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Fairy Tales and Clockwork Hearts

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“It's almost over, huh?”

Lucy nearly jumped out of her skin. “Jesus, Hillary, don't do that!” she snapped, then immediately felt horrible about it when Hilary's eyes went wide. “Sorry. Just, I'm just tense.”

“I noticed.” Hilary gave her a smile. “It's almost over. We can make it.” She gave Lucy a sunny smile. “Right? Just a few more days.”

“Right,” Lucy said. “Just a few more days.” She swallowed, shifted her bag on her shoulder. “You heading home?”

“Yeah, want to take the bus together?”

“I have to-” Lucy nodded at the elevators. She had her instructions. She'd go up to the personal quarters and someone would drive her back to the Sanctum. It was weird. But as Hilary said, it was almost over.

The thought left a hollow feeling in his stomach.

“What, your secret crush?” Hilary said. She grinned. “Someday, you'll introduce me.”

“Someday,” Lucy agreed. She gave Hilary a wave. “I'll see you tomorrow.”

“Loser,” Hilary said, laughing. “See you tomorrow!”

Lucy got on the elevator and leaned against the wall. “Personal quarters, please, Jarvis,” she said, and there was the slightest jolt as it started moving. Lucy closed her eyes, her head falling back. Against her side, her bag shifted. The flap moved, and Lucy stared down at it with pursed lips.

“There better not be a lizard in this bag,” she said aloud. There was a beat of silence, and then Furbro's head poked out of the pocket. Smiling despite herself, Lucy reached out and rubbed a finger over his head. “Dumb lizard,” she told him, and he nibbled on her finger tip. “You keep sneaking out, what are we going to-”

The elevator stopped, interrupting her train of thought, and the doors opened. Lucy stepped out, and came to a stop.

The floor was dark.

“Jarvis?” she asked. “Are the lights off for some reason?”

There was no reply.

Frowning, Lucy turned around, but the elevator doors had already closed. She punched the button. It didn't light up. Nothing happened.

An unpleasant feeling was curling in the pit of her stomach, and Lucy shifted her weight. Her shoes squeaked against the floor, obscenely loud in the quiet space. “Jarvis?” The word echoed through the space, and she shivered. Tugging the strap of her bag a little higher on her shoulder, she pressed close to the wall, one hand pressed down hard on the elevator button.

Even when it was clear that it wasn't coming.

Somewhere in the distance, a single footfall brought Lucy's head around. Her heart pounding in her ears, she stared into the darkness. Without thinking, barely even realizing that she was doing it, she was moving, slowly, quietly, at first, and then, at a run.

She didn't know the personal quarters. She didn't know where she was. She just shot up the nearest hallway, heading for a wall, a window, anything that could help her get her bearings. She tried each door, one by one, every door she came to, tugging on handles and setting her shoulder against wooden panels. None of them budged.

The sensation of being trapped was closing in around her.

“Little one...”

The voice echoed over the floor, and Lucy jerked backwards, her back hitting the wall. Her breath was coming fast now, fast and hard, and she was clinging to the strap of her bag with both hands.

“Come out, come out.”

Lucy clapped a hand over her mouth, and she hit a table, knocking it sideways. Something bounced off the surface, clattering to the ground, and Lucy was running, a vicious sort of laughter chasing after her.

“Give me his heart.” It was soft, a vicious hook of a sentence, and Lucy slid around a corner, curling down on the floor, folding herself into a ball.

For a second, she just struggled to breathe. Her head was swimming, panic and fear and anger curling through her. Her bag shifted on her hip, and Furbro pushed himself out of the pocket. He landed on the floor, his mouth open in an aggressive hiss.

"No, no, no-" Lucy grabbed for the lizard as he skittered past her knee. He kicked as she scooped him up, his mouth opened in a hiss. "Shhhh," Lucy crooned, curling her hands around him. "Jarvis?" she whispered. There was no response, and she swallowed before trying again. "Jarvis?" She closed her eyes, praying for something that wasn't coming. “Shit.”

Between her fingers, there was a strange sort of pressure. For a moment, she thought Furbro was kicking, trying to get out of her hands, and but that wasn't it. Startled, she opened her fingers. Furbro was curled up on her palm, blinking up at her.

And he was throbbing.

She stared down at him, understanding dawning, slow enough in her terrified mind. "It's you," she whispered. She held Furbro up, until she was eye to eye with him, her fingers still cupping his body. "It's... You."

His head cocked to the side, his mouth opening in a little lizard grin. And between her fingers, he beat, his whole body flexing with the force of it.

"Of course it's you. How long have you been with him?" she whispered. "How many times did he rebuild you? How many hours, how many days, how much of himself did he pour into you?" Her smile was so wide that it hurt. "It's not me. It's you. That's what she meant, she said, she said I carry his heart. Because you were in my bag, weren't you, you little stowaway?”

Her thumb stroked along the length of his spine, and he bumped his head against her fingers. "You're his heart, aren't you? He gave you a bit of himself- What did he say? That if you work on something long enough, it becomes part of you?” She held him up. “Or maybe, you become part of it."

Somewhere, a sound system turned on, classical music flooding the space. Lucy jumped, her fingers tightening on Furbro. He nipped at her finger in protest, and she sucked in a breath. "Sorry, sorry," she whispered, her eyes darting around. "You can save him." She laughed, her mind already working. She could work with this. She could. She had power now. Lucy smiled at Furbro. "You might be able to save us both."

There as a vent, there on the far wall, and she took a deep breath, then scrambled towards it. Her back against the wall, she held Furbro up. "Run," she whispered, and his head tipped to the side, his body shifting on his paws. "Run and hide. Don't let her catch you, okay? Get out, if you can, and if you can't, get deep, and hide."

She leaned forward, brushing a kiss against the tiny bot's head. "You can save him. Right?"

His whole body shifted, the glittering red wings unfolding from his back, and he reared up on his back legs. With a flick of his tail, he slipped from her hands, and into the vent. In a second, he was gone.

Lucy stared after him, her breath still coming in ragged little gasps, but as she reached for her bag, she knew this could work. If she was careful, if she was smart, this could work.

She could save herself. She could save him. She could do it. She would do it.

Lucy pushed herself to her feet, and took a moment to straighten her clothes, to put herself in order. Keeping her chin up, she started to walk, on legs that barely trembled, towards the source of the music.

It was a large, open room, with a wide bar on one end and couches ringing the sunken seating area. A table was on one side of the room, along the windows, and Lucy could see the silhouette of the woman sitting there. There were two chairs, and one was pulled away from the table, as if it was waiting for her.

Without being asked, without being acknowledged, Lucy took a seat in the empty chair. A faint, amused smile creasing her masklike features, the woman reached for the wine bottle. There was no mar of bruise or scar on her face, and her fingers, as they reached for the glass, were intact.

“Did you finally decide to face your fate?” she asked, her lips curling up. “Or did you just realize that you were trapped here? I sealed this space off from the rest of the building.”

The wine filled the glass, dark red and heavy in the crystal bowl of the glass. Lucy focused on it. “I've decided that I'm sick of being toyed with,” she said. Her voice was steady. Strong. The rush of pride brought her chin up.

The woman paused, her hand still hanging in mid-air. Her head tipped to the side, and she lowered the bottle back to the table. “Is that so?” she asked. Her fingers closed around the stem of the glass. “And what do you intend to do about it?”

“Make a deal.”

The sorceress's eyes went heavy lidded, her lashes curling against her cheeks. “Fascinating,” she said. The glass rested against her lip, tipped just enough to send the liquid inside swirling. She took a sip, taking her time with it. “And what, little one, do you think you have to deal with?”

“What you want.” Lucy reached into her bag, her hand closing around it. “His heart.”

The woman stilled. “That, I could take, at any time.”

Lucy's eyebrows arched. “No, I don't think you can. If you could, you would've taken it already.” She smiled, her lips tight. “You know I have it. But that's all you know. You didn't get it, that night, and now, things have gotten muddled, haven't they?”

The sorceress smiled. “Is that what you think?”

“It is, actually.” Lucy leaned forward. “You need me.”

“Or I could just kill you, and take it.”

“And you would have. If that would work.” Lucy shrugged. “But that's assuming that I have it with me. The one thing that he ever gave me. That little bauble he poured his literal heart into. If I had it, it would be in here.” She pulled her hand out of her bag, and laid the metal box in the center of the table. “But it isn't, because I don't have it.” She gave the woman a smile, wide and bright, making sure every one of her teeth were on display. “Do I?”

The woman stared at her, eyes narrowed. Lucy forced herself to hold the woman's gaze, to ignore the voice in the back of her head that was howling at her to run. The silence stretched out, the tension an almost physical thing on her skin.

And then the woman reached out, and Lucy got there first, her hand pinning the box in place. The woman's eyes were hard slits. “Where is it?” she asked, her voice silky.

“Somewhere safe. Somewhere well out of your reach.” Lucy held still, her hand still resting on the box, holding it shut. The woman's hand returned to the wine glass, and Lucy pulled her own back as well. The box sat on the table between them, gleaming and solid. Lucy wasn't sure, but she liked to think that there was blood on that box.

This woman's blood. Lucy had hurt her with it once. She could do it again.

“And what is it you want?” the woman asked, staring down at her wine.

“This isn't my problem, and it isn't my fight,” Lucy said. “I just want to go home.”

“So that's all you seek from this arrangement of ours?” the woman asked. “Survival?”

Lucy felt a spike of rage at the mocking twist she gave that word. Her lips pulled back from her teeth. “You think you're above survival?” she asked, her voice low. “Because that's all this is. This is you trying to survive another day. This is you, sneaky and manipulative and cowardly, twisting things to give you the best chance at survival.

“You've got nerve, to act like survival means nothing.” Lucy leaned forward, her fingers braced on the table, her body almost vibrating with the force of it. “Well, let me tell you this, lady, survival is power, survival is all there is.”

“There is power here you cannot believe,” the woman said. “A power beyond your primitive understanding.” She smiled. “I come from a lineage of power.”

“I come from a lineage of survival,” Lucy said, her lips peeling back from her teeth. “Survival is burned into my bones, I am made steel with the survival of generations.” Her shoulders heaving, she slapped her hands on the table. “I want to go home. I don't want this shit, I don't want your stupid games, and I don't want his heart, but I'm not letting you come after me, either.”

The woman's head swung towards her, languid and easy. “And what do you think you will do about it?” she asked, amused. Light sparked in the depth of her glass. “What will you offer me, in addition to his heart?” She leaned in. “How about yours?”

“Sorry,” Lucy said, smiling. “You're not my type.”

“We'll see.” The woman stood. “Child, you are more than I suspected, when I first laid eyes on you. Perhaps I can use you.”

“Perhaps you can go to hell,” Lucy said.

“I've been. It was tedious.” The woman's hand snapped out, closing on the box, and Lucy made a lunge for it, too late, too slow. The woman's hand came around, the box held tight in her fingers, cracking against Lucy's cheek.

Lucy hit the ground, hard enough to rattle her teeth. For a second, her vision went foggy and pale, and she blinked hard, trying to bring the world back into focus.

The woman leaned over. “Where is it?” she asked.

Lucy grinned up at her. “Find it. It's a big city.”

She saw the woman's foot come up, and braced herself.

"Get away from her."

The words were quiet and controlled, and that did not detract from the searing rage that rolled through them. Lucy barely had a moment to recognize the blonde woman in the blue bodysuit that materialized just a few feet away, her hands up, and then the sorceress was lifted off her feet, flying through the air to impact with the ceiling.

The blonde woman was pale, her face set, her eyes narrowed. “Lucy, get out of here.”

Lucy gaped at her. “What the hell-”

“We need to run now.”

Lucy blinked at the girl who came barreling across the room towards her. "Val?"

"We need to run now," Val repeated, her voice high and sharp. Her fingers were biting into Lucy's arm, hard enough to bruise, hard enough to hurt, and that was enough to snap her out of it. Lucy's head cleared so fast that it made her dizzy, but she was already scrambling up, Val dragging her along.

"Is that the Invisible Woman?” she managed, her legs under her now, her feet set, and she was stumbling, but she was moving. Val didn't let her go, both of her hands locked on Lucy's arm, pulling hard on her as they moved. “Is that your mom?"

"Yeah, she's pretty terrifying," Val said, giving her a grin.

Lucy looked back, knowing she shouldn't, but she couldn't help it. She glanced back, and her breath died in her throat, even as Val shoved her behind the bar, taking cover just out of reach.

The sorceress was hanging in mid air, magic crackling in the air around her. But the magic was held in check, trapped in a bubble that seemed to be shrinking, forcing her magic back against her skin. Enraged, her hands clawing the air, the sorceress was throwing everything she had at the invisible barrier between her and her target.

“Oh, no, you don't,” Sue growled, her lips barely moving to let the words out. Her jaw was a sharp line, every muscle in her back and her shoulders standing out beneath her blue bodysuit.

“Weak little creature,” the sorceress said, her teeth flashing in a grin. “You weaken. You will fail. And when you do-” Her nails sliced against the bubble, tearing at the very fabric of reality. “I will kill all of you.”

Sue's eyes narrowed. “Lady? Don't you ever.” Her eyes closed, the fingers against her forehead flexing. “Ever.” Her other hand came up. “Threaten my children.”

Her arm snapped out, and the sorceress went flying across the room. A split instant before the bubble would've hit the wall, it disappeared. The woman hit the wall with a sickening crack, and she tumbled, as if boneless, to the ground. She hit, and did not move. With a flick of her fingers, Sue set the force field back around her.

“Val?” Sue snapped, and Val raised a hand, waving at her.

“We're okay, mom.” She pushed herself up, peering over the top of the bar. “That was badass.”

Sue shook her head, a faint sort of amusement crossing her face. “Lucy?” she called.

“Here,” Lucy said. She swallowed. “I'm fine.”

Sue's face relaxed. “Oh, thank God.”

"What are you doing here?" Lucy asked, her head spinning.

"Furbro." Val braced her back against the wall. She gave Lucy a grin. "He-" She sucked in a breath, and she was pale, she was bone white, her eyes huge and her breathing ragged. "There's a door between this building and ours. He came through the door, he opens it for us sometimes, he's done that, but he's never come through. He's never come-"

Her head fell forward her shoulders rising and falling with each breath. "He came flying into the kitchen, landed on top of the fridge and started SCREECHING. Like-" She spread her hands. "Screams of the DAMNED."

Lucy clapped a hand over her face. "You're fucking kidding."

Val shook her head. "Nope. No-" She let out a giggle, high and a little hysterical. "Like if- If-" She choked the words out between bursts of laughter. "It was like if Lassie was a lizard."

“Val insisted there was something wrong,” Sue said, her attention still on the sorceress. “And when we couldn't get in touch with the Avengers, she decided to check it out. You're grounded, dear.”

“I knew you'd come, mom,” Val said.

“Still grounded.”

Lucy started to laugh. “Oh, my god. He saved me. That damn-”

The sorceress let out a moan, and Lucy remembered what she'd been doing.

“The box.”

“What are you talking about?” Sue asked. “Lucy, are you-”

“The box!” Lucy said. “Where-” She twisted around, her eyes sliding over the floor. “Where- Where is it, where-”

“This?” Val asked, and Lucy's head snapped around. Val was holding the box, holding it out at arm's length, and Lucy grabbed it.

“Catch,” she snapped, tossing it to Sue.

She caught it. “What do I-”

“Open it and throw it at her,” Lucy said. “Do it!” she snapped, when Sue paused, confusion sliding across her face.

Sue snapped the box open and threw it, in one smooth gesture. It hit, and a bead, like a black pearl, tumbled from inside. It exploded outwards, long twisting threads of emptiness that reached for her, spilling over themselves as they grew. The tendrils curled around the sorceress, snapping in place with a hiss. She let out a shriek, her body bowing off of the floor, and Lucy flinched.

“Okay, what the hell was that?” Val asked.

“No idea,” Lucy admitted. “Doctor Strange gave it to me. Said that if she got too close, to throw it in her face, and it would do the rest. I didn't think I could get close enough to manage it, so I figured if I hid it in the box, and kept her from opening it, she'd take it away from me just to open it.” She stopped. “It made sense in my head.”

“Seems like a very good plan to me,” Sue said. The sorceress was howling now, and Sue backed up, one arm going around each of the girls, pushing them back, her body between them and the threat. “Let's go. We're making for the door. GO.”

But before they could get more than a few steps, the sorceress went still, her body relaxing against the floor. And then as Lucy watched, horrified, she seemed to melt, her body simply going liquid, seeping from the bounds. In an instant, she was a loose, and in another, she was simply gone.

As if she'd never been there.

And an instant later, the lights clicked on, flooding the room with light, and a beat behind that, alarms were blaring from all directions. “Well,” Sue said, looking up, “it appears that Jarvis is back in charge.”

“I am, thank you, madam.”

“LUCY!”

The shout echoed through the hallways, and the shriek of metal on metal. A moment later, Captain America came running up the hall, shield up, and boots pounding hard on the floor. He'd barely made it around the corner when one of the windows exploded, and Iron Man came crashing in from the other direction. Sue shook her head. “A bit late, boys,” she said, wrapping an arm around Val's shoulders. “She's gone.”

Cap nodded. “Lucy, are you-”

Lucy was grinning, hard enough to force the tears from her eyes. “I found his heart,” she said. “I know how to save him.”

*

"So, how is this supposed to work?" Steve asked. He glanced from DJ's still form over to Stephen, and then back to Tony. "How- Do we-"

"I have no idea," Stephen said.

"Helpful," Tony gritted out. He refused to acknowledge how his hands were shaking, how his whole body was shaking. Furbro was curled in a ball in his palms, curled up between Tony's fingers. He could feel it now, feel what Lucy had pointed out.

Furbro was pulsing. Like a heart.

"You got any ideas, you useless bot?" he asked, and Furbro bit him on the thumb. "Yeah, you're helpful, too."

He reached out, and gently laid the lizard in the center of DJ's chest, right over his breastbone. For a moment, Furbro just curled up, a perfect circle, with his tail over his nose. Tony straightened up, and felt Steve's fingers close over his. Grateful for something to hold onto, and even more grateful that he hadn't had to ask for it, Tony latched onto his hand.

His grip was too tight, too desperate, but Steve just linked their fingers together.

Furbro made a sad noise, scrambling up to pad in a circle, then lay back down. A moment later, he rolled over and stalked up DJ's chest, his tail snapping in his wake.

Tony's hand tightened on Steve's. "What do we do if this doesn't work?" he asked, his voice empty.

“It'll work,” Lucy said, her voice stubborn. She was sitting in the chair next to DJ's bed, her hands folded tightly in her lap.

"And if it doesn't, then we keep trying," Stephen said. He gave Tony a wan smile. "Until we figure it out."

"We have time, still," Thor said. He was leaning against the wall, with Natasha next to him and Bruce sitting, his arms crossed over his chest, on a chair on his other side. Clint was pacing, a couple of steps back and forth. No one made mention of it. He was doing pretty well by managing to stay in the room.

"I'd prefer less time," Steve admitted. When Furbro looked up at them, Steve managed a slight smile. "It's okay," he said. "It's not your fault."

Tony pointed a finger at the tiny bot. "It is totally your fault. You are part of a long Stark legacy of producing malfunctioning machines with only the faintest connection to usefulness." His eyes were burning, and he leaned into Steve's side. "You are disowned."

Furbro's head tipped to the side, then back. He scrambled up DJ's neck, and patted at his cheek with one tiny paw. Letting out a sharp cry, he skittered up over DJ's forehead and stood there, staring at DJ from his perch. He chittered a bit, head rotating one way, then the other.

Then he bit DJ on the nose.

DJ's eyes flew open, sucking in a breath with enough force to bow his body off of the bed. For a still, silent moment, everyone froze.

"Ow," DJ said, and the heart monitor next to his bed jerked to life with a confused electronic whine, before settling into a steady beat. DJ's head rolled in that direction, then back, and Furbro had to scramble not to get tossed off. DJ blinked up at Tony. "Why is everyone here?" he asked, a benign sort of confusion on his face, and Tony let out a sob.

“You are grounded forever,” he said, and he was crying, and he did not give a damn.

DJ blinked at him. “I was already grounded,” he pointed out. “Why now?” He pushed himself upright, and he barely got himself off of the pillows before Steve's arms closed around him. He let out a squeak as Steve hugged him, so tightly that he probably had trouble breathing.

Just like that, it was chaos, it was absolutely chaos in the room. Everyone was talking at once, yelling and laughing and Tony wasn't sure who was hugging him, hard enough to lift his feet off of the floor, but he suspected it was Thor. He didn't care, though, because he was pretty sure that without the support, he would've been on the ground.

DJ was blinking at them, owlish and confused, over Steve's shoulder, and Clint was rubbing DJ's head with both hands, and Natasha was lecturing him in Russian. Bruce was at the foot of his bed, hugging DJ's medical charts to his chest, and Strange was beside him, his hands braced on the mattress, his head hanging down.

And then Steve's arm went around Tony's neck, dragging him in, and Tony latched onto both of them. “Grounded,” he gritted out, and Steve was laughing. Tony ignored him. “Grounded forever.”

From somewhere in the tangle of limbs, Tony heard DJ say, “Wait. Is that Lucy?” in a horrified voice. And for some reason, that was the funniest thing Tony had ever heard. He was still laughing when DJ put hand on his shoulder and pried himself loose.

“Lucy?” he asked, his face red, his hair a mess.

Lucy was still sitting in the chair, her hands locked together and shaking despite that, her eyes full of tears. She blinked hard. “Hi, Deej,” she said, grinning so wide that it looked like it hurt. “How're you doing?”

“Okay,” DJ said. His eyes slid to Tony, then to Steve. “Did you talk to Lucy?” he asked, his voice pitched low, as if she wouldn't hear him. She heard him, and her hands clapped over her mouth. Natasha touched her gently on the shoulder, and she leaned into the contact.

“Yes, yes we did,” Tony said. “Don't care what you think about that.”

Steve was still laughing, despite the tears on his cheeks. He smoothed DJ's hair away from his face. “It was your father's fault.”

“That is a lie,” Tony said, and he took a seat on the edge of the bed. DJ was still leaning against Steve's shoulder, and the thought of being out of reach of either one of them was enough to send a spike of panic through his chest.

“He was horrible, DJ,” Lucy said, and Tony stared at her, betrayal all over his face. She gave hm a sweet smile when DJ turned an accusing stare in Tony's direction.

Tony stabbed a finger at the girl. “You,” he said, grinning, “fit right in. God help you.”

Steve kissed DJ on the forehead, ignoring the way DJ made a face at the contact. “Well?” he asked, his arm around DJ's shoulders. “Are you going to introduce us?”

DJ looked up at him. “Lucy,” he said, with a sweet smile, “these are my parents.”

Lucy nodded. “I'm pleased to meet you,” she said.

“Pleased to meet you,” Tony said, because Steve was too busy hugging DJ again to speak. “Give us a minute.” He leaned forward. “So, Lucy, ever been to Disney World?”

 

*

"I feel fine."

"Great." Tony didn't even look up from his tablet.

DJ gave the door a longing look. "Can I-"

"No."

He considered arguing. But that tone did not seem like a tone that encouraged arguing. He subsided back against the pillows. “I feel fine,” he repeated.

“I'm glad to hear it.”

“So can I-”

“Not a chance.”

DJ let out a long, heartfelt groan. “Daaaaaaaaaaaad,” he said, drawing the word out.

“Deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeej,” Tony sing-songed back at him, his eyes narrowed on his work. “If you're bored, you can help me with these figures.” His fingers flicked against the surface of the tablet, and the holographic displays snapped into place around DJ. He stared at them, his mouth pursed tight.

“Don't want to,” he said.

“Well, tough.” Tony's mouth kicked up on one side. “His Strangeness will be by this afternoon to do a last check, and start building up your protective spells again.” His mouth twisted as he considered his work. “Until then, you can damn well stay put.”

“I'm fine,” DJ said, even as he reached for the holographic interface. It wasn't that he wanted to give in, it's just that the numbers were too tempting to resist. “Bruce said so.”

“Bruce is easily taken in by your rather pathetic manipulations,” Tony pointed out. One finger flicked in DJ's direction. “Unlike me.” DJ rolled his eyes. “I saw that,” Tony said.

“Wasn't trying to hide it,” DJ groused. He folded his legs under him. “I could turn into a bot.”

“You could, but you won't.” Tony's heel rattled against the floor. “You're going to sit there and just be good, for once in your life, I've had a hard couple of days.”

“I did, too,” DJ pointed out. He passed his work back to Tony with a shove of his hand.

“You slept through it,” Tony said,

“Kid, you have no idea what it's like to be stuck sitting, waiting for someone you love to die or just disappear out of your life,” Tony said. “When you have that under your belt, you can get in my face about this.”

“Yes, I do,” DJ said. When Tony glanced at him, DJ said, “You did it to me all the time.”

Tony went still, his face pale and still and DJ's throat worked. “You disappeared,” he whispered. “I remember. Every time you did.”

Tony scraped a hand over his face, and then tossed the tablet aside. “Yeah,” he said, his tone aching. Then, again, “Yeah.” He slumped lower in his chair. “I didn't-” He stopped, his mouth going tight. “I thought-”

He went silent, and DJ shifted forward, folding his arms on his knees. “No way to define it,” he said, quietly. “Then. I didn't. No words.” He looked at Tony. “I was always afraid. Even when I didn't know what that meant.”

Tony nodded. “Okay.” He pushed a hand through his hair. “I didn't know.”

DJ nodded. “I know.” He leaned his chin on his arms. “I loved you. When I didn't have a word for that, either.” His eyes tipped up. “Jarvis knew it. When I didn't.”

Tony smiled. “Jay, did you figure him out before I did?”

“I have a greater affinity with him,” Jarvis said.

“I guess so.” Tony pushed himself up. “I always loved you, too, you demented hunk of invalid programming.”

DJ grinned. “Your programming.”

“You will always find a way to blame this on me, won't you?” Tony asked, but his face didn't look so tight now, and his voice was warm.

“Your fault,” DJ agreed.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Hey,” Steve said from the doorway, and Tony raised a hand in a wave.

“Hi, Steve,” DJ said, as Steve wandered over to rub a hand over DJ's hair. He leaned into the warmth of Steve's hand. “Can I get up now?”

“What did your dad say?” Steve asked immediately.

“He said no,” Tony said, folding his hands on his stomach. “Obviously.”

“That's why I'm asking you,” DJ said.

“Oh, that's why,” Steve said. He sat down on the bed. “You should stay put, buddy.”

“Yes, you should,” Tony said.

DJ groaned and dragged the pillow over his face. “Steeeeeeeeeve...”

“He's really whiny today,” Tony pointed out.

“I see that. Or hear it.” Steve leaned in. “DJ-”

DJ shoved the pillow aside and gave him a sad look. “Please?”

“Good try,” Tony said. Steve was silent, and Tony's eyes narrowed on him. “Say, 'good try,' Steve.”

“Well, he can't stay here forever,” Steve said, and DJ grinned at him.

“Yes. Yes, he can,” Tony said. “For fuck's sake, Steve, he's-”

“Tony-”

“Don't you dare, I am right here, I am sitting right here, and you're undermining me, I am RIGHT HERE,” Tony said.

“I noticed.” Steve leaned back. “And last time we tried to put unreasonable stipulations on him for his own safety, he took off on his own.”

Tony's mouth opened. Closed on a sigh. “Fine,” he muttered.

“Can I go to see Doug and Rahne?” DJ asked.

“No,” Tony said.

“We'll see,” Steve said.

“Can I speak to you, Captain?” Tony asked. “Privately? Because I think we need to discuss this.”

“I suspected you might.” Steve stood up. “DJ, your dad and I are going to negotiate this.”

“Can I come?”

“Your part of the negotiation comes later,” Steve said, as Tony headed for the door. “Your bargaining position will be a lot stronger if-”

“If I stay here,” DJ filled in.

“You got it in one,” Steve said. “Work with me, kid.”

“Steve?” Steve glanced back over his shoulder. DJ smiled at him. “I love you.”

Steve turned back around. “I love you, too,” he said. “More than you'll ever know.”

“I hate you both!” Tony yelled from the hallway.

“I'm going to go deal with that,” Steve said.

“Thank you,” DJ said.

“You owe me.”

DJ watched him go. “I know,” he whispered.

*

“You're telling me we finally get to see a look at the witch who did this?”

Everyone in the workshop looked at Clint, and he stopped. “Look, witch is completely acceptable in this particular situation,” he pointed out, just a tiny bit defensive. “And you all know it.”

“Let the adults talk,” Natasha told him, and Clint shrugged, unconcerned.

"Maybe we will. The data is a mess, whatever she did, it scrambled everything," Tony said. “Including the security footage.”

“Only your footage. Whatever affected your technology, it didn't touch ours,” Reed said, and Tony resisted the very real urge to punch the man. Steve, who was a pro at reading his body language on the field and off, stepped between them in the guise of getting a better look at the screen where Reed was busy pulling up an image.

Oblivious, Reed continued his work. "Luckily, we have cameras embedded in the suits, it's so useful.” His fingers rattled across the keys as he scanned the footage. “Explorations should be properly documented, and the easiest way to do that is to-”

Sue's hand settled on his shoulder. “Reed. The parents would like to know who tried to hurt their child,” she said, her voice gentle, and his head came up.

“Oh. Of course. Sorry, I was just-” He hit a key, and the screen flashed. “Here's the best angle Sue's camera picked up.”

Tony stared up at the woman's face. She was lovely, with big, dark eyes beneath a sweep of black lashes, a wide mouth and high cheekbones. Her hair was a tumble of black locks, straight and smooth around her shoulders.

"I have no idea who that is," Tony said, and everyone looked at him. He let out a sharp bark of laughter. "I... I don't know who this is." He stabbed a finger at the image, rage curling through him like a swallow of hot liquor. His head swam, his hands shook, his heart pounding. "I have never seen this woman before in my life, and she has been fucking us over for-" He shoved a hand through his hair. "All of this, and I have no fucking clue who she is!"

"I do."

Everyone turned to face Strange, who was staring up at the screen, his eyes bright in a face that had gone shallow and set. "I do know who that is, but she's supposed to be dead."

"Pretty sure she's not," Sue said. She leaned back against the console, her arms folded over her chest. "Trust me. She's got some fight left in her, Strange."

"Who is it?" Steve said, his hand settling on the nape of Tony's neck. The contact was more comforting than it should have been, calm and centering. Tony closed his eyes, trying to pull himself together.

"Morgan le Fay," Strange said, and Tony's eyes snapped open again.

"Morgan le Fay," he repeated. "Wait. Like. King Arthur. His Morgan le Fay."

"Well, not 'his,' per sae," Strange said. "But definitely a contemporary."

Tony stared at him. Words rose in his throat like bile, hot and caustic and vicious and he turned his back on the room, unwilling to even say them.

"So our problem here is an escapee from a children's story book?" Clint said, his tone wry. "Anyone else think our lives have taken a batshit crazy turn?"

"Well, one of our teammates is, too," Natasha pointed out, not moving from her spot. Her eyes flicked in Thor's direction. "No offense."

He nodded. "None taken. I am pleased to have been so well remembered through so many generations, even if it was not fully accurate." To Strange he added, "Is her tale, likewise, so exaggerated and twisted?"

"Not by much." Strange was still staring at the image, his jaw tight, his lips thin.

"What does this mean for us?" Steve asked. His hand settled on Tony's shoulder, his grip firm. Tony caught himself relaxing, and hated it, hated it so goddamn much, even as his body leaned into the touch. "If she doesn't have a personal vendetta about Tony, which is what we've always assumed-"

"We don't know that."

Tony turned on him, rage scorching through him. "I know I don't have the best reputation for remembering the people I've fucked over, but I'm telling you, I-" He stabbed a finger at the screen, his gesture sharp and violent. "Have never seen that woman before. I may have spent a lot of time blackout drunk, but-"

"She's a shapeshifter," Strange said, his voice quiet, and Tony subsided. "She can change her face, her form. Simple glamors, but she was known for them. She spread intrigue and poison by assuming the faces of others, that was a very potent weapon, and she wielded it well."

He took a deep breath. "And more than that-" His eyes closed. "She's a time traveler."

In the silence that followed, it was Steve who said what they were all thinking. "So what she's seeking revenge for..."

"May not have happened yet, yes."

Tony threw his hands in the air. "Well, fan-FUCKING-tastic."

"I'm sorry, but it is a possibility," Strange said, his arms crossed over his chest. "She has expended a lot of energy here, and exposed herself. There's strong malice involved. Chances are, whatever has happened, or will happen, it is no passing insult." He stared up at the image, his face set. "It is something important enough to coax her from her exile."

"So whatever it is, I fuck her over pretty good." Tony gave him a tight lipped smile. "Well, you know what? She went after my kid. She deserves whatever she gets from me.”

“I think we can get behind that,” Clint said. His feet shifted on the floor, rolling his weight forward, braced and ready. “So what now?”

Strange stroked a hand over his mouth. “Now, I go and speak to some contemporaries. We have work to do.” His eyes slid towards Tony, to Steve behind him. “This, as it turns out, has wider repercussions.”

“Can you protect him?” Steve asked.

“Yes.”

“If we-”

Strange's smile was tight and brutal. “I know her. Our paths have crossed before, a long, long time ago.” His eyes were unreadable. “We will protect him.”

In the silence that stretched out after that pronouncement, Reed stood. “And speaking of children, we should collect ours.” And just like that, the tension was broken.

“They can stay for dinner, if they want,” Steve offered. “DJ could use the company, he's going a bit stir crazy.”

“I think they'd like that,” Sue agreed.

“Thank you,” Steve said to her, his voice very soft. “Just. Thank you.”

Sue smiled, her whole face lighting up with it. “We'll always come if you need us,” she said, the words full of warmth. “I owe you about half a million dollars in baby sitting fees, after all.”

“We are the only ones crazy enough to take your kids,” Tony agreed. He nodded at her. “Thank you anyway.”

Sue brushed a kiss across his cheek. “You're welcome.” She gave Steve a look. “Let me know if you want to go see that Klimt retrospective, Pepper and I were talking about Thursday night.”

“Oh, I'm free,” Natasha said, pushing herself upright. “May I impose?”

“Please do,” Sue said. “I don't see nearly enough of you. How was Oslo?”

“Cold. Has it really been that long?”

They left, with Reed trailing a few steps behind them, and Clint a few steps behind him, his gait falling into something like a predatory prowl. Tony knew, without even looking, that he'd follow Reed right up to the door out of the Tower. Amused, Thor walked alongside.

“He's going to shoot Reed again,” Steve said to Phil, who considered that.

“No, he won't. He knows better.”

“No, he doesn't,” Tony said. “He absolutely does not know better.”

“Fine, he knows I'll write him up for it, so he refrains. So he stalks him instead.” Coulson paused. “He likes to think that Reed finds him intimidating,” he said.

“Reed doesn't notice what he's doing,” Tony said. He leaned back against Steve, who slipped an arm around his waist.

“Probably for the best,” Phil agreed. He glanced at Strange. “You'll let us know what we can do to assist?”

“I'll have some intel for you, soon,” Strange told him. “Could you let Bruce know I'll be right down?”

Phil nodded, and gave Tony and Steve a faint smile. “I'll see if SHIELD has anything on her. It wouldn't be the first time we've picked up information without full understanding of what it meant.”

“I'm pretty sure that's about two thirds of what SHIELD has in its files,” Tony said, sardonic, and Steve's arm tightened around his waist before sliding away.

“Thank you,” Steve said to Strange.

“Thank me when we've found her and dealt with her,” Strange replied, a faint smile tugging at hs mouth. “Though I'll admit it's a relief to have a face to match the shadow we've been fighting all these years.”

“It is.” Steve watched them both go, and only after the door slid shut behind Strange did he look at Tony. “How're you doing?”

Tony took a deep breath. "I don't know," he admitted at last. "I don't-" He shook his head, sharp and hard. "All this time. All these years, wondering what I'd done. How I'd fucked up, that he was in danger. I wondered which demon I'd made, that left him vulnerable." He crossed his arms. "It should be a relief to find out that the answer is 'for once, Stark, it's not your fault,' but instead, it's just-" His jaw clamped tight, his fingers digging into his arms with a brutal sort of pressure. "Enraging."

He glanced at Steve. "Pretty stupid, I know."

"Sometimes, it's easier to think we deserve the bad things that happen to us, instead of admitting that there is no rhyme or reason, sometimes," Steve said. He held out a hand, and Tony took it, letting himself be dragged in for a hug. He'd complain about that, about being coddled, about being humored, but Steve's grip was a little too tight, a little too desperate, and Tony relaxed. He wasn't the only one who needed this.

"Karma?" he suggested, his face mostly buried in Steve's shoulder.

"I think karma is you got him," Steve mused. The words were whispered against Tony's hair, soft and still. "That we got him. For all our-"

"Sins?" Tony asked, his voice wry.

Steve leaned back. "Sacrifices," he said, his eyes sad. He smiled anyway. "Karma doesn't have to be bad, Tony."

"Punishment, then," Tony said, just to see Steve's eyes roll up towards the ceiling. He took a deep breath. "If she comes near him again, I will kill her."

There was a moment of silence, and Tony refused to flinch, refused to take it back, to lower his gaze. He just stared at Steve, his jaw locked, rage hot in the pit of his stomach. Steve let out a faint sigh, his body flexing against Tony's grip.

He leaned forward, his lips brushing against Tony's. When he straightened up, he had a slight smile on his face. "Only if I don't get to her first."

Tony nodded. "I've got missiles."

"And I've got a lot of pent up aggression." Steve pressed another kiss to the center of Tony's forehead. “We'll see what comes out on top.”

“Missiles,” Tony muttered against Steve's neck, just to hear him laugh. He looked up. “I love you. Also, I want to punch something so hard, right now.”

“All this aggression and no where to aim it,” Steve said, his voice wry. “Well, Bruce is still down with DJ, and the Fantastkids. Want to spar? Put on the suit, let's go a few rounds.”

“God, yes,” Tony said, every muscle in his body going tense. “I am going to throw you through a damn wall, just so you're prepared, that is, that is something that's going to happen.”

“You can try, Stark.” Steve's eyebrows arched. “It's either that, or we go upstairs and have some really aggressive sex,” he said, and Tony's brain made a sharp right turn.

His hands latched onto the front of Steve's shirt, dragging him in for a long, hot kiss. “Yes,” he breathed, “fuck, yes, let's do that.”

Steve was breathing hard when their lips parted. “I love you,” he said, but his voice was entirely too sweet, too affectionate for what Tony was feeling.

“I love you, too,” he said, his hand still locked on the front of Steve's shirt. “Now, let's go, while the kid's still got a sitter.”

Laughing, Steve went along, willingly enough. “Bet you thought we wouldn't still have to use that, didn't you?”

“So much happier when the kid has a sitter, let's get him sitters all the time, let's get him bodyguards, let's just build him a small army of robot armors to-”

Steve kissed him, and that was probably for the best.

*

“You don't have to do this, you know that, right?”

Lucy glanced at Steve. They sat, side by side, on the stairs outside the workshop. Despite his size, despite his fame, there was something comforting about his presence. There was a quietness about him, a warmth and a directness that made it easy to think of him just as DJ's dad. Only occasionally did she suddenly remember that she was, in fact, talking with Captain America.

That was very strange.

She smiled. “I know,” she said. “But... I guess it can't be easy for him, either.” She realized her arms were crossed over her chest, and she made a deliberate effort to force them back to her sides. “And I don't know if I'll believe it. If I don't see it for myself.”

Steve nodded. “He knows you're coming.” He smiled down at her. “As a matter of etiquette, we call him Dummy when he's a bot, and DJ when he's human. That was the choice he made, when he was just trying to figure this out, and we let him choose his name, as a way of controlling this situation.”

She nodded. “Okay.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes. “Can I ask you a question?”

He smiled. “Of course.”

Lucy took a deep breath. “What if I can't-”

Steve looked at her. “What if you can't handle this?” he asked, his voice gentle.

Lucy nodded. “It's a little weird,” she said.

“Yes, it is.” Steve's chin bobbed. “Look, the way I see it,” he said at last, “summer's over, and your internship is ending, right?” He looked over, and Lucy nodded. “Well, then, in a few days, you'll be heading home.

“If this isn't something you can handle, even if you just don't want to handle it, well.” He nodded. “You can go back home, and it's over. You don't have to talk to him, or email or take a phone call.” His eyes were clear and sharp, and Lucy could see the tenseness around his mouth now. “He won't bother you. If you don't want him to talk to you any more. I promise.”

His heel scraped against the step. “This doesn't have to be a big deal, Lucy.”

She shifted her weight forward, crossing her arms on her knees. “Shouldn't you be trying to talk me into, you know, sticking around?”

Steve smiled. “Forcing people to deal with him, when they're not capable, or uncomfortable, that's not helpful to him. He's learned to handle it, he's learned. But a person he likes, the way he likes you-” He met Lucy's eyes. “He deserves that to be someone who can accept him. Just the way he is.”

Lucy nodded. “Yeah,” she said. She tucked her hair back in her headband. “And if I'm okay with it?”

“Well, then, Ms. Piero, I know a good place for curry, and I can distract Tony from hovering for at least an hour.”

She laughed, a bit too loud and a bit too sharp, and she clapped a hand over her mouth. But Steve was smiling at her. “No matter what you choose, Lucy, it'll be okay.” He raised his eyebrows. “I can get Natasha down here, if that'll help?”

“No, it's fine.” Lucy paused. “She's kinda scary.”

“Only to people she doesn't like,” Steve said. “You're safe.”

“Good to know.” She studied her shoes. “What if the magic wears off?”

He was quiet for a moment, his head tipped forward. “That's a tough one,” he said. He looked at her, his gaze direct. “Lucy, Tony made Dummy when he was seventeen years old. That's part of his PR blitz, I'm sure you've heard the story.”

“A few times,” she said, smiling.

Steve nodded. “his parents had died, just recently. He didn't have many friends. A lot of acquaintances, but... Not many friends. James Rhodes, he was one of the few, and he was Air Force ROTC at the time. He was away, when the Starks died. Nothing he could do about it, but I know he feels guilty about it to this day.” He took a deep breath. “You'll meet him, if you stick around at all, but...

“He wasn't there, no one was there.” Steve shifted his weight, his arms crossing over his chest. “The adults that were supposed to take care of him, either they couldn't cope with him, or they didn't have his best interests in mind, or both, I don't know. But he wasn't much older than you are now, and he was alone.”

Lucy nodded, her fingers tightening on the strap of her bag.

“And the point of this is,” Steve said, his eyes tipping up towards the ceiling, “that it's easy to think that he made Dummy because he wanted something that was just his, that was his creation, something that he could take credit for, something that would separate him from his father.

“But I think, he built Dummy because he needed to have something to love.” His mouth tipped up. “It's easy to think of him being an egotist, of wanting a bot that would serve him, that would be his thing. But I think it's a bit closer to who Tony is to say, he needed, kinda desperately, to have something to love. Something to pour his heart into.

“And tech hadn't betrayed him the way people sometimes had.”

Lucy blinked, and she managed keep the tears from overflowing onto her cheeks. She hoped her nose wasn't running. Judging by the snow white handkerchief that Steve pulled from his pocket and offered to her, she wasn't completely successful. She took it. “Thanks,” she mumbled, mopping at her nose.

Steve smiled at her, his own eyes bright. “I think, and if you tell Tony about this, I'll deny it, young lady, but I think that he built Dummy, just as he is, because he needed something not that would love him, but that wouldn't reject the love he had to offer.”

She nodded. “He wouldn't agree with this interpretation?” she asked, with a smile.

“I can just imagine the look he would give me,” Steve said, his lips quirking up. “He dislikes being regarded as human.” He pushed a hand through his hair. “So, the thing is, I think this spell ended up attached to Dummy simply because, well, he was beloved. Even then. Even as a bot. For all his goofiness, for all his quirkiness, for all that he was, and would be, he was beloved. And sometimes, I think he's still able to control his transformations, because he's known that much love.”

Steve stood. “So I don't know how long the magic will last. Maybe it won't. But for right now? I have DJ and that's enough for me.” He offered her a hand. “Do you want to go in? Or go upstairs?”

She considered his hand. “I want to go in.”

“Okay.”

There were three bots this time. And she knew which one was him by the way he immediately headed in her direction. Steve caught the bot by his support strut. “Hey, hey, hey,” he said, gently chiding. “What're you up to? Slow down, please.”

Dummy's head tipped in his direction, and Steve held up a hand. “High five.” He got one, but it was perfunctory at best. Steve laughed. “I see how it is,” he said. “Meet a nice girl, and suddenly, you're too good for your father.”

Dummy's arm angled in his direction, catching hold of Steve's shirt and tugging. “Okay, okay,” Steve said. He stroked a hand over Dummy's support strut. “Wait here.”

Dummy bounced up and down, his wheels squeaking on the floor. Steve grinned. “No.” Dummy grabbed his shirt again. “No,” Steve said, ignoring the tug on his shirt. “No, I do not, this is not acceptable behavior, mister!” He looked at Lucy. “We'll be right back.”

“I'll be right here,” Lucy agreed. She leaned against the bench. Movement out of the corner of her eye brought her head around, and she found the other two bots creeping around the workbench. “Hi,” she said, and both of the bots retreated, both acting like they were supposed to be somewhere else, rather urgently. It would've worked, except they both tried to occupy the same piece of space simultaneously, and ended up crashing into each other.

Lucy clapped a hand over his mouth. “Hey there,” she said. “Hey, it's okay!” She walked over, and helped them separate. “So, you're Dummy's brothers, huh?” She crouched down. “Glad to have him back?” Their heads bobbed, and she laughed. “You two are awesome.”

“They prefer 'good boy' as a general term of endearment,” Steve said. He had a pile of cloth in one hand and Dummy was zig-zagging along behind him. Furbro was holding onto his head, tail curled around his support strut.

“Good boys,” Lucy said, giving each bot a pat on the head.

“And you have friends for life,” Steve said. He stopped Dummy with one hand. “Stop right there, please.” He walked around the lab bench, stopping next to Lucy. Then he crouched down, until he was about her height. “Okay,” he said, straightening back up. “We're good.” He nodded. “Go ahead, Luce. Say the magic words.”

She froze. “There's... Magic words?”

“Not at all,” Steve said, with a straight face.

“I don't like you any more.” She pursed her lips. “I am going to tell everyone Captain America is a troll.”

“It's just what I deserve.” Steve smiled at her. “Okay, go ahead, Dummy.”

One second, there was a bot, and then, DJ was standing there, grinning at her. “Hi,” he said, and Lucy grinned back.

“Hi,” she said. “Wow, you are-” Her face heating, she looked up at the ceiling. She couldn't see anything, not really, since the workbench covered him from the waist down, but he was bare enough for her to realize that everything was bare right now.

“And this is why I made him stop on this side of the bench,” Steve said. “Because we have a house rule about pants.

“Sorry,” DJ said, and she heard the rustle of fabric, giving it a minute before she risked another look. He was wearing a pair of sweatpants and a smile now, his hair flopping over his brow, his eyes bright. He smiled at her, and she wondered when it became absolutely normal to be smiling at a boy who a minute before had not been a boy, and who she now knew, without a doubt, was not actually wearing underwear.

Who still had a lizard on his head.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Less weird than I thought it would be, honestly,” Lucy said. She felt her face heat. “Are you always- So naked?”

“It's a problem,” Steve said. He leaned in, pushing DJ's hair away from his forehead, and dropping a very gentle kiss there. “All right, I'm going to go keep an eye on your dad,” he told DJ. DJ nodded up at him, and Steve smiled. “I love you, bot boy.”

DJ's eyes rolled. “I love you, too, Steve,” he said.

Steve smiled. “Brat,” he ruffled DJ's hair, yanking his hand back when Furbro nipped at his fingers. “Second generation brat,” he said. He gave Lucy a reassuring smile. “Let me know if you want to go.”

“Thank you.” She was aware, on some level, of him leaving, but she was watching DJ. “So,” she said. “This is... You.”

He nodded. And sank down to the floor, sitting cross legged. “This is me,” he agreed.

Lucy slipped her bag off of her shoulder and set it on the workbench before sinking down to sit facing him. “You can choose. If you're a bot or a human?”

“Yes.”

She thought about that. “Is it hard?” she asked at last. Because that seemed to be the only important thing to ask. “Being human? Is it hard?”

DJ blinked at her, considering that. “Yes.”

Lucy nodded. “Why do you do it, then?”

DJ folded his legs under him. “Have you ever had a dream,” he asked, the voice halting, “where you're doing something, something impossible? But as long as you're dreaming, it's-” He paused, his brow furrowing. “Almost normal?”

Lucy drew her knees up against her chest and leaned her chin on them. “Like, flying or walking on water or something? Yeah.”

“When you're awake, you know it's impossible, but as long as you're asleep...” His smile bloomed, slow and sweet. He reached up, pulling Furbro out of his hair, cupping the lizard between his hands. “The rules are different.”

She thought about that. “That's what being a human is like for you?”

“That's what being a human is like for me,” he agreed. He reached out, one finger unfurling from his hand, and the tip of his index finger brushed against the tip of Lucy's nose, the touch so delicate as to be barely there. And she felt her face heat anyway, from that tiny contact.

“It's worth hard,” he said, his voice soft.

Lucy nodded. She reached out, rubbing a knuckle, then two, against the plane of his cheek. His skin was warm beneath her fingers, and when he blinked, his eyelashes tickled the back of her fingers. Without thinking about it, or maybe thinking about it too much, she leaned in.

He met her halfway, and their noses bumped, their chins, and it was so awkward that she was about to give up when his lips brushed against hers. They both stilled, and leaned back. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes dark, and he smiled at her, laughter in his face even if he didn't make a sound.

He leaned back in, stopping just short of her mouth, and she kissed him, and this kiss was much, much better.

Lucy pulled away, and her face was on fire, and she couldn't quite look him in the eye. Laughter was bubbling up from somewhere low in her chest, and that was fine, that was good, because he was giggling, too. It took a moment for both of them to pull themselves together.

When she was able to form words again, Lucy looked at him. He was smiling, and it was the sweetest thing she'd ever seen. “DJ? Can I ask you something?”

“Yes.”

It was immediate, no question, no thought. Just immediate response. She nodded. “Does it... Hurt? Changing between your forms?”

“No,” he said. “It's tiring. I do it too many times, and I get-” His nose wrinkled up. “It gets harder. I need to eat, or recharge.”

“Which one's your real form?”

DJ's head tipped to the side. “There is no 'real' form,” he said, his voice gentle. “It's always me.” He held up a hand. “No matter what form.” His gaze was steady and calm. “Do you understand?”

Lucy looked down, and realized that he was waiting for something. She brought her hand up and gave him a high five, then let her palm linger on his. “Yes. I'm sorry.”

He grinned. “I'm lucky,” he said. “Most people understand. My family, I mean.” He paused. “Never tried to make me choose. Never tried to make me something I wasn't. Something I couldn't be.” He looked up. “They accept.”

“Accept?”

“They accept me,” he said, his voice quiet. “Lucky. I know that.”

“Oh, you do?” she asked, eyebrows arching.

His smile softened a bit. “Lucy, most of my friends are mutants. And I have the internet.” He paused. “In my head.”

“Well, that's handy.” She nodded. “I guess you do understand, at least a little.” She reached up, playing with a curl. “Do they... Have it bad?”

“It depends. It's different. For everyone.” DJ shifted, his hands on the floor on either side of his hips. “But Steve makes some of them come for Thanksgiving. For Christmas.” His fingers scratched idly at the concrete. “If they don't have anywhere else to go. Or don't have anywhere they want to go.”

“That seems like something Steve would do,” Lucy agreed. “Must be nice.”

“He tells them that they need to come. For me. So I won't be alone.” He considered that, his dark eyes tipping up. “They know it's only partially true.”

Lucy grinned. “And your dad?”

“Complains about what trouble all the guests are, then overdoes everything,” DJ said. “I like having them. I like that they can come.”

“I can see that.” Lucy's teeth dug into her lower lip. “It's rude. But-” She pulled her hand away. “Can I see your other form?”

DJ laughed. “Yes.” He looked down. “Pants, make it hard. I can do it, but-” He made a face. “Fabric gets in the way.”

“Oh.” Her eyes went wide. “OH!” Laughing, she covered her eyes with both hands. “I won't peek.”

“Thank you,” he said. There was the rustle of fabric, and Lucy reminded herself that she absolutely was not an abusive pervert who would peek at a friend when he was naked. Even if it was really, really tempting.

Then there was a light little tug on her sleeve. She peeked between her fingers, and Dummy was there, his camera tipped up towards her. Lucy stared at him. “Hi,” she said, and held up a hand. The bot's arm tilted, claw rotating. And then his claw tapped against her hand.

Lucy nodded. “Okay,” she said, a smile growing over her face. “I suppose it would be weird to ask to see how you work, huh?”

Dummy's head bobbed in a nod.

“Okay, then.” Lucy reached up, her fingers sliding over Dummy's support strut. “Bet I can figure it out.”

*

“That girl is shameless.”

“Tony, turn off the security feed.”

Tony gestured at the screen. “Did you see- Did you-” He slumped back in his chair. “My God, Steve. We have to nip this in the bud.”

“This?” Steve said, not even looking up from his newspaper.

“This- Relationship.” Tony glared at the screen. “Shameless. She is all over him.”

“Two little kisses are not 'all over him.'” Steve said, amused. “Jarvis-”

“Who cares about kissing?” Tony asked, throwing his hands in the air. “She is trying to. Reverse. Engineer. Him.” Steve looked at him. Tony pointed at the screen. Steve went back to his newspaper. Tony gaped at him. “Steven Grant Rogers! She is trying to REVERSE ENGINEER YOUR SON.”

“Uh-huh.” Steve reached for his coffee. “So this isn't about our son at all. This is an engineering pissing contest.”

Tony stared at him. “You are taking the absolute wrong thing from this conversation,” he pointed out.

“What, the truth? Yes, it's inconvenient when I do that, isn't it?” Steve took a sip of his coffee. “And what was that you were saying about 'who cares about kissing?'”

“Wrong thing,” Tony said. “Here we go again. With you paying attention to the wrong thing.”

“Because I do,” Steve said. He gave Tony a look, his eyebrows arched. “I like kissing a whole lot.”

“Can we focus?” Tony asked him.

“I can, but I like making you focus less on the wrong thing, and more on the right thing,” Steve said. He reached out a hand, catching Tony's hand. “Turn off the security feed, Jarvis.”

“What? No, do not turn off the security feed, Jarvis, don't. She's going to disassemble him,” Tony said.

“No, she's not.” Steve tugged him down, his eyes dancing.

“And, by the way? Your little theory? That is bullshit.”

“I knew you'd like that one.” Smiling, Steve leaned up, kissing Tony's lips.

“You're wrong.”

“Uh-huh. Kiss me, Stark, and you can lecture me in the afterglow.”

*

"There. How does that feel?"

DJ opened one eye, then the other. For a second, everything was blurry, probably because he'd had them squeezed shut so hard. He blinked a few more times, until Strange's amused face came into focus. Strange raised an eyebrow, one hand still hovering over the pages of a floating book, greenish yellow light swirling around him like fog. "Well?"

DJ opened his mouth and sneezed. It was hard enough to snap his head forward, and he buried his face in his elbow before the next one hit. Strange winced, and pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket. "That's normal," he said, sympathetic.

DJ fumbled for the handkerchief, his eyes watering. "Doesn't feel normal," he said, mopping at his nose. "Thank you."

"Normal is a relative term, as you well know." Strange took a seat, whisking at his coat with one imperious hand. The light dissipated, and he leaned back with a sigh. His eyes closing, he held out a hand, and the book fell into his palm. He closed it with a snap and a puff of dust, and DJ sneezed again. "Sorry," Strange said.

"'S all right," DJ said, sitting down. He blew his nose again. "Don't think you want this back, though."

"I'm guessing you're correct." Strange's head tipped in his direction. "Truly now. How do you feel?"

DJ considered that, rolling his shoulders. "Tired," he said at last, because he didn't have the words to describe any of the rest of it. The way his bones seemed to flex with his every movement. The way the smallest movement made him aware of his joints, like they were engine parts with improper lubrication. The way that it took him too long to focus on detail, the world swirling into an indistinct morass.

"Sore," he added.

Strange stared at him, his dark eyes steady. Then he reached out, the tips of his fingers flaring pale pink just before they brushed against DJ's forehead, then down the side of his face. The contact was fleeting, and a subtle, soft warmth followed behind the touch. His hand fell away, and he sat back again. "How's that?"

DJ took a breath, a small one at first, then deeper, his chest expanding. "Better..." he said at last. Strange flicked him on the tip of the nose, and DJ sneezed again, a bluish puff of smoke slipping through his fingers, his whole body jerking hard enough to make the chair move. But when he straightened up, wiping his nose again, his body felt right again. "Much better."

"Good." Strange picked up his book from the arm of the chair, and flipped it open. "We're almost done." His head bent over the pages, he asked, "Is there anything else that's causing problems?"

“My family,” DJ said, and Strange laughed.

“I can't do much about them, I'm afraid.” He took a deep breath. “That's about all I can do for you, for now. I'm still looking at protective spells, but-” He stopped. "DJ, you have to understand. She may come back. I can't stop that. I can give you all the protection I can, but this was-" He turned away, his eyes going hooded. "Unexpected. We were not prepared for a frontal assault like this. And it could happen again. She could come back, and if she does, she is a threat not only to you, but to everyone around you. Everyone who loves you, and everyone who happens to be in your vacinity."

He folded his hands, his head coming back around to DJ. "I can teach you to defend yourself."

"Tasha and Clint did that," DJ said. "And Steve."

Strange smiled. "When it comes to physical attacks, I think you have had a great deal of tutors, which is good, because I am many things, but a master of the martial arts, I am not." He leaned forward. "I'm not talking about that. I'm talkng about teaching you magic."

DJ stared at him. "I can't do magic."

Strange smiled. "Actually, you probably can." He rested his elbows on his knees, folding his hands together, his body bowed, as if he was tired. "There is a spark of magic in you. More than a spark, if we're being honest. You are a construct of a very powerful spell, that the caster can no longer properly control."

He straightened up. "The magic isn't hers any longer, DJ. It's yours. Something changed, something very elemental, something that had everything to do with you, with who you are. She lost control of it, or you stole it. In any case, she likely wants the energy that resides within you back, but I doubt she can reintegrate it at this point. It's not longer the same that it was.

"That means, you can learn. How much, or how good you will be, that's not something I can predict. But you can learn." He smiled, just a little, his cheeks creasing. "You are clever, and precise, and DJ, whether your father likes to admit it or not, you are a creature of magic."

DJ's nose wrinkled. "Don't want to be."

Strange chuckled. "There are many things we don't want to be, DJ. All of us have things we don't want to be, but it does not change who we are. You can battle yourself, or you can make peace with it, and use it." His fingers flexed, and DJ was pretty sure he didn't know he was doing it, but Strange's hands moved, delicate little flicks of movement, one finger after another. "We can't change where we come from, what makes us up. The only change we can make is how we use what we have."

He leaned forward, his restless hands folding together on his lap. "Your magic can be a liability, if we continue to ignore it. Or it can be a very powerful weapon." DJ couldn't understand the expression that was on Strange's face, the smile seemed wrong somehow, like it didn't belong. "You can use it to protect the people you love, so they don't have to protect you."

DJ's fingers dug into the fabric of his jeans. "Dad won't like it."

"I know. Which is why I'm asking you. And not him." Strange took a deep breath. "It's your choice, though, DJ. He's always done everything possible to keep you safe."

"So have you."

Strange smiled, and this one seemed to fit his face, seemed right. "I'm pleased you think so." He rubbed at his temple with stiff fingers. "It's hard, to be honest. I sometimes wonder what we've done to you."

DJ thought about that, his eyes tipping up. "What had to be done," he said at last.

"I wonder," Strange repeated. He met DJ's eyes. "But this choice is yours. And only yours.”

“She could've killed Lucy,” he said, his voice quiet.

“Yes.”

DJ reached up, the knuckles of one hand rubbing back and forth over his breastbone. When he inhaled, he felt his chest expand, felt the pulse accelerate. But he didn't feel panicked, or even scared.

He felt fine.

"When do we start?" he asked Strange.

"We already have."