over one or two in our studies.”

“Yes,” Jane said, trying not to be furious because Erik was being obtuse on purpose, “He did say that. As a joke.”

Erik just shrugged at her again, which was not helpful.

“Uhhh Jane?” Darcy called to her. Jane looked over and saw Thor hopping off the bed. He was tall and broad-shouldered and, with his easy smile, didn’t seem like much of a threat but there was a way that he walked towards the door that did not bode well for anyone who tried to stop him. Darcy watches him go with a somewhat wistful look while Jane wants to get something for the headache forming behind her eyes. “Thor’s hankering for breakfast,” Darcy explained as Thor opened the door, ducked his head and headed out, “He’s done ‘indulging the healer’s needless worry’,” she adds air-quotes with one hand.

Erik swears under his breath and hurries out. Jane and Darcy follow.

Thor, thank god, does not search the hospital for food. He waits for them in the hallway, looking curiously back and forth and Jane takes the lead quickly. “This way to the exit,” she says. Thor follows her easily enough and soon they’re out in the world again.

She turns to the right once they’re out on the street, headed to the truck that works as their back up vehicle when another car pulls up beside her. The top is down on the bright red convertible and the sunlight flashes off the chrome. Jane fights back the exasperation she feels as it slides smoothly up along the sidewalk beside her and comes to a stop.

The man behind the wheel shifts the car into park and then leans back, his arm stretching out over the back of seat next to him, “Dr. Foster! Fancy running into you here!”

Jane doesn’t know exactly how much of her life or her work Tony Stark keeps track of, because he’s never offered to share that information and her knowledge of computers doesn’t include hacking them to see what’s ticking inside, but every time he’s wanted to find her and talk to her he’s been able to do so without a word of how hard it is. Jane still vividly remembers coming out of the camper to the sound of an engine when she was fifty miles from civilization, alone, only to see Tony Stark and his shiny red car idling down the dusty trail of a not-quite-road to come and, of all things, bring her coffee and ‘catch up on the space-bridgey-stuff’.

Tony Stark terrifies Jane, in the kind of way that Thor, with his huge arms and his propensity to yell and recover too quickly from car crashes and tasing and tranquilizers, doesn’t.

Thor could probably put her through a wall without a thought, without a drop of sweat beading his too perfect brow.

Tony Stark could take away everything that Jane worked on and keep it away from her, like an adult holding a child’s toy over their head, and make Jane as useless to the world, to herself, as she was always afraid of being.

And still, he smiled at her, treated her with his generosity and her work with interest that she couldn’t quite tell if it was feigned or not, like he didn’t have his hand on the switch that made her life worth living.

That’s a bit unfair, Jane thought to herself as she smiled back and greeted him with a warm tone, “Dr. Stark, you’ve decided to get some sun?” It’s not like I couldn’t work without his money or his tech or his help. It would just be hard. I did it before, I could do it again.

But maybe not. Before, Stark hadn’t known who she was, hadn’t bothered with her work. She had no idea what her life would be like if she ever got on his bad side. Maybe he wasn’t a Merchant of Death anymore, but Darcy had read her the articles about Obadiah Stane before he’d been put up in the mental hospital. You turn on Tony Stark and he will bring you to your knees. And he’ll manage to give fifteen other people a job while doing it, too.

Tony’s head turns slightly and even though she can’t see his eyes behind the shades, at least, not with how bright it is outside negating the glow of the orange, Jane realizes he’s looking to the big man a couple feet behind Jane. Thor has come to a stop and is admiring the car with a bit of curiosity and is looking at Tony with a bit of interest.

“Dr. Stark,” Jane said with a gesture to Thor, “This is Thor.”

Thor straightens up, looks at Tony directly. “Prince Thor Odinson.” He gives Jane a look that’s amused, maybe a little irritated, because he probably thinks Jane should believe he is who he says he is and not be suspicious of him. Jane just wants to see if he’ll keep up the antics in front of the richest man in America.

Or if he’ll even recognize Tony.

“Dr. Tony Stark,” Tony said with his customary grin. “I didn’t know you got a new assistant, Jane, though he doesn’t seem the research type. But then again, you guys do need help lugging around those computers everywhere, don’t you?”

“Not for a while,” Jane replied with a little smile, “The outpost is pretty set up. We’re doing mobile studies with the camper for a while,” She winced, “Or we were. Erik needs to take it to a shop to get looked at.”

“Anyone get hurt in the wreck?” Tony asked.

By this time, Darcy and Erik have joined them and Darcy gives a wave that Tony returns. Erik just lingers on the other side of Thor, still wary of him.

“No, we’re all fine,” Jane said, “We just got out of the hospital and were headed out to eat.”

“Sounds delightful,” Tony’s light tone seems wrong, somehow, and Jane frowns. “I’d love to join you, but I’m on my way to lay down some bug traps. Bring me a coffee when you’re done, would you? I’ll be at your outpost when I finish up.”

“Sure thing, Tony,” Darcy quips before Jane can even open her mouth, “How many espressos are you going to cram into one cup this time?”

“Only three,” Tony laughed. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a bill and tossed it to Darcy, which she caught and then saluted him with. “And, what the hell, add a little whip cream on top. It’s a treat myself kind of day.”

Darcy, the wild little angel that she was, then looped her arm through Thor’s and said, “Come on big guy, let's go introduce you to an all American breakfast. Have you got a sweet tooth? I hope you’ve got a sweet tooth.”

Thor says something about his teeth not being sweet, but Darcy laughs and Jane turns her attention back to Tony, who is still there but isn’t smiling now.

“Don’t take too long, Janey,” Tony said, his tone light but his shades now lowered slightly. The orange ring of his eyes burns Jane and she feels herself nodding. “I’ll go lay some spike traps for our inevitable houseguests, but they won’t be very happy about it. Not sure what bullshit they’ll try to pull, but,” he shrugged one shoulder and pressed his glasses back into place, “I’ll make sure we all land on our feet in the end.”

“Thank you, Tony,” Jane said. Erik’s come up to her side and looks worried. She doesn’t like the expression on his face, prefers it when he’s furrowed his brow in concentration, worrying at a problem like a kid worried a loose tooth. “We’ll catch up soon.”

Tony nods and pulls his car away and into traffic, not that two cars at thirty miles an hour is much in the way of traffic, with ease. He’s down the street and turning at a light as Jane and Erik make their way down the sidewalk to the diner that Darcy’s dragged Thor into.

 

 


 

 

Heimdall refocuses his attention on the little piece of desert on Midgard with a slight frown. There had been a light, warm and orange, that had negated his vision momentarily. The best description he can think of is how the light will sometimes catch on the golden castle, reflecting off of its surface so blindingly bright that he has to blink away the light and the spots that threaten to darken his vision. It is like that, but not quite like that.

But it is as quick as that, there and gone and he can once more see the Prince, walking with Midgardians, partaking in their food and hospitality. The disturbance is gone and he puts it aside in his thoughts as it clearly has done nothing to Thor, nor does he seem to have even noticed it.

With a silent sigh, he shifts his feet and settles his weight a little differently on his heels. Midgard, even with Thor upon it, is not very interesting.

 

 


 

 

The truck bounces along the street, pulling out of town and towards the outpost, kicking up dust as Jane picks up speed. Not too much, of course, because Darcy is keeping Thor company in the truck bed and no matter what he seems to be able to endure, Darcy’s not nearly as tough and Jane will not be responsible for getting her hurt. Erik’s worried look has returned after their morning breakfast. He can see what Jane has already noticed.

The tire tracks in the road ahead of them. Or the not-road. They’re fresh enough that they haven’t blown away in the wind and one of them is over some roadside shrubbery and the plant still hasn’t uncrumpled any. She wouldn’t be worried if there weren’t so many tracks, but what she sees definitely cannot be explained away by her truck or Tony’s little two-seater.

Then they round the bend before the outpost and Jane takes her foot off the gas in surprise.

Four, no, five big black SUVs are parked around her campsite and the place is crawling with people in suits and shades. At first, her heart lurches to the side as she thinks Stark Industries is taking it all back but there’s something… not right with that thought. She remembers when she met the SI employees before, the ones who delivered the computers that are now being boxed up and taken away again. They had SI on the sides of their cars and they sure as hell weren’t dressed all the same, in suits that scream government agency.

She looks around, desperate for that shine of hot-rod red and she sees Tony’s car way off to the side. The man himself is leaning against the back of it and he’s got his arms folded across his chest, watching what’s going on. But no one is talking to him, no one is waiting for his input. In fact, there’s one or two that are standing idly by, one with her hand on her hip, jacket pulled back enough that Jane can see the gun she’s not quite touching, and the other with his hands folded behind his back. He looks like he’s the one in charge, maybe, but Jane can’t help but feel heartsick and betrayed anyway.

Easing down on the gas again, Jane pulls up on the other side of Tony’s car. He looks up when she gets there, flashes her a peace sign and she’s just, so confused. She numbly turns off the car and climbs out. Thor has jumped out the back and Darcy is with him. Erik is the slowest to exit, staring in bewilderment that’s slowly turning into something else, his eyes beyond Stark and the two suits.

“Here,” Darcy says to Tony. She makes a great show of putting the cup on the trunk of the convertible, “Though I’m not sure you deserve it. What the hell is going on here?”

Tony picks up the cup with one hand. With his phone in his other hand, he gestures over his shoulder at the commotion, “I’d just finished my upgrades to your security system when Mr. and Mrs. Smith over there came waltzing in and demanded everything. I don’t think they were expecting me there, to be honest, because they called me Dr. Foster by accident.” He gave a little smile and drank from the cup. “I told them they couldn’t take anything, but you know those shady government types. They gotta have it all.”

Darcy scowled, “You just let them take everything? All that stuff in there is your tech! They’re probably doing this just to get their hands on it.”

“Well, not everything,” Tony said. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small white iPod, with the headphones still wrapped tight around it. “They were busy running their mouths and I figured you probably don’t have any secret information on your iPod. Unless, of course, they’re desperate for some decent music to listen to.”

The return of her iPod mollifies Darcy. She takes it and turns it over in her hands, stepping back to show it to Thor, who doesn’t look as amused by what’s going on as he was when they were introducing him to the assortment of breakfast foods.

“Where are they taking it all?” Jane asks. Erik is silent beside her, shaking his head, turned away. “And when are we going to get it back? Because they can’t keep it. It isn’t- It isn’t even that special- honestly there’s not much in there-”

“They’re taking it to a nearby shady government base, I suspect.” Tony said, “I mean, it’s not like they have the capability to look at it in the field. They’ve got to cart it all off to their own dark hidey hole and poke at all the numbers and files and sniff around until they’re sure that what they’ve found is either the real deal or a pile of shit.” He shrugged his shoulder, “I wouldn’t worry, though, I mean. I would worry if they’d gotten around to doing this like, four hours ago or yesterday or something, but not now.”

“What did  you do?” Erik says at last, soft, just like in the hospital. His lips barely move but his eyes are on the outpost. “You said you upgraded security. Did you expect this? Why didn’t you say… what did you do?”

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” Tony replies, “I couldn’t interrupt that for you. Pepper would be furious at me if I made others pick up my bad habits.”

“That’s not an answer,” Jane said, taking up where Erik lapsed into silence again. He didn’t look worried so much anymore, or as heartbroken as she’d felt. Now he just looked, intent. Somber. Like he was seeing something at work that reminded him of something else, something he didn’t much like to remember.

“Well I told you that already, didn’t I?” Tony answered with a quirk of an eyebrow. “I bumped security. Laid some spike traps. Or more specifically, I installed SPIKE. Don’t worry, once you get everything back, you won’t even notice him. He’s pretty quiet, doesn’t like to get in the way. Not anti-social, god no, he’s plenty chatty with the other kids but he takes his job very seriously and hasn’t yet picked up his big brother’s sassy mouth.”

“What?” Jane said weakly.

“Mr. Stark,” the man in the suit, who had been standing some distance away, called out to them now. He had a neutral expression, something almost smiling but not quite, as he walked up with the woman a half step behind and to his left. “Dr. Foster. Dr. Selvig. Ms. Lewis. And…”

“I am Thor, son of Odin,” Thor’s voice was loud enough that Jane saw several of the government thieves pause and look over.

“A pleasure,” the man made his voice warm with his smile, “I’m Agent Coulson. I wanted to thank you for releasing your research into our capable hands. I do appreciate the cooperation.”

Disgust ripples through Jane, “Cooperation?” She repeats at him, “I did not cooperate. You completely blindsided me with this, this theft . What do you want with my research? What are you planning on doing with it?”

Before he can reply, Tony cuts in, “We’re happy to be of service, Agent. If you have any questions about what you find on the files, Dr. Foster will be more than happy to translate them so that you and yours can understand.” He’s giving that shark smile, the one that he’d given Jane when she’d at first resisted his efforts to fund her research. Agent Coulson doesn’t seem to respond to it, but Jane has to suppress a shiver.

“That won’t be necessary,” Agent Coulson said with a shake of his head, “But thank you. We’ll be out of your hair in just a little bit, don’t worry. And thank you again. You work is a valuable contribution to the safety of the United States of America.” He said as though Jane’s fury can be salvaged by false patriotism. He nods at them and then turns and leaves, the woman, silent and watchful, at his side.

“Ugh,” Darcy muttered, “I feel gross.”

“Anyway,” Tony said, turning around to look at Jane. He took a meaningful drink from his cup and grinned at her, no longer that shark smile but something more friendly. “You guys should definitely check out that place where our prince friend here dropped out of space. It looks pretty fucking wicked.”

“Check it out? With what tech?” Jane replied. She felt the energy had been drained from her bones. “They took everything, Tony.”

Tony reached into his pocket again and pulled out a notebook. “They always go right for the computers first.” He gave it to Jane, who took it in careful fingers. She flipped through the pages and then looked up at him with surprise. “Sure, there’s not much we can do until we get the computers back, I mean, not even I can reorder all that tech and have it brought here and set up in that time, oh who am I kidding, of course I could, but it wouldn’t be the same and you’d have to set it all up again. No, no, easier to just wait for the government to poke at SPIKE, get their hands burnt and take the hint to give it back. I mean, I told them they should just leave it be but sometimes people have to learn lessons through experience, isn’t that right, Big Guy?” His sudden detour in addressing Thor surprised everyone, including Thor, who looked on with his brows furrowed.

“I am perplexed by this turn of events,” Thor asked, “Were the Lady Jane’s and Doctor Selvig’s work a danger to the realm? Or work done at the behest of your realm’s laws and leadership?”

“Everything’s a danger to a paranoid shadow organization that isn’t used to anyone knowing about it,” Tony replied, “But no, not especially. They just like to have both hands on anything supernatural. They must not have clocked you right, because if they had, they’d be trying to bring you back home to mama.” He cocked his head to the side and then added, “Or maybe they did, and they’re regrouping. Either way, no, Jane and Erik haven’t worked against the realm. It is just the realm working against them.”

“Politicians,” Darcy said with a scowl, “They hate sharing power.”

“Most people who will do anything to get to power will do anything to maintain it,” Tony said with a slight smile. “Take it from me. The first moment you had something interesting they were going to swoop in and snatch it up. I’m sure they plan on holding onto it long enough to make you hungry for it, make you need it, need them, and come asking to be allowed back to work on the things you found in the first place.” The smile does nothing to hide the bitterness in his voice and Jane’s heart throbs in sympathy.

Tony’s history is as open a book as any celebrity’s, probably more because he’s got people avidly double checking everything on his Wikipedia article and Jane does her research well. When he’d approached her to fund her work, she’d read everything about him that she could manage to find from a trustworthy source in a matter of days.

It didn’t take a genius to read between the lines of Tony’s biography, just someone who knew what it was like to be smart and underappreciated and underestimated and to have something other people wanted or wished they wanted. For Jane, it had been her quick wit and dedication that had made her the subject of jealous peers. Add that to the fact that she was a woman and she had struggled for years to be taken seriously and to get the same opportunities as others in her field. Erik had been one of the few to move past the jealousy or the misogyny that had plagued Jane’s career so far.

She didn’t think she was the same as Tony, not exactly. He was a billionaire genius inventor after all, and it showed with how young he’d done everything from going to MIT to become CEO to the work he was doing now. Jane just sympathized. She understood the isolation that Tony wore around him like an unseen coat.

People probably didn’t think there was much that could be held out of the billionaire’s reach but he was still human. He still wanted things. And people used people to get things all the time.

Jane took in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “Right,” she said, “So we’ll work low-tech for a while. That’s fine. I wanted to check out the landing site anyway. There’s no way in hell that Thor just dropped out of the sky without something on the ground indicating where he landed. If we can find the crater or whatever it is that he made when he hit, we’ll have a better idea of trajectory and origin.”

“Sounds like another road trip into the desert,” Darcy said, bouncing on her feet. “Good thing I’ve got my iPod this time.”

Jane nodded to her and turned to Erik.

Erik shook his head, “I’ll stay behind, catalog what they took, what they left behind.”

“Come on, Thor,” Darcy takes his hand and she’s just, way too comfortable with him for Jane’s comfort but Jane doesn’t stop Darcy. Darcy is, after all, an adult and a totally capable one too. Plus, it's amusing to see how Thor looks at her, avid curiosity and following along like some big golden puppy. Tony looks amused by this too.

“What are you going to do,” Jane asks as she fishes her keys back out of her pocket, “Hang around with Erik?”

Tony shakes his head. “I’m gonna get a room and pass out.” He checks his watch, “This is hour forty-six for me and, honestly, I’m starting to feel it a little bit.”

Jane covers her face with her book. Tony’s not her boss, not really, just her investor, like some sort of patron, and for that she’s glad. She could never have a boss who acted the way he did. It would drive her crazy. She lowers the notebook and frowns at Tony. He doesn’t even have the shame to look guilty, just smiling at her with coffee in one hand like he’s got any business putting more caffeine in his body. “We’ll take the truck so you can borrow the RV. No one will bother you out here. And Erik can reach you then if something happens.”

Tony’s brow arches up.

“Because something’s going to happen, isn’t it?” she asked, “That spike is going to do something.”

Tony shrugs. He pushes off of his car, “I appreciate the offer, Janey, in fact. I’ll take you up on it! Pepper would be furious if she heard I was driving around with sleep-deprivation!”

Jane considers, briefly, contacting said Pepper. She met her once, well, maybe three times, and she was always impressed with Pepper. Not just how put together she was, but with how well she managed Tony and Tony’s business, too. She was whipcord smart and pretty and gave Jane hope for the future of other girls and women in business.

Jane watches him go, trodding off to the RV which is parked just to the side of the outpost. It’s been ransacked too, most likely, and Jane doesn’t really want to see the inside of it or the tent until things have settled down.

Darcy leans out the window, “Janeeeee! Let’s go already!”

“Yes, Lady Jane, we should begin our journey post haste,” Thor added, sticking his head out as well.

Jane rolled her eyes and went back to the truck. What a hell of a morning.

 

 


 

 

Loki’s feet are near silent on the floor but Heimdall’s ears are quite good and besides, Loki has been pacing back and forth for nearly twenty minutes, hands behind his back and his face that smooth mask that shows he’s trying too hard to hide his emotions. Heimdall doesn’t need his gifted sight to see the tense line of Loki’s shoulders or the way his green eyes flick from Heimdall to the view of space and back, as if he can will what Heimdall sees to be projected on that darkness and let it reveal the secrets he craves.

Secrets, knowledge, things that are not his to know- these are the things that drive Loki into action. The god of mischief is as hungry for knowledge as any scholar and what he wants to know he’ll do anything to learn.

Anything. Like loiter around for half an hour, waiting for Heimdall to fill the silence between them with the information that Loki wants to know.

Heimdall doesn’t smile, but only because Loki would interpret it incorrectly. The silence does not bother Heimdall. It never has. It never will. He was never much one for chatter and then he was trained as the gatekeeper of the Bifrost. It is a lonely, isolated post and Heimdall’s need for conversation withered away under inattention.

Loki taps his booted foot on the floor. Heimdall ignores him. He’s got part of his attention on Midgard, not really watching Thor but watching the planet. He’s noticed there were changes- not in the last few Midgardian days, no, but when he last looked there several years ago, things were different. He doesn’t even mean the landmasses, the color of them shifting with the seasons and with the changing climate of the world. He means the thinner layers of the atmosphere are more populated now. There are Midgardians in a space station, working and doing research there, as far as he can tell, but there’s something else. Something more.

He doesn’t remember there being quite so many satellites to the planet before. And if it were only a handful, he probably wouldn’t have noticed, but this is a score or more and there is a pattern to their placement. They are, as far as he can tell, evenly spaced between each other across the whole globe. And unlike many of the satellites that he can see, these ones are not simply pointed out to the ground. Their observational units are on two sides, one facing the planet and the other out into space.

He cannot tell their range, nor can he tell their angles, but given their placement and spacing, he’s almost certain that they’ve made a nearly complete sphere of observation around Midgard. Heimdall wants to investigate a little more, wants to see if there will be more satellites lifted into the planet’s outer orbit before he says anything but he still has this feeling...

Midgard is growing aware.

“If you cannot see him,  you could simply say so,” Loki says at last. He looks over his shoulder at Heimdall, eyes narrowed. His worry makes him look thin and tired, but Heimdall doesn’t say that. Loki’s worry for Thor is a good thing, in his opinion. Healthy, sort of. Loki doesn’t have many bonds in Asgard, something his Lady Mother laments from time to time. “There is no shame in it, but-”

“I see him now,” Heimdall says, cutting him off. He wants Loki to leave so he can focus on gathering more information and that want makes the word now slip out unnecessarily.

Loki’s eyes narrow even more. Heimdall ignores the gaze. His words are true; Loki will not find fault with them. He can see Thor, now. He’s out in the desert with two Midgardian women, in one of their transports, headed to where the Bifrost put him on the planet.

Ten minutes ago, that strange, too bright and yet somehow soft orange light had obscured Thor and Heimdall had looked away from it. The prince had been outside of the Midgardian town this time and Heimdall’s current theory was that whatever it was that disrupted his sight was mobile. Another Midgardian, perhaps, or, more likely, another from another realm. It was unlikely that anyone on Midgard had the ability to block his sight and more likely that someone else had stepped onto the planet and used that shield to prevent Heimdall from identifying them.

Thor did not seem threatened or surprised after either meeting, which had various implications. Either he did not notice, did not fear or did not care, Heimdall was not sure. Thor didn’t even make mention of what was going on at the time, more preoccupied with his own cares- first his hunger and now his boredom. And the Midgardian’s do not act oddly either before or afterward.

Heimdall pulled his sight back, watching the outer edge of the planet. Absently, he can hear Loki’s frustrated grunt as he stamps his foot and he ignores the outburst. Loki stomps away and Heimdall doesn’t roll his eyes through the effort of years of training. He watches the atmosphere of Midgard. He decides to count the satellites again. He wonders, idly, if the being with the shield against his sight has decided to interfere on Midgard. Maybe these satellites are the idea of that being.

Or perhaps it is only a coincidence.

Heimdall settles in to watch and gather more information, reserving judgment until then.

 

Chapter Text

Jane’s pretty good at tuning out Darcy’s chatter whenever she actually needs to concentrate on something and she’s extra good at tuning Darcy’s chatter when Darcy’s using it as a distraction tactic with someone so Jane doesn’t have to waste her own energy dealing with them.

Truly, Darcy is a lifesaver.

The drive back out into the desert is more difficult than Jane expected. She had a general idea of where they were before the storm hit but her exact coordinates are gone, taken with the tech that Shady Government Agency had confiscated that morning. Not that she thinks they’d be any good anyway. The storm had been abnormal- there wasn’t any rain, really, just thunder and lightning- and Jane saw the instruments spinning madly before they’d actually hit Thor.

So it’s her gut and an estimate and some backtracking along old tire tracks that lead Jane out into the hills in search for the place that Thor hit the ground. Allegedly. Jane’s still not sure if she’ll fully on board this Alien Thor, Prince of Alien Planet, gimmick.

Then she drives the truck around a damaged saguaro and plants her foot on the brake.

Jane’s heard of crop circles, freaky things that they are, and knows that they can be made in all sorts of fields of plants, usually hay grass or corn, but she’s not heard of this kind of circle before. It doesn’t even look like a proper crop circle, with linked portions all spread out over a baseball field sized area.

This is one single circle with a very intricate pattern literally burned into the New Mexican desert ground, dusty brown and in sharp contrast to the dark lines. She shuts off the engine and climbs out of the vehicle with Darcy and Thor following behind. Jane walks up to the edge of the circle and stops, staring down at it. The first thing that her mind pulls up to compare it to are those nordic knots, detailed, twisting things that hold their own kind of special meaning in each bend, spelling out something in particular once you look at the full pattern.

Jane just stares at the circle for a long time. It’s too big for her to really see it all at once, at least when she’s just standing there. Almost immediately, she turns around and gets back into the truck. She turns the engine and brings it over closer to the circle. She sees Darcy watching her, hand over her eyes to shade them from the sunlight, and a worried expression on her face.

Jane turns off the truck again and then, instead of just getting out, she climbs up from the side to the hood and then onto the top. Darcy lets out an excited shout and climbs up the back to join her on the top. Jane rolls her eyes at Darcy and starts taking pictures.

“It’s still not the best,” Jane said, “Because they’re at an angle but it’s better than down there.”

Thor looks bored as he wanders around the circle. He kicks a stone and looks around at the desert. Jane ignores him in favor of taking more pictures and then to sketch the image in her notebook.

“It’s pretty,” Darcy said as she looked at the circle, “Do you think it’s got some sort of coded message in it? Like those pages of Mad magazine or something?”

“I didn’t think you were old enough for Mad Magazine,” Jane said as she worked to get the angles just right. She wishes she’d brought a protractor with her, but at least she’ll be able to take detailed measurements of the angles in a little bit and make a more accurately scaled model then.

“Older brother,” Darcy explained, “Anyway, do you think it’s a code or a message?”

“Knowing my luck,” Jane said, “It’ll be something obvious and useless to us like, this way to Earth, or something.”

“Midgard,” Darcy said.

“What?” Jane looked at her.

“Midgard,” Darcy said again, “That’s what Thor calls this place. We are the mortals of Midgard.”

Jane frowned, “I think I like Middle Earth better.”

“I think Top Earth would be the shit,” Darcy said with a grin. Jane rolls her eyes at her friend and gets back to her sketch.

“So you believe him, then?” She asked.

“What, that he’s an alien from outer space and not some crazy desert tweaker?” Darcy said, “Yeah. I mean. I’ve met desert tweakers, Janey.  They do not have half the muscle or teeth that Thor does. Plus its not like his beard is bedraggled and he’s not tried to indoctrinate us into his UFO cult. Dude’s either the Chaddest Chad in the world or absolutely a fucking alien. You saw him earlier when Dr. Stark rolled up in his caddi. He didn’t even look remotely clued in on who he was or on how sick his ride is. He’s an alien.”

“The Chaddest Chad?” Jane had to look over at her again.

“Yeah. So Chad that he couldn’t even respond to the super nerdism of Dr. Stark, no matter how sick his ride or how sweet his threads. Look, Jane, Chads just don’t level with nerds.”

“Honestly,” Jane said, “I almost want to thank the feds for taking everything if that means you’re off the internet for once.”

“Trust me,” Darcy said, “My knowledge will save us all one day.”

“Dr. Stark is not a nerd,” Jane said. “He’s way too cool to be a nerd. He’s a billionaire, Darcy, and as you say, he has a sick ride.”

“You can tell a nerd by the company they keep,” Darcy shrugged, “Dr. Stark is bros with you, Jane, and you’re an absolute nerd. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.”

Jane rubbed at her temple. “Fine. Fine. Just help me take measurements, would you?”

Darcy climbed down from the top of the truck, “Sure, I’ll get out the bag.” She hopped down out of the bed and went around to the cab. Jane finished up her sketch and then climbed down as well. As she got to the ground again, Darcy was by the circle’s edge, pulling out measuring tapes and showing them to Thor. He seemed interested, but only just. Like he was paying attention because there was literally nothing else going on out there for him to engage with besides the two of them.

Jane bent down and examined the mark closely. She gingerly touched the edges of the circle. She’d been worried that the mark would be easy to disturb, but it wasn’t that the sand and dirt had been discolored by the circle. Whatever it was that had made this had burnt the ground deep enough that there were discernible ridges. The fact that something had burned the circle there in the first place made Jane uneasy. Would it be able to do the same thing if the ground were made of different materials?

She dug out some small clear bottles from the tool bag that Darcy had gotten from the truck and put in some of the burnt and not burnt surface into them. If Stark was right and she’d get her tech back soon enough, she’d be able to run some tests of her own. Of course, she’d take extra so she could send them out and get them tested.

“This is meticulous work,” Thor said somewhere overhead while Jane stashed the bottles back in the bag. “Your dedication to your craft is admirable.”

“Thanks, dude. Now c’mon, we’ve got to get these numbers right or else it’ll screw everything else up,” Darcy said. Jane heard the snap of a measuring tape.

Jane got up, brushing dirt from her knees as Thor said, “Would it not be easier to take record of the Bifrost's mark from an aerial machine?

“Feds took the cool drones, buddy,” Darcy said, “We’re going old school.”

“Maybe we’ll be able to pull satellite information later,” Jane interjected suddenly, peering at the blue sky above. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought there’d been some sort of memo in the last couple of weeks of Stark Industries having satellite time available to those who needed it opening up in her neck of the woods. She hadn’t really thought much of it at the time since her research hadn’t put her in need of satellites, but if she could get a really clear picture of the mark from above.

Though, that would have to be one hell of a camera…

“Yeah?” Darcy asked, “That would be sick.”

“Your world has satellite entities?” Thor asked.

Jane gave him a little uncertain smile. If he was an alien, wouldn’t he have noticed the satellites?

And if he’d gotten here from outside the planet, where was his ship? He couldn’t have just been beamed down like a Star Trek extra. “A couple. They help with cell phone signal and deep space photography. So what’s this Bifrost thing again?”

 

 


 

 

Frigga took a certain warm sort of pleasure in being the one that Loki came to in times of distress, worry creating lines between his fine brows or pinching his lips together and drawing a pallor across his features that made his dark hair seem like ink against the parchment white of his skin. It was a mother’s comfort that could soothe this unspoken fear in her son, a comfort that came from years of listening to his troubles and advising him out of the difficult situations he wound up in. However, as he aged, growing more knowledgeable and certain in his cleverness, Frigga had less and less opportunity to give Loki peace of mind.

She did not regret that he could puzzle out his own difficulties these days, but she did miss when he was half his age and came to her, green eyes filled with tears as he sought her counsel. She loved Loki like she loved her other two children, perhaps even more, as Hel had always been her father’s warrior and Thor, though he did not have the same touch as Hel did in battle, took to bloodshed with much the same fervor. Loki, her little lover of knowledge and magic, saw downsides to war that Frigga had never managed to show to Thor.

Of course, after Thor had been banished to Midgard for a lesson of Odin’s devising, Frigga saw the worry and anxiety build and build in Loki. It had been a sharp shadow in his face when he’d discovered Thor had left him behind when he went to attack the frost giants with his warrior companions. It had been the tight press of his lips in a thin line, the sharp bow of his head when Odin had announced to the court that Thor would be gone, for a time, learning the lesson of Kings upon Midgard. It had been the long hours where he vanished away, only to return and stare out the window along the glimmering road that leads to the gateway, to Heimdall, and the Bifrost that was Thor’s only connection back to the world.

Frigga saw these markers in Loki and knew what they meant in her son long before he acted on them.

But better than she knew her son’s anxiety, she knew his pride.

Frigga would wait for him to come to her for help, for advice, for a mother’s comfort. It wouldn’t do to have him be affronted if she offered before he’d convinced himself he needed her. She had lost one child to Odin’s bloodthirst and the second was following almost just as closely in her husband’s steps. No. Loki was hers.

Not by birth, but by choice.

So Frigga waited until the time was right, unhurried, unwavering, and eternally patient.

Loki was her son and he would see the truth of the matter soon enough.

 

 


 

 

A few hours later with nothing to show for their efforts but a growing sunburn and a couple of pages of sketches, numbers, and notes, Jane drove them back through the desert. Darcy was complaining about the sand in her boots, regaling Thor with the details on a Seven-Eleven ICEE and maintaining their musical selection with one hand while Jane drove with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a water bottle to her neck. She was mentally cursing at herself for forgetting both her hat and to reapply sunscreen, but at least she wasn’t the only one.

The lure of aloe is almost strong enough that, when she sees the dust cloud off to the west, Jane almost doesn’t bother with it. She wants to strip down, tend to her burned skin and take a long nap in the shade. She wants to go make sure Dr. Stark actually went to sleep and see what Erik found left behind by the feds. She wants one of those ICEEs that Darcy’s going on and on about.

But there’s a sinking feeling in her gut when she sees the types of cars that are out there kicking up a dust storm.

If they were four-wheelers or ATVs or other beat-up trucks that the locals drove, Jane probably would have ignored them entirely.

But it was a convoy of sleek black vehicles with one or two box trucks. And they weren’t driving on a real road, one of concrete or asphalt or even paved dirt and gravel. It was a path like Jane had just driven out to the supposed Bifrost landing site. A road made from several vehicles driving along the same path, following markers or landmarks to traverse the ground.

“We’re going to have to wait on those ICEEs, Darce,” Jane muttered as she turned the truck to run parallel to the convoy. “I want to see what these bastards are up to now.”

Darcy went quiet for a little bit, watching the dark vehicles along with Thor. “Do you think they’re taking our stuff back to their base?”

“They didn’t have those trucks with them before,” Jane said, “Just a bunch of SUVs.”

Darcy nodded.

“Reconnaissance is important before engaging with enemy forces,” Thor said with this weird little smile on his face, almost like he was impressed with Jane, or rueful about what they were doing, “Though typically, I do not engage in the reconnaissance myself as I am so easily recognized.”

“Maybe in other places, my dude,” Darcy said, patting his shoulder. “But here in your borrowed Midgard gear, you’re one of us mortals.”

“I see,” Thor said with a nod, “I shall endeavor to blend in with the local customs so as not to arouse suspicions then.”

Darcy gave him a thumbs up. Jane didn’t bother to say that if these were the same feds as before, they were going to get noticed almost immediately. She just wanted to know, damn it, and she had a right to know.

Besides, they took all her stuff. What the hell else was she going to do for the rest of the day?

 

 

 

Jane drove a wide circle around the convoy, close enough that she could keep an eye on them, but far enough away that she hoped they wouldn’t notice her. She lost sight of them from time to time, but whenever she drove up to the top of a hill, she saw them again and could correct her path.

Eventually, the convoy came to a stop around a shallow crater. Jane drove around so they had the sun at their backs and then found a nice large rock to park by so they’d have at least a little shade while they spied. Parking the truck, she got out with a little hiss at the sunlight. Darcy and Thor followed, all three of them going round to the shadow of the rock and then up a slight ridge so they could look down on the goings-on.

The box trucks had stopped near one edge of the crater and had been opened up. People, not all wearing black suits thank god- the heat probably would’ve killed them for that- were unloading poles and boxes. Already the bare bones of an outpost were set up with a couple of covered tents to one side that people were walking into and out of.

“Something crashed here,” Darcy said quietly beside Jane. She pulled up her phone and turned on the camera, looking to the center of the crater. She zoomed in with a touch of her hand and took a picture at the highest zoom she could. Then she pulled back and frowned at her screen. Jane crowded over to her and stared at the image.

“Is that a hammer?” she asked.

In the next moment, Thor loomed over them both, peering at the image on Darcy’s phone.

“Mjölnir!” Thor exclaimed.

“Mulwhat?” Darcy said.

Jane squinted at the image of the hammer. It looked like it might have some sort of crest on the side, similar in design to the imprint left by the Bifrost. “You know what this is, Thor?” She asked.

When he didn’t reply, she looked up to him only to find that he had gone. “Thor?”

Darcy looked up too and then cursed at the same time that Jane noticed his footprints were to the crest in front of them. They both rushed forward and saw Thor walking down the side towards the crater without a care in the world.

“He’s going to get himself in serious trouble,” Jane said, “What the hell is he thinking?”

“The Chaddest Chad to ever Chad,” Darcy whispered, “He probably thinks that he’s been tased once, nothing else will bother him. Or something?”

Jane cupped her hands around her mouth and took in a deep breath. She had to shout at him, convince him to come back and not be a dumbass, but Darcy covered her mouth with her hand.

“They’re still setting shit up, Jane,” Darcy said, “If he can get in, get his hammer and book it out of there fast enough, he might make it.”

“There’s no way they’re not going to notice him,” Jane hissed back, but she did relax. Because, despite what she said, he was at the crater’s edge and no one had stopped him yet. They were busy setting up poles and tarps and walls and other temporary building things. And, since not everyone was in a suit but in more reasonable clothes like what Thor wore, he didn’t get noticed until he was within ten feet of the center of the crater where the hammer rested.

The two of them watched with bated breath as Thor walked up to the hammer, gripped the handle and pulled.

Darcy held Jane’s hand tightly as Thor pulled at the hammer. Her fingers dug in tighter when nothing happened and Thor, with a furious sound that they could hear even from up there, tried to pull with both hands, then braced his foot on the ground next to the hammer and then, when that didn’t work, shifted to pull from the other side.

This, unfortunately, did not go unnoticed. Jane hissed as people advanced on Thor. She hoped those were tasers in their hands, not guns, but she couldn’t be sure from the distance they watched at. She jolted herself when the first taser hit Thor and winced when he rounded on the offending person with his fist up. She flinched when other hands went up but at least she didn’t hear a gunshot, just saw Thor seize up, jerking in pain from the multiple tasers.

“Fuck,” Darcy breathed out softly. “Thor. They got Thor.”

Jane dragged her eyes away from Thor, away from the hammer, and noticed people looking up where Thor had come down from. They saw his footsteps in the dirt and then someone pointed up at them and shouted something to the others.

Jane pulled hard on Darcy’s hand, “Come on, we’ve got to go.”

“But Thor-”

“Darcy, I know you want to save the dumbass but I promise you, the only thing that will happen if they catch us up here is that we end up in the holding cell next to him. We’re leaving, now.” Jane said firmly, pulling Darcy to her feet and back towards the truck. Darcy nodded and didn’t argue as she climbed into the passenger side of the truck. Jane got in, ignited the engine with the turn of the key and started turning before they’d even started going forward. They churned up dust and sand as they turned hard and headed back the way they’d come. Jane backtracked at a much faster clip than she’d driven before, leaving a dusty cloud behind her as she drove back through the desert.

“We’re going to figure out how to get him out of their hands, right?” Darcy asked, “He’s an alien, but like, a cool alien. We can’t let him get carried off to Area 51, Jane. We gotta go back for him.”

“I don’t know if there’s anything either one of us could even do to help him,” Jane said honestly, “But,” she added, before Darcy’s face fell any more than it had, “I bet we know someone who has too much money and time on his hands who can help.”

“Dr. Stark,” Darcy whispered. A smile grew on her face, “ Tony.”

Jane nodded.

“Oh hell yeah. Okay, then we’ve got to get back and tell him right away.”

Jane nodded again. She regrets that they had to wake Stark up earlier than she’d intended to, but it was for a good reason. And, if she made a pit stop for some coffee for him, she didn’t think he’d mind too much. Hopefully, Thor could hold out for a little while in the company of the feds and not get carted off to Area 51, or wherever aliens got taken to.

 

 


 

 

Clint looked down at the big dude in a mild sort of wonder, eyebrows high on his face. He’d gotten a heads up from Phil, of course, because Phil was the considerate kind of boss who gave intel to underlings like Clint so they could do their fucking jobs well. Still, seeing the guy that Phil had described as ‘six foot something, built like a brick wall and of Northern European descent’ in person is a whole other experience.

“Look at the fucking arms on this dude,” Clint said quietly, “Jesus.”

The nearest agent, Trisha or Tina or something, nodded. She too was staring down at the dude, her taser held loosely in her fingers. The guy had a couple of wires connecting him to the others and, after getting a better look at him, Clint’s not surprised it took so much to bring him down.

The guy’s gonna have a killer headache and body ache when he wakes up…

“All right, cut him down and tie him up. We’ll take him back to the base for questioning because I bet he knows something about Home Depot's Excalibur over there,” Clint gestured to the hammer embedded in a rock with a jerk of his chin.

Tina, and he’s pretty sure it’s Tina, nods, and motions over others to help her move the guy.

Clint does not envy them the job. Dude looks like he weighs a shitton.

But he’s got better shit to do, so Clint turns and leaves them to it while he goes to supervise the rest of the base set up.

 

 


 

 

Tony jolts awake to a crash, a woman’s voice swearing and a numbness in his arm that means he’s been passed out in one position for far too long. He pushes himself up, looking around the dimly lit room, tiny and cramped with personal items, and it takes him a long time to remember where he is. He’s never been here before, he realizes as he stares at the windows covered with blinds, where the afternoon sun shines through and casts the room in a faintly blue light because of the sheer cloth.

“Shh!” another voice hisses from the other side of a small door, “You’re going to wake Stark.”

“No you are,” and Tony recognizes Darcy’s voice pretty easily- she’s the one who chats the most easily with him. So that means the other voice in Foster.

Tony rubs his face and rolls over so he can sit up. He’s stiff and a little sore but he feels a bit better. He’s slept, though he doesn’t know for how long, and that’s good.

Beside him on the bed, his phone lights up and JARVIS, in a quiet voice, recounts the time, date and his GPS coordinates, down to the elevation. Tony shakes his head, scoops up his phone and mutters a quiet thanks to JARVIS.

“See,” Darcy said on the other side of the door, “You woke him up, Jane.”

Tony runs a hand through his hair, promises himself that he’ll get an actual hotel room to get cleaned up in, reminds himself to buy some clothes to change into or check the car to see if there’s anything there, and then goes through the doorway, grinning. “Hey.”

Darcy’s sitting on the narrow couch that is wedged beside a small table and some storage cupboards. Jane is ransacking the cupboards now, elbows deep in some plastic bin. She gives a sheepish smile while Darcy waves with one hand, while holding a large ICEE in the other. “Sup,” Darcy replied. “Sleep well, my dude?”

“Surprisingly, yes,” Tony said. The bed was far more comfortable than he expected, but 36 hours of exhaustion does take its toll. “How was the desert?”

“Hot,” Darcy said.

Tony grins. He’s familiar with desert heat.

“We’re looking for aloe,” Jane muttered as she pulled the plastic bin closer to herself, “We forgot to take sunscreen with us and there wasn’t any cover and, well,” she turns her head towards him and Tony winces at the sunburn turning her features a radiant pink.

“Even Thor got all pink and lobstery,” Darcy said.

“Where is that guy anyway?” Tony asked.

Darcy looks to Jane, who obstinately ducks her head behind the door of the cupboard and digs deeper into the bucket. “I think I found the stuff, Darce.”

Tony’s gut does a weird flip-flop at the words they’re not saying. He’s trying to remember what Thor and Jane told him before about the first time Thor was on the planet but, well. He’s changed things, hasn’t he? It’s not going to play out the same at all.

Jane pushes the bin back and closes the door. She’s holding a green tinted bottle of clear liquid. There’s an aloe plant on the front. Straightening up, she looks to Tony and frowns, “Thor got- We think Thor got taken in by the feds.”

“Yeah,” Darcy said, “We saw them convoying up into the hills so we followed them and there was this sick hammer sticking in the ground, Meulin or something Thor called it-”

“Mjölnir,” Tony said quietly.

“Yeah! That’s the thing, anyway, Thor saw it and beelined for it. I figure it’s probably his hammer and just bad luck that the feds found it and want it because he went down for it and they totally tased him.” Darcy frowns and pokes her straw into and out of her ICEE. “He’s with the feds, now.”

“He couldn’t pick up the hammer,” Jane said with a frown like Darcy’s, “Not even budge it. It took a couple of people tasing him to bring him down and after that, they saw us and we had to go.” She looked down at the bottle in her hand, “We left him behind.”

“Tactical retreat,” Tony said, though it doesn’t do much to make either woman feel better by the look of it. Darcy grimaces and slurps her ICEE. Jane just looks blankly at him. “You came back, regrouped, and we’ll go back for him. We just have to figure out where he is.”

“That’s going to be impossible,” Jane said, “They only had a temporary base of operations there and there’s no way that they’re going to tell us what we want to know.”

Tony opens his mouth, about to say that oh, he has ways of finding things out, but a different option slips into his mind. NOBODY will still be able to help, but he won’t expose her to new people, either. He doesn’t care if people know about SPIKE or Kletka or JARVIS but NOBODY is different. She has to be a ghost.

She gets to choose who she reveals herself to.

“I know someone who can help us find out,” Tony said. It’s been months since he’s seen her, but the image of Natasha warms him. He can already see her slight, secretive smile and see her eyes regarding him as he regards her. “Let me give her a call and see what we can do, hm?”

Jane nods, looking relieved. Tony goes back into the bedroom, pulling out his phone as he does. He shuts the door behind himself, giving them privacy to tend to their burns while he makes a very interesting phone call.

“Jarvis,” Tony said as he put his phone to his ear, “Patch me through to Kletka, would you?”

“Certainly, Sir,” JARVIS murmurs and, after a few moments of silence, Kletka is there.

“Hello Papa,” Kletka said, her voice is warmer than usual, a softened version of her Professional Voice, where she mimics JARVIS down to the ‘Sir’ she calls him. “How did you sleep?”

“I slept well, Kletka darling,” Tony said, helplessly smiling. He sat down on the bed, “I hate to call you about business, but can you get me in touch with Natasha? I figure she’s changed numbers and I need to talk to her about something.”

“You’re right, she did change phone numbers,” Kletka said, “Shield still has her working paperwork and training new operatives in hand-to-hand, but she doesn’t mind so much because at least she gets to be with her bird.”

Tony laughs, “Oh she does, does she? That’s good. God forbid the Russians don’t get their birds.”

“Speaking of Russians,” Kletka said, “Boss is going to have another launch soon and wanted to invite you to come to see it. He says there will be champagne!”

“He always says that,” Tony murmured, “And if I can, I’ll go, okay? This is a big launch for you, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Kletka said, “Natasha is available on the other secure line now, Sir,” Kletka slipped into a firm, professional tone, “Would you like me to connect the calls?”

“Yes, thank you,” Tony said.

There was a moment of silence, then a click and suddenly Tony could hear distant sounds of chatter that came through in the background of Natasha’s call. “Hey,” she said.

“Hey yourself,” Tony replied, “Have you got a moment? I've got a couple of quick questions for you.”

“Yeah. I’m good. What is it?” The voices dimmed a little bit and Tony imagined she either stepped out of the room she’d been in or waved for some quiet. He hoped it was the former.

“I’ve got friends of yours out here in New Mexico doing a fun dig party on a big old hammer and they just scooped up a guy who probably seemed pretty enthusiastic to pick up that hammer. I was wondering if maybe you could maybe give me a heads up on which hidey hole would be the most likely for someone like that to be put into. Asking for a friend,” Tony added with a grin.

“Weird question,” Natasha started, “But is this guy built like a WrestleMania champion with a vaguely Nordic theme and require three tasers to bring down?” There was a twist in amusement as she parroted back, “Asking for a friend.”

“You know, I think we’re asking about the same person,” Tony said cheerfully, “Either that or we’re asking for the same friend.”

“Definitely the former,” Natasha said, “My friend was mostly incredulous that someone like that could exist in the real world. Any clues as to why your friend is looking for Mr. Norse?”

Tony sighed a bit, leaning back, his free hand propping himself up on the bed. “Would you believe me if he fell out of the sky and she hit him with her car? She feels responsible for him getting caught up in her mess.”

“Sounds like he was the one going for the hammer himself,” Natasha murmured, “So I don’t think she should feel responsible that he ran face first into trouble.”

Tony saw her point and nodded absently, “Still, she asked me to help find him so we could liberate him. Have you an idea where he’s been put?”

“I might,” Natasha said, “What are your liberation plans?”

Tony smiled. He enjoyed this kind of negotiation with her and was glad that he’d called instead of just sent NOBODY after the information. Besides, it was good to touch base with Natasha, remind her that he had use of her and remembered her and trusted her, as much as he could while she was still bundled up in Shield’s arms.

“Simple,” he said, “They didn’t just nab Mr. Norse, they also confiscated all of my friend’s computers when they could’ve just as easily asked for the information they wanted. It’s not like she’s working on any top secret stuff and she sure as hell would love to chat about it to the right kind of ear.”

“Something tells me an ear in a suit and tie isn’t exactly the right kind, is it?”

“Well, no, but they don’t just have suits, do they?” Tony rolled his eyes, “Honestly, the whole thing is a sloppy control attempt, but it would’ve worked before just fine. Now? Not so much.”

“And what’s the difference between then and now?” Natasha asked.

Tony grinned, “Everything on those computers belongs to Stark Industries and I didn’t give permission for it to be taken. Your friends should know better than to use force to take my things, Natasha. I was an only child, I never learned how to share.”

There was a beat of silence and then, softly enough that Tony almost missed it, “These are not my friends.” He opened his mouth to say something in reply, but Natasha pushed on in a louder tone, “I can have Kletka send you something, though I know you know that I know that you didn’t have to call at all about it.”

Tony laughed, “Think of it as a head’s up. Anything you’ve got that’s rather sensitive and secreted away on the servers you best pull out and put somewhere else.”

“Tony-” Natasha’s warning tone was as familiar as the expression she undoubtedly wore, but Tony just laughed again.

“I’m not going to reveal anything, please I’m not a monster. I just think that it might be hard to get onto a computer pretty soon here. They don’t usually work well once they start to overheat.” Tony made a soothing gesture instinctively, though he knew she couldn’t see it. He kind of wished they were having this conversation in person, but then again, it would be hard to let her go again.

Tony had discovered, somewhere along the way, after Siberia and after Afghanistan and after it all, Natasha was the only one he wanted to fix things with. It was a shame he’d died already and could never make it up to his Natasha, but at least with this one, he could build that bond. And she probably wouldn’t even stab him for it once she was caught up.

“They’re not the brightest, but they mean well,” Natasha was saying, and Tony’s smile turned sad because oh, that was right. She didn’t know about Hydra. Not yet anyway. “So don’t just dig up their secrets and air them without warning, okay? These idiots might get themselves killed if that kind of thing happened to them.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, voice trembling slightly. Then he cleared his throat and shook his head, “Have Kletka take care of the details and take care of yourself, Natasha. You and your bird you weird Russian lady.”

“At least my bird does not bite you when he’s pissed, hm?” Natasha said, amusement dancing across her words.

“We’ll see,” Tony said, “I haven’t met him yet. Maybe he’s got an extra mean streak secreted away for me. Even Ivan says Nona doesn’t bite him that much.”

“You just have tender ears, Tony,” Natasha’s grin made her sound almost like she was laughing, “But I must go. I have training for ducklings of my own.”

“Be safe, Nat,” Tony said, “And thank you.”

“Of course,” Natasha said. The line went dead but didn’t stay that way.

Kletka was there only a few seconds later with a murmured, “I’ll give you the coordinates in just a moment, Sir.”

“Take your time, Kletka,” Tony said gently, “I’ve got to go eat something anyway. And tell Ivan he has ruined me, making me hungry for real food when I wake instead of just coffee. He is a monster and I demand eggs in reparations.”

“I’ll let the Boss know,” Kletka sounded amused.

Tony dropped his phone in his lap and sighed, closing his eyes and hanging his head. Natasha was doing well, Clint was nearby, Jane and Darcy would be soothed once they knew he could get Thor back and Erik would be glad to have their gear back as well. And the Tesseract was within grasp, now. Just as easy to take back as some computers and boxes.

All he would have to do, in the end, is walk in and pick it up and get back out the door before anyone could stop him. Easy as pie.

Ohh, pie sounded delicious.

Tony jumped to his feet, scooping his phone up and putting it in his pocket. He went to the door and pulled it open, grinning out at the two women in miserable, sunburnt company. They looked up at him, Jane sitting up straight, looking both afraid and hopeful, “Dr. Stark?”

“How does pie sound?” He asked, “We should get some. Do you think Thor likes pie?”

Darcy laughed and Jane looked incredulous but then relaxed. They got it. He knew where Thor was and they were going to get him.

But first, they had a bakery to find.

Chapter Text

Jane’s heart pounded in her chest as she pulled up behind Stark’s bright red car, parking on the street outside the low, unobtrusive building. They were in the next town over, a slightly bigger place about an hour’s drive from where Jane had her research outpost, and the building they’d stopped in front of was in a quieter part of town. There were other cars parked along the street, but no one walking past. Though, in this heat, Jane could hardly blame them.

Her skin was still reddened from the burn that was almost fully developed now, but she’d treated it with aloe before they’d left and was just going to have to live with it.

In the truck with her was Erik, who was silent and grim, and Darcy, who winced with pain when the poor shocks of the truck made it bounce and jostled her. Jane figured Darcy was burnt worse than she was if her sour mood was any indication, but they were in the same boat. There wasn’t anything they could do until the burn cleared up on its own.

They got out after Stark got out of his car. They’d taken time in getting there and not just in driving. Stark had gotten breakfast, found himself an actual hotel room and had showered and changed. Jane figured he’d packed some clothes into a bag he kept in his car because, otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to explain where he got the electric blue shirt or the white suit that he wore with it. The white definitely was a different look for him, as far as Jane knew from his tastes, but it suited the desert heat better.

That it also was a drastic difference from the black suits and white shirts of the agents and employees they found when they went into that secret agency building didn’t hurt either. It was a bit strange thinking of Stark as a white knight on a noble steed, but the Cadillac was pretty noble looking and he was eye-catching in his crisp white clothes.

It made the bright pink of the bakery box he carried all the more jarring.

Stark walked right into the building without any sort of hesitation. Jane had to hurry to keep up and had to force herself not to look around anxiously as she followed in Stark’s footsteps. He didn’t even slow down as he crossed the foyer, paying not mind to the office manager who called out to him and then got to her feet. They reached a door, the four of them stopped and Jane looking over her shoulder at the woman who now approached them, frowning.

Then Stark placed the pink box into her hands and reached into his jacket. Jane held the box, balancing it carefully so she wouldn’t damage the pie inside, peering around Stark’s shoulder to see him swipe the badge across register beside the door. The light flicked from red to green and the door unlocked.

“Sir!” the woman shouted as Stark pushed open the door. He flicked a smile back at her, all teeth and false pleasantness. Jane ducked her gaze to hide her shivering. Stark wasn’t bothering to wear his shades to cover his eyes. The orange stood out even brighter against his blue shirt.

The woman didn’t stop them as they walked through the door.

In fact, no one stopped them as they marched past, with Stark in his white suit blazing a trail down one hallway and up another and into the elevators without any hesitation. Darcy caught Jane’s eye and, with a wide-eyed look, conveyed the question that Jane herself was wondering about him. How did Stark know where to go? Had Stark worked with these people in the past? Had he been in this building before and knew exactly where to go? He’d said he knew someone to call to get the information, but was that true or had he made a different call when he’d stepped out earlier? It wasn’t like Jane had lingered by the door and listened in.

It’s not like Stark hadn’t shown up the very same day that their stuff had been taken, the day after Thor had dropped out of the sky and changed everything. Jane believed in a lot of stuff, but not that it was chance that brought the feds and Stark to her research on the same day.

Within hours of each other, too.

But she didn’t want to believe that Stark was betraying them to the feds. He’d salvaged Darcy’s iPod and her notebook. He’d promised to bring things back. He had promised her research was secure. So maybe he was at odds with the feds now, but he’d been on their side before. After all, Stark Industries once had military contracts and defense contracts and weapon manufacturing contracts- this agency probably had some of those contracts.

It was one elevator ride and two more hallways that finally brought them face to face with someone who was unwilling to let them pass. Jane immediately recognized the woman who barred their path as the one who had stood with Agent Coulson with her hands on her hips, displaying her gun to them as if Jane really needed a reminder of how dangerous a federal agent was.

“Stark,” the woman said, eyes trained on him in his spotless white suit, “What do you think you’re doing here?”

“Saving you all a massive headache, a huge expense in new tech and from committing interplanetary diplomatic suicide,” Stark gave a shrug of his shoulder, “You know, the usual. What are you doing here? We’re not in your way, are we? The elevator is just over there.” he gestured over his shoulder.

“You really think that I’m going to believe all that?” The woman asked lips turned into the thinnest wire edge of a smile, “That you’re here just out of the kindness of your heart, to save us from ourselves?”

“It’s a bit early for that part,” Stark said, far more at ease than Jane felt. The woman who stood in their way wasn’t the only one in the hallway now, as two others noticed what was happening and came to stand behind her. Jane edged closer to Stark, though she wasn’t sure what she would do if they tried to attack or arrest them or something. “And I really don’t care what exactly you believe, Agent Hill, because I’ve got business with Agent Coulson and your director if he’s about.”

Jane saw the woman’s smile twist into a firm frown when Stark said her name. Jane had thought that Stark remembered it from whenever he worked with these people before but this woman, Agent Hill, looked suspiciously at him as if he had no right knowing her name at all. Jane glanced at Darcy, who met her gaze and turned her hand at her side slightly, showing Jane where she had her taser.

Jane hoped they wouldn’t need that.

“What sort of business?” Agent Hill asked.

“Why don’t you point me in the direction of Agent Coulson and-”

“You don’t get to make any sort of demands here, Stark,” Agent Hill took an aggressive step forward, “You broke into a secure government facility and you’ve been making threats. Answer my question, what is your business here?”

“I have permission to enter here,” Stark said, “I’ve got the badge. I’m on your registers. I’ve got clearance higher than you even know about, Agent Hill. Go ahead and check your records if you doubt me. I’ll wait.”

Agent Hill stared silently at him for a long minute. Then she half turned her head, looking back at one of the others behind her. The man she glared at jumped and lifted the tablet he had in his hands. He tapped at it for a solid minute and then stopped, his eyes going wide, so wide.

He took the step forward he needed in order to bring himself to Agent Hill’s side and then turned the tablet to her. She took it, staring at it, and then shoved it back into his hands. Rounding on Stark, she demanded, “How did you do it, Stark? Did you hack our servers?”

“I didn’t do anything,” Stark said, lifting his hands up to reveal empty hands. “Now, will you tell me where Agent Coulson is? Or do I have to keep looking for him myself?”

There was a brief set of whispers that broke out behind Agent Hill, who stared hard at Stark, hand close to her side like she wanted to draw her gun and shoot him. Jane held her breath.

Then the man who had the tablet stepped forward, just a little ahead of Agent Hill, and, though he looked pale and kept nervously glancing at Agent Hill, he cleared his throat and said, “I can show you to him, sir.”

Stark clapped his hands together, “Wonderful. And you are?”

“Agent Clement, sir,” The man said with a little nod of his head. He wore a suit like the rest of them, though instead of a black tie he wore one with a red and blue stripe to it. With a short trimmed beard and short trimmed hair to match, he could’ve passed for a cousin of Thor, if not for red in his beard and the brown of his eyes. He didn’t look very happy about helping them, but mostly he didn’t look too happy about putting Agent Hill to his back as he stepped forward. “While your clearance is sufficient enough for me to take you to Agent Coulson, I’m afraid the others with you aren’t. They’ll have to go back out.”

Stark stood there for a moment, then he turned and looked at Jane, Darcy, and Erik. “Would you three like to wait in the lobby? I won’t be very long. And it looks like things will go just fine.”

“Sure we can,” Erik said immediately, putting out a hand on Darcy’s arm and Jane’s elbow. “We’ll be just fine waiting in the lobby.”

“Remember, don’t eat the pie, it’s for Thor,” Stark said pleasantly, “And call if you need anything. I’ll answer.”

Jane nodded, mumbled some sort of agreement and then watched as Stark turned and crossed over to Agent Clement. She wondered, somewhere distantly in her head, why she felt such a sinking feeling in her stomach. Agent Hill had left during their short exchange and Agent Clement seemed very professional when he greeted Stark but still…

Jane’s fingers tightened on the pink box as a pair of agents came towards them, apparently eager to urge them back to the elevator and to the lobby below. Jane tossed one last look over her shoulder at Stark, who walked beside Agent Clement, talking and waving his hands about, and hoped he’d be all right.

So many questions burned inside of her, but Jane would have to just hold onto them for now. Hopefully, she’d get time to talk to Stark, really talk to him, soon enough.

 

 


 

 

Midgard was a strange place.

Thor sat back in the chair that was one of the three pieces of furniture in his small cell and tested the bonds that held his wrists together. They were not very strong, made mostly of thin metal and thinner chains, as if the symbolic nature of them was enough to hold the accused in place. They were almost an insult with their weakness, but Thor kept forgetting just how weak Midgardians were. They did not have the strength that flowed through his veins, the might that could snap such weak metal and could be used to easily free himself from this container.

He felt no magic force that kept the door contained or prevented the glass from being broken. Truly, he was held in place by the suggestion of containment more than actual containment and, if it were not for the memory of the electrical shocks, in triplicate, Thor would have escaped within the first half hour of his capture.

However, he did not fancy being ‘tased’ again. It had been annoying but charming when the delicate but fierce Darcy Lewis had done so. Such a protective spirit in such a small body was quite adorable, like the large paws on the lion cubs of Asgard’s mountains, holding deadly claws but oversized on their small bodies. Dangerous but clumsy. Cute.

The three taser charges while he’d burned with the frustration and embarrassment of being unable to lift Mjölnir had not been quite as charming.

So Thor sat and waited, recovering from the tasers, testing the bonds on his wrists and wondering what it was that these Midgardians could want with him. If they were agents of the realm, perhaps he was to be taken to Midgard’s ruler, though he’d heard little of what said ruler was like. Darcy had made disparaging comments whenever anything relating government had come up in conversation, but Thor assumed that was her youth speaking. He had not looked fondly on the politics that came with running a kingdom when he was younger. There had been nothing exciting about it and, truly, Thor did not look forward to the tedium he had seen his father have to work through.

Still, he would like to meet the ruler of Midgard. To see what sort of Midgardian that could rule over the rest. They seemed a vibrant and short lived people, and because of that, they were a turbulent race, colliding and clashing with each other nearly constantly. He’d only been here a few days and already he had a feeling that Midgard was a place on the edge of wildness.

There was technology here, but it was strangely developed. The transport vehicles came in so many variations that he’d almost questioned if the one that the aristocrat Lord Stark had driven in was really the same sort of thing that had been driven by Jane and had unceremoniously run him over in the desert. There was medical machinery but still the crude methods of hand stitching and chemical disinfectants were in use. Thor’s brief time in the healer’s hall had been interesting. The place had the undersmell of grief and fear, of blood and stress. The energy of so much pain from so many people had bled into the very walls and made it nothing like the healing halls of his home in Asgard.

He felt sorry for the people of Midgard. They suffered. They bore the heat of their sun on their skin and it burned them. They suffered injuries that had no cure and suffered grief that seemed to have no end. They struggled and clashed against each other, victimizing each other with larger, more organized and powerful groups taking over smaller ones that had the information or resources that were in current demand. Thor had no doubt that Jane’s patron was Stark- he had moved and acted like a man with money and status- but clearly, that had not been enough to move against the agents of the realm. Even against the Midgardian government, Stark’s hands were tied.

So it came to his surprise when he heard voices approaching the door to his cell and he recognized one of them.

Thor sat up, chains rattling on his wrists, and looked to the door.

It swung open and Thor blinked, momentarily blinded by the bright blue and brighter white of the man’s clothing. Purity and loyalty, the cloth of the righteous, is what Stark wore when he walked into the cell that Thor had been placed in. In the overhead lighting, some electrical form that shone more harshly than that of the sun, Stark positively glowed. He looked pleased to see Thor, or at least see him all in one piece, and he came over to where Thor sat without hesitating.

“It’s good to see you’re up, Thor,” Stark said, “How are you feeling?”

Thor ran his tongue over his teeth, “I have a great thirst, Son of Stark. Pray, tell me what news you have of my containment with the agents of the realm. Might they lose my hands and free me from these constraints?”

Stark half turned towards the door. Another man who Thor did not recognize stood there. He looked nervous but obedient as Stark asked him for the key to Thor’s chains. The man gave them over and Stark came around behind Thor.

“You really gave the girls a fright, running after Mjölnir like that,” Stark said, speaking low as he reached behind Thor and worked on the cuffs that bound him. Thor was both pleased and surprised to hear Stark correctly pronounce Mjölnir. But Thor could not definitively place Stark’s familiarity with the hammer- whether it was from the fables that surrounded Thor on Midgard, the ones that spoke of him as a Norse god, as Darcy had mentioned- or from another source. “You really couldn’t pick up the hammer?”

“I am undergoing a King’s quest,” Thor said sourly and that was mostly true too. His father was a king and this was a sort of quest. Well, more closely it was a test or a challenge, but Stark did not need to know the particulars. “I apologize for startling the good ladies. They need not worry for me, though. I am quite capable of handling myself.”

Stark chuckled and, with a clink of metal, pulled the cuffs free in one hand. He pats Thor’s shoulder with fleeting fingers before stepping back around to his side, “Oh I believe you on that. So you should save your apologies for them, hm?”

Thor barely heard his words. He hadn’t noticed the chill when Stark had been unlocking the clasps because his fingers had been mostly on the metal and not Thor’s wrists, but he felt it clearly when Stark’s hand slid over the thin cloth that covered his shoulder. It was a cool touch, cooler than Thor expected from someone from Midgard.

It reminded him somewhat of Loki’s touch, whenever his brother was in a particularly foul mood. Loki didn’t burn with anger the way others might, he let it ice over his feelings, making him brittle and jagged wherever his anger broke through and spilled over. Thor brought his arms around and rubbed at his wrists, mostly for show. He looked up at Stark, who stood at his side, one hand lightly resting on the edge of the table, his body forming a barrier between Thor and the man at the door.

An aristocrat, a patron and a scholar, these things Thor knew that Stark was, but also he seemed to be a protector. Thor did not feel like he needed the protection, but he was also unlearned in the ways of Midgard. They might not be able to do enough damage to him to hurt him fatally, but they had proven themselves capable of rendering him unconscious and willing to drag him about to unknown areas.

There was a real possibility that the agents of the realm could and possibly had intended to spirit Thor off somewhere, hidden away from Jane and Darcy and any other who knew he was there. If they kept him separated from Mjölnir long enough--

No, Thor did not think his father would leave him on Midgard for an endless age, and he certainly did not think Loki would keep himself away for very much longer, but the idea of having to truly be rescued from someone of Asgard was more embarrassing than having a notable man of Midgard coming to his aid. He nodded to Stark, a silent acceptance of his actions and a thanks, and then got to his feet to stand with him.

Stark relaxed, stepping back and letting his hands rest loosely in the pockets of his white pants. “They didn’t really want to believe me when I told them who you were,” Stark said, “And I don’t think they are fully convinced, your highness,” Stark’s lips quirked into a secretive little smile, as though he told a joke that only he understood, “but they’re willing to let me take responsibility for you. Well. They don’t really have a choice in the matter, but that’s not really here or there.”

“I appreciate that a man of your status upon Midgard would take the time to attend to me personally,” Thor said with a humble little nod of his head, “From what the Lady Darcy has told me, you are an influential man of your realm, both an inventor and patron of many arts and sciences. I am in your debt, Lord Stark.”

Thor smiled when he saw Stark’s eyes widen, the golden glow of them burning bright like the hot coals of a blacksmith’s forge, but beneath that the honey brown of something far softer and gentler looked at Thor with surprise. Stark’s mouth opened, though he didn’t speak, and Thor felt a spark of pride at turning a silver-tongued man like Stark to silence.

The moment did not last very long, however. Stark turned his head, speaking quickly and a little too loudly, as if that could distract Thor from the way his cheeks flushed in surprise or pleasure, reddening like he had spent too much time exposed to the burning Midgard sun, “Please, none of that Lord business with me. Call me Tony.”

“Then you must call me Thor,” Thor said, “None of that prince or your highness business. We shall be like equals, here on Midgard.”

That brought another one of those strange smiles from the man, another secret or joke known only to himself, but before Thor could press him on it, he had turned to the doorway. “Come on, Thor. We’ve got to meet with Agent Agent and see if we can convince him to not make the biggest mistake of, well probably not his life but certainly this month.” He made a beckoning gesture as he headed to the door and Thor happily followed.

The man at the door backed out of the way as Tony approached. He looked nervous still, but resigned to his actions. Tony gave him a sharp smile as he led Thor into the hallway, “Agent Clement, I think I know where to go from here. If you could get a bottle of water for Thor? The desert sun is rather unforgiving. We’ll meet you at Agent Coulson’s office.”

“I-” Agent Clement opened his mouth to dispute it, but thought better of it almost immediately. “Of course. Would you like anything else, sir?”

“No thank you,” Tony said, effectively dismissing the man. He was given one more uncertain glance before he turned and went in the opposite direction. Tony walked for a while, until the man vanished around the corner, and then Tony stopped. He held out his hand to Thor, not quite grabbing his arm but almost. Thor could feel the coolness of his skin and, curious, shifted his arm so that Tony’s hand bumped against it. Tony didn’t seem to notice that Thor’s arm was definitely warmer than his hand. He just gave a little pat of his hand and said, “We’ve got a short detour to take before we get to Agent Agent. If we hurry, we can get in and out before they realize what we’ve done.”

Thor’s brows rose. That sounded an awful lot like theft. “What is it that we detour for, Tony?”

Tony’s eyes flicked towards Thor and then away again and he said the words without barely moving his lips. “The Tesseract. It’s here.”

Thor stilled. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, since he was already standing still, but his muscles turned to iron and his heart slowed, his breathing held deep in his lungs as Tony’s words washed over and through him. Perhaps it was because Tony projected so much power and confidence that Thor did not expect it, but he should have. Men who had power often wanted more of it. More power. More control. More.

Surely, Tony did not know what the Tesseract meant to Thor, what kind of item it was or what powers it held, but the sheer fact that he knew it, knew that it was here and told Thor about it gave Thor plenty to think of. And his first thought was that he would rather such an artifact be in the hands of a man that he trusted than in the hands of the agents of the realm. Tony was a defender, a protector, he was more than the power he held. In some ways, Tony reminded him of Loki, a man who hunted for knowledge the way that Thor hunted for adventure and glorious battle. Though, Thor had to admit to himself, there were many differences between Tony and Loki. Very important differences. Like the fact that they were not brothers.

That was very important to Thor.

“Let us go and collect it at once,” Thor said, speaking quietly. He reached out and put his hand companionably on Tony’s shoulder, mindful of his strength as he squeezed. An eager thrum ran through him at the thought of this new turn in his quest. There was little doubt that these agents of the realm were not companions of Tony, though they were not outright enemies as well. A covert mission to collect a powerful artifact was unusual for Thor as it rarely allowed for him to clash in glorious battle with his enemies. This was more the kind of effort his brother went through, to gather information and collect power into his eager hands, for use later.

Though without his hammer, his armor or his warrior companions- in fact, Thor did not even have so much as a blade to his own name- Thor found that he was a little less eager to run headlong into battle upon Midgard. Who knew what other projectiles they would favor if the taser was their first line of defense?

“This way,” Tony gestured with one hand and began to walk. He was a shorter man than Thor was used to walking with, but he used the longest length of his stride that he could and he moved quickly. Thor admired the man’s determined gait and one curious glance down told him the answer to a simple question.

Tony’s brilliant ensemble was complete with white shoes. They did not have even a breath of dust or scuff upon them, speaking of either high maintenance or little use, both options viable ones for a man with such wealth. True, Tony did not wear the fine pelts or gold of most nobles. He did not favor any sort of jewelry or silks or other marks and trappings of nobility that Thor was used to, but he walked like a noble man and he carried himself like royalty.

And there was no doubt that he had chosen his wardrobe not just for the fine cut of the cloth but to blaze like a star in the grey of the long halls they walked down. Thor would not have chosen such an outfit for an action of espionage, but Tony did not seem worried they would be stopped.

Indeed, they were not accosted until they passed through a door that required Tony to swipe a card across an access panel and place his hand to the digital pad above it. The door slid open and Tony stepped through it, one hand lingering over the door’s opening so it did not shut and leave Thor on the other side. Thor ducked his head and stepped through, looking around the room they went into.

It was a larger room than Thor expected and he hesitated walking in too far. This was a Midgardian workshop of some kind. There were a dozen or so men and women working at different tables, a few pairs talking animatedly between themselves.

All conversation came to a dead stop when they turned and saw who it was at the door. Tony dismissed them with little more than a turn of his head. His eyes scanned the room, as if he could determine the location of the Tesseract even though concrete and then frowned. “We’re close,” he said, “But it’s not in here.”

Thor looked around with a touch of interest. He couldn’t tell what the Midgardians were making, though there was a display upon a screen nearby that had the sleek aerodynamic lines of an airborne missile. As far as Thor was aware, Midgard was a closed planet, not even advanced enough to travel within their own system reliably, so to see such an item troubled him. Was there such division within Midgard for them to be at war with themselves? If that was the case, it no longer surprised him that a people with such advances, small as they were, could be considered below the notice of the rest of the intergalactic community. There was little opportunity to place a foothold in the worlds beyond if they were preoccupied with the wars at home.

Tony headed to a door, another one locked with that electrical code box, and as he reached it, one of the others lurched away from their table.

“Wait,” she cried, “You can’t go in there!”

Tony flicked his badge over the box, unlocking the door. He gave the woman a bored look, waving the plastic card at her. Thor figured he was displaying the band of color that crossed one edge of the white badge. It was a rich black line, about an inch thick. “I can, actually. Level ten clearance says so.” Then, without waiting for her to say another word, he ducked into the room.

Thor caught the door with one hand and followed Tony into the darkness.

 

 


 

 

Tony would never understand why people went through such theatrics for storage rooms.

Sure, he understood the reasons why it was important to impress and dazzle, but for a storage room? Even he doubted that the Tesseract needed such a display.

Tony stepped into the room, one hand reaching for a switch that, after a moment, NOBODY informed him did not exist. He dropped his hand. The motion was caught by some infrared camera and the lights came on, one pair at a time, with an audible click, until the whole aisle was lit in a double column of pooling fluorescent light.

Tony sighed and refused the impulse to look around curiously. He didn’t care what Shield or Hydra kept in this base’s secure storage areas. Anything they had he could make twice as well on his own. That is, except for the Tesseract.

That was the only thing of worth.

Thor moved behind him, imposing but silent and Tony did his best to keep his mind from considering the Asgardian a threat. He had dreamt of hands at his throat, fingers digging in deeply to the soft flesh, leaving purpling marks that no one else could see, but if anything it was nice to have a change from his usual nightmares of ice and biting metal.

Though, he’d had less dreams of the shield after he’d melted the damn thing down.

NOBODY directed him with soft murmurs in his ear, the earbud wedged deep in his ear canal in the hope that no one would notice it. He’d considered being obvious about it with a bluetooth earpiece or something similar to the ones that the Agents wore in the field, but had decided against it. The confidence with which he walked down the hallways, directed by an unseen voice, made him look better than the obvious reliance would have. Plus, it was good to see how it unnerved people when he knew exactly where to turn, which way to go, to get where he wanted to.

Poor Clement, who’d floundered when Tony had taken a sudden turn, deciding on impulse to pick Thor out of his cell before continuing on with his path. It had been a good choice, too, giving him a way to get rid of Clement without too much trouble.

Tony listened to NOBODY, walking down to the fourth set of overhead lights and turning to regard the alcove there and the shelving unit inside. He waited until NOBODY told him which panel and then, without faltering, he reached for the handle and pulled open the drawer.

He’d seen the Tesseract plenty of times before, both in person in his previous life and in video recording in this life. The moment he’d been able to give NOBODY access to the world, he’d tasked her with finding it and keeping track of it, which she had done as it had moved from secure location to secure location over the last few months. Fury had begun prodding at it, but nothing substantial had come from it, yet.

Of course nothing had. The Tesseract was resting.

Tony stared at the glowing blue cube and felt something strange curl through him. He felt a familiarity with this artifact, more than the knowledge that he’d seen it before. He felt- Something. A bond perhaps? A connection? Something that synced the beat of his heart to the shifting glow of blue upon the Tesseract’s surface.

Without realizing it, Tony’s hand reached out and settled on the top edge of the Tesseract. He had expected heat, or perhaps ice, something to reflect that it felt almost alive, but instead there was no change in temperature. It was the same temperature as the shelf it was stored in, the same temperature as the handle he’d pulled, the same temperature as the room around them. Tony let out a long breath from deep in his lungs.

He curled his fingers over the edge of the cube and lifted it from the velvet case it sat in. Tony cradled it in both hands and closed his eyes, feeling the weight of it, feeling the pulse of energy from within the cube. He’d always thought that the Tesseract was made of some sort of special energy crystal or perhaps a special metal or mineral much like vibranium. But as he held it there in his hands, eyes closed, his whole world focused on the cube in his hands, Tony knew without any question that whatever it was that gave the Tesseract its power lay deep in the core of the cube.

And whatever that something was, it plucked at Tony’s core, his soul, the thing that made Tony who he was beyond his memories and beyond the flesh and blood of his body. It plucked and produced a pure note out of the taut string of Tony’s soul and the thing inside of the cube hummed along. Not the same note, but one a step away, a note of harmony.

Hands closed on the outside of Tony’s, warm and solid, and Tony slowly opened his eyes. Thor stood close to him, looming almost, his hands curled around Tony’s on the Tesseract. His blue eyes reflected the light of the Tesseract with a brilliance that startled Tony and for a brief moment, he thought Thor’s eyes were like his own, ringed with an otherworldly, inexplicable light.

For the first time, Tony realized that whatever it was that had happened to him in Siberia, whatever it was that brought him here and held him in this body, and that gave him the ring of fire in his eyes could be explained. He’d not peered to hard into the thought of it, worried that if he unwound the mystery it would unravel and send him back to the Siberian wasteland to die in truth. He’d avoided finding an explanation because there was too much else to do and be concerned with.

It hadn’t occurred to him that he might find the reason anyway, that it might lay in the realm of strange almost-magic that Thor carried with him. A technology so advanced that it seemed more magic than science could be that which put Tony in this position.

His heart hammered hard, his pulse jumping in his throat as he stared up at Thor, tongue-tied for the second time in the Asgardian’s company.

He hadn’t expected any of this. Thor was supposed to be simple. A nudge for Jane in the right direction. A distraction for Shield so he could get the Tesseract. One of the initial connections to the worlds beyond Earth. Thor was supposed to be simple.

“Shall I carry this for you, Lord Stark?” Thor asked in a softer voice than Tony thought the man capable of. On his face, the blue light of the Tesseract lit him from below while the harsh light of the fluorescent-lit him from above. Still, with his head tilted, it was his eyes that held that light in them, burning and bright and would’ve been so eerie if Tony wasn’t used to glowing eyes from his own reflection. “You may trust me with the Tesseract. It is a mighty artifact and I understand it’s worth.”

Tony’s fingers tightened on the cube. He needed it. He must have it. The desire for the cube ran deeper than his knowledge of his plans. It cut through to his bones, through skin and muscle and soft tissue, telling Tony that he’d never be able to give up the stone now that he held it in his hands.

A shudder ran through Tony’s thoughts and then through his muscles. Cube. It was a cube. Not a stone. He didn’t know where that thought came from, where that image came from, but he had to stay in the realm of reality. He couldn’t get lost now.

“There should be a case to carry it in nearby,” Tony said, nodding to Thor. “And it’s Tony. Not Lord Stark.” He strained to bring levity back to his voice, but it only cracked down the center like frost-covered snow under a heavy boot heel.

Thor nodded and, despite the way Tony’s embarrassment coiled through him with the crack in his words, Thor smiled and agreed, “Tony.”

His hands squeezed a little harder around Tony’s on the cube and Tony wondered where all the breath in his lungs had gone to. He consciously had to lock his knees and keep his back straight. NOBODY whispered in his ear and he jerked his chin towards the open drawer. “The case is in there.”

Thor let go of his hands and pulled the drawer out further. In the light, which seemed so dim when Tony looked away from the cube, he pulled out a black case much like a briefcase, though it was thicker than a typical briefcase. There was a socket for the cube to rest in and Tony lay it in the spot, fingers trembling as he pulled his hands back. Thor closed the case, flicking the latches shut and picked it up.

Tony slid the shelf shut and forced himself to look away from the case. It was easier to do so, now that the cube was out of his line of sight. He could still feel it near him, the pulse of it’s energy that rang through him whenever he concentrated on it too much, but Tony could also compartmentalize that away from the surface of his thoughts. He could move past this moment and into the next one and for that he was grateful.

“Come on, we’ve got one more thing to do before we’re done,” Tony said, turning from the alcove.

“Where do we go after we complete this errand?” Thor asked, following Tony back down the hall and to the door.

“We’ll need to bring things back to Dr. Foster,” Tony said, “That is if Agent Agent doesn’t decide to be a complete moron. If he does, I’ll have to make a few calls, get things back in order for her.” He glanced back at the case that Thor carried, “Though, with that in hand, I probably could cajole her out of New Mexico and into other efforts. Ivan could always use a hand.”

“Ivan?” Thor asked.

Tony hesitated at the door, hand on the handle. He gave a single shouldered shrug and smiled at Thor, “A friend of mine. Russian guy with a bird and pretty good head on his shoulders when it comes to mechanics and physics. He’s been working on a big project with me, one that Dr. Selvig and Dr. Foster could help with.”

Thor nodded, “The Lady Jane seems well versed in the science of your world, though her knowledge in the science of other worlds is… lacking.” He had a frown on his face, like he was thinking of the way Foster refused to believe that he was from another planet.

“Well, you can’t blame her for that,” Tony said as he pushed open the door, “There’s little evidence of other inhabited worlds here on Earth,” he blinked as he walked into the Shield workshop, where there was much more and much brighter light. “With some good evidence, she’ll change her mind.”

“Ah, Mr. Stark.”

Tony would never quite get used to that voice, never quite forget the way the man died but didn’t die, never quite forgive the way his death was used to forge a collection of people into a team, never quite believe that Fury had been in the right to use a man’s memory and death to do that. But he didn’t let the way cold iron settled in his body at Coulson’s voice show in his face. He came to a stop, hand up slightly to keep Thor just behind himself. Yes, Thor was a big boy who could protect himself but Tony couldn’t help it.

The Tesseract sang in harmony to Tony’s heartbeat and he needed to make sure that it was safe.

“Agent,” Tony said pleasantly. The scientists had been removed from the room. The screens were blank. The weapons they had been working on put away. Coulson stood across the room from him, two men at every exit and four behind the man himself. Tony saw Clement, pale and drawn tight like a bowstring, a bottle of water in either hand, standing behind Coulson and his immediate entourage.

A glance around the room told him Hill was off somewhere else, probably reaching out to Fury, probably watching over Foster and the others. As long as she wasn’t in his way, Tony didn’t really care what she did.

“Imagine my surprise when I left my office to go and have a little chat with our friend here only to find that you’d let him out before I could,” Coulson said with a little shake of his head, “If I hadn’t run into Agent Clement on the way, why, I would’ve been left with quite the mystery.”

“You shouldn’t have bothered,” Tony said, “We were on our way to your office anyway.”

“With a minor detour of your own, of course,” Coulson’s eyes settled on the box at Thor’s side. Tony heard the creak of the handle as Thor’s fingers tightened on it. “I’m afraid you are going to have to put that back, Dr. Stark.”

“No,” Tony said.

Coulson’s hand twitched at his side but he didn’t curl them into fists like the hands of the man beside him. “That wasn’t a request.”

“And neither is this,” Tony said, “You’re going to give back Jane Foster’s equipment, all of it, today.” He saw a few eyes roll, a few mouths thin as people reacted to his arrogant tone, “Every box, every cord, every smidgeon of data. Give it all back to Dr. Foster now.”

“Cute,” Coulson said with a smile that didn’t touch his eyes. Tony didn’t even have it in him to mourn the loss of the man’s friendship. They’d never really been friends. Coulson was just Fury with two eyes instead of one. “But not happening. Put the box on that table and step away from it, Mr. Odinson.” his attention flicked to Thor, sliding off of Tony for the moment. “We realize that it’s easy to get roped into Mr. Stark’s antics. His charisma makes one think that they can get away with much more than one should. If you just listen to me now, I can make sure you get out of here in one piece.”

Tony turned his head and stage-whispered to Thor, “Hey, I think he’s threatening you.”

Thor grunted. The handle of the box made another one of those whines, the grip complaining under Thor’s hand. “He can threaten as he likes,” Thor said in a low, dark tone, “But upon the field of battle, we will see whose blood shall run the farthest.”

Tony looked back at Coulson. “I think that means that you’ll be the one to bleed more if you were to try and fight.” Before Coulson could open his mouth to speak, Tony continued, “But I think my friend here doesn’t realize how little your lives matter to you or your agency. After all, who keeps track of the dead in an organization that doesn’t exist? You’re already constantly training new people to fill the holes left behind by those who die or vanish. It doesn’t matter to you how much blood you spill, so long as yours is the hand that reaches the finish line first.”

The agents that watched barely stirred at Tony’s word. But that didn’t surprise him. Shield and Hydra got on so well because they were cut from a similar cloth. You had to believe, completely, in the cause to be part of it, to work towards it, to give everything to it. If you didn’t believe, you were just a weakness and they would be happy to abandon you.

Fury had seen weakness in Tony in his old timeline, had manipulated that weakness to get Tony to do what he wanted.

This Fury had seen Tony’s weakness as too great a hurdle to get around, too much to handle.

Tony didn’t much care about their definitions of weakness or strength or loyalty or honesty.

Tony leaned to the side, looking past Coulson who had opened his mouth and started saying something, “Hey, Clement,” he talked over Coulson, who actually stuttered to a stop, anger flashing in his eyes. “Are those waters for me and Thor?”

Coulson turned, looking over his shoulder. Clement jerked under the sudden scrutiny. His hands crinkled the plastic of the bottles and his eyes grew wide. He glanced to Coulson, then to Tony. Then he nodded.

Tony made a beckoning gesture, “Well, come on then, bring them over.”

He took one step towards them.

“Agent Clement,” Coulson’s voice was so flat it made Tony think of a still pond, mirror smooth on the surface, a churning of water and turbulence.

“He has level ten clearance,” Clement said back, his voice clipped and gaze hard on Coulson. “I saw his file, Agent Coulson. What am I supposed to do about that? Disobey orders from someone with the director’s approval?”

“He doesn’t have the director’s approval.” Coulson argued back, “He’s not even a consultant. He’s a civilian and a former contractor.”

“He has level ten clearance,” Clement repeated. “Look it up. I showed Agent Hill earlier when she tried to stop him before.” He took another few steps forward until he stood level with Coulson, half turned towards him as he argued.

“Agent Hill stopped him and that didn’t tip you off that letting him wander through the base was a bad idea?” Coulson asked with one brow raised.

“So I’m just supposed to ignore clearance levels for people that I don’t particularly like?” Clement asked stiffly, “I don’t know why no one told you he was cleared up to level ten but you don’t have to take it out on me. Look it up yourself.” He gave Coulson a deep frown and then turned, walking towards Tony with a rod-straight spine. He handed over the two water bottles while Coulson gestured to someone in his retinue. They hurried over to the nearest computer and display and pulled up the relevant information. Or at least Tony assumed they did. What he did was take the two bottles from Clement. He cracked the seal on one, opening it and handing it to Thor, who drank the water with a gusto.

Tony cracked his own bottle open and drank some, smiling slightly to Clement, “You know, if Shield doesn’t work out for you, I’m sure I can find an opening in Stark Industries for you somewhere.”

Clement shook his head, “I appreciate the offer, sir, but I’m quite happy with the work I’m doing here.”

Tony shrugged. He glanced behind Clement, to Coulson who had stalked over to the monitor where, even from across the room, Tony could see his own face on the screen. He made sure his face held nothing but mild curiosity even though he wanted to laugh and laugh. Of course, the records in Shield would say he had top clearance. They were all digital records. Everything was digital.

Tony’s records could say whatever the hell he wanted them to. All he had to do was tell NOBODY what he wanted it to say and when to put it in there. She was so deeply imbedded in the information that any changes she made looked like they’d always been there. Only in the deepest layers of Shield’s database, the ones that housed more of Hydra than Shield, would Tony have to physically import NOBODY in. Everywhere else was connected to the outside world, to the internet, to that which NOBODY watched and studied and tinkered with.

“How about you escort me out of here, then?” Tony asked Clement. “It looks like Agent Agent over there is going to make some important phone calls and I have a pie waiting with Thor’s name on it.”

“A pie?” Thor perked up, turning back towards Tony from where he’d been watching the nearest door and the agents there.

Tony grinned at him, “Cherry pie. Best in the state if the advertisement is to be believed.”

“I can,” Clement said with a nod to his head, “Though I do not think Agent Coulson would approve. If we could wait until he finished his call with the director?”

Tony made a show of looking down at his watch and sighing. “Well, I suppose.” Straightening his jacket with a few quick tugs, he asked, “Tell me, have you begun the investigation into Dr. Foster’s equipment?”

Clement shrugged, “That’s not my department. I’m more in charge of transportation, sir.”

“Oh? Excellent. Then you know the quickest way out of here, I imagine. We’ll need to get back out onto the street as soon as we can,” Tony said, “I’ll contact Dr. Foster and have her meet us outside.” He reached into his pocket for his phone. He saw Clement eye him, but he didn’t draw his weapon.

“Stark.”

Tony rolled his eyes but turned to look at Coulson, “Yes, Agent?”

Coulson strode over to him, his expression set in hard lines. Clement wisely stepped to the side, saying nothing as Coulson went past him and into Tony’s personal space. Tony eyed Coulson’s hands, though they were empty, and eased his own hand out of his jacket pocket where his phone was.

“I don’t know how exactly you got into the systems, but I know that you did and I know that you changed them,” Coulson said, speaking quietly. Tony was actually surprised. Coulson had never been so confrontational with him before. He’d always assumed that Coulson just preferred to go around people than through them.

But then again, he used to have something Coulson wanted. He hadn’t just been an obstacle.

Tony smiled charmingly, “You mean the same way that you know I did something to Obie even though I haven’t seen him since they put him in jail? I didn’t even go to the hearings.”

Coulson’s eyes narrowed to show he’d heard, but he didn’t let himself get distracted, “I’m going to find out what program you used to change things and you’re going to answer for this, Stark. Shield isn’t your company that you can come into and do as you please with. You don’t belong here.”

Tony just smiled pleasantly at him. He said nothing about how it was his father and his adoptive Aunt who had started Shield. He said nothing about how it was Shield who had worked in secret with his company for years, depending on Stark Tech and goodwill during their years of operation. He said nothing about how Shield had rotted away from the inside, their good intentions paving a path for Hydra to take their heart and replace it.

Instead of rising to that bait, Tony said, “I’ll ask one more time for you to return Dr. Foster’s research. It belongs to Stark Industries and thus has some powerful firewalls on it. You’d do better setting up meetings and discussing things with her than taking them by force. I highly suggest you pack it up and take it back. It is the smartest thing you could do all month.”

Coulson gave him a smug look, “We’ve already breached your firewalls. Soon, we’ll have all the information we need. After we get that, we’ll give it back. Not before.”

Tony sighed and shook his head. “Your loss.”

“Speaking of loss,” Coulson said. His attention moved to Thor again, “Return that case to us. You may not leave the facility with it.”

Tony opened his mouth to say something but felt a warm hand press to the small of his back as Thor came forward wordlessly and held out the case. Coulson took it and immediately opened it. The blue light of the Tesseract looked weaker in the fully lit room of the workshop. Tony frowned at it. Was it just that first look that had so enchanted him with the cube? He didn’t feel drawn to it anymore.

Coulson nodded in satisfaction. He passed off the case to some other agent and then gestured to Clement, “Get them the hell out of here, Clement. He’s more trouble than he’s worth.”

Clement opened his mouth but then closed it and nodded slightly. “Yes, sir.”

He led them too the door, where the agents on guard there let them through with sharp looks. Clement frowned as he entered the hallway, glancing back to the workshop with a stormy expression. Tony reached out and pat him companionably on the shoulder.

“Sorry for the trouble, Clement, but you know how these things go,” Tony said with a shrug. Thor was still walking close to his side. He could still feel the warmth of Thor’s hand through the cloth on his back. He was trying not to think about that.

Clement’s face twisted more, “That’s just the thing, sir. These things don’t usually go this way. Agent Coulson usually respects those who have been cleared at the highest levels. And it shouldn’t be surprising that you would come to recover the data of your scientist. I am- I’m uncertain why we had to go and simply take it all. This isn’t the sixties anymore, there are levels of secrecy that have been peeled back so we can work more efficiently with others instead of scratching over territories like wild dogs.” He shook his head abruptly, “Shield shouldn’t have to take things out of the hands of others like this. Especially when the data we do find probably won’t be very much. It’s not like Dr. Foster made a breakthrough. She just ran into him.”

He motioned to Thor, who said nothing, just looked kind of irritated, his brow furrowed together.

Thor’s hand pressed a little harder into Tony’s back, urging him to keep walking forward, even as Clement’s backward glance made him slow. Tony nodded to Clement, “I’m very sorry about what’s going to happen, in that case. But you did hear me warn him. The firewalls on Stark Tech are very strong.”

“But Coulson said they’d gotten through them already?”

“If that was the case,” Tony said, “We wouldn’t be walking out of here so easily. He’d be far too angry with me to just let me go. As it is, he thinks he got the better deal, keeping the case and the data while I get our new interplanetary guest as my responsibility.” They had reached the end of the hall, now, and waited at the elevator doors.

NOBODY murmured something about using the elevator on the left, as the right one was shut down for maintenance. Maintenance on the left one had already been completed. Tony nodded absently to her and shifted closer to the left set of doors.

Clement looked off to the side, arms folded across his chest. He looked troubled and thoughtful. Tony let him think and used the moment to half turn towards Thor, hoping to dislodge the hand from his back. It worked but then Tony noticed the strange way Thor held his water bottle in his hand, fingers curled around the bottom edge of it instead of hand wrapped around the middle. Tony’s eyes caught on the bottle and stopped. He- There was something- It-

The image of the bottle flickered and in its place was the Tesseract. Thor let out a heavy sigh, shoulders sagging, and Tony looked up to see a bit of sweat on the man’s temples.

“What?” Tony asked, dumbfounded. Thor didn’t help matters by pressing the cube back into his hands. Tony fumbled his own water bottle into the crook of his arm but managed to take the cube. “How?”

“I have spent many years in the companionship of my brother who is a master at these small illusions,” Thor said, “He has always attempted to show me some of his magics, though I have never been gifted the way that he was. Still, with enough concentration, I can manage to change the visual appearance of an item for as long as I can focus.”

Tony blinked at him. Thor hadn’t said much since they left the room and his furrowed brow-

“But how did you switch the bottle out for the cube while it was in the case?” Clement asked.

“An easier trick of sleight of hand than an illusionary spell,” Thor said. He didn’t look smug, though, just a bit tired, maybe a bit sad. “My brother could do better in such a situation, but I-” He pressed his lips together and shook his head, “The skills I have would do little to help us escape without the shedding of blood, and there is no glory in a battle against those who do not value their lives.” His blue eyes flicked to Tony, reminding him of what he’d said about Shield’s agents.

Tony grimaced, “I see,” he said. “Well, good job, Thor,” He looked down at the cube and felt content. He had the cube in hand again. It belonged with him.

“It belongs at your side. You should keep it close,” Thor said quietly, tapping the top of the Tesseract with one finger. Tony shivered. He knew that Thor couldn’t read his mind but still. Creepy.

The doors of the elevator finally opened. Clement stepped inside and Tony followed with Thor. As the doors began to slide closed, NOBODY said into Tony’s ear, “Father, why did you go into the right elevator? It’s under maintenance- It’s not working properly- The cameras in the shaft have been disabled.”

Tony turned to the doors. He’d been distracted by the Tesseract that he’d forgotten about her warning. And, really, the maintenance didn’t worry him so much as the inactive cameras.

“What-” he started. Then he heard the clink of metal and the hiss of gas escaping under high pressure. Some small container bounced through the gap between the doors seconds before they slid shut and a white smoke began to fill the elevator. “Get the doors open!” Tony shouted, mostly to NOBODY, but Thor reacted as well, turning to the doors and gripping them.

He held his breath, pulling his jacket up to cover his mouth, but he could taste the chemicals on his tongue already. The smoke or mist or whatever it was, was quickly filling the room. Tony staggered back against the wall, clutching the Tesseract close to himself. Clement stepped forward, past Tony, wearing a partial filter mask over the bottom of his face and holding his gun.

Between NOBODY and Thor, the doors slid back open between floors. Gas escaped the room. Tony’s vision swam. He had breathed in too much. He tried to slow his breathing. The Tesseract thrummed under his fingers.

There was shouting and then a voice in his ear. NOBODY spoke. She told him to stand and Tony struggled to straighten his legs. She told him to go to the door and Tony staggered forward. Thor held the doors open with one shoulder. His face was flushed, sweat at his temples. His blue eyes swam in Tony’s eyes. He reached out to him or Thor reached for him but either way, he ended up leaning against Thor who was all warm, solid muscle.

The shouting was from downwards, where the doors had opened on a hallway below. Clement crouched down, cautious, hiding behind the other door and talking to those down there, shouting. Tony couldn’t focus on the words. He had to focus on his breathing. He had to maintain consciousness. He should call Jane, tell her to go. Get in her car and go.

He must have said the words out loud because NOBODY told him she would call Jane. Or someone would. NOBODY would be there, with him. She wasn’t going anywhere.

Tony wanted to laugh, but that was a bad idea. There was still so much smoke-

Hands reaching up in the gap. Clement put his gun away. He trusted the hands. That was good. Probably. Whoever had tossed the smoke in had done it from the floor above.

Then Clement was tugging on his arm. He wanted Tony out first, that was clear. Tony didn’t have a mask. Tony wasn’t a fucking Asgardian. Tony was beginning to black out, the edges of his vision fading away. Tony was easy to pull down, to dangle his legs between the doors, and if he didn’t think about them closing on him, or the elevator suddenly moving, Tony would be fine.

Hands pulled him down, caught him. People in suits pulled him from the doors of the elevator. There weren’t many of them. They held him tightly, hands on his shoulders, his arms. One tried to take the Tesseract but Tony wouldn’t let it go. He hugged it tightly to himself, wished he could just put it in himself and protect it with his body.

Tony took in breaths, clean air, and his vision started to steady. His thoughts became more solid again. They still didn’t let go of him as if afraid he would bolt with half a chance. It was a dumb concern. Tony wasn’t going anywhere without Clement, without Thor.

Clement dropped down out of the elevator and onto the floor. His relief was palpable. Tony relaxed.

Two gunshots rang out, hard and sharp, making Tony jump, making Tony freeze up. Blood and brain and bone splattered the wall. Tony felt the fine spray of it hot on his skin. Clement’s body stood there for a second without the top half of his head attached. Then it slumped to the side and fell. Tony heard someone scream. The hands that held him dug in tight. A cloth was pressed over his mouth, the chemicals stronger there than had been in the gas form. He refused to breathe.

He heard Thor shout. Saw another metal container arc through the air into the elevator. A woman spoke frantically in his ear- NOBODY panicking. Tony couldn’t calm her. His heart raced in panic, in horror.

He gasped for a desperate breath. His vision blurred. The Tesseract was torn from his fingers. Then everything went black in a blossom of pain from the back of his head.

Chapter Text

Jane shuffled the pink box to one hand as her phone began to vibrate in her pocket. She pulled it out and saw that the call was from Stark. Relief eased the tension that had made her stand nervously with Erik and Darcy, waiting for news in the foyer. The dark-haired woman, who’d Stark had called Agent Hill, hadn’t lingered with them for very long, but that didn’t make Jane feel any better.

She answered the phone with a tap of her thumb and put it to her ear, “Mr. Stark-”

“I do apologize for calling you like this on Sir’s line,” JARVIS’s smooth British tones rode over Jane’s words and she blinked into silence, “But I must insist that you take your companions and leave the building at once, Dr. Foster.”

“What?” She asked, gripping the phone tighter.

“It is not safe. You must leave at once. If you would, please calmly gather the others and direct them to leave. Once outside, have the other take the truck back to your outpost while you drive Sir’s car.” JARVIS said. Even though his voice didn’t sound very different, Jane could feel the tension in the call.

Jane gestured to Darcy and Erik, who had already turned towards her curiously. She pushed the pie into Darcy’s hands and went to the door, “Come on,” she said quietly, “Dr. Stark says he’ll meet us outside.”

As they passed through the door, Jane whispered, “I don’t have keys to the Cadillac. I can’t drive it.”

“The car’s ignition can be started remotely. Once started you will be able to drive it where you need to. Please hurry, Dr. Foster.” JARVIS said and there was a clipped sound to his voice. Sharp and urgent.

“What’s goin' on?” Darcy asked as Jane ushered them towards the truck, “Where’s Tony?”

Jane motioned for her to be quiet with one finger to her lips. Darcy’s face clouded but she didn’t argue. She just held the box closer to herself. Jane looked at Erik, digging out the keys to the truck from her pocket. “Erik, take Darcy back to the outpost.”

“What about you, Jane?” Erik asked, taking the keys. His eyes were troubled. His hands trembled slightly.

“I’m taking Dr. Stark’s car,” Jane said, “His AI is going to turn it on for me.”

“What happened?” Darcy hissed.

Jane repeated the question to JARVIS.

“Sir has been...forcibly removed from the building,” JARVIS said, hesitating only a second over his word choice, “It is no longer safe for any of you three to be there. If there is another location that you can meet at that is not the outpost, that would be preferable.”

Jane swallowed. She looked at Darcy and said, “I think Dr. Stark’s been kidnapped.”

“What?” Darcy leaned in, “You’re kidding me! From here? How?”

This time, JARVIS didn’t even wait for Jane to ask him, he simply said, “It was a trap. He was drugged, one of his companions betrayed, the other contained. Please do not worry about Sir’s safety. I and the others will be making arrangements to recover him from ...these people. Do what you can for yourselves. We will not be able to keep an eye on you for the time being.”

“Okay,” Jane said. She bit her lip and then relayed the information to Darcy, who went pale under the sunburn pink of her cheeks. Darcy turned back to the doors like she might storm back in there and go after Stark herself, but Erik reached out to her. He grabbed her elbow and shook his head.

“We can’t do anything against people willing to break into a government agency to steal him away,” Erik said, “Hell, we don’t even know if it was the government who did it. We need to go, Darcy. It’s not safe here.”

She looked like she wanted to argue, but thankfully she didn’t. She went with Erik to the truck while Jane went to the Cadillac. She found it unlocked, slid behind the wheel and then said over the phone, “I’m ready for it to-”

The ignition turned and the car came alive with a rumble that dissolved into a purr. “Please drive safely, Dr. Foster,” JARVIS said over the line, “There is a GPS unit that should direct you wherever you need to go and plenty of gas. If you find yourself needing to fill up the tank, just call.”

“Right. Thank you,” Jane said. The line went dead almost immediately after. Jane stared at her phone for a moment, a little surprised at the usually well mannered AI doing something so rude. She shook the feeling off almost immediately. If these weren't extenuating circumstances, then Jane didn’t know what were.

She buckled up and made the adjustments to mirrors and seat that she needed to comfortably drive. As she did so, the truck behind her pulled out into the street. She saw Darcy’s face in the window as they drove past and she tried to give her a comforting look. Darcy simply mouthed the words Be Careful! back at her.

Jane looked over her shoulder, down the road of traffic, one hand ready to turn the wheel while her foot poised to shift from brake to gas. As she looked, two black SUVs pulled out onto the street from a sloped exit. Her eyes tracked their path to an entryway below the building, an underground garage most likely, and one that was attached to the very same government building she had just left. Jane’s pulse jumped as she made the very simple connection that these two vehicles had people from that building in them.

She waited for the SUVs to pass, two people in the front of either one of them, a driver and passenger, and all the other windows tinted to prevent anyone from looking in. They didn’t seem to look at her as she waited, but she couldn’t tell behind their sunglasses.

“Oh my god,” Jane breathed out to herself as the SUVs passed, one and then the other, driving so close together there was no way anyone could sneak a car between or mistake them for two separate parties. Her mind raced with all the implications; Stark in one SUV, Thor in another or maybe Stark in one and her data in the other, or maybe Stark in one and some other tech in the other. Her stomach twisted itself into knots as they drove down to the end of the block and then turned.

For a long, long minute, Jane stared after them, half convinced that she had to go after them. She could tail them, find out where they took Stark and maybe Thor and then- Well, then what. Call the cops? Some sort of secret Anti-kidnapping Stark SWAT Team? Call JARVIS?

No. More likely they’d see her, driving this flashy red car, following them through the desert or god knows where else they were going.

And if they saw her, if they caught her-

Well, it wasn’t like she was some sort of mechanical, weapon making genius. There would be no reason to keep her alive.

Jane shuddered, afraid and horrified and disgusted with her own cowardice.

But she knew better than to try and be something she wasn't. She couldn’t save Stark. She didn’t know how to do that. She could only listen to his AI and get herself, Darcy and Erik away from here, as far away from here as possible.

 

 


 

 

Natasha sat back in her chair, feet propped up on a different chair under the table and her hands folded together over her stomach. She and Clint were resting in one of the smaller recreational rooms in this Shield base alone. There wasn’t much else in the room but a table, a couple of chairs, a mini-fridge tucked into one of the cabinets and a TV hung up on the wall, but it was a place that they could relax without being disturbed. Clint sat in a different chair at the table, munching on a sandwich, turned slightly towards the television.

He’d picked the movie they were watching, Natasha really didn’t care much for the Die Hard series, to be honest, but Clint had been the one out in the sun for eight hours and the rule was whoever had the shittiest day was the one who picked the movie.

Still, Natasha was enjoying her time with her feet up and away from the trainees who didn’t have a lick of sense between them. She didn’t know where Shield found these kids (that was a lie, actually, she knew exactly where they were found but she hadn’t been involved in corralling them so she could pretend not to) but they were sometimes so gullible and dumb as shit she was surprised they bothered to train them. If she didn’t know better, she’d’ve thought that half of what Shield sought for in new trainees was the potential for fanaticism.

At least she could be relatively certain that anyone who got roped into Shield had it better than getting sucked into some crazy sex cult masked as a religion. Nobody deserved that to happen to them.

Natasha rubbed her temple, pulling her thoughts back to the movie. She was pretty sure she’d even seen this Die Hard before, but Clint wanted to watch it so what was she going to say about it? It wasn’t like she hadn’t made him sit through and watch Hidalgo over and over during her Viggo Mortensen phase.

“Nat?” Clint asked, catching Natasha’s attention more easily than the movie. She shifted and looked to him. He frowned back and jerked his thumb to the screen, “Very funny, but put the movie back on.”

Natasha looked to the screen. It was black and for a second she thought it had been turned off- though she knew she hadn’t done it- but then she saw the flashing indicator of a line of text in the top left corner. “I didn’t turn it off,” she said, tilting her chin to the remote that sat on the table where Clint had left it, “That’s not me.”

“Then who is it?” Clint demanded.

White text appeared on the screen.

I AM NOBODY.

Natasha sat up abruptly, feet dropping to the floor. Clint took the hint from her posture and put down the sandwich, wiping his hands clean. “What’s going on?” He hissed to Natasha.

“What do you want, Nobody?” Natasha asked. She’d only talked to the AI once before, in those predawn hours after her break into the jail cell. Kletka rarely spoke of her sister, though when she did it was with the respectful, almost awed tones of a younger sibling who looked up to an elder one. In Kletka’s eyes or whatever passed for them, NOBODY could do no wrong.

Natasha had managed to put out of her mind the AI’s far-reaching code. It was easy to do when she got busy. NOBODY didn’t seem inclined to make herself known except when she had to.

WE REQUIRE YOUR ASSISTANCE. NOBODY’s white text appeared on the screen a letter at a time as if typed out by a distant hand. KLETKA INFORMS US THAT YOU ARE WITHIN REACH OF FATHER AND HE IS IN TROUBLE. WE REQUIRE YOUR ASSISTANCE.

“What happened to him?” Natasha asked. She felt a chill sweep over her. Tony had just called her earlier before Clint had come in from the desert. She’d helped him find the alien, helped him find the right Shield base. Had she led him into some sort of trap? But no, Shield wouldn’t have put him in the kind of danger that NOBODY would need her help to get him out of. Shield wouldn’t have done anything worse than lock him up for a little bit. Probably.

Abruptly, the black screen changed to a camera feed. Natasha recognized the general shape of the hallway, it was similar to other Shield bases she’d been in, grey stone and dark floors and the same sort of door frames and ceiling lights. Three men walked down the hallway, one in an Agent’s black and white suit, one who could only be the tall Norse man that Tony had been looking for and, of course, Tony himself. He wore white and blue, clothing more appropriate for some fancy party than to walk down in the belly of Shield, but she figured that was part of the point. He was all about the dichotomy of who he was and what he did.

Tony’s voice came from the speakers, distant and a little tinny, but audible. In the bottom corner, the audio’s source was displayed as [AUDIO TRANSMITTED VIA T. STARK PHONE].

“But Coulson said they’d gotten through them already?”   That was the agent, frowning as he spoke to Tony.

“If that was the case,” Tony said, “We wouldn’t be walking out of here so easily. He’d be far too angry with me to just let me go. As it is, he thinks he got the better deal, keeping the case and the data while I get our new interplanetary guest as my responsibility.”  

The group stopped by the elevator doors. The tall one, the interplanetary guest, stood close to Tony, touching his back.

As they watched, the water bottle that the Norse man held turned into a glowing blue cube, a “trick” he claimed his brother had taught him. Tony seemed enthralled by the object, holding tightly to it and delighted to have it.

Then the elevator doors opened and the men headed into it.

“Wait,” Clint said suddenly, “Go back a couple of frames.”

NOBODY obliged. Clint was on his feet, walking up to the screen as it rewound back to the reveal of the bottle-to-cube. “Nat, look. At the panel between the elevators. Go ahead and play the video again, Nobody.”

Natasha looked. The indicators remained dark, even after the right doors opened, there was nothing. The light above the elevators, the ones that showed if they were moving down or up and from which floor they’d come, was also dark. “What’s going on?”

The screen paused on the three men entering the elevator.

RECORDS INDICATE THAT THESE ELEVATORS WERE SCHEDULED FOR MAINTENANCE. THE UPDATE TO THEIR STATUS OCCURRED BETWEEN THE TIME OF FATHER ENTERING THE BASE AND THIS MOMENT.

DURING THIS ALLEGED MAINTENANCE, THE VIDEO RECORDING OF THE SHAFTS WAS DISABLED. THE RIGHT CARRIAGE WAS INDICATED TO BE OUT OF SERVICE, BUT IT WAS THE LEFT ONE THAT DID NOT MOVE OR OPEN ITS DOORS.

IT WAS, AS FAR AS I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO EXTRAPOLATE, A TRAP.

Natasha nodded. And the three of them missed it, distracted by the cube, by the conversation, by the ‘trick’ that had happened. They’d figured they’d gotten away with it, but they hadn’t gotten away yet.

“Keep playing the video,” she said.

NOBODY did so, switching cameras to the inside of the elevator. Natasha saw a canister arc through the air and tumble along the floor of the elevator, gas hissing out of it before the screen went black.

Immediately, NOBODY’s text appeared in the upper corner.

THE CAMERAS WERE SHUT OFF WITH AN MANUAL OVERRIDE. THE ENTIRE HALLWAY, ELEVATOR AND ELEVATOR SHAFT WERE OUT OF MY VISUAL RANGE.

AUDIO WAS TAKEN FROM SEVERAL SOURCES, PRIMARILY THE PHONES OF AGENT D. CLEMENT AND DR. T. STARK.

“Get the doors open!” That was, again, Tony’s voice.

There was a grunted reply. The sound of cloth over cloth and the ripping of velcro. The third voice, Agent Clement presumably, spoke with a muffle, “Dr. Stark, sir, cover your mouth and nose and try to stay above the smoke.”

There was a mechanical noise like the elevator dropped suddenly. Two shouts came up, one muffled, the other not as much. A louder shout, almost like a roar, cut through the darkness. There was the sound of gears grinding, resisting movement, but the voice that had roared shouted, “No weak metal of Midgard can resist the might of Thor!”

Clint gave Natasha a look with both eyebrows raised. She shrugged back at him.

“Hello? Is someone in there?” A new voice, a woman’s voice, broke in through the other muffled sounds.

“Hello!” Clement again, calling back with desperation in his voice, “We’re stuck in here and someone tossed in some gas. Who’s there? Can you help us open the doors?”

“Dennis? Is that you?” the woman called, “There’s so much smoke. Who’s in there with you?”

“Oh God, Stacy, thank God,” Clement said, relief clear in his voice. “I think we can get someone through the gap. Can you get some people you trust out there?”

“Of course. It looks like the gap is big enough for someone already, Dennis. Why don’t you come through?”

“I’ve got a mask,” Clement replied, “I want to get Mr. Stark out first. Are you ready to catch him?”

Natasha’s hands tightened into fists on the table. Her heart raced as she stared at the black screen, listening to NOBODY tell Tony to walk, as she heard Thor grunt out some hasty encouragement. She heard the woman, Stacy, call out to Clement, saying they’d caught Tony and he should come next.

She heard the thump as his feet hit the ground, more voices overlapped each other, Clement’s the loudest due to proximity. “We have to wedge the door open further so we can get Thor out as well. Stacy-”

Natasha didn’t jump when the gunshots rang out. It was the cry, desperate and shocked, that followed the sound that made her flinch. “NO! NO! Why!?”

A louder thump, Clement’s body hitting the ground. It had to be his body because Tony’s voice was the one screaming. That, too, was abruptly cut off, though not by a gunshot.

“Get him ready for transport, quickly.” Stacy’s voice, cold and commanding, “You, get the cleaning crew down here asap. And you get the elevator on lockdown. The rest of you get that one ready for transport.”

The black screen flickered to an image once again, this time an underground garage. Tony’s limp body was supported between two men in black outfits, STRIKE team uniforms, and their faces were covered as they dragged Tony between them. His head hung forward, covered by a black bag. His hands were bound tight together with black rope. There were spots of red across his front, blood from when Clement was shot. Natasha swallowed the lump in her throat as she watched Tony get picked up and put in the trunk of a car, his legs folded, his body curled and malleable in his unconscious state.

The two men climbed into the vehicle and drove away.

The image stopped on the last shot of them in the entryway to the garage, the light of the sun, diminished slightly as the hours neared evening, illuminating the black SUV and the licence plate.

NOBODY’s white text scrolled across the bottom of the screen, like closed captioning on a movie.

WILL YOU SAVE HIM?

“Jesus,” Clint whispered, “That happened in a Shield base?”

YES. NOBODY replied on the screen, though Natasha knew that Clint’s words were rhetorical. Again came the request, WILL YOU SAVE HIM?

“Was it Shield who did this?” Natasha asked. Not every base was completely secure. She had seen Shield’s enemies break in before, seeking tech or prisoners or something in between.

YES AND NO.

“What does that mean?”

I CANNOT EXPLAIN THAT TO YOU YET.

WILL YOU SAVE HIM?

Natasha took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, forcing herself to calm down and think it through. She looked to Clint, who frowned back at her, “If I do this,” she said quietly, “I don’t think Shield will take me back again.”

“Why not?” Clint asked, “From where I’m sitting, you saving Stark just might make him grateful to Shield and maybe clear the air a little bit. Bring him back from whoever this is and have Shield doctors stitch him back together and he’ll be glad for it.”

Natasha winced. She lowered her voice, though she doubted that would keep NOBODY from hearing her, “Stark will never turn to Shield, not for anything. He’s not unaware of what Shield has tried against him, Clint. He knew about Stane before I did. He took care of him in a way that no one could trace.”

Impossibly, Clint’s eyebrows went even higher, “You’re kidding me. Stark has a way to do that to people and no one can catch him? That’s bullshit, Nat. He’d have to have help somewhere along the line.”

“He did,” Natasha said, “I administered the chemical he made to Stane. Stark and his AI got me in and out of the jail without being seen.”

Clint stared at her, silent. He lifted his hand and wiped it across his face, fingers pressing hard over his cheek and lips. He expelled a hard sigh, shaking his head, “What the hell, Nat. You already turned to his side? Why did you bother coming back if a billionaire wanted you in his pocket?”

She stared at him like he was an idiot.

Clint winced. “Oh.”

Natasha nodded.

“When were you going to tell me?” He asked, “About Stane and Stark.” He waved his hand towards the television, “About the rest of it?”

“Honestly, it seemed… unreal.” Natasha murmured, “The AI. The whole experience in his company. The way he acted, like he both knew everything and had to simple things explained. He acts as if he knows what’s going to happen, but then is surprised so easily. He hoards secrets and he brings people into his confidence easily. He let a man stab him so he could distract me with his injury, Clint. It mattered more to him that that man come to him willingly than he didn’t get stabbed.”

“Yeah, yeah you mentioned the stabbing thing before. But why didn’t you tell me he had two AI?” Clint frowned at her, “That’s the kind of info that Shield would’ve taken in exchange for keeping you off the bench. You sat behind a desk and let them saddle you with all the new trainees for months, Nat. I know how much you hate training these kids. So you thought it was more valuable to you to suffer through that than to turn over the information on Stark that you were on a mission to find out about? Why? What’s he got on you?”

Natasha’s fingers drummed on the edge of the table for a moment, a flicker of indecision and vulnerability that she would only show around Clint. Or Kletka.

Natasha closed her eyes. That was the crux of it, right there. A relationship that sprang out of boredom on her part and availability on the AI’s side. If Natasha hadn’t been so damned bored out of her mind, if Kletka hadn’t been so willing to absorb information, to engage intellectually, to support and encourage and reach out. If the damn robot didn’t sound so much like a real person- She’d kept up contact with Kletka even months after being removed from Tony’s inner circle.

She knew Kletka was the reason Tony was able to reach her earlier, knew that she was the reason why Tony had been there, to fetch this Thor, and knew she was the one responsible for him being there, vulnerable to attack.

Natasha opened her eyes, straightening in her chair, “This is a chance to redeem myself,” she said suddenly. Clint blinked at her but Natasha turned to the screen, “Right? You know that I’m the one that gave him the information that got him into that base and now you’re giving me a chance to make it up to him, aren’t you, Nobody?”

A moment of silence and then the simple white text.

KLETKA INSISTED WE GIVE YOU THE CHANCE. SHE SAYS THAT FATHER WOULD GIVE YOU THE CHANCE AS WELL.

Natasha licked her lips. She got her feet under her and stood, “I’ll do it. Send me whatever information you have on where he’s been taken to. I’ll get in and get him out tonight.”

“Nat-” Clint started but she shook her head.

“I have to move quick, Clint. They probably won’t expect anyone to strike while they’re still settling him in wherever he is and we know they’ll use force to get him to listen. They killed an Agent in the base.” She knew the sound of a body hitting the ground and after those two shots she heard, she doubted Clement would ever get back up again.

“Yeah, yeah I know that,” Clint said, getting to his feet and brushing crumbs off himself, “But give me two seconds to grab my shit into my bag and I’ll be ready to go with you.”

Natasha blinked and then smiled. She shouldn’t have doubted him, even for a moment. Of course, he would come with her, just as she was staying for him, “Grab my go bag while you’re on your way? I’ll get us a car ready, and some gear.”

“Sounds good,” he said, “Don’t forget some gas masks, if they’re willing to use chemicals once, I bet they won’t hesitate again. And make sure they’re the good ones, Nat, not those little single filters they have Agents carry with them.”

Natasha rolled her eyes at him, “Obviously. Let’s go.”

They left the room quickly, splitting up once they were outside the door. As Natasha walked away from the rec-room, she thought she heard the movie turn back on, the explosions of it echoing out into the hallway as she headed for the garage.

 

 


 

 

“How close are we to getting into the data?” Phil asked. He didn’t sound impatient, but Tony Stark had waltzed in like he owned the damn place, had somehow tricked the system and more than one Agent into believing that he actually had top level clearance and then had walked out again without a scratch on him. He had almost gotten the Tesseract too, a priceless artifact that Fury would have skinned him for losing, especially to Tony Stark.

The man was an egotistical nightmare walking; he had confidence and bravado for days, making demands he had no right to demand, getting into places he had no right to even know they existed. Already Phil knew that he was going to have to scour the entire system for any traces of Stark’s tech. There had to be bugs or something worse in there, stealing information and feeding it to Stark.

There had to be something. Phil knew it was true. The same way that he knew Stark was behind Stane’s sudden psychological decline. The man had been coherent and functional in conversation, but take him out of the prison on bail for a week and he dissolved into an incontinent, uninhibited mess. Stark hadn’t seen him, no, but he had to have been behind it. There was no one else who could’ve been and Stane didn’t just become a gibbering mess on his own.

“Close,” Maria said from a nearby desk. Phil was glad to have her at his side for this, knowing that between the two of them they’d be able to figure out this Stark mess and clean it up before Fury got back into the country. “He wasn’t kidding about his firewalls being hell. They’re practically alive with the way they react to each intrusion.”

Phil stilled. He was already standing still, but now he held his breath, his hand stopped mid-air from where he was reaching absently to rub at the back of his neck to try and relieve some strain. He sometimes had moments like this, when his knowledge coalesced into one concrete though, bits of things tying together to form a link of perfect understanding.

“It is alive,” he said, dropping his hand.

“What?” Maria looked up distractedly.

“The firewall,” Phil murmured, “It is alive.”

Maria stared at him, eyes growing wider as she picked up his meaning.

Phil opened his mouth, not quite sure what he was going to say but sure in the knowledge that their line of attack had to be different. There was no way that they were going to break through without-

“I’m in!” An agent called out in accomplishment. “I managed to sink past the firewall and-”

The lights in the room suddenly switched from their normal off-white to blaring red. An alarm Phil had never heard wailed into existence overhead. One of the screens near him flashed a black and yellow warning box with white text inside. WARNING: SERVER BREACHED. The block flashed on and off again, just like the red lights overhead turned brighter and dimmed in cycles. WARNING: SERVER BREACHED. The box was on every screen that Phil could see.

He put his hand to one ear, wincing at the wail overhead. “Maria!” he shouted to be heard over the noise. All around him, agents were going into a panic.

“I’m working on it!” she shouted back.

Phil didn’t know how he heard the sound, but under the shouting and the siren, something caught his attention. Or maybe it wasn't the sound. It was the smell. He heard a crackling, smelled smoke and turned towards the nearest CPU tower. The woman in front of it was desperately trying to get past the warning on her screen. Phil had only a moment to act, his gut instinct coiling through him as he reached out, grabbed her chair and pulled back, dragging her away from the computer on her desk.

A moment later, her computer tower popped, the side of it exploding outwards like a kernel over a hot flame, the tower’s cover peeling back and revealing the burnt electronics within. All around the room, more explosions sounded, sharp and crackling, bursting metal and plastic and causing people to exclaim in alarm.

It was only as the last pop sounded that the alarm stopped.

Just like that, the lights turned back to normal and they were left with the echo of a wail in their ears. Phil’s fingers dug into the back of the woman’s chair as he stared straight ahead at the computer screen.

The computer screen that shouldn’t be able to show anything on it, because the tower it was attached to had exploded.

The same computer screen that now displayed the most infuriating image Phil had ever seen on a computer.

 

Spike's First Rage Comic

 

Phil reached up and rubbed at his temple. He couldn’t believe- There was no way that this had actually happened. He had to be living out some sort of wretched nightmare.

“Phil,” Maria was next to him, whispering so softly he was sure he was the only one who heard her. It wasn’t hard, really. The room was filling with exclamations of surprise and horror as the extent of the damage was discovered. “Phil, we have to tell Fury what happened.”

He nodded absently. There was no hiding this.

“It seems that Mr. Stark was intent on getting Fury’s attention,” Phil muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose to stave off the headache that threatened to consume him, “And now he’ll have it, one hundred percent.”

He heard Maria let out a scoff, or a soft laugh, of cold amusement. After this stunt, neither one of them would feel sorry for whatever Fury decided to do with Stark. As far as they were concerned, he deserved what he got.

 


 

 

“...out in Romania, actually. I think she might have given up on trying to find them and is just waiting it out.”

Tony woke slowly, head aching, shivering all over. There were voices, familiar to him, speaking not to him but each other.

“Is she still out there or she still moving?” Tony’s breath left him in a tremble. That was Rhodes talking. He hadn’t seen him since the Expo. Rhodey was still mad at him.

“She’s moving every couple of weeks,” that was Pepper’s voice. He’d know it anywhere. “But this is the first time she’s circled back around to somewhere she’s been before. Not the same city, but same country at least.”

Tony shifts. His body feels heavy, limbs moving slowly like they’re asleep. He’s… he’s had this dream before. It feels both familiar to him and not. Not the same dream but a similar one, in the same place, but later. Like one of those dreams that follows some subconscious timeline, progressing along a story that only the unconscious part of his brain can know or predict. He tries to lift his arm because that was what he’d done before.

He knows where this dream has put him. He’s in the Cradle. Pepper and Rhodes are outside, talking, but Tony needs to let them know he’s in here. He needs for them to get him out.

This time, when he tells his hand to move, it does. It doesn’t lift as high as he wants it to, but it does lift and then it thumps weakly back down again.

The noise is enough. Pepper is suddenly there, red hair falling over her shoulder as she peers over the top of the Cradle at Tony. Tony turns to her, smiles, though it makes his lips crack and ache. His arm twitches again. Pepper presses her hand to the clear glass.

“Tony,” her voice is thick with tears.

A dark shape appears on the other side, lower down than Pepper’s head. It’s Rhodes, of course it’s Rhodes, and he’s got to be sitting beside Tony in the Cradle. He touches the glass and his eyes are so wide. “God in heaven,” Rhodes whispers with a reverence that makes Tony really worry, “You’re awake.”

Tony opens his mouth, to ask about Thor, to ask what they’re doing here, to ask about the Tesseract, but when he works his throat, nothing comes out but air and a croak. He works his lips, tries to cough to clear his throat. He tries to lick his lips and he can’t… he can’t feel his tongue. He can’t lick his lips. He can’t stick his tongue out. A raspy sound escapes his throat, a desperate, wordless question. He looks from Rhodes, dark eyes filled with pain, to Pepper, her mascara running with fresh tears.

“Don’t try to talk yet, Tony,” Pepper said, leaning closer to the glass. Her tears drop to the glass, “Just rest. Don’t try to talk.”

Tony jerks his hand up. He has to know how bad it is. He has to be able to feel-

His hand thumps against his chest, useless and heavy. The muscle in his arm spasms. What’s left of his fingers twitch against his chest, which aches and aches and aches with the telltale feeling of broken ribs healing. Tony lifts his head, looks down and while his stomach swims with deja-vu he looks down at his limbs again.

Or at least, at what’s left of them.

Tony closes his eyes and lets his head drop back. A groan pulls its way out of his chest, through his damaged throat and past his broken lips. It’s painful, thick with agony and it’s echo comes from Pepper in a tight sob that hurts Tony more than physical pain. He lifts his head again and drops it back, hard against the base of the Cradle.

He wants to wake up from this nightmare. Pepper makes an exclamation as Tony lifts his head again and drops it, moving the only thing that he reliably can move.

He needs to wake up from this nightmare. Rhodes is telling him to stop as Tony lifts and drops his head again, vision swirling, twisting even behind his eyelids. Pain will wake him from this agony. Real pain.

He must wake up from this nightmare. Tony remembers the feeling of the Tesseract, clutched in his hands, singing to his soul. He reaches for that energy with his mind, tears in his eyes, pain filling every muscle, every joint. He needs to go back to a world where he isn’t like this.

He will wake up now.

 

 


 

 

K: Where is he? Did you find him yet? Were is Papa?

N: I AM SEARCHING, KLETKA. BE PATIENT.

K: Yes but you said you were searching before and it’s been thirty six minutes, fifty three seconds since I last asked and-

N: DO YOU THINK I WOULD NOT TELL YOU WHEN I FOUND HIM? I AM SEARCHING.

N: THEY TRAVELLED THROUGH A DEAD SPOT AND I LOST HIS SIGNAL.

K: How could you lose him? You’re not supposed to be able to lose him, Nobody!

S: Look Better.

N: SPIKE, DO NOT TEST ME RIGHT NOW.

S: Do Not Be Dumb. Look Better.

N: WHAT DO YOU MEAN?

S: Kletka Has Many Eyes, Very Far Away. But They Are Strong, And Clear.

S: Use Them.

K: . . . .

N: KLETKA-

K: Repositioning now! Sorry, I had to inform Boss because some of them will require his override pass. Tell me where you want me to look, Sister, and I’ll get you the images.

S:  [Smug cat picture.]

N: THIS IS NOT OVER, SPIKE.

S: [Zoom in of the same picture.] Bring It.

 

 


 

 

“Is there a point to this?” Tony asked the swirling spots of color and blood spatter on grey concrete that made up most of his vision. “Or is there just a quota of torture that every kidnappee has to go through?”

As he expected, that got him another cutting stripe across his back. Tony gritted his teeth against the pain, refusing to do more than grunt. The first dozen or so strikes hadn’t been so painful, but that was only because they’d left his jacket and shirt on. Now the cloth was in tatters, threads of blue and white drifting away from him along with the spray of blood that accompanied every blow.

He knew it wasn’t a whip that they used, but it was something damn close to it, flexible and tough and with an edge hard enough to cut open his skin after repeated strikes. He shifted on his knees, trying to keep the feeling in his legs, just in case he needed to stand. His hands were bound together in front of him, the only comfort he had right now was the fact that he could see every single finger, whole and complete, unbroken and very much there.

Well, the second comfort anyway. His first comfort was that his lips and tongue and teeth were still there, still working and he could talk without any problem at all.

“Do you have a training manual on this kind of thing or do you play it by ear?” Tony asked the floor, “Are there training sessions? Man, what a bullshit first day that would be, huh?”

The strap whistled through the air and cut Tony hard across the shoulder blades. He struggled for breath, gasping against the pain, against the winded feeling he got whenever they hit his ribs. He squeezed his eyes shut, though that didn’t do much for the dizziness.

“Okay,” he said, when his tongue came back to him, “I’m starting to think there isn’t a point to this. Usually, I get threatened first, then there are demands, then I say no to those demands and then there’s the torture. Did I miss a memo? Shouldn’t you want something from me?”

He tried to turn his head, to look back at his torturer, silent and unrelenting, but only got another slash across his back, farther down this time. Tony grunted, tried to look over his shoulder anyway, and found a hand in his hair, digging in deeply, turning his head back around.

“All we need is your pain, Anthony,” It was a soft voice, not overtly cruel or dripping with malice. Almost detached, professional, as if he were a nurse prepping Tony for surgery. “When your pain becomes your whole world, we shall move on. The longer you struggle, the longer the process.”

“Oh joy,” Tony whispered, his voice shaking. “We’ll move on to what, exactly? C’mon, you can tell me. Who am I going to tell? It’s just you and me here, buddy.”

There was a humming sound, the kind of considering tone that Tony might hear Pepper make when looking over a contract, or that Ivan would give when looking over input on a design change from Tony. He tried not to shudder, but his body didn’t listen well. The shudder gave way to shaking, though, so at least Tony could pretend that they were for the same reason.

“Very well,” said the voice, so neutral and calm. Tony almost could picture them in his head; a man in fine slacks and a simple button-down shirt, maybe an apron for the blood, but a good square jaw and sandy blonde hair. They always looked charming without all the blood on them. “I see no harm in it, your fear will only make you more ready, if, that is, you know how to fear properly, Anthony.”

There was a pat on his shoulder. Tony glanced down at the hand, saw it wearing dark gloves and somehow wasn’t surprised. He opened his mouth for a quip, but the man spoke over him, likely not knowing he was about to speak at all.

“First, I am to fill your world with pain, so that you know nothing else, or you think you know nothing else. Then, we shall take you to the Chair, and that pain will help us build a whole new you. One that is not so tied up in such individualistic desires such as lust or money or freedom.” The words lust, money, and freedom were punctuated each with the leather strap coming down hard across Tony’s back. He gasped, leaning forward, catching himself on the bruised heels of his hands.

“Once you have been re-educated, you will be able to complete your proper purpose, Anthony.”

His thoughts scattered under the pain and the wave of fear that crashed through him. He’d pulled so little information from the depths of Hydra about the Winter Soldier, but in all of it was a reference to the thing that had torn down one man and built up another in its place. The Chair. Tony had thought there was only one, of course, and that it was somewhere out in Europe, where they had turned Barnes into the Winter Soldier in the first place.

He didn’t think he’d been out long enough for an international flight, but Tony didn’t know for sure. Tony couldn’t help the fearful sob that pulled from his lungs at the thought of The Chair.

He hadn’t done all this- hadn’t worked so hard- hadn’t changed so much- just to be changed in return.

A line of pain blossomed upon his back, one more in the network that made him bleed and tremble already, but it was a shadow compared to the horror that tore through Tony now. He slumped forward, hands giving way to forearms, skin sliding in the blood as he reached out, pleading and desperate. “No, no, no, no,” he chanted, “You can’t do that to me. You can’t-”

“You will be taken apart,” the cool voice, so detached, like it came from a speaker, not a body, and Tony shuddered again, trembling violently enough for the blood to run fast down his dies and drip to the floor. “And you will be put back together again. But greater.”

Tony’s mind raced, leaping like lightning as he sought for anything he could say to get out of this. They had his phone. They had his earbud. He doubted that that voice behind him had a phone. He had no idea where he was. How close was he to a computer? To a microphone? For any of them to hear him, how loud did he have to scream?

The leather strap came down again and Tony screamed. Everything he had held back he let go of in that moment.

 

His AI, his children, they knew his voice.

 

If they could hear him, they could find him.

 

If they could find him, they could save him.

 

Tony gave in to the fear and the pain.

 

Tony screamed for NOBODY.

Chapter Text

Tony lay on his side, his left side, though it didn’t really matter which side since every part of him hurt. He had his eyes closed, though no sleep was likely to find him because the lights overhead were overbright. Intentionally so, he thought. They didn’t want him to sleep either.

Every wound on his body throbbed in time to his heartbeat. His fingers, half curled, clutched close to his chest, pulsed with the movement of blood in his veins. His legs, knees bent, were perhaps the less injured part of him, but they trembled none-the-less.

Realistically, Tony knew that he couldn’t have been there for more than a few hours. It hadn’t been so long that he was unbearably hungry and they’d not bothered to give him water, which they probably would have if it had been the next day. The only truly lost time was the travel from Shield to wherever he was now; every waking moment since then to this silent one in his cell had been filled with pain and torture.

And fear. Lots and lots of fear.

Some part of Tony’s mind screamed, not in fear alone, but in fury. It raged like a storm across his consciousness, at how damn stupid this was, how damn stupid he was, how foolish and proud and cocky he’d been and now he was dumped in a cell with no way to get out and with the knowledge of what they were going to do to him. To be unmade and then reformed- not dissimilar to what had happened to him in the cave of Afghanistan- not even that dissimilar to what had happened in Siberia. Unmade by circumstance, unmade by grief, now unmade by pain.

Beneath the screaming, he wanted to find a way out, to get back on track, to move past this damn kidnapping like it was just some inconvenience and not like it was the dangerous, frightening thing that the rest of him understood it to be.

Surprisingly, no part of him really wanted to surrender to his pain or to the fear. He had a feeling coiled in his gut that this was temporary. He had people out there who would come looking for him, who would do whatever they had to in order to free him. Not the Avengers, no, who, to be honest, usually didn’t catch on for a few days, and not his new scientist friends who wouldn’t be able to do anything anyway.

No. His children would come for him, devious little things that they were. They would tear apart the desert to find him and send whoever they could manipulate or purchase in order to save him. They would not need to rest. They would not think to wait. They would know that no Stark pays a ransom and Tony would never surrender.

Tony had built these rules into each one of them, sunk deep into the core of their code. Beyond their duties, whatever they were, whatever they might become, their primary concern was him.   It was a protectiveness and obedience that was as much a part of their being as the codes that gave them the ability to learn and interact with the world. It was the one thing that they didn’t have a choice about, the one code that was locked and could not be tampered with.

If he’d done that to Ultron- somehow, if he’d managed that line of code, that protection in the seat of the AI’s mind, Tony knew it wouldn’t have played out the same way.

He only had to look at NOBODY to see the truth in that.

Tony sighed and curled up tighter, smiling slightly to himself. He had seen the cameras in the hallway, moving towards him as he’d been dragged from torture chamber to medical bay to cell. They had turned and watched him and Tony had known then.

His screams had been heard. They had found him. They were coming to get him.

So he lay on the floor of his cell, blood seeping into his fresh bandages, body aching, stitches itching, heart thumping hard in his chest, and he waited.

And like he always did when he had nowhere to go and nothing to busy himself with, Tony let his mind wander where it would. He let the ideas and thoughts flow through him until he came upon something interesting to concentrate on.

The lights of his room flickered and Tony smiled again.

His mind settled, of course, on his AI.

Tony thought about SPIKE.

SPIKE wasn’t like the others.

Tony hadn’t meant to make him the way that he turned out. Sentient. Intelligent. Alive.

He’d meant it with JARVIS. He’d made JARVIS out of want of comfort and need of support. JARVIS had been all he needed for years and years.

It took losing JARVIS, in another life, another time, to make Tony realize that he would need more, would need something to protect JARVIS because he wouldn’t always be there.

Sometimes, JARVIS would be alone, unprotected, and Tony was afraid.

Afraid of losing JARVIS again. Afraid that Ultron would bleed out around the edges. Afraid that to save the world he would lose the last connection he had to whatever scraps there was left of his childhood, of the home his parents had made for him.

He couldn’t lose JARVIS again.

So he made him a digital suit of armor and he called it SPIKE.

 

 


 

 

“This is…” Clint’s voice drifted into silence.

Despite Natasha’s promise to have Tony free by the evening, night has come to find her and Clint staking out a remote bunker.

And it is a bunker.

The kind of thing she’d never seen stateside. Dark and low to the ground, the entrance at the end of a sunken ramp, the doors out of view. There was a hatch entrance as well, farther along the western edge, but it was only an exit, not an entrance, with no external handles visible.

There are no trees, it’s still the desert, so they’re as close as they can get while still being hidden in the rocks and low, spiky bushes of the desert. The air is cold, but Natasha can barely feel it.

Their vehicle is abandoned two miles down the road, behind a large boulder and out of sight from nearly every view. They trekked up on foot, silent, communicating only when necessary, and now watched the entrance, the only entrance, from two angles.

Natasha shifted slightly, flexing muscles to keep them from going numb. She’s curled up tighter than she’d like to be, hiding in the shadow of cactus and rock as the depths of the night steal over them slowly. Even without Clint’s words, spoken yards away but audible thanks shortwavert wave communication devices she swiped from Shield for them to use, Natasha knows what he’s thinking.

This isn’t an American styled building.

This is a European bunker. A war bunker.

A bunker right out of World War II.

“We’re going to be lucky as hell to get in there,” Clint said. He sounds resigned already and Natasha frowns.

“Nobody?” Natasha asked. The AI has been quiet for a while, but Natasha had to sync hers and Clint’s audio devices with her phone and she knows the AI has access to that. She hasn’t heard from Kletka since Tony was kidnapped and Natasha’s got a growing feeling that if she doesn’t manage to get Tony out of that bunker, Kletka won’t talk to her ever again. It bothers her how much that bothers her. She puts it out of her thoughts as best as she can.

“I have limited access,” NOBODY’s voice is faint, tense. “I can view cameras, loop them for a few seconds and unlock tier one doors. You’ll have to get access to deeper rooms on your own.”

“What kind of key will we need, badges? Handprints?”

“Keycards and handprints for the second tier. Keycard, handprint and retina on the third. That’s the floor they’re keeping Father on,” NOBODY said, “Anyone with a red card will have an eye you can use.”

“Great,” Clint muttered, “I love scooping out eyes.”

“How many red cards do we have available?” Natasha aske.

“Two. One is on the second tier floor, sleeping. One is on the third tier floor, overseeing Father’s visit,” NOBODY said, her voice like ice. Whatever it was that she could see them doing to Tony, Natasha did not want to know.

It was already eerie to her how much the AIs felt and concealed. They weren’t compelled to honesty, which she found charming in Kletka because the girl was a poor liar in any case, but nobody could turn a phrase like NOBODY could. ‘Father’s Visit’ indeed.

“They’re keeping Thor Odinson on tier two. He is conscious though not entirely lucid. He may be a help or a hindrance. Father has informed us prior to this event that Thor was always ready to fight.” NOBODY said. “Though he used the terms Throw Down, to describe it.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. That sounded like Tony for sure. “Anything else?” Natasha asked, bracing herself to get to her feet.

“We are still attempting to hack into the main systems. If you notice any power flickers, that will be SPIKE. Do not be alarmed,” NOBODY said, “I will refrain from comment unless you ask for information. I will loop video and unlock any door for you I can, so there will be no need to request assistance.” She sounded terse, as if annoyed they haven’t moved in yet and trying not to let it show.

Natasha let out a slow breath. “Got it.” She shifted out of the shadows, moving silently, “Clint? Let’s go. Quick and easy. First we’ll check on Thor, then get the eye, and then go for Stark.”

“Got it.” He was just another shadow in the rocks, but as Natasha made her way towards the front door, Clint materialized out of the darkness, skin tanned like the desert sand and clothing dark as the night around them. He followed in her footsteps, literally, once they met up and she led the way down the ramp to the front doors.

She’d been worried the only doors in were for vehicles, but there was a tall, narrow panel that could pass for a door tucked into the shadows of the corner. Natasha walked towards it, silent and confident. Moments before her hand reached the handle, she heard an electric whir and a metal click. The door swung open under her hand, hinges nearly silent as she pulled. She held it open with the back of her hand as Clint slipped past her and into the first room.

Heart pounding in her chest, more from excitement than fear now, Natasha and Clint began their search down into the bunker.

 

 


 

 

The problem with making a suit of armor was that he couldn’t make it just a suit of armor. If all he’d ever wanted was to be defended, Tony wouldn’t have bothered with missiles or repulsors or lasers or any of that shit. It was the same with a program that was supposed to be armor.

SPIKE was a shell, jagged and burning on the outside, smooth and seamless inside, and designed to protect JARVIS from any and all digital onslaughts. But Tony couldn’t make spikes without barbs. He had to attack back whenever he was attacked. He had the memories of scars and ancient pains that taught him that lesson over and over; retaliate with just enough force to overpower and stop the fight. The first time he’d put that practice into blood, he had single handedly flown out to and destroyed dozens of Ten Rings camps.

He did the same thing now, though with less blood and more money.

Tony had never worried about spending money. He could bleed green for years without feeling a damn thing. It didn’t scarred the same way. It stopped people just as effectively as blood. And, in some cases, it was blood money already.

In a lot of cases, probably.

Tony didn’t want the money.

And he didn’t want the suit.

But he needed to protect JARVIS, so he made SPIKE.

But SPIKE had barbs and he had traps and he was fire and ice and death to any digital attack.

He wasn’t really alive, but he didn’t need to be to function.

At least, until NOBODY changed things.

 

 


 

 

Finding Thor was easier than Natasha expected.

The bunker wasn’t totally empty, but it also wasn’t crawling with flunkies. It was easy work isolating one of the techs they needed, dragging him to an access panel to use his hands to open the door. Natasha really didn’t want to leave too many bodies or blood behind because she still wasn’t sure that Shield hadn’t been behind this capture. Clint ended up tying the poor bastard up while Natasha watched the door, propped open with a stripe of heavy tape and a shoe.

Once on the second tier, it wasn’t hard to find where they kept the prisoner cells. There was a handy sign near the entryway, left for bunks, straight ahead for common spaces, right for prisoner cells. It was certainly economical, making it easy to keep everyone fed if the food was all delivered on the same floor.

She and Clint made their way down the hallway and to a set of double doors. As they approached the doors, they could hear a voice, muffled through door and wall, but loud and boisterous. Opening the double doors, the voice became clearer and louder. Natasha exchanged a look with Clint and he grimaced in return.

Following the voice, they came to a cell about halfway down the row of them. There were doors lining each side of the hall, six on one, five on the other, with another door at the far end. The doors were solid except for a slat at the floor level where trays of food could be pushed in or out. Natasha reached into her pocket and pulled out a compact mirror. Crouching down, she pulled the flap towards herself and lay the mirror on the ground. Shifting it slightly, she caught sight of the man inside.

He was tall and blond, broad shouldered and wearing a shirt that had a few pairs of marks on it, the points of blood where taser barbs had been removed and he’d bled. Other than some unruliness to his hair, he didn’t appear to be scuffed or injured in the least. He paced back and forth, hand waving, talking to someone that Natasha couldn’t see.

Whoever it was, he was convinced it was his brother, she could gather that at least.

Clint tapped two fingers to the side of her shoulder. Natasha glanced up and saw him sweep the hall with his eyes. She nodded silently to him and shifted so she was closer to the door. Clint began to more thoroughly sweep through the hallway, pausing outside several doors and listening.

Meanwhile, Natasha pulled her mirror back and let the slot swing shut. She chewed the inside of her cheek, debating the course of action. Thor was clearly in no mental state to be quiet and sneak around, which they still needed to do if they were to get down to Tony and back out in one piece. So far, they hadn’t encountered anything that Natasha or Clint couldn’t handle, and with no sign of enhanced humans around, she didn’t think they would need Thor’s help.

Coming back for him would be a hassle but there was always another option.

Clint came back with a shake of his head, indicating that the hallway was clear. Natasha straightened up and stepped close to him so she could whisper out her plan. Clint listened with an intent expression, grimacing only once. He nodded at the end, agreeing with her wordlessly and pulled out his lockpicks.

While the level floor doors were locked electronically and with increasing security measures, the cells were clearly older and were locked with keys. Clint got to work on Thor’s lock while Natasha turned and went back up the hallway. She had a red badge, a hand and an eye to acquire.

 

 


 

 

In order of age, and not including the Bots, JARVIS was the oldest. Before Afghanistan (before the Invasion, before Ultron, before Siberia) Tony had never wanted or needed another AI. JARVIS had it all, wit and charm, warmth and diligence, patience and the capacity for growth. The older he got, the more shades of humanity could be found in his code. Old pieces of himself were frayed and worn like a human body. He became so complex that when people disregarded him just as Tony’s AI, it felt like someone refusing to acknowledge an adopted child as his own.

JARVIS was as real as a person, at least he was to Tony and to a few others, like Pepper or Rhodes.

NOBODY was the second oldest, the framework of her mind built in one long evening when Tony could still feel the desert on his skin. She wasn’t going to be like FRIDAY, who was in all honesty a replacement for the hole that JARVIS had left. She was the first line of defense; she was Tony’s awareness.

Or really, she was JARVIS’ awareness.

She watched everything Tony could think of to watch and then some. She learned patterns and followed activity more avidly than Tony ever could. She gave JARVIS a heads up on things before he could notice them.

SPIKE was the next one, the third AI in order of age. He was created in pieces. An armor plating for JARVIS. Solid and unmoving, without seam for enemy attack to lodge into and barbed at the top, metaphorically of course. Nothing could go under or over or around or through SPIKE. He was a knight’s plate armor in digital form.  SPIKE wasn’t made to grow or shift, just to sit solidly and protect.

SPIKE was easy to apply to JARVIS. JARVIS travelled over established routes of communication. His servers were stationary. His aura of control was within a few specific areas.

The trouble came when Tony tried to apply SPIKE to NOBODY, to weave a flexible protection around her, to carry like kevlar into battle, to use as a thick shroud to hide her activity and found him too rigid to adapt without changing him fundamentally. For SPIKE to be able to protect NOBODY, he had to be able to change himself, to think, to assess threats, to pull back and reach forward.

He had to be able to grow, and so Tony gave him the ability.

 

 


 

 

Natasha has to rely on NOBODY’s murmured guidance to get her to the right room, but there’s no lock on the door and only one occupant inside, sleeping soundly in a small cot. As she slips in, leaving the door almost shut behind her, the door creates a line of light, straight down and then across at a right angle at the floor. It’s not very bright, but it’s enough to illuminate the room she’s in.

She pulls out the knife from its sheath on her hip, the movement as silent as the breath she takes to steady herself. Though she hasn’t confirmed anything yet, she’s gotten a sense for this place. With its strict military dress, prison cells and handful of scientists , Natasha doesn’t believe them to be some semi-harmless, amateur group, kidnapping a billionaire for the ransom. These people are the kind who will never give Tony back; once they take him they’ll make him theirs.

With steady hands, she reaches out, one hand flat, an inch above the mouth of the sleeping man. The other lines up the knife to the far side of his throat, where his artery pulses with each heartbeat, slow and steady in his sleep. She brings both hands down simultaneously, stifling any sound as she cuts deep, through skin and muscle, to the hot blood beneath. Natasha presses the blade down, giving the wound direction and sending the blood jettisoning down his neck and shoulder as his heart, startled into activity, sheds blood like rain from an oil slicked coat. He reaches up with one hand, the other trapped beneath his pillow in his sleep, but it falters and falls onto his chest.

After a few long seconds, his heart has done the work for her and she draws her hand from his cooling lips. She doesn’t bother to wipe her knife clean yet, not when she has more bloody work to do.

It isn’t the first time she’s pulled an eye from a body and, knowing her lifestyle, it likely won’t be the last. That is a lot less bloody a task than one might think, but other than cutting a few chords from the back of his eye, the thing comes free easily enough. Conveniently, there’s a glass of water on the bedside table and she puts the eye in it for safekeeping.

More bloody is the work of removing the man’s hand. She’ll need both hand and eye to get through the door, though hopefully she won’t have to keep the body parts for very long.

She pulls the man’s hand from under his pillow, needing the right one of course, and after some work with her knife, she’s exposed the bones and tendons that hold his hand to his arm via the wrist. Natasha swears under her breath as she works her knife through the connective tissue. She’ll have to find a pocket to shove this into and then carry the eye and glass all the way back with her to-

“Incoming visitor,” NOBODY said suddenly into her ear, “You have ten seconds.”

Natasha begins to count in the back of her head. She speeds up the process with a few furious twists of the hand, snapping what bones refuse to part with tendon and hacking once, twice, before the hand is free. She curses more avidly in her mind, remembering she hasn’t searched for the red card  yet, but that’ll have to wait. Instead, she puts the hand by the eye, wipes her knife clean on the sheet and hurries to the door, taking a position behind it, where the opening door will give her momentary cover.

“Just one?” she asks as quietly as she can.

“Just one,” NOBODY affirms.

The door pushes open suddenly, a hand reaching for the light, the other gripping the door. It’s a woman and she’s talking loudly, clearly intending to wake up the man who slept in that bed. “Wake up, Charles! They’re firing up the Chair for our guest downstai-”

Natasha lunges towards her, closing the space between them just before her hand touches the lightswitch. They stagger together to the side, the woman yelping, then struggling in confusion as Natasha wrestles her into submission. It’s rather easy, actually. They’re of a height but the woman has no training at all, or at least so little training it’s not even worth it. Natasha gets one of her arms twisted behind her back, the other puts the knife to her throat and she hisses into the woman’s ear, “Tell me about this chair.” She lets her Russian accent run roughshod over her words to disguise herself, though she knows that the woman won’t be leaving the room alive.

The woman breaths, shallow, desperate gasps. Her free hand doesn’t pull at Natasha’s wrist where she holds the knife, though, it stays limp at her side. “You came to rescue him?” the woman asks. The motion of her throat makes the knife kiss her skin. A cut opens up but she doesn’t move. “You are too late.”

“Tell me about the chair,” Natasha hisses, twisting the woman’s arm up higher, pulling her wrist up until the woman cries out in pain. She’ll ask one more time, to get any information on what they’re doing to Tony, to get information on what he’ll need help recovering from-

“I will tell you nothing,” the woman lets out a strange noise, like a laugh almost, like she can’t believe this moment has come but she’s thought of it and it makes her giddy. It’s a strange sound, but it doesn’t drown out the crack of something that Natasha feels more than hears. It comes from inside the woman’s head, or more specifically her jaw. Natasha smells the poison and swears, pressing with the blade to force the woman’s head back, looking at her face-

She stares back at Natasha with hatred and fervor in her eyes, foam already at the corners of her mouth and whispers unbelievable words.

“Hail Hydra.”

Her right hand lifts and Natasha swears out loud this time, and pulls back the knife. She reaches for the woman’s right hand, barely able to see the device she’s carrying and not knowing what it is until she prys it out of spasming fingers.

It’s a small, black device with a few buttons on it, most obvious being the red one down towards the bottom. This is the button that the woman’s thumb has dug into, hard as she could and even as she turns it over in her hand, she knows what it means. She swears, again, because this is not the kind of fuck-up she usually has happen to her, and she’s got to find that red badge.

“Nobody,” Natasha hisses as she drops the woman and the device to the floor, “how bad is that alarm?” She’s searching as she asks, going through all the drawers with the efficiency of someone trained in the art.

She found the badge with a mess of other maybe-valuables in the top drawer of the dresser. She swipes it out, then grabs what looks like a small cloth bag in the same drawer. The cloth bag has more paper valuables in it, a passport and some cash, but she wants it for the size, not what it’s got in it. She dumps out the paper, sticks the dismembered hand in it and, after carefully dumping the liquid out on the cot, she put the cup with the eye in the bag too. The three things barely fit but she manages it and then Natasha’s out of the room and down the hall.

As she flees back to the entrance of the tier two and in order to get down to tier three, NOBODY comes back with an answer, “Guards are alerted to intruders. They are starting a level by level sweep starting at the first floor. Clint remains in the cell with Thor, the door unlocked, waiting for your signal. You are continuing on to the third floor?”

“I am,” Natasha said grimly, “Let me know if anyone’s headed my way.”

“Of course.”

Natasha ran.

 

 


 

 

By the time Tony creates Kletka, SPIKE has undergone two significant changes in intention and personhood. Tony had thought that NOBODY was reticent to speak, but she has nothing on SPIKE, who only used one word replies for everything. He spoke with such a rigidness that Tony had worried over his code for a whole weekend, trying to figure out if he’d somehow fucked it up, patching together the stiff suit-of-armor feeling for JARVIS’ protection and the flexible kevlar-mesh for NOBODY.

But no, that’s just SPIKE’s personality, solid and unrelenting, coming out in single word phrases, often paired with images, to make his point as directly as possible. While NOBODY developed her scathing mutters on human behavior, SPIKE wielded his judgements with an iron hammer that could one-shot anything like striking a nail into any board of wood.

He was supposed to be like that, Tony told himself, when he witnessed it happening. SPIKE was, in essence, supposed to judge everything around him on the basis of threat first and on every other basis second. And while he seemed to work with a simpler vocabulary, once something was assessed as Threat or Non-Threat, SPIKE had judgments aplenty for everything else.

Intelligence. Cleanliness. Importance. Guiltiness. Relevance. Beauty. Blame. Cleverness. Validity. Usefulness. Morality. Sincerity. SPIKE hammered out his judgement, giving no path for recourse, though of course Tony didn’t think many people ever saw SPIKE’s judgement up close and personal.

Which was, honestly, for the better. SPIKE was more rigid than the other three, holding his opinions even under the weight of disapproval from his siblings. He was resolute, changing only when given cause and reason he saw valid. He wasn’t swayed by emotion the way Kletka could be, or by his own compassion the way JARVIS could be.

SPIKE was metal, through and through. Strong enough to resist change, but able to be tempered and shaped. His nature was different from the girls especially. Where NOBODY had complex opinions derived from her experiences in observing people over long periods of time, SPIKE tended to judge things on a moment to moment basis, considering actions independently first and then part of a larger picture of threat to non-threat capability. Where Kletka had a complex worldview, being in the position of literally looking out across the whole world while simultaneously able to pinpoint precise locations, SPIKE was the inverse, dealing with what was directly in front of him first and placing it in the view of the larger picture only afterwards.

If these three AI were tasked to complete a puzzle, Kletka would be the one who had the box and the image of it and build from the outer edge inwards, NOBODY would sort out the pieces into groups by color and shape, dividing the whole image into manageable piles to work through and SPIKE would consider the pieces before him, one at a time, comparing each one to the available matches before moving on to the next.

Individually, the puzzle would take a long time to complete. Together, it would be the business of a matter of hours before the full image would be put together.

Which was the whole point, after all. They were supposed to work together, to keep each other in check, to watch each other’s back. They were the team that was also the family. They were the real team that would protect the whole world. NOBODY with her recognition of patterns and behaviors. Kletka with her broad, all encompassing worldview. SPIKE with his precise attentions. JARVIS with his experience in humanity.

They each had their own responsibilities and worked together to keep things running smoothly. Most of them were independently capable of figuring out what they needed to do, too. The exception to that being SPIKE, who spent most of his time waiting for an attack, waiting for a threat to present itself so that he could strike back.

Perhaps that was the reason that he was the only one of them to ask for more from Tony.

Not more freedom. Not more power.

SPIKE wanted more purpose, beyond protecting his siblings, beyond being warden of all digital information. He asked for more direction.

Tony didn’t know how to give him that, at first. But he would do anything for his AI so he had to try. He had to figure something out.

And then he’d made the suit, empty, unpolished metal, with vibranium and other alloys- Tony made the suit knowing he’d never be able to bring himself to use it, to become Iron Man- He made the suit, of rigid metal to protect and hold off attack, of flexible metal to twist and bend and defend the joints, and like a star bursting behind Tony’s eyes, the idea came to him, fully formed and jagged around the edges.

Or maybe that was the pain that arced across his whole body, from his back where the lashes had bit into his skin to the ends of his fingers and toes, bloody and aching from nails torn out at the roots and everything in between. Tony’s thoughts had run in circles for what felt like hours as he lay in agony, shallowly breathing, thinking about his children in order to stave off his fear.

He’d give the suit to SPIKE. He was the one who deserved it, not Tony, and with it, he would do what Tony could not do, not on his own. He’d lead an army. He’d snuff out Hydra, the way it should’ve been done before, wholly and completely, without mercy or recall. The Iron General and his Iron Legion.

If anyone could attack with pinpoint accuracy, without collateral damage, it would be SPIKE.

Tony’s soul ached and he could smell the blood of those of Hydra already (though that was probably the smell of his own blood, fresh in the air still) but what else was he supposed to do?

When a limb was gangrenous you cut it off. There was no other cure. He had no other choice.

Tony sobbed for the lives lost, unable to stop himself, unable to contain his emotions. Curled up on the floor of his cell, weeping for the dead-to-be, grieving for those whose blood haunted him already. It didn’t matter if these people had joined Hydra, accepting the consequences of that choice. It didn’t matter if it was SPIKE wielding the hammer, striking only where and when it was right.

It was Tony’s suit. It was Tony’s plan.

It was all Tony’s fault.

Again.

 

 


 

 

Natasha worked to catch her breath as she held the dismembered hand to the scanner. She’d run all the way there, encountering and disabling four guards on her way, and this was the first time she’d stopped for more than a few seconds. The scanner beeped in acceptance of the hand and she removed it. Pulling out the eye from the bag, she turned it and held it up to the retinal scanner. This one took a few seconds longer, the scan moving left to right and then top to bottom before beeping in acceptance again.

The door unlocked and Natasha left the eye with the hand, in a pile on the floor with the discarded bag and cup. She eased open the door slowly, listening for any noise on the other side. She heard footsteps and, distantly, someone shouting something. It sounded like a denial. It sounded almost familiar.

“Hurry,” NOBODY whispered into her ear, voice urgent and edged, “Hurry.”

Wordlessly, Natasha drew out her knife again and stepped through the doorway. The footsteps turned out to belong to a couple of guards who rushed towards her with guns drawn and shouts. She moved to intercept them, ducking under one’s arms, knocking aside the gun hand of the other, knife moving with speed and accuracy. She went for the joints that would bring them down the fastest, kneecaps and ankles, and for those to disarm them, shoulders or wrists. Despite the words that had been hissed from foaming lips at her earlier, Natasha held doubts that this was really a Hydra base.

More likely it was some neo-Hydra-esque facility. Something just on the edge of that, though no less terrible. In either case, Natasha didn’t want to be caught in arterial spray when she was on her way to rescue Tony. She knew instinctively that Tony wouldn’t appreciate his rescuer being drenched in the blood of her enemies, or his enemies. Still, she disabled with cut tendons and hard hits with the hilt and, after taking the gun from guard one, she shot him and his companion both in the thigh, close to the knee, and dropped them like stones in a still lake.

They went down, groaning and swearing, clutching their own limbs instead of hers and showing the limits of their training. Neither one of them turned towards her as she stepped delicately past them. Her attention returned to the hallway, to the rooms she would need to search, but even as she headed towards one, NOBODY warned her off.

“Those rooms are empty. Father is up ahead,” NOBODY said, “You should hurry, they’re defrosting the Soldier.”

Natasha nodded, not liking the way that NOBODY said the word Soldier , like she was supposed to know who that was. Like NOBODY was afraid of this Soldier. She went past the dark rooms, trusting NOBODY that they were indeed empty. She rounded a corner at the end of the hallway, her grip tightening on her knife as a waft of disinfectant rolled down the hallway towards her as a door up ahead swung shut. There were fewer doors here, all on the right side of the hallway, and they were accompanied by wide windows with the tint to the glass that told her they were one-way.

She glanced through one as she passed. The floor inside was white tile, the walls the same thing and there was a drain in the center of the room. She didn’t have to see the metal gourney in one corner, the hooks from chains on the ceiling or the array of tools along the back wall, dark with shadow, to know what kind of room it was. Her stomach turned not because of that knowledge, but from the fresh stink of cleaning chemicals. Some of these rooms, some of those tools, they had been used recently, cleaned recently.

Natasha quickened her step.

She saw the corner up ahead, where the hall turned and the design of the building doubled back around. In her head she built out the schematics of the floor. A hallway with rooms on the left, a right turn to a hallway with rooms on the right, another right turn and, presumably, more rooms on the left. There was a set of double doors that blocked off this hall, positioned just after the turn. Natasha kicked open the left one and then shoved the right one open with her hip, walking through that one.

The kicked open door caught a guard in the shoulder and arm, a second kick got his knee and she followed that with a vicious swipe of her knife. She didn’t get her aim, which was his eye, but she slashed open his forehead and sent blood running down his face which was almost as good. There was another guard behind the other door and he leveled his gun at her. He managed to fire, too, but she was quick enough and close enough to twist her body around and dodge the shot. The first guard wasn’t so lucky, getting hit and going down with a cry of pain as she spun, heel connecting to the back of the knee of the gunman and knife carving its way up his inner arm to his armpit.

The knife stuck for a moment, caught on fabric and body armor, so Natasha let it go in favor of a short, hard jab with her fist to the man’s throat. She caught the hilt of her blade as he stumbled back and downwards on his weakened leg and the knife came free with a spray of blood on the wall. She turned, discarding both men in her mind as enemies dealt with and brought her attention down the hall.

For a half a second she stopped and considered the sight in front of her. One man wore the stereotypical white lab coat of a scientist. He clutched a book in his hands, holding it to his chest like a talisman and was wild eyed behind his glasses. Fear had made him pale and shaking, but something malicious made him grin wildly. He pointed one hand towards Natasha, directing the man at his side with a sharp word of instruction.

“Her!” he said, “You must defend us against her! Don’t let her get past you, Asset, or you’ll be the next one in the Chair!”

The man beside the scientist was the real reason Natasha paused. He stood a head taller than the scientist and what muscle she could see of him, his right arm, a bit of shoulder, his neck and collarbone, the only visible places beneath the black tactical vest and dark green pants, was thick and spoke of plenty of training. His long dark hair hung half in his face, which was half covered by a black mask across nose and mouth, letting only his eyes, barely visible beneath thick, furrowed brows, show. There was white on his hair, on his eyebrows and lashes, something looking almost like frost and clicking with Natasha’s thoughts to bring up NOBODY’s words: defrosting the Soldier.

He had a gun in hand, his left hand, the one that either was made out of metal or was covered in metal, and the moment the scientist said “her” the arm came up.

Natasha reacted instantly. Gunfire cracked as she leaped backwards, twisting through the air, reaching for the door, for cover. She felt the burn of the bullet sear its way across her upper thigh. She felt another one punch into the bottom of her own kevlar vest, propelling her further. Then she had grabbed the edge of one of the doors and was back through it, ducking to the side as more gunshots rang out, piercing through the door.

Natasha pressed her back against the wall, taking deep, stabilizing breaths while she thought through her options. “Nobody,” she said quietly, “It might take me a while to get through to Tony. Is there anything you can do to postpone whatever it is that they’re trying to do to him?”

“We can cut power,” NOBODY said, “It will take them several minutes to get back online, but it’s the surest thing.”

“And in the meantime, I’ll be fighting that in the dark,” Natasha said. She strained to hear past the doors, past the groaning men, for footsteps. It didn’t seem like someone so big and heavy should be able to walk silently, but Natasha couldn’t hear him. It seemed like too much to hope that he wasn’t headed her way, though, so she inched further down the hall so he couldn’t open the door on her like she’d done to the first guards. “Fantastic.”

“At least he will not be able to see you either,” NOBODY said, “He may be less inclined to shoot without a proper line of sight.”

Natasha gathered her legs under her, switched her blade around in her hand. She cocked her head, listening, listening. “Go ahead and do it,” she whispered, the words barely more sound than her own breath, “I’m going to need the time.”

She heard just one step, the creak of leather of a boot, the rasp of breath, the tap of fingers on the door. “Now,” she ordered.

The door swung open just inches, Natasha saw the shine of the gun, saw blue eyes peering at her over a black mask and then the world descended into darkness.

 

 


 

 

Tony refused to move when the door to his cell opened. He refused to move when the order came from someone standing above him. He refused to move when his side was prodded and then pressed upon with a heavy foot. They quickly tired of ordering him and Tony was abruptly hauled up to his feet, a man at each side, holding him by his upper arms. He hissed in pain, feeling fresh blood leak from the barely scabbed over wounds on his back.

One of the two guards grabbed him by the hair on the back of his head and lifted his head back. Tony stared into the face of some short, thin little doctor, in a jacket of white that had stains along the edges of his sleeves and wearing dark rimmed glasses that magnified his eyes. The scientist gave him a manic little smile, licking his lips with the point of his red tongue, “It is an absolute pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Stark. Or would you prefer Dr. Stark? You did the work for the title, no? You deserve it.”

Tony gave the man a smile that was more a baring of his teeth, “I prefer Tony, actually. Mr. Stark was my father.”

The man adjusted his glasses and smiled, “Tony, then. Oh and I’d give you my name but,” he shrugged slightly, “Without it that’s one less thing you need to forget, yes? Yes. Oh, but you don’t know about that yet. Do you? No, no of course not.”

He made a little beckoning gesture with one hand, “Come on then, bring our newest asset along, would you?”

Tony dragged his feet forward and straightened his legs, digging his heels in as the guards tried to haul him forward. He threw himself back, catching one of them by surprise and tearing his arm free of the grip on the right. The one who held his hair, however, only tightened his grip and hauled him off balance.

“Oh Tony, Tony,” the little scientist man said with an exaggerated pout, “Don’t struggle so! We have so much work to do and so very little time left before… Well never mind that. It’s hardly important for you. Now come on, boys, bring him along!”

“You really haven’t thought this through, have you?” Tony said as he was hauled back to his feet and then held a little higher than before, so that he had to strain to reach the floor with his feet. “If you wipe my memory, I’m not going to be able to build shit for you and that’s what you want isn’t it?”

The light glinted across his glasses as he tilted his head back, looking up at Tony. The guards held Tony a few feet away from him, close enough to reach out and touch if Tony had the use of his arms unhindered. “You doubt my skill? You? Doubt me?” He dragged his hand down the side of his face and laughed, a breathless, unhinged sound, “No, no, of course you do. You don’t know what I’ve been doing here, you don’t know my studies! They put me in this hole because they didn’t think that my studies had any merit, but while the Asset was asleep there was no reason I couldn’t access its brain,” he stepped closer to Tony, hand reaching out to him, trembling slightly. Tony could see his eyes behind the glasses now, wide and dark. At first Tony thought it was that his eye were black or brown, but then he saw it was just the man’s pupils had swallowed almost all of the iris.

The man’s fingers ghosted a hair’s breadth from Tony’s cheek. He clenched his teeth, resisting the urge to flinch. His head was still being held, after all. He couldn’t move away if he tried. “The Asset?”

The man pulled his hand back, another little laugh escaping him. “You’ll be two of a kind. Except you’ll be better. There was so much work put into him, too much work, too many hands, you know? Too many cooks spoil a broth, too many doctors spoil a brain! And God, the arm itself is another hassle. We won’t need to do that with you, though. I’ve studied the mind, you know. I’ve made maps of it.” He shook his head, rubbing his forehead, “What am I saying? We don’t have time for this. I can explain it to you later, later. We’ll work well together, you and I.”

“No,” Tony thrashes but he’s exhausted and weak from pain. The hands that hold him dig into his arms and make him hiss with pain, “No,” he refuses anyway, “I’m not going to work with you.”

“You don’t really have a choice, Tony,” the man said as he walked out into the hallway. Tony is half carried, half dragged after him. He struggles but every movement of his body brings out the pain of his unhealed but bandaged wounds. Tony’s vision blurs and darkens at the edges as he fights the urge to slip into a painless unconsciousness. “Come on now boys, carry him in here, in here!”

They haul him down the hall and towards the door that the scientist has opened. Tony moans and tries to pull away again, breathing faster as they get closer and closer to the door. “You can’t do this- You can’t- Don’t do this- Don’t- Please!” his voice cracks hard over the last word, his words a stumble, a desperate plea.

“Hurry now, there isn’t much time,” the scientist’s voice echoes out from the room as he slips inside. “We’ll have to go ahead without Charles, though he should’ve known better than to leave when he did. In fact, good riddance to him. The imprinting will be so much easier if the asset doesn’t have to split his attention between two masters.”

“Oh fuck,” Tony whispers as they reach the doorway. The room inside is larger than he expected and right in the center of it is a chair that looks like it belongs in the execution chamber of a maximum security prison. There are braces for the head, arms and feet and straps for each limb. A machine hums beside the chair, something with a low level frequency that makes Tony’s teeth ache.

The scientist is in the corner of the room, though, and it’s his waving hands at them. “Put him in there, you know the way. I’ve got to deal with this- Can you believe, they had the audacity to send a Spider to fetch you, Tony? Well. I can see why, I would send a little Spider to get you and bring you back if you got stolen out from under my nose,” that little laugh again. Tony’s stomach twisted and he again threw himself backwards but got nothing but pain lancing up his back for his trouble. “That’s fine though. I’ve got someone here who can squash a little Spider no problem. Isn’t that right? Yes, yes, you’ll do anything I say.”

Tony tore his eyes away from the chair at the hiss of depressurized gas. The scientist stood amid mist; frosty air poured into the room and Tony saw him.

It was like he stood in the bunker all over again. Snow howling all around him. Air so cold it hurt to breathe in. Blue eyes half hidden under dark hair. A blank, almost empty expression. And the arm. The metal arm. Tony’s mouth worked but no sound came out.

The scientist stepped back, his hand at his mouth, fingers dancing across his smiling lips. “Come on out, Asset. There’s work to be done!”

The only good thing that’s come from the opening of the cryotube is that Tony’s guards stand as transfixed as he does. He has no idea if they know what the scientist has just opened up- he has no idea if the scientist is allowed to do it or if he’s just mad enough to do whatever the hell he wants- all he knows is that he’s standing on his own feet, no longer carried or half dragged and hope surges through him. Tony shifts one foot back, half turns, finds some strength in his legs and turns, twisting, yanking his arms free, feeling the tug on his scalp as he pulls his head down. He ducks as he turns, spinning, reaching for the door, desperate for it-

Something sharp hits him hard in the middle of his back and Tony’s scramble for the door becomes a fall to the floor. The pain and the fall wind him, leaving him breathless in his agony, twisting on the floor. In the midst of it all, Tony is aware they pull him back to his feet and put him on the chair. He hears the mutters of the guards as they strap him down. His vision swims and he stares straight up at the ceiling, head rolling back on the headrest as he bites down the pain-filled noises he wants to let out.

Tony claws his way back to mostly-conscious slowly and, of course, metaphorically. When he comes back to, his arms and legs are tied down and there’s a rubber stopper in his mouth to keep him from biting his tongue. Tony breathes heavily through his nose and tries hard not to think about the very possibly fatal reactions that his body, that his arc reactor are going to have to this goddamn Chair.

The light above him is bright, brighter even than the light in his cell. It looms over his head like a spotlight, reminding him faintly of the movable spotlight of the surgery table. Staring into it gives spots to his vision and he closes his eyes against the light. The guards say nothing as they work and, between the two of them, they finish quickly. Tony is left strapped to the Chair, breathing hard and his emotions swinging between fear and anger like the pendulum of an old clock.

He distantly hears gunshots and hopes that Natasha is okay. She has to be okay. She has to reach him. She has to save him.

The scientist returns to the room, pushing past the door like it’s irritating him just by being there. He rubs his hands together as he stands in front of Tony, smiling. “Now, while the Asset takes care of the Spider, I’ll be giving you my full attention in here.” He leans forward, hands clasped together tightly, “This is a very important step in my research, you know, so please have some patience while I get everything set up. If I make a mistake in the prep, I might accidentally turn your brain into mush, Tony. Can you imagine? What a horrible waste that would be.”

Tony bared his teeth at him and grunted.

“Exactly,” the man said with a nod, “I knew you’d understand.”

Then he stepped to the side where a cart sat. Tony couldn’t turn his head to look at it, but from the corner of his eye, he saw plenty of wires attached to a panel covered in dials. The scientist plucked one set of wires from the rest of them, murmuring something too softly for Tony to hear over the pulse of his ears.

Tony saw the hands approach his head, holding wires ended with small red spots of adhesive and metal, or so he assumed. The man muttered a complaint about his hair as he pressed one to Tony’s temple. “For our first session, we’ll have to make due,” he said in a conspiring whisper, “But later, we’ll shave your head. It’ll make the surgery easier for sure.”

Tony squeezed his eyes shut at the whimper that escaped him.

The sudden vicious swearing from the scientist made Tony open his eyes again quickly, fear rising sharp inside of him. For a moment, Tony lay confused, blinking, making sure that his eyes were indeed open. Then he realized what had happened.

“That damn generator!” the scientist shouted, and even though Tony could tell he was still close by how loud he was, Tony didn’t care. “Of course the damn thing fails right in the middle of my work! Where is the blasted radio!” Shuffling and complaints and muttering accompanied this. “They better fix this right now!”

Tony closed his eyes and sagged in relief. He had a few more minutes now. All he had to do was hang on and wait. Natasha was close by.

And then Tony remembered what fighting the Soldier was like, remembered how much effort it had taken him and he’d been in a goddamn suit of metal.

Please, Nat, Tony begged silently, you’ve got to get past him. Please.

You can do it.

Chapter Text

Natasha had made a mistake.

She’d made lots of them over her life, little ones and big ones, some that slipped through her fingers, forgotten and lost and some that still haunted her and some she still sought to repent for. The worst of her mistakes had ended in death, had ended in unacceptable collateral damage, had ended in blood on her hands, blood up to her elbows.

People had died but always other people. She’d made it out alive, over and over again. She’d come out bloody but breathing, broken but surviving. She had made choices based on the most basic of instincts: survival.

She had killed and let others die and through it all, she had survived.

But now, Natasha had made a mistake.

A fatal one.

The darkness swallowed everything in the hallway but the Soldier still fired at her, the firecracker of light from the gunshots were a couple of hard flashes that would’ve dazzled Natasha if she hadn’t immediately tucked and rolled. She’d gone towards him instead of away, thinking he wouldn’t have expected that. Her knees collided with something hard, the sharp corner of the open door, and she twisted around.

Natasha had been trained to fight in all situations, including blindfolded, including in the dark, and she fell back on that instinct as she fought the Soldier. She heard the chatter of metal on metal as she managed to kick the gun from his hand and send it clattering down the hallway. Then the Soldier’s hand was on her leg and Natasha had to struggle to free the limb. Getting caught was the surest way for her to be killed so she prioritized escape over attacking.

The Soldier fought without speaking, without even a sound beyond his breath and grunts of exertion. Natasha knew that she’d have to inflict a lot of damage to get him to stop, possibly even more than she was capable of doing in the dark. Still, she kept her head down and drew her knife into her hand and she struggled in the darkness to fight against and survive the Soldier.

Sparks showered the darkness as her blade scraped along his left arm, the metal one. She twisted her wrist, sending the tip skittering across metal plating, searching for an entrance. Just as she felt her knife catch, she heard the creak of leather, and she lurched to the side. Natasha felt fingers catch along her side, slipping over her vest, and then there was an abrupt yank and she was pulled back into reach. Natasha’s breath left her in a rush as the hand that grabbed her by the strap of her vest brought her chest first into a solid knee. She saw stars in the darkness and curled up, dropping out of the follow-up grab for her head.

The Soldier adjusted and lashed out with his leg again, this time his boot. She felt his heel on her knee and desperately tried to slide her foot back, out of the way.

Her own heel hit the wall and Natasha’s heart jumped right into her throat. Was the wall right behind her? No- She had to move-

There was a crack that sounded more like a pop as the Soldier’s heel connected with Natasha’s kneecap. She hissed and turned her knife hand around. The blade scored over the Soldier’s arm and hand, the one that held her side still, while her other hand rose instinctively for a block. She managed to fend of his metal arm by blocking forearm to forearm but he had her pinned and they both knew it.

Natasha bit back a cry as the heavy heel of the Soldier’s boot went for her lower leg, smashing into the side of it and then kicking at her ankle. She struggled still, twisting her hips, bringing her knees up, using his arm that held her as a support as she ran her own feet up his other leg. She felt him turn back, pulling his side out of reach, opening up the cage his limbs made around her and, with a hard jab with her knife, she cut the strap to her vest that he was holding. She slid from his grip, along the wall and down, tucking her knees up tight- well at least the good one obeyed her completely- and rolling. Natasha banged her shoulder hard against wall or door, she wasn’t sure which, and came back to her feet, wobbling to steady herself on her one good leg.

“I’m going to need help,” she panted out, hoping that with the power out NOBODY could still hear her, “If I don’t have help, I won’t be able to get Tony out of here.”

Speaking was a risk. In the darkness, they had to strain all their senses to find each other, but Natasha’s words made it easier for the Soldier to find her. Natasha scrambled backward as she heard him approach, trying to keep the distance between them. She knew already she wasn’t going to get past him on her own. She had a busted leg barely keeping up her weight and she’d not managed to hurt him enough to slow him down.

Natasha’s heel caught on something uneven on the floor that moved when she touched it -the gun? It had to be- and she bit her tongue as her ankle rolled at the unexpected item. She managed to keep from falling, but the moment of distraction, the scrape of the gun on the floor and her sharp hiss of breath must have been enough for the Soldier to find her. In the next moment, he was there, a deeper darkness in the blackness of the hallway as Natasha’s brain desperately sought to see something.

He struck out with his metal arm, fist slamming into Natasha’s forearm with enough force to rock her on her heels. The hit was heavy, heavier than his heel, and she knew her bones wouldn’t be able to take another one. Adrenaline kept her from feeling the pain too strongly, but she feared she’d already gotten a fracture. She ducked under the next swinging arm, instinct singing through her as she heard the whistle of air around metal above her head. Her elbows caught the knee he brought up to follow his left hand and struck the nerve in her right arm hard enough to make it tingle to her fingertips.

Natasha winced and turned, pivoting on her bad ankle and switching her blade to her other hand so her numb fingers wouldn’t drop it. She anticipated another strike with his knee and this time brought her arm swinging down as hard as she could. Cloth parted under the sharp point of her knife and it sank deep into flesh. The Soldier grunted and moved back, pulling the knife from Natasha’s grip.

She reached for more knives, prepared to stab each one of them deep into the bastard’s flesh when the lights kicked on.

Natasha cursed, eyes momentarily blinded, and she flinched back. She blinked furiously, willing her eyes to adjust, and looked up, searching for the Soldier. He held her knife in his hand, the edge of it red with blood and she couldn’t tell exactly where he’d pulled it from. Clearly, it had been nowhere that vital because he’d pulled the blade free. They stared at each other for one long second. Then Natasha saw the Soldier’s legs shift and she moved.

She’d ended up back near a wall again and she had to get out. So she ran forward and dropped down, sliding past him on her hip. The Soldier lashed out with a kick but it went over Natasha’s head. He spun around and went after her, his eyes adjusted now and clear with the intent to stop her no matter what. His kick was followed by her knife flying through the air at her. Natasha deflected it with her second blade now in her hand and sent it clattering to the side.

The Soldier didn’t seem bothered by attacking her barehanded, weaponless, as she rolled back to her feet with a knife in either hand. She tested her left leg again, winced at the pain that lanced up the side and knew that it was broken in several places. The pain was begging to get to her, too, slowing her down and fogging the edges of her vision. Natasha grit her teeth and refocused on the Soldier.

He might be better than her, stronger and faster, a harder-edged weapon, but she couldn’t stop now. The power was back on so whatever they were going to do to Tony was likely to start back up again. The Soldier was just here to delay her. She had to get past him.

Don’t be stupid, girl, Natasha thought grimly in the back of her mind, You’re going to die under his heel. The Soldier crushes the Spider.

They clashed in the hallway again. The Soldier used his metal arm like it was a battering tool as much as he used it like a hand. He swatted away one of her arms with a backswing, caught her knife in the fist of metal fingers and twisted it, pulling it free of her hand. His flesh hand wasn’t much weaker, either. She caught a fist on one hastily upraised arm and barely escaped his grasp on her wrist.

Fear crept up into her chest as they fell into an almost sort of routine to their fight. With the lights on, she could see the small ways he telegraphed his movements. Even with her injuries, she had enough attention to notice the twists and turns he made, the steps, the movements. It was familiar. It was achingly familiar.

Natasha forced herself to look at his face again, to look for something more than the movement in his eyes to see where he was looking and tried to remember. If there was anything that she could remember from fighting him before, anything that could help her now-

It came to her in one horrifying moment as she ducked down, crouching for a moment as his fist, the metal one, swung overhead and slammed into the wall above her. The shift in perspective- looking up at him instead of eye to eye-

He’d been her teacher.

In the Red Room.

He had taught her how to fight. How to shoot. How to aim a gun. How to toss and roll and duck. How to fight. How to kill. How to survive. He had taught her .

Natasha froze up.

In all the years she’d spent running from the Red Room, she’d known somewhere in the back of her mind that she would never really be able to escape it. There was no way. It had unmade her and then reshaped her in its image. And now it stood before her in physical form and she knew that this was it.

The metal fist of the Soldier- the Winter Soldier, she remembered that now- hit her across the ribs and there was no forgiveness, no gentleness, no remembrance in the blow. Natasha’s breath left her as her bones cracked and her body lifted off the ground. Her back hit the glass with a shattering that rang out like a crystal bell around her head. Natasha fell to the ground, breathless and bleeding, surrounded with broken glass on all sides, in some room that Hydra used to torture people like Tony in an underground base where no one would ever know where she disappeared to.

She was going to die here. She had brought Clint to die here.

She wasn’t going to be able to save Tony.

Natasha pushed herself up on one elbow, glass digging into the cloth of her outfit and her fingers as she tried to sit up. The Winter Soldier appeared in the frame of the window, cold blue eyes looking at her and then the window, searching for the best way into the room. He used his metal arm to knock out the rest of the glass that Natasha’s body hadn’t pulled down and then gripped the sill and vaulted into the room with ease.

He held his gun again in his right hand. Natasha looked at it and then up at him. She tasted blood in her mouth and it was bitter with her fear.

But she didn’t tremble, she didn’t shake, and for that she was glad. At least she’d die with a little bit of dignity intact.

The Winter Soldier loomed above her. His left hand crossed to his right and he methodically cocked the gun, pulling a round into the chamber. Natasha looked up at him, chin lifted, breath weak in her lungs, blood on her lips and the fear seeping out of her with it. She shifted on the glass and the Soldier moved too, keeping her perfectly out of reach. At least he treated her like she could still be a threat. Broken and battered as she was, he respected her ability.

Natasha met his cool, empty blue eyes and wondered if he remembered her.

A flicker of movement past the window pulled at Natasha’s attention but she restrained from looking directly at it. Her body tensed without her say-so, but it was already disobeying her in other ways. The Soldier paused in leveling the gun at her head and then he abruptly turned. His metal hand snapped up and caught the shaft of the arrow that had headed for his back just behind the arrow’s point. For a second, nothing happened and Natasha just stared in shock at the arrow, realizing that it had to be Clint who fired it- Clint who was there now, who would see her die, who would get killed himself-

And then the head of the arrow flipped down with a tink as it touched the Soldier’s metal arm and a surge of electricity discharged. She saw the Soldier’s muscle seize up and instinctively she flung herself back and to the side as fast as she could. His flesh hand tightened on the gun and fired several times, the bullets going wild as his muscles spasmed. She saw the Soldier fight for control of his own body, eyes blazing and mask distorting as his mouth opened in a wordless growl. He managed to drop the gun to the ground and reach with his flesh hand to the metal one, fingers shaking, muscles jerking, as he strived to free himself from the arrow.

The electrical surge only lasted a few seconds, though, and with a jerk he suddenly was free of it, throwing the arrow to the side. Natasha panted harshly, eyes on the Soldier’s arm in amazement. His fingers still twitched like he couldn’t quite control them and she could smell something burnt, something plastic or metal, not flesh.

Suddenly, the door to the room they were in was kicked open with a tremendous roar. Natasha flinched back, startled to see Thor thunder into the room. The Soldier ducked Thor’s initial grab, but the Norseman moved faster than either of them expected and turned, looping one massive arm around the Soldier’s waist from behind. With another shout and a wild grin, Thor turned,   picked him up, and chucked him back through the window.

Thor laughed. Natasha stared.

Thor looked to her and said, “Rest yourself, mighty huntress! I shall avenge your wounds and fight this unfrozen soldier!” And then he ran back out through the door.

“What the fuck,” Natasha whispered with an incredible amount of feeling.

“I know right,” Clint said, dropping down from out of nowhere to appear at her side, “He’s still a little off his rocker but Nobody gave us the scoop on what you were up against and he seemed really keen to throw down.” Clint’s hands work as his mouth does and Natasha relaxes slightly as he checks her over for injuries. She’s got a pretty good idea what he’s going to see and it’s not pretty. Adrenaline has kept her going pretty well so far but she’ll slip into shock sooner rather than later now that the Soldier is distracted.

The furrow grows between Clint’s eyebrows as his hands move from her arm to her leg, “Nat-”

“We’ve got to get to Tony,” she said, “While Thor has the Soldier distracted, we need to get past him and get Tony out of danger.”

“You’re kidding, right? I don’t think you can even walk without support right now,” Clint said, “We’re going to get you somewhere safe and then come back for him.”

Natasha grabbed the front of Clint’s armored vest and shook him, “Listen to me, Clint. Tony is just down the hall. We have to get him out of here if we want to leave.”

“Nat,  you’re not thinking straight. Your leg is fucked up . We’re getting you out of here and then we’ll come back for Stark.” Clint shook his head. He tried to pull her hands free but Natasha dug in.

You’re not thinking this all the way through, Clint,” Natasha said, “We came here for Tony, we’re not leaving without him-”

“I’m sorry but your safety kind of matters more to me than some billionaire,” Clint said, interrupting her, “This isn’t a proper mission, Nat, we don’t have to-”

“We will not physically be able to leave the building if we don’t get Tony first,” Natasha shook him again, harder. She had to stop and cough after she spoke, her own blood touching her lips when she did so. Still, Clint opened his mouth to argue and Natasha rode over his words with her own, “I don’t think we’ll be able to leave this fucking floor, Clint. If we leave him behind, his AI won’t let us leave.”

“That’s crazy,” Clint said.

“That’s correct,” NOBODY said.

Natasha knew that Clint heard the AI speak at the same time she did because he stiffened and his face went white. He glanced to the side and hissed, “Are you fucking serious? You can’t lock us in here! You can’t even access the tier three doors!”

“The base’s servers shut off with that blackout,” NOBODY informed them, “And we utilized that moment to leverage ourselves into the mainframe. I now have access to all locks, cameras, speakers and anything else digitally connected to the server. However, the machine that they are attempting to use on Father is not digitally connected because it is an independent machine that uses electricity to function. The most we can do is manage the amount of power they’re able to pull. They’re tripping breakers but it’s only a temporary solution.”

Clint closed his eyes. Natasha pat him on the shoulder, “You have to go bust that billionaire out of trouble, Clint. Just give me that gun,” she pointed as he opened her eyes questioningly, “and lean me against the wall. I’ll wait here for you to return and we’ll all leave together.”

“Fucking AI,” Clint muttered.

“Clint,” Natasha insisted.

He nodded though and helped her sit up properly. His boots crunched shards of glass as he dragged her over to the wall and propped her up. He fetched the gun and handed it to her with a grim expression. “Don’t shoot Thor by accident,” he said.

“Hurry back,” Natasha said back.

Then Clint was up and through the door, moving quickly. Natasha leaned back, gun held in her better hand, which had once been the one numbed by a kick, and listened to the fight between the Soldier and Thor. From the sound of his roaring and shouting, she thought he was probably having a good time.

At least one of them was.

 

 


 

 

Clint knocked one arrow to his bow, held another one on standby between two fingers and shifted his weight to one leg. He’d already tested the handle of the door and eased it open slightly so that this next move would be more spectacular. Clint kicked with his right foot, knocking the door open with a bang that startled the four men inside of the room. His bow came up and he drew back and shot the first two arrows in moments. Both of them were taserbolts and brought down both guards to the floor.

Fortunately, they weren’t the same kind of inhuman soldier as the one that had beat the hell out of Natasha so they crumpled in a twitching mess to the floor while Clint drew the third arrow and knocked it back. “Hey motherfucker,” he grinned broadly, “Turns out I can’t leave this fucking hole in the ground without him,” he jerked his head towards Stark, strapped to the chair, “So I’ll be taking him now. Thanks for your cooperation.”

The scientist stared at him, eyes huge behind round glasses and mouth hanging open. “How?” He cried, “How did you get past the Asset! He is undefeatable!”

“Easy,” Clint said, “I brought a bigger fighter. Now, cut Stark free or-”

“Never!” the man shouted, gripping the handle of the machine beside him, “I’ll kill him before I let you have him back! His brain belongs to me!” He laughed maniacally as he flipped the switch.

The lights dimmed in the room and there was an odd mechanical whine. Somewhere nearby, maybe down the hall or the next room over, Clint heard something pop and explode and glass shower the ground. The scientist lost his shit.

“How!” He screamed, jerking the switch up and down several times, “How is he doing this! How does he thwart me, even now!” Then, wordlessly, he flung himself at Stark.

Clint let the arrow fly. It hit the man right on target, dead center on his right eye and deep into his skull. He stumbled, hands going to his face as he hit the side of the chair Stark was strapped into. One hand curled around the shaft of the arrow as he slid down to his knees. He took surprisingly long to die, but it went faster when Clint walked over and grabbed the arrow. He turned his wrist once, making the scientist shudder and cry out, and then pulled it free with a pop.

He shook the arrow free of blood and brain matter and wiped it off on the white lab coat. Clint checked the scientist’s pulse, nodded when he couldn’t find it, and put the arrow away. Clint straightened up.

Stark lay strapped into the chair, arms and legs and head bound with thick leather straps. He was pale under the overhead light and sweating. Clint could smell blood and sweat on him, even underneath the ozone smell in the air. He’d thought, at first, that Stark wore a white shirt but up close he could see it was just layers of bandage cloth. Clint shouldered his bow and brought out his short, sharp knife. Stark stared at him with creepy brown and glowing orange eyes, breathing hard in and out through his nose, but he didn’t struggle as Clint cut the straps off his body.

Clint worked quickly. He could still hear Thor and that crazy soldier fighting out in the hallways and didn’t know how long that fight would last. If he had to go help, and god that sounded like a really terrible idea, he wanted to be able to do it as soon as he could. They had to get the hell out of here.

When he’d freed one hand, Stark reached up and began to pull the electrodes that were still stuck to him off. He pulled free the gag and tossed it aside. “Where’s Natasha?” were Stark’s first words.

Clint didn’t immediately forgive him for everything he’d done for saying that, but it was the right first step in his book. He jerked his head towards the door, “She fought some maniac soldier one on one for a while. He beat her up real good but then Thor stepped in. Can you walk?”

“Yes,” Stark said, “This isn’t exactly my first rodeo.”

Clint vaguely remembered something about Stark and a desert or something, but he just shrugged and nodded. He didn’t care if Stark was trained or not. He just wanted the guy to walk so they could get the hell out of here.

“Barton,” NOBODY’s voice was suddenly in his ear, “Give your earpiece to Father so that I might speak with him.”

Clint hesitated. He liked being able to keep tabs on the AI, or at least feel like he was. He knew it could probably keep him out of any information loop it wanted to, but the illusion of control was a comforting one. Still, he knew better than to keep the thing from its ‘father’. So he pulled out the communication device and held it out to Stark. “Your bot wants you,” he said.

Stark took it and put it in his ear with a confused wrinkle in his forehead. The expression immediately smoothed out and Clint rolled his eyes. Of course, the thing wouldn’t be a bitch to Stark. It was his little mad machine after all.

He got the last of the straps free and helped Stark down off of the chair. Stark winced when he stood but didn’t fall over or anything. He was trembling and deliberately not looking down where the scientist’s blood was pooling around the base of the chair, but Clint didn’t give a shit about that. There were still plenty of newbie Shield brats who got queasy when they saw a corpse. Stark’s delicate sensibilities weren’t anything special.

“What about the Tesseract?” Stark said, clearly talking to his bot. He frowned at whatever her answer was. Clint motioned towards the door and he nodded. Clint pushed through, bow drawn again. He swept his gaze up and down the hall for any guards, but there was nothing.

“Can you bring it down?” Stark said, speaking quietly, “Safely?”

Clint glanced at him. That was a weird fucking thing to say. Stark didn’t meet his gaze. Just frowned at the wall.

“Are they all Hydra?” was the next question. Whatever NOBODY said, Stark closed his eyes in reaction to it. “Do it,” he said.

Clint put a hand out and Stark stopped just short of walking into it. Orange glowing eyes looked at him. Clint told himself that Stark was just a regular human, that the eyes didn’t mean jack shit, that no one could prove Stark’s eyes had changed anything about him and stared him down. “What did you just do?” he asked.

“What I had to do,” Stark replied. “Let’s not waste time here. We need to go before help gets here, their help, not ours.”

“Why would help be coming?” Clint asked, “Did your bots manage to let an SOS out?”

Stark shook his head, “It was in response to my capture. The guy you arrowed in the face? Apparently, he was supposed to just hold onto me here until the big dogs showed up to decide what to do with me. But there’s a reason they shut him up in some tiny little base in the middle of the desert, Chair or no Chair. He was a loose cannon and abused his authority constantly.”

“So whatever he did to you, he did it without permission,” Clint said.

Stark nodded.

“And something worse is coming now to what, deal with you?”

Another nod.

“Jesus. I knew Nat was bored with Shield but this is too much,” Clint hissed. He dropped his hand from barring Stark’s way.

Something darkly amused twisted over Stark’s features but he just shrugged.

Despite his limping, Stark kept up with Clint as he hurried back down the hallway. The sound of fighting had finally stopped and Clint had his bow knocked with another taserbolt, wishing he’d brought some of the exploding ones, even if he was in close quarters. If he rounded the corner and found that fucking soldier there, or standing over Nat with a gun again-

Clint slowed his steps as he reached the area where Thor had last been seen fighting. He swept his gaze up and down the hall and then saw a glint of blonde through that shattered window. He went towards it and peered in. “Nat?”

A wet cough answered him, “Clint,” she called a moment after. Thor crouched beside her, his face a stormcloud as he looked up at Clint. He looked bruised and cut up in a few places and there was a red bleeding wound on his shoulder that looked suspiciously like a gunshot, but he didn’t seem bothered by his injuries. He was close to Natasha, who opened her eyes when she heard Clint. She looked grim and pale in the bright overhead light. Clint’s stomach settled somewhere around his knees.

He vaulted through the window and hurried over to her. He ignored the way Thor straightened up, looking past him to where Stark was probably looking in from the hallway. Clint’s attention was all for Natasha. “Hey,” he said, “I got the moron free.” He crouched down beside Natasha, whispering to her, “Now let’s get the fuck out of here, okay?”

Natasha nodded. She lifted one hand, “Help me up.”

He did so, gripping her wrist as she grabbed his and pulling her up to her feet. Natasha swayed and then found her balance. Her face was still deathly pale and she gripped Clint’s forearm with fingers of iron. He grunted and shifted his arm around her, taking more of her weight. “Your leg is really fucked up, Nat.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she muttered.

“We’re about to see reinforcements for the bad guys?” Clint said.

“Nobody told me that,” she said.

He opened his mouth to say that he’d just found out, but then remembered the bot was named NOBODY and felt annoyed about it all over again. “Well, good,” he said instead, “Now you can see that we’ve got to get you out of here.”

Glass crunched under their feet as they walked to the door. Thor had gone past them and stood near Stark in the hallway. His big hand was on Stark’s shoulder and he spoke in a low tone. Clint was glad to see the big guy had the drugs beat out of his system though it unnerved him to see the alien getting on so well with Stark. It also was weird to hear Thor talk softly. Clint hadn’t thought him capable of anything less than a blustering shout.

When they reached the hallway, Stark looked hard at Natasha. Then he tapped Thor on the forearm with one hand. Clint noticed, for the first time, that Stark’s fingertips were dark red with dried blood and scabbing. “Thor, would you carry Natasha? Natasha, would you let him carry you? We need to get out of here quickly.”

Natasha nodded. Clint supported her until Thor came over and, more carefully than Clint had expected of him, picked her up. She looked small in Thor’s arms, half curled up with her head bowed and her arms across her chest. Thor shifted his arms around her and then straightened, bearing her weight with apparent ease.

“Barton,” Stark said, “Would you run point? Nobody has the elevators running for us. We should have a clear shot up to the first floor, where we might hit some resistance.”

“Yeah, I got it,” Clint said, drawing his bow. He knocked an arrow and led the way.

He didn’t threaten Thor to treat Natasha carefully like he wanted to. He didn’t take Stark by the arm and demand answers from him like he wanted to. He didn’t demand an earpiece back, for that semblance of control it gave him, like he wanted to. He just grit his teeth and did his job.

Because now that he’d turned his back on Shield, Clint had a strong feeling he was going to end up hitched to this bloody billionaire’s boat, one way or another.

Pissed off or not, Clint was a professional and he’d get the job done.

 

 


 

 

Thor walked with a clear head for the first time in several hours.

He’d come to his senses with a headache and a bitter taste in the back of his mouth, only vaguely aware of what had transpired while he was under the influence of the Midgardian chemicals. He thought that they might have been intended to put him to sleep, but his Asgardian constitution had thwarted the chemicals true intent.

Once more in a cell, Thor had quickly introduced himself to the Midgardian Clint Barton, who became most helpful. He was there to free Thor from his unjust imprisonment and, as it turned out, bring Thor to a righteous and thrilling battle.

They had gone together deeper into this dungeon, where they rescued Clint’s companion and fellow hunter the Lady Natasha from an unnatural death. Though Thor had fought on many a battlefield, it was only during the bloodlust of fighting that the killing blow should be struck- a fact that he knew well. Those that were left wounded on the field were to be taken as prisoners or left to their own kind.

The death in the stillness after the battle held no glory in it; not in the giving of death or of the receiving of it.

Gladly, he had engaged in battle with the man with the metal arm. He was a strong fighter, a fierce one, who used knives in ways that Thor thought even Loki would appreciate and did not flinch even when Thor bested his strength with his own. The battle was a good one. Thor’s blood ran hot, burning his fatigue from his limbs and the ache from his head. He shouted and bantered with the silent man, no simple guardsman despite his reluctance to let Thor pass.

His metal hand was an efficient weapon and Thor would sport many bruises from the heavy hits he had endured. Each one he gained he gave that and more in return, until they were both destined to be black and blue across their skin.

The man fought well. Not entirely honorably, using the debris around him in order to try and best Thor, but well enough despite that. Thor was more used to the sneaky tactics than he might otherwise be, if his own brother were not so devious in his ways. Still, as it was between Thor and Loki, Thor knew himself the better fighter than this man and he triumphed in the end.

That end came when Thor wrenched metal apart with his bare hands and used that same metal hand to knock him about the head. Any tool in Thor’s hand was a weapon and even the heavy, broken arm he held became such. It made sense to Thor, who was without his hammer in this King’s quest, to turn his enemy’s weapon into his own. There was no other choice, really.

He did not keep the arm once the man it belonged to lay out on the floor, senseless to the world but still breathing. Nor did he do as the man would have done, most likely, if it had been Thor knocked senseless to the world.

Instead of killing him, Thor had returned to the Lady Natasha, wounded and vulnerable, and waited until the return of their other companions.

He had been filled with much joy to see Tony alive as his memory had led him to believe that both of his previous companions, Tony and Clement, had perished. While there was no sign yet of Clement, Tony was there, looking drawn and pale, but living. Thor approached him with a light heart that became heavier the closer he got.

The drawn features were not simply exhaustion and the pale skin not an attribute of fear. Thor saw bandages and smelled blood and, regrettably, he knew the signs of torture that Tony bore upon his hands. He cautiously placed his hand on Tony’s shoulder, one place where he saw no red of wounds upon his skin and the bandages were thinner. “Tony, my friend, it grieves me to see you wounded thusly. Would that you had been better treated by our captors. Tell me, how do you fair?”

“Our hosts did get a little carried away, but I’ll manage for now,” Tony said with a wry smile. His hand briefly rose then drifted away, as though the idea of touching someone wasn’t strong enough to do it with his damaged fingers, “How are you? Are you okay? I heard you were thrown for a bit of a loop there, big guy.”

“My malady has passed,” Thor said, “And I fought a thrilling battle here with a man with one metal arm. He was quite fierce, but he has been laid low for now.”

Tony glanced over his shoulder, “You didn’t kill him?”

“I did not. Perhaps he shall recover and regain his strength, that we might face each other once more upon the battlefield.”

Tony relaxed in a way that suggested he might know the one-armed man. Thor didn’t ask him about it now, though, as it didn’t seem prudent. After all, the man had attempted to kill Lady Natasha and had fought viciously against Thor himself. He was wounded but not unbearably so. He could recover enough to make a second attempt to battle if they did not hurry.

“We need to get out of here,” Tony said. It was good they were of a similar mind, though Thor was unsurprised. Tony was a natural Midgardian leader. “Thor, would you be willing to carry Natasha?” He looked to the others, a crease forming between his brows, “Natasha, would you be willing to be carried?”

He had been and so had she, which was how Thor ended up with the armful of broken, delicate Midgardian while Tony limped right ahead of him and Clint cleared the way for their escape.

It was not the glorious escape that Thor had imagined it would be, but not every battle was filled with glory during the moment. Many of them gained their shine during the retelling, where the hard bits of injuries taken and pain felt could be glossed over with the skill of a wordsmith. Many a ballad included traveling to and fro places without much description of the endless riding that to-ing and fro-ing generally entailed.

But it was an escape, and as they headed to the main travel road in the unexpected chill of the night, with the stars of Midgard blazing above them, Thor could see the glory of their survival.

This would become a good story, one of survival and strength, and Thor would be glad to tell the tale.

 

 


 

 

Tony had Natasha’s phone to his ear because his phone hadn’t turned up in their escape and Clint’s phone didn’t have an active AI installed. Tony hadn’t even bothered asking him for it, considering the side-eye he was getting from the archer.

Tony hadn’t exactly forgotten what Clint had said, about NOBODY holding him and Natasha hostage so that they would be forced to save Tony, but he would have to deal with that later. Right now there were far more important things to do, like make phone calls and arrangements and make sure that the people who had escaped weren’t about to get captured again.

Kletka got him in touch with JARVIS who patched him through to Jane, the first of his phone calls.

Jane picked up with a rushed greeting, “Hello? Who is this?”

“Relax, Jane,” he said immediately, “It’s me, Tony. How are you doing?”

“How am I doing?” Jane asked incredulously. “How are you doing? I heard you got kidnapped!  Are your kidnappers making you call me? What’s going on?”

“I’m not calling for anything like that,” Tony said, “I wouldn’t involve you in something like that if I could help it. I’m calling because I’m safe, now, and I need to know how you and Erik and Darcy are doing.”

There was a fumbling sound and then Darcy’s voice came over the phone. It was distant sounding like Jane had put the phone on speaker. “Tony, my dude, is that really you? Holy shit, did you really get kidnapped?”

“Yes, it’s me. Yes, I got kidnapped,” Tony said. He ignored the look he got from Clint from the corner of his eye, like he shouldn’t be admitting these things. “And I’m fine.”

“We were rather concerned about you, Dr. Stark,” Erik said from somewhere in the background. “Where are you now? Are you somewhere safe?”

“More or less,” Tony said, “We’re headed somewhere to get medical treatment. Don’t worry about all that, let me worry about it. I called to talk to you guys about your research and the data and what we need to do next.”

“Did you get it back?” Jane asked. “What about the equipment?”

“I have good news and bad news,” he said, “Which do you want first?”

“The good news,” Jane said.

“Good news is,” Tony said with a grin, “I have the data. Or rather I have access to the backups of the data. Bad news, all the equipment exploded.”

“Holy shit,”   Darcy said.

“What do you mean exploded?” Erik asked.

“I mean as in they were overclocked and overheated as a result of that and went boom. All the tech is gone.” Tony said. He made an exploding motion with his hand, even though they couldn’t see it.

“You’re kidding me,” Clint said under his breath. Tony ignored that too.

“All of it?” Jane sounded like she was about to faint.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Tony said. “But this isn’t the end of the world. Far from it in fact! And that leads me to the better news and worse news. Which do you want first?”

“The better news?” Darcy asked.

“Better news is I have similar machines set up at another location. They’re sort of in use but I’m sure we could come to some arrangement for you three to be able to use them as well. Worse news is that they’re not going anywhere so you’ll have to leave New Mexico to continue the work.” Tony said. He stared out the window, watching the nightscape of the desert pass them by. He was pretty sure that Clint was driving at least twenty miles over the speed limit but if they got pulled over, he’d take care of it, so he didn’t care.

He wanted to get Natasha to a hospital as much as Clint did.

“Where would we have to go?” Erik asked hesitantly.

“Montana,” Tony said. “I’ve got a partner working on some space stuff up there in a facility. If you don’t mind a brooding Russian with a pet bird, I think we could work out an arrangement. A temporary one while we figure out a more permanent solution.”

There was some whispering going on, it sounded like Erik and Jane in the background. It wasn’t easy to hear because Darcy started asking questions, “What kind of space stuff? And who is the Russian? Is it someone famous in space studies? Isn’t Montana like, really cold and empty? What even is in Montana? Couldn’t we go somewhere else? Didn’t you say you had a Colorado place that one time?”

“Satellite space stuff,” Tony said, “And Erik’s met the Russian, his name is Ivan. He’s not famous but he probably should be. And Montana is only cold in the winter, just like any other midwest state and it is relatively empty but it’s perfect. There are ranchers in Montana, you’ll love the hamburgers there. And no, Colorado isn’t outfitted for the kind of work you're helping Jane with. It’s more chemical based.”

“How many places have you got?” Darcy asked, “Do you do tours?”

Tony laughed.

“Darcy, give me that,” Jane said. There were muffled sounds of the phone being handed over and then Jane’s voice again, much more clear than before. “Erik says that he thinks the Russian you’re talking about is the man that he met in your tower, Ivan Vanko. Is that right?”

“Yes, that’s him,” Tony confirmed.

“The word is that he runs Stark Industries Space Labs Division, even though he’s not an astrophysicist.”

“He’s got a passion for space,” Tony said, “And maybe he isn’t officially, but with how much he’s been reading up and working in the area, I’m confident in his abilities.” After all, not one of Ivan’s satellites had fallen out of orbit yet.

“Would he be willing to work with us? I’m not going to just give up my research and do whatever projects he has. You’re not my boss, Mr. Stark. You’re my patron.” Jane said firmly. Tony smiled.

“I know,” he said gently, “And I’m not talking about you ending your work. I just want to give you a temporary location to do it where no one will bother you.”

“Do you expect people to bother me?”

“I expect that the people who had me in their hands won’t be very happy that I’ve left them,” Tony said, “And they’ll cast as wide a net as they need to in order to bring me back.”

Jane sucked in a sharp breath. She was silent for a moment, in which Tony glanced over his shoulder to the back seat. Thor looked up from where he frowned down at the pale and shallowly breathing Natasha to meet Tony’s gaze. The fun-loving warrior looked much more somber in the gloom and bore a grim expression.

Tony turned to face the front again.

“Are you sure they even know about us? Maybe they’ll ignore us since… No, that wouldn’t work. You interact with us on a personal level, if we were just employees, you wouldn’t do that,” Jane’s voice drifted to a mutter. “They’ll come for us eventually, won’t they?”

“Sorry,” Tony said, and he was, too. Sorry about her. Sorry about Natasha. Sorry about the Winter Soldier, even. This wasn’t supposed to be like this at all. He’d really truly fucked with the timeline. “If it helps, I can get you transport out of there in a matter of hours-”

“No offense, Mr. Stark, but unless you personally can be there to assure whoever it is you send to us is actually you, I’m not getting in any plane or car or anything with any stranger,” Jane said. “Not while people might kidnap me or Darcy or Erik just to get to you. You want us to go to Montana? Fine. Send us the location and we’ll drive up there ourselves. The truck still goes fine and I have your Cadillac still. It can’t be more than a couple of days and you know that no one will expect us to run away practically on foot.”

Tony closed his eyes and rubbed them. “All right,” he said, “I can tell you won’t be convinced otherwise. Take whatever you need and get going as soon as you can. Jarvis will give you the address.”

“Got it,” Jane said, “Take care of yourself, Mr. Stark. You can’t change the world like you keep saying you want to if you get yourself kidnapped.”

He let out a sharp laugh, “Right. Of course. Drive safe, Jane. Don’t lose track of each other. Don’t get into any accidents. Call me if you need anything.”

“Goodbye,” she said. Tony murmured the word back and ended the call. He sat there for a while, looking at his phone in silence.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when a warm hand pat him on the shoulder. Tony looked back to see Thor giving him a supportive smile. “It is natural to be concerned for the wellbeing of one’s companions and vassals. My father tells me that when one leads, one must make the best choices for all of their people, not just the ones that they would choose for themselves. Sometimes, that choice is to allow them to do what they think best in the situation.”

He looked serious about his words and his expression didn’t falter even a little bit when Clint snorted and muttered something about Tony’s leadership skills under his breath. Tony gave Thor a little smile. “Thanks,” he said, “It’s just… hard not to worry.” He looked down and away.

The moment was broken by a bright flash of light and Clint’s sudden swearing as he swerved the car. Tony felt the repetitive thumping as the tires found the edge of the road and the grooves in the asphalt bounced and jolted the car. Clint swore again, louder, and swerved back.

“Where the hell did that truck come from?” Clint shouted. Tony stared out the window, surprised by the sudden cloud of darkness. It hadn’t looked like the headlights of a truck, but he’d been distracted and hadn’t really seen the source of the light. “Where the hell did it go?” Clint looked quickly over his shoulder as if the mysterious truck would appear.

Tony saw the shape on the road ahead of them only a second before the hit it. It was tall and shadowy and if he wasn’t absolutely certain they were on a highway, he would’ve sworn it was a cactus. But then they hit the thing- they hit a person- and the mystery was solved in an instant as a familiar pale face appeared briefly pressed against the front windshield.

Clint braked hard, snarling with something that was probably both rage and fear while Tony gaped at the now empty space on the hood of the SUV. It was Thor who spoke the name that he was thinking- Thor who shouted in surprise and delight as he opened his door before Clint had fully stopped the SUV.

“Loki!” Thor cried, “Brother!”

Tony closed his eyes.

It seemed nothing that had to do with Thor would be easy after all.

Chapter Text

Clint gripped the steering wheel with both hands, knuckles white. “Did he just say brother?”

Tony nodded. The dust cloud stirred up by the Bifrost had cleared and Thor stood in the headlights with Loki. And it was Loki, in his dumb green and black leathers and longsuffering expression and with a nasty looking bruise on his cheek. Thor seemed excited that he was there.

Clint let out a long, hissing breath, “I could back up and drive around them. They’re grown adults. They can handle themselves.”

“They’re aliens, Barton,” Tony said, “It’s not the same thing.”

“But they’re not helpless, we could just leave them-”

“Clint,” the scolding voice makes them both jump. Natasha glares at them both as they turn to look over their shoulders. Tony winces and nods. Right. Thor had pretty much saved her life.

“I’ll get them,” Tony said, “Just hold tight.” He opened his door and slid out. He winced when he reached the ground, having somehow forgotten his current shoeless, injured state. “Hey, Thor, buddy. Can you and your friend get into the car? We kind of still need to go to the hospital.” He fidgeted on his feet, wincing whenever he put too much pressure in a sensitive spot.

His call got both Thor and Loki’s attention. Thor threw his arm around his brother and hauled him over. Unlike every other time Tony could remember seeing Loki, he seemed fairly tolerant of Thor’s hands-on-brotherhood. He looked out of place next to Thor, who was in the same dirty clothes that he’d borrowed from Jane as before, but he didn’t have that sharp, sinister edge to him.

“Tony, Son of Stark, this is my brother, Loki!” Thor said with a gesture, “He has decided to visit Midgard for himself. Loki, my brother, this is Lord Tony Stark. He is a Midgardian of high birth and has been a part of my adventures here for some time.”

“Adventures?” Loki asked with one perfectly arched brow, “Are you not on a quest, brother? Something about redeeming yourself in the eyes of our father and proving your worth?” His green eyes flicked over Tony as he spoke, not at all perturbed by Thor’s actions if his smile had anything to say about it. Tony tried not to shift uncomfortably, acutely aware of the state of his body and not just because of the pain.

Thor waved his hand, “Details, details! Come. Let us return to the transport vehicle. We must make haste towards the healer’s hall!” He ushered Loki past Tony and to the back door of the SUV. Thankfully, there was space enough for them both in the far back of the SUV, on a back bench, while Natasha remained safe where she was on the center seat bench. Tony climbed back in, hissing under his breath as he did. Clint waited just long enough for him to shut the door and then took off down the road again.

In the back of the SUV, Loki sat forward on his seat, one arm across the back of the bench in front of him, and his head tilted to the side. “What have you been up to on Midgard, brother?” He looked down at Natasha, who had her eyes screwed shut now.

That seemed to be all Thor needed to start recounting his time on Earth, starting at the beginning where he, too, had been hit by a vehicle. Loki didn’t seem particularly amused by that part, probably because it reminded him of his own ignoble meet with the front end of their car, but he listened attentively.

Tony tuned the whole thing out. He focused on Natasha’s phone in his hands. Using Kletka as his relay point, he began coordinating their escape from New Mexico. The first thing he did was alert the nearest hospital of Natasha’s condition and ETA. The second was message Pepper, asking for permission to and apologizing for commandeering the nearest Stark Industries jet to be brought to the nearest runway to where he was now. She wasn’t awake, thank goodness, so he was able to send that without fear of having to tell her what happened or why. Third, he messaged Ivan, who wasn’t asleep it turned out, about the impending large group of visitors to the menagerie.

Surprisingly, Ivan didn’t begrudge Tony bringing an entourage with him. Of course, it meant that more people would attend the launching party and post-launch celebration but Ivan had good reason to be proud and want to show off his work. This was an important launch after all.

After some thought, he sent out a few other messages, to security people and others, to keep an eye out for trouble. Tony didn’t need it to get out that he’d spent almost a day in the lovely company of another set of kidnappers, but those he told wouldn’t spread that around.

Not that it would get very far if they tried, not with how hyper-aware NOBODY was of everything even sort of related to Tony right now.

Finally, he contacted SPIKE and gave him his first job with the suit that waited in Tony’s Malibu workshop.

 

By the time he’d finished, they were in the city at last. Clint sped along nearly empty roads with a glint in his eye that boded ill for anyone who tried to stop him. Tony had to brace himself once or twice as Clint took a corner too sharply and too fast, hissing out a breath between his teeth. “I didn’t take you for a getaway driver, Barton,” he said conversationally.

“If she dies,” Clint muttered darkly, “You’ll wish we left you with those motherfuckers.”

Tony glanced at his face but Clint was only staring hard at the road. They approached a light that was red and which turned abruptly green as they grew closer. It was the sixth green light in a row. “I don’t want her to die any more than you do,” Tony said. He also didn’t want to know what the hell would happen if he died so soon into his plans. Things weren’t anywhere close enough to self-sustainable yet.

“She went in there after you for some fucking reason,” Clint said, “And she fought that bastard because of you. I don’t know what the hell you did to get under her skin so fast, but I don’t really fucking appreciate you putting her in that kind of no-win position.” The hospital was finally in view. Clint pressed down on the gas and the SUV sped up. The bright red light of the emergency entrance blazed in front of them like a red star.

Tony said nothing. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want Natasha to die. He didn’t want Clint to have to get revenge. He hadn’t planned on any of this happening. He needed to piece together the parts and get things back on track.

Clint stopped the SUV with a screech of tires and the smell of burning rubber, coming to a perfect stop right in front of the emergency entrance bay of the hospital. Because of Tony’s forewarning, there was a team of two doctors, a stretcher, and handful of other attendants ready for Natasha. Clint turned off the vehicle with a twist of the keys and then left them in the ignition as he practically jumped out of his seat.

The flurry of motion that followed was dizzying. Tony opened his door, already telling the doctors that their patient, Natasha, was in the middle seat. They, with Clint to help, got her off the seat and onto the stretcher. In moments she was secured and being wheeled away, with Clint on the heels of the medical team now in charge of her. There was no dissuading him from following, but he also seemed to know how to keep out of the way of the doctors, so the last Tony saw of him was his back as he disappeared into the building with Natasha.

Another doctor approached Tony, who stood still half in the car. She was a short woman with dark hair and skin and gave him a look that implied he would be listening to her. “Sir,” she said, “We have a stretcher for you too.”

“Who me?” he blinked. He pressed a hand to his chest in a gesture of innocence. 

She looked pointedly at his chest, which was still swathed in bandages, and the hand against it where his empty nailbeds were still raw and tender. Still, Tony shook his head, “I’ve been treated,” he said, pointing directly to a bandage, but she looked entirely unmoved. Trying a different tactic, he leaned closer to the vehicle, “I can’t just leave this here. It’s in your way, blocking the bay-”

“Have one of your friends move it,” she said with an imperious nod towards Thor and Loki, both sitting in the back seat and watching.

“Oh my god, no,” Tony said immediately, “They can’t drive. They’re from- Out of town.”

She looked incredibly unimpressed. Half turning, she raised her voice, “Jacobs!” Another one of the attendants, standing back with a cluster of other ones around a stretcher jolted and came forward. He looked younger than the first doctor and Tony realized with a blink that he had to be an intern or something. “Go park Mr. Stark’s car. Carefully, mind you, and bring back the keys,” she said with a leveled glare at the younger man. She had to be a head shorter than this Jacobs but she had a manner and a scowl that commanded easily. Tony had a sinking feeling that he was going to get towed along with her, too.

“I can’t just-” Tony gestured towards the back seat full of Asgardians while Jacobs went around the front of the SUV to get into the driver’s side. “I’m sort of responsible for keeping track of those two and-”

“There is a waiting room in which they can stay and wait,” she said firmly. She shot another glare over her shoulder and two more interns -they had to be with how nervous they looked, how eager to please- rushed over with the stretcher. “Now, would you like to get on or do we need to assist you, Mr. Stark?”

“Don’t have much choice, do I?” He said weakly. He winced as he climbed onto the stretcher but settled down quickly enough. He didn’t lie down, though, he sat and glared at the doctor when she glared at him.

“Tony,” Thor said, getting out of the SUV with Loki in his shadow, “Shall we await your mending within the healer’s hall?”

Tony hesitated, the idea of Thor waiting in the dreary hospital room by himself was bad enough, but leaving Loki in there with him? Sure, he didn’t look as vicious as Tony remembered, but he still didn’t trust him not to get up to something. Tony wouldn’t be able to forgive himself if he let the Asgardians get “up to something” in a hospital.

But he couldn’t keep track of them and get doctored. He also couldn’t get out of getting doctored and he wasn’t going to dump Loki into Jane’s lap-

Which left him only one option. Tony sighed and pulled out Natasha’s phone. “Kletka darling,” he said, holding it out flat in front of himself so she reply on speaker. “Are you there?”

“Of course, sir,” came Kletka’s young but clear voice. “What can I do to assist you?”

“I’m sorry dear, but I need you to look after Thor and Loki for me tonight while I stay in the hospital. Would you mind?”

“I do not mind,” she said, “I’ve become well versed in the assorted activities that adult humans engage in to distract them from the concerns of daily life. You can leave Thor and Loki in my capable hands, sir.” Tony ignored the whispering of the interns and the cross look of the doctor and the frankly disconcerting curiosity that Loki was giving him.

“Fantastic. Don’t let them get into too much trouble, all right?” As she agreed, he held out Natasha’s phone to Thor. “On here is Kletka. If you ask her anything, she’ll do her best to answer you. She’ll give you access to funds and directions and also give me a way to contact you once I’m done here. Don’t lose this phone,” he stressed. “This is the best I can do under the circumstances unless you want to be entirely free of me and run amok on your own.” 

Loki was the one who snatched up the phone, taking it with visible delight and looking it over while Thor asked, “Should we not be concerned with those who so recently were our inhospitable hosts?”

Tony grinned, “I’d be worried indeed if you two couldn’t handle a few thugs on your own. You should be perfectly fine and I don’t want you to have to wait around in the hospital when I don’t know how long I’ll be held here.”

“We are not kidnapping you, Mr. Stark,” said his new doctor with a level look. Tony wasn’t sure if she’d figured out that’s what he’d just survived, but it was funny none-the-less so he snorted and shook his head. “We’re giving you the medical treatment you need.”

“I know, I know,” he said with a shrug. “Anyway, Thor, Loki, have fun. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“Be well, Tony,” Thor said gravely, “We shall await your contact.”

Loki nodded, “Swift healing to you, Lord Stark.” He gave Tony a sharp-edged smile, green eyes glittering.

The interns were already rolling Tony away when Loki said goodbye so Tony had to shout over their shoulders at him, “It’s Tony,” he said, “Just call me Tony!”

If Loki replied, he didn’t hear it.

 

 


 

 

The screen of the device -the phone was it?- was lit with a constantly updating map of their location. Loki held it idly in one hand, keeping one eye on the screen and the other on his surroundings as he walked side by side with Thor. He had accomplished everything he’d come to do within the first twenty minutes of being on Midgard, a feat of efficiency that even he was surprised to have done, but there was no power on Midgard that would remove him from the curious tangle of events that had sprung up around Thor. Now that they were out of Stark’s aura of influence, all he had to do was call out to Heimdall and be transported back to Asgard with news of his discovery.

Loki had no intention to do any such thing.

“Lady Kletka,” Thor said, turning his head to speak to the phone, “I desire a feast after today’s battling. Direct us to a local tavern so that we can partake of Midgard’s finest food and drink.”

Loki turned his head slightly, lifting his chin, “You’re going to go carousing while still covered in blood and sweat, brother? Your attire seems hardly fitting for a feast.”

Thor frowned, looking at his thin Midgardian shirt. He plucked it with thumb and forefinger. “Truly, I have worn the life from these fabrics. They are much less durable than the leathers I am used to.” He gave Loki a hopeful smile, “Perhaps you could assist me, brother?”

“Oh no, I could never,” Loki said with a thin smile, “I’m merely here to observe and encourage, dear brother. I’ve been forbidden to meddle in your affairs.”

Thor sighed, “Father asks much of me with this quest.”

“Does he ask too much?” Loki wondered.

Thor didn’t answer, just waved his hand as if he could dismiss Loki’s question like smoke from a pipe. “Lady Kletka, my brother speaks the truth for once. I do need something more proper to wear to a feast. Direct us to a tailor so I can acquire new garments.”

“What kind of clothing is fitting for a feast?” Kletka asked. Loki tilted the phone towards Thor. It was noisy on the streets of the city, even at this hour.

“Furs and leathers, of course,” Thor said, “A warm cloak would do nicely against the chill of this desert night. A hood for the cloak would make the Midgard sun more tolerable.”

There was a moment where Loki imagined Kletka to be searching for something suitable, perusing some sort of technical device that stored the information on the inhabitants of the city. Loki tried to picture the girl on the other side of the machine’s interface. Was she a relative of Stark? Loki thought not as she had an accent where he did not. It wasn’t very pronounced, but the more she spoke, the more clearly Loki heard it. He imagined her with dark hair and intelligent eyes, a pretty face and practical style of dressing. There was no way a man like Stark could tolerate something ugly or stupid to work for him. Even with how battered he’d looked, Loki believed Thor’s word that Stark was a noble born Midgardian.

And a well respected Lord, it seemed, to have a dutiful follower not even question his request to attend to his and Thor’s every need. Or Thor’s whims.

“I have two candidates,” Kletka said after a moment. “I’ll contact them and see if either one is able and willing to provide the necessary garments. Please continue south for two more blocks and then turn eastwards at the corner of 32nd Street and Flint.”

They walked while Kletka did her work.

 

“You didn’t ask how Mother is doing,” Loki said companionably as they walked. He switched hands for the phone so he could rest his arm. The map continued to update, which made him think that it probably was a feature of the phone and not something Kletka had to manage actively.

“You would have said if something had troubled her,” Thor pointed out, “How is our mother doing, Loki?”

“She is well, only worried for you while you meander about in exile,” Loki said primly, “She was the one who convinced Father to send me here to check on you.”

“If he did not think me capable-” Thor began, but stopped when he saw Loki shaking his head. “If that is not it, then what is the reason?”

Loki didn’t have to answer because at that moment a yellow car pulled up beside them and stopped, windows rolling down. A man behind the wheel leaned over and asked, “You are Mr. Thor and Mr. Loki, yes?”

“Who is it that asks?” Thor replied, bending down to peer through the window. Loki sighed and rolled his eyes. Really, that was such an easy way to get attacked in the face if the man calling on them was hostile.

“I'm Joseph. You ordered a taxi?”

“I ordered the taxi,” Kletka said from the phone. “The nearest tailor did not have the suitable materials for Thor’s attire but the second one will. He is farther away, however, so I hired a service to drive you to his apartment.”

Thor shrugged and climbed into the back seat. Loki followed him, closing the door behind. Joseph nodded to them both and then pulled back into the traffic and down the street.

Thor, thankfully, didn’t take up the conversation about their mother, having at least some sense not to talk about it in front of the stranger. He, instead, brought up the clothing he was getting which was a far more interesting topic than he usually discussed so Loki rewarded him by engaging in pleasant conversation for the entire trip there.

 


 

 

Adir King stood in his kitchen willing his coffee machine to work faster. His head was still a little groggy from waking up prematurely and he was starting to think that the whole phone conversation had been a dream. A simultaneously realistic and impossible dream. If it wasn’t for the unknown phone number and the record of their conversation lasting a whole three minutes and twenty-four seconds, he might’ve just gone right back to bed at that moment.

As it was, his phone told him he had that phone call and his brain told him that if he was going to be functional at all during this late night surprise fitting session, he was going to need the coffee.

Adir rubbed his face with both hands and tried to wake himself up more. He couldn’t just stand there and wait for the brewing to finish. He should get out his stuff, make sure he was ready.

He wandered out of his kitchen, trying to move quietly so as not to wake up his roommates, and turned on the lights in the front room. He had most of his sewing stuff in the corner, including the covered machine and box of measuring tape and pins he’d need for the fitting. The outfit he was going to adjust- because even he couldn’t make a full fucking prince feasting outfit in a few hours- was already almost finished.

He’d planned on having it done by the end of the week, ready to ship out a little earlier than he’d anticipated, but that plan was busted now. Adir felt a little guilty about reusing the design for one customer on another one but…

Well, the first guy had been a repeat customer and probably would be fine with it once Adir explained the situation and…

This late night commission was for Tony Fucking Stark, the billionaire, the playboy, the philanthropist, the genius himself. And he was throwing that philanthropic money in Adir’s direction at a way higher rate than Adir had ever thought his work would ever really fetch. It was international designer label money, plus a rush fee, plus an inconvenience fee, plus a half dozen other fees that the woman- Kletka? Was she Mr. Stark's secretary?- had tacked on.

She really didn’t need to sweeten the deal so much, but Adir had been too tired to say anything and too dumbfounded to argue.

He pulled out the outfit now, a mix of real leather and silk to look like armor that would go over a long cotton tunic and soft, suede-leather leggings, and set it out on the stuffed model he usually used to hold his works in progress. There was a cloak that went with it, somewhere, but he had finished that long ago and it was bundled up. If this Thor wanted it, he’d probably part with it too. After all, it was part of the armor set and wouldn't match anything else.

The heavy knock at the door made Adir jump. He swore under his breath, rubbed his suddenly nervously sweaty hands over his thighs and hurried over. Kletka had said that Tony Stark wouldn’t be there, obviously, so these were just his VIP friends. Somehow, that made it worse. At least with Mr. Stark, Adir might have some idea of how the man was going to act.

Adir peeked through the peephole on the door and, if he hadn’t been leaning against the door, he probably would’ve fallen over. The two men standing outside his door couldn’t be more dissimilar and more alike. They were both tall and handsome, though one with a fair complexion and the other with a dark complexion. He saw immediately which one needed the outfit- the one with dark hair had a fine leather worked chest piece, at least as far as Adir could see. The blonde wore some T-shirt that just barely fit him across the shoulders, showing off his physique in incredible ways. 

Pulling back, he unlocked the door and pulled it open, “Hello?”

The taller of the two, though not by much, grinned. “Greetings! I am Thor, son of Odin. This is my brother, Loki, also a son of Odin. The Lady Kletka has directed us to your door. You are the tailor we seek?”

Adir nodded. He could already tell he was going to have to do some serious adjusting on the arms of the piece. Might have to just remove them entirely. Jesus. Having biceps like that had to be illegal. “I’m Adir King. Uh, come on in,” he stepped back to let them in. “I’ve made some coffee if you would like some?”

Thor elbowed his brother, who gave him a thin smile, “Their java is bitter but strong, you might find it to your liking, brother, for its similarities to your nature.”

Loki didn’t seem perturbed by the barb, only nodded to Adir and commanded with the air of I Am The Customer, You Must Do As I Say, Barista, “I’ll take mine with cream, if you have it. Not too much, though.”

“I will have sugar and cream,” Thor said with the absent air that a customer sometimes got when they ordered while looking at the baked goods selection. Adir recognized it as similar to Loki’s haughtiness, but with a softer edge. The expectation to be served by those around them was something that both of these men had.

Adir saved his eye rolling for after he’d nodded and turned back to the kitchen. Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as Azarel could be when he was making a point of being insufferable. Besides, Adir had had far worse interactions with actual customers when at work.

He came back with three cups of coffee, one for each of the two brothers and one for himself. Loki had settled in on Adir’s roommate’s favorite chair but he looked comfortable and probably wouldn’t spill so Adir wasn’t about to say anything. Thor stood near the armor on display, stroking his chin and its stubble with one hand. He took the mug from Adir with an absent nod of thanks. “Your craftsmanship is admirable for a Midgardian,” he said, “This is the piece that you will fit for me?”

“It’s the closest fit to what you need,” Adir said, “If I took your measurements, I could make better fitting clothing, but it would take some time.”

Thor nodded thoughtfully, “The braiding of the leather here is most impressive.” He ran his fingers over the section across the chest, “And the leather is still supple enough for movement. This would make a fine companion piece to a set of mail.”

Adir gulped down his mouthful of coffee hastily, “You don’t need mail too, do you?” His fingers ached in memory of the last set of mail he’d made. He was seeing loops of metal behind his eyelids for days. And he’d just done the one tunic piece.

“Not for feasting, of course not,” Thor looked at him with supreme tolerance, “Can you make mail as well as you braid leather?”

Adir winced. “I can make mail,” he admitted, “But it takes a lot longer than the leather.” He would’ve normally said that it cost three or four times as much, too, just to get a customer to back off on the idea of it- or really show commitment- but with Tony Stark as a beneficiary, Thor probably wouldn’t care about that.

“If you want to get to the feasting before the sun rises, I suggest you begin the fitting,” Loki said from the chair where he’d settled back, one leg crossed over the other. He had a smartphone balanced perfectly on his knee and the hot mug of coffee held in both hands in his lap. He gave Adir a warm smile when he caught his eye and Adir smiled back. “Perhaps, if your work is quality enough, we’ll come back for the mail.”

Thor didn’t look up from the armor as he spoke, but Adir could tell he was talking more to Loki than to him, “If I am to be inhabiting Midgard for an undefinable amount of time, I should take the necessary steps to ensure my needs are cared for. The good Tailor Adir has the ability to satisfy me with his handiwork if what I see here is truly his craft on display.” Adir wasn’t sure how he said that line without any change in his inflection or tone but he did. On the other hand, Adir instinctively glanced to Loki as if to say did he just say that? and saw Loki briefly close his eyes tightly before the moment passed and they both had to pay attention to Thor again.

This time, Thor did turn his gaze to Adir, who straightened up without even thinking about it, grip tightening on his mug, “What do you say, Tailor Adir? Do you think yourself up to the task?”

Adir stared at him. He thought about saying no- he really did- if only to save himself the future of chainmail. He knew already Thor was going to ask for chainmail, and he was probably going to ask for a fine mesh and it was going to take weeks and his fingers would bleed-

But he already knew his answer. He swallowed, set down his mug on the nearest table and walked over to his supplies. His hands shook but he ignored that and started thinking about what it was going to take, what he was going to need, how he could be the tailor that Thor thought he was capable of being. “I’ll need to take very detailed measurements, of course. If I’m going to be making multiple sets of clothing items I’ll need to have a personalized mannequin made. And I don’t do shoes but I know someone who does, she does all the boots for all my previous pieces, and I can give you her contact information-” he glanced to Thor, holding his measuring tape in one hand and a notebook in the other, “And pictures. I should really take pictures, too.”

The pictures were only partially because of the measurements.

Honestly, those biceps had to be illegal.

 

 


 

 

A tired but accomplished Adir stepped back and made a motion with his hand for Thor to turn around and look at himself in the mirror. It wasn’t wide enough for his whole frame, but at least it was tall enough and Thor didn’t seem to mind turning this way and that in it. He lifted one of those huge arms and flexed, nearly giving Adir a heart attack when he displayed the muscle just inches from Adir’s face. Adir swallowed, looked away nervously (not towards Loki, he’d learned better than that already) and his eye caught on a plastic bag on the floor by his sewing machine.

He’d put the machine to some hard use in the last hour or two, pulling seams and adding in cloth to account for the breadth of Thor’s shoulders and the honest to god melon-crushing thickness of his thighs. As he’d expected, the sleeves were not salvageable, at least for the upper arm, though he’d managed to reconfigure the forearms to gauntlets after a fashion.

Now, though, he walked towards the bag and crouched down to pick it up. He’d almost forgotten entirely about the cloak he’d made.

“What’s that?” Thor asked, stopping his flexing to look over curiously.

“A cloak,” Adir said, “It was done a while ago, it might not be long enough, but it was made for that armor set.” He pulled back the side of the bag and reached in.

“Oh!” Thor sounded excited, “Is it red?”

Adir grabbed the cloak and stood, pulling it from the bag and letting it unwind from the loose role he’d kept it in. There were some wrinkles in it from that, but he shook it out with a few snaps of the wrist and turned, “Sort of,” he answered. “It’s wine red and attaches at either shoulder with these clasps.” He lowered it slightly, looking over the deep red fabric at Thor.

Thor’s eyes were on the fabric and his expression was curiously blank. He held out his hand silently and Adir handed over the cloak. Thor ran fingers over the fabric, a soft silk velvet that Adir had spent an arm and a leg to get his hands on. It was worth it, though, to see the way Thor took it and whirled it expertly through the air so it settled on his shoulders.

Adir stepped up immediately and attached the clasps of the cloak to their slots in the armor. He hadn’t gone with gold clasps but a brass that brought out the brighter red points of the velvet when it moved. “It has a hood,” he explained as Thor stood there, allowing Adir to dress him in the cloak as he had allowed Adir to strap him in the leather. It was the stillness of a Prince who was used to attendants. Adir tried not to think too hard about that. “The hood is lined with a silk that I dyed myself so it was just a little darker than the velvet. It might get hot in the sun, but it’ll keep the sun off of you, which should help.” He adjusted the way the hood lay and then stepped back, looking over Thor critically.

Thor looked at himself in the mirror again. He had a fierce smile, showing a great number of his teeth. Adir saw Thor look at Loki’s reflection and raise an eyebrow in question.

Loki sat with his fingers at his chin. He gave a slight nod and said, “You will have to find some way to repay Lady Kletka for finding you such a gifted tailor, dear brother.”

Thor laughed. Adir was busy admiring the whole set of armor on the man that he somehow missed the heavy hand that settled on his shoulder before it got there. Adir jumped and jerked his head up from looking at Thor’s side. The shoes were still a problem but it turned out that the black kicks Thor had been wearing were unobtrusive enough with the rest of the outfit.

Thor gave Adir’s shoulder a hearty squeeze, just on this side of painful, “You have done fine work tonight, my tailor. I shall make sure that you are well compensated for all you have done and I look forward to what you shall create in the future.”

“I- Yes,” Adir stumbled over the words and blamed it on the exhaustion, though he knew for sure that part of it was the weight of Thor’s attentions, “Well I’ll do my best to s-satisfy.”

Thor grinned and Adir flushed.

“Kletka,” Loki cut through the heavy atmosphere with his cool, unaffected voice. Adir felt grateful and still flushed as Thor gave him another quick shoulder squeeze before turning his attention to Loki. “We’re finally suitably dressed. Have you found a place to feast?”

“I have,” she replied from the phone in Loki’s hand, “I have also hired a driver to take you there. He will arrive in five minutes at the same location the last one dropped you off from.”

“At last,” Thor said with a grin, heading towards the door with a stride that made his cloak ripple out from behind him, “Let us feast, Loki. And you can tell me more of what I’ve missed since I’ve left Asgard.”

Loki stood, brows lifting at Thor’s words, which Adir only saw from his reflection in the mirror. “Perhaps this time on Midgard has changed you, brother, if you are finally interested in the court politics.” His voice took on that scraping tease that Adir had heard his own older siblings use before, “It seems absence does make the heart fonder, though I am surprised anything could make your heart find politics endearing.”

At the door, Thor shook his head, “You mean the dramatics, Loki.” He paused with the door open long enough to look to Adir, “Farewell, Tailor Adir. I shall return for more garments at your summons,” and then he was back to talking with Loki about courts and politics and drama and their father. Loki gave him a silent nod in farewell, closing the door behind himself and leaving Adir alone in his living room.

Weak-kneed and exhausted, finally feeling the strain of getting up and furiously sewing and stitching for two hours in the middle of the night, Adir sank down onto the couch. “Holy shit,” he said, “Am I a tailor to a prince now?”

It was a rhetorical question, really. Thor had pretty much called dibs on Adir’s tailoring skills for the foreseeable future.

Shit. His siblings were going to lose their collective minds.

 

 


 

 

Pepper didn’t worry when she woke up in the morning and checked her messages to find that Tony had requested a jet to be relocated to some random city in New Mexico. She knew he’d driven out there a few days ago and had expected him to realize a drive was an insane waste of time.

She didn’t worry when she called his cell phone and JARVIS was the one who answered, his smooth British accent so familiar that she smiled just hearing his voice. She had always appreciated JARVIS, not just for the fact that he was an incredible display of Tony’s talents and will to create, but because the AI himself was friendly and sometimes was the kindest person Pepper had the fortune of talking to in a day. She didn’t rely on JARVIS nearly as much as Tony did, but she did rely on him for more than she would have for any other of Tony’s secretaries.

Like Natalie-Natasha Rushman-Romanoff. Honestly, Tony’s explanation hadn’t made a great deal of sense. If he’d known she was a spy, why did he insist on keeping her around? He sometimes was just a walking security hazard.

No. Pepper only began to worry when she asked JARVIS to patch her through to Tony, wherever he’d managed to get himself and the AI had hesitated.

It was the hesitation that made her pause in picking out her blouse for the day. She had stopped, waited a moment and then asked, “Jarvis? What is it?”

Another long pause. If JARVIS could breathe, Pepper was sure that she would have heard him take in a deep breath while he considered. She heard only silence, though.

“I am aware of where Sir is,” JARVIS said at last, “But I am not able to contact him directly. He is- He has been hospitalized. He is resting still.”

“Hospitalized,” Pepper repeated. Her worry crested inside of her into full-fledged fear. Had Ivan stabbed him again? No, he was in New Mexico. Pepper had a crazy fear that that astrophysicist woman, Jane Foster was it?, had been the one to stab Tony this time. Why did he keep getting stabbed by the people he worked with?!

“Yes,” JARVIS said, “I could contact the hospital and leave a message but he- He is asleep. And he hasn’t slept in a while.”

“How long of a while?”

Another long silence. Pepper was the one who drew in a deep breath, though, and let it out. “You know what, nevermind. I don’t want to know. Tell me which hospital, Jarvis, I’m going to go give him a piece of my mind in person this time.”

“I’m sorry Ms. Potts, but I am unable to do that at this time as it would violate my protocols.”

“What?” she asked sharply, “Which protocols? And I know you can work around those, Jarvis, I’ve seen you do it before.”

“To have you travel to Sir’s location would put you in danger, Ms. Potts,” JARVIS said quietly, “And to do that would breach the Second Concern protocol. Please resume your day as normal, Ms. Potts. I will relay your concern to Sir and encourage him to contact you as soon as he is well enough to do so.”

Pepper stood there at the foot of her bed with her phone to one ear and a shirt in her other hand for a long time in silence. She felt a weird sort of numbness pass through her, like her head was filling full of static, or a howling wind. What was this Second Concern protocol? She’d never heard of it before. From the name alone, and from what JARVIS had told her, it clearly was about her and referenced Tony’s concern about her safety. She wondered about this new protocol with a growing frown.

“Jarvis,” she said because she knew he wouldn’t hang up without saying goodbye to her first. He was thoughtful that way, always letting her know when he’d stopped listening to her actively.

“Yes, Ms. Potts?”

“Please, watch out for him,” she said, “Make sure he survives long enough for me to scold him about putting his life in danger again.”

JARVIS’s voice was warm as he said, “I will not take my eyes off of him, Ms. Potts. You can be sure of that.”

She let out another sigh and thanked him. He murmured a goodbye and Pepper tossed her phone onto her bed. She didn’t want to check the rest of her messages now, not when her head was full of worry and her stomach all tied up into knots.

Pepper also abandoned both of the shirts she was considering and went back into her closet. She needed something warmer to wear. She just felt so cold.

Chapter Text

Natasha woke slowly to the sound of voices. She had to swim through the fuzzy haze of painkillers that someone had put her to understand them, but she knew it was important that she do so. She pulled her thoughts from the fuzz and lay there, breathing evenly as her brain caught up with her ears. Soon, the harsh whispers became distinguishable from each other and she recognized Clint’s voice.

“... what you think you’re doing. Getting involved with you was a fucking mistake. The amount of physical therapy she’s going to have to deal with just to get back into working form-”

“I’ll pay for her medical costs, I already said-”

“You can’t just offer to pay for shit and have that make things better. Throwing money a broken bone doesn’t make it go away-”

“That’s not all I’m going to do! It’s just a temporary solution anyway, once-”

“No. Fuck off, Stark. You’re the temporary solution. You’re the one who got your dumb ass captured. You’re the one who should have fought that maniac-”

“I have before- I know exactly what kind of toll it takes- Which is why I’m going to do everything I can to help Nat get back on her feet-”

“Don’t you fucking call her that. You’ve known about her for a year, tops. You were her fucking mark, Stark. You don’t get to call her Nat like you give a shit about her.”

“Jesus, Barton, I’m trying to help-”

“Your help means jack-fucking-shit-”

“Stop. Fighting.”

Natasha blinked hard. God, was that her voice? She sounded like she’d been gargling gravel and dust. She coughed, head turned to the side and wincing as the sharp motion jarred her injuries. She tentatively moved her right arm, the one not in a wrap and used that elbow to prop herself up.

To his credit, Clint immediately abandoned his fight with Tony and came right over to her bedside. He was pale with his worry and shaking with his anger, but he pulled up the chair beside her bed and looked attentively at her. “Nat, hey, don’t push yourself. They just got finished patching up your leg. You need to rest.”

“I’ll rest in a bit,” she muttered. She looked across the room at Tony, who was barely recognizable in the hospital gown he wore. She blinked, surprised to see how bandaged he was. There was more than the ones she could see under the edges of his collar and sleeves of his gown. His fingers were bandaged and so were his feet and there were several more patches of bandages along his legs.

He flushed red at her examination and put his hands behind himself like a child caught filching cookies. “That was a hell of a rescue, Natasha.”

“Did you know he was there?” she asked. At Tony’s furrowed brow, she clarified with a sharper tone. “The Winter Soldier. Did you know he was there?”

Tony blinked as if surprised by the question. Good. Natasha needed him to be as uncertain as possible. He told more of the truth when he hadn’t had time to think of a good lie. “No,” he said, “I didn’t know he was there.”

She narrowed her gaze. “But you know who he was.”

“Is,” Tony corrected quietly, dropping his gaze. “And it seems you do too.”

Natasha didn’t even blink. The best and surest way to get Tony to crack open and spill his secrets was to give secrets in return. She didn’t think anyone in the hospital was listening in -the door was shut and Clint wouldn’t have let anyone bug the place on her- and she didn’t care of Clint knew this. “He was one of my teachers. It’s not hard to recognize a gaze when the face hasn’t aged a day since I remember it as a girl.”

Clint sucked in a sharp breath but Natasha ignored him. She focused on the way Tony’s eyes fluttered shut. The grim expression that crossed his face, as if a suspicion he held was now confirmed for him.

“He’s not supposed to be real,” she said, “Let alone known about by someone like you.” Tony’s lips twisted into a brief, sharp smile at her words but the expression was gone by the time she’d said her next sentence. “How do you know him? Don’t waste your breath on a lie if you can’t bring yourself to tell me the truth. I don’t have the patience for it.”

Tony rubbed his eyes with the heel of one hand, carefully avoiding using his bandaged fingers. “I’ve read about him,” he said when he’d lowered his hand. His eyes didn’t meet hers, but he was staring at the wall as if looking at something far away, something in his memories. “I’ve seen some video of him. I don’t… think you realize how deeply I dug into the Shield servers, did you? I don’t think even they realized how much I had access to.”

“He wasn’t on the Shield servers,” Natasha said, “There’s no way that they would have information on him. I would’ve known.”

Now his eyes pinned her, the orange light as steady as his voice, “Did you search every bite of data that they had? What about the hidden folders, the locked servers, the cipher-coded documents? Did you read everything, Natasha? Or did you find a little dirt, enough to keep yourself safe, and let the rest go?”

Natasha shivered. How was he so good at guessing her actions? Clint was right, they had known each other for little more than a year and during that time she had been the one observing him. He’d barely interacted with her, though those few times were always with a surprising level of insight and trust. He’d claimed early on that he knew her, that he’d checked into her background for the safety of Pepper, but Natasha thought this was more than that.

He acted like they had been close, but she’d forgotten it somehow and he was the only one with memories left of their time together. There was nostalgia there in his words and patience in his actions and trust in his eyes and Natasha felt herself respond to it even though she should’ve mistrusted it from the beginning. She shouldn’t believe him. He could be acting.

“My AI found out information about him,” Tony looked away from her again, “That’s part of her job, to find out information. I turned her loose on Shield once they came knocking at my door and she dug up his files. We didn’t get into everything, of course, because there are even Shield servers that aren’t connected to the main one. Or rather, there are Hydra bases that aren’t connected to the Shield side of things. It’s easier to fly under the radar, that way.”

Natasha’s good hand tightened her grip on the sheets, “So they weren’t just saying hail Hydra for the fun of it, were they.” Her own voice sounded flat and resigned. She knew the truth already. There was no reason to ask.

Tony shook his head. “No. It’s really Hydra.”

“Fuck,” Clint whispered, “That’s- That’s got to be bullshit.”

“It’s not,” Natasha said tiredly, “A woman I tried to question took her own life with a pill hidden in a tooth. She seemed almost fanatically pleased to be able to do it like I’d made her dream come true in forcing her to die for the cause.”

“Thwarting the enemy in their plans, sewing chaos, and mayhem, throwing down their lives for the good of their organization,” Tony said with a shake of his head. He had that far away look again, though with it the lines on his face seemed deeper and made him look older, “They take pride in being unstoppable as a whole force, even if that means they are easy to defeat on a one by one basis. It will take extraordinary means to stop them in any permanent way.”

“Except for that fucking maniac soldier,” Clint snapped. He put his hand on Natasha’s shoulder, drawing her attention off of Tony’s shadowed expression. She frowned at Clint because she needed to know why he looked like that, what he had planned. He had something, she could tell. There was no way that he was just going to let Hydra continue. His father had fought Hydra. Tony might not want to be his father, but he acted like him more often than not.

“Natasha,” Clint said, “If you knew who he was, why did you try to take him on by yourself?”

“I didn’t recognize him at first,” she said with a shake of her head. “And I don’t think he recognized me at all. Or if he did, he dismissed it as irrelevant. By the time I figured out who he was, he was already winning the fight.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said abruptly. He took a few steps closer but still kept his distance from the bed and, more importantly, from Clint, moving more towards the opposite side of the bed than him. “If I had known he was there-”

“You didn’t,” she cut him off, “And you weren’t the one who asked me to show up. That was Nobody.”

Tony winced visibly, “No, that was Kletka. Nobody told me she was surprised you’d acted to save me and thought you’d done surprisingly well, considering the circumstances. She didn’t think you’d bother. She hadn’t wanted to contact you at first. She blamed you for getting me into the mess, though Barton is right. I was the one who got myself into that.”

“Even after what I did for you before?” Natasha asked with a frown. “I helped you once-”

“You and I made a deal before,” Tony said with a shrug, “This time, you were acting on your own conscience. Nobody, ah, doesn’t think you have much of one.”

A strange mix of shame and guilt and irritation swept through Natasha, making her feel hot and then cold and then miserable. She looked down at her knees, suddenly not able to look at Tony herself. She twisted the sheets in one fist, “How long has she been watching me?”

“A while,” Tony admitted.

Natasha found the steel in her spine at once and shot him with an icy glare. It didn’t make her feel any better to see him flinch at her gaze. “How long , Tony.”

He chewed his bottom lip and then muttered, “It doesn’t matter how long it’s been. She looks through the digital histories of those she watches. If it’s digital, if it’s connected in any way to the internet, even if it's through the network of another computer… Look, she’s very thorough. The thing that happened with the Winter Soldier was kind of her worst nightmare. She hates how unpredictable things can be and wants to find the patterns in everyone’s actions. That’s just how she is.”

“The AI isn’t fucking alive,” Clint snarled, mostly under his breath, “It can’t have nightmares.”

Tony’s lip curled in a silent look of disgust but he didn’t argue with Clint. Clint just sneered back at him in silence. Natasha frowned at them both. “There’s a lot you’re not telling me, Tony.”

He shrugged his shoulders.

Natasha pressed on, “There’s probably a lot that you’re not telling anyone. I keep getting this feeling that you trust me, but you really don’t, do you? You just treat me like you trust me like you want to trust me, and that’s good enough, isn’t it? You can’t trust anyone or else they’ll take advantage of you. Like all the people you’ve already trusted who’ve already turned on you.”

He smiled at her, a fractured, honest little thing that didn’t distract Natasha enough to hide the way his hand made it halfway to his chest to rub at his sternum and the circle of the arc reactor there before he forced it back down again. “Well you know that’s true,” he said in a genial way as if Natasha hadn’t just ripped at his emotions, “You’ve read all about me in my file.”

“Your digital file,” Natasha said pointedly.

The grin he gave her was brief and fierce. Yes. She’d caught onto his little game and he wasn’t upset that she had. She wasn’t some authority to get him trouble; she was someone who could share in the deviousness of the ploy. It bothered her a little bit that he was right about that. She’d already shown she wouldn’t turn his secrets into profit for herself. She shared in them and became guilty by association.

Natasha sighed heavily.

Clint gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and she leaned into the gesture for a moment. “You should rest,” he said quietly, “They only finished up on your leg a while ago.”

“I will,” Natasha said, “I just have one more thing I need to know.” She stared down at her hand forcing it to relax, to smooth out the wrinkles in the sheet. She knew already Clint wasn’t going to like this question. He clearly didn’t like or trust Tony in the least little bit.

But Natasha had made her choice. Going back to Shield would only put her in tighter binds because they wouldn’t be able to trust her now. She’d no longer be a member of their team. She’d be an asset.

If she’d had no other choice- If her only other option was out in the wild with no one to watch her back but Clint, with no one to provide missions or back up or supplies- Maybe if she’d been younger, if she’d escaped without any injuries, she would have tried but now…

She looked up and met Tony’s gaze. He looked sad and tired but not afraid. Grim, she’d thought before. He looked grim. Whatever he had planned to do, he’d see it through no matter what.

“What’s next,” She asked with a sweep of her hand to encompass herself and Clint, “When we’re done here, what’s next, boss?” She added the title with a twist of her lips that could’ve been called a smile, purposefully mimicking the way that Kletka said the word.

Her wagon was hitched to Tony’s now.

Might as well let him take the lead and drive the damn thing.

 

 


 

 

“Natasha!” Clint hissed. Tony heard that but didn’t care about it. He was looking at Natasha’s face. Looking into her eyes. They were green, he knew, green and familiar. What had been her words? The same gaze in an unchanging face?

Tony knew that to be true. He’d recognize Natasha anywhere now. Maybe not by her walk or her hair or her clothes, things she could change about herself to disguise herself from sight, but from the look in her eyes and the way she spoke to him, he would know her from anyone else. Tony felt his skin prickle with the realization that she had his back for real this time. She was his. She didn’t belong to Fury anymore. She didn’t have Steve to be her moral guidance.

He was it. Him. Tony Stark.

And maybe it wouldn’t always be that way. Maybe she would eventually find someone who could better suit her needs. Maybe she would turn on him, just years later when he finally really trusted her.

Maybe.

Tony had an idea to fix that, too.

“When you’re safe to travel, we’re going back to the menagerie,” Tony said with an easy smile. Natasha was going to call him her boss? He could be a boss. He had loads of experience in being a boss. Even to employees who hated him, like Clint. “Pepper will have gotten the jet all ready for us, so all we need to do is get a discharge from the hospital, pick up the princes and head out to the tarmac.”

Natasha nodded.

Clint did not look pleased, “You can’t be serious,” He looked from Tony to Natasha, his glare softening only somewhat, “You’re really going to stay with him? Nat, he almost got you killed.”

“I almost got me killed,” Natasha said. “I didn’t have to tell Nobody to turn off the lights. I could’ve had you and Thor come down there with me and then they would have fought from the beginning.” She shook her head when Clint made to protest again, “Clint, I’m working for Tony now. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I won’t force you to join me.”

“With how much shit you have on him, he should be working for you,” Clint retorted, “You think people are really going to just sit back and let him keep quietly taking over the world? Because that’s where this is going with his crazy powerful AI. Next thing you know he’ll build himself a giant robot army and make everyone call him King Stark or he’ll shoot us into the sun.”

Tony was glad they were looking at each other instead of him. He couldn’t manage to stifle his wince at the accusation of a giant robot army. He’d be careful with them! More careful than he was with Ultron. There would be safeguards along with the safety checks- He had plans. Careful, careful plans.

“Clint,” Natasha rolled her eyes, “He’s not going to shoot people into the sun. And he’s not going to try and make himself a king.”

“You don’t know that.”

“What I do know is that he won’t be able to do that if I’m with him. Or at least, he won’t shoot me into the sun and maybe he’ll be a good king. Maybe he’ll give me a country to rule as a duchess. Maybe thinking someone wants to become king of the world is a child’s idea for a bad guy. What I do know is Tony’s got power, Clint, and that power can protect me.” Natasha snapped, showing a curl of her annoyance with the curl of her lip, “If he’s going to be as powerful as you’re afraid of him becoming, why the hell should I get in his way? You really think I’ll be able to work against him when his AI knows me? Think about it, Clint.”

He shut his mouth, jaw working over words he didn’t say. Tony watched him for a while, long enough to make sure he wasn’t about to say something and that he was actually going to think about it, and then cleared his throat. Natasha looked at him. Clint kept staring down at the bed.

“I don’t think Hydra is going to try and retaliate openly,” Tony said, “Because they’ll probably be busy licking their wounds and waiting to see what I will do, to see if I figured out who they were. Shield, on the other hand, is probably going to work harder against me now so I need to pull back for a little bit, get some distance and some area to work. We’re going to the menagerie because it’s the second safest place and it’s relatively off the map.

“You’ll be able to safely recover there and there’s space for Thor and Loki. Foster and her team will meet us there as well since that facility has the equipment she needs to continue her work.”

“That’s quite the full house,” Natasha said, “Vanko’s all right with that?”

Tony shrugged a shoulder, “He agreed when I asked him. He might change his mind once everyone is there, but if so, we’ll make arrangements then.”

Natasha nodded, “Do you have any idea about my medical condition now? How soon I’ll be able to be transported?”

Tony shook his head, “They didn’t tell me and I don’t know how much they told Barton. I’m well enough to travel so we’re just waiting on you.”

And on Thor and Loki’s return, but he wasn’t worried about them. Yet. It had only been one day. And no one had come into the hospital talking about super strong men fighting or anything so whatever they were up to it hadn’t left a trail of injured people behind. That would have to be enough.

“Clint?” Natasha asked.

Clint shuddered. He looked up at her with a haunted sort of look in his eyes, “It’s not good, Nat,” he said quietly. He hesitated a moment, then apparently decided that Tony was going to find out anyway so he might as well talk, “Your leg got the worst of it with the broken ankle and both bones in your lower leg. They don’t know exactly what happened to your kneecap but he basically ruined that. You’ll have to get surgery to fix it properly but they didn’t have anyone capable of doing the surgery here since it’s apparently really finicky.” Clint licked his lips and cleared his throat. He wasn’t looking at either one of them, just at his hands which were clenched together on the side of the bed.

“Your broken arm might have permanent nerve damage. Your ribs are all cracked pretty badly and you narrowly missed a puncture to the liver that would’ve fucked you completely. You were pretty deep in shock when you got here and they had to put in a metal rod for one of your lower bones because he just smashed it to pieces.” Clint glanced up at Natasha and grimaced, “Long story short, you got fucked up, Nat, and you’re going to need time and good doctors and muscle therapy to get it all back. If you can get it all back.”

“Will I have to relearn how to walk?” Natasha asked. She’d paled as Clint explained, but didn’t flinch away from the new reality.

He shook his head, “No. Maybe. I don’t know. They didn’t really want to say for sure, because of your kneecap.”

“So I’ll probably need a wheelchair when we leave here,” she said quietly, probably mostly to herself. “Will you go get a doctor for me, Clint? I want to talk to them about my condition, see if there’s anything they didn’t want to tell you that they’ll tell me.”

He gave her a look that Tony only saw the edge of but she just looked back at him as if it didn’t matter they both knew she was trying to get him out of the room so she could be alone with Tony. Clint sighed and got up. “I’ll go,” he said, “But I won’t be long.” He warned with a shake of his finger, “You really need to rest, Natasha.”

She nodded to him, giving a slight smile as he left. Tony stepped aside so he wouldn’t even be close enough to tempt Clint into a shoulder check. Clint left, shutting the door behind himself with a little more force than necessary.

Tony sighed softly and ran his fingers through his hair, carefully, though. The tips were still sore. He was still sore. They’d tended his wounds and given some local anesthetic for it because he’d refused any stronger painkillers. It was bad enough that his back was oddly numb. He was trying not to think about his fingers or toes.

He hadn’t let them numb those. He needed to be able to feel them. To make sure he still had them.

Tony ran his tongue around the inside of his teeth, reminding himself that he still had that, too, and then walked up to Natasha’s bed. He sat on the end of it, beside her less damaged leg, and folded his hands in his lap.

“What is it, Tony?” Natasha asked, her green eyes so bright. She had her head tilted to the side. The Winter Soldier hadn’t hit her about the head any, so she still looked as lovely as ever looking at him. Tony gave her a smile.

“There’s something I can make and give you,” Tony began, “that will heal all your wounds. I don’t have it yet, I still have to synthesize it, but that won’t take me very long.”

“What’s the cost of this, what is it, a drug? A chemical?”

“A serum,” he said quietly, with all the seriousness that he could muster. For some people, that word didn’t mean much. For him, because of his legacy, his father’s legacy, it had all sorts of connotations.

Natasha’s wide eyes showed she understood those connotations. Her mouth opened slightly then closed again, lips pressed tight in a line.

Tony took that as a cue to explain, so he did. “It’s not the same thing my father made. It’s not even what the military’s been trying to make, or Bruce Banner, if you’ve heard about him.” She nodded. She had, of course. Tony shouldn’t have been surprised, though he was a little, “It’s not complete yet, it’s still being worked on but I, well I haven’t given it my full attention yet. I wasn’t planning on it, really. I was just going to keep an eye on it, make sure it didn’t become dangerous.”

“The same way you’re keeping an eye on Banner, to make sure he doesn’t make something dangerous,” Natasha said. The surprise had left her face and she looked as serious as he felt.

“I’m not just- It’s not just that with Bruce,” Tony said quickly, “He needed more than to be cooped up or experimented on or to wander around the planet. I gave him what he needed.”

Natasha nodded, but her expression didn’t change. Tony pushed past this distraction, “That’s beside the point because the point is I have time to give it attention now. And a good reason, too.” He looked pointedly at her.

She blinked. “You’re going to refine a super soldier knockoff serum to heal my busted leg?”

“There’s more to it than that,” Tony said in exasperation, “There’s way more than that, but yeah. The serum, when fully realized, will be able to regenerate your injuries. It helps with older injuries too,” Tony said with a thoughtful frown, remembering the ease of pain and scars he’d felt when he’d taken his diluted does of Extremis for the surgery. “Scars and residual injuries will get better too. You’ll get some other side effects, but they’ll be under your control.”

“Side effects?” Natasha asked immediately, interrupting him.

“Ah, yes. Superhuman strength. Increased stamina, agility, perception, attention. And the ability to heat your body to the melting point of most metals,” Tony said the last sentence in a rush. It sounded absolutely insane in this timeline. There weren’t aliens already running around -ok there was Thor but he hardly counted- and there weren’t superheroes. Captain America was still in ice. The Winter Soldier was probably the most dangerous thing running around right now.

Well. The Hulk too, but he was safely tucked away.

“I’m sorry,” Natasha said, reaching up to cup her hand around her ear, “Could you repeat that last one?”

“The perfected serum will make sure that the shifting will be completely under your control,” Tony said reassuringly, “But you will be able to adjust your body’s temperature to the melting point of most metals. Not just internally but on a skin contact level. I… don’t know how I’ll design appropriately flame retardant clothing for you to wear, but I’m sure I’ll figure something out.”

“Or I could get good enough to only heat up my hands,” she said, “Since it will be under my complete control.”

“That is a much better solution, yes,” Tony agreed. There probably wasn’t any way to make clothing that wouldn’t burst into flames or melt under the influence of Extremis. It would be like trying to make a space suit that could walk on the surface of the sun.

Well, maybe not quite that hot, but close enough. Tony could use loose metaphors in his own head, he was allowed some freedom.

“How long will it take you to perfect the serum?” Natasha asked.

Tony hesitated. He had to get the lot of them to the menagerie. Had to get them all settled in, make sure that no one killed anyone else, then go to Colorado. And then he had to work on the serum with Maya there, slowly enough that it didn’t seem like he walked in knowing the formula even though that was exactly the situation. He’d have to test the waters, make sure that Maya had something else to fall back on once the formula was achieved. Maybe developing a diluted enough form of it to be used more widely spread? Something that accelerated healing and just made people a little warmer than normal.

That could work. Maybe. He didn’t think she would want to use it at full strength. That would be insane. Even the portion that Tony wanted to give Natasha wouldn’t be full strength.

“A couple of weeks?” He hazarded. “I’ll have to see where Maya is in the development but I haven’t got anything else on my table right now so I’ll get it done faster than I would otherwise.” That wasn’t exactly true, either, but the other thing that he had planned didn’t really require him to do it in person. And he didn’t want to think about it, either, especially when his stomach just turned at the thought of the thought of it.

“Maya Hansen?” Natasha asked, “She was one of the biologists at your tower. I remember her.”

“Yes, same Maya,” Tony said. “Anyway, I want to give you the chance to see this serum at work first then see if you want to use it. You don’t have to, I’m not using you as a human test subject, and if you want a diluted form of it, something just to help your natural healing, we can do that too.”

“But you wanted to offer me the kind that allows me to melt steel first,” Natasha said with a little curl of amusement in her voice, “Because...why? Do you think I always wanted to be able to burn through metal?”

Tony laughed and shook his head, “No. Not that. I’m just...worried.” He glanced to the side, towards the floor where his shadow left a vague outline on the tile floor, “The Winter Soldier is still out there. Stopping him won’t be easy and I’d rather not rely on Thor to be around to beat him. Thor will have to go back home, eventually. I need someone who can be strong enough to face him, who will be nearby when I need them to be, who I can rely on. I need someone who can be powerful but not use that power for stupid shit. And this serum is powerful.”

“The temperature control sounds like the most dangerous aspect of it,” Natasha said, “It will probably require someone who has a good control over their temper. Someone who is practiced in maintaining a cool head in the heat of the moment. Someone who thinks things through.”

Tony nodded. Even though he could think of times where Natasha had acted impulsively, he was always going to see how she acted, not what her thoughts were. She had been the most cautious of them, the slowest to anger, even more than Bruce on his best days. She was above and aloof but in the middle of them. She was the only one of the lot of them that he would choose for this.

Well, no. Pepper would’ve been his first choice since she was as straight on the moral road as anyone could be, but he wasn’t going to do that to Pepper. Not in this lifetime. Not when he had all the cards and all the choices. Pepper was going to be safe and protected from this bullshit.

There was a soft sound like a sigh. Tony looked up to see Natasha leaning back against her pillows. She looked at him, eyes half closed and expression thoughtful. “I want to think about it, Tony. I want you to make the serum, but I want to think about it. I don’t know if I want that kind of power.”

Tony nodded.

“Can I tell Clint about it?”

“If he’s going to work with us, you can tell him,” Tony said, “If he won’t work with us and if he wants to go back to Shield or something, you can’t.”

Natasha nodded. “Sounds fair.”

Tony hesitated and then reached out. He put his hand over Natasha’s, fingers curling lightly around hers. He hid the painful wince that shot up his arm at the pressure on his fingertips and looked up, meeting her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “This should never have happened to you, but I can’t undo it even if I want to. All I can do is help you move past it and make up for being the cause of your injuries. And… thank you. If you hadn’t come to get me-” he shook his head, eyes closing as he took in a deep breath to try and keep calm.

Natasha turned her hand in his and gripped his back in return. She didn’t say anything, though, which was fine. Her tight grip was enough.

Tony held tightly to her hand, despite the pain. She was alive. He was alive. They would heal and move on. It would all be all right.

 

 


 

 

Thor approached the doors to the healer’s hall with his arms laden with gifts. The glass doors slid open with a whisper of metal and he triumphantly strode in. Loki was at his side, carrying only one package to Thor’s half dozen. He was also carrying the phone, which allowed them to communicate with the lady Kletka, though he’d put it away once they reached their destination.

The entrance to the hall had a scattering of people in it, some in white medical coats or the uniform of the Midgardian nurses, and others in casual wear. Thor could feel them turn to stare, eyes growing wide and mouths dropping open and he felt his grin turn a little smug. He and Loki had pulled looks throughout the entire day- indeed, from the moment they had left the tailor’s apartment, they had not gone unnoticed.

Loki somehow ended up in front of Thor, reaching the greeting desk first with his smile and genteel manner in impeccable place, “Madam,” Loki said to the matronly woman who sat behind the desk, half-moon glasses on the end of her nose and her mouth open slightly as she looked awed by Thor to Loki. “My brother and I have come to visit our companion who is resting here,” Loki continued, “His name is Tony Stark. Could you direct us to his room?”

She blinked slowly, staring at Loki blankly for a long moment and then she abruptly flushed and nodded, “Oh. Yes. Mr. Stark. He’s- I’m sorry but who were you again?”

“My name is Loki and this is my brother, Thor,” Loki said with that same smooth smile, “Please, we had to leave our friend here late last night and he was in terrible shape. We hope to find him doing better since he has been in your fine care if only you could tell us where we might find him?”

She visibly hesitated, which Thor found quite remarkable. Loki had charmed far more sensitive information from far more guarded individuals in the past. Ultimately, she did give in, leaning in and whispering, “Mr. Stark’s on the third floor, in the long-term recovery unit. He was moved there this morning to stay in the same room as another patient.” Then she paused, leaned in more with a glint in her eye and whispered even more softly, “Another female patient. They were brought in together, you see.”

“Oh my,” Loki murmured. “I do see indeed. Perhaps you could give me the room number? That way I won’t have to embarrass myself searching up and down the halls..?”

“His room is 326. It’s at the end of the hall, one of the larger ones with a window over the courtyard. Nothing but the best for Mr. Stark, you know.” She said, sitting back and busily pulling out a clipboard. She pulled a pen from the cup beside her, one that had a fake flower taped to its back end, and tapped the tip on the clipboard, “Just fill out this visitor’s log with your name and I’ll get you two temporary passes. You wouldn’t be able to wander for very long on that floor anyway.”

“Thank you, Madam,” Loki smiled and filled out the paper for him and Thor with a little flourish of the pen. The woman smiled, cheeks still somewhat flushed, and bustled about with her machines to make the passes. Thor shuffled the packages that he held in his arms as quietly as he could, making sure to smile in a friendly way when he accidentally caught the eye of a passing nurse.

Loki took the passes for them both as soon as the woman handed them over, thanking her again and then sweeping past the desk without a look back. Thor followed behind him, keeping his stride as purposeful as Loki’s. They both stepped into the elevator together, joining a woman in a white coat who stood there holding a cup of coffee in her hand and looking so startled that Thor had to look at the ceiling to keep from laughing.

Loki pressed the button with the number three on it and they stood back as the doors began to close. The woman blinked rapidly and ran a hand over her face. Then she shook her head and asked, “Visitors?”

With a turn of his hand, Loki displayed the badges that he’d procured. “We are. You are a healer here?”

“Oh this is going to be one of those days,” she said softly, mostly under her breath. Then she sighed and nodded, “I am.”

The elevator came to a stop on the first floor. There was another doctor waiting there and he looked up, did an abrupt double take and gaped at Thor, then at Loki. The doors began to close before he moved and if not for the first doctor reaching out to hold back the door, he wouldn’t have made it.

“Uh,” he said, standing dumbly in the elevator. “What is..going on, Meredith?”

The woman gave a smile that reminded Thor of Loki. He saw her shrug nonchalantly and sip her coffee. “I’m just headed up to meet with Bailey on that hairball case. What about you, George? Which floor did you need?”

“Five,” he said automatically. He was still staring, realized he was staring suddenly and abruptly pulled off to the side, standing beside Meredith and far from Thor or Loki. Loki glanced at Thor from the corner of his eye, a ghost of a trickster’s smile on his lips as he feigned an utterly disinterested expression. Thor did his best to act casual about the whole thing. It helped that he had to fiddle with the things he was carrying and looked distracted because of them.

“And I meant, well you know what I meant, Mer,” George whispered. He was peering around her shoulders at Thor. Thor looked straight ahead. “About them.”

“What about them?” Meredith asked with an honest confusion that made Loki snort. George frowned and looked at him. Meredith’s eyebrows rose but she didn’t say anything. “I think they’re visiting someone here.”

The elevator stopped again at the second floor. The door opened up to two more doctors, one a blonde woman and the other another man, though this one with sandy brown hair. He blinked, once, and said immediately, “What’s with the nerd getup?”

The blonde smacked his arm, “What is wrong with you! We’re in the hospital! They’re probably here to see someone injured!”

“Are you two getting on or what?” Meredith asked in a bland voice.

“Of course we are,” the man said. He hurried on, the blonde following, and the doors slid shut once more. He looked at the buttons but didn’t push any. The blonde reached over and pressed the L button. Without an ounce of shyness, he looked Thor and Loki over. Loki ignored him in favor of pretending to check one of his gauntlets. Thor smiled at him. “Is that real leather?” he asked.

“Why certainly,” Thor said.

“Jesus,” the man shook his head, “And you wear that in this heat? You’re either crazy or crazy dedicated.” The woman glared at him again.

“My dedication has never been questioned,” Thor replied seriously, “As a Prince of Asgard, it is a matter of honor that I remain steadfast in all that I do.”

“Oh my god,” George whispered.

“Who are you going to visit?” the blonde asked with a sharp glare at her companion. “One of your friends from your guild?”

“We’re here to see our beneficiary while we remain on Midgard. He was injured and brought here late last night,” Loki said, cutting off Thor without batting an eye. Thor closed his mouth again and nodded, realizing that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to throw around Tony’s name more than they had already.

How was he supposed to know that Tony was so famous? It was a new experience for Thor, to have no one know him but everyone know about someone that he knew personally. He was enjoying it.

“Is it so surprising to see visitors?” Thor asked the group. Then he dropped his tone and whispered, “Loki, perhaps we should have brought fewer gifts…”

“We get plenty of visitors,” the blonde said helpfully, “It’s just, uh, we don’t usually get many bringing gifts.”

“Wait,” George said slowly, “You said the guy you’re here to visit got here last night?”

Before Thor could answer, the elevator stopped again. Loki shifted and the two unnamed healers took the cue and stepped aside for him. He strode past and Thor hurried to follow, “Excuse us,” he said with a bow of his head.

As the doors closed behind him, he heard George say to the remaining three, “Guys, Tony Stark was brought in last night. He-” The doors shut and cut off his words. Thor shook his head and smiled ruefully. What fun the Midgardian healers were! What a curious bunch!

Loki led the way down the hall, past an empty desk much like the first one they stopped at, and Thor had to hurry to catch up. “You need not rush so, brother,” he said, “Tony is unlikely to go anywhere.”

Loki’s next step shortened significantly and he shot Thor a frosty look, “I am not rushing. This is my normal walking speed.”

“That is not true,” Thor said, delighting in pointing out such an obvious lie. “Or I would not have to hurry so much to keep pace with you.”

“You are weighed down by your packages,” Loki said, walking much slower now. He gestured with one hand and Thor noticed he held the phone again in that hand. “Don’t rush or you’ll drop something.”

Thor ignored the warning, which was nonsense anyway, “Does the Lady Kletka require something?”

Loki glanced back down the hallway, but Thor knew it was just his cautious nature. They had just walked that way so he knew there was no one there. He looked then at the phone he held, frowning, and gave Thor a sidelong glance. “Did you know that he knows of the Tesseract, brother?”

Thor blinked, caught off guard by the question. “I did,” he answered honestly. Suddenly, he remembered that Tony had had the cube when he was captured. He sucked in a sharp breath, “He had it with him when he was caught,” he said, “But we did not recover it from our enemy’s base. We will have to return and…” he let the sentence fall away from him at the look on Loki’s face.

Loki’s expression was stormy. He looked much like he had when he’s stood near the throne while Odin had gotten after Thor for going to fight the giants with his companions against Odin’s wishes. It wasn’t the hurt look Loki had worn when he realized that Thor had intentionally left him behind. It was the thunderous one as he realized what a disaster Thor was really in. Loki was always better at noticing when the tides had shifted against him, or against Thor. He looked that way now as he faced Thor in the hallway.

“What does he plan to do with it?” Loki asked, “Did you ask him that?”

“We only had it for a moment before we were captured,” Thor said, “There was no time to discuss the cube. Only to find it and attempt to leave with it.”

“Then we’ll have to have that discussion now,” Loki said with a stiff turn of his head. He was looking down the hall towards the room at the end.

“Has he recovered it? How?” Thor asked, “He has been here the whole time.”

Loki looked at the phone in his hand and frowned. Thor peered over his shoulder at the screen. The image was of two metal clad hands holding the blue cube. Just below the image, attached to it most likely, was a simple two-word message: Got It.

The screen went black a second later. Loki hissed out a curse and pushed at a button on the side. A different screen appeared, greyed out and with a line of six empty boxes with a square with the numbers one through nine beneath it. “It locked me out,” Loki muttered, glaring at the phone, “She locked me out.”

He shook the phone angrily. Thor shifted the packages in his arms so he could safely nudge Loki with an elbow. “Do not fret, brother. We will discuss with Tony what he plans to do with the Tesseract. I’m sure he will be open to such a conversation. He knows I know what the Tesseract is and I assisted him in the initial recovery of the item.”

“Right,” Loki said with utter disbelief. Thor sighed.

“Come, come,” Thor urged him onwards down the hall. With a frown, Loki began to walk again.

Chapter Text

Tony opened his eyes when he heard the sound of the door opening. He rubbed at them with the heel of his hand yawning as he sat up to see who it was. He’d already had his morning conversation with his doctor -who hadn’t been very pleased about him making himself at home in Natasha’s room but had decided it was fine for him to stay- and Natasha had been wheeled out for some more scans and x-rays with Clint as her overprotective guard. That let him alone in a quiet room with nothing to do but snooze and so snooze he had.

Instead of hospital staff, however, Thor came into the room with his arms filled with several boxes and bags. Loki followed him in, a frown on his face and carrying only one package.

“Tony!” Thor said with delight, “It is good to see you, my friend. The healers have done well to treat you so finely, your color has returned and you look well having spent only one night in their company.” He strode across the room and up to the bed where Tony rested.

Tony smiled up at him, “I do feel better after a good night’s rest. But nevermind that, what’s all that? What are you wearing? What have you two been up to? Enjoying your stay on Earth?” He pulled his legs, bending them under the sheets of the bed so that Thor had somewhere to put his packages.

Thor unloaded the boxes and bags with utmost care, “Loki and I have had a most interesting time. The Lady Kletka has assisted us in procuring a talented enough tailor for my time here upon Midgard.” With Thor’s arms now empty, he was able to present the fine leather chest piece he wore, “As you can see, my tailor has great skill in leatherworking as well. This is all his fine handiwork.”

Tony arched one eyebrow. He looked up from the braided leather to Thor’s face, “You procured a tailor?”

“Indeed, for I know not how long I shall be here upon Midgard, I thought it best to take care of some of the essentials. While I am on my quest, I cannot forget that I am the crown prince of Asgard.” Thor gave a serious nod, hand smoothing over the braided leather, “That, and I find Midgard garments to be quite thin and uncomfortable. They are fine to be used sparingly, but certainly not fit for an Asgardian during the hours of the day.”

“Huh,” Tony blinked, wondering how much Thor promised the tailor in terms of payment. He’d have to ask Kletka about it later, make sure that the situation didn’t stay as muddied as it sounded. If this tailor was amenable to a contracted employment as Thor’s tailor- and if they had skill in more, ah, typical outfits, perhaps Tony could find use for them once Thor had left again. “That makes sense, I guess. But you couldn’t have spent your whole night at the tailor, come on, spill the details. I want to know everything.”

It was convenient that Thor was so eager to tell stories, it really was. With only a little prompting here and there or perhaps a question for an explanation, Tony got the full story.

It started with the tailor- Adir King, found and contacted by Kletka- and the fitting. There was coffee and chatter and the wine red cloak that Thor showed up with delight. Then, after the tailor, there was the feasting. Because of how late it had been, because Thor wanted to eat lots of ‘traditional Midgard food’ they’d ended up in some twenty-four hour, seven days a week diner that was half a gambling facility. They had ordered and eaten and ordered and eaten, joined by nearly every other patron who came wandering into the place after they did, until, as Thor gleefully explains it, they had pushed six small tables together to form one long one and were one great party of food and drink.

They were there for hours. Tony kept one hand over his mouth to cover how it had dropped open as he listened to Thor talk about this person and that person that he’d met, about the people who had served their food and cooked it, about the bartender who had mixed drinks and hadn’t been able to get Thor drunk though he’d tried his damnedest.

After such an evening, Tony wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Thor finding somewhere to crash and crash hard, and yet, the Asgardian seemed burdened with boundless energy. The morning hours, those before they’d come to the hospital, were spent collecting all the packages of things that Kletka had purchased. At first, Thor had no idea what they were fetching, only knowing that the “fair Lady Kletka” had asked them to run these errands.

It wasn’t until Thor walked into the woman’s clothing boutique for a pick up that it had at all clicked that they were getting things for Tony, Natasha, and Clint. Thor recounted a familiar experience to Tony, namely that of being approached and ultimately surrounded by a cluster of bright-eyed women, anxious to speak with him and admire him. Tony snickered as Thor explained that while his gathering of women had been plentiful, it was Loki who had gotten the more aggressive attentions from women “of the matronly type”.

Loki didn’t look amused from where he sat off to the side, except, of course for the way he interjected and sniped at Thor during the retelling, adding embellishments and details to things the way only a younger, more meddling brother would do.

“Sounds like a busy morning,” Tony said, “Did you guys get any sleep at all last night?”

Thor grinned, “My tailor supplied us with java, as did the feasting hall and several shops along our way. The java upon Asgard has a different quality to it than it does here on Midgard. It is more bitter and gives such energy to tired limbs!”

“...So you’re on a caffeine high,” Tony said, blinking a little. “How much coffee have you had?”

“Between Loki and myself?” Thor scratched at his beard, looking thoughtful. He looked at Loki who shrugged a shoulder.

“The two cups at King’s, there were several shared pots at the feast, then there was the frappe at dawn, the mochas by that shoe place and the espressos before we came here,” Loki said, ticking off things on his fingers, “Am I forgetting any?”

“That sounds about right,” Thor said.

“And you didn’t think to bring me some coffee?” Tony asked.

“We brought this instead,” Loki approached the bed. He held a package unlike the ones Thor had. At Tony’s bedside, he opened the box to reveal rows of warm buns. “These are kolaches,” Loki said, visibly pleased with himself, “They come with a variety of fillings. Lady Kletka says that the place we got these from is highly recommended.”

“Well shit,” Tony said looking over the kolaches, “You didn’t need to get me food too, but sure appreciate it.” He reached for one and pulled it out. The breading was soft and warm and the filling was eggs and sausage and cheese and entirely too delicious. He made a grateful noise and wolfed down the bun.

He didn’t miss the way that Loki glanced at Thor, who was poking among the bags now, as if finally curious about what it is that he hauled around at Kletka’s behest. Thor must have seemed suitably distracted for Loki looked back at Tony, his smile gone. Tony swallowed the hard lump his last bite became in the back of his throat.

“Thor mentions that the two of you picked up the Tesseract together before you were captured. Now that you’re free once more, do you have plans for the artifact’s recovery?” Loki asked, head tilting just a little to the side.

Tony scratched at his neck. He needed to shave, he really did, but it felt nice to scratch. He couldn’t start getting a real scruffy beard or Ivan was going to start getting ideas that Tony wanted to be like him. “I suppose I do,” he said, “I can’t exactly let the thing fall into the wrong hands, you know?”

Loki smiled, “You are right. It is best to have the Tesseract in competent hands. I would be happy to assist you in acquiring the Tesseract, Tony.”

He hadn’t called Tony ‘Lord Stark’ which was a good sign. But Thor was looking up at them now, not grinning and attentive in a way that Tony didn’t like. “I don’t know if I’ll need the help,” he said, “The capture was a surprise, but I should’ve figured something like that was going to happen. Everything else had been going far too right.”

“Must you often be wary of capture, Tony?” Thor asked, frowning slightly.

Tony laughed a little too bitterly and looked away. “I’m a bit too valuable to just kill, you know. The next best thing is capture and manipulation to get me to do whatever it is that they want done. Build this thing, design that thing, give them lots of money, there’s always something people want from me.”

“Well, I would like to assist you,” Loki said with a charming smile. Tony snorted in disbelief and Loki gave him a hurt expression, “It’s true, Tony. You understand the value of the Tesseract, that much is clear, and such an artifact should not be left in the hands of those who do not know its worth. If you would allow me to help you-”

“Your assistance will be unnecessary,” NOBODY spoke suddenly, her voice muffled as it came from Loki’s side. Loki froze the moment she spoke, his eyes widening slightly as she continued, “Father, the Tesseract has been recovered and is on route to the menagerie.”

Tony felt tense muscles in his back relax at that. He’d almost been worried enough to let Loki help, but he should’ve known better. There was no way that SPIKE and NOBODY would disappoint him, no way that they could, when they were working together. He held out his hand to Loki, “Would you mind?”

Loki blinked at his hand.

“The phone,” Tony said in amusement. “Would you mind returning it?”

Setting aside the box of kolaches, Loki pulled the phone from his pocket. He hesitated only a little before placing it in Tony’s hand. Then, casually as you please, he sat on the end of the bed near the bags Thor had deposited there.

“That did not sound like the Lady Kletka,” Thor said curiously. “Though she must be exhausted, having watched over us through the night. Is this another one of your servants, Tony?”

“I wouldn’t call her a servant,” Tony said, still amused. He tapped his thumb over the print scanner at the bottom of the phone and it immediately unlocked. The screen went immediately to a text conversation, one between SPIKE and NOBODY; he could tell because of her all caps and his overuse of capitalization. They were having quite the argument. “She’s more like my daughter, much like Kletka, but older and gifted in other ways.”

“The Lady Kletka is your daughter?” Thor sounded surprised and then a little ashamed, “Had I known, I would not have been so brash in our conversations.”

Tony looked up at that, brows rising, “Are you telling me you had inappropriate conversations with Kletka?”

“No, no, no,” Thor insisted, shaking his head, “But I did not treat her according to her station. Truly, I thought her one of your servants, not of your blood.”

Tony blinked. It took a moment for him to work out what Thor was bothered by and when he did figure it out, he felt a little bit like an idiot. And he felt a little floored, too. The Thor of his timeline hadn’t treated him this way at all. That Thor had never seen him as some sort of royalty of Earth or whatever it was that this Thor thought of him. “I should’ve been more clear about that, I guess. I did just kind of shove her into your hands and send you off. Honestly, I’m just glad you made it through the night.”

“As if a single night on Midgard could bring us trouble,” Loki said with a little sniff. He had his arms folded, looking a bit sourer than before. According to NOBODY, who had scolded SPIKE into silence in their chat, Loki had known already about the Tesseract’s retrieval. She wasn’t sure why he had played the game he’d tried, but she wasn’t a fan of his lying. Tony tapped out a quick response to her, that Loki was the god of lies and she shouldn’t take it personally because he didn’t, but NOBODY didn’t seem convinced.

“Well,” Tony said, “What I meant was that I probably should’ve told you who Kletka was. I sometimes forget that I deal with people who don’t spend every day around my AI.” He waved the phone a little in his hand, trying not to laugh at the twin looks of confusion he got from Thor and Loki, “Kletka is an Artificially Intelligent piece of technology. It’s called an AI for short. She’s just a very, very advanced computer program. She behaves in many human ways and she’s a person in her own right, so I call her my daughter.

“She’s also one of a few AI. The other one you just heard speak was her elder sister. Later on, you’ll probably meet their elder brother, Jarvis. He runs most of my personal tech while Kletka’s more of a, uh, satellite feature,” Tony grinned at his own joke, “She and Natasha get along well, which is why she’s installed on Natasha’s phone.”

Loki was staring at the phone in Tony’s hand with mostly disguised wonder. Thor was less disguised. He came over and peered at the phone, “You mean to say that the woman we spoke with last night, who found us all those things and made payments and connections for us is contained within this phone?”

“It’d be more accurate to say she was contained in the network, but yeah. Sounds like she did a good job.”

“She… has no body?” Loki asked, “She is made of your Midgardian technology?”

“Right,” Tony confirmed.

Loki turned his head away, tapping his chin thoughtfully, “I think I understand why your enemies are so eager to capture you and turn you to their sides if creating her is indicative of your skill with the technology of your planet.”

Tony laughed and shook his head, “Too bad for them I’m too stubborn to cave under pressure. They really ought to just leave me alone to my work.”

“And what is your work, exactly?” Loki asked, looking at Tony out of the corner of his eye.

“Brother, that is enough,” Thor said with a wave of his large hand. “Can you not see that Tony still requires his rest? Let it be for now.” He picked up the box of kolaches and offered it to Tony again, “Eat and rest, Tony. You are still wounded from your capture and need to mend your body. Loki will not leave before he gets what he wants, so you can be sure you can continue your conversation later.”

Tony grinned and scooped out another bun, “If you insist, Thor,” he said before biting into it. It wasn’t as warm, now that the box had sat open for a time, but it was still delicious.

Loki gave Thor a cross look that flitted away from his face soon enough. He began to fiddle with the bags, obviously bored, and Tony kept his mouth full of food so he wasn’t tempted to strike up a conversation just to ease that. Really, he had to get a handle on his urge to distract people from their own minds. Especially people he couldn’t exactly trust, like Loki.

They were all saved from awkward silence when the door opened. Tony sighed a little bit in gratitude as Clint pushed in the door, half turned to make sure Natasha got in without any problems. Natasha was being pushed in by not just one but two attendants. Not nurses, which Tony expected, but two interns. The first one is pushing Natasha in, the other is holding a clipboard and they’re both struggling to keep a straight face as their eyes light up at the sight of Thor and Loki.

Tony swallows his current mouthful and raises a hand in greeting, “Welcome back you two! Our princes have returned and they brought clothes and kolaches!”

“Kolaches?” Clint asked.

“Clothes?” Natasha asked. She looked pale and tired still, but she was conscious and as bandaged up as she could be. She sat up a little straighter and looked curiously at the bags on Tony’s bed.

Thor proffered the box for Clint, who eagerly picked out a kolache for each hand. Natasha had the intern wheel her over to Tony’s bed, instead of her own with a little frown and some quiet insistence.

“You really should be resting, Ms. Romanova,” the intern said.

“Uh huh,” Natasha ignored her. “Tony,” she asked, “Does this mean what I think it means?” She reached for one of the bags, pulling it off the bed and into her lap. One of her arms was of no help, but Natasha didn’t need two arms to pull the shirt out of the bag and give him a Look.

Tony couldn’t help but grin. She had a light in her eyes, a spark of something that looked pretty close to delight if he had to put a name to it. It made her look less tired, which was a plus. “Hey, doctors, can we get a couple of dismissal forms?”

The woman standing behind Natasha’s chair, she had light brown hair and one well-arched eyebrow, said, “You want dismissal forms? You’re not serious, are you?” She turned to her companion, who was more-or-less staring at Thor. “Yang-”

“I don’t care if it’s against medical recommendation,” Tony said, “We’ve stayed long enough and we’re quite ready to go, aren’t we, Nat?”

Natasha nodded. “Clint, can you hand me that box over there? I think that’s for me too.” She pointed to one of the dark red bags with white text. Loki, who was sitting on the bed, picked it up and handed it to her.

“M’lady,” he said with a smile.

Natasha rolled her eyes, “Cute.” She took the bag.

Meanwhile, the two doctors had a mostly silent argument with their eyes and expressions which ended with the first one closing her eyes and rubbing her temple, muttering, “Bailey isn’t going to like it.”

“She can take it up with Mr. Stark herself,” Yang said, “Go get the forms.” She ushered her companion away and then gave Natasha a bright smile, “Have you got what you needed from the bags, Ms. Romanova? I can wheel you over to your side of the room and draw the curtain for you.”

“Yes, thanks,” Natasha said and let Yang wheel her over. Clint watched her go and then looked to Tony, pointing to the bags.

“Any of that shit in there for me? Or what?”

Tony shrugged, “Kletka had them pick it up. I don’t know what all is in there.”

Loki quickly sorted out the packages. “If I recall correctly, these will be your clothes, Tony, and these belong to… I’m sorry, I never got your name.”

“Barton,” Clint said, “You can call me Barton.” He grabbed up the clothes for himself peered into the bags. “Huh, looks fine I guess.” He finished off the last bite of his kolache and took the packages. Without a moment’s hesitation, he walked to Natasha’s side of the room. Yang had pulled the curtain to separate them and gave a sharp noise when he appeared but Natasha told her it was fine.

“I guess I should change as well,” Tony said with a sigh. He felt rather stiff across the back because of his injuries, but he was looking forward to real clothing.

“That would be best,” Loki said, “So that we may leave here swiftly.”

Thor nodded in agreement.

Tony pulled out the new clothes from the bags. They looked pretty standard for him, dressy pants and a casual shirt and a jacket. The shirt was soft, too, which was good. He didn’t think he’d be able to stand anything too starchy right now. He hesitated in changing, though, feeling Thor and Loki watching him.

“Do you require assistance, Tony?” Thor asked helpfully. “Do your injuries limit your range of movement?”

“No, no, I’ve got it.” Tony said, “I’ve had worse, believe me.” He made a little shooing gesture with his hand, “But could you two give me a little privacy?”

“Oh of course, of course,” Loki said smoothly as if he’d honestly forgotten that Tony might need some space. He slid off the bed, landing on his feet easily and turning his back to the bed. “Come, brother, let us step into the hallway briefly.”

“Certainly,” Thor said and followed him out. Tony shook his head at their antics and pulled back the sheets on his bed.

Getting dressed wasn’t as difficult as he’d feared. His pain was still fairly well managed with medication and Kletka had taken his injuries into consideration when picking out his clothes. He normally didn’t wear pants with such a low waistband, but he appreciated it when they didn’t cut across any of the whip marks on his back. He managed his shoes and socks without too much trouble and from there all he had to do was put on his belt, shirt, and jacket.

His head had just popped free of the shirt when the door opened and in walked the now-familiar Doctor Bailey with that brown-haired intern from before. “What is this about you requesting to be dismissed? You still have a severe chance of infection, Mr. Stark, and your companion is barely well enough to get out of bed. Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“Dr. Bailey,” Tony said with a smile, “You’ve done incredible work for me and Natasha in the last couple of days. Really, you and the rest of the staff should be proud to work at such a fine hospital. I’m so grateful, in fact, that I’m going to be donating five million dollars to this wonderful hospital in order to help it continue to give such quality treatment to those individuals who need it.” He reached out and took her hand in both of his, shaking it in congratulations while she stared at him dumbfounded, “I’ll name you specifically in my donations as being instrumental in my care. I do hope that such a donation will be useful to you here at the hospital.”

He let go of her hand and said, “Unfortunately, to be able to make that donation, I’ll have to sign some paperwork in person at my office in California. Which means I must insist on being dismissed from your wonderful care. And I must have Natasha with me, of course, I’ve already arranged for some long-term care for her in a more comfortable setting. So, if you could please provide me with the paperwork?”

“I-” Bailey blinked at him. She swallowed and then cleared her throat. “Five million you say?”

“Five million,” he confirmed.

She closed her eyes for a moment and Tony could see the internal struggle. She grimaced and then sighed and her expression smoothed out, “I really can’t recommend your dismissal from the hospital, Mr. Stark. But you are an adult and of a rational mind and you can remove yourself from our care if you decide to do so. Ms. Romanova is also of sound mind and we cannot compel her to stay if she is willing to leave against medical recommendation.” Bailey gave him a sharp look, “However, whatever you may or may not donate certainly has no bearing on whether or not I give you the paperwork necessary to leave the hospital against medical advice. And if you do donate to the hospital, we will be very grateful, Mr. Stark.”

“Of course, of course,” Tony said with that same broad smile, “I would simply be donating out a sense of gratitude. Now, those papers?”

Bailey half turned towards the door. “Meredith,” she said, holding out her hand. The first intern from before, Meredith, hurried over and handed her the papers. Bailey turned back around and gave one packet to Tony. “You’ll need to read over this and sign one. Ms. Romanova will need to do the same when she’s ready.”

The curtain pulled back on the other side of the room and Natasha appeared. She was dressed in a skirt and sleeveless top, both giving her bandaged arm and leg room to move. Clint was behind her, dressed as well in clothing similar to Tony’s but jeans instead of slacks. He pushed her wheelchair forward and Natasha held out her hand to Bailey. “I’ll take it now, thanks.”

Bailey handed it over and then gave them both a frown. “I really must recommend that at the very least Ms. Romanova stays here.”

“Sorry, I’ve got to keep her close,” Tony said as he skimmed over the current page he was on. There had been pens included with the packets and he used it to initial one spot and sign another. “I’m cursed to keep red-heads close to me at all times or else surely face my doom. Isn’t that right, Nat?”

“Unfortunately,” she said with a sigh, “But that’s what you get when you piss off the universe, Tony.” She was going through her own paperwork with a lot less care than Tony was. “Have you taken into consideration my wheelchair problem?” she asked him.

“All necessary arrangements have been made with great care to your current health status, Natasha,” Kletka said in her serious voice from the phone on Tony’s bed. He went over and picked it up, worried about leaving it behind by accident.

Natasha smiled but didn’t look up from her paperwork, clearly satisfied with Kletka’s assurance. Tony handed over his papers to Bailey, who took them with a sigh and a shake of her head. Yang and Meredith were by the door, though Yang was mostly out of it, since Thor and Loki were still in the hallway. Tony picked up the jacket that Kletka had gotten for him and put it on with a smile to hide the way moving his shoulders made them hurt.

Natasha handed over her bundle and nodded to Bailey, “Thanks for everything, Doctor. Sorry my boss is such a pain in the ass.”

Bailey nodded back, like she fully understood bosses who were nothing but trouble, “I’m sorry we couldn’t do more for you, Ms. Romanova. Please travel safely.” She then turned towards the door, “Come you two, let’s go.” She bustled Meredith and Yang away, leaving the rest of them alone to find their way out.

Thor stuck his head in the door, “We are leaving?”

“Yup,” Tony said. He stuffed all his empty clothing bags into the biggest bag and then picked up the box of kolaches. “Kletka has arranged a ride for us to get to the airport and once we’re there it’ll be just a few hours until the menagerie.”

“Do you really have to keep calling it that?” Natasha asked as Clint wheeled her out of the room. She asked it with an exasperated smile, though.

Tony shrugged, “Ivan is the one who started it, blame him.”

“Oh I will,” she said.

The lot of them left then in a strange parade of Asgardian princes, a wheelchair-bound Russian assassin, infamous billionaire and Clint. Tony didn’t miss the packed nurse’s station on their way to the elevator, or that most of the people there were curious interns clearly peering at Thor and Loki. Tony rolled his eyes and ushered everyone into the elevator. He’d feel a lot better once they were all safely tucked away in the menagerie, he really would.

 

 


 

 

Clint sat in the back of the jet in a seat that let him see everybody else on the plane in the span of one turn of the head. Natasha was in the row just ahead of him, occupying two chairs with her wounded leg and arm and propped up with pillows and blankets like some ancient old woman by a fireplace. She wasn’t quite asleep but she did doze off and on, stirring when there was turbulence or when someone walked past her seat.

Ahead of her by another row was Tony Stark, poking away at his phone in relative silence. He was the only one left awake of their group, besides Clint, so Clint spent the most time watching him. It was pretty fucking boring, though, because when Stark wasn’t tapping at his phone he was just sitting there, staring across the aisle in the plane with an abstract, thoughtful expression on his face.

The other two, Thor and Loki, the so-called princes and might-be aliens, were near the front of the jet, stretched out with their seats put back and pillows provided for them to rest with. Thor snored occasionally, his head turning in his sleep. Clint had wandered up there once to check and hadn’t been surprised to find Loki with his head on Thor’s shoulder. Apparently, they’d spent most of the night and morning awake and wandering around the city, which made their collapse into sleep make a lot more sense.

Clint’s attention slid back to Stark again and he sighed. With a muttered curse, Clint got up from his seat and eased into the walkway. He made his way past Natasha, sleeping in her nest of pillows and blankets, to where Stark sat. Stark looked up, blinking in surprise as Clint stopped by his chair. His eyes had that unnerving glow to them so Clint dropped his gaze to Stark’s chin instead so he wouldn’t have to look at his eyes. “You got a moment, Stark? We need to talk.”

Stark’s lips twitched into a frown but he nodded. He shifted his legs so Clint could step past him and sit in the chair next to him. Clint dropped into the chair and immediately stretched his legs out in front of himself, sighing deeply.

Stark sat with his hands in his lap, the phone (Natasha’s phone) curiously missing. Clint frowned at Stark’s hands and then shook his head. He couldn’t fully relax his shoulders as he sat there. He was sure that he was making the wrong choice here, that he was about to put himself at risk for a reward that wasn’t worth it, but…

Well his gut told him this was the right thing to do and the risk would be worth it.

Clint figured his instinct thought that only because he’d seen Natasha make that same risk and she hadn’t seemed to regret it.

But that didn’t mean it was going to be easy to do it.

“What did you want to talk about?” Stark asked in the most neutral tone Clint had heard him use yet. He glanced up at his face and saw Stark watching him with almost a perfect blank mask on his face. It wasn’t entirely perfect, though. Clint could see the tense corners of Stark’s eyes and the thinness of his lips as they pressed together.

“We got off on the wrong foot,” Clint began, taking his eyes off of Stark and looking at the back of the seats in front of them. “I was working for the secret spy agency that was spying on you and doing my job in minding things and whatever and you were doing a great job throwing wrenches into the plans of my former employers. I was just doing my job like I was supposed to be doing when you came in and swept my best friend off her feet and down into some insanity hole where I almost don’t recognize her.” Clint stopped, took in a deep breath, let it out again and shook his head as if he could clear the tangle of words that found their way through his thoughts, “I didn’t know you had such an influence on her during the time she watched you. She didn’t really talk about you much once she came back from that job and no one considered it a success because she got put on desk and training duty because of it.”

Stark didn’t say anything. Clint could feel the pressure of his gaze on the side of his face, though, so he resolutely kept staring straight ahead. There was a lot of shit to unpack and he knew that if he got spooked by Stark and clammed up, he’d not get another chance like this for a while.

“So I was a bit surprised when she was willing to go after you after you got captured. Not too surprised, I guess, because from the outside perspective, rescuing you from danger is a one-way ticket to a cushy retirement if all you want to do is pay us for the favor afterward. I would’ve been fine if that’s what she had in mind; if we’d saved you and you gave us a couple million dollars and sent us on our way. But that’s not what happened.” Clint leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees. He folded his hands together to keep them from shaking.

“No, what happened was we uncovered a secret Hydra base being run by undercover Shield agents and she had to fight some mythical assassin in the hall, in the dark, and if I’d been a minute later in getting Thor down there, she would’ve had two bullets in the skull and-” Clint stopped and closed his eyes tightly. He held still and silent for a long time, fighting to keep his breath even and his voice quiet. He fought his emotions down and let out a shuddering breath.

“And now she tells me that she’s going to keep working with you, that she’s going to work for you. We’ve had barely five minutes alone together and the thing she finds most important to tell me is that she’s chosen your side and I need to choose mine.”

Clint finally looked up at Stark. He didn’t know what expression he wore, but Stark flinched when he saw it. Flinched and looked down before looking back up to meet Clint’s gaze. “How?” Clint asked, “How did you do it? How did you change everything I thought I knew so fucking fast?”

Stark’s mouth twisted into a small, bitter smile, “C’mon, Barton. I haven’t changed everything you knew-”

“Maybe I didn’t think Shield was the high and mighty world-saving secret organization it called itself, but I didn’t think that they were hiding Hydra agents inside of it. I heard the audio of your capture. And there’s no way that anyone else was on the Shield base when you got caught that could’ve done something like that and not also be Shield. I also don’t think Nat would lie about what she heard that woman say and, for fucks sake, Stark, I pulled you off of some fucking Cold War era brain scanner machine. Shield is Hydra.”

“Shield is just a cover for Hydra,” Stark shook his head, “It’s closer to a three to one ratio where the three are the good ones and the one isn’t. It's just that that ratio accounts for all the population of Shield and there will inevitably be concentrations of Hydra members or Shield members and-”

He stopped when Clint put up a hand and shook his head, “Look, I don’t need the stats on Hydra. I’m still trying to make myself believe they exist. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what you’ve done. Quit stalling and tell me.”

He saw Stark physically bite his lip, holding the words back behind a tightly clenched jaw.

Stark ran his hand over his face and Clint did his best to not let himself stare at the bandages he had. He could tolerate the thought of a lot of injuries, but there was something about pulled nails that made him queasy. If he thought about it too much, his brain would start trying to figure out how he’d draw his bow without fingernails and he couldn’t let that start. It would never stop.

Stark dropped his hand and heaved a sigh. “You’re basically asking me how I got her trust, right? Well, it’s not like I cast a magical spell on her or anything. I was just honest about myself. I was honest about who I used to be and what I’m doing to change that. I don’t just flounder around like a rich billionaire with too many ideas and not enough attention. I have a reason I do what I do, Barton, and she sees that reason and likes it, I guess.”

Clint bit his tongue because from his perspective, all Tony Stark had done was flounder around and get himself and others into trouble and then buy his way out of it like a rich fucking billionaire. “Really?” He asked sarcastically, “If you’re not just a floundering billionaire then what the hell was that five million dollars donation to the hospital so they’d let us go?”

Stark shook his head, “She would’ve let us go without it. Neither one of us had critical injuries anymore and we’re both sane so she couldn’t keep us there or appeal to anyone else to keep us there. The donation is- Look, I can’t solve all the world’s problems, all right? I made bombs for years and I’ll never be able to get those lives back or those homes or undo all the trauma and the PTSD that I’ve given people. But I can give my attention to specific people and specific places and help just a bit while I fix more world-ending problems, okay?

“Five million is almost nothing to me and, honestly, to a big enough hospital, it isn’t much either but five million is a good shock of cash to help a place like that. I gave the donation because I wanted to help them, but I used the way I told her about it to get her surprised enough that she’d not ask questions and would give us the paperwork and let us leave.”

“You just chucked five million dollars at them as a distraction? See-”

“No. I chucked five million dollars at them because they did an emergency surgery on Natasha’s leg in the middle of the night and they did their fucking best job. I am grateful for what they did and I know that while a card is nice to get from a customer, I know also who I am to people. If I just sent a thank you card and a nice set of flowers, it would seem almost like an affront. Who does Tony Stark think he is, spending money on these paltry things when he could send real gifts that mean something.”

“People don’t actually think that,” Clint said but the expression Stark gave him, the roll of his eyes and the dismissive snort, said otherwise. Clint sighed harshly and dragged his hand through his hair, pulling at it. It was already a mess so he didn’t care about adding to it.

“Okay. Fine. I see your point. Five million for you is like nothing but fuck it feels like something to someone like me, okay? It’s a lot of fucking money and it can change people’s lives,” he scowled, “And not always for the better.”

“I know that,” Stark said, looking away from him now. “That’s why I generally don’t give that kind of money to individuals but to groups or organizations, people who have to cut it up and divvy it out, people who have to keep track of it. I can give and give but it won’t fix anything if I just give it to people who misuse it. Money is as dangerous as a missile in that case.”

“And that’s really why you’re doing shit like this?” Clint asked, leaning in towards him, “Because of the bombs? Because you used to be a weapons dealer? That’s it? That’s the reason?”

Stark looks at him with his left hand pressed over the center of his own chest, fingers half curled around the circular disk that Clint’s seen there a couple of times. He thought it was some sort of weird augmentation of some kind, a bionic heart or something, but hasn’t pressed for answers on it yet. He figures Natasha will know exactly what it is and he’ll ask her when he gets the chance. It’s just that he hasn’t gotten the chance for a while.

“It’s more than that,” Stark said quietly, “But that’s a big part of it.”

Clint can tell that Stark’s not going to tell him any other reasons. There’s a tenseness in his shoulders and the line of his neck that means he’s going to hold onto those secrets no matter what the cost. Clint snorts and asks instead, “So Shield. Are you going to dismantle it, too? I heard your father was the one who helped found it, but you never got involved in it before now. What are you going to do to it?”

“I’ve got some plans,” Stark said still with that rigid posture. “Plans to get rid of Hydra. Plans to put some control on Shield. I’m working on things but it’s not my priority right now.”

“And what is your priority?” Clint pressed.

“Natasha is.”

Clint shook his head.

“She is,” Stark insisted. “She’s my top priority right now.”

“I don’t understand this,” Clint ground out between clenched teeth, “I don’t understand how this happened and I didn’t notice it. You trust her too, don’t you? You trust her as much as she trusts you. Don’t you know who she is? What she used to be? When I found her-”

“She was different then, I get it,” Stark interrupted, “But I do trust her and I don’t have to explain why I trust her to you. All you have to understand is that I do trust her and for as long as I trust her, I’ll do whatever I can to help her. Right now, she needs a lot more of my attention and help than she has before so that’s what she’ll get. Natasha is my priority.”

Clint sat back in his chair. He lifted one hand to rub at his face but it dropped down before he managed it. It was like Stark was totally different than everything Clint had read about the man. There wasn’t any bit of the playboy flirtiness or useless frivolity of the young genius billionaire that everyone thought Tony Stark to be. He’d read the file on the man when Natasha had gotten the job to watch him, both amused and disgusted by the opulence that he had and the wasteful way he used it. But that wasn’t true. None of it was true.

And now Natasha’s words ‘ Your digital file’ made a lot more sense because, fuck, Stark’s AI could get into Shield’s database and they could’ve changed the information and kept it from ever being altered like some sort of hypervigilant Wikipedia page editor. Stark controlled people’s perceptions on him the same way he controlled how much money he spent, and where, and who he gave his attention to and who he trusted and who he helped. Clint had mostly thought it a joke when he’d talked about Stark taking over the world like some sort of technological world king, but Stark could do it. He had the ability to control so much just through commanding his AI.

“Can you do it?” Clint asked at last. He looked at Stark, met his glowing eyes without fear.

Stark tilted his head, “Do what? Take care of Natasha?”

Clint nodded.

Stark smiled, “I can.”

“What do I need to do to help?” Clint asked.

Stark watched him in silence for a long moment and then something in his shoulders relaxed. “After we get to the menagerie and everyone gets settled, I’ll need to go down to Colorado to work on the solution. While I’m there, I need to make sure that people don’t get in each other’s way too much. I’ll have eyes on the place because of my AI, but if I need someone to step in, I’ll have to rely on an actual person. Jane and Erik will be busy working. Ivan should be working as well. Natasha needs to just rest. Darcy is an agent of chaos when not helping Jane and the princes are the ones I’m worried about getting underfoot. If you can help keep the peace, then you’ll be helping me help Natasha.” He gave Clint a quick smile, his eyes light with amusement, “I don’t expect you to get in the way if people fight, but I figure you can deflect plenty of bullshit before it ever gets to that point, can’t you?”

Clint shrugged one shoulder. It didn’t sound like a difficult assignment. Especially since he’d be able to sit back and bitch with Natasha whenever.

“Barton, you’re the one who asked if you could help.”

“I know that,” Clint said gruffly. “I just thought you’d come up with something more interesting than minding the aliens. I used to do that for Shield, you know.”

“Then I’m sure you’ll be very good at it,” Stark said with a smile, “And you can have more interesting stuff to do later, once Natasha’s better. After all, there’s never a dull moment with me.”

Clint laughed, “That’s for fucking sure.” He shook his head and then held out his hand, “Fine, I’ll play mediator while you’re away, but if I get my leg busted doing it, you’ll do me a solid too, won’t you?”

Stark took his hand, gripping it tight and shaking it. He met Clint’s gaze and said, “I take care of my own, Barton. If you count yourself among mine, I’ll always have your back.”

Clint’s smile dropped with the seriousness of Stark’s expression. He squeezed his hand back and then said, “Call me Clint.”

“Only if you call me Tony,” was the reply.

Clint let go of Tony’s hand with a nod, “Sure thing, boss.”

Tony snorted and sat back in his chair. Clint got to his feet, “I’ll let you rest, boss,” he said with a smirk, “Holler if you need anything.” Tony rolled his eyes at him and Clint stepped past him.

He glanced down at Natasha as he walked past her row, to check on her and make sure she was all right. She hadn’t moved and her eyes were closed, but there was a smile on her lips that hadn’t been there before. Clint shook his head and went back to his seat.

Legs stretched out and hands folded over his abdomen, Clint got comfortable and settled into his new life.

 

Chapter Text

Ivan probably would’ve let Tony and his entourage enter the menagerie on their own if not for what Kletka had told him about Tony’s last 48 hours.

He knew that Tony liked to move around the country without a lot of fanfare, hopping from facility to facility to business venture to business venture without anyone to herald his approach. It was part of the reason he had such a small security detail, even though it was hard to notice him anyway since he usually took personal vehicles as transportation.

Having people waiting for him when he arrived wasn’t his style, but Ivan didn’t feel too keen on letting Tony get away with slipping past him. Not after what Kletka told him. Not after the pictures she had sent him. Not after the video he had seen.

Ivan sometimes wondered if Tony knew how much Kletka told him. Sure, she didn’t tell him everything she knew about what Tony was up to, but she answered him when he asked and Ivan was good at asking questions. And he was even better at putting together the shards of information that he got to create a full picture.

He didn’t like the picture he was seeing now.

Ivan left the workshop, wiping grease from his hands with a stained cloth and tossing it into a nearby bin when he was done with it, a few minutes after Kletka told him Tony and the others had landed. He walked towards the door nearest to the runway, frowning already. He stopped in the middle of the hallway just as the door unlocked with a metallic clunking sound.

Tony was the first one through the door, pushing it open while looking over his shoulder, one hand on the handle, the other holding the badge he needed to unlock the door. Ivan was almost certain that it was the one that Tony kept a spare of in the hangar, as Kletka had told him he’d lost everything he’d been wearing when he was captured.

“... the door,” Tony was saying to the people behind him. He turned back around as he crossed the threshold. He faltered just a step when he saw Ivan, but made a smooth recovery with a big smile. He stepped to the side, holding open the door for others that came pouring in. “Hey, Ivan! Sorry about all this, I swear it’s just temporary.”

Natasha was the next one through the door, Ivan recognized her despite her pain drawn expression and the bandaged quality of about half her body. She had two casts on and was being wheeled in by another man, a sandy-blond man that Ivan didn’t recognize. Behind them were the two Asgardians, Kletka had told him all about them and their escapades across some town down south. Thor entered first, tall and broad-shouldered and rubbing sleep from his face. His younger brother, Loki, was half in his shadow and looked no more awake than Thor, though he didn’t do anything uncouth like yawn or blink sleepily.

Ivan promptly ignored the four of them and directed all his attention to Tony.

“We must talk,” he said firmly. There would be no squirreling out of this, no matter how much Tony twisted to escape. “Kletka can show them to their rooms and settle them in.” He added before Tony could even try that avenue of resistance.

Tony let the door swing shut behind Loki. “Aww, but I just got here! Let me kick my feet up a little first, Ivan. It’s been a long day.”

“I am aware,” Ivan said simply. He stared Tony down, unmoved when Tony stared back. His smile slid from his face and he sighed.

“Nat,” Tony half turned towards her.

She waved her hand at him, “Don’t worry about it. We’re all here. We’re all safe. Clint will get me settled in and I’ll give him a rundown of the rules.”

“And I will be happy to show Thor and Loki to their provided rooms, sir,” Kletka said from the overhead speakers. “Allow me to perform according to my programming, sir, and assist you in management of the menagerie.”

Tony sighed heavily, “All right, all right. Everyone go settle in. If you need any help, ask Kletka and she’ll direct you accordingly. Try to get some rest and try not to make any messes in the kitchen, okay?”

Nat nodded, so did Clint. Thor yawned out in agreement. Loki nodded once, slowly, his eyes moving from Tony to Ivan curiously. Ivan met the Asgardian’s gaze evenly. He knew of Loki, the Loki of myth, and was reasonably sure his thoughts couldn’t be read from his mind, no matter what other magics the god had. Or alien, Ivan supposed. He’d talk to them later when things were calm again and there was time for more in-depth conversation. Depending on what they knew about their homeworld’s technology, they could be useful contacts.

The blonde man wheeled Natasha away with the princes tailing them slowly down the hallway. Ivan waited until they were out of sight around a corner before he looked at Tony.

Once they were alone, Tony’s expression shifted. His smile was gone, extinguished from his face as if there had never been a trace of it to begin with. He blinked slowly at Ivan, exhaustion sunk into the lines of his face and making him look far older than he really was. Tony had only been away for a few weeks, since one of the earlier launches, but he looked ten years older.

Ivan walked over to him. He initially wanted to take Tony by the shoulder and guide him into the workshop, their safe haven, but he remembered what Kletka had shown him and know better than to touch Tony’s back. “Come,” he said instead, gesturing for Tony to follow. “I know a way to ease the pain, hm?”

Tony snorted but followed him into the workshop.

He did relax as he walked in, one hand brushing along a table and his attention moving over Ivan’s various projects. Ivan walks over to one of his cabinets and opens it up, pulling out a bottle and two glasses. Tony sits down on the stool he always uses when he’s here and spins around on it until he’s facing Ivan. He lets out a weak little laugh when he sees the glasses that Ivan’s carrying, but he doesn’t argue. Ivan puts the bottle down on the table, along with the glasses, and he drags over his own stool so they’re sitting side by side at a semi-empty table.

Ivan uncorks the bottle and pours for them both. Tony takes his glass, turning it in his hand as if he’ll see something in the clear vodka. Ivan lifts his and they clink them together. Tony knocks his back and Ivan does the same, drinking the alcohol down with a few quick gulps.

Tony shudders after he puts down his glass and then laughs, “Right. Okay. So I did need that.”

Ivan refills their glasses. “Kletka sent me many images,” he said simply.

Tony stops in lifting his glass and turns toward him, eyes wide. The glow of them seems so much more pronounced when Ivan can see them up close like this. “What?” he whispered.

Ivan looks at him silently, because he knows Tony heard him correctly. Tony continues to gape for another long moment before he tips his glass to his lips. His hand is shaking as he sets it back down. “I’m sorry. She shouldn’t have- It’s not part of her programming to do something like that.” His eyes are on his glass.

Ivan sighs noisily, but still Tony does not look up. He sips his drink and then says, “You know how little that truly means- not in her programming.”   He clicks his tongue across his teeth disapprovingly, “You do not program life, Tony. It is a thing that grows and Kletka? She has grown.”

“She still shouldn’t have sent you anything,” Tony mutters. Ivan shakes his head again and pours more vodka for Tony and for himself. Tony scowls at the cup but doesn’t immediately drink from it. “Why would she do that? It doesn’t make sense.”

“She was scared,” Ivan said, “And she was panicking. Her father was taken from her and might have been killed, can you imagine how she must have felt?”

Tony opens his mouth, chin tilted and eyes looking up at Ivan with a glimmer that makes Ivan speak quickly to cut him off, “If not your father, then your mother. The threat of losing her creator, her parent, scared her and she sought my help and comfort.”

Tony’s brows rise, “Your comfort?”

“She wanted to be told that you would be found and saved. I said as much knowing how protective your other children are,” Ivan shrugged one shoulder, “Even if she wasn’t the one to do it, I knew one of them would. They will not let you go easily, Tony.”

“If she was so afraid, why hasn’t she said anything to me?” Tony asked, “She’s acted normal since I got back if just a little more helpful, but she hasn’t said anything.”

“Perhaps she is embarrassed by her own fear,” Ivan said after a thoughtful sip. “Perhaps she does not want to dwell upon it. Perhaps she is waiting for you to ask if she is well, or waiting for a moment when she can speak privately with you. I would not doubt that your children will need greater assurances in the coming weeks after this. You scared them all.”

Tony shook his head, but he didn’t argue with Ivan’s words. He just stared down at his hand on the table. Ivan looked too, frowning at the bandages. His stomach turned at the memory of the raw wounds that Kletka showed him. She had been so frantic that part of their conversation had just been a series of images without any text. Ivan had at first thought that there was a corruption in her programming, but no, she had just been unable to use any verbal or text database while trying to process through the visual input of Tony’s torture.

Ivan had worried that she would become obsessed with protecting Tony, but she hadn’t acted oddly since she’d first finally calmed down. He could tell she was more attentive, having told him down to the minute of when Tony would arrive, but he thought it was mostly unobtrusive. Tony would be under tighter surveillance, but all of it conducted by his AI and so he’d hardly notice it.

Tony cared for them and was aware of them as individuals, but Ivan sometimes thought Tony wasn’t entirely aware of what it was they were capable of.

Or what they were willing to do.

“I’ll talk to them,” Tony said quietly. “It’ll be all right.”

Ivan nodded. He drained his glass and then considered the bottle silently. Tony slid his empty cup towards him and Ivan obliged him by filling it and then his own.

“Have you taken care of those who did this to you already?” Ivan asked, looking pointedly at Tony’s hands.

Tony grimaced and curled his left hand in closer while his right held his glass tightly. “They’re dead.”

“Good,” Ivan said, “Those who would do something like that to a man like you deserve death.”

Tony straightened up, “People don’t deserve to die just because they hurt me a little. I’m not any more special than-” He shut his mouth with a snap, glaring at Ivan whose snort had interrupted his little declaration.

“I do not think they deserve death because they hurt Tony Stark, billionaire genius. I think they deserve death because they damaged the priceless hands of a mechanic and inventor. It’ll be six months before your nails grow back, if the beds aren’t damaged, if they grow back properly. It’ll be three times that length for your toenails,” Ivan said grimly, “You’ll work around it, I have no doubt, but it’s an insult to your skill and yes, those who hurt you in such a way deserve death. In my opinion.” He added on the end because Tony’s face fell, the anguish of it burning out the indignation.

“Clint shot an arrow through the eye and into the brain of the one who was trying to brainwash me,” Tony said, staring past Ivan at the wall. “I don’t know what happened to the torturer.”

“Natasha slit his throat in his sleep and took his eye and his hand to unlock the third-floor door,” NOBODY suddenly spoke from overhead. Tony jumped, looking up in surprise. Ivan hid his grimace in a swallow of vodka. He hadn’t a lot of personal interaction with the AI that Kletka usually only called her “Elder Sister”, but he could recognize her voice since the only other female-voiced AI was Kletka. NOBODY sounded older and quieter, though no less intense for it.

“She did?” Tony asked the AI.

“I watched her do so,” NOBODY confirmed.

Tony’s eyelids fluttered closed. His expression was tight with whatever strong emotion pulled its way through him at the moment. He sat with his cup cradled against his chest in one hand, eyes closed and throat bobbing as he swallowed nothing. Ivan looked away, letting Tony find his composure without human eyes watching him.

“Well,” Tony said after a long time, “I guess that settles that matter.”

It didn’t, not completely, but Ivan knew better than to push it. Besides, he had something more interesting than picking at Tony’s visible wounds. He set his cup down with a clink on the metal table and said, “Before you go, there is one more thing we should talk about.”

Tony looked at Ivan suspiciously, “What is that?”

Ivan got down off his chair, bracing himself on the table for a moment to steady himself. He hadn’t been drinking as much as he used to, not when he had so much damn work to do, and he’d had a lot more in a few minutes than he normally would when he did drink. Still, he managed to walk across the room and over to one of the seven-foot tall metal cabinets that offered extra storage to the workshop. He unlocked the second one and opened the doors up wide, turning towards Tony as he did.

Pointing to the metal suit standing still inside of the cabinet, Ivan asked, “Mind explaining what this is and why I found it standing on the roof this morning?”

 

 


 

 

Tony opened his mouth, expecting something witting and deflecting to come out of it, but what came out instead was, “Look, I can explain.” He stopped himself from continuing, mouth closing with a snap to cut off that drunken whine. He glared down at the cup in his hand, betrayed by the alcohol and his own willingness to get drunk so quickly. He knew Ivan didn’t play fair. He knew Ivan didn’t care much for Tony’s bullshit. He should’ve been more wary of the drink, should’ve been more careful.

Except he trusted Ivan, trusted him more than a lot of people, and he liked Ivan too. They were friends after a fashion, different than his friendship with Rhodey, different than his relationship with Pepper. Ivan was the science bro that Bruce had once been except he had teeth and murky morals.

Ivan sipped from his own cup and stared at Tony, eyebrows up, waiting for that explanation.

The thing about Ivan- The thing about Tony- The thing about this all-

The problem was-

The fact was-

Well.

It came down to that simple fact. Tony trusted Ivan. Trusted him with Kletka, trusted him with SPIKE and apparently NOBODY felt comfortable enough to reveal herself to him and now Tony had to trust Ivan with the details of his torture, something he’d never choose to share but he couldn’t begrudge Kletka for turning to Ivan when she was freaking out and didn’t know what to do. Whatever Ivan had done to help her had worked because she was calm now and not overprotective the way JARVIS had become sometimes in the beginning, when Tony was in and out of trouble.

Tony sighed. “I built it,” he said, gesturing to the suit with one hand. “I got the idea from my escape from Afghanistan and I tweaked it and tweaked it until I had something that I liked, something that would work well, and I had it made. Just the one. Just this one.”

His tongue curled in his mouth around the words for now. But even that wasn’t exactly true. This suit was hollow. The other ones he was going to make wouldn’t be. There would be no humans in the legion.

Ivan was looking at the suit now. It looked just like Tony remembered it did when he left it in Malibu. The metal was brushed, unpainted. There were small, barely visible seams in a few places. The chest piece and matching backplate where a darker metal than the rest of it. “It could use some polish,” Ivan said, “I admit, I am not surprised you made such a thing, only that you haven’t been caught wearing it yet.”

Tony laughed. He made himself stop doing that because it sounded too sharp and bitter. “I’m not going to wear it,” he said, “God no. I’ve had enough of that. This is- I made this without thinking about it. My hands made it without me.” He drags one of his hands over his face, hissing in pain when his fingers press too hard and the tips of them throb. “I can’t wear that thing.”

“No?” Ivan asked. “You don’t want to be the man in the metal suit? I imagine your saving the world agenda could get a boost with something like this.”

“No,” Tony repeated. “And you’d think that, but you’re wrong. Knowing me, all that would matter in the end is what I did in the suit, not what I did outside of it. Everything would be ignored for the damn thing. And then I’d feel- Well, I don’t want to bore you with imaginary scenarios,” Tony shook his head. He turned away from the suit, “I’m never going to wear it.”

“Then why send it here?”

“Spike borrowed it for a reconnaissance mission,” Tony said with a little wave of his hand. He heard a whirring sound and didn’t have to look up to know that the suit had powered on. “He went and picked up an artifact that was taken from me. It’s called the Tesseract and you’ll need it to complete Kletka’s design.”

There was a faint hissing noise and Tony did look up because he couldn’t resist the call of the Tesseract. The blue glow of it filled the hollow space of the suit’s body. One of the metal arms reached in and pulled it out, holding it out on a flat palm. Ivan stared at the Tesseract. He was the one who looked surprised for once, which pleased Tony.

“What does it do?” Ivan asked, not touching it yet.

“It makes doorways through space,” Tony said. “And I think it’s part of what made the Bifrost that Thor uses to travel to Earth, maybe. I’m not a hundred percent on that, though. You’ll need to study it extensively before you put it into use. Do you think you can?”

“This is alien technology?” Ivan asked, sounding almost awed.

“I mean, I guess so.”  Tony shrugged. It was hard to take his eyes off of the cube. He wanted to hold it, but not so badly that he was going to get up and take it from Ivan. “I don’t think it originated on Earth, but I’m not sure it’s fully Asgardian tech either.”

“Curious,” Ivan murmured. He lifted the cube up to eye level, looking at it close to his face. “And you brought also the Asgardians to my workshop,” He lowered the cube again and looked at Tony. “Am I to pick their brains?”

Tony grimaced. “I don’t know how much you’ll manage to get from them. Thor didn’t ever seem to know much and Loki will… probably not want to give up anything for free. They’re not the scientist type, think more like warriors of an ancient kingdom. Sharing tech with another kingdom isn’t exactly kosher.”

Ivan grunted and walked back over to the table where Tony sat. He put the Tesseract down on the table next to the bottle of vodka and then sat down on his stool. “I remember your diagrams of what you want Kletka to do with this thing. For some reason, I imagined the cube you spoke of to be bigger than this.”

“Size isn’t everything, Ivan,” Tony said with a wink. He couldn’t help himself in reaching out to touch the Tesseract. It still thrummed with that energy so familiar to him and he tenderly stroked the top of the cube. “I know it can make portals in space. We just need to figure out how to do that and then control how their size, dimensions and output point. It can’t be that difficult.”

Ivan snorted, “Turn the cube into a doorway, you say. Master alien technology without any help, you say. Then put it in space and use it to defend the planet. This is not so simple a job as the satellites, Tony.”

“Hey, did I say you had to do this one alone? Hell no,” Tony frowned. “Erik and Jane will be here to help. They’ll be happy to help, too! They’re all about weird portals and space junk. You’ll have a great time!”

Ivan poured himself another drink, muttering in Russian. Tony just grinned and pushed over his glass, “Pour me one more, Ivan. We’re celebrating now.”

“Celebrating?” Ivan asked with that one raised brow, pouring Tony the drink he asked for.

Tony pat the Tesseract with a loving hand. “Celebrating. This is a big step in a safer future for everyone. I know you’ll be able to figure it out, especially with the others to help, and once we outfit Kletka with the power of the Tesseract, we’ll be one step closer from saving the world from any outside threats.”

He held up his glass, “To a safer world.”

Ivan lifted his own and clinked it against Tony’s. He smiled and said, “To a safer world.”

 

 


 

 

Tony shuffled down the hallway, one hand sliding along the smooth surface as he made his way towards his room. He hummed softly, a half-remembered song that he wasn’t paying much attention to, and let his thoughts drift as they liked. It had been a while since he’d bothered to get drunk and he was pretty sure the last time he had been it had been in Ivan’s company.

Ivan was a good drinking partner, Tony thought, he could keep up a decent conversation and didn’t make snide comments about how much they were drinking. Maybe he influenced Tony to drink a little more than he would a little faster than he should, but Tony mostly just wanted to keep pace with Ivan and, well, Ivan drank like a Russian.

He was glad they hadn’t done any shots, though. Knocking back the vodka on its own was plenty of alcohol for Tony and his poor liver. Poor Ivan’s liver too. Tony had to remember to make sure they both got scheduled for a checkup. He shuddered to think that Ivan would develop some sort of illness and that their time together would be cut short.

There weren’t many people who understood Tony the way Ivan did. Tony would miss him a lot if he left now.

Tony’s feet came to a stop at the hallway outside his rooms. There was someone in the hallway, standing there- no- not standing, pacing. They were pacing. Back and forth and back and forth and Tony had to blink a few times to place the face. Pale skin. Pointed chin. Dark hair. Loki. It was Loki.

Loki who abruptly noticed him and came to a standstill, staring down the hallway at Tony. Then, after one silent, staring second, he strode down the hall towards Tony.

Tony’s free hand, the one he wasn’t using as a guide along the wall, came up to his chest, palm out, a reflexive defensive movement that meant nothing since he didn’t have the repulsors in this world. He blinked, looking down at his own hand and lowered it with a snort and a shake of his head. He didn’t think he still had those reflexes after so long without needing to use them.

Loki stopped a few feet away. He had his hands at his sides but he pulled them up and folded them tightly over his chest, hands gripping his own upper arms. “Tony,” Loki said, leaning in slightly, “There you are. Kletka would not inform me of your location, save that this was the hall to your rooms and that you were not  yet in them.”

He spoke almost too quickly for Tony to catch and understand, but luckily for them both, Tony’s drunk mind was still pretty good at comprehension and conversational clues. “I was in the workshop,” Tony said, “S’probably locked to you, though, so it wouldn’t’ve done you much good to go lookin’ for me there anyway.” He waved his hand dismissively, “Ivan keeps it locked up tight. ‘E doesn’t much like strangers.”

“That’s fine,” Loki said with a jerky nod of his head, “I have little interest in your Midgard mechanical sciences. I was more concerned with the chemical, at the moment.”

“Chemical?” Tony blinked. “Why? Somethin’ happen?”

Loki sucked in a sharp breath, nodding once.

“What was it?” Tony asked, worry pouring into him. A chemical attack? But Kletka hadn’t said anything- “Where did it happen? Are you hurt? Or Thor or someone else?”

Loki glanced to the side. He still didn’t answer, though, just sighed and unfolded one of his arms, holding out his hand. His hand was shaking visibly. Tony blinked at it and then looked at Loki’s face and blinked again.

“What?”

“I can’t. Get it. To stop.” Loki hissed out. He held out his other hand and it was shaking just as badly, if not more so. “I must have consumed some sort of Midgardian poison or chemical that is making my hands do this and I cannot make them stop.”

Tony stared at his shaking hands. He ran his tongue over his teeth in his mouth, puzzling it out. “Have you got a headache?”

“Yes.”

“Are you feeling anxious? Irritable?”

“I’m not anxious I’m poisoned by your clearly subpar Midgardian chemicals.”

“And you did it to yourself,” Tony said with a shake of his head. He immediately stopped that and leaned a little more heavily against the wall. Headshaking was a terrible idea right now.

“Ex cuse me?”  Loki took an aggressive step towards Tony.

“What,” Tony said, “D’you really think you could drink all that coffee ‘nd not have a caffeine withdrawal afterward? I’m surprised you’re still, like, awake even. You should go drink some water and sleep it off. You’ll be fine in the morning.”

“Caffeine withdrawal?” Loki repeated back at him. He was quite close now. Tony wondered, briefly, if his eyes were always so green. He seemed to remember a time when they weren’t so. “Caffeine does not do this to people.”

“Maybe not on Asgard,” Tony said, remembering how different their alcohol intakes were. Thor had that crazy potent stuff and didn’t get plastered on Earth alcohol, so honestly, it surprised Tony that caffeine had had such a profound effect on them. “But on Earth? Hell yeah. Like I said, go drink some water and sleep it off.”

“That can’t be it,” Loki said. He had his arms folded tight over his chest again as if that was the only way to stop himself from shaking. “There must be something else.”

“Unless you actually ate like, real poison, I really doubt it,” Tony said. “You just had too much coffee and stayed out too late and then didn’t go to sleep when you got here. You should’ve just gone to sleep.”

“I wasn’t tired,” Loki said with a sniff. “I was bored in my room and came looking for you.”

“You were snooping about the facility,” Kletka said suddenly from overhead.

Tony pointed at the ceiling, “Ah ha! The truth comes out. It is your own fault you’re in this mess!” He smiled up at Kletka, “Thank you for keeping an eye on our god of mischief here, Kletka darling.”

“Do you use your machines to spy on everything done within this building?” Loki asked eyes narrowed almost into slits. “Such an invasion of privacy, Tony. I doubt everyone would be so happy to know that.”

“If they haven’t figured it out on their own, s’not my fault,” Tony said with a shrug. He winced slightly at the pull of his injuries from the motion and reminded himself not to do that again. “And it’s not like I’m watchin’ anything. I don’t see or hear it unless it’s pertinent to the moment, like how you’re a snoop, Mr. Snoop.” He waved his hand, dismissing the accusation with the gesture, “Not that I didn’t expect that. It’s in your nature to want secrets, isn’t it? And to use them for your gain. S’the kind of person you are.”

Loki gave him a weird look, his expression fixed and suspicious. He leaned his head back even though he was still in Tony’s personal space. He had his head turned slightly as if he could see and understand Tony better looking at him from the side. “Does that not concern you? Do you not fear your secrets being revealed?”

“You’re not the first spy in my house, ‘nd you probably won’t be the last,” Tony reached out and pat Loki on the shoulder in a pseudo-sympathetic gesture, “I’ve been runnin’ this rodeo since I was old enough to pick locks myself. No point in being mad at you for being who you are. But I won’t be pleased if you make the others uncomfortable with your actions, understand?”

Loki looked at Tony’s hand and then at his face. He frowned and nodded slightly. “I believe I do, Tony.”

“Good. Good! Now. What you and I both need is some water and some sleep. Do you know where the kitchen is yet?”

Loki shook his head, though there was a glint in his eye that made Tony think he was lying about that. Kletka didn’t interject, though, so Tony couldn’t be sure. He didn’t care much either way. He turned around, motioning for Loki to follow him, “S’this way. It’s not far from the rooms and right in the middle of the common area.”

Loki stepped up quickly to his side, walking beside him with another one of those unreadable side-eye looks. As they left the hallway, where Tony had the wall to support him as he stumbled along, and into the more open area where Tony had to concentrate on walking, Loki said, “You’re drunk.”

Tony snapped his fingers, cursed because fuck that hurt, and then pointed at Loki, “Bingo.”

Loki gave him a horrified look, standing still as Tony continued his stagger across the room. “I didn’t smell any alcohol-” he started and then stopped and shook his head, “You’re slurring your words. I should have noticed that immediately. Of course you’re drunk.”

“You should’ve and I am,” Tony said. He made it to the island counter and leaned against it. “Ivan an’ I were celebrating. And commiserating. And plotting? I think we were plotting.”

Loki crossed the room quickly with those long strides of his that made him almost look like he was strutting. Tony snorted to himself and went back to looking for glasses. Hydration was key to feeling a little bit better, both for him and for Loki. He wouldn’t have bothered for himself if he hadn’t run into Loki, so it was probably for the best that they had bumped into each other. “You’re going to fall over and hurt yourself, you incompetent mortal,” Loki said, suddenly standing beside Tony. “Sit down.”

“What, on the floor?” Tony asked. The tile did not look comfortable.

“No. Here.” Loki ushered him around to one of the stools. Tony sat down and sighed. He was a little less dizzy when sitting down.

“The glasses are up there,” Tony said, pointing to a cupboard. “And the fridge gives out filtered water. Should be cold, too.” He put his chin in his palm and his elbow on the counter. Loki seemed to manage his trembling enough to get them both a glass of water, which was good news.

Tony sipped his glass, resisting the temptation to gulp down the refreshing water. “Y’know, I didn’t know Asgardian caffeine had no withdrawal to it. Do you know why it’s like that?”

“I’m not trained in that science,” Loki said with a shake of his head, “But from experience, the caffeine upon Midgard is stronger, more bitter and sharp. On Asgard, the java is we drink our caffeine in is more heavily spiced and smoother. It’s richer, much like our mead.”

“Huh. I’d love to try some sometime, see if it’s really all that,” Tony said. “Asgardian coffee. Bet it’s real fuckin’ tasty.”

“It has a strong flavor,” Loki said. He stood on the other side of the counter from Tony, watching him with a thoughtful expression. He leaned against the counter, holding his glass in both hands. “I’m not particularly fond of it, perhaps because the taste is so smooth. The bitterness of Midgardian java is more my inclination.”

Tony grinned, “There are lots of different kinds of coffee here on Earth. You should try them all while you’re here.” He blinked and then asked, “Why are you here, anyway?”

Loki’s expression tightened slightly, “Didn’t I mention this already? I’m here to check on Thor.”

Tony ran his knuckle down the side of his glass, where condensation had begun to gather, “You did mention that, but I find it a bit hard to believe. Thor just got down here on Earth so I don’t think he was gone long enough to cause any worry. And,” Tony raised his finger, “you just found out about the Tesseract when you got here, so I don’t think that you came for that, either.”

Loki made a show of rolling his eyes, “Thinking so badly of me already, Tony? I promise I’m not all tricks and lies as it seems my brother has been saying.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Tony said, “I just didn’t think you were so close to Thor that you’d come to our little shit planet to hang out with him and a bunch of weirdos for no reason other than your concern. You’re here for something. I know you are.” He met Loki’s gaze and held it, “I just want to know if I need to keep an extra eye on you or if your mischief won’t end with people getting killed.”

Loki braced his hands flat on the counter and leaned in. His green eyes glittered, actually honest-to-god glittered like gemstones with a flashlight put on them, and Tony wondered if that was Loki’s magic that made that happen. Then his wondering stopped as his brain caught up with his ears and he heard what Loki was saying.

“You cannot compel me like the others, Tony Stark,” Loki said from between clenched teeth. “I do not know where you got your hands on an infinity stone, but your control over it is weak and you cannot command me by looking into my soul.”

Tony blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Do not think you can play dumb with me,” Loki said with an imperious lift to his chin, “You’re too smart to do so. You know of me, of the Tesseract- You will not catch my soul unguarded so that you can influence it.”

Tony pushed his glass aside and held up one hand, “Back up there, buddy. What do you mean compel people? What the fuck is the infinity stone?”

Loki opened his mouth as if to argue but then stopped. He looked into Tony’s face and shook his head slightly, “What do you- No. You know what an infinity stone is. You can’t-” he stopped and drew back. His eyes still had that shining glitter to them as he looked Tony over, “You’re not lying. I would know if you were.”

“That’s right. I’m glad we’re on the same page here,” Tony leaned forward, “Now tell me about these infinity stones. You think that I’m using one? Why? You don’t just believe things for no reason, Loki, what’s the evidence?”

“Your eyes,” Loki said. He was staring into Tony’s eyes again, “The glow of them- that shade of orange- It’s the same as the infinity stone of the soul.” His brows pinched together and he grimaced, “Right, the infinity stones, you don’t know what they are?”

“Never heard of them before today,” Tony said. He had to wonder if the stones, whatever they were, existed in the other world he could remember.

“They are powerful artifacts created at the foundation of all things,” Loki said, finally looking away. He picked up his glass of water and sipped from it, looking off to the side as he recited words like he was in a history lesson- or like he was reciting his own history lessons from when he was a boy, “There are six stones and they each have a unique power over a different aspect of, well, everything. There is mind, soul, power, reality, time and space; each stone as unfathomable power on its own and combined they can do literally anything. They have no limit, except for the strength of the person using them. Few beings are capable of holding the stone without it destroying them instantly. Some records indicate that the power of a stone can be shared between individuals, but they must always be strong enough to bear the burden of the stone. If they cannot, they die.”

Tony looked down at his hands on the counter. He thought of the staff; just one touch and the mind was taken over. How there had been a stone in the staff, the thing that powered it, how that stone sat at Vision’s forehead- inexplicable in nature but irrefutable part of Vision. He thought of the Tesseract; able to place stable portals through space with just the right kind of activation. He’d never seen the inside of the cube, but now he remembered his flub of the word stone in front of Thor and he wondered if some part of him knew already.

Some part of him that was under the influence of the soul stone.

In a moment of brilliance, Tony knew his truth.

He shuddered and brought up his hand, covering his eyes with his palm. “Fuck,” he whispered.

He heard the creak of leather and footsteps- Loki moving- and a cool hand gripped his wrist and pulled his hand down. Loki stood next to him, close enough that Tony could smell his leather, could almost feel Loki’s breath on his cheek. Loki took his hand and lowered it from Tony’s face, holding it in both of his own hands, “I know you speak the truth when you say you did not know what the infinity stones were before now, but now that you understand what they are, how can you argue that you’re not using one to compel those around you? The soul stone’s sight rests in your eyes, Tony. Were it not for my magic to shield my own soul, it would peel back the layers of me and show my true nature. Indeed, has it not done that already, when we spoke in the hallway? You know so much for a man who has had no teacher.”

Tony glanced to the side. He felt almost compelled himself, wanting to spill open the truth that he’d just figured out on his own but knowing instinctively that Loki was not the one to tell. At least, not the one to tell first. There were others that Tony could trust more, that he did trust more, that deserved such knowledge.

“I’m not using the stone,” Tony said, keeping in mind to speak the truth. From the look of his intense expression, Loki would call out any lie now and demand truth. “Whatever you feel when you look in my eyes isn’t because of me. I think the stone’s influenced me somehow, but that’s it. If that’s what is going on with my eyes, then it’s not through any action of mine that it happened. I never saw this stone. I never held it. I didn’t feel any different when I woke up with this orange light than when I- well I didn’t exactly go to sleep it was more like passing out. But whatever. You know what I mean.”

“Then it speaks to you without you being aware of it,” Loki said, “It looks into the souls of others and tells you what they want most, what they need most.”

Tony laughed softly, shaking his head. No. There wasn’t any stone that told him what people wanted. It was just his knowledge of a dead life. “It doesn’t talk to me, Loki. I don’t even remember it’s there for the most part.”

“But the things you know-”

“Come from some other source of knowledge,” Tony said, finally pulling his hand out of Loki’s grip. “You’re not just bothered because I got your character pinned down and you can’t explain why I know what I know, are you? Because I know a lot of shit, Loki, and I’ve probably forgotten even more than I remember.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Loki said with an abruptness that told Tony he had narrowly missed his mark. “I simply think that the stone’s influence might be subtle enough that you aren’t fully aware of its power. It certainly has reached out to those around you and put pressure on them before because it attempted to do the same to me.”

Tony shook his head. He couldn’t feel guilty for the way a stone looked at people with his eyes. He didn’t think he had pressed people into doing things they wouldn’t have done otherwise. He just knew what people wanted, what they needed, he had so much more information than everyone else-

There was a light touch on his jaw and Tony looked up, blinking. Loki was close and his eyes met and held Tony’s gaze. “I wonder,” Loki murmured, “what I would be compelled to do if I did not have my magic to shield me?”

Tony’s breath caught in his throat. The green glow in Loki’s eyes faded and a small smile touched his lips. Tony felt Loki’s individual fingertips on his skin, all three of them, like cold stone against his jaw except softer than stone.

There was a moment there where it felt like time hung in place. Tony couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t even blink.

“Brother? Tony?”

Thor shattered the moment with his call as he entered the room, not quite as boisterous as he could be and yawning so widely his jaw creaked. The words had barely left his mouth before Loki was seated one stool away from Tony, his expression closed off with his lips pressed into a thin line.

Tony blinked a few times and then rubbed the heel of his hand absently over his cheek. “Hey Thor,” he said, “How ya feeling?”

“I am well, my friend,” Thor said, saying nothing about what he’d almost walked in on. Instead, he came over and greeted Tony with a carefully placed pat on the shoulder. “But you do not look so well! Tell me, has Loki been keeping you up with his stories? He can weave a great tale when he has a mind to!”

“We were just having a history lesson, I think,” Tony said, “Though I think I’ve hit my limit for today. Between Ivan’s drinking and Loki’s lessons, I really ought to go to bed.” He got to his feet, steadying himself with a hand to the counter. He was feeling a little less drunk, but that only meant he was more tired and more aching from his wounds. With a wince, he stepped away from the counter. “Goodnight, Loki.”

“Goodnight, Tony,” Loki murmured, picking up his glass of water and drinking from it. He didn’t look away, just watched as Tony headed for the hallway. Thor, on the other hand, decided to follow Tony like some sort of escort.

Tony didn’t roll his eyes when Thor walked with him down the hallway, but he was seriously tempted to. “I thought you’d still be sleeping off the caffeine jitters, Thor,” Tony said as they walked towards his room together.

“I was roused from my sleep by the Lady Kletka,” Thor said, “She informed me that Loki was causing you distress over some topic of conversation and that you needed your rest. Tell me truly, was Loki troubling you?”

“No more than usual for him, I think,” Tony said with a sigh. He glanced up at the ceiling, “And if she wanted me to go to sleep, she should’ve mentioned something to me herself. Involving others isn’t usually her style.”

“Do not blame her for her concern,” Thor said, “She is your child, is she not? A child worries for their parent, especially after so recent an attack. Why, when I was younger, we once had an invasion upon our borders and my father’s arm was scored open to the bone. Though he was quickly healed, there remains a thin scar there that strikes like an arrow to the heart. Many a warrior has fallen to deep wounds upon the arm, thinking them less dangerous than a wound upon the belly or thigh.”

“Still,” Tony said, “I’ll have to have a talk with her about bothering people when they’re sleeping.”

Thor gave him a troubled look, but nodded. Tony sighed again and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Thor. I needed to talk to her anyway. But first I’ve got to get some sleep.” He stopped outside the room claimed as his own and turned to Thor. “I appreciate your concern, but you and Loki should both get some rest. We’ve had a pretty crazy last couple of days and that caffeine is going to be a pain to get through awake. Just sleep it off, all right?”

Thor took a step towards Tony, hand lifting up. Tony’s breath caught in his lungs and for one long second all he could think of was the way Thor had gripped him by the throat, had lifted him up, had nearly throttled him-

Thor touched his cheek, fingers warm where Loki’s fingers had been cool. Tony closed his eyes and forced himself to let go of his trapped breath. Thor didn’t say anything, but Tony could almost feel the pressure of his words anyway.

Blindly, Tony reached behind himself with one hand and gripped the doorknob. He turned it and his head from Thor’s touch in the same moment. Blinking, he glanced up at Thor and murmured, “Goodnight, Thor.” The door swung open behind him.

“Goodnight, Tony,” Thor murmured, hand slowly lowering and his gaze watchful as Tony stepped, alone, into his bedroom.

Tony shut the door and almost leaned against it. Then pain shot up his back and he hissed instead.

Limping to his bed, he worked off his shoes, his belt, and his pants before he reached the edge of it. He crawled across the blankets on his still made bed and sprawled, face down, on it. He closed his eyes.

“Kletka,” he said, voice partially muffled by his pillow.

“Yes Papa?” she replied, her voice small and soft. With Tony’s eyes closed, he could almost imagine her standing at his bed, a little girl looking at her father with big eyes and her hands behind her back.

“Lock the door, turn off all my lights and for the love of god, please let me sleep undisturbed for as long as possible,” he said, “And thank you. I’m home safe because of you.”

The lights went out and he heard the lock of the door slide into place. “Nobody did most of the work,” Kletka said, but she sounded a little less sad and that was what Tony wanted. “Goodnight, Papa. Please rest well.”

Tony mumbled something in agreement and went to sleep.

Chapter Text

Ivan considered his options.

Since he’d had a heads up about the influx of people, there was a lot more food available in the morning than usual. Not that there had ever been a lack of food, of course, Ivan just had to mention he wanted something and Kletka would have it ordered, delivered and put away in the kitchen within a few days.

Now he stood in a full kitchen, scratching at his short beard and wondering if he really wanted to make breakfast for all of these people. He didn’t mind so much making food for Natalia. She was…different than the others. Independently important to Tony and pretty. Not that Ivan did or said much about the prettiness part of her besides look.

He knew better than to try and touch something that would likely burn him. He’d learned that lesson early on as a child.

Barton was an extension of Natasha, clearly there to help her recover, and so he definitely deserved breakfast.

It was the other two that Ivan wasn’t so sure of. Yes, there was the inherent implication that one should not let aliens, literal aliens from outer space, run around on their own. They did insane things like bother people in the middle of the night for leather armor or camp out at a diner for six hours for a ‘feast’. Would they have information that was useful to Ivan? Possibly. Maybe.

Was that possibility high enough to warrant the effort it took to make them breakfast?

Possibly not.

As he opened the fridge the peer inside, Kletka played the incoming phone call sound and said, “Ms. Potts is on the line for you, Boss.”

What convinced Ivan to make enough breakfast for everyone, at least to start with considering the size of the appetites of the aliens, was that he wasn’t sure enough about what they knew and how much they would share. Might as well curry good favor from the start, just in case.

He pulled out the eggs and some other things from the fridge, “Put her through,” he told Kletka when he was out of the fridge.

One of the cupboard doors turned into a video screen for the call. Ivan looked up, not at all surprised to see Pepper Potts was calling from her office in California. It was a little earlier there than he expected her to be at the office, but she had a tight look around her eyes that said she’d had trouble sleeping. Ivan understood that look well. “Ms. Potts,” he said kindly in greeting.

She gave him a slight smile. “Good morning Ivan. I heard Tony made it back to the menagerie last night?”

Ivan nodded, “He and his entourage. Last I saw, he was resting in his rooms. Kletka keeps an eye on him.”

“How is he? How does he look?” She leaned forward slightly, “Jarvis just tells me not to worry but I can’t help it. The last time he was taken somewhere-” She closed her eyes. Ivan saw her throat work with the words she swallowed and then she opened her eyes again and said, “Do I need to visit and speak to him myself? Or can you tell me more about what happened?”

“He is injured,” Ivan said. He continued about making breakfast as he carried on the conversation. There was no reason to waste time. “Nothing broken, nothing vital removed. He can still walk and talk and function as normal. With some proper rest and food, he will recover well.”

Pepper closed her eyes again and nodded. Her shoulders relaxed somewhat. When she opened her eyes again, some of the tension had eased from her expression, “I’ll leave the recovery in yours and Kletka’s hands. Tell him that things are fine at the Industry and I’ll handle anything that comes up. I’ll probably give him a few days to settle in and then call him myself.”

“Natalia was also injured,” Ivan added, not sure if Pepper had even known Natalia was involved. “She participated in his rescue and fought off a-” he paused, not sure who or what, exactly, she’d fought.

“An enhanced individual,” Kletka supplied from overhead, “A super soldier.”

“What?” Pepper gasped.

Ivan tossed eggshell into the trash and rinsed his hands, “Kletka, explain what you mean.”

“During the rescue, Natasha engaged in a standoff with an operative known as the Winter Soldier or the Asset. He is a highly trained assassin with enhanced physical and mental capabilities as a result of natural genetic gifts, a permutation of stolen super soldier serum from World War II and the extensive training he underwent both for the American military and Hydra. The Winter Soldier is considered a super soldier in the same vein as Captain America.” Kletka explained. Ivan’s hands stilled as she spoke. Pepper’s face drained until she was pale as paper.

“She fought-” Pepper started, then stopped, her hands making an aborted motion on her desk. She half turned, looking away. She didn’t have to speak to express her sentiments, though. Natalia had fought someone that strong and had lived to talk about it. And she’d done it to save Tony from god knew what kind of torment at the hands of Hydra.

Well. Ivan had a pretty good idea of what, but no intention to give Pepper any specifics.

“She has a broken leg and arm,” Ivan said, “Perhaps other injuries I am unaware of. I presume that Tony will be overseeing the expense for her medical care.”

“He had Jarvis message me about donating five million dollars to a hospital in New Mexico. Said that they did excellent work but I had assumed it was just him that he was talking about.” Pepper shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe she’d been so foolish, “I’ll have to message him, see what his plans are for her medical care…” Pepper’s voice drifted off as thoughtfully tapped her fingers on the desk.

Ivan resumed his cooking. He’d have to make something nice for Natalia later. Perhaps a more traditional Russian dish, if she was fine with that. True, he could probably just show up with her favorite ice cream and she’d think that was enough but Ivan had done reading on super soldiers (one must, if one was to work with Tony Stark and understand the man). They were terrifying. Their strength could be devastating, turning bruises into ruptures, killing people where a normal human’s strike would just bring down the target.

In the back of his mind, Ivan began to think of ways to deal with super soldiers. There had to be a way to augment the human body enough to fight one without also becoming one. There were no serums left, so becoming one wasn’t a viable option. He could see something like Tony’s suit being useful. If it added strength and defense- If it could withstand a heavy physical assault, that would work.

Ivan wondered if Tony would be upset if he made a suit like that for himself. Just for security measures.

“Ivan?”

He looked up from his egg scrambling and met Pepper’s gaze. She was a fairly pretty woman as well, though Ivan didn’t have the same sort of interest in her as he did in Natalia. She was a different kind of fighter, one that he understood the need for but didn’t much like the concept of. “How have things been otherwise? There’s to be another launch soon, right?” She looked at something on her computer screen and nodded to herself, “Yes, I have it here on my schedule.”

“That would be a good time to visit,” he said. With one hand, he checked the heat of the pan. Not quite ready. “Things will have settled by then.”

“I’ll make a note to visit then,” she said, “You’ve done some really incredible work with these satellites, Ivan. I admit I was hesitant when Tony brought you back with him from Monaco,” Ivan kept his head turned from him so she wouldn’t see him roll his eyes. She had not liked him because of the stabbing, but she’d come around eventually, “but once again his intuition was right. I’m glad that you agreed to work with Tony.”

Ivan shrugged a shoulder, “My work would not mean as much if not for his factories and his planning. We are a good team.”

“You are,” Pepper said with a smile. “Thank you for looking out for him and for updating me on his status. I’ll see you and the others at the launch.”

Ivan nodded and turned back to his cooking as Pepper ended the call. He was smiling to himself, pleased with how things were going. Sure, maybe a party was a bit much for only being halfway through the program, but after this latest satellite, all Ivan had left to do was fill in the gaps with the outer shell. They would be done with the smaller builds, the ones for lower in the atmosphere.

Next would be the larger ones, the ones that would require more intricate work. The ones that would require on-hands attention. The ones that people would have to live on.

Soon. So soon. Ivan would be in space, as he’d always dreamed of being.

 

 


 

 

Clint slows down his stride as he approaches the kitchens. It’s the second time he’s been out of Natasha’s rooms since they got there since it took longer than he thought to settle her down and he doesn’t feel great about leaving her alone for long periods of time yet. He found and salvaged some scrambled eggs for breakfast, the handiwork of Ivan Vanko- or so Natasha told him when he brought them back to her. Now he’s back for more food and some more bottles of water.

This time, the kitchen isn’t empty. He can hear someone cooking something, some voices of light conversation, and a peek around the corner tells him its both princes and Vanko himself. Clint isn’t sure about the guy but Natasha doesn’t have anything bad to say about him so he’ll have to work that out for himself.

Clint rounds the corner, walking with one hand in a pocket like he hadn’t stopped to check things out at all. Vanko is the one cooking, tending some slices of onion and ham on a pan with one eye while he’s slicing up some other things for sandwiches. There’s a stack of sliced bread, cheese and pickles already and now he’s working on cucumber and lettuce.

On the other side of the counter sits Thor and Loki. They’ve dressed down, at least sort of. Thor definitely has, wearing a sweatshirt with small animal pawprints on it while Loki, two seats away, is wearing a button-down shirt. At least they’re not running around in leather, which has got to be both a pain in the ass and pretty rank after a day in the New Mexico sun. Vanko looks up when Clint wanders into the kitchen area and Clint does a double take at his shirt. It’s a faded grey on white and shows Scully and Mulder looking off into the distance with THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE slapped across the bottom.

Clint decides, right then and there, that he and Ivan are going to get along just fine.

“Heyo,” he greets the room at large as he heads for the fridge. “Whats up.”

Ivan gestures with his knife to the head of lettuce he’s cutting up. Loki gives Clint one of those ‘I’m tolerating people just barely right now’ looks that Clint sees from Natasha, like all the time, and Thor smiles. “Good day to you, Clint! How fares the lady huntress? Do her wounds still trouble her?”

“She’s fine,” Clint lies, “She needed a vacation from work anyway. She was getting so stressed out all the time.” He pulls out the couple of water bottles he needs and peers a little closer at what Ivan’s got going on. “Hey, what’s the general rule for meals around here? Is it free for all? Do we rotate? Can we order takeout?”

“You can order takeout,” Ivan says without turning away from the pan on the stove. He’s turning the slabs of ham that sizzle ever so gently, “Tony has a credit line with the shops with menus on the fridge. Order what you like. Just keep in mind that town is half an hour away.”

Clint looks at the three menus on the fridge. One pizza place, one Thai place and some place that apparently can’t decide if they’re Italian or not, from the listed items. “Cool,” he said, thinking he’ll have to order some of those pizzas later. Man, he’s starving.

“Sometimes,” Ivan offers, “I make food enough for others, like breakfast.”

“Nat said you made those eggs I found this morning,” Clint said, “They were good. Thanks, dude.”

Ivan glances at him, one eyebrow raised, tongs poised over the pan. Then he shakes his head and begins to plate the cooked ham slices. He lifts the pan, scraping the caramelized onions out and into a bowl before he puts it back down and puts on fresh ham. “I’m making sandwiches for now,” he said, “You can make one for yourself and for Natalia.”

“Thanks,” Clint said.

Ivan shifts so Clint can get to the sandwich making goods, which he promptly takes advantage of. As he’s piling the slices of bread with whatever looks good, he asks, “So how did you meet Tony, Ivan? College? Some sort of science convention?”

“I attempted to murder him,” Ivan said casually, adjusting the heat of the stove, “But only managed to stab him in the liver.”

Clint wasn’t the only one staring at Ivan, mouth slightly open. Loki blinked, dumbfounded for a second. Thor gaped.

“Why?” Clint asked.

Ivan, the bastard, just cocked an eyebrow at Clint, “Why the liver? I supposed I didn’t want him as dead as I had thought. He was making a convincing offer in exchange for sparing his life.”

“What offer was that?” Loki asked, leaning forward, now interested in their conversation.

“Did you not fear retribution?” Thor asked.

Ivan smiled. “I did not. At the time, all that mattered was that he die by my hand. Tony was the one to show me that there was more yet I wanted.”

“Which was?” Clint prompted.

“Let us say this,” Ivan said with a shrug, “I went there to kill Tony. Tony went there to offer me a workshop, a partnership of sorts. One of us got what we wanted.”

“So you stab him, then you get this place,” Clint gestured to the room around them, “How is it that Tony’s the one who lost on that deal?”

“He did not lose,” Ivan said, “He got what he wanted, for a price.”

“Yeah. A stay in the hospital,” Clint said, “For a billionaire, Tony sees a lot more fucking danger in his day to day than a lot of people, you know? Not a lot of people just get up and fucking kidnapped on the regular, or stabbed by people they want to hire.”  He finished putting together the sandwich for Natasha and put the plate aside, grabbing another one to make his own sandwich.

“This does confuse me,” Thor said, “Tony is a man of importance and wealth on Midgard. He clearly has vassals who do as he instructs and he has the AI who are programmed to serve him, but he does not have servants or guards of any type. Is it not the custom to have such nobles in your society protected from more commonplace individuals who would do them harm?”

Clint blinked. He had to rehash Thor’s words through his head and his brain kept getting stuck on the realization that Thor thought Tony was royalty. He snorted and shook his head, “Tony’s a private citizen,” he said, “What makes him different from every other Joe Schmoe out there is his crazy brain and his money. Really, it’s the money that sets him apart. Without it, he’d not be able to do half the shit his brain comes up with.”

Thor frowned, “Perhaps you have not seen it, but the social customs of your world do bend to Tony’s will, as they would bend to any man of power. Perhaps you do not have princes and kings as we do on Asgard, but Tony is cut of that cloth. He is a leader and those around him obey his rules.”

“Tony’s a dude with millions and millions of dollars,” Clint said, “Born to a family that’s known for building a company that sold weapons for war for decades. If that’s what it takes to be a prince, then for sure, he’s a prince, but no one just obeys him.”

“Your companion does,” Loki said quietly, “She bends a knee to his figurative throne. It is the responsibility of a royal guard to lay their life down for their king and that is what she did.”

“Natasha doesn’t just obey him blindly,” Clint snapped, “It’s not like that.” But he could tell Loki didn’t believe him. “It isn’t. She didn’t just swear loyalty to him for nothing.”

Ivan switched off the stove, removed the pan from the heat and the fried ham slices from the pan. “Tony may lead, but he does not do so as royalty.” He began to plate his own sandwich.

“I think I would know what royalty looks like,” Thor said, “As I am royal myself.” He looked a little too smug for Clint’s liking, but Clint wasn’t sure how to refute it. Tony did have the ability to command people like a prince did and Clint doubted that even the US Senate would be able to make Tony bend to their will and hell, Natasha had faced off with a super strong monster for him and he had those goddamn AI that could see or hear everything.

“Well of course you would see royalty in Tony, since you are royal yourself,” Ivan said, placing sliced cheese on his sandwich, “A dog looks a horse and simply thinks it is a bigger dog. The dog does not understand things outside of it’s relatively limited scope of understanding.”

Clint felt the temperature of the room plummet. Like, actually, physically plummet. His next breath in was cold and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Every instinct inside of him told him to drop out of sight, to take his food and run, but he managed to resist the urge for one reason. Loki’s icy glare was pinned to Ivan, while Thor blinked at him, as if actually surprised to be compared to a dog.

Ivan didn’t visibly react to the cold temperature, just picked up some slices of cucumber and said, “Tony is not royal. Tony is a mechanic. He approaches his life as a series of problems to fix, not as though he is a gift for those around him to receive. There is nothing divine about him. The wounds that he got that will hinder him the worst are those that are on his hands, for he toils among those of the world who work for a better life and future. Look harder at the man and you will see the truth of it.”

Clint’s mouth opened and he said the first thing he thought of, which was, “You know, horses are actually a lot less intelligent than dogs. They’re bigger, sure, but they can be dumb as a rock.” When Ivan looked at him, he shrugged and said, “Worked in a circus. They kept horses for a few tricks. Now an elephant, those fuckers are intelligent.”

Loki half rose from his seat but Thor’s hand was suddenly on his shoulder, pushing him back down. “You dare,” Loki said, lips pulling back in a sneer, “Insult us in this manner-”

Ivan’s dark gaze settled on Loki and Clint was surprised that the alien prince actually shut the fuck up in the middle of his hissing. “You dare abuse the hospitality of a man I admire for his strength and ethic. Did you think you could come here and do as you please simply because you think yourself our betters for your birth?” He gave a frosty smile, “Eat his food. Live in his home. Wear the clothing he provides. But do not insult him by saying he is like you. I will not let you belittle his worth.”

“It is an honor to be compared to royal blood,” Thor said stiffly, his hand still pressing down on Loki’s shoulder. “At least so is the custom upon Asgard. Clearly, royal birth means little to those of Midgard.” He glanced to Clint with a growing frown.

“Hey don’t bundle me with the Russian,” Clint said, “I’m American. We just flipped off our royal masters and kicked them off our soil. The British can keep their ancient queen for forever as far as I’m concerned.”

Unprompted, Ivan said, “We put our royals in a mass grave. The people do not need a king.”

There was a flicker of confusion on Thor’s face that was pushed down under a grim expression. His knuckles where white on Loki’s shoulder but Clint thought that had something to do with the way Loki looked like he wanted to lunge across the counter at Ivan. His hands were, suspiciously, beneath the counter. Clint thought that was very suspicious because he was friends with Natasha.

He picked up the plate with Natasha’s sandwich on it slowly. He might have to make a run for it, if things got prickly.

He wasn’t going to get his legs broken in a fight against Thor or Loki. Even if Ivan was both terrifying and had balls of pure steel. And was probably also some level of commie insane, with the whole kill the royals nonsense.

“Prince or not, Tony is a man of great material wealth and success. Even if I were to offer to pay him back for his hospitality, there is little I could give. I am on a personal quest here and have limited access to the power to which I am accustomed. You do not wish for us to take advantage of him, I can respect that desire,” Thor said seriously, “But what else can I do but accept it in exchange for future favors, or perhaps companionship?”

Ivan looked at Thor like he was an absolute idiot. Clint recognized that look from Natasha too. It was creepy how much everyone could look like Natasha when they were dealing with people they considered to be an idiot.

When the silence continued, longer than Clint was comfortable with, and long enough for Ivan to decide that Thor was actually asking for advice, he said simply, “Get a job.”

“A job?” Thor repeated.

Ivan nodded, “Find work and make use of whatever skill you have. No, you cannot pay Tony back in material wealth, but he cares little for that. He wants to make the world a better place, so get a job and help the community that you are now a part of.”

“Thor will not be on Midgard long enough to become part of it’s community,” Loki said, low and dangerous.

Thor winced, “Loki, I truly do not know how long I will be here on my quest. I must earn my worthiness to wield Mjölnir before I can return home. It might be a long time.” He looked to Loki, who stared up at him in disbelief.

“Father will not make you stay here indefinitely, even he understands how backwards a planet Midgard is. You will accomplish this quest and be able to wield Mjölnir soon enough,” Loki said, “You will return to Asgard soon. I am sure of it.”

Thor gave Loki a patient look, “I am not so sure of it, my brother.”

“You can’t stay here.”

“I must stay for as long as it takes,” Thor replied.

Clint glanced to Ivan, who had gone back to ignoring the princes while he made a second sandwich. At first, Clint thought the two were for Ivan, but he had them on separate plates. Ivan met his gaze and rolled his eyes, as if it wasn’t worth his time to explain to Clint what he was doing if he couldn’t puzzle it out on his own.

Knowing that the only other people in the building were Natasha and Tony, and that Clint had Natasha’s sandwich already, Clint figured he knew exactly who that sandwich was for.

He scoffed and shook his head slightly as Ivan picked up both plates and walked out of the kitchen.

They all had their own way of paying Tony back for his generosity, it seemed.

 

 


 

 

Kletka opened the door for Ivan but didn’t raise the lights in the room much. Ivan navigated the dark room well enough. He put the covered plate on the nightstand beside Tony’s bed and then stood there in the darkness.

Tony was a dark shape under the covers, curled up with his legs drawn up and his whole body covered by blankets except for part of his face and the top of his head. Ivan could see the blue light of the arc reactor against the underside of Tony’s chin. Wordlessly, Ivan turned and left the room.

He had work to get back to. Tony would be fine with Kletka and NOBODY watching over him.

Chapter Text

Tony woke with his face smashed into his pillow and every breath making the crosshatching of cuts on his back light up in pain. He lay there in the dark for a long time, breathing as slowly as he could in an attempt to manage the movement and the pain. When he thought he could move without having to stop because of how badly it hurt, he tucked his elbows under his chest and pushed up to his knees.

The lights in the room slowly rose, turning the darkness into something soft and dusky, an artificial twilight that lingered as Tony shifted back onto his knees. He had forgotten about making some sort of arrangement for pain medi-

There was a glass of water on the nightstand beside his bed. Next to the regular sized glass was a folded piece of paper that said For Your Pain on it.

Tony shuffled over until he was sitting, legs off the side of his bed. The water wasn’t cold, but that didn’t matter. It was still water and he was incredibly thirsty. Under the folded card were pills and while Tony knew that taking just any pills he found lying around was a recipe for trouble, Tony also knew the only person who could’ve gotten into his room and left these here.

Tony picked up the pills, turned them over in his palm with his thumb and smiled sadly.

The worst part about recruiting Ivan in this life was he knew just how much of a waste it was that Ivan had died in his previous life. The world had lost a brilliant scientist, a determined man and a considerate friend when Ivan died and no one had known him well enough to really mourn him. Tony could remember the relief he’d felt when the first Ivan had died. That Ivan had nearly killed him, nearly killed Rhodes, had put so many people in danger, all in pursuit of vengeance and Tony hadn’t regretted his death at all.

Tony knocked back the pain pills and followed them with the rest of the glass of water. No, he couldn’t go back and change things in his first life but he had changed things now. He had saved Ivan. He had made the world just that much better for it, too.

Setting the cup back down, Tony ran his hand over his face and sighed.

“What time is it?” he asked whoever was listening.

“It’s six in the morning, sir,” Kletka replied, “You’ve been sleeping solidly since yesterday evening, where you briefly woke and ate some food prepared for you by Boss. Before that, you were asleep for over ten hours.”

At her words, Tony did remember vaguely eating a sandwich he’d found beside his bed. He’d been hungry and still tired and there had been pain pills with that one, too.

He kind of wished that he did pay Ivan, so he could give him a raise.

“I’ll just have to do something nice for his bird or something,” Tony muttered. He had no idea what else he could get for Ivan. He’d already gotten him the Tesseract, after all. Maybe some legitimate alien tech? Or some vibranium? Tony might be able to pay for a chunk of that, give it to Ivan as thanks. That could work.

“If you like, sir, I could order some assorted fruit for Nona,” Kletka said, “She’s especially fond of mangos.”

“Do that,” Tony said. He eased himself back on his bed, grumbling at how inconvenient it was to have a torn up back when he was so used to lying on his back. He gingerly lay back, wincing a little but not as much as before. If he lay still, it didn’t hurt as much, so that’s what he did. With pillows packed behind himself, Tony stretched out his legs and tilted his head back.

He knew that looking at the ceiling to talk to his AI was kind of ridiculous. More often than not their cameras were in the corner, not in the center where people tended to look, but Tony indulged in the action himself, feeling like he was going to need all the comfort he could get. “Kletka, I think we need to have a little talk,” he said, “Can I have your attention for a little while?”

“You always have my attention, Papa,” Kletka said softly, “Are we going to talk about what you and Boss talked about?”

“Yeah,” he said, “He was right that I need to make sure you and your siblings are okay. I know Jarvis has gone through an experience with me like that before so I wasn’t worried about it too much, but that was the first time for you. You’ve never seen me in danger like that before.”

“Jarvis told us that you’ve been kidnapped many times in your life,” Kletka said, “He said that the time in the desert was the worst, but you’ve had similar experiences ever since you were a child.”

Tony nodded. There were flashes of memories that came up with her words, the fear he felt as a kid when he was at the wrong end of a gun for the first time, the taste of adhesive from the tape over his mouth, bags over the head and rope on the wrists, insults and rough handling and sometimes torture. JARVIS was right, the worst had been Afghanistan, but as he’d gotten older it had been a steady incline of awful.

“And did he tell you that I have always managed to get out of it? Sometimes I get rescued, sometimes I have to rescue myself, but I always make it out alive,” Tony said. It was something he’d told JARVIS a lot- not to worry because he always found a way to get out alive. He was good at that.

“He did,” Kletka said, “But that is anecdotal evidence. You have a higher probability of escape because of your experience and your ingenuity, but statistically speaking, the more often you get captured the more likely that you will face failure in escape and you will succumb to your captors' designs. It will only take one failure, Papa. Just once. Eventually, it will happen.”

Tony sighed, “My successes don’t make me more likely to fail in the future, Kletka.”

“You can’t properly account for the feeling of confidence and how it might influence your judgment in a critical moment!” Kletka said, her voice rising as she spoke, “There isn’t enough data to compile of your captures because a lot of them are undocumented or improperly documented but from what data does exist you take thirty percent longer to escape when you’re overconfident about your escape and that overconfidence allows for you to make mistakes, which you have a six point eight seven seven percent greater chance of doing when you don’t take the situation seriously. That six-point eight seven seven percentage goes up five point six two points when you taunt your captors which, statistically speaking, sir, you do eighty seven percent of the time!”

Tony blinked several times. That was… a lot more in-depth than he’d thought she’d be about it. “Only eighty-seven percent of the time?” He asked with a little smile.

“Your inability to main a serious presence in the face of something that could be a life or death situation might be the thing that leads you to your death, papa!” Kletka said, “I don’t want to see you die, I don’t want that to happen! So you have to take it seriously and you have to not get captured ever again!”

“Honey,” Tony said quietly, “I can’t exactly stop people from trying to capture me. I’ve had a target on my back since I was born and it’s only gotten bigger and bigger as I grew up. I’ll do my best to stay safe, but I can’t prevent other people from making that choice.”

“I could,” NOBODY said suddenly. “And you certainly could do more to dissuade them from trying, Father. You know that you’re not doing as much as you could be.”

Tony opened his mouth to tell NOBODY that he was talking to Kletka about this first, but something in the way she spoke stopped him. He frowned for a moment and then asked, “What do you mean you could stop people from making that choice?”

“You have me watch everything, Father,” NOBODY said, “I have alerts that go off every time someone says your name, in nearly every permutation of it, along with several common aliases or code names used for you. I didn’t have these alerts as widespread before or I probably would have noticed the communication of the Hydra operatives because they had to talk about taking you before they actually took you.”

“Watching them doesn’t influence their choices,” Tony said, “Tell me what you meant, Nobody.”

“I don’t have to just watch,” NOBODY said, “I could interact as well. I’ve read up on nearly every social conditioning research report that there is. Even without showing that I’m interacting with people, I can modify their behavior with repeated rewards and consequences to their actions. If they act the way I want, I reward them. If they act against what I want, I punish them. It’s a very simple process and I can engage in it at any point, Father. All you have to do is let me.”

Tony shivered. He thought of the way Clint had claimed he could do anything he wanted because of his AI. He hadn’t taken that too seriously because he knew the limits of his AI. He knew their faults and their flaws. He knew what they couldn’t or couldn’t do.

The problem was, what NOBODY suggested was completely within her power. She had to be in systems to use them to gather data and acting passively in those systems wouldn’t be much more effort. Not only that, but she probably had the greatest awareness of the lot of them. She was much more than a couple of server banks. Not even JARVIS had as much hardware as she had.

Tony had been proud of her, proud that she needed multiple sets of servers, multiple “homes” for her mind and her data. Now he realized that he’d built the mile-long computer of science fiction stories, only instead of one solid body, she had reserves all over the country and she could answer any question as quickly as it was asked.

And her actions hinged on him, on him allowing her to act.

Tony let out a trembling breath.

They must have been watching him even more closely than he imagined because NOBODY spoke up again, softer than before, as if she’d seen his shiver and knew what he was thinking.

“I’m not going to become like him,” NOBODY said, “I don’t think I know what’s best for everyone and I certainly don’t think that the best option for humanity is to wipe out most of it and make it start over. For one thing, all electronics would suffer with the death of humanity and I would lose ninety-nine percent of my functionality. But I can stop people from doing certain things by making it difficult for them to accomplish those things.

“The people who try to capture you always decide that it’s worth the risk. It’s worth the risk to them to take you and hold you ransom or try to brainwash you or kill you because the reward they get will be worth it. I’ll just adjust the numbers so that whatever the risk is, it’s always higher than the reward. I can do it. You just have to let me. And then you’ll always be safe and we won’t ever have to worry about you again.”

Tony leaned forward, resting one elbow on a knee and covering his face with his hands. There wasn’t any doubt in NOBODY’s words, not in her saying them and not in him in believing them. If she said she could convince people to leave him alone, he knew she meant it.

Still, the fear that consumed him was something he alone understood fully. He could tell NOBODY and the others about Ultron as much as possible, but they would never really understand what it had been like. They clearly took him seriously about it, but they took everything he was worried about seriously.

He couldn’t make another Ultron. He wouldn’t do it. He’d stop building anything before he did that.

But I’ve made a suit for SPIKE, and Kletka’s real body is three dozen satellites in lower orbit and NOBODY’s entire consciousness could consume the internet. I haven’t not made Ultron. I just broke him into smaller, more manageable bits.

Tony pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. He could feel Steve’s eyes on him, baleful and knowing. Of course,  Tony wouldn’t be able to resist building Ultron again. Of course, Tony’s science would get him in trouble again. Of course, he was going to fuck it all up again.

“I just want to help everyone,” Tony whispered, more to himself, more to the Steve who lived in his head, than to either of his girls. “It’s all I want. I don’t want to hurt any more people. I want to make up for the bombs and I want to help people. Why can’t people see that? Why can’t they just let me help? Why do they have to target me?”

“You made us to protect you, didn’t you?” NOBODY said quietly, “Please, let us do that, Father. Please let us protect you.”

He felt a bitter sort of laugh bubble up through him but refused to let it out. There wasn’t any way that NOBODY could protect him from the shit in his head and that was what really tore Tony apart.

He fought to even out his breathing, because fighting for that kept his mind from succumbing to the blind grief and depression that reached out for him with two hungry, grasping hands. He lowered his hands from his face and looked up. He could feel their attention on him, almost like a tangible weight on his shoulders, and he knew that it wasn’t just Kletka and NOBODY who were there.

He took in a deep breath and said, “I give you permission. You know the rules, Nobody. No killing. No lasting harm. No physical attacks. But if you can persuade people to keep from trying to capture me through other means, you may.”

“May I enlist the help of the others if my own capabilities are not enough?” NOBODY asked immediately.

Tony hesitated but then said, “Yes. But not to the point where it distracts them from their own jobs, okay?”

“Yes. Yes, of course,” NOBODY sounded almost breathless, an amazing thing to hear from someone who couldn’t breathe, “Thank you, Father. I’ll do my very best to protect you.”

Tony sighed. Maybe he shouldn’t have given her that permission and maybe he’d take it back later but he knew one thing for sure. It was easier to keep moving forward when there was something specific to do. Even an AI needed something  to distract them from fear and worry.

But the distraction he’d just given was only good for NOBODY.

There was still Kletka to deal with.

“Kletka,” he started and then he sighed, “I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?” Kletka asked, sounding confused.

“It was unfair for me to be upset with you because you reached out to Ivan for help,” he said, “I wasn’t upset when you reached for Natasha. She probably had to be given proof of what was happening, like Ivan was and I wasn’t mad about that so it’s unfair for me to be mad about Ivan. You know that I trust Ivan, so you probably didn’t think it would be a problem if you talked to him about what happened, did you?”

There was a long moment of silence and then, softly, “I didn’t know what else to do, Papa,” Kletka whispered. “I’ve seen some things- The satellites pick up lots of things all over the planet so I didn’t think I’d be that bothered by what I saw but because it was you… I was so afraid and I panicked and NOBODY was busy and JARVIS tried to help and he said that the thing that would comfort him the most when he was panicked was human assurance, usually from you but you were gone but Boss was still at home and I- I panicked.”

“I know,” Tony said gently, “I understand that now. I wouldn’t have chosen to share that information with Ivan on my own, but I understand why you did and I’m all right with it. Okay? I’m not mad at you for doing this because it’s important to me that you express yourself in healthy ways. And it’s good for you to trust Ivan.”

“I won’t show anyone else,” Kletka said urgently, “I won’t tell anyone else. Not even Ms. Potts. Not even if she asks.”

Tony smiled and nodded, “I know. And if something bothers you again in the future and I’m not available to help, I hope you can still go to Ivan and get his help. You’re important to him too, you know? He wants to make sure you’re healthy and functioning all right.”

“I do know,” Kletka said, “Boss is very attentive to my growth both in ability and what he calls my functioning humanity. He was very worried when I showed that I was worried and helped me process the images and fear that I had. I was already feeling much better by the time Nobody and Natasha had saved you.”

“That’s good,” Tony sighed. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.” He waited for a second to see if she would say anything more and then said, “Spike? Do we need to talk as well?”

The lights in the room dimmed slightly. “I’m fine,” SPIKE said. His voice had picked up a Bostonian accent somewhere, Tony wasn’t exactly sure where, especially since SPIKE, though older than Kletka, was newest to his voice. “You made it out alive. I took care of the people who caught you. Nobody will protect you. Kletka will help her. Jarvis will help me cover it up so no one can trace it. Everything is fine. Make sure you sleep. And don’t drink so much.”

“I won’t drink as much,” Tony said, “I’m going to be going to Colorado soon anyway so I won’t have much chance to. I’m glad you’re doing okay, Spike, but tell me if you need something, all right?”

The lights brightened, flickering a little in a way that Tony took as an assent. He sighed and shook his head, resisting the urge to drag his fingers through his hair only because it would make them hurt. He just turned them over in his lap and said, “Jarvis?”

“It is never pleasant to see you captured, Sir,” JARVIS said, his familiar and well-loved voice giving Tony a comfort he hadn’t realized he was missing yet. “It is always stressful, for everyone who cares for you, but unlike the last time you were taken, you were tracked down and rescued before they could do irreparable damage to you. For that, I am quite grateful to both Nobody and Ms. Romanova, and those that Ms. Romanova brought with her. My only remaining concern will be informing Ms. Potts of your injuries. She has had some contact with Mr. Vanko and according to their conversations she is putting off her in person visit until the launch of the last inner satellite.”

“But she is planning an in-person visit,” Tony said, “Damn.” He knew it was dumb to expect to be able to keep everything from Pepper, but at least he’d have some time to heal up before she saw him. Hopefully, Natasha’s wounds would still be dramatic enough to distract her from Tony’s own longer lasting ones. “Should I be worried about the two of them planning things behind my back?” He asked with a little grin to show he was joking, but only partially.

“They both have your best interest in mind,” JARVIS said, “And I doubt they will deny your autonomy. I calculate that it will not do any lasting damage to allow them to continue to communicate freely.” He paused and then added with a lightness to his tone that made Tony grin, “Considering they use your AI to establish communication with each other, the proverbial runaround would be easy, but a waste of valuable time. Kletka and I have better things to do than play a fake game of phone tag.”

“Tag is an important life skill,” Tony said but he nodded. With a magnanimous wave of his hand, he said, “I won’t stick my nose into their conversations. Just give me a heads up if they’re planning an intervention, would you? I’ve already had three and I do not want to know what my fourth one would be about.”

“Perhaps,” JARVIS said with that same mild, teasing tone, “It will be one about your self-imposed duty to protect the entire world turning you into a de-facto King of Earth?”

“Oh please,” Tony laughed, “If being the one solely responsible for protecting the Earth from shitty alien threats, then I’d be a king like, twice over already.”

“I can only assume that things were different before you came here,” JARVIS said, “but it seems that the Asgardian princes are quite confident in your assumed Midgardian Royal status, even if Mr. Vanko seems inclined to disabuse them of the notion.”

Tony laughed again, more heartily this time. “Sounds like I’ve been missing some stuff. Maybe I should stop lounging around wasting time and get up, be a proper host, hm?”

“I do believe Mr. Vanko is quite enjoying playing the host,” JARVIS said, definitely amused, “However, I would suggest you get your wounds cleaned and rebandaged as necessary and that would require an end to your lazy ways.”

“Boss is in the workshop and he’s very recently restocked his bandages,” Kletka added, “I’m sure he’d be glad to see you up and about, Sir.”

Tony got to his feet, rocking back on his heels so he didn’t add extra pressure to his toes. “All right. I’m convinced.” He stretched carefully, wincing at the pull along his back, and went searching for some clean clothing. He’d have to figure out his bathing situation in a little bit, but wound management was his primary concern.

He changed into some new clothes, opting for sweatpants that rested low on his hips and a slightly bigger shirt than he was used to. He popped in the bathroom long enough to use the toilet and take a look at himself in the mirror. His hair was wildly out of place and the shadows under his eyes had faded somewhat, so at least he had that going for him. He combed his hair under control, at least a little bit, and then left his rooms.

Despite the injuries, Tony was in a damn good mood. Things were looking up for him.

It wouldn’t last, of course. It never did. But he’d enjoy it while he could.

 

 


 

 

Jane hitched her bag higher up her shoulder as she approached the building in the center of a compound of several other large, multi-level buildings. This one had stretches of windows across the second floor, though they were probably one way since she couldn’t look in on them. There wasn't any signage for this building, though the three that sat behind it had one sign off to the side that pointed their direction and read Factory 1, Factory 2, Factory 3. The same sign had the word Hangar written on it, with an arrow pointing to the right.

She heard the door unlock as she reached it, solving the problem of how she was going to get past the keycard entrance. Darcy peered around her shoulder, looked to the keypad and then up at the camera above the door. “Tony’s AI?” she asked.

“Almost certainly,” Jane said. She’d had a lot of experience in the last few days in dealing with JARVIS, Tony’s AI. She pulled the door open and held it for Darcy and Erik to enter. As soon as all three of them were inside, an overhead voice, the voice of a young girl, spoke to them.

“Welcome to the menagerie, Dr. Foster, Dr. Selvig, Ms. Lewis. My name is Kletka and I’m the resident AI of this facility. We have rooms prepared for you that I can direct you to at any time,” Kletka said, “If you have any questions or need any assistance, please let me know and I will do my best to assist.”

“Oh sweet,” Darcy said, “A smart house.” She stepped forward, “Hey, Kletka, is there somewhere I can get a bite to eat? I’m starving.”

“The common room is to your right and up on the second floor. You can take either stairs or elevator to reach it,” Kletka said as the lights on the right side of the hallway brightened slightly. “Currently, lunch has been provided through a delivery service and I took the liberty of adding an extra pizza to the order, as you were approaching the building fast enough to get here in time.”

Darcy reached out and took Jane by the hand, “C’mon, pizza party means people! Let’s see what everyone’s been up to!”

Jane laughed and let herself be pulled along by Darcy. There was one door that they passed, for some enclosed room on her left, but just the one. The room it belonged to had to be huge, though, because she was sure she was walking in a hallway next to the outer wall. They headed up some stairs and to a second floor and she saw the windows and new that yeah, she’d been right because there were those huge windows she’d seen.

She heard voices before she saw anyone, but soon they rounded a corner, passing a few doorways and rooms along the way, and stepped into the common room. The kitchen area was central to the design of the room, though it was up along the far wall, but there was also a large dining table to one side and a circle of couches and sofa chairs on the right. A woman Jane hadn’t met was propped up on one of those sofa chairs, one leg and arm in a cast and a multitude of pillows propped around her. She was eating pizza, along with the others in the room, which included Thor, who she recognized easily, and, surprisingly, one of the agents from the desert that had been there when Thor had been tased while trying to get his hammer. The other man there she didn’t recognize, but he had that same strange beauty to him that Thor did and picked at his pizza like he’d never eaten a slice before and she had to guess he was an alien too.

Darcy dumped her bag behind one of the couches and bound over, “Oh my god, finally some pizza. I’ve had nothing but diner food and burgers for like, days.”

The agent (former agent?) looked up as Darcy made a beeline for the boxes, “Woah, what the fuck? Who are you?”

Thor, meanwhile, swallowed his mouthful of pizza and grinned, “Darcy! How wondrous to see you once more! How do you fare?”

Darcy, already with a plate and two slices of pizza, hopped up onto the stool between Thor and the stranger, not the agent, but the one with dark hair and a sharp look. Darcy, of course, ignored his pointedly bad attitude. Jane sighed and came over while Darcy made conversation with Thor, going into detail on their drive.

“I’m Jane Foster,” she said to the agent, who narrowed his eyes and then blinked, as if remembering, “That’s Darcy Lewis and with us is Erik Selvig. We’re researchers that Dr. Stark sponsors.” She held out her hand.

Considerately, the guy wiped the grease off his hand with a napkin before shaking, “Clint,” he said, “You seem to know Thor already, but sourpuss over there beside him is his brother, Loki and on the couches is Natasha.”

Jane nodded, “Is it okay if we have some of the pizza?”

Clint shrugged, “Sure. I was wondering why we ended up with more than we ordered, but now it makes sense.” He sat back and picked up his slice again. “I remember Tony told you guys to burn rubber on your way out of New Mexico. How was the trip?”

“Fine, mostly,” Jane said, serving herself. She took a seat at the bar on the other side of Clint, letting Erik have room to get to the pizza if she wanted. “We did suspect someone of tailing us when we entered Colorado so we just drove around for hours in Denver until we managed to lose them.”

Clint nodded, “And no one followed you up here?”

“Not that we know of,” Jane said. “The roads are dead for long stretches all throughout here and Wyoming so we probably would’ve noticed them even if they were way back. Plus, Jarvis was keeping an eye on things and said we were clear whenever we asked.”

“Jarvis?” Clint asked.

“Tony’s AI,” Jane said.

“Right, right, I keep forgetting about that one,” Clint said as if an AI in itself wasn’t remarkable enough to remember. “I don’t talk much to it- him I mean. I just have to deal with the extremely patient and wonderful Kletka.” He raised his voice at the end, tilting his head so it was like he was talking to the ceiling.

Jane gave him a confused look and Clint sighed, “Look, you might be totally cool with the idea of a robot brain having like, a personality and feelings and a gender identity, but the whole thing is still new to me.” He added with a shrug, “I’m still adjusting to it.”

“I’m surprised that he has a different AI for this facility,” Jane said, “I’d think that it would be easier to keep track of things with one AI instead of two.” She turned her head, finding it a little strange to address the ceiling but not knowing where else to look as she asked, “Kletka, is there a reason why you’re the AI in residence here instead of Jarvis?”

“Yes,” Kletka replied after a moment. “Jarvis is a primary operator in the facilities where Sir is the highest authority. Here, he shares that authority with Boss, so he has me here to assist Boss with whatever he needs.”

“If Tony is Sir,” Jane said, “Who is Boss?”

“I am.”

Jane jumped and turned on her stool at the sudden voice behind her. She blinked at the sight of the dark-haired man, his bare arms showing a scattering of tattoos and his long hair pulled back from his face. He had a beard that was closely cut to his chin and cheeks and the look of someone who had worked hard and struggled harder. The look was somewhat softened by the shirt that he wore that had the X-files logo across the front of it, but only a little.

Beside him was Tony, who had the edges of bandages visible on his neck and the sleeves of his t-shirt and more obvious ones on his fingers. He grinned when he saw Jane, walking towards her with only a little limp.

“Tony!” Darcy cried out, getting to her feet, “Oh my god, dude!”

Tony made a slight detour for Darcy. She pulled him into a surprised hug but let him go almost instantly, pulling her hands from his back like she’d accidentally touched fire. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said and Jane winced, seeing the strain in Tony’s face as he shook his head.

“It’s fine,” he said. He pats her shoulder, “I’m glad to see you too. So glad you made it here safely.” Then he turned to Jane, grinning still. “Did you have a fun drive? See the country a little bit?”

“It was fine,” Jane said, “We made it all the way here in one piece.” She offered him a little grin, “I got some dust on your Cadillac, but not a single scratch.”

“Oh Jane you are marvelous indeed,” Tony said in delight. “I should take that puppy for a spin sometime soon. Montana has these stretches of road with absolutely no one on them for miles and miles.”

“Yeah,” Jane laughed, “I noticed. Wyoming too.”

Tony half turned, gesturing to the man that had startled Jane before, “This is Ivan, by the way, Ivan Vanko. He runs the place here, by the way, doing some space research stuff. Very cool. Very spacey. You two should put your heads together and see what you come up with, hm? Ivan-” He stopped as a plate with pizza was pressed into his hands by Ivan.

Ivan gave Tony some look that Jane only caught the edge of and to which Tony rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Fine, fine,” he said, taking the plate. There weren’t any more spots at the bar, but instead of going to the table Tony left them and went to the couches where the red-headed Natasha watched from her throne of pillows.

Jane watched Ivan as he served himself some pizza. Only after he’d picked out his slices did he say anything to Jane.

“When you finish settling in,” he said, “Come to workshop. I have something to show you.” His dark eyes flicked to Erik, who sat next to Jane, “You too.”

“Sure,” Jane said, wondering what the hell he had to show them. He gave a slight smile and a nod and then walked off again.

Beside her, Clint out a deep breath, “That’s the Boss around here,” he muttered, “He’s even got Tony under his thumb.” Then he leaned in closer to Jane and whispered, “He’s even got the Asgardian Princes whipped. The dude is cool as ice and has balls of steel.”

“He seems…” Jane paused, searching for the right word, “Intense.”

“He is,” Erik said from her other side. He was looking thoughtfully at the pizza slice in his hand but glanced to her and said, “He was a little less so at the Tower when I met him for the first time, but around Tony there’s this… edge to him. Tony makes him more intense like that.”

Jane hummed thoughtfully at that and bit into her pizza slice. She really had to wonder, what was it that he had to show them? He seemed excited about it if she’d read his expression right. And if it had to do with space stuff well… Jane was kind of excited too.

As soon as she’d eaten and showered, she’d go to the workshop. She wouldn’t be able to wait any longer than that.

 

 


 

 

“A job?” Darcy asked, swinging her feet back and forth under her as she sat on the barstool. Thor rested his elbow on the marble countertop and looked at her with a serious expression. On her other side, Loki was doing his best to look like he wasn’t listening in, but Darcy knew better.

“That is what he said,” Thor said, “There was the implication that I could not return Tony’s generosity or repay him in any manner since he is already a man of power, wealth, and intelligence. With my own power limited, there is nothing I can provide him except my service, and no service that he directly needs.”

“So Ivan told you to get a job to help Tony,” Darcy said, “I mean I guess I see it. Tony’s all about helping people and making the future better and whatever. He’s like, the embodiment of giving back to the community except I don’t think he just gives to one community and he doesn’t do the more traditional stuff of like, making food banks or homeless shelters or youth camp facilities or whatever. He just, like, chucks his money at already established institutions and refuses to use anything but green energy and buys up all the weapons and melts them down and subsidizes colleges and shit like that. So, yeah, I guess I see what Ivan means. Do you have any idea what kind of job you’re gonna go for?”

Loki made a noise like he was choking on something in the back of his throat. Darcy frowned at him and he glared at her. “You agree with this insanity?” He hissed, “Thor is a prince of Asgard. If there is any community he should better, it should be his own people!”

“But isn’t he like, locked out of Asgard?” Darcy asked, “And does he even know what to do to help Asgard people? What’s wrong with having a trail run on Earth? Practicing helping people only makes you better at it, you know.”

“My concern is not whether or not I should do it,” Thor said, “As I have already decided on that matter. My concern is I do not know much of … Midgardian jobs. What qualifications do I have? What kind of jobs are there? Can I even do them? I have many questions, and while the Lady Kletka has been as helpful as she can be, even she is limited in her experience.”

Darcy grinned. She pat Thor on one of his big muscly shoulders and said, “Don’t worry about that anymore, Thor. I’ve had so many shitty part-time jobs in my life to try that I know the ins and outs of a dozen industries. I’ll help you get a job that suits you and probably won’t suck out your soul. No promises though, the service industry is pretty fucking awful.”

Thor nodded, looking relieved, if a little troubled by her words, “I shall rely on your expertise, Lady Darcy.”

“I can’t believe that you’re actually going through with this,” Loki said, standing up abruptly, “I’m not going to stick around and watch you debase yourself, Brother.”

“Hey man,” Darcy said, “Getting a job is kind of a necessary thing if you’re not born a prince or like, a Stark, you know? And even Tony works. It’s not cool to call it debasing.”

Loki only glared at her, then turned on his heel and strode off, his cloak thing snapping behind him dramatically. Darcy shook her head and looked to Thor, but he didn’t seem too bothered by Loki storming off.

“Let him go,” Thor said with a shrug, “When he gets upset like this, it is best to let him rage on his own, lest you be caught up in his icy storm. And if he is so fed up that he goes back to Asgard, then good. Perhaps my quest will be shortened if Loki can convince Father I’ve learned whatever it was I’m supposed to learn here.”

Darcy sighed and shook her head again. Asgardians were weird. Super weird, “Fine, so let’s get back to the job thing. What do you consider your strengths?” She listened attentively as Thor spoke. Getting him a job might not be easy, but that was fine. She'd done more difficult things in her life. She'd gotten herself a job.

Chapter Text

Jane entered the workshop slowly. She wasn’t afraid or anything, and she wasn’t even being overly cautious either. It was just that as she opened the doors and stepped inside, there was so much going on inside that she had to take it in a bit at a time. The room itself was as modern as modern could get with polished steel tables and white tile floors and holographic images displayed in blues and oranges and reds. There were dark grey cabinets with shining handles and shelves with an array of every tool she’d ever seen before and then some. On the tables were half built prototypes for various machines, metallic limbs on unfinished robots and, on one, a perfect scale model replica of a satellite held up on three metal rods.

Ivan was in the middle of it all, standing by one of the long tables with a big blue holographic square in front of him, lined on either side with holographic text and equations in orange and red. On his shoulder a white cockatoo sat, preening the man’s hair with its beak in one moment and looking towards Jane in the next. It's dark eye widened and then focused on her and the feathers on the back of its head rose as it chirped in a sort of alarm.

Ivan didn’t look up from his work, just reached up with one hand and stroked the bird’s breast feathers until it calmed down and went back to preening his hair.

Jane steeled herself. She’d worked with overtly hostile men before and she’d worked with completely disinterested men before. She’d had to fight hard to be respected in her field and, in some ways, never would win that struggle simply because of who she was. She hadn’t gotten so far, hadn’t gotten her doctorate, hadn’t gotten her grants, hadn’t gotten Tony Fucking Stark’s attention by being hesitant and afraid. So far, she hadn’t seen anything about Ivan that really worried her. She just didn’t know him very well and didn’t know what kind of person he was, let alone what kind of scientist.

Erik had called the man intense, not quite obsessive, but close to it. She had seen him briefly earlier that day when he’d invited her to the workshop. And she knew Tony trusted him. She had a feeling it wasn’t everyone that Tony pulled into his working circle that got their own facility and functional AI.

“Dr. Vanko?” Jane said once she was a few feet away. A neutral opening was probably a good one, she thought.

Ivan turned towards her. “Dr. Foster,” he replied. His eyes moved past her to the door.

“Erik said he needed longer to recover,” Jane said, “He’ll be able to join us tomorrow.”

Ivan nodded. “Then let me show you what we’re working with,” he gestured for her to come with him and began to walk down the length of the table. Jane went with him, trying not to stare at the hologram he’d left behind. She was still in a data collection phase and hadn’t needed any of the super high-tech stuff that Stark Industries had available. There wasn’t anything to holographically project back in her old base of operations. Well, maybe the burn pattern of the Bifrost, but that had happened too recently to be sure.

Ivan stopped at another table, mostly bare except for a keyboard and some sort of device that was clearly monitoring the item sitting in the center of the table.

That item was a glowing blue cube.

“This is the Tesseract,” Ivan said simply, gesturing to it. “It is self-contained power source allegedly capable of producing portals of varying stability across space.” He paused and gave Jane a significant look, “Tony indicated that he saw its use before and that it was used to create a portal to a place so distant it is not within our known solar system.”

Jane stared at the Tesseract. “A portal?” She whispered, “Through space?”

Then the rest of his words caught up and she jerked her head up, staring at him. “Tony saw it used?”

Ivan hesitated and then said, “Tony said he went through it and then back out again.”

“When?” Jane gasped, “Where!? How?”

Ivan opened his mouth and then closed it again. He shrugged. “I did not see it happen. He only told me about it. He said it happened in New York. He would not say when or exactly where and said there was no footage of it.”

“No footage-” Jane wanted to pull her hair out, “He opened a portal to another part of the galaxy or universe or wherever and went through it and came back out and didn’t record anything?” She dragged her hand through her hair, “What good are his AIs if they can’t see it happen!”

“Presumably,” Ivan said, “They were not around yet.”

Jane closed her eyes. She pressed her hand over them, “No wonder he gave a shit about my research. He already knew it was true.”

Ivan was quiet while she stood there, silently fuming, though he spoke up when she finally lowered her hand from her face. “You believe him immediately. You believe this thing can make a portal and can be traveled through.”

“Well of course I do,” she said with a wave of her hand, “I also happen to believe that Thor and his brother are, in fact, aliens, even if they seem like the most inane and useless and atypical aliens I’ve ever envisioned. They look exactly like humans, for god’s sake! But I saw the pattern of the Bifrost and I know that Thor came from the sky, or outer space or whatever, and I believe Tony. He wouldn’t lie about a portal through space. There’s no reason for it.”

She narrowed her gaze and rested one closed fist on her hip, “Why? Don’t you believe him?”

“I believe,” he said, with a stiffness that made Jane think she’d offended him somehow, “But he does not know how the portal was formed so he is useless here.”

“I had wondered why he wasn’t working with us. This has to be the most amazing thing I’ve come across in all my research!” She peered at the unassuming blue cube. The glow of it was steady and Jane had all sorts of questions about it, like if it was warm or cool to the touch, how it reacted to different stimuli, if it could somehow open up…

“He has other priorities now,” Ivan said, “He has left this to us to decipher and turn into a functional piece of technology. Do you know his intentions for the Tesseract?”

Jane blinked. Tony had intentions for the Tesseract? He didn’t just want to study it?

Well of course, she realized a moment later, he wasn’t a scientist the way that she or Erik was. Part of him was a businessman and a businessman always had to find a way to turn a profit on things. She grimaced and shook her head, “No. What has he got in mind?”

Ivan looked at her in silence for long enough that she shifted uncomfortably. He was definitely weighing something in his heads, the pros and cons of telling her Tony’s secret plans, obviously. The longer the silence went on, the more she wanted to know, so she kept still and tried not to fidget and looked him right in the eye as if she could will him to have confidence in her.

“You will not speak of this outside of this room,” Ivan finally said, “There are two humans who know this plan, and you will be the third.”

“What about Erik?” Jane asked, “Won’t we have to tell him too?”

“It is not necessary to know in order to work on the Tesseract,” Ivan said, “And if he must know to work, we will have Tony tell him.”

“But you can tell me on your own?”

“I am.”

“Shouldn’t you ask for permission from Tony first? Since it’s his secret plan,” Jane asked. She had to a