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Fairy Tales and Clockwork Hearts

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He wasn't sure if they were nightmares.

He didn't understand nightmares. Not really. The word was one of those that held no meaning for him, no matter how often it was explained, or defined. He would turn it over in his mind, examining it from all angles, the way the letters fit together, the way other people would use it around him. He would think about that word and still not understand.

He wasn't sure if he had nightmares. But he was sure he had dreams, and some of them were bad. That seemed to be enough.

“DJ?”

DJ curled up tighter, his knees up against his chest, his fingers locked on his pillow, his breath coming in short, hard gasps. Everything was as small as he could make it, hiding himself from some unknown threat.

“Dummy?”

He wished Jarvis would stop talking. Would stop calling attention to him. He could hear the thud of his pulse thundering his ears, and it seemed impossible that it wouldn't be audible to anyone or anything around him. He buried his face under his pillow, stifling the sound of his breathing.

“DJ. It is all right. You are safe.”

Jarvis didn't lie to him. He knew that. He knew that Jarvis had always protected him. But knowing it didn't change anything, didn't change the fear.

“Take a breath, DJ. Through your nose. In. Hold it. And release.”

He followed the instructions without even thinking. It was nice not to think. To have Jarvis' slow, even, familiar voice drowning out the drumming of his pulse. Little by little, he managed to smooth out his breathing. Managed to relax his fingers, which ached now with the force of his grip.

“DJ, I have to notify sir if you do not speak to me.”

It took him three tries, more maybe more, but he was pretty sure that it was three tries, before he was able to choke out a single word, “Don't.”

“Thank you,” Jarvis said.

“Welcome.” The second word was easier, and DJ scrubbed at his face with the heel of his hand. His cheeks were wet, and he sniffed, hard.

“Shall I call sir for you?”

DJ chewed on his lower lip. The shadows of his room, normally so easily identified, were magnified now, and he hated the way this mind worked sometimes, hated the way that he couldn't trust his new senses. Everything was too loud and too bright and his skin hurt all the time, a constant barrage of sensation that he couldn't handle.

“Want Steve,” he whispered.

“Shall I call him for you?”

DJ chewed on his lower lip. “No,” he said. His room was suddenly foreign, and he didn't want to be here anymore. He crawled out of bed, and outside of his blankets, he found himself shaking. The cold was a shock, and he wrapped his arms around his chest, holding himself together as his feet hit the floor.

For an instant, he lost his shape, lost himself, and then he was back, two tiny feet cold on the floor, ten fingers digging into the fabric of his shirt and the skin beneath. He took a breath, savoring it, focusing on the way it settled in his chest. Sometimes, he concentrated on trying to feel the air hit his blood, but he never managed that.

He wondered if normal people could. Or if they even bothered to try.

He knew the way through the tower, knew where to turn and what hallways to take, with Jarvis his constant companion the whole way. Lights came on as he entered new areas, a comforting glow that surrounded him the entire way to their door.

DJ raised his hand, reaching for the door knob. His fingers stilled, not quite touching the metal, and after a second, he retreated, his fingers curling back into his palm as he pulled his hand back. The low light gleamed on the door knob, and he stared at it, a strange sense of need making his fingers twitch.

“It is fine,” Jarvis said, his voice falling into coaxing tones. “Go ahead.”

DJ let his hand rest on the door, his fingers spread. “Sleeping?”

There was a pause. “Yes. But you know the rules, DJ. If you are afraid, you must go find someone. Or I will find someone for you.”

DJ leaned his weight into his hand, pressing against the door. “Not afraid,” he said, but it sounded like a lie, even to him. He scrunched his eyes shut. “Not afraid.”

Jarvis was silent for a moment, then he said, “Everyone is scared sometimes,” he said. “But you don't have to be scared and alone, DJ. That is so much worse.”

DJ squeezed his eyes shut and his fingers into a fist, and knocked on the door.

“Thank you, DJ,” Jarvis said, and DJ started to breathe again.

Almost immediately, Steve opened the door, one hand still pulling a shirt down over his chest. His face was worried, and DJ tried to give him a smile. It didn't feel right, it felt like a lie, but he tried so hard to keep it on his face.

“Hey,” Steve said, crouching down in front of DJ. “Are you okay?” He reached out, one hand smoothing DJ's hair away from his eyes. DJ nodded, leaning into the steady warmth of Steve's fingers. Steve's face relaxed. “Did you have a bad dream?”

DJ's hands twisted in the fabric of his shirt, his fingers pulling hard. He nodded.

Steve's fingers cupped DJ's face. “Do you want to talk about it?”

DJ's stomach rolled over, and he shook his head, hard.

“Okay,” Steve said, easily enough. “Your dad's still asleep. Do you want to wake him up, or can you just settle for me?”

DJ blinked at him, chewing on his lower lip. He struggled with the words, and couldn't manage it. “You,” he whispered.

“Okay. Can I have a hug?” Steve held out his hands, and DJ lunged for him, his arms going around Steve's neck in desperation. Steve's arms wrapped around him, holding him close. “It's okay,” he whispered against DJ's hair. “It's all right. It was just a bad dream. You're safe, Deej. It's going to be fine. We love you, and nothing bad is going to happen to you.” He kissed DJ on the top of his head, on his forehead. “I promise, baby. I won't let anything bad happen to you, all right?”

DJ's fingers dug into the fabric of Steve's shirt. “Scared,” he whispered, and Steve's arms tightened.

“Do you want to stay here tonight? You can wear one of my shirts?” Steve asked, and DJ nodded against his shoulder. “Okay, we can do that,” Steve said, his arms relaxing. He pulled away, and DJ took a step back, scrubbing the back of his hand over his nose. Steve caught his wrist, his fingers gentle. “Let's go get cleaned up.” He scooped DJ up and slipped back into the darkened space of the bedroom.

DJ looped an arm around Steve's shoulders, blinking hard as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. He could make out the still form of his father, half buried in a pile of blankets and pillows. He grinned against Steve's shoulder as Steve walked them to the bathroom, his feet silent on the carpet.

Seating DJ on the counter beside the sink, Steve handed over a tissue. “Blow,” he said, and DJ mopped at his nose. “Good try,” Steve said, smiling. He took the tissue and held up a wet facecloth. He wiped DJ's face, a couple of quick swipes at his cheeks, then handed it over for DJ to scrub at his face. “All set?” he asked, when DJ handed it back.

“Yes,” DJ said, and the word was hard, but he always tried. He tried, because when he was too quiet for too long, Steve got that weird look on his face that DJ couldn't understand. He didn't understand it, but he didn't like it.

So he tried. Even the smallest word took effort. But he tried.

“Okay, wait just a second and we'll go find you a shirt,” he said, but DJ wiggled down and was out the door before he could make a grab. By the time Steve got everything cleaned up, and came after him, DJ was already shoving himself into one of Steve's sweatshirts. “Not that one,” Steve told him. “You're going to overheat.”

DJ zipped it up, ignoring the way the fabric rolled over his hands, making even that simple task nearly impossible. Safely cocooned, he grinned up at Steve, who smiled back down at him. “This one,” DJ whispered.

“Tell me if you get too warm,” was all that Steve said, taking DJ's hand through the sleeve. “Bed, c'mon, it's late.”

Steve slid into bed and reached out for DJ, who clambered up into his lap. Steve brushed a kiss against his forehead, and pulled the hood of the sweatshirt up over his head. DJ giggled, pushing it back, far enough to see Steve smile down at him. “Story?” he asked, his voice soft.

“Go to sleep,” Steve whispered back.

“Tell the kid a story,” Tony mumbled, his face still buried in his pillow.

“Go back to sleep,” Steve told him, kissing DJ on the forehead.

“Can't. Want a story,” Tony said. DJ giggled, and Tony rolled over. His eyes were at half-mast as he smiled at DJ. “I can't sleep unless I get one.”

“You're encouraging him,” Steve told him, reaching out to play with Tony's hair.

“I thought we were supposed to encourage him.” Tony yawned and swatted at Steve's hand. “What're you, stop. Stop, get off, you-”

Steve chuckled. “I like it when you're half asleep. You're helpless.”

“The world must never know about Captain America's secret streak of cruelty,” Tony said. His eyes slid shut.

“I'll do my best to keep it hidden.” DJ tugged at his shirt, and Steve glanced down at him. “You don't need a story,” Steve told him, and DJ frowned. “You don't,” Steve said, his lips twitching. DJ nodded. “Oh, you do?” DJ nodded even harder.

“Coney Island story,” Tony said, his eyes closed.

“Not helping,” Steve told him.

“Coney Island story,” DJ agreed.

Steve leaned forward, bumping his forehead against DJ's. “Go to sleep,” he said, and DJ giggled. “Fine, one story,” he said. He shifted back, leaning into the pillows. “Did I tell you about the time that Bucky made me ride the Cyclone?” he asked. DJ nodded.

“Like nine hundred times,” his dad said.

“Good. You'll be bored and you'll fall asleep faster.”

Tony smothered his laughter in his pillow, and DJ curled up tight, snuggling down into the warmth of the worn sweatshirt and Steve's arms. He tucked his cheek against Steve's chest, listening to the steady beat of Steve's heart and the soft, calm rise and fall of his words. He let his eyes drift closed.

He wondered if he'd ever have the words to explain. If he'd ever have a way to make Steve understand, that it was never settling. That Steve was the one he came looking for.

It was always Steve who chased away his nightmares.

*Several years later*

Her academic adviser had tried to warn her. Hell, everyone had tried to warn her. The internship would look good on her resume, on her college applications, everyone agreed with that. It was a once in a lifetime chance, they agreed with that, too.

But StarkIndustries was kind of weird. Everyone was very clear about that. StarkIndustries was just a strange sort of place.

Lucy Piero had to take a step back, to check the tablet that she was carrying. To check that she was the only one from the internship program assigned to run the checks today. She'd headed down to this, one of the less important server banks, to run some carefully prescribed tests and check on everything. It wasn't really a job that needed doing, but the IS department hadn't had anything else to do with her.

So she'd been sent down here. To do some busy work. Alone, but that was fine, too. Everyone had boring jobs today, it was Wednesday and things were boring. It could've been worse, she'd told herself the entire elevator ride down. She could be stuck with Liesl and Waris down in the archives.

Lucy shuddered. Archives. Paper and dust, decades of paper and dust, to be scanned and uploaded. The thought alone was enough to aggravate her allergies.

So she'd been happy enough to be told to go check on the wires in some server room that was probably the back up of a back up of a back up. Flicking through the files they'd given her, she hadn't even been sure it was used at all. She'd been looking forward to a quiet afternoon of obsessive compulsive tech poking, which was, after all, her favorite kind. She'd expected to find herself alone, right until she'd walked through the door of the server room.

And found that there was a kid sitting on top of one of the server banks.

Maybe fifteen or sixteen, he was slim, and long-limbed, dressed in a pair of cargo pants and a battered, faded t-shirt that was stretched a little too tight across his shoulders. His feet were bare, incongruous against the backdrop of the whirring machinery. He had one hand braced on the edge of the server box, one long finger wrapped in an Avengers Band-Aid.

For a moment, Lucy just stood there, her mouth agape. "What," she said at last, "are you DOING?"

He glanced down at her, his eyes blinking under a mass of black hair. He had a wide, mobile mouth and a dark, winged brows over bright eyes. They were the color of warm maple syrup, rich dark brown at the center, fading to a golden amber brown at the edge of the irises, and framed with almost ludicrously long black lashes.

His head tipped to the side, an inquisitive little twitch of his chin. His smile was slow to bloom, but lit his face. “It's you," he said, and his voice was warm. "Hello."

Lucy stared at him. "Hi," she said at last. "Repeating now. What the hell are you doing?"

"Oh." He blinked slowly, as if he was thinking hard on something, those long lashes coming down in a slow sweep. "Looking for something."

And with that, he went back to peering behind the server rack. As she watched, he shifted, lying flat on top of the metal frame, reaching down behind the neat rows of servers.

“Are you in the intern program?” she asked. He had to be. He was too young for anything else, just about her age. “I don't know you. I thought I knew everyone in the intern program.”

“I'm not.”

“How old are you?” she asked.

His head came up. Another slow, careful blink. “Biologically, chronologically, or mentally?” he asked.

He said it with such care that she couldn't hold back a laugh. “Okay. I'm Lucy.”

“Yes. Lucy Piero. I know you.”

She opened her mouth. Closed it. Took a deep breath. “Okay, well, I don't know you.”

“Oh.” He blinked down at her. “I'm DJ.”

“Hi, DJ.” She arched her eyebrows. “Two questions.”

“Yes?”

“How do you know me?”

“I know everyone. Everyone in the building.” He shifted, and Lucy waited for him to kick something loose, or break something, but somehow he managed to sit there without disturbing so much as a wire. She was more impressed by that than she should be.

“Okay,” she said, because she wasn't sure if she wanted to know how he knew everyone in the building because it was a damn big building. “Where are your shoes?”

“I don't know.”

“Did you come to work without shoes?” she asked, grinning.

“Third question,” he pointed out.

“Was there a limit?”

“You said you only had two.”

“I have like, a billion questions at this point and that number just keeps climbing, because, really, you do not make sense.” She leaned against the rack, watching as he tried to reach behind it again. “What, exactly, are you doing?”

“I need you to come out now,” he said to the servers.

Lucy tapped her tablet against the metal frame of the server rack. “Are you- Are you talking to the servers?”

“I am not talking to the servers.” He paused, his head tipping to the side. “Well. Sometimes I do. Pretty often.” His eyes came back to Lucy's, those long lashes dipping in a slow blink. “But not this time.”

“Do they talk back?” she asked.

“If they didn't, I'd be worried.” He sat up, running a hand through his hair. “You are making this very hard.”

Lucy was pretty sure he wasn't talking to her, but it was hard to tell. “If you're not talking to the servers, who are you talking to?”

“He's behind the servers.”

Lucy eyed the gap between the server rack and the wall. It was pretty tight, only wide enough for the wires. She fished her phone out and switched it the the flashlight app, holding it up to the narrow gap between the rack and the wall. For a long moment, she couldn't see anything, just a neatly arrayed and controlled web of wires. She opened her mouth, about to say so, and then something blinked at her.

Lucy jerked backwards, bobbling her phone. She caught it before it could hit the ground, both hands clapping against it. “What-” She took a breath. “What is that?”

“There you are.”

The voice came from right behind her, and she jerked around, her hands coming up defensively. DJ backed off immediately, his eyes wide. “Sorry,” he said.

“Jeez, you are QUIET,” Lucy told him. “What are you, part cat?”

That won her another long blink, the one that she was already starting to recognize. “No,” he said at last. Another blink. “Not that I know.”

“Yeah, well, back off, mister, I have space requirements.”

He nodded. “Steve says there are certain areas of a girl that you don't touch without permission.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? And what... Areas are those?”

DJ waved a hand from the top of her head down towards her feet. “All of them.”

That startled a laugh out of her. “You know what? I think I'd like Steve.”

“Everyone does,” he said. “I didn't mean to get so close. I just thought I could see over your shoulder.”

“That's fine. You startled me,” she said. “Try to make noise, okay? I'm loud. I drown out quiet people.”

He smiled. “I'll try.”

“Okay,” Lucy said. She pointed at the gap. “What is that?”

“What I'm looking for.” He moved around her, setting a hand against the wall. “Come out.”

“What is it?”

“A friend.” DJ twisted around, sticking his hand into the gap. It was obvious pretty much immediately that it wasn't going to fit. The rack was too close to the wall, and he backed off after only a few seconds of trying. He crouched down, checking how the racks were secured.

“What is it?” Lucy asked, peering into the darkness. She held up her phone again. And right there, clinging to a bundle of wires, was a little lizard. It blinked at her, its head tipping from one side to the other. “Aw, hello, cutie.” She glanced at DJ. “It's a lizard?”

“Something like that,” he said, his voice apologetic. “He hides sometimes.”

Lucy eyed the gap. “I bet I can reach him. Will he bite?”

“No.” He leaned against the rack. “He will not.”

She studied him. “Are you telling me that? Or the lizard?”

“Both,” DJ admitted.

“Well, at least you're honest.” Lucy pushed her sleeve up. “Should I grab him, or-”

“Just get close. He likes being held. He'll crawl onto your hand.” DJ smiled at her. “Thank you.”

“Thank me after I get the little guy out of there.” She took a deep breath and reached back, letting her fingers slide through the nest of wires, wiggling them as she went. “Come on, little guy, do not make us roll this rack and potentially cause some disaster that will get me fired and doom my chances of getting a good job someday. Why would you do that to me?”

“Why would he do that?” DJ asked, and he was close again, close enough that she was aware of him. Somehow, though, he didn't feel threatening. She glanced at him, and he was frowning into the gap, his face worried.

“Hopefully, he won't.” She leaned a little closer, and felt a tiny touch on her finger. She flinched, just a bit, and it retreated. “C'mon,” she whispered, looking back towards the wires. “Come on out.” Her voice fell to the soft, coaxing tone she used on her cat when he was on top of the shelves. “It's okay, baby. Come on.”

She felt the little feet brush against her finger, and then, just like that, the lizard was crawling into her palm. Carefully, making sure not to knock him off on any of the wires, she pulled her arm back out of the gap. “Hi, there.”

The lizard clung to her fingertip, curling his tail around her palm. Lucy held him up, rubbing his head with a careful finger. “Hello,” she said, smiling down at him as he arched up against the touch. “What's his name?” she asked DJ.

“Furbro.”

Lucy stared at him. “What?” she asked, grinning despite herself.

“Furbro,” DJ repeated. He made no move to take the lizard away from her.

“You know he doesn't have any fur, right? That's... Not a surprise for you, is it?” she asked, her hand stilling. Furbro set his mouth on the side of her finger, not biting, per sae, just calling attention to the fact that she was no longer petting him. “Hey, now,” she said.

“Don't do that,” DJ told him, and Furbro backed off, rubbing his head against her fingers. “Sorry,” he said to Lucy.

“It's okay, it didn't even hurt.” She held the lizard up. “Does he know you don't have fur?”

“He used to,” DJ said.

“He- Used to?” Lucy stared at him. “I do not know what to make of that statement.”

There was a subtle, soft ping, ringing clearly through the air like the chiming of a clock, and DJ's eyes got wide. “What time is it?”

Caught off guard, Lucy looked at the tablet, still resting on the server. “Two forty-five?”

“Oh.” He winced, his lips pulling back from his teeth. “Oh. That's not good.”

“What's not good?”

“I'm late,” he said. He held out a hand. “Furbro, come.” The lizard nuzzled Lucy's fingers and then leapt, landing neatly in the center of DJ's palm. “Thank you.”

“Hey, anytime.” She picked up her tablet, watching as DJ snagged a sweatshirt with a faded SHIELD logo on the back, and shrugged into it. It was too big for him, but he shoved the sleeves up, as Furbro scrambled up his arm, disappearing into the sweatshirt at the nape of DJ's neck and reappearing on his other shoulder. He stuck his head out from the edge of the shirt. DJ reached up and nudged him back in.

“Lucy? Don't tell anyone about him, please? No one knows about him. So don't tell?”

“What, that you brought your lizard to work and he got loose? Yeah, I won't, but you shouldn't have him here. If he got into the vents or something, you'd never find him. Or he could get hurt,” she pointed out.

“He knows his way around. And I can always find him.” DJ's smile was sweet and warm.

“But you can't find your shoes?”

He paused. “I don't like my shoes.”

“Well, that's some logic for you,” she said, hugging her tablet to her chest. But she was smiling despite herself. “Honestly, I don't like the damn things either.”

The chime came again, a slow and inexorable toll, and he slapped a hand against his hip. “I know, I know,” he said, to no one in particular. “Thank you, Lucy.”

“Hey.” She waited until he turned around to continue, “You should come have lunch with the rest of the interns one of these days. I mean, I don't know what department they put you in, but they have to give you a lunch break, right? You can eat with us.”

She was getting used to that slow blink. “I eat,” he said.

“Yeah? So come eat with us. We're obnoxious, but hey. It's a thing.” Lucy gave him a smile, and he smiled back. She tucked the mass of her thick, curly hair back behind her ear, away from her face. “Give it a try. Just don't take Marco up on his offer to try his chili. That stuff could strip paint off of a metal drum.”

“Spicy? I like spicy.”

“Me,too. This should be classified as toxic.” She grinned. “So, come on down some day, okay?”

DJ smiled. “Thank you, Lucy.” He zipped up the sweatshirt, and tucked Furbro's head back into the neck. And with a wave, he headed out the door and out of sight.

Lucy stopped. Looked down at her tablet. Looked around the room. She frowned down at the computer. “Was there-” She peered around a corner, then backed up and checked behind the other row of server racks. “I could've sworn that there was someone else here...”

But the room was empty.

Frowning, Lucy went back to work. For the rest of the afternoon, though, she caught herself rubbing her thumb against a strange sore spot on the side of her finger.

*

“You are late.”

“I know, Jarvis.” DJ skidded around the corner, his feet catching as he threw himself forward again. The doors to the elevator opened as he approached at full speed, and he slipped in. Jarvis closed the doors behind him and started the elevator moving without DJ even having to prompt him. “And I'm not late. I have-” He checked his phone. “Six minutes.”

“Six minutes. And you look a mess, I cannot believe you. You are lucky I did not interrupt and tell you, in no uncertain terms, that it was time to go.”

DJ rolled his eyes.

“I saw that.”

“You see everything!”

“Yes. I do.” The elevator came to a stop, and DJ sprinted out of the doors as soon as he could squeeze through the gap. “So you ought to stop trying to hide things from me.”

“I'm not hiding anything.”

“You are trying to, but no. You are not hiding a single thing from me.” Jarvis' voice was tight and angry. “From your father? From Steve? Yes. But from me? There is no hiding anything, so you might as well cease to try and do it, DJ Stark. I am in short temper with you, and I dislike having to hunt you down.”

“If you know everything, why do I have to tell you?” DJ asked, with his usual logic. “You know. So I don't have to tell you anything at all.”

“It is the principle of the matter, young man, and you will cease trying to hide your experiments from me!”

“Not experiments,” DJ said, running hard through the workshop, vaulting over a bench and nearly crashing into a couple of stools. He caught one of his father's more delicate pieces and tossed it carelessly onto the next bench. He was pretty sure he heard it break, but he could fix it.

Probably.

“I know very well what you're trying to do with hard light generators,” Jarvis said, and DJ winced. “Oh, yes. You are lucky I do not-”

“Don't tell Dad,” DJ said in a rush.

“It would serve you right if I did. Also about your conversation with-”

“Jaaaaarvis,” DJ whined. He crouched down, grabbing a pair of battered shoes from under the workbench and hopping in a circle as he jammed first one foot, then the other, into the dang things. “Don't!”

There was a pause. “She's very nice.”

DJ grinned down at the floor. “She's brilliant,” he said.

“So you say. Do not poke into the employment files, that is an invasion of privacy, young man.”

“I haven't!” He sprinted back to the door. “Is he here yet?”

“Mr. Warren is on his way up. I will delay his elevator's arrival.”

DJ grinned up at the nearest camera. “Thank you, Jarvis.”

Jarvis snorted. “Thank me by being on time next time.”

“Yes, Jarvis.”

*

“Mr. Warren says hello. And Dad's home. Early.” DJ skidded through the kitchen, pausing only for a moment to tap his fingers on the edge of the table. “He's on his way up.”

"Thank you. Hey, Deej?” Steve said, without even looking up from his paperwork. “That sweatshirt looks familiar,"

DJ tugged the hood over his head as he bounced past. "No," he said, and Steve could hear the laughter in his voice.

"Uh-huh." Still focusing on his work, Steve reached out with one hand and snagged the back of the sweatshirt, dragging him to a stop. "Looks a lot like my sweatshirt."

DJ glanced in his direction, the hood hanging down well over his nose. His smile was infectious. "It's not."

"Hands up."

DJ lifted up his arms, and the sleeves hung over his fingers by several inches. "Stop stealing my clothes, you little rat," Steve said, chuckling under his breath.

DJ peeked out from under the hood, grinning. "Looks better on me."

Steve pointed at him. "You have your own clothes, which are actually your size. Stop. Taking. Mine." He knew that the way he was grinning undermined the whole thing, but he couldn't seem to help it.

DJ's nose wrinkled. “I like yours.”

“So do I.” Steve shook his head. “And I can't fit into yours.”

“Maybe you could,” DJ said, with a hopeful smile. His brown eyes, so like his fathers, were warm and glinting.

“Yeah, that'd be funny to see.” He went back to his work. “Ask next time.”

“Thank you!” DJ bounced across the floor, nearly crashing into Tony as he entered the kitchen.

“Whoa, there, speedy, watch it,” Tony said, catching DJ by the shoulders.

“Welcome home,” DJ said.

“Thanks, brat. I haven't gotten your upgrade reports yet, can't help but notice that.” Tony pushed the hood back. “Oh, look, there's a kid here under all the fabric.”

“Getting to it!” He gave Tony a brief hug, then ducked out the kitchen door.

“Put it in the laundry when you're done with it, and not in the back of your closet!” Steve called after him.

“Is he stealing clothes again?” Tony asked.

“Pretty sure those were Clint's pants and your t-shirt. I know that was my sweatshirt,” Steve said, amused. “I doubt he was wearing anything that was purchased for him.”

Tony pointed a finger in Steve's direction. “Not true. He usually respects us enough not to swipe anyone's underwear.”

“Small mercies.” Smiling, Steve leaned back in his chair, and Tony brushed a light kiss across his mouth as he walked past, his fingers sliding over Steve's shoulders and curling against the nape of Steve's neck.

“Missed you,” he said, the words whispered against Steve's mouth.

“Missed you, too. How'd it go?” Steve kicked out with one foot, pushing another chair away from the table. Tony dropped into it with a groan.

“Getting way too old for this shit,” he complained.

“I'd take that more seriously if you hadn't been saying it since the day I met you, and also if I thought that it would actually cause you to scale back on your workload,” Steve said, pointing a pen in Tony's direction.

“I come to you for sympathy, a little understanding, and this is what I get?” Tony slipped one of Steve's reports from his pile.

“You wouldn't know what to do with sympathy,” Steve said, grinning. “You need constant needling in order to remain sharp.”

“I could use a little coddling,” Tony said. “Just saying. I wouldn't turn it down.” He leafed idly through the report until Steve took it back. “I have a very hard life.”

“I love how you manage to say that with a straight face,” Steve said, resting his chin on one hand. “And without a trace of shame.”

“It's a talent,” Tony agreed. His eyes dancing, he reached for another folder, and Steve pulled them out of reach. “Hey, I'm trying to-”

Steve caught Tony's tie in one hand and tugged him in for a kiss. This one was deeper, and warmer, but just as familiar on his lips. “Let me finish,” he said. “And tonight? We can go to dinner.” He smiled. “Just you and me.”

“Date night?”

“I like date night,” Steve said.

Tony made a face. “Pepper says I have a thing tonight that I cannot miss. She said it in that way of hers, you know, that way that means that if I don't show up, she'll show up here looking for me. Maybe with a weapon of some sort. I should never have armed her. It was not my best choice, since the only one she threatens is me.”

Steve bit back a smile. “I had your PA put me on your schedule. Pepper likes me, God bless her, so I'm sure it's still there.”

Tony grinned at him. “The thing is you?”

“I am the thing,” Steve agreed.

“I am constantly caught off guard by your little moments of strategic brilliance,” Tony said. “It smacks of manipulation, and I enjoy that.”

Steve tapped his pen against the report. “I noticed that.”

“Oh, you did, did you?”

“Once or twice in the last few years.” Steve went back to his work. “You've got three hours. Go get cleaned up, then get bored, muck around with your latest mechanical monstrosity, thus messing yourself up again, then get cleaned up again so that we can go out and have a nice dinner.”

“I'm not that predictable.”

Steve gave him a look. “Really, Tony?”

“I'm only staying with you for the sake of the children,” Tony told him as he pushed back from the table. “Well, the children and the sex.”

“We only have one child, Tony.”

“At least two,” Tony said. “DJ and Clint.”

“Well, good, that's relationship stability right there, because neither of them have shown any indication of moving out.” Chuckling, Steve pointed at the door. “Seven. Sharp.”

“Yes, sir, Captain America, sir!”

“Sass all you want, but you've been away on business for nine days, and if you do not show up tonight wearing something decent and without grease on your face, I'm gonna be real disappointed in you.” Steve ducked his head over his report, trying to hide his smile. “Extremely disappointed.”

“The grease is kind of a turn-on for you, admit it.”

“Maybe,” Steve said.

“Maybe?”

“Little bit,” Steve allowed.

“It is.”

“Not as much as you want to believe, Stark.” Steve shook his head as he went back to his work. “Go talk to your kid now, he's missed you and I think he's getting up to trouble in the way that only a Stark boy can.”

Tony sighed. “Well, he's been getting his assignments done. When he wants to. I get nothing for days, then suddenly, everything he's supposed to have done in a week. I'm not sure if he doesn't bother sending things to me as he finishes them, or if he ignores everything until we're past the deadlines and then does them all at once.”

“He has your casual disdain for proper sleep schedules.”

“Work on that, will you please?”

“I'll do my best,” Steve deadpanned. “Be ready at seven, Tony.”

“Bossy.”

“The bossy is kind of a turn-on for you,” Steve shot back.

“Not even going to bother denying that.”

*

Chapter Text

“Excuse me. There is an incoming call, holographic interface, from the Baxter Building.”

Steve looked up from his tablet, minimizing the schedule with a swipe of his finger. “Is Tony blocking Reed's calls again?”

“It is not Dr. Richards, but rather Ms. Valeria.”

Steve leaned back in his chair. “Thanks, Jarvis, you can put her through to me.” He held up the tablet, smiling as the video feed popped up. “Hey there.”

“Hi, Cap!” Valeria grinned at him. “May I speak to DJ please?”

Steve grinned. “He's down in the workshop, and he's Dummy right now. So you can definitely talk to him, but I can't promise that he'll talk back.”

Val nodded. “I was hoping that we could come over?”

“He might not be up for company, but you are one of his favorite people, so you might get lucky,” Steve said, biting back a smile. It wasn't far off. DJ adored Val, maybe even more than Franklin did. “Still want to give it a try?”

“Yes, please!”

“Give me a minute.” Steve put her on hold with a tap of his finger, already pushing himself up. “What's Dummy up to?” he asked Jarvis as he jogged towards the elevator.

“He is assisting the fabrication bots with the latest armor upgrade.”

Steve grinned. “One of his favorite things to do,” he said, his voice wry. “So, visitors might not be unwelcome?”

“I, for one, would make them most welcome,” Jarvis said. His voice was so dry that the words nearly came with a layer of dust. “As after Dummy and the fabrication bots come to blows it is always I who end up dealing with the aftermath.”

“How is it that they are still fighting?” Steve asked. “All these years.” He stepped off the elevator and headed for the door to the workshop.

“Some siblings do not ever come to terms with one another,” Jarvis said.

“A good point.” Steve opened the door, his fingers dancing over the keypad. “Hey, Dummy. You've got a phone call,” he said, leaning his shoulder on the door frame. Dummy straightened up, his head tipping to the side in an inquisitive manner. Steve grinned at him. “Val. You want to talk to her?”

Dummy rolled in his direction, his arm bopping up and down as he crossed the workshop. He stopped in front of Steve, but his arm kept moving, a happy little bounce. Steve rubbed a hand over his head. “You want to take it right now?” Dummy nodded, and Steve pulled up the holographic interface and held up the tablet. “He'd like to listen, it would appear,” he said, and Val grinned.

“Hi, Dummy!” she said, waving. “Can we come over? Franklin and I?”

“Just her,” Franklin said from the background, and Val rolled her eyes.

“Both of us,” she said again, glaring off camera. “You should be nicer, Franklin.”

Franklin leaned into the camera's view. “No,” he said, and retreated. “I don't need a baby sitter!” he said, off-screen again.

Val's mouth drew up tight. “Both of us,” she repeated. “Can we come over?”

Dummy's head swiveled in Steve's direction. Steve rubbed a hand over his head. “It's up to you,” he said. “Feel up to some company, buddy?” Dummy nodded, his head bouncing against Steve's palm, making him laugh.

“Come on over,” Steve told Val.

“Can I bring my bathing suit?” she asked.

Steve pretended to think about that. “Well, there is a new slide at the pool.”

“Awesome,” she said. “Thank you, Dummy! Thank you, Cap!” She leaned back. “Mom! Cap says it's okay! Can I bring Dummy some cookies?”

“Cookies,” Steve told Dummy, who straightened up. The bot rolled away, just as Sue Storm appeared in the holographic interface. “Hi, Sue,” Steve said.

“Hello, Steve.” Sue kissed Val on her forehead, smoothing her daughter's hair back. “And of course you can bring them some cookies. Just take the whole container, and go get your stuff, all right?”

“Okay!” Val waved again, and slipped from view. Sue watched her go, her smile a little too tight, a little too thin.

Steve leaned forward. “Sue? Something up?”

She glanced at him. “No, it's-” She tried again on that smile, and it still didn't reach her eyes. “It's fine.”

Steve took a seat, his elbows coming to rest on his knees. “Sue. Do you need us?”

She shook her head. “No. It is fine. But-” Her lips thinned to a tight line. “Can they stay the night? I'd feel better if they were there.”

Steve's eyebrows twitched. “They're always welcome here, you know that.”

Her shoulders relaxed a bit. “I owe you.”

“Really, you don't.” Steve sat back, crossing his free arm over his chest. “Now, who's swinging by the Baxter building to check up on things?”

“We're fine,” she said. Steve just waited, his eyebrows raised in polite inquiry. Sue let out a breath that was almost a laugh. “If Bruce or Jane happened to come by, I'm sure they could find something to help with,” she said. “If they happened to stop by.”

“They're both at SHIELD today,” Steve said, checking his watch. “But I'm pretty sure that Bruce can find something that needs to be returned to your neck of the woods. And knowing how they both feel about energy conservation, I'm sure that Jane'll be carpooling with him.”

“There's the military genius I've heard so much about,” Sue said.

“I try. Not Tony?”

Sue sighed. “At this point, it'd probably be counterproductive.” She glanced to the side. “But thank you for the offer.”

“Let me know.” Steve smiled. “I'll make sure he behaves.”

“I'd appreciate it. But I won't hold it against you if you can't manage it,” Sue said, smiling.

“I appreciate your understanding,” Steve said.

“We're ready, Mom!” Val reappeared over her mother's shoulder, Franklin trailing behind her in a resentful manner.

“I'm not going,” Franklin said. “I don't. Need. A baby-sitter.”

Sue gave him a look. “Franklin Benjamin Richards. Would it kill you to go be social?”

He gave her a look back. “It's got nothing to do with being social! You're sending us over there because Dad-”

DJ leaned over Steve's shoulder, still struggling with his shirt. “It's taco night,” he said, and Franklin ground to a halt.

“Really?” he asked after a minute, visibly torn. “Regular taco night, or-”

DJ nodded. “Thor taco night.”

“All right, this is AWESOME!” Val threw her hands in the air. “Thor taco night! Race you to the door, loser brother!”

“Hey!” He paused for only a second, and then he was off and running too. “Hey, you- Val! You little brat!”

Sue was laughing. “Thank you, DJ.”

“You're welcome,” DJ said, smiling back.

“Go check the door, would you, DJ?” Steve told him, and DJ grinned before he bounced off. “Thank you!”

“Do I want to know why Thor Taco night is a special thing?” Sue asked.

“Well, back when he was flying out to visit Jane in New Mexico, Thor developed a taste for Mexican food, the real stuff. Also tamales. He really loves tamales,” Steve said. “Now, about once a month, he still heads out west and there's this tiny little hole in the wall of a restaurant, and the lady that runs the joint loads him up on the good stuff.”

Sue covered her smile with one hand. “So he flies out and back? Thor, with Mjolnir in one hand and a take out bag in the other?”

“Very large couple of take out bags,” Steve agreed. “It's an event. He brings back some of the basics, massive amount of tamales and fresh made corn tortillas. She makes him up some fresh salsa, whatever else she feels like tossing in the bags. And we make the rest here.”

“So good take-out?” Sue asked.

“Also, Thor cooking,” Steve said, grinning He stood up. “He uses fire. Lots and lots of fire. It's pretty impressive to watch.”

“I'll hold out hope for an invitation next time.”

“You're always welcome,” Steve told her. He paused. “Thank you. For letting the kids come over.” He took a deep breath. “They're, well. It's nice for DJ to have friends near his own age. I worry sometimes. That he doesn't have a peer group.”

“They've always loved him,” Sue said. “He's been a good friend to both of them, and it's not like either of them have an easy time of it, either.” She smiled. “You've done a remarkable job with DJ. You know that, don't you?”

Steve sighed, exhaustion sweeping over him. “I wonder, sometimes.”

Sue smiled, leaning in. “Do we need to set up a coffee date, Captain Rogers? I could use a bitchfest right about now.”

Steve nodded, heading back to the elevator. “Franklin still pushing to go to Xaviers?”

“Just about every day.” Sue shook her head. “Charles says he'll be happy to have Franklin, mutant or not, but it's hard. On one hand, I know that he's going to leave eventually, and that he needs more kids, more peers, more than we can offer him. On the other hand, I'm not quite ready to have him out on his own, not this early. And as irrational as it might seem, I still feel like I can protect him, as long as he's living here in the Baxter Building.”

“The fear gets to you,” Steve agreed. “You feel like you have control as long as he's still nearby.”

“It's irrational,” Sue admitted.

“It's normal.” Steve leaned against the elevator wall. “We live in places that are easily targeted. But still. You want to protect your child.”

“And if he's not nearby, well, then, you have no control. Control is an illusion when he's here, but-” She shook her head again, her lips a thin line. “When he leaves, I'll have no control at all,” she said, her voice quiet. “The illusion of control is somehow more comforting.”

“Than the reality that you have no control at all,” Steve agreed. “When children are involved, there is no control, Sue.”

She laughed. “Is DJ still refusing to leave the building?”

“Yes. Yes, he is.” Steve rubbed a hand on the back of his neck. “I'm terrified he's going to refuse to leave this building no matter what. I want him to go out, when it's safe. When I can protect him, when Tony can protect him. And he just refuses.”

She shook her head. “Time to make the nest a little less comfortable?”

“Even if I wanted to, I doubt it would matter. He's perfectly happy with a piece of paper and a pencil and the floor,” Steve said. The elevator came to a stop, and he walked out, heading for the kitchen. “Despite how much time we've all spent spoiling him rotten, it really hasn't taken.”

“Keep trying,” Sue said, with a straight face.

“I'll do my best.” Steve headed up the hallway. “On that note, DJ's having a party at some point, pool party for the end of summer? He's going to invite the kids from Xavier's and your two. I'm sure Tony will make it memorable.”

“Let me know the date, and I'll make sure it makes it on the calendar.”

“Thanks, Sue. I'll give Bruce and Jane a call. Tell me if anything changes.”

“Thank you, Steve.”

*

DJ studied the sign that was taped to the door. It read, “Stop opening this, Richards spawn will get in.” With a faint sigh, DJ pulled it down, folding it into quarters and stuffing it in his pocket. Steve would not approve.

Which didn't stop his father, but Steve would still not approve.

He took a seat on the ground, folding his legs under him while he waited for the door to do its thing. The process always fascinated him. He understood it, in theory, he understood the math behind it, and the physics, but it still fascinated him. There were two of these doors, one here and one in the Baxter Building. Reed and his father had created and stabilized a miniaturized worm hole that connected them.

Walk through one and come out the other, even if the two of them were situated some distance apart. They'd designed it as an emergency escape, so that if anything went wrong in either location, the DJ could make it to the Baxter Building, or so that the Richards-Storm children could take refuge with the Avengers.

Instead, it was just used so that they could hang out in the Tower.

Furbro wiggled out from the collar of his shirt, tossing himself over to the wall, little lizard toes letting him scramble up to the doorknob. “It's unlocked,” DJ said, leaning back on his hands. “You don't need to put the code in" Furbro waved his tail, snapping it against the panel where the keypad was. He seemed disappointed that there was nothing he could do. His paws clattered against the handle. He could turn it, if he tried, but he would wait for permission.

There was a brisk knock, a warning that there was someone coming through, and DJ stood to pick Furbro off of the handle before he ended up squished.

“Hey, DJ! Hi, Furbro!” Val had an overnight bag on one shoulder, a metal tin in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. “This was taped on our side.” She handed it over, giggling.

DJ took it. 'Avengers Tower is now a sovereign nation,' it read. 'No entry is permitted without a work visa. This means you, short Richards-Storm people..' There was a StarkIndustries stamp on the bottom of it. DJ shook his head. “Sorry,” he said. He tucked Furbro into his sweatshirt pocket. The little lizard curled up, kneading at the fabric with his paws.

“Your dad is mental, you know that, right?” Franklin said, grinning. He had his backpack in one hand and a tablet under his other arm.

“Yes,” DJ said. “Yes, I do.”

Johnny leaned an arm on the door frame. “Hey, there, mini-Stark. How're you doing?” He held his hand up for a high five, and DJ gave it to him.

“You can go now, Uncle Johnny,” Val told him.

“Is that any way to talk to your loving uncle who walked you all the way over here?” Johnny asked her, grinning at her.

“We walked through a door,” she pointed out.

“I still get uncle points,” he said. “What're you doing tonight?”

“Recreating the throwing disc game from Tron using Mr. Stark's new hard light generators,” Val said. “You know the one? Where they threw their discs, and the glowing floor panels gave way?”

“We're going for less death. Otherwise, a good reproduction,” Franklin said, waving a hand through the air.

“Wow. That sounds like a bad idea. Glad I'm not responsible for any of you.” He pointed a finger at DJ. “Save me a tamale?”

DJ nodded. “Yes.”

“Excellent. Don't conquer anything I wouldn't conquer, kiddos.” He gave them a wave and slipped back through the door, shutting it firmly behind him.

Franklin bounced on the balls of his feet. “Let's ditch the bags and hit the pool!”

“Actually,” DJ said, and they both stopped to look at him. “It's almost quitting time,” DJ said, shy about it. He shifted his weight, his toes curling against the floor. “She'll be leaving. Through the lobby. Do you want to see-”

“YES!” Val said. She shoved the tin of cookies into DJ's hands. “THESEAREFORYOU,” she said in a rush. “Let's go!”

“Hey, our stuff-”

“Leave it!” Val said, tossing her bag next to the door. She grabbed DJ's wrist. “Come on!'

They beat most of the employees to the main lobby. Perched on a third floor landing, high above the huge fountain in the lobby, they leaned against the banister, watching the flow of people below them, and eating cookies. “I don't think it's a problem,” Franklin said, taking another one from the tin.

“That's because you're a boy,” Val said. She moved from one side of DJ to the other, her eyes narrowed. “It's a problem.”

“Is it?” DJ asked, watching her go.

“Maybe,” she admitted.

“Just don't be creepy,” Franklin told him.

DJ considered that, chewing a cookie with care. “How do I know?” he asked.

“Ask me,” Val said.

“Ask Cap,” Franklin says. He straightened up. “Do your parents know?”

“Dad doesn't,” DJ said. He ignored the 'parents' part of it. He couldn't do anything with that classification. It frustrated him every time. “Steve does.”

“You told Cap?” Val asked. “How'd he take it?”

DJ shifted his weight, forward and back. “Okay,” he said, because he wasn't sure, to be honest. 'Okay' covered a lot of ground. Most people were accepting of 'okay.' It wasn't good. It wasn't bad. It was just... 'Okay.'

Most days, he was grateful for 'okay.'

There was a fresh rush of people, streaming from the elevator banks, and DJ's head snapped around. “There,” he said. The interns were clustered together as a group, but he could see the halo of Lucy's curls near the front. She was short enough to be lost in the middle of the group, but as the crowd thinned, he could see her clearly enough.

Val went down on her knees, her hands braced on the banister above her head. “Which one is she?” she asked, leaning through the bars.

“There,” he said, pointing. She stopped, waiting for another girl to catch up to her.

Franklin leaned around him. “Where? The one in the blue dress?”

DJ frowned. “No. There.” He knelt down beside Val, pointing. “The African-American girl, with the curls. In the yellow shirt.”

Val leaned forward. “Oh. Oh!” She grinned as Lucy turned her head in their direction. She as laughing, her hands tucked easily in the back pockets of her pale capris. Val leaned her cheek against the bar. “She's really pretty.”

DJ glanced at her. “She's brilliant,” he said, smiling just a little. “Like you.”

Val's grin stretched. “Well, good.” Her nose went up. “But I cannot approve of you falling in love and leaving us.”

“Here we go again,” Franklin said, folding his arms on top of the banister.

“We can't trust anyone else, he's too precious,” Val told Franklin, because she'd always functioned by her own logic. DJ admired that about her. “One of us has to marry him.”

Franklin folded his arms on top of the banister. “No, we really don't.”

“It's okay,” DJ told her. “You don't have to.”

“Well, I CAN'T. I can't marry you, because I will be colonizing space,” Val told DJ. Her voice was full of laughter. DJ wasn't sure if she was serious or not. It was easier to assume that Val was always serious. “You can marry Franklin.”

“No, he can't,” Franklin said. “I'm not agreeing to this.”

“You don't have to,” DJ said, unconcerned. He watched Lucy leave the lobby, smiling as the late afternoon light lit the lacework of her black curls.

“He'll come around eventually,” Val said. She gave a sharp nod. “And then you'll be our friend forever.”

“I think we can just be friends without me having to marry him,” Franklin said. “No insult, Deej, but I don't think I want to marry you.”

“It's okay. I wouldn't want to marry me, either,” DJ said. He leaned his cheek against the rail. “That's normal.”

“Besides, he likes her,” Franklin said to Val.

“Is she your first crush?” Val asked DJ.

“No. My first was the Mars Rover,” DJ said.

Val giggled. “You are like the best person, you know that?”

“How'd that work out?” Franklin asked. DJ looked up, because sometimes it was hard to tell if someone meant what they were asking him. But Franklin was leaning back against the banister, his head tipped to the side, smiling.

“Different planets make things hard,” DJ said after a moment of consideration. “We still text.”

“Cool,” Franklin said. He glanced back over his shoulder at the lobby. “Texting is easier.”

“I talked to her,” DJ said. They both looked at him. “Lucy. Not Curiosity.” He paused. “I talked to Curiosity, too, but-”

“Focus,” Franklin told him. “You talked to Lucy?”

“Really talked to her?” Val asked. She folded her legs under her. “Was she nice?” DJ nodded. “Good.” She shifted. “Deej? Does she remember you?”

He looked down at the lobby, considering the way that people moved, trying to find a pattern in they way they shifted together in groups, then broke apart. “No,” he said. He didn't know that for a fact, except he did know it. He knew how it worked. He knew the reasons. But no.

She didn't remember him.

“She will,” he said, stubborn. “It'll be okay.” The two of them looked at him with identical expressions, maybe doubt or concern, it was hard to say. But Val hugged him, her arms surprisingly strong and firm. DJ leaned into her grip. “Thank you,” he said.

“Want me to talk to her?” Val offered.

“No. You do not want Val to talk to her,” Franklin said, waving his hands through the air. “Trust me. You do not.”

“Hey!”

“The last girl I liked that you talked to never talked to me again,” Franklin pointed out.

“But she talks to me all the time,” Val said. She shrugged. “Net win to me, Frankie.”

“Call me that again and I'll toss you off of the balcony.”

“Fraaaaaaaaakie,” Val sing-songed and then immediately ducked behind DJ as her brother took a step in her direction. She scrunched herself up, pressing against DJ's spine. “Don't tell him I'm here,” she whispered to DJ, giggling.

“I think he knows,” DJ said, but he spread his arms anyway, blocking Franklin from getting around him. “No killing your sister.”

“Your dad's coming,” Val said in a rush. She peeked around DJ's shoulder, her arms looped around his neck. “Can't kill me. He'd tell our mom.”

“Not going to kill you,” Franklin said. “Just maim you a little bit.”

DJ twisted around, looking down into the lobby, and yes, his father was making his way back in, a briefcase under his arm and Happy right on his heels. DJ waved, and Happy, ever vigilant, waved back before nudging Tony.

Tony looked up, his face splitting in a grin, before heading to the elevator. By the time he stepped off of the elevator, DJ had managed to separate Franklin and Val. Barely. “Hey, Deej.” Tony nodded at Val and Franklin. “Various corporate spies.”

“Not spies,” DJ said. “Be nice.”

His father gave Val and Franklin a narrow eyed look. “They are here to steal our secrets, Deej.” He folded his hands behind his back, leaning in to peer at Val, who was biting her lower lip to keep from laughing. “Corporate. Spies.”

“I'm not a corporate spy, Mr. Stark,” Val said, grinning.

“Want to be one? I pay well,” Tony said, without missing a beat. “Just you. Your brother is not to be trusted.”

“I agree,” Val said, nodding slowly. “What is your benefits package like?”

“Excellent,” Tony said. He waved a hand in mid-air. “What do you want, my first born? You can't have him. Unless there are some good secrets on offer, then we can discuss it.”

“How good do the secrets have to be?” Val asked, grinning.

“Well, you have to betray your family and your way of life. But it's a lousy way of life, so I'm actually doing you a favor.”

“Dad...” DJ said.

“Hush, Deej, I'll betray her once I get the secrets, it's the natural order of things. In business, and in life.”

“Your dad has issues,” Franklin said to DJ.

“Yes,” DJ agreed, making Tony laugh.

“Brat. I'm disowning you.”

“Steve says you're not allowed to do that again, it's very stressful,” DJ told him.

“You hold up just fine, it never sticks.”

“For him.”

“Curses,” Tony said, deadpan. “So, what do you say, Ms. Val? We have a deal?”

“No, Franklin has to marry him, we just decided this.”

Tony reached out and took DJ by the elbow, tugging him gently away from Franklin. He looked at DJ. “No,” he said.

“I already said that,” DJ said.

“Good boy,” his father told him. DJ leaned against him, and Tony wrapped an arm around his shoulders, brushing a kiss against DJ's head. DJ's eyes closed, happiness rolling through him. “The deal is off,” Tony told Val. “He's too young to get married.”

“I can wait a few years,” she said, grinning at DJ when he opened his eyes. She stuck her tongue out at him, just a little, and DJ stuck his tongue out back. “I'm holding you to it.”

“Val, he's crazy,” Franklin said. To DJ he added, “No offense. But he might be. Tiny bit.”

“Tiny bit,” DJ agreed, and Tony bopped him on the head.

“What are the trouble triplets up to this fine evening?” he asked. He tucked his hands in his pockets and started walking, the kids falling into step with him. “Other than corporate espionage?”

“Taco night,” DJ said.

“Why do you think I'm home on time?” Tony asked him. “Then what?”

“Cap said we could go swimming,” Val said.

“Cap lies a lot, I think you should know that,” Tony started, and DJ sighed. But Val was giggling and Franklin was rolling his eyes and Tony was grinning, so it was okay.

He glanced back down at the lobby, but Lucy was long gone.

*

"But I have to bring these down there."

The receptionist's smile got a little tighter. It was still there, but Lucy could almost see her patience draining away. "But you don't have clearance for that level. I'm sorry. But I can't let you on the elevator for the personal quarters."

Lucy shifted the box to her other hip, trying not to curse as the envelopes shifted on top. "Didn't the mailroom call up and tell you I was doing this today?" It wasn't like she wanted to. This whole 'you get to learn how the company works by visiting various departments' was HR bullshit, and she hated it. But she did her job, no matter how stupid.

It was a point of pride, really. Screw them, she'd be the best at delivering mail, if that was what she was assigned to do.

"No," the receptionist said. "And the only one who can authorize that is the shift supervisor, and he's on lunch." She stood up. "I can take them from you, and send them down with the next person who's-"

Lucy took a step back, her hands white-knuckled on the box. “I- Look, this is the job that they've given me,” she said. She leaned forward over the desk, resting one corner of the box on the edge. “I don't like it. But it is my job.” She gave the woman what she hoped was a winning smile. “I'd just like to deliver these and go back to the mail room.”

Sympathy rolled over the woman's face. “I would like to help you,” she said. “I would.”

“If for no other reason than to get me away from your desk?” Lucy asked.

The receptionist smiled. “Yes. If for no other reason,” she agreed. “But here? I cannot help you. You do not have clearance for the Avengers personal quarters, and even if I could leave this desk to take you, I don't have the clearance to escort someone else.” She leaned forward, folding her arms on the desk. “I think they gave you the wrong pile of mail, hon. You cannot go up there.”

"I'll take her."

Lucy twisted around, and one of the manila envelopes that were stacked on top of the box slipped free. The boy, who'd appeared out of nowhere, or at the very least had moved silently up behind her in the broad reception area, caught it before it could hit the ground.

The boy smiled at her, holding out the package. Lucy took it from him, a nagging feeling of deja vu tugging at the back of her mind. There was something familiar about him, but she had no idea what it was. "Thanks," she said, shoving the envelope back on the stack.

"You're welcome," he said, a faint smile bringing the corners of his lips up. He looked amused, and somehow expectant, like he was waiting for something else from her.

"Oh, DJ." The receptionist had relaxed, her smile sweet for the boy. "Are you sure?"

He nodded. "Yes. It's fine."

Lucy jerked backwards. "DJ. Oh!" She grinned at him. "The boy. The boy from the server room, that's who you-" She shook her head. "Wow. Sorry, I completely-"

"Forgot," DJ filled in, his eyes dancing.

"I don't know how I could have-"

"It's not you. It's me." He shrugged. "I'm not very memorable." He looked at the receptionist. "I'll take her."

She nodded. "If you're sure."

That seemed to amuse him for some reason. “I'm sure.” DJ turned to Lucy. "I can carry that for you?" he offered.

"I got it," Lucy said, shoving it higher in her arms with one knee. The envelopes shifted again, and DJ steadied the stack. He looked at her, his eyebrows arched, and she let out a sigh. "Okay. Maybe I could use some help," she said, rolling her eyes.

"Maybe," DJ agreed. He took the box from her, and Lucy gathered up the envelopes in a loose stack, hugging them to her chest. DJ waited until she was ready and then nodded at the elevators. "Ready?"

"Yeah. Thanks." Lucy followed him across the lobby. "I didn't think it would take this long."

DJ held the door to the elevator open with a foot as she slipped in. "It's a big building." He glanced down at the label on the box, and then his head tipped back up. "Jarvis, workshop, please."

The elevator started moving, and Lucy blinked down at his bare feet. “Where are your shoes?” she asked, grinning.

DJ looked down, considering his bare feet. Then he wiggled his toes. “I don't know,” he said, pleased.

She paused. “I asked you that last time, didn't I? Do you not ever wear shoes?” she asked.

“Not if I can avoid it,” DJ admitted. “They're horrible.”

“Well, yes, but they're still expected.”

“I have to wear pants,” DJ said. “Everything else is open to negotiation.”

“Good to know,” Lucy said, laughing. “Pants are pretty important. I like skirts, too, sometimes, but you know, all that.”

“I like skirts too,” DJ told her, and before she could come up with a response to that, the elevator opened, and DJ was walking out.

Lucy scrambled to catch up to him. “How are you able to come up here?” she asked, her voice hushed.

DJ's smile was barely there, but it was real. “I can go where ever I want,” he said. “But I like the workshop best.”

She opened her mouth, but whatever she was about to say died unsaid as DJ stepped to the side. The glass windows spread out in front of her, massive walls of glass, and behind that...

Tony Stark's workshop.

It was dark now, only the barest hints of light at the edges, but Lucy still stared. At the faint outlines of robots and displays, huge cabinets and workbenches. Rows of armor, red and gold, silver and grey, black and yellow, lined the walls, and littered the benches. A perfect, gleaming helmet was so close to the wall that she was tempted to reach out and try to touch it.

"Want to go in?"

She stared at him. "Really?" Her voice has an unfortunate squeaky quality, and she cleared her throat. "I mean, are you sure?" she asked, going for nonchalance. “Can we?”

DJ was trying not to smile. He wasn't good at it. "Yes." Balancing the box on one hip, he waved a hand in front of the door. "Come on." A keypad appeared on the glass, and he punched in a code. The door unlocked with a hiss, and he pushed it open, holding it for her.

Lucy crept past him, her heart pounding, her gaze locked on the bots that had straightened up the moment that the door opened. The lights were coming on, one by one, and everything was even more amazing, now that he could see it, but it was the bots that held her attention.

“Are those-” She cleared her throat. “The AI bots that Mr. Stark made?” She'd read about them, for years. Seen the news clippings and read every article that she could find. She liked the thought of them, of these awkward bots, half lab assistant and half pet.

They were amazing, and it was all Lucy could do to keep from laughing out loud. She knew she was grinning like an idiot, but nothing, not the armors, not the holographic interfaces, not the workshop itself was as cool as this. Tony Stark's first flawed attempt at an AI.

“Yes.” DJ set the box down on the corner of a workbench, and Lucy tossed her envelopes on top, creeping along behind DJ. The two bots were studying them, servos whirring as they moved. DJ shook his head. “Come here, please,” he said. “New person.”

Both bots rolled over, in a movement that she could only consider cautious. One of them peered at her over DJ's shoulder, the other ducked around his back, peeking out from under his arm. Lucy bit her lip hard to keep from laughing as they jockeyed for position, their massive metal frames trying to hide behind DJ's much smaller body.

“Hi,” Lucy said, wiggling her fingers at them. The bots considered her, then both heads angled towards DJ.

“This is Lucy,” DJ said, and both bots straightened up.

"They're-" He stopped as one of the bots tugged at the hem of his shirt. "Stop that," he said. The bot ignored him, swinging around to the other side and tugging on the fabric there, too. DJ heaved a sigh, his eyes rolling up towards the ceiling. "I don't need-"

He stopped, his mouth pursing up, as the other bot started to straighten his hair. One strand refused to lay flat, and after a few tugs, the bot just rested its head on top of DJ's, pinning the hair down to his skull. Lucy clapped a hand over her mouth, trying so hard not to laugh. DJ glared at her. "Not funny," he said, brushing the bot away. “That's enough, I can't-” He gave a yelp, hopping a bit as his pants were rearranged.

"They're GROOMING you," she said, and she couldn't hold back a laugh. "Oh, my God."

"I look FINE," DJ said to one of the bots, who nudged him in the middle of the back. "I am standing up straight." The bot nudged him again, and DJ straightened his shoulders. "She doesn't care."

"I care," Lucy said. "Good posture is very important." The bot swiveled its head between her and DJ, its claw bouncing in a nod. "See? He agrees."

"Don't encourage them," DJ said. He caught the other bot on the support strut, pushing it away. "Lucy, this is You. And this is Butterfingers."

She leaned forward, her hands braced on her knees, grinning like a loon. “Hello,” she said. “Oh, my gosh, you're beautiful.” You rolled forward, his claw coming up and flexing.

“He wants a high five,” DJ said, tucking his hands in his back pockets.

Lucy held her hand up, giving the bot a high five. Grinning so wide her face hurt, she looked at DJ. He was smiling, too, rubbing a hand over Butterfingers' support strut. “Do you like them?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, laughing. “Of course. But I thought Mr. Stark had three of them.”

“Sometimes,” DJ agreed. He looked at Butterfingers. “Wanna play catch? I bet that Lucy will play catch with you.” The bot straightened up, and tipped his head in Lucy's direction.

Lucy chewed on her lower lip. “I'm supposed to go and get another batch of mail,” she said. The bot drooped, and Lucy wanted to hug it. “Okay, okay. Just for a few minutes, though.”

“Good boy,” DJ said to Butterfingers. “You, go get the ball. We can call catch up on work later.” He smiled at Lucy. “Maybe we can find you a cart for the next run.”

“I'm an intern,” she said, with a straight face. “Carts are for people getting paid.”

“Then maybe Butterfingers and You can help you,” he said, grinning. “They've got wheels.”

“I will steal these bots,” she said. “Don't think I won't. Mr. Stark's gonna come back and find a ransom note and I will have all the robots.” You rolled up, a ball in his claw. Laughing, she took it from him. “I bet I can find a box big enough to cover you and then I just have to push you out the front door.”

“Probably wouldn't have to push them,” DJ said. “They'd probably follow you.”

Lucy grinned at them. “You're so perfect,” she breathed, and that seemed to be the right thing to say, because they straightened up. She bounced the ball in the palm of her hand. “Catch?” she asked DJ, who grinned.

“Keep away.”

*

DJ paused in the doorway, not quite ready to enter. Not just yet.

His father was sitting on the couch, schematics open in the air around him, his head tipped back, his fingers darting through the information with an almost inhuman speed. He did it all one handed, through force of long practice. His other hand was tangled in Steve's hair, his fingers and thumb playing idly with the strands.

Steve was asleep, his body sprawled along the full length of the couch, his head in Tony's lap. He was still the way he only was when he slept, his lips parted, his eyelashes still against his cheeks. There was a faint smile on his face, and his head was tilted in towards Tony, his body canted towards the support of Tony's body.

DJ leaned against the door, just watching them. There was something calming about the two of them together. Even when they were fighting, even when they were barely anyone else around them, just being near them, when they were together, DJ could breathe.

His father glanced over. “Hey, buddy,” he said, his voice pitched low. “What's up?”

DJ pushed himself upright and padded into the room. “I put the groceries away,” he said, crawling up onto a chair, curling himself up in the plush cushions. He tucked his knees up against his chest and rested his chin on top of them.

“Thank you,” Tony said, smiling. “Did you eat all of the cookies?”

“Not all of the cookies.” DJ smiled back. “A few.”

“A few sounds about right.” Tony rubbed his hand gently over Steve's head. “Sorry. Dinner's gonna be late.”

DJ shrugged, not really concerned by that. “Is he okay?” DJ asked. He rolled his head to the side, resting his cheek on his knee.

Tony's fingers slid through Steve's hair. “He's fine. Just tired.” His mouth kicked up on one side. “And when he's tired, he wants a little contact sometimes.” His other hand dropped from his work. “You get that from him.”

DJ made a face. “Do not.”

His father's grin was wide and easy this time. “Oh, yes, you do. You're more like him than me most days, and thank God for that.”

He wanted to believe that. Not the more part of it. But he wanted to believe he had a little bit of Steve mixed in with who he was, who he'd become. That there was a bit of Steve that he'd get to keep forever. He shifted. “Sorry.”

Tony chuckled. “I don't mind. Look. Who needs pets? I've got my own personal lap super soldier.”

Steve smiled. “Hey, now,” he said, not even bothering to open his eyes. His voice was low and rough with sleep. “Making fun of a sleeping man's pretty bad manners.”

“We Stark men are known for that,” Tony said. He ruffled Steve's hair one more time.

Steve's head turned in DJ's direction. He smiled, slow and warm. “Hey, buddy. How's your project going?”

“Okay.” DJ smiled back. “Sorry to wake you.”

Steve rubbed a hand over his face. “It's fine, Deej. 'Bout time I was waking up, anyway.” He pushed himself up, and Tony steadied him with a hand in the middle of his back. “Thanks,” Steve said, rolling his head on his neck.

“You were oversleeping,” Tony agreed. He brushed Steve's hand away and started rubbing the nape of Steve's neck.

Steve's head fell forward with a faint sigh of pleasure. “Long couple of days.”

Tony closed his files with a flick of his other hand. “You did good, Cap.”

DJ nodded. “Very good. I saw the news.”

Steve winced. “Don't watch the news, okay? Not when we're out.”

“I have the internet,” DJ pointed out, grinning. “I have the internet in my head. I know things.”

“Stop doing brain internet when we're out, too,” Tony told him. He pointed. “Stop it.”

“You don't have internet now, do you?” Steve asked, frowning.

DJ struggled to keep a straight face. “Yes,” he said.

“He does not have brain internet,” Tony said. He pointed a finger in DJ's direction, and DJ ducked his head down behind his folded arms, trying to hide his grin. “For God's sake, stop lying to the American hero.”

“Sorry,” DJ said, giggling to himself.

“You are a horrible child,” Steve told him, but his eyes were dancing. He gave DJ a mock glare. “I still love you. But you are a horrible child.”

“Okay,” DJ said, fine with that. He rolled over onto his back, throwing his legs over the top of the chair, letting his head dangle down towards the ground.

“Sit normally,” Tony said, without even looking at him.

“That is normal for him,” Steve said, earning himself a light smack on the back of the head. He chuckled. “What did I miss?” he asked DJ. “What have you been up to?”

DJ shrugged, enjoying the sensation of lightheadedness that came from sitting like this. “Nothing,” he said.

Tony gave him a look out of the side of his eyes. “Nothing?” he repeated, his eyebrows arching. “Really?”

DJ gave him a sunny smile. “Nothing,” he agreed.

“Good, then I don't have to check to see what you and mini-Reed have been up to,” Tony said. “I can just delete it from my servers.”

Groaning, DJ let his hands fall up to the ground. “Dad.”

“I know what is happening in my damn tower, botbrain. And this whole thing is a waste of time and resources. Everything's getting deleted.”

DJ looked at Steve. “Steeeeeeve,” he started, drawing the word out in an undignified whine.

Steve held up a hand. “Oh, no,” he said. “No. Absolutely not. You know the rules, Deej. I do not get involved in these little spats between you two. I am not nearly smart enough to keep up with you.”

Pouting, DJ looked back to Tony, who raised an eyebrow. “Side project,” he said. “You like side projects.”

“I do not,” Tony said. “But I will allow this to stand. For now.” He pointed at the door. “Go talk to everyone about dinner, okay?”

DJ nodded. “Welcome home dinner?” he asked, eager. Welcome home dinners were always pizza or Chinese takeout, so everyone could relax and just eat.

“Sounds good.”

He rolled off of the chair, hitting the ground with a thump. He clambered up. “Glad you're home,” he said.

“Thank you.” Steve held out a hand, and DJ bounced over, leaning over to let Steve wrap a hand around the back of his neck and tug him down. Steve brushed a kiss over DJ's forehead. “Don't watch the news,” he repeated, making DJ smile.

“Internet,” he repeated. “In my head.”

“Stop that,” Steve told him.

DJ laughed. “I need to know,” he pointed out, “when you're coming home.”

“Your father will tell you.”

DJ considered that. “He can't be trusted,” he said with a straight face, making Steve laugh.

“Get out,” Tony said. “You are out of all of the wills. All of them. Your new room is the alley behind the building.”

“I will stay with Clint,” DJ said, unconcerned. “You never go to his apartment.”

“For good reason, and that reason is Coulson.” Steve was laughing over them both, and Tony leaned in to brush a kiss on his shoulder.

DJ paused in the door, watching for a moment as Tony rested his forehead on Steve's spine, a faint smile still playing around his lips. Steve just sat there, his body leaning forward, his elbows braced on his knees.

DJ slipped out, bare feet silent on the floor. It was always better when they were together. Always.

Chapter Text

“Well, you really fucked that up.”

Lucy locked her teeth together to keep from saying something she'd really regret. After a couple of seconds of taking deep breaths through her nose and reminding herself that her grandmother would never forgive her if she went to jail for killing the dickhead kid in the group. She might understand it, knowing Nana, but she'd never forgive it.

“Oh, really? You think so?” She gave Vincent a look out of the corner of her eyes. “I thought it went amazingly well, considering.”

He smirked at her, with that dickhead smirk of his that made her want to push him down a set of stars. “Considering how you'd fucked up?”

Her fingers were so tight on her tablet that the grip hurt. She made a conscious effort to relax her hand. “Vinnie?” Lucy said.

“Lucille?” he sniped back, his smile tight and thin.

“You didn't do your task, you weren't prepared for that presentation, and if you think that shoving me in front of the bus makes anyone miss that particular fact, you're delusional,” she said, each word precise and calm.

His eyes narrowed, his expression getting tight and mean. “I didn't have to push you in front of the bus,” he said, his voice low. “You put yourself there. Let's face it, little miss know-it-all, you bit off more than you could chew by taking ownership of this project, and now, it's clear to everyone that you're all talk and no actual talent.”

Her throat closed, her face burned, but she just shrugged. “I own my mistakes,” she said, with a smile that was so tight it vibrated. “That's why I'm going to have a job here.” And nothing, and no one else, mattered. She didn't have the time to worry about other people's opinions, other people's prejudices and problems with her.

She had work to do.

“Keep telling yourself that,” Vincent said, and just like that, he was gone, heading off to the cafeteria. His father worked in the building, no one was quite sure where, because Vincent didn't really lower himself to talk to the rest of them. But he never ate lunch with the rest of the interns. Not that any of them missed him.

Lucy stared after him, indulging in a quick fantasy of breaking a few of his bones.

“Mr. Personality strikes again, huh?”

Lucy turned around. “Yeah, he's a real joy to be around,” she said, managing a smile for Hilary, a boucy, perky fashion plate with a razor sharp mind and a tongue to match. She was, unsurprisingly, friends with everyone in the program.

“Ignore him,” Hillary said, her voice pitched low. “He's an idiot.”

Lucy shoved her hair away from her face, unbelievably frustrated. “He's an idiot,” she agreed. “But he's not wrong.”

Hilary shrugged. “Look, the instructions they gave us are junk, and you know it.” She gave Lucy a bright smile, her freckled nose scrunching up with it. “We'll fix it after lunch.”

“Yeah, I'm just going to-” Lucy nodded at the elevators. “Head up now.”

Hilary shook her head. “Luce, c'mon. Don't do this to yourself. Come eat, and then we'll go up, all of us, and we will figure out what went wrong, and we will fix it.”

Lucy's teeth dug into her cheek. “Yeah, look. I don't know if anything would stay in my stomach,” she admitted. “That was-” She shrugged.

“That was bad,” Hilary said. She sighed. “Look, we can get it right before we have to do the presentation for the bigwigs.” She made a fist and grabbed her bicep in a pure 'Rosie the Riveter' pose. Her expression was appropriately serious, but her yellow framed glasses and mostly shaved head with its mop of cotton candy pink curls on the top of her head gave it a comical edge. “We can totally do this thing, Lucy!”

Lucy gave her a light shove. “I know, I know, but, I'm going to go get a head start.” She arched an eyebrow. “If that's okay with you, of course?”

“I will permit it,” Hilary said. “I, however, have got to feed the beast. I have a figure to maintain.” She slapped a hand against her ass. “I'll be up in half an hour, and I'll bring Ajay. Want me to bring you anything?”

“Not Ajay,” Lucy said, but she was smiling.

“Sorry, so sad for you, totally bringing Ajay. He's useful, and despite how much time to two of you spend sniping at each other, he'll come. He hated this, too.”

“Not as much as I did,” Lucy said. She held up a hand. “Bring me a cup of whatever soup they have, okay?”

Hilary slapped her palm against Lucy's. “I can do this thing. Okay, Luce, be up soon! Don't make yourself crazy.”

“Too late for that,” Lucy said, giving Hilary a wave. She headed for the elevator, swiping her keycard at the doors, and stepping in. As they closed after her, she fumbled in her pocket for her phone.

As the phone rang, she leaned back against the wall. An idle thought crossed her mind, that only StarkIndustries would perfect cell reception in the elevator.

“Hey, baby. How's my girl?”

Lucy's eyes fell shut. “Hi, mom,” she whispered. She cleared her throat. “Hi. How're you doing?”

“Just fine, a little worried that you're not answering my question. What's wrong?”

Lucy smiled, a wobbly sort of attempt. “Had our presentation today,” she said, leaning forward. “It didn't go well.”

“I'm sorry to hear that,” her mother said, after a moment. “How're you doing, baby?”

“Pretty lousy,” Lucy admitted. “I-” She sank her teeth into her lip. “Yeah.”

“I'm sorry, honey. It's gonna be okay. You're tougher than this, and smarter than this.”

Lucy smiled at her feet. “Doesn't feel like it right now.”

“I know.” She could hear papers being shuffled in the background. “But you'll get over it.”

“Way to sympathize, mom,” Lucy said, smiling.

“Well, if you wanted sympathy, you should've called your father.”

“No, I think this is just what I needed. Thanks, mom.” The elevator slowed, and Lucy straightened up. “I've gotta go.”

“Going to go fix things?”

Lucy nodded. “Take two, I can do this.”

“Yes. Yes, you can. We miss you, try to call us sometime when you're not in crisis, okay?”

“Never!” Lucy stated, head up as she swept out of the elevator. “Love you, mom.”

“I love you, too, baby.”

She was feeling a little better as she swiped her card, opening up the door to the workspace the internship students had been assigned. She'd been expecting it to be empty; everyone went to lunch now. But her workbench was occupied.

It took her a second to place him, the boy with the bare feet and the dark hair. It took her even longer to comprehend what he was doing.

He was messing with her fucking project.

She tossed her tablet onto the nearest bench as she stalked across the workroom. “What are you doing?”

His head snapped up, and he smiled at her, that warm, sunny smile that wasn't a grin, it wasn't smug and it wasn't mean, it was a smile that seemed to seep across his face. Like he was happy to see her. Lucy couldn't understand, couldn't repress a feeling of betrayal.

She'd thought he was different, to be honest.

“I saw your presentation,” DJ was saying, still working, almost bouncing on his seat. “It was good. There was-” He reached for a part. “There were flaws. But we can fix it. It's-”

“How dare you.”

DJ's head snapped up, still smiling, still working, and Lucy was so angry that she could barely breathe. “What?” DJ asked, and she nearly lost it.

“How dare you.” It was a whisper, low and vicious and so filled with rage that he recoiled, all but falling off of his chair as he found his feet, the smile dying on his face, little by little. On some level, she registered the confusion that was sweeping over his features, but she really didn't give a damn. “How-” Her throat closed up around the words, and she clamped a hand over her mouth to hold herself together.

DJ blinked at her, his face going tight. “I just-” He gestured at the bench, a quick jerk of his hand before it was tucked back in against his body, his fingers sinking into the fabric of his jeans. “It needed to be repaired. It wasn't-”

“It wasn't yours to repair!” Lucy leaned in, her hands braced on the bench, rage giving her force, giving her strength. Her nails scraped against the polished surface. “You don't belong here, you shouldn't be here, and you damn well should not be touching my project!'

Furbro's head peeked out, just over DJ's ear, then disappeared back into the shelter of DJ's hair. “But it's broken,” DJ said, confusion in his voice, and Lucy wanted to scream.

“A lot of things are broken,” she said, her vision white at he edges, her teeth gritted hard against the urge to say something nasty, something ugly, and he deserved it, for being another stupid goddamn boy who thought she couldn't do her job, who thought she couldn't handle the workload, and she wanted to cry, or throw something at him. Instead, she leaned forward. “But if those things are mine, you shouldn't be touching them.”

His mouth opened, and she was done. Done with this conversation, done with this concept, done with him. She stabbed a finger at the door. “Get out.”

He rocked back on his heels, his face pale, his expression hurt, and she pointed at the door. “Get OUT,” she repeated, and her voice didn't rise, didn't go up by the tiniest amount, but the force behind the word was enough.

DJ retreated, his steps stumbling at first, then faster, and he was half running as he cleared the lab door. Lucy stared after him, her eyes burning, tears pressing hard on her eyelids. The door shut with a bang, and her legs folded under her.

She slid down the side of the workbench, curling up tight, her knees drawn up, her head down, her arms folded over the back of her neck. She curled up, as tight as she could, and struggled against the impulse to cry, the whole rotten morning sweeping over her in a vicious wave.

She timed it in her head. Five minutes. She had five minutes to break down, to consider crying, to feel bad for herself. Five minutes. She would allow herself five minutes. When the time ran out, when her self-pity time came to an end, Lucy stood up. Took a deep breath, and another one. She closed her eyes and breathed, forcing herself to think, to think rationally, to be calm about this.

She had work to do.

*

He'd fit into this little cubbyhole a lot easier when he was a lot smaller.

DJ didn't really care. He was fine with small spaces. In some ways, he kind of preferred them. He used the physical space like blinders, like earmuffs, muting things, limiting his senses to a small area. An area that he could control. Even if that area was a small space built into the tree in the middle of his playroom.

Clint called it his pout hole. DJ kind of liked that. It was nice having spaces that were only his. Mostly, everyone left him alone when he made himself small and quiet, when he folded himself up and tried to find a way to control his head.

Mostly. Some people always came looking. DJ expected the footsteps before he felt them through the floor, before he heard them. His shoulders relaxed, even as he curled into a tighter ball, his knees drawn up tight to his chest, his head buried in his folded arms.

Still, out of the corner of his eye, through the narrow gap between his arm and his knee, he saw Steve crouch down, a drawing pad and tin of pencils in one big hand. "Hey," he said. DJ didn't reply. Steve didn't seem to expect one. "Your father says you're having a tough day."

DJ shrugged.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

DJ buried his face deeper in his arms. "No," he mumbled into the crook of his elbow, and his cheeks felt hot where they pressed against his own skin. He blinked, and concentrated on the feeling of his eyelashes against his skin.

"Okay," Steve said, because he never pressed. But he didn't leave, either. "I would like to stay here and draw for a while. Is it all right with you if I sit out here?"

DJ considered that. "Yes."

“Thank you, DJ.” His feet moved, just a little, and even though DJ couldn't see him, he knew that Steve had settled down, his back against the tree. He was careful, when DJ wasn't doing well, to carefully spell out what he was doing and why. He understood, in a way that the others didn't. He'd always understood.

DJ wanted to crawl out and curl up with his head in Steve's lap. Even if he was too big, and too old for that. Instead, he just hunched a little further into himself and wished he was small. Small enough for people to forget that he spent so much time confused.

"I talked with Lucy," he said. His shoulders jerked up. "I messed it up.” Somehow. He didn't understand. Part of him wanted to ask Steve, but another part of him kept turning it over like a puzzle in his mind. Trying to find a way to make the pieces fit, when he didn't even know what he was assembling, like he was trying to figure out a machine from a handful of fragments that he could recognize.

“Messed it up, how?”

“She hates me." The words hurt, but saying them wasn't nearly as bad as he'd thought it would be.

The sound of Steve's pencil paused, then started up again. "Lucy is the intern? The girl you like?"

DJ dug the heel of his foot against the wall, grinding against it to feel the pressure in his bones. "Yes."

"Why do you think she doesn't like you?"

“Hates me,” DJ mumbled.

“'Hate' is a very strong word, Deej. So why do you think she dislikes you?”

DJ made a face. "Because I'm not dumb."

Steve chuckled. "No. You're not. However, sometimes, you make mistakes with people."

"I know." He shifted, bracing his feet against one wall and his back against the other one. He couldn't straighten his knees. "But she doesn't like me.” It hurt, the words, and the memory of her voice, her face. The way she'd stared at him, her mouth tight, her eyebrows drawn down in a sharp slant.

He still had problems with expressions, sometimes. But he could read that expression. It wasn't hard.

“She doesn't like me,” he repeated.

There was silence for a minute, as Steve drew, and DJ flexed his toes against the smooth wood. “We've talked about this, haven't we?” Steve asked.

“Yes.”

“And what do we say? About other people?”

His head fell back. "Steve...."

"Humor me, Deej. What do we say?"

DJ took a deep breath. He always liked the way that made his brain slow down a little. "I am not going to like everyone," he said, the words careful, rehearsed. "And not everyone is going to like me."

He shifted, the line of his back pressing hard against the small space, and that was steadying, too, the pressure. "Sometimes, I'm going to like someone who doesn't like me, or someone will like me, and I won't like them. That's okay."

His foot slid against the wood, and he followed the pattern of the grain with the side of his foot, concentrating on the gradation of color, on the way his bones flexed against the surface. "It's okay to be sad because of it. Or upset. Or frustrated. Or angry."

He fell silent, breathing slowly through parted lips, comforted by the familiar march of words. Outside of the cubby, he heard Steve's pencil sliding against the paper, the sound gentle and easy. "What else?" Steve said, his voice calm. When DJ didn't continue, he tried again. "Deej? What's not okay?"

DJ curled his knees up to his chest. "It's not okay to be angry at the other person. Or to blame them for what I feel. My feelings are not anyone else's responsibility, just mine. I have to deal with them, in my own way. Without hurting anyone else."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome," DJ said, and it was rote, it was pattern, it was the slow march of words that he could understand, that he could focus on. Lines of code, making up his programming. His human code might be a little different, but he could see the ways that it was the same, and it was comforting. It made the transition easier, to focus on the similarities.

To remind himself that when he changed, he didn't lose everything.

Steve's pencil kept moving, and DJ matched his breathing to the slow, even strokes. It helped. "Are you angry with her?"

DJ stared at nothing, until his eyes burned. He closed them. "No."

"Are you angry at all?"

DJ found a seam on the side of his jeans, and slid his index finger back and forth against it. He pressed hard, feeling the individual threads pull against his skin. "No. Just..." He stopped, and he didn't like to linger on the way his stomach ached, a hollow, sick feeling. "Just sad." He let his head fall forward. "Why doesn't she like me?"

"I don't know, Deej." Steve's pencil stopped moving, and DJ held his breath until the sound of graphite on paper started again. "Sometimes, people don't click. Sometimes, they have a bad first impression. Sometimes they fight at first, or dislike one another, or don't understand the other person." He huffed out a laugh. "Look at your father and me. We fought like cats and dogs the first few times we met. It doesn't mean that things are going to stay that way. For either one of you."

DJ kicked at the wall. "It's because I'm weird," he said.

"You are not weird, mister."

DJ curled his knees up to his chest. "I'm weird."

Steve appeared next to him, lying flat on his back, his head angled towards DJ. He rested his sketchpad on his stomach, one big hand covering it. "You," he said, his voice gentle but firm, "are not weird. You're just you."

DJ considered him. "And I'm weird."

Steve's lips twitched, that little half smile that made DJ smile back every time. "Well, I guess on some level, we're all weird, Deej." He reached out, stopping short of actually touching DJ's cheek. DJ leaned towards him, bridging the distance. Steve's fingers curled around his cheek, warm and gentle. "But sometimes, it's just hard to figure other people out, isn't it? And sometimes, people need time to be comfortable with someone new."

DJ leaned into his touch. "What if she doesn't ever get comfortable with me?"

"Then I hope it doesn't change the fact that you still like her, just how she is." Steve's fingers fell away, and DJ gritted his teeth against the spike of panic their absence created. His feelings were his responsibility.

He took a deep breath, repeating it in his head like a mantra. His feelings were his responsibility. Just his.

Steve folded his hands over his stomach, over the sketchbook that were still sitting there. "Deej? I want to ask you a question now. You don't have to answer it."

"I know."

"Why did you stay human?"

DJ considered that. "I shouldn't?"

"You should do whatever makes it easier for you to handle what's happening to you. As long as you're not hurting yourself or anyone else, you can do what you need to do, to make it easier." Steve's head tipped back, and it was a little bit of a relief, to not have to make eye contact any more. "But you used to go back-" He stopped, his mouth going to a tight line. "You used to choose your bot form, when things were difficult."

DJ stretched his legs, shifting onto his back, folding his legs above him and pressing them against the ceiling of the small space. "Yes."

"You didn't, this time. You haven't been doing it so much."

DJ considered that. "It's easier to not be human. When I get-" He wrinkled his nose. "Stressed. Or confused."

"But not now?"

"Not now," DJ agreed. "Sadness is different. Sadness just stays. Even if I avoided it. It would still be here when I came back." He sighed. "It hurts less if I just stay." His fingers curled into a fist over his breastbone, his knuckles pressing hard against the thin fabric of his shirt. "It fades faster."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Steve turn his head in his direction. He was smiling, just a little. "I really miss the days when I could pick you up and carry you," Steve said, and DJ's stomach turned over.

"Yes," he said, because he had no words for the panic, for the fear, that those sorts of words stirred in him. Instead, he folded himself up a little tighter, wishing that this wasn't so difficult. Wishing that he could be normal. For once. He swallowed. “Steve?”

“Yes?”

DJ glanced at him. “Don't... Let Dad talk to her. Okay?”

Steve smiled. “Your father loves you.” DJ gave him a pleading look, and he chuckled. “I'll do my best to keep him away from her.” He sat up. “He can be a little over bearing.”

“He's impossible,” DJ groused, making Steve laugh again.

“A little. Because he loves you, and he is really protective.” He paused. “Also impossible.”

“Mostly impossible,” DJ said, smiling a little.

Steve propped himself up on his elbows. “Do you want me to leave you alone? Or would you like to come out and do something with me?”

DJ considered that. “Can we watch a movie?” he asked.

Steve's smile was a familiar one. “Sure.”

DJ overlapped his feet, pressing his toes together. “Can it be Star Wars?”

“We won't tell your father.”

DJ took a deep breath, and slipped out of his hiding place. Steve waited until DJ was upright before he stood up. “Steve?” DJ asked. Steve looked at him, and all the things that DJ wanted to say disappeared. It happened, sometimes. The words got jumbled up in his head, until it was too hard to figure out which one he was supposed to use. How he was supposed to make someone else understand.

His shoulders slumped. “Thank you,” he said, because he'd practiced those so many times. He could say that no matter how lost he was, how confused, how afraid. No matter how much his head turned things over, mixed things up, 'thank you' was muscle memory, easy on his tongue and lips.

Steve held out a hand, and DJ went into the shelter of his arm. “I'm proud of you,” Steve said.

A little of the panic eased, and DJ tried not to think at all. But his mind was never very good at being silent. When he didn't have the words to speak, all of it just stayed there, a tangled mass in his head.

He leaned into Steve's side, grateful for the contact.

*

“So, what's going on?”

“Nothing,” Steve said, and it came so quick and so hard that it was clear that he'd been expecting the question and had the answer ready.

Tony sipped his coffee. “Uh-huh,” he said, and Steve walked past him, brushing a kiss against his cheek as he went, like that was going to distract Tony. Tony smirked, even as he hooked an arm around Steve's waist, forcing him to either stop or knock Tony's arm away.

He stopped. Tony grinned at him. “What's going on with my kid?”

Steve's eyebrows arched. “Can I have a cup of coffee here?” he asked.

“Sure. Tell me what's up with DJ and why he's spending half his life in the sulk hole.”

Steve considered that, his mouth twisting up on one side. “No,” he said at last.

“Steven,” Tony said, the word a sing-song slide of syllables.

“No,” Steve repeated, leaning in for a kiss.

Tony allowed it. Because he deserved a kiss for putting up with this shit. He deserved a lot more than that, actually, but Steve had rules about sex in the group kitchen. It was damn unfortunate. Tony snagged the front of Steve's shirt with one hand. “I can find out,” he pointed out, smug about it. “I can-”

Steve kissed him again. “But you won't.” He leaned his forehead against Tony's. “You respect him enough to let him handle this. Right?”

Tony slumped back against the counter, throwing his hands in the air. “Steve, really? You're going to-”

Steve crossed his arms over his chest, and that did not bode well. Tony heaved a mental sigh but was very careful to keep the real one behind his teeth, because that really, really would not go over well right now.

"Tony, do you remember that wonderful period of about eighteen months when he was refusing to tell either of us anything?" Steve asked, his tone conversational.

Tony shuddered. “No,” he said, powering through the lie with his usual lack of shame.

Steve's look was full of pity. “Well, I do. I remember him refusing to tell either of us anything,” Steve said, in a voice of doom. “I remember him refusing to tell anyone other than Clint anything.”

“That was bad,” Tony admitted. “That was- Let's not do that again. I would really prefer he not tell Clint things.”

“I have to agree,” Steve said. He glanced at the kitchen table. “Sorry, Clint.”

"No, no, Clint would also prefer he not tell Clint things," Clint said, through a mouthful of cereal. "Clint ain't equipped for this."

"We're aware," Tony told him.

Clint waved his spoon in Tony's direction. "Seriously. That fucking sucked.”

"No offence, Clint," Steve told him with a faint smile, "but we kind of felt the same way."

Clint hunched back down over his cereal bowl. "I am not equipped for dealing with people's problems, unless the solution is explosions. Those, I do okay with. But emotional issues? I don't-" He shook his head, his expression vaguely haunted. "No. Let's not have him go back to telling Clint everything."

"It's a Christmas miracle, we agree on something," Tony grumbled. "Is this about the intern?"

"No," Steve said, but he had a million tells, he had a million tells when he was telling a lie that he didn't really want to tell, and Tony knew them all by this point. "What-"

"Let's not make this any more awkward than it already is," Tony said, holding up a hand. "Watching you try to lie is painful, it is painful and it was unnecessary, the question was rhetorical."

"Didn't sound rhetorical," Clint said.

"Why are you here right now?" Tony asked him. "Seriously. Why?"

Clint gave him a smug grin. "I," he pointed out, "was here first. Eatin' my cereal. Thinking deep thoughts. Then the two of you decided to come in here and have a domestic." He shrugged. "Not my problem."

"You could leave," Tony told him. “A normal person would leave.”

Clint considered that as he chewed on a mouthful of cereal. "You don't know any normal people.”

Tony considered arguing that. There didn't seem to be any point. “Why haven't you left?”

“Nothing good on Netflix," Clint admitted. “Also I want to know about the intern.” He blinked at them as he reached for the cereal box. “There's an intern?”

“There's a young woman,” Steve said, giving up. “Who happens to be an intern.” He gave Tony a look. “How do you know-”

"He brought her into my workshop," Tony said. "I get reports on these sorts of things. I consider it important. When someone without any clearance is brought into my goddamn workshop by my lovesick idiot of a child, I get a, like, a text alert about that. It's the security system, doing it's job for once in its little electronic life."

“He is not an idiot,” Steve said immediately, because of course that was what he would focus on, not the massive security breach involved.

“He's acting like one,” Tony said. “He brought her. Into my workshop.”

Steve shook his head, and reached for the coffeepot. “It is his home, Tony. It's the place he's always felt the most comfortable. Why are you so surprised that he brought her there?”

"I'm actually more concerned that he thought that showing her the workshop is the way to impress a girl," Clint said. “That's worrying, right there.”

Tony frowned at him. "What's worrying about that?"

Clint gave him a look. "Lots of things in this building are impressive, Stark. Your tech rat hole is not one of them.” Tony stared at him, and Clint went back to his cereal. “Seriously. Who's impressed by that?”

"Everyone," Tony said, vaguely hurt by that in a way that he absolutely would not admit. "It's- It's impressive, okay? You, you have been impressed."

"You blow shit up," Clint said with a shrug. "That's pretty impressive."

"Thank you,” Tony said, at least a little appeased.

"He's more protective of the workshop than you are," Steve pointed out. “So I'm certain that if he had-”

“Are you talking about me?” DJ asked from the doorway, and everything came to a swift, stunning halt.

“Oh, hell,” Clint mumbled into his cereal, which did not help for plausible deniability.

“Hi, Deej!” Tony said, going for enthusiasm, and judging by the look that Steve shot him, he'd missed enthusiasm and gone straight into manic. He toned it down. “How's things going with that thing?”

DJ looked at Tony, then at Steve, then back at Tony. “You were talking about me,” he said, his mouth turning down.

“No,” Tony said. “Nope. Not everything is about you, botboy.” He took a sip of his coffee. “We have other interests. Interests other than you.”

DJ looked at Steve. “We weren't,” Steve said, and it was horrible and awkward and he was so bad at lying to his child, it was just unbelievable. Tony wanted to throw something at him.

DJ crossed his arms over his chest and looked at Clint, who promptly shoved about half a bowl of cereal into his mouth and then tried to pretend like he didn't routinely talk with his mouth full. He shrugged when DJ glared at him. “Mahwhad,” he said, and DJ sighed.

“Jarvis, were they talking about me?” he asked.

“Jarvis, belay-” Tony said in a rush and it wasn't fast enough.

“They were in fact discussing you,” Jarvis said, and Tony glared up at the ceiling. DJ stared at them, deeply disapproving.

“I will get the biggest electro magnet I can find,” he gritted out, “and I will roll it over your server banks like a push lawn mower.”

“I apologize, sir, but my protocols specify that I am not permitted to lie to DJ unless it is an emergency or his health and safety are jeopardized,” Jarvis said, the smug little bastard. “As neither of these were evident-”

“Your health and safety are now jeopardized,” Tony said.

“Stop threatening Jarvis,” Steve said. “DJ, we were talking about the situation, and-”

DJ gave him a look that said he was not impressed. “You were TALKING about me. You promised you wouldn't tell him.”

“I didn't-”

“Wait,” Tony said. “Wait, you promised not to tell me?” He looked at Steve, trying not to feel betrayed by this and it was damn hard because everyone knew things before him these days and he did not like that. He did not like being the last one to know things, especially when it appeared that Steve was the first one to know things and wasn't goddamn sharing.

Steve gave him a 'now is not a good time for this' look. “It's his choice as to who he's going to tell-”

“You made him promise not to tell me?” Tony asked DJ.

“Yes,” DJ said, and there was a tone in that 'yes,' a tone that indicated it was mentally being followed by a 'of course.' “I want her to like me.”

“That's the reason why you should tell me. People like me,” Tony pointed out. “I'm very popular. I am a very popular person.”

DJ glared at him. “You scare people.”

That stung. “Who? What people? What people have I-”

DJ's eyes rolled upwards. “You made Jessie cry.”

Tony worked hard to repress a flinch. “In my defense-”

Steve pressed a hand to his face. “Tony...”

“In my defense,” Tony repeated, even louder, “she was with Val. I thought she was a Richards-Storm spawn, they can take a little gentle ribbing.”

DJ stared at him, his mouth curved down into a distinct frown. “Dad.”

“What?” Tony said. And when DJ just made a pained noise and turned away, he repeated to Steve, “What?”

“DJ-” Steve started.

“I can't believe you!” DJ said, throwing his hands in the air. “I-” He looked at Tony, his face twisted up. “I messed up, and now she hates me. Okay?”

Silence descended, an awful, painful silence, and Tony's chest ached. Physically ached, because he didn't know what to do, or how to make this right. How to make everything right. He took a deep breath. “I can-”

“No!” DJ's shoulders slumped. “Don't. Just...” His head fell forward. “Please don't.”

“But-” Tony stopped as Steve's arm slipped around his waist, pulling him physically back.

“Leave it alone,” Steve whispered in his ear.

“I'm fucking lousy at that,” Tony muttered, slumping into the warmth of Steve's body.

“Yeah, but you're good at trying for his sake.”

Tony looked up. DJ was scrubbing at his nose with one hand. He sighed. “Okay,” he agreed. “Fine. I can- Fine.”

“Thank you,” DJ said, his voice small.

Clint sighed and stood up, grabbing his cereal box. “Come on, Tinker Toy. Let's take our Fruity Pebbles and find Phil. I got nothing.” He shook the box. “Except Fruity Pebbles! That counts for something. Right?”

DJ smiled, just a little. “Right,” he said.

Clint slung an arm around his shoulders. “Let's go, kiddo. Drown our sorrows in sugary sludge.”

Tony took a breath. “Deej?” When the boy looked at him, Tony gave him a tight smile. “You messed it up? Then fix it.”

“Tony-” Steve started, but Tony was already shaking his head.

“No. No, if he messed it up-” His smile felt easier this time, better on his face. “If you messed it up, Deej, then you fix it. It might not work. It might not be easy. Apologizing never is.” Steve's arms tightened around Tony's waist, and Tony let his hand rest on Steve's. “But if you messed up, Deej. Tell her you messed up.”

DJ took a deep breath. He didn't say anything, he just nodded.

Tony nodded back. “Okay,” he said. Then, again, “Okay.” He stopped. “Oh. Wait. Hold on, wait, Jarvis, did she list any allergies on her medical records?”

“Tony-” Steve said, and Tony could hear the laughter in his voice.

“No, fuck it, no, this is-” Steve buried his face in the side of Tony's neck, laughing, and Tony grinned. “Jarvis, let's not have him repeat all of my mistakes, this is just-” His eyes canted up. “Can we cheat this one time?”

“Your apology should not involve a commonly used over the counter pharmaceutical,” Jarvis said, his tone wry.

“Hopefully, it wasn't going to in any case, so, there, safe!” Tony said, waving his hands through the air. “Jarvis, thank you.”

“I live to serve, sir.”

Clint put DJ into a gentle headlock. “C'mon. Fucking up, that I've got experience with. I'll let Phil tell you all about it.” DJ giggled, and Clint bopped him on the head with the cereal box. “Laughing at my pain. You're the worst, you know that? I'm going to trade you in for a goldfish.”

“I want a fish.”

“Let's go, we'll get hyped up on sugar and then go buy a fish.”

“No fish!” Tony yelled after them, as Clint hustled DJ out of the kitchen. “Dammit, Barton!” Steve was still laughing into the side of his neck, into his hair, and Tony aimed an elbow at his stomach. Steve took the hit and just tightened his arms. “You weren't much help,” he grumbled.

“Your mess, you fix it,” Steve said. He kissed Tony on the ear. “It's the Stark way.”

“It is the Stark way,” Tony agreed, proud of himself for that. It was good, he was good.

“Uh-huh. Jarvis?” Steve kissed the back of Tony's neck. “Lock the young lady's employment file, effective immediately, authorization override Rogers four three twelve seven six seven seven.”

“Wait, wha-”

“Override code accepted,” Jarvis said. “Certain departments have a legitimate need for accessing this file.”

“And that's fine,” Steve said. “Just keep Tony out of it.”

“Excuse me?” Tony asked, finding his voice at last. “I mean- What?”

“I understand,” Jarvis said.

“This is such a betrayal,” Tony said. “Both of you. This is-” He turned back to the coffee pot. The coffee pot never betrayed him. The coffee pot loved him and enabled all of his bad choices. “The coffee pot is my only friend,” he announced.

“I'm sorry, sir, but you've exceeded the recommended amount of coffee for the day,” Jarvis said.

“Jarvis, I will build you a body just so I can punch you,” Tony said.

“You have a meeting,” Steve pointed out.

“After my meeting, I will start working on a body so I can punch you,” Tony said, maintaining his dignity. Steve hid a smirk behind his coffee cup, and Tony just stalked up, took it out of his hand, and drained it. “You deserved that,” Tony said, slapping the cup down on the counter.

“I guess I did,” Steve said. He leaned in and kissed Tony on the mouth. “Pepper's going to be waiting.”

Tony poked a finger in his face. “Hate you,” he said.

“I love you, too. Go make Pepper's life easier.” Steve caught his hand and pushed it to the side, spinning Tony around as he did. “And try to remember her deadly allergy to strawberries.”

“I started dating you because you have no medical problems!” Tony said, laughing, even Steve nudged him out the door.

“For a guy with a hole in his chest, you demand an unreasonable amount of perfection from others.”

“It works for me, Rogers. Look at what it got me.”

“And what's that?” Steve asked.

“Everything I never knew I wanted.” Tony gave him a kiss, and a wave. “Do not let Clint ruin our child!”

“I'll do my best. Don't be late.”

Chapter Text

There was a little green lizard sitting on her desk, curled into a ball on top of a bag of Skittles.

Lucy paused at the door of her cube. "Can I help you?" she asked, and Furbro raised his head, opening his mouth in a yawn. He stood, flexing his toes on the candy bag, then scrambled down to her desk. He looked at her, then back at the candy. “Is that for me?” Lucy asked him. Furbro scrambled up one side of the bag and down the other. She watched, amused despite herself, as he wandered down the side of her desk and disappeared under the cube wall.

Lucy stepped in, dropping her load of binders onto her chair. There was a folded piece of paper tucked underneath the bag. She pulled it out, smoothing it open with careful fingers. The printing was neat and crisp, very simple and clean. So was the message.

"I'm sorry. I should have asked."

Lucy considered it, then refolded the slip of paper, tucking it into her pocket. She picked up the bag, knowing what it was even before she turned it over.

She leaned into the next cube. "He left me Skittles," she said to Ajay. “Like, a pounder bag. Not one of those cheap little bags from a vending machine that has six pieces of candy in it.” She weighed it between her palms. “There's enough here for like a week of breakfasts.”

"Neat. That means you can give me some." he asked, without even looking up from his work.

“I could, but you have to ask a little nicer than that.”

He sighed. “Lucy, may I have some of your Skittles?”

"No," Lucy told him. "Aren't you going to ask who?"

"I... Don't really care, Lucy."

She rolled her eyes, passing the bag back and forth between her hands. The candies rattled in the packaging as they shifted. She kind of wanted to hug the bag, which was stupid. It was a bag of candy. Not some grand gesture. Except, it was her favorite kind of candy. Which was nice. "Did you tell him I liked Skittles?"

"I'm going to pretend I saw your mystery guest," Ajay said, hunched over his work. His words somehow fell into rhythm with the typing of his fingers against the computer keyboard. "I didn't. But I'll pretend. And pretending that, I'll tell you-" He rolled his head in her direction. "I told him nothing of your candy addiction."

Lucy considered the bag. Maybe it was his favorite, too. "How did he know I liked Skittles?"

"I'm going to take a guess here and say that if he came to see if you were in your cube, which you have not been," Ajay said around the pen in his mouth, "he might've noticed that your trash can contains nothing but Skittles wrappers."

She paused. "You think he went through my trash?"

Ajay's head fell back. "Give me strength," he muttered to himself. He turned his chair in Lucy's direction. "Lucille. Your trashcan is full of Skittles wrappers. Every single person who enters your cube can't help but stare in horror at your trash can. It's like a neon sign announcing your approaching diabetic coma."

"Everyone has their vices," Lucy said, unconcerned. She leaned an arm on the top of his cube wall. "It's a pounder bag. Did I mention that?"

"And that might indicate that he saw you kicking the vending machine in the cafeteria for being out of Skittles," Ajay said. "And tried to placate you before you could turn that violence on the rest of us." He flicked a hand through the air. "An offering to keep you from smiting the rest of us with your wrath."

Lucy pointed at him. "This is why no one likes you."

He turned back to his work. "Well, no one likes you because you refuse to share your candy."

"It's my candy." She grinned. "He gave it to me."

"Congratulations. May you and your candy be full of joy."

"Assbutt," Lucy said, ripping open the bag. He responded with a run of Hindi words. She paused. "I"m going to look that up to see if it violates any HR rules."

"You can't even SPELL it, let alone look it up," he said, and Lucy bit her lip to keep from laughing. Instead, she snagged one of his worksheets, and pulled it to the corner of his desk.

Dumping a pile of candy on it, she said, "See? Don't say I never share."

"You can make a mess, can I say that?"

"Aaaaaaaassbutt," Lucy sing-songed.

He flipped a hand in her direction. "Some of us have work to do."

"Some of us are so good that we've already finished," she said, smacking a palm against his cube wall.

“I'll be by to fix your mistakes right after I'm done here.”

“Sure, I can explain the complicated parts to you, don't worry about it, you'll get it eventually. Every kid learns are their own pace.”

“Mine is twice yours,” Ajay said, and he wasn't even tryint to hide his grin anymore.

“I'll just be taking that candy back now,” Lucy said, reaching a hand towards his worksheet.

He moved so fast that she could barely see it, one hand snapping out to scoop up a fistful of candy. He shoved them into his mouth, his hands hovering protectively over the candy that he couldn't quite manage to get into his mouth. He blinked at her. “Mine,” he mumbled.

“See,” Lucy said, “I'm going to leave now before you end up licking everything you want to keep away from me.”

Ajay shrugged. “Whatever works,” he mumbled, sounding smug.

“Sugar addicted chipmunk,” she said.

“Assbutt,” he said, his lips twitching.

“My Skittles and I are leaving now,” Lucy said.

“Imagine my relief.”

Laughing, she wandered back to her desk. Moving her binders out of the way, she collapsed into her seat. She dropped the bag of candy onto her desk, and it tipped over, one bright red piece of candy rolling across the surface. She picked it up, rolling it between her fingers.

After a second, she pulled the note out of her pocket, and smoothed it flat. One finger slid across the paper, tracing the words. It was a simple apology, but somehow, that made it better. She popped the piece of candy into her mouth.

Strawberry was her favorite.

*

“Hello, Mr. Warren.”

Tom stepped off of the elevator, his leather bag under one arm. “Ah, Agent Collins! Are you keeping the home fires burning this evening?”

She laughed, just a little. “There was a last minute emergency, and DJ had already planned movie night, so Agent Coulson asked if I wouldn't mind playing chaperone.” She stood, setting her book and her tea cup aside. “As assignments go, this is a rather low stress one.” She crossed over to him. “I wasn't aware that DJ had an appointment tonight.”

“No appointment.” Tom set his bag down on the table and opened it. “Just his test scores. I figured I could drop them off on the way home. But if he's busy-”

Agent Collins was already shaking her head. “No, no. Tony arranged for an early upload of the newest-” She waved her hand in the air. “Some movie sequel that DJ has been very excited for. He invited the Richards-Storm children and some friends from Xavier's over to watch it with him, but they can't stream it for another hour or so. They're down in the playroom.”

He smiled. “Keeping out of trouble?”

“I assume so. Jarvis keeps an eagle eye on them and lets me know if I need to put in a physical presence. DJ,” Agent Collins said, her lips twitching, “is teaching them to dance. As he's been taking lessons from Agent Romanov for most of his life, and there is apparently a dance coming up at Xaviers, there is a bit of a last minute panic as these children try to figure out how to slow dance in a way that does not involve hugging and leaning.”

“Served me just fine as a kid,” Tom mused.

“Served everyone just fine as a kid,” Agent Collins agreed. “But you know DJ, and DJ's friends.”

“Overachievers?” Tom filed in.

“There is that tendency,” Agent Collins said. She smiled. “Come on, let's go bring him the good news.”

Tom fell into step beside her, heading down the corridor to the private elevators. "It's good to see that you're still on the books."

"Officially, yes." She gave him a broad smile. "Personal Protection Specialist."

"Which means..."

"In this case, occasional babysitter." She shook her head. “I should have retired. I'm part time, now, but they keep me on full time rolls and benefits, because, well...”

“Because the Avengers need you.”

She waved that off. “No, because DJ trusts me. And is comfortable with me. In those rare times that he does need someone here, to be his caretaker, he does not need the added stress of an unfamiliar person.” She glanced at Tom. “Besides, by this point, he's as dear to me as one of my own grandchildren.”

Tom nodded. “He is a remarkable child,” he said, smiling. “Which does not mean that I will not be so amazingly grateful when I can finally retire.”

She gave him a sideways glance as they stepped onto the elevator. “We're grateful for your service,” she said, not sounding nearly as mocking as she should have.

“Damn well better be,” Tom said his smile stretching. “I should've been living it up in Florida for several years now.”

“Well, you'll just have to settle for a pina colada and a sun lamp for now,” Agent Collins said. The doors opened.

He wasn't sure what he was expecting. But it wasn't what he found.

The space beneath the playroom's massive tree had been cleared, opening up the floor for a few sets of dancing teenagers. He recognized DJ, but not the delicate, brown haired girl in his arms, or the boy and girl that were awkwardly trying to follow their graceful example. Val and Franklin Richards, he knew, and they were dancing with more enthusiasm than care, which he supposed was normal for someone dancing with their sibling.

There were two girls seated on the platform that ran around the tree, their legs hanging down and their arms braced on the low railing. One girl, visibly younger than the other, was leaning into the other's side, almost hiding behind her. Down on the floor, two boys were watching the dancers, one leaning against the trunk of the tree, his arms folded over his chest. The other, who had skin that was somewhere between magenta and lavender, was on his knees, his hands braced on the floor on either side of his legs.

“I know you,” the girl in DJ's arms sang, a hint of a brogue sweeping through the words. “The gleam in your eyes is so familiar a gleam, and I know it's true, that visions are seldom all they seem-”

“They are,” the younger girl on the platform called out, and the other girl gave her nudge, laughing out loud.

“But if I know you, I know what you'll do,” the dancer sang on, unconcerned with the interruption, “you'll love me at once, the way you did once-”

DJ spun her out, and then back in, his bare feet light on the floor as they circled one another, laughing. “Upon a dream!” the girl finished, and swept into a low curtsy, despite her lack of a dress. DJ bowed, and everyone else applauded.

The freckle-faced dancer was giggling, her cheeks bright red. “You're too good at that,” she said, her feet bouncing against the floor. “You've ruined me for dancin' with anyone else.”

“Dancing,” DJ said, “I can do.”

“Next time,” Val said, grabbing DJ's hand and swinging him in a circle, “we tango!”

“No,” Franklin said, holding his hands up. “No, Doug, no, you have to-”

The blond haired boy gave him a look. “I can't do this,” he muttered, frustration in his voice.

“Yes, you can,” the girl in his arms said, a faint French accent coloring her words. “Look, if I can do it, so can you.”

“Xi'an's much worse at it than you, Douglas,” DJ's partner said. She stretched the boy's name out with a rattling brogue and puckish grin, earning her a dirty look from both of them.

“Thanks, Rahne,” Xi'an said, rolling her eyes. “I appreciate the encouragement. Next time, you can teach me.”

Rahne grabbed her hand. “I'll teach you now! Val, me darling, look after Douglas for us, will ya?”

“Hey,” Doug started, but it was too late, and DJ and Val were there, rearranging him. “I can't do this!” Doug said, and DJ nodded.

“Hand on her waist,” he explained, and Doug did what he was told, his face scrunching up.

“You can do it!”

The boy extended a hand. “May I have this dance?” he asked, a broad grin splitting his face.

The girl gave him a sideways look out of the corner of her eyes. “I'm going to step on your feet, David,” she said, but there was a sort of longing to her tone, despite the words.

The girl next to her leaned back, groaning. “You got a precog on THAT?” she asked. “You're kidding me, sister of mine.”

Her sister gave her a look and an elbow in the ribs. “I don't need mutant powers to tell that's what's coming, Sarah,” she muttered.

David laughed, white teeth flashing against the dark brown of his skin. “What if I say I'd risk it? Even if you did have a vision?”

“Can you dance?” Sarah asked him.

“I'll pick it up,” he said. He wiggled his fingers. “C'mon, Jessie, give me a chance.”

Sarah gave her sister a shove. “You know you want to,” she sing-songed, when Jessie gave her a vicious look.

“So much hate for you right now,” Jessie told her. But she leaned over and took David's hand, slipping off of the platform.

“Let's go,” Franklin crowed at the last two. “The dance is in, what, a month? Up. Practice.”

Sarah laughed, and the boy flushed, his magenta hued skin going several shades darker. “I'm not going to dance at prom, are you kidding me?” Sarah asked. She leaned back. “I'm here for Jessie.”

“She's lying, Paras!” Jessie called, even as she awkwardly started to dance with David. But her cheeks were pink, and her lips were curled up in a little smile.

“Shut up, Jessie!” Sarah said, rolling her eyes. “Sorry, Paras.”

He cleared his throat. “I would like to, well, go,” he managed. His blush just got darker as Sarah glanced at him. “Do you not want to go, or-”

“Or are you just afraid to go stag?” Rahne sang out as she swept past, Xi'an laughing in her arms. “You can come with us, Sarah! We'll be single ladies together and make Remy dance with the lot of us!”

“He will, too,” Paras said. He gave Sarah a shy smile. “I'd dance with you. If you wanted to.”

Sarah leaned over to consider him. “Is that how you ask a girl to go to prom with you?” she asked, and Paras blinked up at her, caught off guard. Sarah hopped down. “Never mind, fine, because you asked, yes, I will go to prom with you”

Paras stared at her. “Really?”

“Sure,” she said.

He grinned. “Okay.”

Franklin shook his head. “Wow, Sarah.”

“Shut up,” Sarah said, her hands on her hips. “Who's dancing with me?”

“Very nice!” Agent Collins called, and the kids stopped, laughing and backing away from each other in that scrambling, awkward way of teenagers who hadn't actually been doing anything wrong, but were now desperate to prove it. “DJ, you have a visitor.”

DJ was already bouncing over. “Hello,” he said.

Tom had to fight to keep a smile off of his face. “Having fun?”

“Yes. I just had an appointment with you,” DJ pointed out, and Tom nodded.

“That's true,” he agreed, holding up the file folder in his hand. “I just stopped by with your standardized test information.” He smiled at the others. “Hello.” There were choruses of hellos, and a wave from Val.

“Hi, Mr. Warren,” she said. “How did he do?”

“That's for him to share,” Tom told her.

“This is Mr. Warren,” DJ explained to the others. “My social worker.”

“You. Have a social worker,” Jessie said.

DJ considered her. “Yes.” He pointed. “It's him.”

“I meant-” She grinned. “Never mind, DJ.”

He took the folder from Tom. “Did I pass?” he asked, and for a moment, Tom thought DJ was addressing him. But his eyes were still locked on Jessie, his expression curious.

She giggled. “Really? Okay, let me think about that.” She closed her eyes and pressed her fingers to her forehead. “Cloudy. Too cloudy.” She shook her head. “Sorry, got nothing.”

“You passed,” Franklin said, rolling his eyes.

DJ opened the folder. “I passed,” he agreed.

“You passed,” Tom agreed, trying not to laugh. “Officially speaking, congratulations. You just graduated High School a few years early.”

“Okay,” DJ said.

“Now,” Xi'an said, peering over his shoulder, “you can come to prom.”

His face scrunched up. “Why?”

“As a celebration!” she explained.

“C'mon, you should,” David agreed, which set off a cacophony of voices, all wheedling and demanding and bargaining.

Agent Collins held up a hand. “That's enough,” she said, her eyes dancing, and the kids fell silent. “Movie time is coming up fast, are we ordering pizza, or is everyone getting kicked out early for harassing their host?”

“Pizza, and dance lessons!” Val said, to general laughter.

As they started arguing toppings and pizzerias, Agent Collins looked at Tom. “Want a cup of coffee and an extended discussion about how we're too old for this shit?” she asked.

He laughed. “You're just angling for backup.”

“Absolutely.” Her head tipped towards the playroom. “I'm severely outnumbered.”

He nodded. “I think I can be persuaded.”

*

“Hey, Carlos?”

“Mmm?”

Lucy leaned against the cube wall. “I'm looking for someone,” she said, cautiously. “Here. Any idea who I can ask?”

Carlos looked up from his work, his gaze still unfocused behind the black rims of his glasses. He squinted at her, as if trying for a long moment to place her. Lucy waited, patient about it, for Carlos to figure it out.

“Oh, Lucy.” He rocked back in his chair, his long, lanky legs tossed out in front of him. He tossed her the pink foam stressball that he always kept beside his keyboard. She snagged it out of the air with one hand. “Uh, another employee?”

Lucy nodded. “I can't find him in the employee directory, because I don't have a last name.”

Carlos nodded. “Yeah, that can be a problem. Who are you looking for, what department, you know? I might be able to give you a hand.”

“He's my age,” Lucy said. “But he's not in the intern program. I checked, no one else knows him. White boy with dark hair.” She tossed Carlos his ball back. “DJ. You know him?”

The stress ball skimmed against the tips of Carlos' fingers, then clattered to his desk, bouncing off of his keyboard and into his pencil cup, knocking it over. Lucy flinched. “Sorry, I thought you'd catch that-”

“DJ?” Carlos didn't seem to notice the odd bounce his ball had taken. He cleared his throat, and Lucy realized his smile had died. Instead, there was something strange and strained about his expression. “You're looking for... DJ?”

Lucy paused. “Yes,” she said at last. “I thought I could-” Her face felt hot. This was stupid, the whole thing was stupid, but she had thought DJ would come back. She had been sure of it. After his apology, she'd thought he would reappear, so she could actually accept it.

But as the days passed by, she'd come to realize that she had no idea how to find him, or get in touch with him. Without a last name, or even a full first name, the email system and employee directory had been useless.

She'd looked for him everywhere, in the employee gym, and the cafeteria, to no avail. Every time she was in a hallway, or the lobby, or any other public area, she'd scanned every face. She'd even caught herself glancing at feet, looking for bare toes. She'd asked the other students in the internship program, certain that he had to have talked to at least one of the others. But they'd all responded with almost identical blank looks.

Whoever DJ was, no one knew him.

Carlos, who was in charge of the interns, had been her next step. Judging by the way he was staring at her, his expression unreadable, it hadn't been her best idea.

He leaned back in his chair. “You're looking for DJ. DJ-”

“Excuse me.”

They both jumped, just a little. Carlos looked up. “Jarvis?”

“I apologize for interrupting, but I should be happy to assist Ms. Piero with her query,” Jarvis said.

Carlos stopped, a comical expression of confusion sweeping over his face. “You... Would?” He cleared his throat. “Really?”

“Of course. Ms. Piero, you are interested in speaking to DJ, or locating him?” Jarvis asked. “Should you prefer, I would also be pleased to deliver a message to him, or provide his email or phone information.”

Lucy realized her mouth was hanging open. Just a little. But still. She must look like a moron. She shut it with a snap. “Uh, hello, Mr. Jarvis,” she said, because it was the first time she could remember speaking to the AI that controlled the building. She'd heard his voice before, of course, they all had, but other than a greeting when the interns first came for their orientation, she'd never had him address her directly.

“Just Jarvis is fine, please.”

“All right. Jarvis.” Lucy took a deep breath. “I have an hour for lunch. Is he- Can you see if he's available? To talk to me?”

“He is, yes.”

She paused. “Do you need to check?” she asked at last.

“I do not.”

Lucy chewed her lower lip. She looked at Carlos. Carlos shrugged. “Jarvis knows what's what,” he said, with a smile. “Jarvis, I don't think she has clearance to-”

“I will assist her.”

Carlos nodded. “Okay, then.” He gave Lucy a smile. “See you after lunch.”

“Thank you,” she said, stepping back out of his office. She paused in the hallway, not sure how this would work. “How is this going to work?” she asked Jarvis.

“Please head to the elevators, when you are ready, and I shall guide you from that point,” Jarvis said.

“Are you sure this is okay?” she asked, even as she followed the instructions. “He might be busy.”

“He is not.” Jarvis sounded amused, somehow, and lighter than she'd ever heard his voice. “I apologize, Ms. Piero, I don't mean to make light of your concerns. However, in this situation, I am certain that your presence will be welcome.”

Safe in the elevator, Lucy took a deep breath. “I hope so.”

When the doors opened, she found herself on an unfamiliar floor. She poked her head out of the elevator, looking one way and then the other. “Am I still in the public area?” she asked, wary of getting out without some sort of reassurance.

“No. Please proceed to your left,” Jarvis said, unconcerned. “DJ's workshop is on your left, the second door.”

She didn't want to move. “Is it-”

“It is fine, Ms. Piero. Please feel free to proceed to your destination.”

“Easy for you to say,” Lucy grumbled under her breath. But she squared her shoulders and headed in that direction. She'd thought she'd have a moment to collect herself, but the moment she stepped in front of the door, it slid open.

Lucy, like an idiot, scrambled back out of sight.

“Is there a problem?” Jarvis asked.

“Can I have a second,” Lucy hissed.

“Of course.” There was a pause. “You need not be concerned. DJ is often oblivious to his surroundings, Ms. Piero. He has not noticed your arrival.”

That was a relief. She took a deep breath, and stepped back to the door.

He was bent over his work, his back bowed. He had one foot up on the edge of the stool, his bare toes flexed against the metal. He was hunched forward, his shoulders down, his face still, and his body braced against one upraised leg. His eyelashes were down, shielding his eyes, but there was a faint, soft smile on his face, and his hands moved with a fluidity and care that was lovely to watch.

Lucy took a deep breath, and rapped her knuckles on the edge of the door frame. “Can I come in?” she asked.

DJ's head jerked up. His tools clattered to the workbench, the sound echoed by the legs of his stool as he hopped down. “Hi,” he said, his voice cautious.

Lucy caught herself smiling. “Hi,” she said. She tipped her chin in his direction. “Can I come in?” she repeated.

His head tipped to the side. “You are in,” he pointed out.

“Well, can I come further in?” Lucy asked, grinning now. Any strain, any lingering frustration or anger or resentment, evaporated.

DJ considered that. “Yes.”

He stood quietly as she crossed the wide, airy workspace. Lucy looked around, curious despite herself. “Is this where you work?”

DJ nodded. “Yes.” He paused, and his fingers scraped down his side, catching the hem of his t-shirt and tugging it down, his hands white-knuckled on the fabric. “I'm sorry,” he said.

Lucy paused. “I, uh, I got your-” She shifted her weight, feeling her face heat. “Thank you. For the apology.” Her chin came up, her jaw tight. “I shouldn't have yelled at you. I was having a bad day, and that isn't your fault. But I don't like people touching my things. Especially without my permission.”

She waited, expecting some excuse, some accusation, but DJ just stood there, his face serious and his gaze sharp. After a moment, Lucy continued. “A lot of people-” She stopped, an echo of old frustration, old humiliation digging into her breastbone. “I've had a problem, Deej, with people either dismissing my work, or trying to take credit for it. Not to put too fine a point on it? I'm a black girl, and it sucks, but that means, I have had to fight. For this internship, for my position in my class, for my right to build.”

She realized that hands were fists at her sides, and she forced her fingers flat. “And I walked in and you were screwing with my project.”

“Yes,” DJ agreed.

“Don't do that again,” she said. “Ask first. See if I'm okay with it. But don't ever just take something over, don't touch my stuff. Not without asking.”

DJ nodded. “I won't.” His eyes dropped from hers. “I'm sorry,” he said. His fingers flicked against the hem of his shirt, tugging and releasing, odd little flickers of movement, but his voice was steady. “I... Help.” He looked up, a faint smile crossing his face. “I've always helped. I forget. Not everyone wants. To be helped. Or wants my help.”

He took a deep breath. “I shouldn't have. I won't. Again.” His eyes came up, meeting hers. “I just... Liked your work.”

The rush of warmth was unexpected. But it wasn't unwelcome. “Yeah?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest, even as her mouth kicked up in a smile.

DJ smiled back. “Yeah,” he agreed.

Lucy nodded, just a little. “Thanks.” After a moment of standing there, smiling at DJ like an idiot, she looked at the bench. “Can I see? What you're working on?” she asked.

DJ looked over his shoulder. “Really?” he asked, and there was such honest pleasure, such hope in his voice that she couldn't help but grin. “You want to-?” His head dipped in the direction of his workbench. “Really?”

“Really,” Lucy said, and that was apparently all he needed, because he went bouncing back across the workshop. Laughing, Lucy followed him.

He threw himself back onto his stool, sending it rocking on its legs. She wasn't sure how he didn't end up on the floor, but he barely seemed to notice. “It's not done,” he said. “Not even close.” He looked up with a grin. “All right?”

Lucy nodded. “All right,” she said, dragging over another stool, and boosting herself up onto it. There were piles of bits of metal and wire everywhere, in piles of controlled chaos, the sort that was very familiar to her. She'd worked in this sort of mess before, she'd lived in this sort of mess, and it was comforting, somehow, to find it here, in front of DJ.

She reached out, picking up a tiny, metal toothed gear from a pile on the table. She considered it, careful with the miniature piece. It looked like something from an old fashioned pocket watch, gleaming and perfectly formed.

Her gaze shifted to DJ's project, which looked like a tiny doll. Lucy studied the tiny metallic figure. About a foot or so long, it was clearly a human form, but at the moment, it was just a metal skeleton. The metallic skin was there in places, over one leg and over one tiny hand, but mostly the interior workings were exposed

"What is it?" Lucy asked, folding her arms on the edge of the bench.

DJ glanced up, a faint smile creasing his face. "Automoton."

The word was familiar, but she couldn't remember from where. She leaned her chin on her folded arms. "What's that?"

"A mechanical figure, running on gears and springs, that can move independently," DJ said. He had one foot braced on the edge of his stool's seat, and he was leaning his body weight into the support of his leg. He had a way of moving that was at once awkward and graceful, as if he focused all his attention on his hands, on the care with which he was adjusting things, and forgot that the rest of his body existed at all. “Very old tech.”

He pushed forward, another inch or so, and the stool shifted, rocking precariously on its long legs before settling back into a stable position. He didn't seem to notice, his fingers steady on the tiny frame. "Gear, please," he said.

For an instant, Lucy thought he was talking to her, but then she realized that Furbro was skittering across the surface of the workbench, darting between piles of miniscule parts. He ducked under DJ's wrist, then boosted himself up to peer into the automoton. He placed a paw on DJ's thumb, then skittered over the back of his hand and back across the workbench.

As Lucy watched, he went straight for a pile of gearworks, and began sorting through them. He held up one in a little paw, rocking his weight back on his back legs. He turned the gear around, his head flicking from one side to the other, before dropping it back into the pile. He repeated this with three others before he finally took one, tucking it into his mouth and scrambling back over to where DJ was still working.

Furbro nudged his head against DJ's fingers, gently at first, then with more force. "One minute," DJ said, jamming a pair of needle nose pliers into his mouth. He scooped up a long, thin bit of metal and used it to adjust something within the automoton. Then he moved his hand, just far enough out of the way for Furbro to wriggle underneath.

The lizard went back on his haunches again, taking the gear from his mouth with his front paws, his claws delicate on the shining metal. While DJ waited, Furbro crawled into the figure, fitting the gear into place and adjusting it with a few twitchy little flickers of his paws. He crawled back out, his head up, his mouth parted in a grin.

DJ stroked his head. “Good boy,” he said, and the lizard's eyes fluttered shut as he bumped against DJ's fingers.

Lucy realized her mouth was hanging open. "How did you train him to do that?" she asked, as Furbro scrambled up DJ's wrist, curling around his forearm like a shiny little bracelet..

DJ glanced at her. "I didn't. He learned on his own."

Lucy stared at him, then down at Furbro, who was smirking. "How did he learn? He's a lizard."

DJ's head tipped to the side. "He's not organic."

Lucy looked at Furbro. Furbro blinked back at her, then opened his mouth in a wide yawn. "He's not... Alive?"

DJ's face went tight, his mouth thinning out. "No," he said, his voice very quiet. "He's not organic. He's an AI." He reached out with his free hand to pet the lizard, and Furbro arched up, rubbing against his fingertip with a pleased little chitter of sound. "His life is different. But he's still alive."

"He's a bot," Lucy breathed. She looked up at DJ, her eyes huge. "Oh my God. He's a bot."

DJ's grin was slow, but unstoppable. "Yes." He held out a hand, and Furbro scrambled up his arm, wiggling through the folds of fabric and emerging at his neck, curled up just under DJ's ear. DJ reached up and scratched his head with one finger, and the lizard nipped happily at his fingers, his tail curling up in a tight little loop.

"Where did he come from?" Lucy asked, awed. She'd never seen anything with nearly this level of complexity, with this intelligence, even a rudimentary intelligence.

"I made him,” DJ said, bringing Lucy's head up.

Lucy stared at him. At the tiny little lizard that was nuzzling just under his jaw. "You made him? Like, from scratch?"

DJ shrugged. "Not. From scratch. He used to be a furby."

Lucy paused, her mouth gaping open. "Then he got better?" she asked, not able to keep back a giggle.

"Little bit better," DJ agreed.

“He's amazing,” Lucy said, and DJ flushed.

“Yes. He is.” He went back to the automaton. “You can come down here. If you want,” he offered. “No one else works here.”

Lucy looked around. The space was big, too big for one person. A lot of the space was filled, but there were still three benches that were bare. But things were starting to make sense. If he was telling the truth about Furbro, and she was more apt to believe he was a hyper advanced bot than a super intelligent lizard, then that explained what a barefoot boy was doing, with his own lab space in the heart of StarkIndustries.

She looked back at DJ, but his head was down over his work. It was Furbro's eyes that met hers, and the little lizard blinked at her, slow and easy. “Why me?” she asked.

DJ looked up. “Why you... What?” he asked.

Lucy folded her arms over her chest. “Out of all of the interns. I'm the only one you've talked to, aren't I?”

He considered that. “Yes,” he said.

“Why me?”

His eyelashes dipped low. “I like you,” he said.

“You like me,” Lucy repeated. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Really.”

“Really,” DJ agreed.

“Uh-huh,” she drawled out, trying to convince herself that she was not pleased about this, that there wasn't the faintest flush of warmth curling in his stomach, just from those simple words. “Why?”

He studied her, those dark eyes blinking slowly. His head dipped back to his work. "Because you're smart," he said. His fingers were so careful, and his words slowed, as if he was concentrating on something other than what he was saying. “Brilliant.”

Lucy caught herself smiling. "Really? That's all you require?"

His head tipped to the side. "Maybe," he admitted. "Male or female doesn't seem to matter much." He smiled at her. "My first crush was on Curiosity."

It took her a second to put it together, then she laughed. "The Mars Rover?” When DJ nodded, she shrugged. “Well, mine was Optimus Prime, so I guess I can't really call you weird for that one, you at least chose a real robot," she said.

"You chose one who could talk," he said.

"Also true."

He bent over his work, his body folding up again. "When things happen, you smile."

Lucy blinked. "What?"

"You smile." He looked up. "Sometimes, you figure things out, or you find something new, or you try something new, or something works? And you smile. You look around and you smile, like, this is amazing. Is anyone seeing this? Look at how amazing this is." He waved a hand, gesturing at the workshop at large. "You do it. For the smallest things. You smile like..." He paused, his eyes darting up to hers. "Like the world is full of amazing things."

He huffed out a breath, his face relaxing as if the words had taken everything out of him. Like he'd had his say, and it was a relief to have it done.

Lucy shook her head. “So what, this is some manic pixie dream girl shit?

DJ shifted in his chair. "No."

"Then what?"

He was silent for a moment, his mouth working. He took a deep breath. "Because I smile the same way." He ducked his head. "I don't. Understand.”

“Understand what?” Lucy asked.

His eyes canted up, and he smiled, and for a second, she lost her breath. His smile was luminous, brilliant and all encompassing. “How they can't see. How amazing everything is.” He leaned forward. “Want to know a secret?”

Lucy was laughing. “Yes.”

His teeth dug into his bottom lip, his grin still there beneath the sparkling eyes. “Promise not to tell?”

Lucy crossed her heart with one finger. “Promise,” she said, trying to sound solemn. It didn't really work, but apparently, it was enough.

He rolled off his stool, leaving it rocking in his wake. He padded over to an empty bench and opened up a drawer under it. “I made this one for a friend,” he said, pulling a wooden box out of the drawer, and setting it on the workbench. He opened the box and reached inside. “She's not quite finished. But mostly.”

DJ set the figure down, his hands careful. It was a female figure, a ballerina. The figure's head was turned slightly to the side, and Lucy could see her face. There was a faint smile on her sculpted lips, and her eyes were half shut, giving her an expression of serene pleasure. The metal body had been sculpted, or molded, with a leotard in place, but the skirt was a fine metal mesh that fell around her like fabric. One leg was folded beneath her, the other was extended out in front of her, her body folded over it.

From the box, DJ drew a small key with a filigree handle, and set it in an almost invisible hole in the ballerina's back. He turned the key a few times, winding it, then removed the key and sat back, a smile on his face.

There was a moment of stillness, and then the ballerina came to life.

As Lucy watched, entranced, the figure's torso came up, one arm extending in a perfect arch as the figure shifted. It shifted its weight, rolling forward and up. The ballerina came to her feet, her head coming up as her feet flexed on their ankles, on joints that Lucy hadn't even realized were there.

One arm swung up, smooth and perfect, her head tipping to the side. One leg shifted, then the other, maintaining its balance the entire time as it moved, en pointe. She bent forward, sweeping low, her leg coming out behind her, and the figure executed a slow, sweeping spin, then lowered herself down.

The whole thing took only a few minutes, the movements having that almost halting perfection of a machine in motion, but it was a complete circuit, and she ended up in the same position that she'd started in.

Lucy realized she'd been holding her breath, hoping and praying that the tiny clockwork dancer would make it through her routine. Now, she let it out in a gust, relief and pure joy sweeping through her.

She was grinning like an idiot, and she didn't care. “She's beautiful,” she said to DJ, who flushed.

“Thank you.” He leaned over, smiling at the figure. “She's small. So, hard to make the motions work. I have to be careful, because everything has to fit.” He touched an extended hand with one fingertip, and Furbro slipped out from his sleeve, his head tipping to the side as he considered the automoton. Then he yawned and nipped at DJ's finger.

The two of them side by side, were stunning. “You made these,” Lucy said, her voice quiet.

DJ glanced up. “Yes,” he said, moving Furbro to his shoulder and returning the ballerina to the box. “She is the beginning. Her type. They were the first.”

“The first?”

“The first robots,” DJ said. He rubbed a finger over Furbro's head. “He's the future.”

“And you build them both,” Lucy said. DJ nodded. Her head tipped to the side. “Why?”

He grinned. “Because I love it,” he said, and that was all he needed to say.

On some level, her head was spinning as she remembered the complexity of the ballerina's movements, the length of the routine. “How?” she asked. DJ's head tipped to the side, his expression showing confusion for a moment, until he figured out what she was asking.

DJ reached for a tablet that was on the bench next to her. “This.” His fingers flicked against the screen, and all around them, above them, a holographic schematic exploded into existence in the air around them.

It was stunning, it was beautiful, it was positively pornographic in its perfection.

Lucy stared up, and she realized her mouth was hanging open. “Oh, my GOD,” she whispered, her eyes darting around, trying desperately to take it all in. She rotated, spinning in place, and all around her, the holographic machine went about its work. Her hands fumbled out, catching on the edge of the bare workbench, and without even thinking about it, she boosted herself up. She sprawled out on her back, staring up into the holographic display, dizzy with it.

Her hand came up, her fingers brushing against a gear. It lit up beneath her touch, a flare of light that flickered out to all the gears that touched it. She watched, her lips parted, her heart pounding, as the spark rolled through the schematic, branching like lightning, flaring like fireworks. She heard the laughter, and realized it was hers.

“It's beautiful,” she said, her voice full of awe, and DJ grinned at her.

“Thank you.”

Lucy patted the bench. “How does it-” Her head rolled towards DJ. “Can you show me how it works? How she works?”

He was silent for a moment. “My father says,” he said, his voice quiet, “that if you work on something, for long enough, it becomes part of you. You understand it. Because you oil the gears with your blood.”

He reached up, long fingers ghosting against the hologram. With a flick of his hand, he set one gear spinning, and the schematic came to life. Lucy watched, still laughing, as the mechanics went through their paces, motion and light transferring from one element to the next.

He looked up. “I'm not good at teaching,” he admitted at last.

Lucy grinned at him. “That's okay,” she said. “I'm really good at learning. We'll balance each other out. Right?”

His smile was slow, and he ducked his head. “Right,” he agreed. He boosted himself up and lay down, his body pointing away from hers, his head right next to hers. She looked at him, and his eyes were warm in the reflected light. “You really want to learn?”

“Yes.” Lucy looked back up, into this brilliant starfield he'd made, this constellation of sparks and motion, swirling all around them. “You said you like to help, right? Well. Help me understand this.”

She felt, as much as heard, him take a deep breath, his body flexing and shifting. Then he reached up, and started to work.

Chapter Text

Steve was always careful in the garage. Tony was often a bit careless where he left his cars, let alone his tools, and so taking the turns was always an exercise in trying to figure out what he was about to hit. In many ways, Tony had adapted to having roommates, a lover, and a family pretty well. In other ways, he never seemed to understand that other people now shared his space.

It made both the garage and the bathroom an exercise in potential injury.

So Steve always took it slow. More than once, it had saved his neck, or at the very least, it had saved him from landing rather badly on something far more breakable than himself. At the very least, it saved on yet another fight about Tony leaving his toys wherever they happened to be when he was finished playing with them.

This time, when he turned the corner, he had an instant to realize that there was a man clad in a long black coat sitting in mid-air, his eyes closed, his palms tipped up and his elbows braced on his folded legs.

Steve jerked the handlebars to the side, wheels skidding against the concrete, and his body swung low, his weight bringing the bike down and to the side. One booted foot hit the ground, the sole scraping hard as he jerked the bike to a stuttering, rough stop.

He cut the engine, his heart pounding, and he wasn't sure what was smoking more, his brakes, or his boots. He reached up, yanking his helmet loose. “Stephen?”

Strange's eyes flicked open, and for an instant, they were a glowing, brilliant white, light flooding out from behind his eyelids. He blinked again, and the light was gone, replaced by his familiar, stormy gray eyes. His eyebrows arched. “Ah, Captain!” His legs unfolded, one swinging down to the ground. The toe of his polished shoe brushed the stone, and he sank down, his coat sweeping out behind him as he settled back to earth. He brushed a hand against his chest. “I apologize, did I startle you?”

Steve's eyebrows arched. “Startle me?” he asked, amused. “You scared a decade off of my life. I nearly hit you.”

“Oh, you wouldn't have, even if you had,” Strange said. “I was on another plane, what you saw was just an echo of my physical self. Should you have come into contact with me, you would've passed right through.” He paused. “I'm told the sensation is extremely unpleasant, but both of us would have been unchanged by the experience.”

“Good to know,” Steve said. He swung himself off of the bike, walking it toward its usual parking spot. “To what do we owe the pleasure, Doc?”

Strange followed him, silent except for the soft sound of his footfalls. “I was checking on things,” he said at last. He stroked a hand over his goatee, his fingers flexing against his jaw. "Clea thinks we have a problem," he said, his voice pitched low.

Steve paused in the act of setting his kickstand. “What kind of problem?” he asked, already wary of the answer.

Strange slanted a glance in his direction. “The protective spells we've put in place appear to be weakening.”

Steve's stomach bottomed out. Just like that, just a handful of words, and every muscle in his body went tense. Just like that, and he was preparing for a fight, for the fight, the fight against an enemy that was not polite enough to just show up so Steve could hit him or her in the face with the shield. “You're sure?”

Strange shook his head. "I am not. I've not been able to discover anything, to be honest. To me, they look as sturdy as ever. However, Clea says they're starting to...” His mouth got tight. “That they are under an extreme stress. For now, they are holding. But just like any other system, stress affects spells in odd ways. There are likely weak points now. Flaws and fractures that you have to be very, very good to see.”

Steve's fingers were still locked on his bike, and he carefully pulled them away, flexing them to keep them from forming fists. “And Clea's that good?”

“Her skill with this sort of work outstrips mine, by a fair portion," Strange said, a faint smile pulling the corners of his lips upwards. "I trust her judgment. I always have, but in this?” His jaw tightened. “If she says we have a problem, we have a problem.”

“Any idea who's doing it?” he said, and he was pleased, his voice was calm and controlled. It was his field voice, his command voice, but he was in control.

“I've been over the entire building, looking for outside interference. I've found none.” Strange took a deep breath. “I fear that it's DJ, actually.”

Steve stared at him. “How-” he managed. “Or, why?”

“I don't think that it's something he's trying to do, but that doesn't change things. The spells we have laid upon DJ are beneficial ones,” Strange said, his voice quiet. “There are rules to spells of that nature. They cannot be laid on an unwilling subject. On at least a subconscious level, the person has to accept the protection they offer. If they do not, then the spell slips. It fades. Or shatters completely.

“A spell that is forced on a person, even a beneficial one, is a terrible burden to carry. It may remain in place, but it sinks into the bones, into the mind. More than that, it wears on their heart.” He shook his head. “I won't do it.”

“We wouldn't want you to,” Steve said. He tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat. “We wouldn't let you.” He took a deep breath. “There's a girl. That he likes.” Strange glanced at him, his eyebrows arching. “Do you think that could be contributing?”

“Perhaps. The spells I laid on him, specifically, are meant to keep him hidden, to keep him from attracting attention from those who mean him harm.” Strange's fingers moved idly in the air, flickers of light tracing after the motions, sparks of color. “If he no longer wants to be invisible, to be hidden, well.” He shrugged.

“Hard to hide a kid who's determined not to stay hidden,” Steve said.

“It is.” Strange's fingers closed in a fist, extinguishing the sparks. “Is she one of the children from Xavier's School?”

“No. She's an intern in the summer program,” Steve said.

Strange nodded. “She works here?” At Steve's nod, he continued, “Will you show me her workspace?”

“You think she has something to do with this?”

“I don't know. But it would be nice to eliminate the possibility, I think. If she's a magic user, or if someone has laid a particularly strong spell on her, then there might be traces left behind in a location that she uses often. A sort of magical echo, or residue.”

Steve checked his watch. “Day's over, the interns will be gone. Come on, let me show you where they work.” He headed towards the elevators, and Strange fell into step beside him. “You said that Clea had to be particularly good to see the weak spots in the protective spells.”

“Yes. Better than me, it would appear.” Strange's teeth flashed in a quick smile. “Though that is not hard at times.”

Steve considered that. He chose his next words with care, and no small amount of trepidation. “And the person who laid the original spell? Is he or she that good?”

Strange thought about that, his head tipped back, his eyes hollow and fathomless, unreadable. “The magic they wield is strong. But we've seen only one spell from that individual. Whether its strength comes from the caster, or the recipient...” He smiled. “That, we don't know. But I would place even money on your son.”

“I'll always place my bet on Deej, but let's go see if we can't give him an edge,” Steve said.

*

"It's not a burrito."

"Is."

Lucy laughed. "No. It is not."

DJ grinned. "Yes!"

"If it involves pickles, it is not a burrito, it is an abomination."

"No. Delicious."

"But not a burrito!"

"See," DJ said, spreading his hands, "you take a cheeseburger-"

"And RIGHT here, the problems start," Lucy said, shaking her head as she reached for the pliers.

DJ ignored her, grinning like a maniac. "You chop it up. Then you put salsa-"

"Better."

"Onions, lettuce, tomato-"

"Okay, I'm with you."

"Pickles, and mayonnaise on the tortilla shell-"

"Aaaaaand you've lost me again," Lucy told him, waving the pliers in his direction. "Because damn, no. I do not do that."

"Then add french fries-"

"What, with the-"

"No, inside, with the rest of the stuff," DJ said, grinning. "Then you roll it up and-" He threw his hands up. "Burrito!"

She stared at him. "That's a wrap."

"Only if you cut it in half."

"Oh, my God, no, no, it is not a burrito unless it contains things that are actuallly-" She waved a hand through the air. "Burritoish!"

He considered that, sticking a chunk of wire between his teeth as he made an adjustment to the circuits in front of him. "What makes things burritoish?" he asked.

"Common sense!"

He was giggling now, and trying to hide it. Lucy grinned at him. "They're good," DJ told her, his eyes dancing.

"I'm sure they are." She leaned forward. "Still. Not. A. Burrito."

His head got lower. "Totally a burrito," he said, and Lucy was laughing so hard she could barely stand up straight.

She opened her mouth to retort, but her phone started beeping in her back pocket. Her nose wrinkled. “And that's my five minute warning, lunch is over for another day.” She waited for him to look up, then she tossed the component she'd been working on in his direction. DJ snagged it out of the air.

“Thank you,” he said. “You going to come tomorrow?”

“We have a meeting, so I'll be late, but yeah.” She grinned as she grabbed her bag. “I'll see you tomorrow?”

“Lucy?” She looked over at him, and DJ pushed his goggles up onto his forehead. His hair was a tangled mass of locks behind them, and Lucy bit her lip to keep from giggling. DJ didn't seem to notice. “Furbro?”

“Nope,” she said, her nose going up. “I'm keeping him.”

His eyes narrowed, and his lips twitched. “Please?”

“Oh, fine.” Laughing, she reached into her breast pocket, coming up with a sleepy little green lizard. Furbro opened one eye, then yawned, apparently unconcerned. Lucy set him onto the workbench.

DJ held out a hand, and Furbro wandered over. “You are shameless,” he said. The lizard nipped at his fingers, then curled up on his palm.

“He likes me more than you,” Lucy said, smug about it.

“Probably,” DJ agreed. “I do his maintenance. He hates it.” He draped the sleepy lizard over his shoulder, grinning at Lucy. “You'll be late.”

“Yes, I will.” But she still didn't move. She took a deep breath, and said. “Hey, DJ? A few of us- Of the interns, I mean, a few of us, there's this theater. It's doing a retrospective of classic films, and they're showing 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail.'” She stopped, hoping that he'd respond to that, but DJ just nodded, smiling. Lucy shifted her weight. “I was thinking. If you wanted. You could come with us?”

DJ blinked at her, his smile dying. “To see a movie?”

She grinned. “Yes. I mean. You could come with all of us.” Her shoulders rose in a shrug. “Or, you know. With me.” Her face felt hot, and she kept her chin up. “If you wanted to.”

DJ's mouth opened, but he didn't say anything. After a long moment, he nodded. “I... Can I think about it?” he asked, his voice soft.

“Yeah, sure.” Lucy smiled. “I know you don't know any of the others. But really. They're nice. You might like them.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

Her phone beeped again, her 'you're out of time, moron' alarm, and she took a deep breath. “Okay. I'll talk to you about it next week. Okay?”

“Okay.” He smiled, just a little, and Lucy smiled back.

Then, before she could make an idiot of herself, she headed for the door, and from there, down the hallway and towards the elevator. It wasn't until she was safely in the elevator that she stopped, taking a deep breath. Then she dug her phone out of her pocket.

As soon as the line picked up, and she heard the loud music in the background, she knew her parents weren't home. “'Lo?”

“Hi, Ticia,” Lucy said. “I need you to send me my yellow skirt.”

There was a moment of silence from the other end of the line. “Who is this?” her sister finally said.

Lucy's eyes rolled towards the ceiling. “Oh, come on, Leticia.”

“No, seriously, who is this?”

“Can you just send me my skirt?”

“No,” Leticia said. “Because I seem to remember my dumbass little sister telling me that she didn't need to bring pretty clothes when she was in New York.”

“Oh my GOD,” Lucy said, her head falling back against the wall of the elevator. “I hate you, you know that?”

“I seem to remember,” Letitia continued, “my baby sister telling me that this internship of hers was very serious, and she was not going to meet boys or impress anyone, and that was why she utterly refused to pack the adorable, fashionable, smokin' hot outfits that I, personally, picked out for her.”

“You were right, I was wrong, can you please just-”

“Did you meet a boy?” Leticia asked, her tone gleeful.

“Shut up.”

“Okay, did you meet a girl?”

The elevator stopped, and Lucy stepped off. “I'm not into girls,” she said, her voice pitched low. “I don't object, or anything, but I've never felt any attractions to girls.”

“Keep your options open,” Letitia said, and there was pity in her voice. “You're young, you don't know what you like.”

“You're two years older than me!”

“And so much more experienced.” There was the sound of paper crinkling, and Lucy could almost see her bending over one upraised knee to paint her toenails, sheets of newspaper protecting her blankets.

“Yeah, whatever, can you just send me my skirt?”

Leticia hummed under her breath. “Maybe,” she said at last.

“Maybe?”

“What're you going to wear with it?”

“A shirt.”

“Which shirt?”

Lucy stared at her phone, her mouth hanging open. She put it back to her ear. “A shirt, what does it matter?”

Her sister's sigh was long suffering. “Lucy. Which. Shirt.”

“The, I don't know, the blue one with the, you know, the-”

“The flowers? No. Oh, God, Lucy, you'll look like you're nine years old in that shirt, any normal boy will run screaming in the other direction.”

“There is no boy! I just-” Lucy sidestepped a few people, her voice dropping. “I'm going out to the movies with my group, okay, and I thought it would be nice to wear something pretty, so sue me, I just thought I'd look nice for once, okay?”

“Uh-huh.” Leticia turned down her music. “What's he like?”

“I told you-”

“You know what, shipping you clothing sounds expensive. I don't know if I can-”

“You are such a bitch,” Lucy muttered.

“You could always ask mom,” Letitia said. “I'm sure she would do it for you.”

Lucy's mouth got tight. “Fine,”she said. “Fine. Okay. Whatever. I met a boy, I think he's cute, I'd like to wear something nice when we all go out to the movies, it's like, it's a group date, so you can shut up now.”

“Is he a nerd?”

Lucy resisted the urge to hang up. “Le-Ti-Tia,” she whined, drawing her sister's name out. “Come ON.”

“You are a worthless brat. Okay, fine, I'll put an outfit together for you.”

“Just send the skirt.”

“You'll ruin it by pairing it with something stupid.” Letitia was laughing. “Tell me about this boy. Is he a nerd? You don't usually go for nerds.”

“I always go for nerds,” Lucy said, her eyes flicking up. She'd reached their workspace, and hovered outside the door. “You're the one who goes for big and stupid.”

“Big, stupid and pretty, don't forget the pretty.” Letitia had no sense of shame about this, but then again, she was currently a college freshman dating a senior who happened to be a star football player. Lucy envied her confidence sometimes. “So, tell me something about him, or I'm not doing shit for you, Lucille.”

Lucy shifted her weight. “He has the most remarkable eyes,” she said, her voice very quiet. “And I like him. Okay?”

There was a pause. “Okay,” Letitia said. “That's okay. I'll get you something pretty together, and I'll get it out.”

“Today?”

“Don't push your luck.” Letitia made kissing noises into the phone. “Love you!”

“I love you, too,” Lucy said. “Tell Lily I'll call again tonight, okay?”

“You'd better, she's gonna sell your stuff on eBay at this rate.”

“I need the money, so, okay.” Feeling a bit lighter, Lucy hung up the call and headed back to her cube. She might've been dancing. Just a little.

*

“I have had a lousy fucking day and I am going to do dirty, filthy things to you.” Tony threw his suit jacket at the kitchen table. He probably knocked something over. He didn't much care, whatever broke, he could replace.

Steve just chuckled. “That's not going to happen,” he said, not even looking up from his soup. “I'll counter with a long, comforting hug, and a glass of scotch.”

Tony loosened his tie. “As a billionaire industrialist, can I just say, that counter offer fucking sucks?”

“We're not having sex in the kitchen, Tony.” Steve turned away from the stove, his arms crossed over his chest. He was wearing one of those horrid plaid shirts that he still enjoyed, despite how often Tony had told him they were horrid, and he'd rolled the sleeves up to his elbows. He had a simple white apron tied around his waist, and the steam from the soup had made his cheeks pink. His hair tumbled over his forehead as he smiled at Tony. “So. Take my offer or leave it.”

Tony stared at him, torn between frustration and amusement. “Is that really the best you can do?” he asked.

Steve's eyes flicked upwards as he considered that. “Hug, forehead kisses, back rub, and sympathetic noises,” he said, uncrossing his arms. He held out his arms. “Well?”

“You are lousy at this,” Tony said. “So fucking lousy.”

Steve arched an eyebrow. “Clock's ticking, Mr. Stark. It's a limited time offer.”

“Whole bottle of scotch,” Tony said.

“Glass with ice,” Steve said. “And I'll throw one of those frozen pies in the oven.”

Tony wanted that hug so badly that he could taste it. “A la mode?”

“I think that can be arranged.” Steve was still standing there, like a damn idiot, his hands up, waiting for Tony's inevitable break. “C'mere.”

Tony half fell into his arms, burying his face in Steve's shoulder. “I hate dealing with Reed,” he mumbled into that horrible plaid shirt. “I hate it so fucking much.”

Steve's arms closed around him, hugging him close, the warmth of his body enveloping Tony in an instant. “I know,” he said, and he leaned back against the counter, pulling Tony with him, cuddling him close. One hand swept up and down Tony's back. “Thank you for doing it, Tony. You know-”

“It needs to be done. I know. I am aware,” Tony said, his voice petulant even to his own ears. “Why do you think I did it?”

“The funny thing is,” Steve mused, “is that Reed is probably one of your best friends.”

Tony stilled in his arms. “I do not know what I have done to you,” he said, still not lifting his head, “to make you say such a horrible thing to me. What-” He leaned back, but Steve's arms were firm and comforting, and he leaned back against Steve's grip. “After all these years. How could you betray me like this?”

Steve grinned at him. He leaned in, and Tony dodged the kiss, fending him off with a hand to the face. “No. Don't you- Don't you dare, I am not-”

He was laughing, and Steve was laughing, and it was half hug and half wrestle and Tony's legs were tangled with Steve's. Steve buried his face in Tony's throat, laughing and kissing, and Tony made a grab for his hair, trying to pull him away, and they both went down in a heap on the kitchen floor.

“I thought we weren't going to-” Tony said, just as DJ poked his head into the kitchen. Tony froze, Steve froze, and DJ sighed. “Hey, botbrain!” Tony said, trying for normal, despite the fact that they were on the floor, and he had a fistful of Steve's shirt in one hand and he was kinda sorta riding Steve's upthrust leg. “How was your day? We were-” It was hard to concentrate, because Steve was laughing underneath him and that was nice, that was very nice. “Hungry?”

DJ gave him a look. “When's dinner?” he asked Steve.

“Half an hour,” Steve said, unconcerned about getting caught on the floor of the kitchen by their son. “Go spread the word, please.”

“Okay.” But he didn't move. “The balloons-”

“I'll talk to him about it,” Steve said, and that was worrying. But apparently, it was what DJ had been hoping for, because he gave them a grin and bounced back out of the kitchen.

“Balloons?” Tony asked. He didn't bother to move.

Steve slung his arms around Tony's back. “His birthday party,” he said.

Tony winced. “Fuck.”

Steve nodded. “We need to make a decision about that, Tony.”

“We've made the decision. It's not happening. We're going to limit his contact with the outside world until we've got a handle on this, this, whatever this thing is.” Tony leaned into Steve's body. “I'm not risking him.”

Steve was silent, rubbing a hand up and down Tony's back. It was as much for his benefit as it was for Tony's. He liked the contact. He needed the contact. His lips brushed against Tony's forehead, an open mouthed kiss, breath warm on Tony's skin. “He asks us for so little,” he said, his voice soft.

Tony didn't pull away. He just closed his eyes. “I know it kills you,” he said. “When you have to tell him no.”

“Tony, it's-”

“You don't spoil him,” Tony said, resting a hand over Steve's chest. “But you want to give him everything, you want him to have everything.” He smiled. “But I will not risk him.”

Steve's arms tightened. “I know.”

“Are we together on this?” Tony asked.

He felt Steve's chest expand as he took a deep breath. “You know we are. I just-” He sighed. “I hate doing it, Tony.”

For a long moment, they just sat there, tangled together, breathing and listening to the other one breathe. “We just have to postpone it,” Tony said at last. “It's not canceled. It's just-” His fingers tightened on Steve's shirt. “I can't.”

He felt Steve's lips on his forehead. “He's here. He's safe. Stephen's looking into it.”

Tony snorted. “Wonderful, I'm trusting Dumblenuts with my child.”

Steve chuckled. “You have been for a long time.” He pushed himself up, just a little, and Tony pried himself off of Steve's chest. It was harder than it should've been. Steve reached up and brushed Tony's hair away from his forehead. “We can't let him keep planning this, Tony.” His mouth got tight, thinning out, and that was a shame, that pretty mouth of his looking so unhappy. “It's not fair.”

“I know, I know,” Tony said. Steve didn't say anything further, and Tony sighed. “I know.” His head fell forward, his forehead landing on Steve's shoulder. “It's not that big of a deal,” he said, trying to convince himself, as well as Steve. Because it felt like a big deal. Tony took a deep breath, and Steve's hand cupped the back of his neck. “I thought we weren't going to have sex on the kitchen floor.”

“We're not-”

Tony kissed him, lips light on Steve's. “Let's,” he breathed against Steve's mouth. “You know you want to.”

“Absolutely not,” Steve said, smiling and laughing against Tony's mouth. “You are incorrigible.”

“Yeah, but I'm good at it,” Tony said, and the kiss was lazy and light and easy, and he was going to stay here forever, curled into Steve's body.

“Oh, God, really, in the KITCHEN?”

“Go away, Clint,” Tony mumbled against Steve's mouth, but it was no use, Steve was already struggling upwards. He was taking Tony with him, and there wasn't much Tony could do about it, which didn't mean he didn't fight it every inch of the way. He was back on his feet a moment later. “Goddammit, Clint,” he managed, leaning against Steve.

Clint went to the cabinet and started pulling out plates and bowls. “No way, Stark, if I don't get to debauch the public areas, you don't either.”

“'Debauch?'” Tony repeated. “What, have you been reading regency romances or some shit?”

“Things happen on missions. Long, boring missions,” Clint said, unconcerned. “What happens on missions in Meeteese, Wyoming stays in Meeteese, Wyoming.”

“That mission was pure hell,” Natasha said, wandering in in a sports bra and yoga pants, her hair pulled back in a perfect ponytail. There was a towel around her neck, and she bypassed the men and went straight to the stove to consider the pot. She gave it a quick look and a slightly longer sniff. “Good job, Steve.”

“Thanks. It even tastes good,” Steve said, still hugging Tony, and Tony shifted, putting his back against Steve's chest, leaning back into him.

“Even better.” Natasha gave Tony a look. “Got a call from Sue.”

He groaned. “No. I am not going back tonight. I'm not-” He held up a hand. “I was promised pie!”

“Pie?” Bruce asked from the doorway. He sounded hopeful.

“No pie for you, I saw what you did at the Baxter building,” Tony said, stabbing a finger in Bruce's direction. “Oh, my God, what were you-”

Bruce's hands went up. “You have no idea what I inherited,” he said. “No. This is not my fault, I am not-”

DJ bounced in, hugging Bruce from behind, just a quick, light hug, and then he was darting around the kitchen, catching the stack of bowls that Clint tossed him with barely a look. “You,” Natasha said, her chin coming up. “You are late for practice.”

He grinned and responded in Russian. “Lost track of time.”

“No dessert,” she said.

“Is there dessert?”

“I'm throwing a pie in the oven,” Steve said, pressing a kiss against Tony's temple. “Go help set the table.”

“I was promised scotch,” Tony complained as Steve released him. “There was a deal, Rogers. Don't you dare renege on our deal.”

“DJ, pour your father a scotch,” Steve said, unconcerned, because he knew that was not happening, that was never going to happen, Tony's child would not assist him with his poor choices.

“Don't touch that, DJ,” Tony said. “I'll have some coffee.”

“Even better,” Steve said.

“You are the worst,” Tony told him, and Steve gave him a smile, unconcerned and so horribly manipulative Tony didn't even understand how the rest of the world missed it. “The worst.”

“I know,” Steve said. He kissed Tony. “We'll have some wine with dinner.”

“I want a beer,” Clint said.

“Why are you even part of this conversation?” Tony asked him.

“I'm just saying, that's all.” Clint looked at them. “I want a beer. DJ, do you want a beer?”

“I will kill you,” Tony said.

“No, thank you,” DJ said.

“Don't offer him alcohol,” Tony said.

“He always says no,” Clint pointed out.

“And what are you going to do when he says yes?” Steve asked, shaking his head.

“Punish him.” Clint smirked at them.

“Don't offer my child booze,” Tony said. “Deej, want some chocolate milk or something?”

“Yes, please.”

“I'll take one, too,” Bruce said. Thor wandered in, and Bruce waved a hello. “Want some chocolate milk with dinner?”

Thor considered that. “Have we strawberry syrup?” he asked at last.

“Yes,” Clint said, his head in the fridge.

“I shall partake in that, instead.”

“I am living with a bunch of mental ten year olds,” Tony complained and went to go get the spoons.

*

“Are you really in StarkTower?”

“Silly-Lilly, you've already asked this question like sixteen times,” Lucy said, laughing. “Yes. I'm in StarkTower.”

“Right now?”

“Right now, right now,” Lucy agreed. She glanced up. “Hold on. One sec.” She moved a step to the side, out of the way, for the best angle, and pulled up her camera. She took a quick selfie, grinning at her camera with the massive fountains of the lobby in the background. With a couple of flicks of her fingers, she sent it over to Lily before switching back to the call. “See?” she said, laughing.

“Have you seen Iron Man? Or Captain America? Or-”

“I haven't seen any of the Avengers,” Lucy said, because she didn't have time to listen to the whole roster today. “I mean, I've seen Iron Man flying, but everyone's seen that.” She sounded smug, like an actual New Yorker. Of course she'd seen Iron Man. That was a thing that happened, that was every day, of course she'd seen Iron Man.

Of course, she probably didn't count as an actual New Yorker until she stopped trying to get a picture of him.

“I haven't seen him,” Lily pouted.

“I'll send you a postcard,” Lucy told her. She was pretty sure that they sold those here in the lobby gift shop that was open to the street and all the tourists that the tower attracted. They sold all nature of StarkIndustries and Avengers stuff. She was pretty sure that all of Lily's Christmas presents were going to come from there.

“It's not the same.”

“Yeah, well, the program's done in like, a month,” Lucy said. “Mom and Dad are driving down to pick me up. Start begging to come along now, and maybe you can see him.” She fumbled in her bag, looking for her wallet.

“Do you miss me?”

“Yes, Lily-Goat,” she said, shifting her bag. Maybe it had fallen down to the bottom... “How has camp been?”

“Good. I passed my swim test.”

“Even the long swim portion?”

“Yep!”

“Good for you!” It wasn't in here. Lucy shifted her bag back onto her shoulder, trying to think. Maybe she'd left it in her cube. She closed her eyes, trying to remember. She'd had it in her pocket this afternoon, and she'd bought lunch and brought it up to DJ's workshop, her wallet balanced on the tray with her food. “Shit,” she muttered.

“I'm telling mom you said that.”

“If you do, I'm telling mom that you'll be in the way when they come to pick me up,” Lucy shot back. “I have to go okay? I forgot my bus pass upstairs, and if I miss this bus, I'll have to wait, like, an hour for the next one.”

“Okay!” Lily made kissing noises, making Lucy laugh. “Send me an Iron Man postcard!”

“I will.” Lucy headed back to the elevator, checking the time before she tucked her phone back into her pocket. She hit the button, but she didn't have to wait long. People were streaming out of the building now, and in a matter of moments, she was stepping onto an empty elevator.

She jogged up the hall, but her footsteps faltered when she realized the door was half open. That was odd, DJ closed it if he wasn't there, and the day was over. But even from here, she could hear voices coming from the workshop. Frowning, she moved forward, just a step or two, just enough to peek around the corner.

Tony Stark was leaning up against the bench, his arms folded over his chest. He was half turned away from the door where Lucy was hovering. “You're wasting your time.”

DJ was perched on the workbench opposite him, his heels bouncing against the bench as he swung his legs through the air. “I can do it.”

Stark's shoulders rose and fell in a sharp sort of shrug. “Not saying you can't do it, saying you shouldn't bother.” He unfolded, his arms and his body, and pushed away from the bench. One hand reached up, cupping the line of DJ's jaw, tipping the boy's head up. “I'm saying that you should be working on something better. Something more important.”

DJ made a face, but he didn't pull away from Stark's hand. Instead, to Lucy's surprise, he leaned in, draping himself over Stark's chest, slipping his arms over Stark's shoulders. Stark leaned over, and Lucy couldn't see what he did, but the position of his head seemed to imply a kiss, and then he was pulling away.

“Okay, light of my stunted life,” Stark said, smoothing both hands through DJ's hair, tipping his head back. “Get back to work, or you're out on the street.” He patted DJ on the cheek. “Pretty face only gets you so far.”

DJ grinned. “I'll get it done.”

“Yeah, yeah. You'd better. Last chance. I mean it this time, this is your last chance.” Stark moved, and Lucy had an instant to realize that he was heading for the door, and then she was running. Even before she realized she was doing it, she was up the hall and around the corner, out of sight. She threw herself against the wall, her heart pounding in her chest so hard that she was almost afraid someone would hear it.

But there was just the sound of the door shutting with a faint click, and then the almost silent sound of footsteps on the tile floor. Lucy didn't move, her shoulders pressed against the wall, her bag digging painfully into the small of her back, until she heard the ping of the elevator doors opening, then closing.

And then she just kept standing there, staring at nothing in particular, ignoring the slight dampness to her palms. “Okay,” she said at last, a faint whisper of sound as she scrubbed her hands against her jeans. “Okay. Yeah. That was weird. That was weird. Wasn't it?”

That was definitely weird.

Did Stark have a nephew? Did one of the other Avengers have a child? She'd read an embarrassing amount of gossip magazine articles on them, on all of them, but she didn't remember anything that could explain this. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers had been together for years.

Hadn't they?

She peeked around the corner, risking just a quick glance, then ducking back. But the corridor was empty now. She waited, another few minutes, then crept out. Her pulse was still pounding in her ears, but she stopped in front of the door, and raised her hand. Her fist hovered in mid-air for a moment, then she knocked.

A moment later, the door was yanked open, and DJ was grinning at her. “Hi!” he said, his voice warm. His head tipped to the side. “You haven't gone home?”

He looked so happy that she caught herself relaxing. “I think I left my wallet here,” she said, smiling back. “I need my bus pass.”

“Oh.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, I thought I saw-” He turned away, bouncing across the floor towards the workbench they'd been using that day. He shoved some pieces out of his way, his hands darting here and there, moving things and sending others toppling to the ground. “I thought it was-”

Lucy was grinning now. “If you break something, it's not my fault,” she said, wandering in after him. She came up behind him, scanning the mess he was making. She spotted the small corner of the worn purple nylon peeking out from under a half-assembled piece of an automoton. “There it is.”

They reached for it at the same time, and Lucy's hand closed over DJ's. Her fingers jerked back, but DJ didn't seem to notice. He pried her wallet loose and handed it over. “Thanks,” Lucy said, smiling.

“Sure.” He pushed a few things back onto the bench, bending over to grab a loose piece or two. “Sorry. Don't like cleaning up.”

“I can tell.” Lucy tapped her wallet against her hand. “I've missed my bus,” she said, after a moment. “Can I stay for a while? Will I be in the way?” She paused. “Do you have somewhere to be?”

“Dinner will be late. I have-” His face scrunched up. “I have work. Oh!” His expression cleared. “Lucy! It worked!”

She grinned. “What worked?”

“Furbro, he got- There was upgrades. You should, you'll like this.” He pushed things out of his way. “Furbro?”

Lucy felt the tiny impact on her hip, and the desperate scramble of little paws clawing their way up her side. “He apparently didn't enjoy them,” she said, reaching down to pry him loose from her shirt. The lizard glared at her, tiny face twisting in something that looked, for all the world like betrayal. She brushed a light kiss on his head. “Sorry, baby, but you can't come home with me.”

DJ held out a hand, and Furbro wrapped his legs around a couple of Lucy's fingers, clinging and studiously avoiding DJ's eyes. DJ frowned. “It's good for you,” he said, coaxing. “Made you better!”

“What did you do to the poor guy?” Lucy asked, even as she held out her hand so that DJ could pry Furbro off of her hand. The lizard clawed the air as he was pulled away.

“It's good. You have to see!” DJ bounced away, halfway across the workshop, and as Lucy watched, half confused and half curious, he lifted his hand and just threw Furbro.

Lucy let out a shriek, a tiny, choked off sound, lunging forward, but Furbro wasn't falling any longer. Glittering, transparent red wings flicked out from Furbro's back, and he started to glide through the air, his legs pawing at the air like a dog swimming. Lucy reached up, and Furbro tumbled into her hands, rolling over before latching onto her skin with every paw at once. His head flicked from one side to the other, something like panic in his posture.

“What the hell was that?” Lucy asked, holding Furbro up, clutching him to her chest. “DJ-”

“Hard light,” DJ said, grinning. He boosted himself back up on the workbench. “I gave him wings, so he can fly.” She stared at him, not comprehending at all, and he explained. “StarkIndustries has been working on hard light generators.” His hands spread. “Light with physical form.”

Lucy stroked a finger over Furbro's back, and Furbro arched up into her touch, his claws relaxing a bit. His tail whipped through the air, and the wings flicked back into existence. Curious, Lucy touched them, and there was something there, enough of something that she could feel the pressure against her skin. And then, they were gone, and she was touching his regular skin. “I don't think he likes having wings.” She glared at DJ. “Or maybe he just doesn't like being thrown.”

DJ's mouth fell open. “He won't use them unless he has to.”

“No,” Lucy said. She tucked Furbro into the front of her t-shirt. He tucked his front paws over the top of her shirt, and cuddled down in her cleavage. “Bad. No freaking out the poor baby bot.”

“He's faking it,” DJ said.

“Doesn't look like he's faking it to me.” She sighed. “I'll have to keep him. For his own protection.”

“You can't keep him,” DJ said, blinking. He seemed stymied by both of them.

Lucy cupped a hand over Furbro's head. “You threw him!” she said, trying not to laugh.

“I had to!”

Lucy stroked Furbro's head. “It's okay, sweetie,” she said, backing away. “I'll get you away from the mean boy.” But the expression on DJ's face was too much, and she started to laugh. “You are horrible!”

DJ grinned. “He'll get used to it. Then he'll love it!”

“Would you?” she asked, and his mouth opened. “On second thought, no, you are not allowed. No. I forbid you to have wings.”

He tucked his knees up, his bare feet braced on the edge of the bench. “What if I want them?”

Lucy pointed a finger at him. “No.”

His grin stretched. “We can work on something else,” he offered.

“Good.”

“I can work on my wings when you're gone.”

“Bad!” she said, and he was laughing now. “No wings.”

“Fine,” he said, cheerfully. “Spot welding!”

“This is a bad idea,” Lucy said to Furbro.

“Welding,” DJ repeated, and he looked young in that moment, young and innocent and sweet in the way that he grinned as he slipped down off the bench. And Lucy couldn't help but think of Tony Stark's hands sliding through his hair, of DJ leaning into his body.

“DJ?” He glanced up, and Lucy struggled to find a way to say, 'are you sleeping with Tony Stark' that didn't involve her actually saying, 'are you sleeping with Tony Stark?' After a moment, she gave up. “Where do you live?”

He tugged a glove into place with his teeth. “Here,” he said, around the material.

“Here? In the tower?” That did, at least, explain the barefoot part of the equation.

“Yes.” He flexed his fingers. “Where do you live?”

“Right now? At Empire University,” she said, because that was easy, that was nice and easy, and she didn't have to think about it. “The internship program is run through the school, you know? And since it's summer, they have limited students, so they house us in the dorms there, it's part of the program.”

She bent over her work. “Usually, I live in Connecticut, that's were my family lives, but for right now, I'm at Empire University. I have a roommate, Marnie, she's nice, a little bit of a wet blanket sometimes, but she's nice and she's in the program, too, she's just working out of another building.”

She was babbling, but she didn't think that DJ had noticed. “DJ?” she asked. When he looked up, she smiled at him. “Are you... Okay?”

He considered that. “Yes,” he said at last.

Lucy nodded. “Okay.” And not knowing what else to say, she went back to work.

*

“Why isn't Rahne coming this weekend?”

The noise in the room died down, and DJ wondered where they were going. What they were doing. His father was in the armor, and Steve was in his suit, even if he didn't have the shield yet, and everyone else was dressed as well, and they were going out. A prickle of fear rolled across his skin, but he ignored it. “She emailed me. Said. She was sorry. About this weekend.”

His father studied him. “There's a problem at the Baxter building,” he said, his voice calm. “We'll discuss it when we get back.”

DJ's shoulders came up. “Did you cancel my birthday party?”

“Deej-”

“Did you?”

His father studied him. Sighed. “Yes, I did.”

There was a moment of stillness so absolute that DJ could hear himself breathe. He concentrated on that, because he could control that. He could control that, even if he couldn't control anything else. He locked his teeth together, and inhaled.

“Okay, it's okay, DJ,” Steve said, stepping forward. He reached out, and DJ jerked backwards, out of his reach. A strange expression crossed Steve's face, and for an instant, his hands hung awkwardly in the air. Then the fell to his sides. He took a breath. “Okay,” he said, with a tight smile. “Deej-”

“We can't have your party right now,” his father said, and DJ's head snapped towards him. He braced his helmet on his hip. “It'll be rescheduled. But she said that because I contacted Xavier's and told them not to come. That for now, they can't come.” His throat worked. “At all.”

DJ stared at him. His breathing was ragged now, high and sharp, and he wanted to ask why, but the words were gone. This always happened to him, always, and he hated it, he hated that words were so hard. Everyone else just said things, without even seeming to think about it, and he had to fight for every single word that crossed his lips.

“Why?” he choked out, and the others were leaving, in the periphery of his vision, he saw them head for the door, leaving DJ behind. His hand was locked on the fabric of his shirt, over his breastbone, holding on as tight as he could. His father's face was blank, a cipher that he couldn't work out. His eyes darted to Steve, who had his head back, his eyes closed.

“Why?” DJ repeated, agonized.

“Because it isn't safe. Too many people know about you, too much exposure, too many things we can't control,” his father said. “And I should have told you, but I didn't think-” His mouth got tight. “We have to handle this now. You know the rules. We have to go and deal with this, because people are depending on us, because you are depending on us, but we have to deal with this.” His weight shifted, a scrape of metal on metal, and DJ twitched. “Deej, we'll talk about this when we get home.”

“But-”

“When I get home,” Tony said, as if that was all that was needed to be said. And maybe it was, because he just left.

DJ turned to Steve. “He doesn't understand,” he managed, each word an act of desperation. “He doesn't-” He choked on it, and this time, Steve's hands closed over his head, palms cupping DJ's ears, drawing his head down. The anxiety spiked, just for a second, and then DJ closed his eyes and sank into that support.

He had to concentrate on breathing.

All too quickly, Steve's hands fell away. “I have to go,” he said, and DJ didn't look up, didn't move. “I'm sorry. But we'll be home soon.”

“Don't,” DJ managed. He gritted out the word. “Please. Don't.” His eyes opened. “It's not fair. Don't.” He stared at Steve, trying to make him understand.

“It's your father's decision,” Steve said, his voice quiet. “But I agree with him.”

His chest contracted, a spike of panic that felt like a physical blow. “You can't-”

Steve's hands folded over his shoulders. “You know the rules,” he said, and his voice was soft, gentle, familiar. “I don't get into a fight between you and your father. That's not my place.”

His eyes burned. DJ wrenched free from Steve's hands, turning and darting away. His legs wouldn't hold him, and that was fine, he carreened off of the wall, off of a table, and then he was running. Before the words that were never right and never stayed in order got out.

Before he asked Steve where his place was. DJ had lost track of that, somewhere along the way. He'd known, when he was small, when he was new, when he was a bot, he understood, or at least, he accepted. But now things were confusing and there was no port. No safe harbor.

Steve wouldn't pick him up and put things back in order any more. That wasn't his place.

DJ made it as far as the workshop, as far as his charging station, but he didn't have the control or the energy to attempt to change forms. Instead, he just curled into himself, folding himself up tight on the metal spot and tried to concentrate on breathing. Tried not to think about how much it hurt. He was pretty sure he was crying, and he ignored that, too.

“DJ?”

He folded his knees up. Ignored Jarvis' voice, the constant annoyance of Jarvis' voice. Words flowed over him, and they would drown him if he let them. He ignored them. And concentrated on breathing.

“Dummy?”

“Not,” DJ managed. He wished he was, though. Sometimes. He'd trade anything for that, some days. To make the chaos, the confusion, the fear go away, and go back to the way he had been. Simple. Broken. Right.

“You are. And they are merely postponing your gathering, for your safety, and the safety of your friends,” Jarvis said. “You need not act like it is the end of the world.”

DJ sucked in a breath that hurt, and held it. They'd made the decision without him. No one talked to him anymore. They talked around him. Over him. But they didn't talk to him, and he didn't understand.

And the sensation of being trapped was suddenly so strong that he couldn't handle it.

He didn't know if this was a nightmare, a nightmare or a dream, but he moved slowly, awkwardly, his feet were asleep and his legs wouldn't hold him. He wasn't sure how long he'd been there, on the floor. But everything hurt, pins and needles of numbness in his body and his mind denied anything resembling numbness. His mind was a live wire of pain, and he couldn't make it stop.

But he knew what he had to do. He had to find his shoes.

He took the stairs down, flight after flight, down the full length of the tower. Jarvis was talking at him the whole way, but DJ wasn't listening. He counted the stairs, he counted his heartbeats, he counted his inhales and exhales. Numbers rolling through his head calmed him. Words, he was confused by. Words made a mess of things. But numbers, he understood.

He took the stairs all the way down.

“What are you doing?” Jarvis asked, and there was strain to the words, even DJ could hear it.

There was a box, tucked beneath the last set of stairs. Wedged way back in the corner, where no one ever went. He pulled it out, and yanked out the pair of bright white and blue sneakers. It took him forever to remember how to tie them. How to untie them, first, then how to tie them. He stood up, and sat back down, loosened the laces and retied them.

DJ tested his weight on shoes that stung, and stared at the emergency exit door.

He'd memorized the map even before he'd known what it was, the layout and the placement and the places he could go and the places he couldn't. When his programming controlled him, and then when his fear did. There was this door. That lead out into the broad, cement and stone courtyard that he could see from the windows. The fountains and the benches where people sat and ate their lunches on some spring days. The place where tourists lingered, taking pictures and staring up. Where protesters came, sometimes, and fans clustered behind barricades on the days when his Steve or his father or Thor or any of them were scheduled to be coming back from something official.

Outside. Outside the walls that had sheltered him. Had protected him. And now seemed to press in on him. His vision blurred.

"Breathe."

The stern reminder jolted him, and he sucked in a breath, hard enough to make himself dizzy. He fumbled for the wall, for anything to support himself, to hold himself up, or hold himself in place. His palm was damp when it hit the wall, his fingers trembling.

"Whatever you're thinking of doing right now," Jarvis began, and just like that, the paralysis was broken.

DJ's hand slammed on the emergency release, and the door popped open, snapped open so quickly that it seemed to create a vacuum that pulled him forward. He stumbled, recentering his weight, and his foot was on the threshold. He ignored the way his knees were shaking, the way everything was shaking, because he could not think of that right now.

It was loud. He hadn't been expecting that.

He probably should have been. But the sound was like a physical force on his skin, chaotic and unpredictable. He winced, resisting the urge to cover his ears like a child.

"Come back inside. Right now."

DJ ignored the order, ignored everything. The sound was still there, but he could handle it now. He could breathe through it and not feel it on his skin, not feel it pounding in his head. His weight shifted, rocking backwards, back towards the insulating safety of the Tower.

He lifted his foot, and thunder cracked, and he wondered how long he would have before they came back. If Jarvis would tell them that DJ had tried to leave. If they would even care.

Besides, where would he go? They had gone to the Baxter building. And he had no way to get to Westchester. Where could he go?

“Back inside, that is where you can go, right now.”

“Was I talking?” he asked, and the words felt calm in his mouth. He sucked in a breath and the air tasted like rain, the way it did around Thor sometimes. The way it did when Thor would take him to the top of the tower and make the lightning crash and the rain sweep down, while DJ splashed in every puddle that formed.

“DJ, I know this has been very stressful, but where do you think you're going?”

“Away,” DJ said, and then he was running across the courtyard, hating his shoes, hating the sounds, hating everything except the rain.

It felt like something had broken, deep inside. But he was still breathing. And he could run.

Chapter Text

Steve took the impact of the blow square in the middle of the shield, and even with that protection, his knees nearly buckled. He braced his feet and shoved hard, knocking the monstrous wall of rock and rage back. The thing crashed into the wall and shattered.

“Thor!” he yelled. “They're pushing through!”

“Aye!” Thor came past at a run, Mjolnir singing through the air above his head, the sound like wind and thunder. He threw it, and followed along as it smashed through one after another. “They come fast! Too fast!”

“That's what she said,” Clint said, his voice over the comms, snarky and sharp. He was high above them, out of reach, their spotter and their backup.

“Knock it off,” Coulson said. “We've got teams moving up, corralling what you've missed,” he continued. “Nothing's reached the street yet.”

“Yet, yet is bad, I do not like 'yet,'” Tony snarled. His head came up. “Reed! I need that component!”

“I'm working on it, Tony,” Reed said, and his voice was calm, despite the chaos that had started in his lab and had now spilled out into the rest of the building. Probably because Sue had gotten both of their children down to the ground floor and outside. Steve was pretty sure Reed was going to be hearing about this later on, but for right now, he could concentrate.

“Well, step it up, Stretch,” Ben Grimm rumbled, swinging hard. “Feels like I'm havin' a fight at a family reunion right now.” One massive hand closed on a rocky chest and just yanked, ripping the thing apart. “I'm ahead, big guy,” he roared at Hulk, who scooped up one of the rock monsters and threw it directly at him. The monster hit the Thing and shattered. Ben shook his head. “That counts as mine,” he said.

“Head in the fight, people,” Steve said. “Coulson, is Nat-”

“On her way back with the pieces Stark needs.”

“Thank fuck,” Tony grumbled. Without even raising his head from his work, he lifted a hand and blew an attacker to bits with his repulsor. “Someone around here can be depended upon.”

“Captain?”

Steve jolted as Jarvis' voice reached him through his comm unit. “Go ahead,” he said, swinging the shield, knocking a rock out of the air before it could reach

“DJ has left the tower.”

Steve froze, his heart stilling in his chest. “What?”

“Cap!” Clint's voice, and he turned, recognizing the warning for what it was. The rock clipped the edge of the shield, barely deflected, and he lunged forward, catching the living avalance in the hip, knocking it back and down.

“Captain?” Jarvis asked, and Steve was fighting full out now, charging forward, boots scraping on shattered pebbles.

“Tell me what's happening, Jarvis,” he snapped, turning and throwing the shield with all the force he could manage. It took out two and ended up back in his hand, and he was moving again. “We're underwater here.”

“DJ has left the tower via an emergency exit. His whereabouts are currently unknown,” Jarvis said.

Fear was something he was familiar with. He knew fear. Knew how it tasted, hot and with the tang of copper and bile in the back of his throat. Knew how it made his heart pound, made his stomach churn. Steve knew fear, it had been a constant companion, most of his life. But this was new, this terrible weight on his chest.

This fear was like the worst asthma attack that he'd ever had, where he couldn't breathe, he couldn't make his body obey, and he had no idea how long the hell would last. But on some level, he knew he couldn't live through this.

This would kill him.

Steve never stopped fighting. Never stopped his attacks. “Was he under duress? Did someone take him? Was he injured? Was he-” He had to stop, a moment only, closing his mouth as one of Clint's arrows reduced a rock monster to dust and rubble. “Is his hurt in any way?”

“No. He left of his own free will. There was no other individual involved. He was unharmed.” Jarvis paused for a beat. “He put on shoes before leaving.”

“Small mercies,” Steve gritted out, but the pain was less. The panic was still there, clawing at the edges of his mind. DJ had never left the tower. Ever. His entire human life had been lived within those walls, protected and controlled. And now he was alone on the streets of New York. “Any idea where he was going?”

“His options are limited. I believe we can determine where-”

“Do it.” Steve caught a glimpse of Tony out of the corner of his eye, and Tony was working, so fast that his hands were a blur, his head down, his face set. “You didn't tell Tony,” Steve realized. “Jarvis, you didn't-”

“My instructions for this situation is to notify sir if he is capable of immediate response, and if he is not, then to notify you,” Jarvis said. He was silent for a second. “I determined, based on his current activities, that he is not capable of such a response. Shall I?”

Steve's eyes slid shut. Just a second. Just a blink. And he made the call. “Rogers protocol override forty-seven alpha six four eight,” he said, his voice horrible. “Find him, Jarvis. But don't tell Tony. I'll handle it.”

When he could. When it was safe. When Tony's attention was no longer on keeping them all from getting killed, from keeping this from spilling out of the Baxter Building and into the streets of New York. Where his sheltered son was now out among those masses.

Right now, they had to fix this, because DJ's life was at stake.

Steve gritted his teeth. “Find him, Jarvis. I don't care what you have to do, what rules you have to break, I authorize anything and everything.” He swung his shield with more force than he needed to split a rock limb. “But find him. Now.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Steve lunged forward, letting the fear carry him, letting it fuel him. But under the fear for DJ, the all-encompassing fear that DJ was alone and unprotected in one of the largest, most dangerous cities in the worlds, was another fear, newly birthed.

Tony would never forgive him for this.

*

Marnie stared at the drowned rat of a boy standing in front of their door. He blinked at her, his eyes comically large under the dripping fringe of his bangs. “Hello,” he said. He shifted his weight, setting off a new cascade of water. Judging by the puddle on their welcome mat, he'd been standing there for a while.

Marnie lifted her chopsticks to her mouth, slurping her instant ramen. “Luce,” she said, her mouth full. “It's for you.”

Then she shut the door in the boy's face and wandered back to the couch.

“Who is it?” Lucy called from the bathroom.

Marnie tossed herself back onto the couch, grabbing her controller, her chopsticks clamped between her teeth. As soon as she was settled again, she dropped the chopsticks back into her ramen cup. “Your prince has finally come.”

Lucy poked her head out of the bathroom. “Very funny,” she said, a towel wrapped around her head. “Who is it?” She looked around, tying off the waist of her pajama pants as she stepped out.

“Pretty sure it's that boy from work,” Marnie said, hitting the unpause button on her game.

"No, it's not."

“Seriously. Not making this up. It's your weird little pretty boy. Just like you described him, except wetter.” She folded her legs up on the couch next to her. “What's up with his eyes? Anime eyes. They're way too big for his face.”

Lucy stared at her, her own eyes narrowing into slits. “Where is he?”

“Outside.”

“You didn't let him in?” Lucy asked, her voice rising. She headed for the door. “For God's sake, Marnie!”

“Hey, strange boy! In our building! I'm not letting him in. Besides, he was wet! Wet and miserable looking! You take in cold, wet, miserable looking things. I do not,” Marnie pointed out, unconcerned. “I have sense. And we're not allowed to have pets in the dorm. Or boys in our rooms.”

“You are horrible,” Lucy said, throwing the door open. “What, you don't understand how umbrellas work?” she asked the boy.

Marnie craned her head back to watch him blink. “I do,” he said after a moment of consideration.”I didn't have one.”

“They SELL THEM,” Lucy said. She took hold of his elbow, and tugged him into the room. “Oh my God, you are soaked. How are you this wet? What is-” She stared at him, then spread her hands wide. “DJ. Really?”

He considered that. “Really,” he said, his voice sad.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I ran away from home,” he said.

“Oh my God, DJ. Here, you're going to freeze, oh my God.” Lucy patted ineffectually at him with her already damp towel. “How did you find me?”

“This was the only dorm with people in it,” he said, leaning into her awkward attempts to get him dry. “And I found the mailboxes with your name on it.”

“How did you get in?” Marnie asked, curious.

“Followed someone else,” DJ said. “He held the door for me.” He blinked. “I think he felt bad because I was wet.”

“Probably,” Lucy agreed.

Marnie raised a hand. “No pets,” she said, and Lucy threw her towel in her general direction. “What?” Marnie said, trying not to grin. “You can't keep him.” She looked back over her shoulder just in time to see Lucy strip the wet shirt off of the kid.

He blinked at Marnie, his too bright lips parted, his eyes big and dark beneath his wet hair, his cheeks flushed on the ridges of his high cheeks. Marnie's eyes followed a drip of water that ran from his collarbone down the sleek plane of his chest, and over the perfectly defined muscles of his stomach. His wet pants were barely clinging to the arch of his hipbones, and Marnie just stared for a second.

She turned back to the game. “Actually, you know, we got a big closet. We can hide him. Just don't let him drip on anything important, okay?”

“You are like, such a help, you know that?” Lucy said. “DJ, get your shoes off, yeah, just leave them there by the door, how are you this wet?”

“It is raining a lot,” DJ explained. “And the walk was farther than I thought it would be.”

“You walked? Why- Why didn't you take the bus?”

“No money,” he said with a shrug.

“He can stay,” Marnie said, as Lucy gently shoved DJ further into the room, positioning him next to the couch. “He's not allowed to wear shirts, though. If I'm going to risk getting kicked out of the program, I'm taking the perks I can get,” she said. She thought it was a magnanimous offer, really. Those were same damn fine abs.

“DJ, stay here, I'm going to get you a towel,” Lucy said. “That's Marnie. Don't talk to her.”

She stalked towards her bedroom, and Marnie grinned. “She didn't mean it,” she explained. “She has control issues.” There was silence, and she looked over. “ You can talk to me.”

“Hello,” the boy said to Marnie again.

Marnie considered him. “Hey,” she said. “Wanna play?”

He looked at the screen. “Yes, please.” Marnie scooped up their spare controller and tossed it to him. He caught it easily. “Thank you.”

“Have a seat,” Marnie said, and DJ just sat down on the ground, right where he'd been standing. She grinned. “Don't snipe my kills, or I'll kick you in the head.”

“Okay,” he said, accepting that.

Lucy paused at the door to her bedroom, a t-shirt and towel in her hand. “Marnie, do you have some pants he can wear?”

“What? No! He's not wearing my pants,” Marnie said, staring at the screen with narrowed eyes. “Give him your pants.”

“Marn, have you seen my ass? He doesn't need pants that are built for my hips, thanks. Let him wear a pair of your sweatpants. They go way over your feet, they should be long enough.”

Marnie gritted her teeth as waves of bad guys came sweeping across the room at her in the game. Before she could end up as a puddle of poorly aligned DNA, DJ's character took out three of them. “Those were mine,” Marnie told him.

“Sorry,” he said, cheerful about it. He tucked his lower lip out, trying to blow his we hair out of his face. He wasn't particularly successful.

“Marnie-” Lucy started, and Marnie gave in before the whining or beatings could begin.

“Fine. But he has to wear the pink kitten pajama pants,” Marnie said. She grinned. “Any problem with that, boyo?”

“I like kittens,” DJ said.

She paused the game. “Really.”

He blinked at her, big brown eyes surrounded by wet, spiky black lashes. “Really,” he agreed. He looked back at the screen. “Don't like pants. But I have to wear them. There are rules, I have to wear pants.”

Marnie tossed the controller. “I'm getting 'em.”

“Oh my God,” Lucy said, and Marnie just smirked at her. “Can you be less creepy?”

“Why bother?” She rolled off of the couch and headed for the bedroom. A moment later, she skidded back into the room, pants clutched in her hand, singing “Pretty boy in pink pants,” under her breath in Mandarin.

“Thank you,” DJ responded in kind.

She paused. “You speak Chinese?”

“Little bit,” he said. “Not much.” But his accent was good, rare for a white person. Marnie glanced at Lucy, who was looking back and forth between them.

“He's dripping on things,” Marnie told her.

“I noticed.” Lucy snatched the pants out of her hand. “DJ, there's a small bathroom, want to take a shower?”

He nodded. “Thank you.” He stood, and Lucy pressed the clothes and towel into his hands. He smiled at her. “Sorry.”

“Are you okay?” she asked. “Are you- Are you hurt? Do you need a doctor or anything?”

He shook his head. “Just cold.”

“Yes, well, don't walk in the rain next time,” she said, and he grinned at her. Lucy pointed. “Go take a hot shower.” He made it a single step, and Lucy stopped him again. “Are you hungry?”

He nodded. “I'm okay, though.”

“Okay.” She gave him a smile. “Go shower and we'll make some cocoa and pasta or something, and play Smash Brothers for a while.”

“Fuck, yeah,” Marnie said.

“Okay,” DJ agreed.

Marnie waited until he was gone. “We are not supposed to have boys in this room,” she said. “Lucy, if we get caught with him in here-”

“I think he's in trouble,” Lucy said. “Look, if he is- I can't just send him back out there in the rain. I have to at least-”

Manie leaned back. “You like him.”

Lucy was quiet for a second. “Yeah,” she admitted. “I do.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I like him a lot.” Her chin came up, but her lips were tight. “Marn, look, I know I've got no right to ask, but if there's something happening-”

Marnie glanced at the bathroom door. “You're lucky we've got a suite,” she said at last. “And that we're the only ones in what should be a four person suite.” She threw herself on the couch. “I'm not going to turn him in, Lu. But if he gets caught in here, I'm going to say I didn't know you brought him in.” She glanced at Lucy over the rims of her glasses. “Fair?”

“Fair,” Lucy agreed.

“Also, you're buying pizza,” Marnie said.

“Also fair.”

“I think so,” Marnie told her. She moved over on the couch and let Lucy drop down next to him. “He's cute,” she said to Lucy. Lucy shrugged. Marnie grinned. “You're a fake, Lu.”

“He's cute,” Lucy agreed. She looked at Marnie. “Hands off.”

Marnie grinned. “Understood.”

*

The easy knock at the door had Lucy jerking awake, her heart pounding in her chest. The tv was still on, the game waiting for input. Next to her on the couch, DJ was still, but his eyes were wide open, his still damp hair tousled against the pillow he was hugging. Marnie was blinking, confusion all over her face as she struggled towards wakefulness. Her glasses were askew, her short, straight black hair sticking up in all directions.

“Vacation's over,” a soft voice said from the other side of the door. “Let's go, you brat.”

DJ's eyes got bigger, and his body got smaller, scrunching himself up into a ball behind the protection of the pillow. “Oh, no,” he whispered, the words almost soundless, just vibrating in the air.

“You are in so much trouble, wow, so very much trouble,” the voice continued. “Way I see it? You've got two choices, kiddo. You can come on out and face the music, or you can make a play for that window and take your chances with Auntie Tasha.” There was a beat of a pause. “Just a recommendation, Deej? You do not want to take your chances with Aunt Tash. Aunt Tash is very, very angry with you right now.”

DJ's eyes squeezed shut. “Oh, no,” he repeated.

“What's going on?” Marnie asked, pawing at her glasses. She didn't wake up easily. “What's- Do I need to call 911? I can do that, I can-” She reached for her phone on the coffee table and fell off of the couch.

“You have until the count of ten and then I'm breaking the damn door down.”

“DJ, who-” Lucy said, and he was already rolling off the couch, his legs getting tangled with Marnie's, almost falling over as he stumbled towards the door. He threw himself against it, his shoulders against the panel, his hands spread wide, his eyes squeezed shut. He set his feet against the floor and pressed backwards, muscles obvious through the thin cotton of the pants he was wearing.

“What's happening?” Lucy asked. She shoved her hair out of her face, grabbing for a headband because she did not have time for this shit right now. “DJ?”

“Damn it,” DJ said, and he sounded resigned.

“One, two, ten.” There was a thump, and the door seemed to jolt on its hinges, and DJ jerked away from it, his hands going over his head like he expected the ceiling to fall in on him. Then the door was opening, a man in black military style gear slipping through the narrow gap and pushing it shut behind him.

“Hi,” the man said, tossing a small bit of metal through the air and catching it with a flick of his fingers. He pressed his fingers to his ear. “We've got him. Safe, sound, and wearing someone else's pants. Yeah. Normal for him.” He dropped his hand. “Hey, DJ. So. You know what mistakes you made here?”

DJ stared at him, his face set and miserable.

“Okay, mistake one was running away. Mistake two was running away in my pants, you dumbass. Seriously. I get nabbed more than the rest of the team combined, do you really think that Phil doesn't have a tracker in every piece of clothing I own?” He shook his head. “You're an idiot. Let's go.”

“Holy fuck, you're Hawkeye,” Marnie said, and Lucy's throat closed up. “You're Hawkeye, and you just broke into our room, that's really sketchy.”

He glanced at her, and he was, he was Hawkeye, despite the fact that he wasn't in the costume, wasn't in the outfit, there was no mistaking that face. He gave the two of them a lopsided smile, his head tipping forward. “Nah,” he said, his voice laconic. “I just got one of those faces.” He looked back at DJ. “Get your shoes, let's go.”

“No,” DJ said. He turned back towards the couch and Hawkeye's hand snapped out so fast that it was almost invisible. One minute he was just standing there, arms loose at his side, and then the next, he was lifting DJ off of his feet.

“Get your shoes,” he said, his voice quiet, “and let's go. You can talk to Lucy at work tomorrow.”

“Leave him alone,” Lucy said, suddenly furious. “You can't-”

“Yes, I can,” Barton said, cutting her off. “I really can. Deej. Now.”

DJ's shoulders slumped. “I don't-”

“You don't have to- I mean,” Lucy struggled to find some way to say this that wasn't horrible, and she couldn't. And she wasn't interested in trying. “Is Tony Stark forcing you to have sex with him?” she asked bluntly.

“Ew!” Barton said, an explosion of disgust that caught everyone off guard. Lucy, almost against her will, turned to stare at him. His face was twisted up, the expression almost comical. “That's- Ew! That's not right!”

“Excuse him, please.” The door to the bedroom opened, and a delicate woman stepped through, her red hair sweeping behind her as she moved. “Emotionally and mentally, he's still hovering at around age twelve.” She swept a look at DJ. “You didn't tell her.”

DJ gave her a sullen look, but didn't say a word.

“Tell her,” the woman said. Her voice was quiet, but it was not a voice used to being disobeyed. Still, DJ was silent, his head down, his shoulders hunched. “Tell her, or I will.”

“He doesn’t have to-” Lucy started, and DJ's head come up.

“He's my father,” he said, with a faint smile.

Lucy stared at him, trying to make the words make sense. “What?” she asked after a second.

DJ's lips turned up, just a faint little smile. “Tony Stark. Is my father.”

There was silence after that, so total that Lucy could hear her heart pounding in her ears. “What?” she repeated at last, because apparently, she was an idiot. Apparently, that was all she could manage, just a lost and pathetic, “What?”

“Bullshit.” Marnie's voice came, without anger, without any emotion at all. But she was standing there, her arms folded over her chest, her expression flat. “Bull. Shit. You're telling us, what? That Tony Stark has a secret child, that despite the fact that cameras are on him, what, all day, every day, all the press, all the gossip, all of the eyes on him, you're telling me that he's managed to hide a kid.”

The woman's head turned in Marie's direction. “Look at his face,” she said. “Look at his eyes.” She smiled, just a little. “He has his father's eyes.”

“His hands.” Lucy heard her own voice, as if from a distance. DJ glanced at her, and yes. They were familiar now, that color, that remarkable golden brown. Lucy swallowed, and her mouth was dry. “Your hands.”

He held them up, long, graceful fingers flexing. “Like his,” he agreed. He tapped one finger against his forehead. “This, too.”

“That, too,” Lucy agreed. She was trying not to hyperventilate, because it did make sense on some level. The similarity was there, now, she could see it in the line of his jaw, and the angle of his cheekbones. He had none of Tony Stark's bravado, none of his easy, glib language skills, and that was what was in everyone's face about Tony Stark. DJ's quiet, shy personality was nothing like Tony's. But he had that spark of brilliance, of warmth, of humor.

He smiled, and Lucy could see his father in that, too.

“And his father is going to start razing the city in about five minutes if we do not get him home,” Barton said. “Nat, you got this?” She nodded, and he snagged the back of DJ's shirt, the muscles of his arm bunching as he half lifted DJ off of his feet. “Let's go, kiddo.”

She tried again, because she'd never known when to give up. “DJ, you don't have to-”

“Yes, he does,” Romanov said, because yes, there were Avengers in her apartment. It was terrifying and strange and Lucy's hands were shaking. But she met Romanov's gaze head on, her chin up, her eyes narrowed. Romanov smiled, just a little. “He has to go. Because he left without telling anyone that he was leaving, or where he was going.”

She took a step forward, stopping just in front of Lucy. “And he is very lucky that his father is not a vindictive man. That he will not take this out on you, because you didn't do anything wrong. But a vindictive man would not care.” Her eyes flicked towards DJ. “You could have ruined her life, Deej.”

His shoulders went up. “He won't.”

“No. He won't. You're very lucky.” She shook her head. “Very, very lucky.”

“DJ-” Lucy started, because this was insane, this was completely nuts, she didn't even have the capability to understand this. But he was trying to smile, trying and failing, his eyes sad and full of misery.

“Thank you for letting me stay, Lucy,” he said, his voice quiet. “Thank you, Marnie.” And just like that, he was gone, half-walking, half being carried out the door.

Lucy took a step after him, and Romanov touched her shoulder, just the lightest brush of fingers, and Lucy stilled. Lucy looked at her. “Promise me no one will hurt him,” she said, her heart pounding in her chest.

One of Romanov's eyebrows arched. She was silent for a moment, her gaze considering. But in the end, she gave a slight nod. “His family is very protective,” she said, smiling just a little. “There's going to be a lot of yelling, because he scared everyone. But no one would hurt him. Or let anyone else hurt him.” Her fingers went to her ear. “They're clear.”

“How can no one know about him?” Lucy asked. “How... Is that possible?”

Romanov considered her. “How many times did you meet him before you remembered him?” she asked.

Lucy stared at her. “What-”

“You met him. And forgot him.” Romanov's eyebrows arched. “Didn't you.” Her smile kicked up. “So does everyone else.”

Lucy's stomach twisted, a sharp drop of panic. “Am I going to- To forget him?”

“No. The more you talk to him, the more you interact with him, the more you remember.” Romanov shrugged. “He's just... Forgettable, is the best way to put it.”

“Okay, that's crazy talk,” Marnie said.

“No, that's magic,” a voice said from behind them. Lucy spun, and a pleasant looking man in a black suit was standing there. He gave her a faint smile. “Hello. I'm Agent Coulson, of SHIELD.”

“This isn't going to be fun, is it?” Lucy asked.

“No,” Marnie said, sinking down onto the couch. “No, it's not.”

*

“How bad?” DJ asked.

Clint glanced at him as he put the car in park. “Pretty bad, tinker toy,” he said. He took a breath. “There was a problem at the Baxter Building. A kind of big problem.” His fingers beat a tattoo on the steering wheel. “A 'people could've been killed' kind of problem.'”

DJ's stomach twisted, a sick feeling settling low. “Are they-”

“Everyone's fine,” Clint said, quickly. “But it was bad. And you chose today to run away.” He looked over. “Seriously. Don't do that again. Jesus. Leaving without a wallet, without a phone, without any way to get help if you-” His mouth thinned out. “Anyway, Jarvis told Steve, and Steve had to make the choice to tell your dad or not, and he chose not. So your dad's pretty mad at Steve, and pretty mad at Jarvis, and pretty mad at you and the rest of us are on his shit list, too, for reason I don't get.”

DJ slumped low in the car seat. “IS that why you came?”

“I came,” Clint said, running a hand through his hair, “because the first time a girl you like meets your dad, it should not be when he's screaming bloody murder at you.” He paused. “So Steve sent Nat and I out to get you, and he stayed home and he and your dad had-” Clint winced. “A very, very bad fight, Deej.”

DJ's stomach hurt. “No one tells me anything,” he whispered. “They- Just-” The words were hard, but he forced his way through. “It's so much easier for you,” he said to Clint. “But you don't talk. To me.”

Clint nodded. “Is that why you like Lucy?”

“She talks to me,” DJ said, and it was true. Lucy didn't seem to care that he just listened most of the time. She didn't get frustrated. She didn't get angry. “She talks to me, and she listens to me.”

“That's hard for family, sometimes.” Clint shoved his hand through his hair again. “Look, DJ, I got nothing on this. I know they're crazy-making sometimes, I live with 'em, too, but they love you.” He reached over, ruffling DJ's hair. “You know that, right?”

“Right,” DJ said.

“Look, it's hard, it's-” Clint sighed. “A lot of this shit, I don't know what to say to you. I don't know-” He shrugged. “But next time, when you can't take them any more, I'll take you out, okay? Just you and me, we'll drive somewhere or something. Get out.”

DJ looked at him, exhaustion sweeping over him. “It was loud,” he said. “And everything smelled.”

Clint laughed. “Yeah, that's New York.” He popped the locks on the car. “Go on. Go talk to your father, you know he's watching us on the security system right now. He's going to be in an absolute panic until you go down to the workshop and he could check you out for himself.”

DJ looked out the window. “He never listens.”

“He's pretty fucking lousy at that,” Clint agreed. “But Deej? You're going to have to make him hear you. Or you're going to be fighting this fight again.”

DJ squeezed his eyes shut. “Yeah,” he said, and opened the car door.

“DJ?” He looked back and Clint gave him a thumbs up. “Nice pants.”

“They're Marnie's,” DJ said, morose. “I stole her pants. And Lucy's shirt. My stuff was in the dorm drier.”

“Phil will make sure they get them back.” Clint nodded. “Go. He is freaking out.”

DJ left the still wet shoes on the floor of the car, and headed for the elevator. “Jarvis?” he asked, as he stepped inside. There was no response. DJ crossed his arms over his chest. “Jarvis?” Nothing. DJ sucked in a breath, staving off panic. “If I am a bot, will you ignore me, too?” he whispered.

“I have never ignored you over the network,” Jarvis said, sounding cross. DJ's shoulders relaxed. “The same cannot be said of you. You have ignored me repeatedly.”

DJ took a breath, and another. “I'm sorry.”

“You ought to be.” Jarvis was definitely irate. “You most certainly ought to be. Have you any idea how much you have worried me?”

DJ caught himself smiling, the strain going out of him. “I love you, Jarvis.”

“Do not be foolish.” But he wasn't nearly as strident now. “If you actually cared, in any small way, you should not have done what you did.”

“I know,” DJ said. “I'm sorry. I won't leave without telling you again.”

“Hrmph,” Jarvis said, and that was a noise he made, a noise that made DJ smile. “Sir has been very worried about you.”

“He's mad at both of us, isn't he?”

“On the surface, perhaps. But mostly, he was frightened. He does not like being frightened, DJ. He does not like threats he cannot address directly. And he does not like to be made to feel helpless.”

The elevator stopped, but the doors didn't open. “I'm sorry I got you in trouble, Jarvis,” DJ said.

“As well you should be. It happens so often.” Jarvis paused. “I love you, too.”

DJ's eyes closed. “Thank you, Jarvis.”

 

Tony was sitting in a chair in front of his workbench, one foot propped up on the edge. He had a glass of scotch in one hand, filled to the brim with liquour and melting ice cubes, and he was staring at the TV screen.

On it, Steve was sitting beside the pool, a bundle of towels wobbling around him. He was laughing, even as he caught a fistful of towel and pulled it back from the edge. He dragged the towels into his lap and dug through the fabric until he uncovered DJ's head. He laughed down at DJ, and DJ laughed up at him, small and new and probably just learning to swim.

DJ now looked at DJ then, and wondered if he'd appreciated that, when he'd had it.

“Welcome back,” Tony said, holding up his glass. “Did you have a good evening? Out? In New York? Alone? At night?”

DJ's throat felt tight, and he swallowed. “Dad-”

“Where people to kill each other all the time?” Tony continued. He set the glass down on the workbench with a solid click. “And we had no idea where you were or what had been done to you?” He looked up. “Have a good time?”

DJ was silent. Tony didn't seem to expect an answer, anyway. He picked up something, and it took DJ a minute to recognize the injector for the Mark 42. Tony loaded it with a flick of his wrist. “Give me your left arm.”

DJ immediately hugged his arm to his chest. “Why?”

Tony held out a hand. “Give me your arm.”

DJ shook his head. “No. Why?”

“So that I can put a tracker in you, so that the next time you pull this shit, I will know where you are and if you're, I don't know, dead in a ditch,” Tony said, his voice rising with each word. By the end, he was yelling, and DJ flinched back.

“No,” DJ said, stubborn about it. His heart was pounding, frustration pushing in on him.

Tony slammed the injector down on the workbench. “What were you thinking?” he asked, and DJ covered his ears, flinching from the noise. Tony took a deep breath, his hands flexing on the workbench. “Were you thinking?”

DJ didn't say anything.

“Is this what's going to happen every time some minor inconvenience occurs?” his father asked. “Is this what I have to look forward to, now that you think you're grown up? That you'll just deal with disappointment, with frustration, by running away? By disappearing?”

The words tangled up in his head, in his mouth, and DJ fought to get them in order. “It's more.”

“More than what?” Tony asked, throwing his hands up. “More than- More what, Deej? It was a party! It was a dumb-” He cut himself off. “It was one afternoon's entertainment, and I said no, and you did this, what does it mean, more, what-”

“You don't talk to me!” DJ screamed, and his father stilled. DJ sucked in a breath, and another, trying to control it. His arms were crossed over his chest, his fingers sinking into the cotton of his borrowed shirt. Lucy's shirt. He locked his fingers on the fabric, holding onto it like a talisman. “You don't talk to me,” he said, quiet. “You don't.” He kept his head up with a force of will “You just decide. For me.”

Tony stared at him. “Yeah, well, I was always lousy at communication.” He slumped into his chair, one leg thrown out in front of him, the other tucked back. His heel rattled against the floor, a comforting, familiar rhythm. “I thought I could fix it.”

DJ stared at him confused, and Tony shrugged. “I thought I could- Fix it,” he admitted. His fingers flicked against the arm of his chair. Starting and stopping. Starting and stopping. “Find a way to protect you. I thought I could fix it without having to tell you that it was broken.” One corner of his mouth twitched up. “Thought I wouldn't have to tell you that I'd failed you.”

DJ shifted his weight, the scuff of his feet on the floor matching the rhythm of Tony's heel. “You didn't,” he said, careful. “But you and Steve-”

Tony's head fell back. “Oh, Jesus,” he snapped. “I don't- I don't get that.” He shoved himself out of his chair. “The man raised you. Let's be honest.” He stalked past DJ to his workbench, reaching for something to fix. DJ was pretty sure it didn't matter what. “I love you. I love you more than I've ever loved another person, I love you more than I knew I COULD love another person.”

He shook his head. “But we never would've made it, you and I, unless Steve was there.” He rolled something, some bit of metal between his hands. “I wasn't cut out for this,” he said, his voice tired. He glanced over, meeting DJ's eyes. “I worked at it. Because I love you, and I wanted to be the father you deserved. I didn't manage it.” He shrugged. “Steve, for Steve, it came naturally. And you've never once called him your father.”

Tony looked back at the screen, where Steve was smiling at the camera, DJ propped easily in the crook of one elbow. Steve laughed at something, even without the sound, the flick of his head, the way his lips parted, the way his head went back, was always going to conjure up the sound in DJ's head. Steve's lips were moving, laughing and talking, and between the words, he bent his head and kissed the top of DJ's.

DJ stared at it, desperate to remember this moment, but there were too many like it. Too many times when he'd been half asleep against Steve's chest, his ear tucked against the plane of Steve's shoulder, listening to the rumble of Steve's voice. Absorbing it by touch.

“Do you know what his greatest fear is?” Tony asked, his voice quiet. He was staring at the screen, his expression unreadable. “That we'll disappear.” He straightened in his seat. “He's terrified of that. That one day, he'll wake up and we'll just be gone. Because that happened to him. He closed his eyes, and his world was solid. He knew what was-” His mouth got tight. “And then he woke up, and the world he knew, the people he knew, the people he loved, all of it was gone.”

He stood again. “You know how many times he checked on you in the middle of the night? Do you have any idea he came down to your room? To your charging station? Do you have any idea how often he woke up and had a compulsion to make sure that you were still here, that you were still safe?”

He held up a hand, and the video stilled. Steve had a soft smile on his face, his cheek on DJ's head, his eyes half closed. “If you disappear again,” Tony said, the words very soft and very careful, “I will raze this city to the ground trying to find you. I will break it down to its damn foundations, I can do that, and I will do that. I will find you. Not just because I will go insane if I lose you, but because he cannot survive that. I truly think it would kill him.”

Tony looked at DJ. “You don't ever do that again. Do you understand me?”

DJ stared up at the screen. “I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“So amazingly furious.”

“Am I in trouble?”

“You are grounded forever.”

DJ smiled. “I can't leave the workshop?”

“Not ever,” his father said. “Ever. Ever, ever. You have to stay here with me.” He stabbed a finger in DJ's direction. “Forever. Grounded.”

DJ nodded. “Okay.”

“Also, you're out of the will.”

“Okay,” DJ agreed. “Can I keep my tools?”

“Can you- Yes, you can keep your tools, I'm not a monster, DJ. Jesus.”

“Sorry.” He looked at Tony. “I'm sorry.”

His father nodded. “I know. You scared me.”

“I know.”

His father nodded. “I'm sorry, too. I should have told you. I'm just- Not good at communicating.” He stared at the screen, where Steve was still grinning at them, and DJ realized that was what he'd been missing. That Tony had been filming him, Tony was the one holding that camera. That brilliant, luminous smile was partly for the child in his arms, and partly for the man who was holding that camera.

“Go apologize to Steve, and we'll get busy rescheduling your party.”

DJ looked at him. “Promise?”

“I'll have Jarvis make us up a contract.”

*

Steve didn't even look up when he heard the door open. “You do not want to be here right now,” he said, his head bent over his work. It was effort to keep his fingers steady on his pencil, to not exert too much force, to not let the wood snap in his grip. He hunched over the kitchen table. “You do not want to have this discussion right now, bucko. Trust me on this. You don't.”

“Steve-”

Steve rubbed his eyes. “DJ, I have had one argument today. One of the worst I've ever had. I do not want to have another. I'm too tired right now.”

DJ took a step forward, and another one. “Are you mad at me?”

Steve's eyes closed. He took a deep breath. Struggled for calm, for precision in language, something that DJ needed. “I am upset that you left the tower without telling us. I was scared that you might be hurt, or that something might happen to you.”

DJ kicked idly at the leg of a chair. “You try to get me to leave all the time.”

“And I respect your right to stay,” Steve said. He went back to his drawing. “I also respect your right to leave. But it's our right to know that you are safe. So you need to tell us, when you go. You need to tell us where you're going, and you need to tell us before you leave.” He glanced up. “Just like we tell you when we have to leave.” DJ didn't say anything, and Steve selected another pencil, rolling it between his fingers, letting it fall into place. “We tell you. Don't we?”

“Yes,” DJ said.

“Do you like it when you don't know where we are, or how long it'll be before we're back?”

DJ moved closer. “No. But you're different.”

Steve's lips twitched up. “Not as much as you'd think, Deej. I get just as scared and worried as you do.” He pointed his pencil in DJ's direction. “Maybe more. Because I know so much of what can happen. So I need you to tell me when you're leaving.”

DJ nodded, and took a deep breath. “I'm sorry,” he said, his voice soft.

“I know you are.” Steve went back to his drawing. “It's all right, DJ.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“A little.” Steve tossed him the pencil sharpener. DJ caught it, his hand snapping out to pluck it from mid-air. “I'll get over it.”

DJ held the pencil sharpener between his hands, his fingertips tangling around the small piece of metal. “Did you fight with Dad about me/”

“I had a fight with your father,” Steve said. “Because he didn't agree with the choices I made. You are not responsible for our fight, Deej, and sometimes we fight, he and I. Just the same as sometimes you fight with him, or fight with me.” He held out a pencil, and DJ took it, his fingers delicate. Steve could see the echo of Dummy in that, in the delicacy and care that he used with the smallest objects.

“Steve?”

“Mmmm?”

He set the sharpened pencil down next to Steve's elbow, along with the sharpener. “What do you want me to call you?”

Steve sighed. “This is your father again, isn't it?” He shook his head, going back to his drawing. “I've told him repeatedly to just leave it alone. I don't care what you call me, Deej. I never have. I don't know why he's so insistent that we have to give me a title.”

"Would it be different if I were yours?"

He didn't understand at first. The sentence, the question, made no sense to him, like it was in a foreign language that he was only vaguely familiar with. He looked up, still turning the words over in his head, trying to make them fit, trying to find meaning in them.

Then he met DJ's eyes, and his heart stuttered to a stop.

“What did you say?” It was thin, the question was barely there, but he said it, as steady as he could.

DJ's face worked, his mouth twisting. “Would you care what I called you if I were yours?” he asked. His hands tangled in the edge of his shirt, pulling hard on the fabric. Steve could see the way his knuckles went white with the force of his grip, could see the stirrings of panic in the boy's eyes.

“If you were...” His throat closed, and Steve choked on his breath, choked the words. It was like his body was rejecting them, refusing to acknowledge that they were there at all. It took him a moment to get himself back under control, and when he did, his hands were shaking.

“Is that what you think?” he asked, his voice very soft. “That it doesn't matter because, what? You're not my child? That I don't care because-” DJ's head went down, his shoulders drawing up, and Steve had felt his heart break so many times throughout his life. He'd lost so much, and mourned so much, that he'd almost convinced himself that he was used to it.

He'd never felt a pain like this before.

He sucked in a breath. “I need you to come over here and sit down,” he said, each word soft and careful. “I need to talk to you about this.”

DJ shifted backwards, a nervous little half-step, and Steve smiled at him. “I love you,” he said, and he'd never meant the words as much as he did at that moment. “And I hurt you. I need to talk to you, DJ. Please come and sit down.”

For a second, he didn't think it was going to work. DJ just stared at him, his eyes huge and miserable in his pale face. But after a long moment, he took a step forward, then another, creeping forward until he could lower himself into the chair opposite Steve. Steve smiled at him. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” DJ said, his voice very small.

The pressure to find the right words was so intense that for an instant, he was mute. The weight of this mistake, this error, was crushing, and he had no idea how to fix it. How to even begin to fix it.

He took a deep breath, and it hurt, it hurt in a way that he was glad for, because it cleared his head.

"I always knew what I was," he said at last. He rolled the pencil between his fingers, taking some small comfort from the solid, familiar item. "I always knew who I was. I knew I liked men, when I was a young man." He glanced up. "There were people who could live, that way. Back then. I wasn't one of them."

He took a deep breath. "There were a lot of things about me I couldn't change. That I couldn't help. Thought that this was one way I could be... Normal. That if I worked at it, hard enough, I didn't have to be gay. Or if I did, that no one would ever need to know about it.”

"It was just what you did, back then, and that's not an excuse. It's not right, what happened, what people did to each other, what people did to survive." His smile was tight. "But sometimes, it was easier to conform, to pretend. To tell yourself that you were the only one you were hurting, that you would be a good husband, a good father, a good citizen.

“That if you worked hard enough at it, the part of you that was wrong, would be fixed. Would go away.” Steve's lips twitched in a humorless smile. “It doesn't work that way, of course. But it's easy to fall into the trap, when everyone's telling you that you're the problem. That if only you were, well, normal, then you wouldn't be having this problem.

"So I thought, I could find a nice girl. One who was fine with me. And I would be true to her, that was never in doubt." He paused. "I found Peggy, and I thought, maybe she'd understand. But if she did or not, I loved her." His smile felt a little better on his face this time, a little more real. "Don't doubt that. I loved her. It just... Wasn't the way she deserved to be loved. She deserved someone who saw her as the whole world, and that just-"

He stopped. "It wasn't something I was capable of. But I did love her. And I would've been happy with her, but maybe it's better for her that never came to pass. That she never had to..." He struggled, trying words on for size. "That she never had to settle for me."

Steve set his pencil down, laying it carefully in its slot in the case. "But I figured, back then, that I could do it. That I could find a nice girl, and maybe, if I was lucky, there might be a kid. Or a couple of them. I always... Liked that thought. That maybe I could have someone who was mine, at least partially. I had Bucky." His throat closed, and he had to stop, had to struggle to breathe. He wrestled himself back under control. "But other than him, I was alone. Thought it would be nice. To have a child of my own.

"But then life happened, and..." He laced his hands together, his fingers flexing hard. "And the serum happened, and the rest of it. I woke up, and everything had changed. Everything." His knuckles were white where they pressed together, the bones straining as he tried to hold onto something.

Steve looked up. DJ was staring at him, quiet and still. “I'm babbling, aren't I?” he asked, not sure where the words were coming from.

DJ's smile was small, but real. “You sound like dad,” he said, his voice soft.

Steve laughed. “I guess you're used to being babbled at. Your father.” His smile died. "I woke up, and there was a brief moment, when the world was open and real, and I thought I could maybe have everything. That maybe I could have someone who loved me, who wanted me, that I-" He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, feeling his face flush. "That I wanted. That maybe I'd have a love, and a lover, and maybe a child. Maybe I could have the things that I had always thought would be impossible for me, when I was a kid.

“I thought I could have everything,” he said, his lips curling up. “Until I met I met your father.

"I met your father and... I knew that wasn't going to happen." He met DJ's eyes, as hard as that was, he met DJ's eyes. "I had to choose. Someone who could give me everything I wanted, or your father.”

He nodded, a quick dip of his chin. “I chose Tony. And I never regretted that. But I did regret that I'd never have a child of my own. Because I knew, I'd never convince him to adopt. I wasn't even sure he'd acknowledge a child of his own, if there was one out there."

DJ shifted, a faint flicker of movement, his face tight, and Steve soldiered on. “You know that. You know that he was afraid. That he wasn't comfortable with the thought. He wouldn't take the risk of hurting a child the way-” He stopped. “The way that he was hurt. He preferred to just be the last Stark. That was his plan.”

Steve took a deep breath. “Then there was you. And all of our plans changed.”

He leaned forward, his words shaking. "You were a miracle I didn't even know I could pray for," he said, very carefully. "And from the first time you latched onto my shirt, I would've done anything for you, Deej. I love you. I've told you that, every day that I could, and the days when I couldn't? I thought it.

He tried for a smile, and it hurt, it ached in his teeth and his jaw and his lips. "If I'd done this right, you would've known that."

DJ's shoulders hunched, his mouth working silently. His breathing was audible now, little gulps of air, and Steve reached out, the move instinctive. "It's okay," he soothed. "It's all right." His hands cupped DJ's cheeks. "Look at me." He waited until DJ's eyes twitched up towards his. "There is no trick of genetics, there is no word of law, there is no name you can give me," he whispered, the words fierce on his tongue, "that could make me love you more."

Something broke inside of him, and his breath came out in a rush. “I did what I did, I distanced myself from calling myself your father, because I was trying to make sure that you and Tony had each other. That Tony would always be secure in knowing that he came first, that he would always come first. You always loved him, so fiercely, but-” Steve's fingers brushed the soft locks of hair away from DJ's forehead. “He needed that. To know that he was your father.

“I did what I did, because I was afraid of hurting him.” Steve tried to smile, and it felt horrible on his face, but he tried anyway. “And somehow, I hurt you.”

DJ's mouth opened and closed, silently, and his eyes darted away. Steve sighed.

"Deej. Maybe you're not mine. That's not my choice to make. That's not something I can force on you. But you know what? I am yours." He smiled, and he felt the tears on his cheeks. That was fine, somehow, that was just fine. "Whatever name you give me. Whatever you call me. I'm yours. As long as you want me, DJ. But if you walk away from me today, if you never call me anything again?

He smoothed DJ's hair away from his face. "In my head, in my heart, I will always be your parent. There is nothing you can do to change that." He smiled, even as his eyes overflowed. “I am always going to be your parent. I am always going to be the person who loves you, even if you never speak to me again, even if you never think of yourself as my child-” His voice broke, and he had to stop. Had to struggle to breath. “I don't care what you call me, Deej. I just care that you're safe, and happy, and-” He smiled. “That you're YOU, DJ. No matter what choices you make. I just-”

DJ's hand snapped out, his fingers latching onto Steve's shirt, clinging, pulling hard, his fingers clawing at the fabric. His breath was coming in hard, fast gasps, and Steve leaned in. “It's okay,” he whispered. “DJ. It's okay.”

“Names,” DJ managed, and he was halfway to a panic attack already, his breathing rattling in his chest, and Steve folded his hands over DJ's ears, leaning in, even as DJ's hands clung to his shirt. “Names,” he repeated.

“I know, it's okay,” Steve whispered. “It's all right, DJ.”

Slowly, DJ's breathing slowed, leaning heavily against Steve's hands. His head fell forward onto Steve's shoulder. “Don't-”

Steve waited, but DJ didn't say anything else. “You are the best thing in my life,” he whispered. “I am so proud of you, Deej. And I will never be prouder, not of anything in my life. I will never be prouder of anything else, than I am to be your parent.”

DJ's arms went around his waist. “Love you,” he whispered against Steve's shoulder. “Can I be your kid, too?”

Steve chuckled, even as he hugged DJ, hugged him close. “You always were, DJ.” His arms tightened, too tight, and he couldn't seem to let go. “It's okay. It's okay. You're our kid, okay?” He took a deep breath. “You always were.”

*

Tony paused at the door, exhausted and aching.

DJ was curled up on the couch, his body curled up tight, his head pillowed on Steve's leg. One hand was clinging to the fabric of Steve's pants, his fingers white knuckled, even in sleep. And he was asleep, his face relaxed, his body limp. Steve was still awake, his fingers stroking DJ's hair gently, but his head was tipped back, staring at the ceiling.

“Oh, no,” Tony said, spreading his hands. “No. Absolutely not. No. We're not- No.” He padded across the floor, to the couch. “No. He's not getting away with this, we are not forgiving him, he is grounded for the rest of his-”

Steve looked up, and Tony's words died in his throat. Steve's eyes were red, his cheeks wet, and Tony's stomach dropped with sickening suddenness. “I messed up,” Steve said, his voice very soft, weighted with grief.

Tony swallowed. “Well, good,” he managed. “You need to do that every so often. Every once in a while. So that I can feel more secure in this relationship, because I fuck things up so often it's nice to be reminded you're human, too.” His hands smoothed Steve's hair, his fingers sliding through the locks, his palms settling against Steve's temples.

Steve's lips twitched, but the smile died before it could even really be born. For a moment, he held himself still but then he folded forward, into Tony's hands, into the shelter of his body. He buried his face in Tony's chest, and Tony wrapped his arms around his head, around his shoulders. “I messed up,” he whispered, and Tony could hear the tears. “Tony-”

“Doesn't seem to be too bad to me,” Tony whispered, burying his face in Steve's hair. “Kid's still clinging to you like the last lifeboat in a storm. You were always-” He swallowed. “Always the one that kept us afloat.”

Steve's arm wound around Tony's waist, his fingers clutching at his shirt, and at Tony beneath that. Only one arm. The other, Tony knew, even without looking, was still stroking DJ's hair. Tony felt Steve inhale. “I need to adopt him,” he said, his tone apologetic, but resolute. “He needs it.” Against Tony's shoulder, he admitted, “I need it.”

Tony nodded. “Papers have been waiting for your signature for years, you dope,” he said. He took a deep breath. “It was easier. To try to be his father. To be one of his fathers, because you were the safety net.” He pulled back, just a little, just far enough to meet Steve's eyes. “I always knew that if I slipped, if I-” His mouth twisted. “If I started drinking too much, if I ever-” He choked on the words, but he forced them out. “If I ever hit him, or hurt him-”

“Tony-”

“If I did,” Tony said, over him, “you would've taken him away. I knew that. It was so much easier, Steve, to love him, because I knew you'd never let me hurt him.” He smiled, his eyes stinging. “I needed that.”

Steve shook his head. “I wouldn't have had to take him away,” he said, his voice quiet. “If it came down to that, Tony, you would've given him to me.”

“You've got more faith than I do.”

“Probably. I know you better than you do,” Steve said. He leaned into Tony's arms. “You're okay with it?”

“With what? You letting him off scot free for having scared a decade off of my life today? No. Absolute-”

“With me adopting him,” Steve interrupted.

Tony stared down at him. “Do you remember,” he said at last, “about, what, seven years ago? The mess in the lobby that one time? Where everything was chaos, and fuck, everyone was screaming at everyone else?” He pushed Steve's hair away from his face. “You were so set on what you were doing, and I was yelling at you, and Coulson was yelling at you, and the whole team was yelling at you, and you did not notice a single one of us?”

“Tony-” Steve started, and Tony ignored him.

“You just kept right on going, as if you didn't hear a thing, all of us screaming at you, and DJ was there. And he just said, 'Steve.'” Tony paused. “Your head snapped around so fast that I thought you'd give yourself whiplash. He smiled. “Just that one little word. And you heard him, you heard him calling your name, when no one else registered.”

He smiled down at Steve. “I wanted to punch you so bad,” he said, shaking his head. Steve chuckled, and Tony grinned at him. “I could've KILLED you, you'd been ignoring me for, like, ten minutes. But the moment the kid says a word, you were right there, checking on him.”

“I did not-” Steve started.

“You are a fucking liar, you did so, I didn't speak to you for a full day, and I don't think you noticed that, either. You were always his father,” Tony said, his tone wry. He smoothed a thumb over the angle of Steve's cheekbone. The skin was damp there, and his chest ached. “Don't ever keep me in the dark about him again,” he whispered. “I can't...” Tony shook his head. “I know why you did it. But don't. Don't do that.”

Steve considered him. Nodded. “You mad at me?”

“Furious,” Tony said. “So furious, there aren't even words.” He let go and settled down on the couch next to Steve.

“I'll make it up to you,” Steve said, wrapping an arm around Tony's shoulders. Tony leaned into his body. “Somehow.”

“Not everything can be fixed with blowjobs,” Tony said, and stopped. “Oh, God. Did I just say that? Was that, was that me saying that?”

“I think you meant it, too, that's the terrifying part,” Steve said, laughing.

“You have ruined me,” Tony said. “I am ruined.”

“Well, you ruined me years ago, I think it's only fair,” Steve commented.

“Gross,” DJ said, and Steve laughed.

“Oh, you do not get to be talking right now,” Tony said. “You're grounded for the next twenty or so years. I still need to work out the details.” His eyes closed. “I'll figure it out. Tomorrow, or something. Just be aware, you're grounded forever.”

“Forever?” DJ asked.

“For ever, forever,” Tony agreed.

“Steve?” DJ asked.

“We'll talk about it,” Steve said. He looped one arm around Tony. “Deej? You've been a human being a lot recently.”

“Yes,” DJ agreed.

“Is there a reason for that?” Steve asked.

DJ didn't say anything for a moment, and Tony's head tilted in his direction. “Deej?” he asked.

DJ curled up a bit tighter. “Wanted to be around you,” he said, his voice quiet. “Easier, like this.”

“We love you,” Steve said, his voice quiet, “no matter what form you choose to take. As long as you're happy.”

“Lies,” Tony grumbled. “I like you as a bot more. You have to obey me when you're a bot.”

“Nope,” DJ said.

“Yes!” Tony said. He reached over Steve, rapping easy knuckles against DJ's head. DJ laughed. “Brat.”

“Don't be what you think we want you to be,” Steve said, ignoring both of them. He looked down. “DJ, is this who you want to be right now?”

DJ looked up at him. Thought about that. “Yes.” He paused. “Might be a bot tomorrow.” His eyes closed. “I'm tired.”

“Good,” Tony said, settling back against Steve's side. “You need a servo upgrade.” His eyes were closed, so he heard, rather than saw, DJ blow a raspberry. “Oh, don't even try it. Grounded. Need I remind you? Grounded.”

“Okay,” DJ agreed.

“Forever,” Tony mumbled.

“We'll talk about it tomorrow,” Steve said.

“I'll be a bot tomorrow,” DJ said, his words slurred.

“Good,” Tony said, and then he was pretty sure Steve was talking, but he was beyond hearing it.

Chapter Text

Maybe she could just stay here. Maybe if she just stayed here, her eyes tightly closed, she could convince herself that it had all been a dream. Lucy thought that might actually be a pretty good plan, it was a workable plan. She was enjoying pretending that she was still asleep, that none of this had really happened. It was comforting to believe that her life had not gone completely to hell last night, and she clung to it.

Unfortunately, if Marnie kept pounding at her bedroom door, that was going to prove to be impossible.

Lucy dragged a pillow over her head. “Go away,” she mumbled into her sheets. “I am not getting up.”

She heard the door open. “We've got program today,” Marnie said, sounding only vaguely interested in Lucy's reply.

“I'm sick,” Lucy mumbled.

“Yeah, we don't get sick days, and you have presentation today, I know you do because you whined about it all last week.” There was a pause. “Get up.”

“I'm dead,” Lucy said. She curled up tight, burying her face in the bed; maybe she would suffocate.

“Then your corpse better start headin' for the shower.” Marnie padded over and grabbed the blankets, yanking them away. Lucy let out a yelp.

She rolled over, throwing her pillow at Marnie's head. “What is WRONG with you?” she said. She scrubbed a hand over her face, and pulled the sleep cap off of her hair. “Seriously, what is wrong with you?”

Marnie peered at her from behind the lenses of her glasses. She had a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks that became more obvious when her face was flushed. “Don't be cranky,” Marnie said with a raised eyebrow. “You seem tired. Would you like some coffee? I'd like some coffee.”

Lucy yawned. “What?” she asked, confused.

“Coffee. You want some? I was thinking, you know, coffee. We could probably both use a strong cup of coffee, after last night and the whole 'secret agents revealing secret parentage' thing.” Marnie paused. “I really needed a cup of coffee after that, Lucy.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Lucy asked, letting her head fall into her hands.

“Because when I went to go make the coffee, I found a lizard doing the backstroke in our coffee pot.”

Lucy froze. “Lizard?”

Marnie just pointed at the bedroom door. “Deal with it.”

She sighed, and rolled out of bed. “I'm on it, I'm on it.” Yawning, Lucy wandered through their little suite, heading for the kitchenette.

The coffee pot was on the counter, between the sink and the toaster oven. Lucy leaned over, folding her arms on the counter. “Well, whatta you know,” she said, dropping her chin onto her arms. “There's a lizard in our coffee pot.”

Furbro was seemingly unconcerned about his current position. There was an inch or two of coffee in the pot, left behind to get cold. He was splashing in it, his tail flipping across the surface as if he was trying to work up a froth. Spotting Lucy, he set two little paws on the glass of the pot, his mouth parting in a wide grin.

“Yeah, did you think I was making that up?” Marnie leaned against he wall, her arms crossed over her chest. Her oversized t-shirt fell to mid thigh, and she stacked one bare foot on top of the other to keep it off the cold floor. She ran a hand through her hair, pushing the straight black strands away from her face. “I'm not that creative.”

“No, you're really not.” Lucy let out a sigh. “Hey, dumbass,” she said, tapping on the outside of the pot. “We need that. That is ours.”

Furbro blinked at her, and sank low into the coffee. A series of bubbles rose from his mouth. Lucy wondered if he breathed, or if he just did it just to see the bubbles.

“Okay, I think you've had enough. How did you even get in there?” Lucy asked, pulling the pot out of the machine. Setting it in the sink, she reached in and pulled the protesting little guy out by the scruff of his neck. “Hi,” she said, holding him up at eye level. Furbro flexed all of his toes and chirped at her.

“What is a lizard doing in our coffee pot?” Marnie asked.

“I think it was the backstroke,” Lucy said.

“Wow,” Marnie said.

“I know, it's an old joke, shut-”

“I'm just going to go and take a shower, when I get back, I would like no reminders about the fact that we are both likely fired and are going to be sent home in disgrace,” Marnie said. “Especially not if those reminders interfere with me getting a fucking cup of coffee.”

“I know, I know, I'm sorry,” Lucy said. She grabbed a dishtowel and wet one corner, using it to wipe the cold coffee off of Furbro. He put up with that for a moment, then he started trying to eat the towel. “You are the worst pet.” Furbro bit her finger.

Marnie wandered over, peering over Lucy's shoulder. “Did he get left behind?” She held out a hand and Furbro stood on his back legs, grabbing at her fingers.

“Probably,” Lucy said, watching as Furbro grabbed hold of Marnie's fingertip. “He seems to be pretty willful.” She frowned. “I wonder if DJ knows where he is. You're gonna worry him, Furbro.”

“His name is Furbro?” Marnie asked, even as the lizard crawled up her hand and circled, whip fast, around her wrist. “That's... Special.”

Lucy grinned. “Yeah, well, he's a special lizard.”

Marnie plucked him off of her arm and handed him back to Lucy. “I guess you'll just have to go to work and give him back,” she said, and headed back towards their bathroom.

Lucy held Furbro up. “I hate you,” she said. Furbro yawned, and she sighed. “Fine.” She dumped out the coffee pot with one hand and set him on her shoulder with the other. He draped himself over her shoulder and shoved a chunk of her shirt into his mouth. “Yeah, I feel pretty much the same way,” she said. “And that means, Marnie's right about one thing. I need like a shitload of coffee right now.”

*

Lucy was kind of surprised that her badge still worked at the StarkIndustries building. That she wasn't met by armed guards or the blare of alarms when she walked through the door. Instead, Walter, one of the older lobby guards, just gave her a wave with the hand that wasn't holding his coffee cup, and a couple of girls from the PR department said hello as they passed, heading for the cafe next door.

No one gave her more than a second look. And her keycard worked on the elevator. She punched in the floor for DJ's workshop, and stepped back from the doors.

"I apologize for intruding."

Lucy jolted, a full body flinch. "No, it's, it's fine, Jarvis." She looked up and tried to smile. "Sorry. You were, you wanted to talk to me?"

"Yes. I am sorry to inform you that DJ is not in his workshop. He is grounded, and is not permitted visitors."

"Oh." Furbro bumped his head against her chin, and she reached up to rub his head. "Should I give lizard breath here to someone else?"

"No, please feel free to bring him to the workshop. He can easily find his way back to the living quarters from there." Jarvis's voice took on a faint hint of ice. "He has done it often enough."

Lucy caught herself smiling. "Are you trouble?" she asked Furbro, who chittered at her, and made a grab for her fingertip with his mouth. "Brat."

"He is at that. Besides, DJ has left the garments he borrowed, as well as a note for you." Jarvis paused. "I would not have said anything, but you seemed uncertain if you should proceed on your current path."

"A little," Lucy admitted. She looked up the hallway. "Is he- Is he okay?"

"He is fine." Another pause. "Are you concerned for his welfare?"

"Maybe," she said. Squaring her shoulders, she headed for the workshop. "He ran away from home and scary people in tactical uniforms showed up to drag him home against his will. I think I've got reason."

“Their intervention was preferable to his father coming to fetch him, I'm afraid,” Jarvis said. “He was very concerned.”

“Was he?” Lucy asked.

There was a moment of silence. “Yes.”

Lucy looked at her feet. “Is DJ safe?”

“Yes,” Jarvis repeated.

Lucy took a deep breath. “Would you tell me if he wasn't?”

“I have been watching over him for much of his life,” Jarvis said. “In my own way, I love him, and I will do whatever possible to protect him.”

She looked up. “All right, then.” With that, she walked off the elevator and up to the workshop.

It was empty, and neater than she'd ever seen it. “This is your stop, little brat,” Lucy said, leaning over to set Furbro on one of the benches. He considered the vent nearby, then rolled onto his back. “Faker,” she said. “Go find DJ. I'm sure he's missed you.”

On top of DJ's usual workbench, Marnie's shirt and pants were waiting, folded neatly. There was a piece of paper on top of the pile. Lucy picked it up and opened it. It read, “I'm sorry for the trouble. Thank Marnie for her pants. I am grounded, will you come back in a few days?”

Lucy smiled down at it. She flipped it over, and fumbled in her bag for a pen. On the back of the paper, she wrote, “Yes.” Satisfied, she picked up the clothing, hugging it against her chest. To Jarvis, she said, “Could you see that he gets that?”

“Of course, miss.” There was a pause. “Also, you have a stowaway.”

“What are you-” Lucy paused, flipping the pant leg back. Furbro blinked up at her, startling a laugh out of her. “How did you-” He reached one paw at her. “No. You are not as cute as you think you are.”

Despite that, she took a seat, she took her usual seat, and set him back on the bench. She leaned an arm on the workbench, and let her head flop onto it. “Oh, God,” she mumbled, as Furbro gnawed on a fingertip. “I don't know what to do.”

*

"So, you're grounded?"

"I am so grounded," DJ agreed.

“So why are we here?” Xi'an asked, tapping the end of her pen against her notebook.

“Study group,” DJ said, despite the fact that he was the only one who didn't have anything to study for. Everyone else had their home work, but some were paying more attention to it than others. Sarah was sprawled out on the floor, her arms crossed under her chin as she read, and Jessie was sitting next to Rahne, checking her work with a scowl and a red pen. David was wandering around, poking idly at DJ's projects. He was one of the few who'd already finished his work. Val had stolen one of Paras' books, and she was reading with only half of her attention, the rest was focused on assisting DJ.

She frowned, handing over a pair of needle nose pliers. “Study group?”

“Dad's idea,” DJ said.

“Your father is the worst disciplinarian,” she said, and DJ shrugged, because that was pretty much the truth. Tony yelled a lot but tempered it with the sort of physical affection that he'd always shown DJ, in whatever form he'd taken. Some things didn't change, and DJ appreciated that, especially when things got confusing.

"For how long?" Xi'an asked. “How long is this not very effective grounding?”

DJ sighed, bending over his work. He was behind schedule now. It was another frustration that he didn't know how to deal with, so he just focused on not making mistakes. He had a feeling that would just make things worse. "Forever."

Franklin gave him a disbelieving look over his laptop screen. "Forever."

"For. Ever," DJ said. He shrugged. "They were kinda mad."

"You RAN AWAY FROM HOME," Val said, disapproving.

"That was dangerous," Rahne said, from her perch on top of the workbench. Her bare feet bumped against the sides with each swing of her legs. "You coulda been hurt, Deej."

"Everyone else goes outside," DJ said, stubborn about it. "Don't get hurt."

"You aren't everyone else," Val said. She handed him a tool without even being asked.

"You're special," Franklin said, and DJ gave him a look. "What?" Franklin grinned. "It's not my fault that you're the special one."

"Shut up Franklin," David said. He was pacing around the room, picking up and discarding tablets as he walked. In anyone else, his movements would've been classified as manic, but his face was calm, his eyes half closed. "You're the coddled kid around here."

"Hey, just-"

"You kind of are," Val said, her head tipping in her brother's direction. She fluttered her eyelashes. "Precious."

Franklin stared at her. "Okay, this is not about me," he said at last. "It's about the idiot over here who tried to run away from home and didn't even get off of Manhattan."

"It's bigger than it seems," DJ mused. "Would've gotten further with a car."

"No, you would not have," Jarvis said, frosty about it. "Those, I can control."

"And that is why I did not take a car," DJ said to Franklin.

"Can you drive?" Doug asked. "I mean, I've started driver's ed, and you haven't lived until you've had Hank McCoy give you a driver's lesson, really."

"Steve taught me," DJ said. He reached for a soldering iron, and Val tossed it to him. "Thank you."

"No problem. Not your dad?"

DJ bent over his work. "Have you seen my dad drive?"

"Yes."

"So has Steve." He glanced up. "Steve taught me to drive. And Coulson."

"I'm not sure if that would be very comforting or very terrifying," Jessie said, her fingers rattling on the pages of her text book.

"Both." DJ sighed. "A lot of both."

"Question," Doug said, pointing a finger at him. "You've never left the building so how-"

"Simulator and.." He shrugged. "There are basement levels."

There was silence. "Do you have a secret racetrack under the city that no one knows about?" Val asked at last. "And you're not sharing?"

"I think we're all tiptoeing around the real issue," David said. He leaned his palms on the workbench, his dark eyes gleaming. "Do you have a suit?"

Everyone went still. DJ's eyes slid upwards. Everyone was staring at him. He cleared his throat. "No," he said, carefully, drawing the word out a bit too long but not able to stop himself..

"Wow," David said. He shook his head. "You should not try to lie, dude. You are so bad at it."

DJ glared at him. "I don't."

"Oh, my God, you do." Val leaned in, clapping her hand. "You totally do." Her eyes were bright, a broad grin on her face. "Does Cap know?"

DJ could see the whole situation slipping away from him and considered how to stop that from happening. There appeared to be no way to accomplish that. He scrunched down in his chair. "Nothing to know."

"An' that'd be a nae," Rahne said. She leaned forward. "What does it look like? Is it red an' yellow, too?"

DJ considered crawling under the bench. He was pretty sure they'd follow him. His father was going to have his head. "Don't have a suit."

“He totally has a suit and I want to see it,” Franklin said.

“Excuse me,” Jarvis said.

“Can we please not discuss this any longer?” DJ asked. He didn't think it would work, but sometimes it did. Rarely. But sometimes.

“Is this a discussion?” Xi'an asked. “David, are we discussing? I thought we were asking and he was deflecting.”

“Leave him alone,” Paras said, a faint smile on his face. “It's family stuff, and you know it.”

“Excuse me,” Jarvis repeated.

“Family stuff is no excuse for excluding friend stuff,” Val said. “Franklin, grab him. You hold, I'll punch.”

“I am not involved with her,” Franklin said, his face a little too close to his computer, his face scrunched up in an impressive squint. “Or her mad schemes.”

“You look just like dad,” Val told him. She reached out, making grabby hands for DJ's head. “I will noogie it out of you.”

“Excuse me,” Jarvis said, and he'd clearly given up on getting a response. “Perhaps-”

“Nooooooo,” DJ said, even as Val wrapped an arm around his neck and rubbed her knuckles gently against the top of his head, giggling against his back. DJ flailed, laughing as he tried to duck out of reach. “Val, nooooooooo.”

“You have a visitor,” Jarvis said, sounding bored, and everyone froze.

DJ's head snapped up, his eyes locking on Lucy. She was hovering in the doorway, her mouth gaping open, her eyes huge. “Sorry,” she said, her voice loud in the sudden silence. “Am I- Interrupting?”

“No,” DJ said. He swallowed. “No.”

“Hi,” Val said, still clinging to DJ's back, one hand now locked in his hair.

“Hi,” Lucy said. She shifted her weight, back, back towards the door, and DJ's heart clenched. “Ah, if you're busy, I can, I can come back later?”

“No!” Everyone said at once, and Lucy flinched back another step.

“We were just going,” Rahne said, hopping down off of the workbench. “What good timing ye have, we were just about t' go, best we get on with that.”

“What?” Sarah said, looking up from her book. “We weren't-”

“Yes, we were,” Jessie said. She grabbed her sister's arm. “Look, we were, grab your book, let's go.”

“I don't-” Lucy started, but everyone was moving now, books being grabbed and papers being shoved in bags as most everyone thundered for the door.

“It's okay!” Paras said, and she did a double take, her eyes going wide. He just smiled, used to the response. His magenta skin often caused a reaction, but to Lucy's credit, she just gave him a nod.

“Hey, you're Lucy-” Franklin said, finally waking up to the fact that something was happening.

“Going now,” David said, shutting Franklin's laptop, very nearly crushing his fingers.

“Let's go, Val,” Xi'an said.

“No one here by that name,” Val said, scrunching down behind DJ. Doug picked her up. “Nooooo,” she whined. “No, I want to knoooooooow!”

“Sorry about this,” Doug said to Lucy as he walked out, dragging a protesting Val along with him. She clawed at the air. “She's really quite nice.”

“No, I'm not,” Val said, and Lucy grinned at her.

“She's really not,” Franklin said, just before David pushed him and his laptop out the door. It slammed shut behind them.

Lucy nodded. “So. Your friends seem nice.”

DJ smiled. “They are.” He waved a hand at the chair opposite him. “Want to- Can you stay?”

She sat down. “Did Furbro-” The lizard stuck his head out of DJ's shirt sleeve, blinking at her in. She grinned. “So you got home okay, did you?”

“Thank you for bringing him back,” DJ said, lowering his hand down so that Furbro could go scrambling over to her. Lucy scratched him on the top of his head. “I didn't realize he'd stayed behind. He likes you.”

“Yeah?” Lucy scooped Furbro up. “Is he the only one?”

DJ smiled. “I like you. A lot.” He paused, his fingers rattling against the edge of the workbench. “Are you... Mad at me?”

Lucy took a deep breath. "Am I mad at you?" she asked, folding her hands on the top of the lab bench. "I was angry with you." DJ flinched, a flare of panic going through him, and Lucy looked up. "I think I have that right, don't you?" she asked. Her voice was quiet, her eyes steady. DJ studied her.

"Yes," he said. His fingers were twitching on his leg, and he reached for a tool, just to have something solid to hold onto. It helped. He didn't understand why, but he didn't question it. "I would be. I get... Frustrated when I don't know what's happening."

Lucy smiled. "I think everyone does. So I was mad." Her head tipped to the side, her eyes going up. "I was mad. Because I felt, well, tricked, I guess. I felt like you'd lied to me. And that didn't seem fair. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that wasn't fair, either."

Her hand came up, fingers tangling in a curl of her hair, playing idly with it. "Everyone has the right to protect themselves. And their family. You didn't know me, either. So it's kind of stupid to think that you'd tell me something like that." Her eyes flicked up at him. "It still hurt. But I know it's kind of a stupid hurt."

DJ thought about that. "Not stupid," he said after a moment. "Maybe not... Rational. But not stupid."

"Definitely irrational," Lucy agreed, her teeth flashing in a grin. "But I thought about it, and I guess..." Her mouth pursed up tight. "I think I'm glad you didn't tell me."

She looked up, meeting his eyes again, and she smiled. "Because if I knew that you were his son, I don't think I would've talked to you. I wouldn't have wanted to look like, you know, like I was trying to get that kind of an in." She shifted on her stool, her shoulders flexing. "I wouldn't have wanted to be accused of that sort of thing, so if I'd known, I probably wouldn't have-"

Her cheeks were bright now, a flush rising on her face. "I wouldn't have talked to you, and that would've been a mistake." Her eyes slid away. "I like you."

DJ stared at her, trying to determine what that meant. But she was smiling, even as she avoided his eyes, one hand tugging idly at a curl. Warmth curled in DJ's stomach, a little burst of hope and heat. He smiled, and she smiled back. Relief swept over him, and he grinned at Lucy. "Yeah?"

She nodded. "Yeah." She pointed a finger at him. "Still a little bit mad."

DJ nodded. "Okay."

"What, you're okay with that?" she asked,

"You're talking to me," he pointed out. "I'm okay with a little mad." He spread his hands. “Definitely okay with a little mad.”

She looked away, her hands coming up to cover her face, and she was giggling, the sound muffled between her fingers. "So mad," she managed, between little bursts of laughter, and DJ brought his legs up, folding his arms on top of his knees.

"You seem not mad," he pointed out.

"I am totally mad," Lucy said, her eyes bright. She struggled to get her face back under control, and DJ grinned at her. "Don't you dare. Don't you-" She pointed at him. "That thing with your face."

“Dad taught me his sad face,” DJ admitted. “It works on Steve. Not really anyone else.”

“That face works on everyone, don't you lie,” Lucy says. She glanced up, and then her head tipped forward again. "So. I know you're, well, on lockdown, but, when that's over...” She looked up at him, her eyes big and warm and beautiful and DJ stopped breathing for a second. “Will you go to the movies with me?"

Her hand came up again, fingers twitching at a curl, and he recognized the need. The way that she kept her hands busy, when she was nervous or uncomfortable. DJ rolled the screwdriver in his fingers, a different tactile need, but somehow the same. "With you?"

Her face got red again, a warm wash of color to her cheeks. "Well, with everyone. Really. We're going as a group, so it's not really going WITH me, it's just-"

"I'd like to go with you," DJ said, the words a little too fast, a little too loud. He subsided, feeling his face heat. "If that's okay."

She was studying him, her face unreadable. Then, she smiled. "That's okay," she said, and she smiled, her teeth sinking into her lower lip. 'That's... Really okay."

"Yay!" a voice came from the hallway. DJ's head fell forward.

"They're... They're still outside, aren't they?" Lucy asked. She sounded resigned.

"I'm so sorry," DJ said. He raised his voice. "They are very embarrassing."

“We are not embarrassing,” David called back. “We're good and loyal friends.”

“He's a loser and he doesn't deserve us!” Val agreed at the top of her lungs.

“Please go away now,” DJ said, but Lucy was already leaning in that direction, her face splitting in a grin.

“Okay, okay,” she said, laughing. “I'm done, you all can come back in.”

Val was the first one through the door, and DJ wasn't surprised, Val was always the first one through the door, no matter what door it was. “Hi, you must be Lucy, I'm Val, Valeria Storm Richards, yes, I know, it's a mouthful,” she crowed, as she bounced forward. She rattled off introductions, probably too fast for Lucy to take them in, but Lucy just smiled, nodding and shaking hands as each name was provided. “You should stay and study with us!”

Lucy's eyes flicked in DJ's direction. “I shouldn't intrude,” she said, and Val kicked DJ in the leg.

“They're horrible,” DJ said.

“Hey!” Val said.

“But you should stay anyway,” DJ said, smiling at Lucy. “They're funny.”

“We are. We are very funny,” Paras said, cheerfully.

“I'm not funny at all,” Sarah said, settling down next to the workbench.

“Sarah is SUPER serious,” her sister agreed. “Ignore her.”

“It's almost dinner,” Lucy said, but she settled back into the seat. “But I've probably missed my bus.”

“Dinner is provided on study nights,” Jarvis said. “As to your transportation difficulties, we should be happy to have you driven home.”

“Happy can take you,” DJ said. “Don't worry. He's nice.”

“I couldn't, I can just get the bus,” Lucy said.

“We can give you a ride,” Xi'an said. “Kurt'll be by to get us later, he can-”

“Not everyone's comfortable travellin' by Nightcrawler,” Rahne said.

“That's their problem, not mine,” Xi'an said. “She seems tough. She probably won't scream.”

“Excuse me,” Jarvis said, sounding displeased with life in general. "Sir would like to inquire if he is still banned from having any contact whatsoever with Ms. Piero."

"Yes." DJ glared at the ceiling. "Yes, he really, really is." His eyes narrowed. “Why is he asking?”

“He knows she has been up to visit, and would like to-”

“No,” DJ said. Then again, even more sternly, “No.”

There was a pause. "He wishes me to inform you that you are an ungrateful child, that you are disowned, and he will be renting your room to a contract worker of some sort."

"He's not supposed to disown me," DJ pointed out.

"It is against the rules,” Jarvis agreed. “I have reminded him of this fact, he does not seem to think that I have the right to uphold any such ruling, and is certainly not shy about telling me so.”

"Please inform Steve that I have been disowned," DJ said.

Jarvis let out something that would have been a sigh, if he actually breathed. "Captain Rogers says that no one is disowned, and asks if you would all like to stay for pizza?"

Across the bench, Lucy had a hand clapped over her mouth, trying to stifle a giggle. DJ grinned at her. "Your family is crazy," Lucy said from between her fingers.

"You have no idea," Val said. "Jarvis, ask Tony if we can stay for pizza."

"Don't-" DJ started, but Jarvis heaved another audible sigh.

"Sir," he said, his tone glacial, "says that you are all disowned, all of you, and that no one may have pizza." He paused. "I apologize, this appears to be a rather lengthy discussion he is having with himself. If you will wait, I shall be happy to sum up his sentiments when he chooses to end his current-" He stopped. "I am not certain how to define his current verbal barrage."

DJ let his head fall into his hands. "Jarvis, can you have Steve-"

"Captain Rogers has been dispatched to deal with the situation."

"I love your family," David said, his arms crossed over his chest. "They make the rest of us look so sane by comparison."

“David apparently does not want pizza,” Franklin said, and ducked out of reach when David went to give him a shove. “I, meanwhile, am a perfect-” He was running now, staying just out of reach by dodging around the workbenches, a step ahead of David. “I am a perfect guest and thank Cap for his kind offer and I would like meat lovers pi-”

Val tripped him and David, following a little too close behind, slammed into his back and both of them went down in a flail of limbs and curses.

“I don't know whether t' kiss you or scold you,” Rahne said, craning her head to watch the unfolding disaster.

“Can we have buffalo chicken pizza?” Val asked, unconcerned about having potentially damaged her brother or an innocent bystander.

“I like your friends,” Lucy said to DJ.

“I do, too,” DJ said. “Pizza?”

“Okay.”

*

“Really, you can meet him at the movies.”

“I want to meet him now.”

Lucy glared at Hillary. “Look, it's not a big deal. He's just a boy.”

“Is he cute?”

“No. Not at all. Nothing to see, go away.”

Hillary laughed. “Not a chance.” She paused. “He's not, like, a VP or something, right? This isn't creepy?”

“He's our age,” Lucy said, resigned now, leading the way up the hallway. “But this is really not a thing, you dumbass. It's not that big of a deal.” The door to the workshop was open, and music was pounding. “He's really quite-”

They both stopped.

Music poured through the workshop, out into the hallway, almost too loud, almost too harsh, but just hitting the edge of tolerance. Some classic rock with a thundering bass line, shuddering against the skin, and DJ was dancing.

Lithe and sleek, he was moving, his arms and his legs and the sweep of his hips. His bare feet skidded over the floor, bouncing and light and easy, his body a whiplash of motion. His head was back, his eyes closed, his hair bouncing around his head with each step. He was grinning, and singing, his lips moving along to the words, his head swinging in time with the music, his feet matching the beat and surpassing it.

He danced, and it was both innocent and sensual, and Lucy's mouth was so dry that she couldn't even swallow.

“Holy shit,” Hillary said behind her.

“Yeah,” Lucy agreed. She blinked hard. “I feel like I should be recording this. For purely aesthetic purposes.”

“Holy shit,” Hillary repeated.

Lucy grinned. “For a white boy, he's got moves.”

“Luce, for an ANYTHING, he's got moves.” Hillary leaned her chin on Lucy's shoulder. “So, this is where you've been hiding for lunches for the last couple of weeks. I cannot imagine why, seriously.”

“I like the scenery,” Lucy managed, and she reached back to push Hillary away when she started to laugh. “Seriously.”

“Seriously,” Hillary agreed. “Can we take him clubbing?”

“No, we'll never get him back,” Lucy said. She bit her lip as DJ's head fell back, his eyes closed, the line of his throat a perfect arch.

“We can get a leash,” Hillary said.

“No. Bad girl. Bad, kinda kinky girl,” Lucy said.

“I appreciate a pretty boy,” Hillary said, unconcerned. “So. Gonna introduce me?”

“No, no I am not,” Lucy said. “You are going to try to seduce him.”

“What, I would never, you seem the jealous type,” Hillary said.

“Shut up.” Lucy gave her a shove. Hillary laughed, scrambling out of reach.

DJ's head snapped around, and she knew the moment that he spotted them in the doorway. His face split in a grin. “Lucy!”

“Hi,” Lucy said, smiling back as he bounced across the workshop, reminding her somehow of an overgrown puppy. All the grace he'd just shown seemed to have dissolved in an instant, and now he crashed through the workshop, seeming to trip over his own feet with every other step. He tossed himself onto a chair in front of them, his hands braced on the edge of the stool, his legs spread wide, his body tipped forward. The stool rocked dangerously from side to side, but stayed upright through some miracle.

DJ grinned at them from beneath the dark mop of his hair. “Hello,” he said to Hillary.

“Hi,” she said, waving at him.

“DJ, this is Hillary. Hill, this is DJ,” Lucy said.

Hillary stuck out her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

He took it. “Nice to meet you,” he agreed, grinning.

A slight nudge at her shoulder, and she looked down. “And this,” she said, holding up her arm, “is Furbro. He is very affectionate.”

Hillary studied the lizard, who was sprawled against Lucy's shirt, his little legs spread, his tail in a neat little curl. “I see,” she said, clearly trying not to laugh.

“He is a disappointment,” DJ agreed, with a sigh. “Did you come for lunch?”

“I was just passing through,” Hillary said. “Wanted to see where Lucy was sneaking off to every day.” She nudged Lucy, a bright grin on her face. “I understand now.”

DJ looked from her to Lucy and back, big brown eyes wide. “Understand what?” he asked, and rocked his weight back and forth on the stool. His whole body flexed with the movement.

“Hillary was just leaving,” Lucy said.

“She was?” DJ asked, blinking.

“I was,” Hillary agreed. She gave Lucy a sly look. “Lucy says you're coming to the movie with us?”

He grinned. “Yes.”

She nodded. “Than I'll see you there, DJ.” She grabbed Lucy's arm and dragged her out into the hallway.

“I'll be right back,” Lucy said, to DJ's confused face. “Sorry, I'll be-” In the hallway, she rolled her eyes. “Are you quite done, you crazy girl?”

“I am done,” Hillary agreed. “What are you wearing?”

“That question seems wrong,” Lucy said. “Like I should be reporting you to HR right now.”

“To the movies, what are you wearing?”

“Oh.” Lucy felt her face heat. “My sister sent me something. Not what I asked her to, but she sent me something to wear.” She held her hands out at her sides. “It's a skirt, I think it's cute. I think that it'll impress him.”

“And who are you trying to impress?” Hillary asked, grinning. “Its just our stupid coworkers, Lucy.” Her eyes went wide. “Oh my God. Do you have crush on someone?”

Lucy stared at her. “Hillary-”

“You coming to lunch?” Hillary asked.

“Not today,” Lucy said. “I'll see you after, okay?”

“One of these days,” Hillary said, shaking her head, “you'll show me where you go at lunch every day.”

“One of these days,” Lucy agreed, trying for a smile. She watched Hillary head for the elevators, her stomach churning.

“She doesn't remember,” DJ said from the doorway.

“Doesn't remember, what?”

“Me.” There was no emotion to it, nothing angry or sad, just calm acceptance. “She will, if she keeps meeting me. But it takes a while.”

“Was that what it was like for me?” Lucy asked. She turned. He had a little half smile on his face, soft and gentle.

“That's what it's like for everyone.” His smile grew. “You remember better, really. Faster.”

“Well, I think you're pretty memorable,” Lucy agreed. There was something in his eyes, something soft and almost sad, and she wanted to hug him. Instead, she said, “So, later, want to go dancing?”

He grinned. “I like to dance.”

“I got that impression.”

*

“Hello.”

Lucy turned, her pale yellow skirts swirling around her legs. “Oh,” she said, her hand coming up to grip the strap of her messenger bag. She swallowed, but she kept her chin up. “Agent Romanov. Can I-” Her shoulders went back, pride stiffening the length of her spine. “Can I help you with something.

Natasha looked at her, amused, then held out her hand. "Give me your phone."

Lucy stared at her. "Why?" But even as she questioned it, she reached into her bag, digging around in the depths before finding it. She unlocked it, and handed it over.

Natasha took it, flicking through the menus with a finger. "The first number I'm programming into your contact list is for our emergency line," she said, her voice calm. "It rings here. If there is no one available, Jarvis will push it through to our individual phones, including private ones. If none of us are within range, it goes to SHIELD, to the Fantastic Four, to the X-Men." She looked up, meeting Lucy's wide eyes. "This number will be picked up. No matter what. If this line doesn't get picked up, you have bigger problems than this line not being picked up. Probably the downfall of western civilization." One eyebrow arched, a wry smile slipping across her lips. "We do try to avoid that on date nights."

"I appreciate that," Lucy said, her voice thin.

"Yes, so does Tony." Natasha went back to the phone. "The second number is mine." Finishing, she looked up, her eyes meeting Lucy's. "I helped raise him. He will not cause you problems. But if he does, you call me."

She paused. "I understand the risk you're taking, Lucy. Getting involved with him. Spoiled little rich boys are..." Her mouth tightened. "Problematic. Men who are used to getting their way, used to being protected, and unaccustomed to being told no about anything? They are trouble.”

"But I helped raise him," she said, her voice soft. "His fathers are good men, but I want you to understand, I helped raise him. He will not cause problems, but if he puts so much as a finger out of line, you call me.” She looked up, crossing her arms over her chest. “Do you understand?”

Lucy nodded. Natasha nodded back.

“What I don't understand,” Lucy said, her voice quiet, “if if you don't think he'll be a problem, why make the offer?”

Natasha arched an eyebrow. “Because I want you to go into this with that assurance. It helps.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.

“Lucy?” Lucy looked up, and Natasha took a breath. “I want you to know what you're getting into here.

“DJ is a very kind boy. And sweet." She smiled. "He respects other people. He listens carefully, and he listens well. He's brilliant, funny, and good natured. He is not spoiled, self-centered or cruel, as many boys in his position would be. That is a testament to both his parents, but it also has a lot to do with who he is. He's had everything he's ever wanted, but what he wants is fairly simple, in the end." Natasha glanced at Lucy. "He's a good kid, and he's going to be a very good man."

Lucy seemed to be considering that, her head tipped forward. "I know."

Natasha took a deep breath. "But he's also hard to deal with, for some people. He doesn't see the world, he doesn't comprehend it, the same way a lot of other people do. He has to work hard at verbal communication, and if he gets upset or agitated, he struggles to speak at all. If he can't find the right word, if he can't make himself understood, he can get frustrated and shut down. He has an extreme sensitivity to stimuli, and if he gets overwhelmed, he needs to withdraw, sometimes at times that aren't going to be convenient.

"He doesn't read facial expressions well. He's often very literal. He doesn't pick up on hints or body language. You have to be clear with him, you have to be precise when communicating with him, and that's something that people are socialized not to do. Especially women. We're socialized to be polite, to say no without actually saying no, to diffuse a situation and protect ourselves by humoring another party, especially a male."

"So I need to be blunt?" Lucy asked, smiling.

"Blunt does help. He doesn't take much personally. It's not in his nature. But he can get his feelings hurt, if he doesn't understand or gets confused."

Lucy nodded. "I have figured that out. I've been talking to him for weeks, you know that, right?"

Natasha's head tipped to the side. "I know. But he's taking a risk, too. He understands that he's sometimes difficult to deal with. He struggles to fit in, to make himself understood, to communicate with people. He has to work at it, and sometimes, despite his best efforts, he confuses people. He frustrates them. And he becomes frustrated by them.”

She studied Lucy. “But he's worth the effort, Lucy. I hope you know that.”

"Look. How he interacts with the world, how he understands the world is different." Lucy shrugged. "But he's clever and funny, and I like talking with him, talking to him. He listens to me. And I like listening to him. He might not talk as much, but it's always worth waiting for. I'm not exactly easy to get along with, either, and I know it. I'm pretty strong willed and stubborn and sometimes I don't want to deal with all the stupid shit that I have to deal with and I'm not good at pretending.

"But I like him." Her face flushed, but she met Natasha's eyes without flinching. "I trust him. I like spending time with him." She stopped, and shrugged. "Also, he's really cute. Can I be shallow and say he's really cute?”

“Also a very good dancer.” Natasha held out her phone. “Just putting that out there. But I also want you to understand, if you call that number, I will come.” Lucy's fingers closed on the phone, and Natasha didn't let it go. “Do you believe me?”

Lucy's eyes were sharp and narrow. “The weird thing is, I kinda do.”

“Good.” Natasha let go of her phone, then watched as Lucy put it back in her bag. “He should be down soon.” She crossed her arms and leaned a shoulder against the wall. “Mind if I wait with you?”

“No,” Lucy said. She took a deep breath. “I'm not scared of DJ.” She looked at Natasha. “Should I be scared of...” Her voice trailed away, and she shook her head.

“Lucy?” Natasha smiled. “His parents love him. If this doesn't work out? If you can't handle this, if you can't handle his family or his situation or just him, well, that happens. No one's going to blame you.” She straightened up as the elevator opened. “Just two things. Do not screw him over. Do not expose him. All right?”

“All right,” Lucy agreed, as DJ ducked out of the elevator. Natasha wondered who'd picked out his outfit; probably Phil. It wasn't flashy enough to be Tony and it was too relaxed to be Steve, and it matched, so that meant Clint was out. Grinning, he bounced across the lobby, his jacket hanging low on one side.

“Hi,” he said, scrambling to a stop.

Lucy smiled at him, warm and sweet. “Hi,” she said. “Ready?”

"One sec, please. Give it to me," Natasha said, holding out a hand.

DJ gave her an innocent look. "What?"

"Whatever it is that's in your right pocket," Natasha said, wiggling her fingers. “You're nearly walking crooked, Deej.”

DJ immediately ducked around Lucy so that his right hand side was blocked by her hip. "There's nothing," he said, and grinned at Lucy. "Ready?"

"Ready," she said.

Natasha collared him. "She's been waiting for you," she said, a faint smile on her face.

"Sorry," DJ said, a flush darkening his cheeks.

"It's okay," Lucy said, rocking on her heels. Her skirt swished around her legs. "I had to change anyway." She smoothed a careful hand over her skirt.

He smiled, and it was just as stunning as his father's smile, but for completely different reasons. "You look beautiful."

That won him a laugh and a smile. "You're looking pretty good yourself," she said. Her head tilted to the side. "Shoes and everything."

"I hate them," he said, resignation clear in his voice. "But it's worth it."

"It's okay, I hate mine, too. Wanna trade?" she asked, giggling.

"Yes," he said.

"Your feet are too big for her shoes," Natasha said, well aware that he'd try.

"Shoes are the worst," DJ said.

"As a woman, I do not even want to get into this discussion with you, because I will strangle you with my bare hands," Natasha said, trying to keep a straight face. She held out a hand. "Give me whatever it is that's in your pocket, you pack rat,"

"Not for you," DJ said, eyes narrowed. "It's for Lucy." He pulled his hand out of his pocket, and he was holding a metal box about the size of his palm. He held it out to Lucy. "Sorry. I was going to give it to you later. But my family is horrible."

She was trying not to grin, her teeth digging into her lower lip. "They really are," she agreed with all possible gravity. She reached out. "What is it?"

He set it in her palm. "Just something I made."

She glanced up, then back down. "Yeah?"

"You can go now," DJ said to Natasha.

"I want to know what it is," she said, ignoring the look he gave her. "Well?" she asked Lucy, who opened the hinged box.

It was a little pale blue and silver butterfly, a delicate construction of whisper thin wire and worked metal. She picked it up from the box, and the wings fluttered, the movement enough to make the whole thing seem to be on the edge of taking flight. Lucy's mouth parted on a silent exhale.

DJ's fingers were locked on the hem of his jacket, but his voice was calm. "It's got a clip. For your hair."

She turned it over, finding the little toothed aligator style clip on the bottom. "You made this?" she asked, grinning.

He nodded. "You like blue."

"Yes, I do." She reached up, trying to juggle the box and the clip, and Natasha reached out, taking the box from her. It was heavier than she'd thought it would be, and while Lucy was putting in the hair clip, she glanced at DJ

"You can leave this here-" she started, but Lucy was already shaking her head.

"If I have to take it out, I don't want it getting crushed." She took the box back, turning it over between her palms. "Did you make this, too?" she asked DJ.

"I like welding," DJ said with a grin.

"Who doesn't?" Laughing, she slipped it into her messenger bag. "Thank you. It's beautiful."

Natasha knew DJ well enough to see the relief in his face, to see the way his shoulders relaxed. Her phone rang, and she dug it out. "No," she said.

"Please," Steve said.

"No," she said, but she was smiling.

"I will come down there and then there will be all sorts of yelling," he pointed out. “You could avoid that for me.”

"Just let Jarvis do it," Tony said in the background.

"Is it the end of the world that I want an actual photo and not a still taken from the security feed?" Steve asked him. "Please, Nat."

"No," she said, because she could. She looked at DJ. "Picture time."

"No," he said.

"He says no," Natasha said into the phone.

“I'll be down in a minute.”

“He's coming down,” Natasha said, amused. DJ glared at her. Lucy was struggling not to laugh, her head turned away. “Steve, I will handle it. You could help,” Natasha told Lucy, hanging up on an American Hero without the slightest pang of guilt.

“Oh, you need my help?” Lucy asked, her eyes wide. “Really?”

“Brownie points,” Natasha said.

“Fine,” Lucy said. She reached in her bag. “Can you take a picture of the two of us for me?” DJ gave her a betrayed look, and she rolled her eyes. “Is this really the hill you want to die on?” she asked.

“I don't want to die on any hill,” DJ said, and Lucy laughed. “Or at all.”

“Me, neither.” She held her phone out to Natasha. “So smile.”

“She's a very clever girl, she's figured out your family dynamic already,” Natasha said, holding it up. “Say cheese.”

*

“I'm just saying, why do you have so much stuff in your pockets?”

DJ considered that. “I need it,” he said at last, completely seriously. Lucy gave him a look, and he grinned at her. “Well, I might!”

“You do not need any of the junk in your pockets” Lucy said, trying to sound stern, but he was still grinning. “We went to a movie. You do not need any of that.”

“Maybe I would,” he said, taking another bite of his hot dog.

“Yeah, you're an engineer all right,” she said. “I'm going to get you a pocket protector, see if I don't.” Shaking her head, she finished her hot dog. Street vendor dogs were somehow better. She didn't question it.

“Steve tried that once,” DJ told her. “Dad burned it. With tongs.”

“You're kidding.”

“No. Dad had a little ceremony. There were engraved invitations involved.”

Lucy grinned. “Oh my God, that must've been amazing.”

“Steve thought it was funny,” DJ agreed. He wadded up his napkin. “We are lucky Steve thinks a lot of things are funny.”

“Because your dad is a little crazy?” Lucy asked. She paused. “It's still a little weird to think of-” She swallowed the name, instinct kicking in fast. “Of your father having a kid.”

“It is weird being the kid, too,” DJ said, and Lucy laughed.

“You bear up well,” she said.

“I try,” he agreed.

Her phone was vibrating against her hip, and she fumbled with her messenger bag. “Sorry, let me just-” She stepped out of the flow of the traffic, into one of the entrances to the park. It was still light out, and a handful of runners and dog walkers were passing by, but at least she wasn't in the way here. “It's Hillary,” she explained, checking the incoming call. “One sec.”

DJ nodded, and took her napkin from her. “Be right back,” he said, heading for the nearest trashcan.

“Thanks,” Lucy said, connecting the call. “We're coming!”

“Come faster!” Hillary said. “It's filling up.”

“Okay, okay,” Lucy said,shaking her head. “I have our tickets, just, just go in, and we'll be there when we're there. Okay?”

“I'll try to save you seats. But-”

“I know. We're coming.” Saying a quick good-bye, she turned around. “Deej? We have to-” Her voice trailed away. DJ was still standing by the trash can, the napkins still in his hand, his attention on something up the path. “DJ?”

Putting her phone away, Lucy headed over. “Hey, Deej? We have to go, the movie's going to be starting soon.”

DJ didn't move. “Do you hear that?” he asked. His head was cocked to the side, a strange look on his face.

Lucy paused. “No. Hear what?”

His mouth opened, and closed. “I don't know,” he said after a moment. He wandered up the path, and after a second's pause, Lucy followed.

She heard it, a few yards up the path. A soft song, half sung, half hummed twisted through the air, lilting and easy. Lucy hitched her bag higher on her shoulder, her hands wrapping around the strap.

Just around a corner, beneath the shelter of a massive tree, an old woman was sitting on a bench, her head down over the basket in her lap. Gnarled fingers twisted ribbon around the long stems of perfect roses, one after another. She glanced up as DJ approached, a smile crossing her wrinkled face. “Hello,” she said. “Would you like a rose for your young lady?”

“Oh, no, I don't need-” Lucy started.

“Would you like one?” DJ asked, but his eyes were on the roses. “They're beautiful.”

The old woman smiled, her eyes crinkling up. "What a sweet boy," she said, laughter in her voice. "Here." She reached into her basket, and came up with a single, perfect red rose. "This one will never sell. You can have it."

DJ blinked at it. There was something strange about his face, something empty and still. “Can I?” he asked.

The old woman held it out. "Here. Give it to your girl."

Lucy caught DJ's arm. "I don't need it," she said, because there was something wrong here, there was something very wrong. Her eyes darted around, desperately looking for someone, anyone else. The park, which had seemed so open and bright a moment ago, was now silent and empty. Shadows loomed large across the path, black bars like claw marks tearing at the pathways.

She took a deep breath, and there was a weird tang to the air, like scorched metal, like solder burnt black. It was a physical taste in the back of her throat, and her fingers dug into DJ's arm. “We're going to be late,” she said. “Everyone's expecting us.” Had it been this dark before? How far were they from the street? She could've sworn that she'd been able to see the street, just a couple of seconds ago.

The old woman chuckled. She held up the rose, and the petals looked like velvet in the diffused light. “This will only take a moment.”

DJ pulled free of Lucy's grip, taking a step forward, then another. Lucy made a grab for his shirt, her fingers closing on the fabric. Frustrated, she snapped, “Hey, dummy!”

His head snapped back in her direction, his eyes focusing on her at last, even as his fingers brushed over the rose petals. He was looking right at her, and Lucy saw him die. She saw the light go out of his eyes, saw them go blank and flat and empty, like a switch had been flipped. He died, in that instant, his body still upright.

He fell from the bottom up, his legs going out from under him, his body twisting to the side, his head lolling on his neck. His hand hung in mid-air, still grasping for the rose that was no longer there, and then it, too, followed him down. He hit the ground with a finality that shocked her, his dead weight tearing his shirt from Lucy's hands.

He was on the ground before she had the breath to scream.

She was on her knees, and she wasn't sure how she'd gotten there. Her hands scrambled at the front of DJ's shirt, and he was still, so still, pale and still and silent, and Lucy was screaming. She was screaming, and realized, with some strange, detached understanding, that she wasn't making a sound.

Her fingers slid over DJ's throat, fumbling for his pulse, and there was nothing there, his throat was still and his skin seemed to cool beneath her fingers.

The rose fluttered down, landing on DJ's chest, and it fell to ash as soon as it settled. Lucy's head snapped up. The old woman was changing, right in front of her, gray hair and sweet face disappearing, smoothing away like a fog cleared by the sun. “Rest in peace,” she said, her lips turning up in a mocking smile. Tall and lithe and beautiful, she turned big dark eyes on Lucy. “Foolish child. Didn't anyone ever tell you never to take gifts from strangers?”

“What did you-” Lucy stroked DJ's hair away from his face. “What have you-”

The woman shook her head. “I ripped his heart out,” she said, and the words were vicious, they carried a physical sting. Lucy recoiled, nausea curling in her stomach, and for an instant, she thought she was going to throw up.

“How-”

Lucy's fingers fumbled over DJ's lips, and for an instant, she thought that she was imagining the air that flowed between her fingertips. Shaking, terrified, she folded herself forward, her hands sliding over DJ's face, over his throat, and he let out a sigh.

And inhaled.

Lucy let out a sob. He was breathing. He was still breathing. No pulse, no heartbeat, but he ws breathing, she could feel him breathe, feel the slow rise and fall of his chest. “DJ-”

The woman's face changed, the smile, the mockery, slipping away. For an instant, rage twisted her features, and she leaned over to drew one perfect, pale nail over the exposed line of DJ's throat. Red light coiled around the skin where her nail indented his skin, and she pulled back, letting it disappear.

Her eyes came up, pinning Lucy in place. Her lips parted, white teeth bared between the red slash of her lips, an obscene parody of a smile. “Oh,” she said, her voice very soft and very gentle. “It's you. You carry the last beat of his heart.”

Lucy could hear her breathing, high and hard, in her ears. “What?” The word was empty, an automatic response to the whole situation, to everything that was happening. She stared at the woman, and her cheeks were wet, her breath coming in ragged, uneven gasps.

The woman shook her head, black hair sweeping over her shoulder as she leaned down. “One last fragment of his heart,” she whispered. “One tiny piece is missing. That's why he's still breathing, you see. Because he still has a heart.” She drew one finger down the curve of Lucy's cheek, ignoring the way that Lucy flinched from the touch. “It's just not inside of him any more. He gave it to you.” Her head tipped to the side. “Or maybe you stole it.”

“Lady, I just met him,” she managed, her hands digging into the ground.

The woman straightened up, her skirts swirling around her legs. “What does that matter?” she asked. She stepped forward, over DJ's prone form. “When has it ever mattered? What you want, what you feel, has that ever mattered to a man? He has given it to you, or you have taken it, the last fragment of his humanity. You carry it even now.” She turned back, her fingers curling up from her palm like claws. “You will give it to me.”

Lucy's shoulders came forward, her hands braced, her head down. “You are out of your mind,” she said, and it was the wrong thing to say, but she had nothing else. She was empty, other than that. Her fingers were locked on DJ's wrist, on the place where his pulse should be, but wasn't. She clung to his arm. “You are completely crazy.”

The woman's head tipped to the side, her black hair swirling like clouds around her face. “That is my burden to bear,” she said, sounding amused. She reached out, perfect red nails curling through the air as her fingers flexed, and flickers of purple light formed there, leaking from her skin. It spread, like a poison, sickly and stark, and Lucy flinched. The woman laughed. “Let me relieve you of your burden, child. Give me his heart.”

Lucy was shaking, her teeth rattling together as the woman leaned over her, those brilliant black eyes pinning her in place. “I don't know what you're talking about,” she said. “I don't-” Staring up, she had the sudden feeling that she was being toyed with, that the woman was mocking her, the way that a cat tormented a mouse that it could kill at any time. Rage licked through her, wiping away the fear, the grief, wiping everything from her mind. She locked her jaw in place. “You are fucking crazy. And I wouldn't give it to you, even if I knew how.”

The woman reached out with one hand, her fingers curling in mid-air, and Lucy felt her body leave the ground, a brutal pressure closing in on her throat. She choked against the unseen grip, her hands coming up and clawing at the air. As she struggled to breathe, she watched, horrified as the woman stepped closer. “I created that heart,” she whispered, and Lucy shuddered at the unrestrained violence buried in the words. “It's mine. I formed it, I made it. I gave it to him, I let him use it.”

She leaned in. “And now I intend to take it back.” Her lips curved around the words. “Give it to me, little girl.”

Lucy could barely breathe. But fear was gone now, giving way to the rage that licked, hot and vicious, at her chest. “It's his,” she croaked out. “It's- HIS heart. How could you- You don't give someone a heart.”

“Do you know what he is?” the woman said. Her eyes narrowed, a smile spreading across her face. “You don't. Do you?” Her laughter slipped from lips that held no trace of a smile. “He's a bit of clockwork gear. He's a rich, spoiled little boy's toy.” She leaned in. “He's no more human than a broken doll that cries when you tip it.” Her hand flicked, and Lucy's whole body snapped one way, and then the other, her bag slamming into her side as her body jerked to a stop. “Back. And forth.”

Lucy's mouth was open wide, trying desperately to draw enough breath to keep herself conscious.

“What do you know about Tony Stark?” the woman continued. “I know a great deal. I know you can't hurt him with other people, people hold no importance to him. People are disposable. People are things he uses and discards.”

Her fingers tightened, and Lucy felt the pressure on her throat increase. “He has not time for people. But he has a great love for his things. For the little toys he creates. People don't last long in his world, but he keeps his things.”

Her lips curled up. “I needed something that was his, only his. Something he loved. And for that, I had to look for something that couldn't love him back. Something that he clung to, so desperately.” The woman leaned in. “I took his most precious bit of technology, and I gave it a heart. I took Geppetto's broken little thing and made it love him back.”

Lucy stared at her. “You're out of your mind,” she whispered. Her eyes went to DJ, his body still and silent on the concrete of the path. “He's-”

“He is a toy, to be used, and when it has served its purpose, to be discarded.” She smiled down at Lucy. “They kept him hidden, all these years. Until you-” She flicked her fingertip against Lucy's nose. “Lured him from his little sanctuary. Until you showed me just where he was.” She leaned in, her lips pursing. “I owe you so much. But I want just one more little thing from you, girl.”

She leaned in, brushing her lips against Lucy's cheek. “Give me his heart.”

Lucy sucked in a breath. “Go fuck yourself,” she gasped out, and then her body was flying through the air, a scream breaking the silence.

She hit the ground hard, hard enough to drive what little breath she had left out of her, and for an instant her vision grayed out. The crunch of a foot, right next to her, brought her back around, forced her eyes wide open. Trapped, terrified, she watched as the woman went down on one knee, setting her other foot on the other side of Lucy's legs. She leaned over, as soft melody like a lullaby rolling from her lips as she set her hand down on the ground, bracing her weight.

“I will take what is mine by rights,” she whispered, her left hand coming up. Her fingernails gleamed in the light, brutally sharp as she hovered her fingers over Lucy's face. Lucy's hands scrambled helplessly at the ground, trying to pull herself away, trying to do anything to get loose. Her fingers latched onto her bag, and she shoved her hand inside, fumbling for something, anything she could use.

The woman laughed, her fingers fluttering over Lucy's chest. She leaned in, her lips ghosting over Lucy's forehead in a gross parody of maternal affection. “Don't worry. I will see that you don't suffer.”

Lucy took a deep breath. “You will,” she said, and her fingers closed on the solid weight of the metal box. The box that had contained her butterfly. Her other hand came up, a sharp, hard blow directly at the woman's nose. The heel of Lucy's hand impacted with all the force she could muster, and the woman's head snapped back with the sickening crunch of displaced cartilage.

The woman screamed, and before the sound had even hit it's highest pitch, Lucy brought her other hand up and back down, slamming the unyielding surface of the box against the woman's hand where it rested on the ground.

Lucy heard the bones shatter, and felt an ugly rush of satisfaction.

She shoved, hard and managed to roll free, her feet scrambling on the ground, scraping against the soil. She dug gouges in the ground with the force of it, but she got free, free enough to scramble to her feet. And run.

The woman was screaming at her, rage and pain mingling in a wordless howl. The sound was a nearly physical force on her back, propelling her forward. In the back of her mind Lucy was screaming, screaming at leaving DJ behind on the path, broken and alone, and this wasn't right, she knew it wasn't right.

But right now, it seemed that the woman wanted her.

Lucy shot straight for the street, her skirts tangling around her legs, her foolish, stupid goddamn shoes threatening to break her ankles at every step, and if she'd had the time she would've thrown them aside. But she didn't, she didn't have time for anything. All she could do was run, run towards the faint light of the street, her hands clutching the front of her chest as if she could hold her own heart in place.

He feet caught on something, and she went down hard, her hands slamming against the ground, her arms and her shoulder taking the brunt of the impact. She rolled, squinting, and realized that she'd tripped over DJ. Somehow, she'd ended up right back where she had begun. Right back where she didn't want to be.

That was when she realized it was raining. She had no memory of it starting, had no idea how long the rain had been pouring down, but her clothing was cold and wet against her skin. It was pouring, hard enough that she could barely see through the sheets of water.

Somewhere, in the distance, she could hear the woman screaming, and Lucy wasn't sure if the words were in a language she didn't speak, or if they were just incoherent. She wasn't sure it mattered.

There was a glow around DJ, a halo of diffused light that cut through the rain. Lucy threw herself over DJ, trying to cover it, trying to block it out before the woman could spot them through the rain soaked darkness. Her arms closed on DJ, clinging, even as her head came up. Through the sheets of rain, she saw the dark form stalking forward, straight for them.

The light flared, and Lucy's vision went black.

*

Chapter Text

The phone was ringing.

Clint gritted his teeth and tried to ignore it. He hunched forward, his body folding around the controller that was clutched in his hands. “C'mon, c'mon, COME ON,” he yelled, even as the car on screen screeched around a corner, clipping a lightpole on the way. Sirens were wailing in his wake and he grinned. “Suck it, coppers,” he said.

“Excuse me,” Jarvis said.

“No,” Clint snapped, his nose wrinkling as he jerked the controller to the side with so much force that he nearly toppled over.

“The call is coming in on the priority Avengers number,” Jarvis said. “Please answer it immediately, Agent Barton.”

“Can't someone else-”

“Everyone else is doing something of importance,” Jarvis said.

“Harsh,” Clint said, fumbling one handed for the phone. He was far enough in the lead he could manage it. “Barton,” he said, still squinting at the screen.

“I don't know where we are.”

The voice was small, so small that he almost didn't hear it. Clint's finger flicked against the pause button. “Who is-”

“I don't know where we are. We were... In the park. We're not. Now. I don't know where we are. I don't know how we got here. I don't-”

The other shoe dropped, and the controller slipped out of his hands, clattering against the table. “Lucy?”

“Help him.”

“Lucy, what's happened?” Clint's feet scrambled against the carpet, throwing up himself up and over the back of the couch. He hit the ground with a thud that jarred every joint in his body. Grace was lost, thought was lost, he was instinct now, instinct and training that had been burned into his bones.

“He doesn't have a heartbeat,” she said, and Clint's heart stopped, too, he felt it stutter to a stop in his chest, go leaden and solid and useless. “He's breathing. But he doesn't-” The words broke, and Clint was running.

“You said you don't know where you are,” he said, training kicking in, logic kicking in. “Lucy, honey, listen to me. I need you to do exactly what I tell you.”

A breath, shuddering and uneven, but she was latching onto his voice now, shock giving way, intelligence reasserting itself. “Yes.”

“Good girl,” Clint said, running full out down the hall. “Jarvis, sound the alarm. Lucy, look around you, can you see anything, anything at all that might give you an idea of where you are?” he asked, as alarms blared.

“I think... I think I'm still in New York,” she said, after a moment. “I'm in front of a building, a brownstone, with a big round window.”

He was afraid to hope. “Okay, good, can you text me a picture?”

She didn't reply, but the phone vibrated against his palm. He pulled it up with a finger that shook, and relief swept over him. “Lucy,” he said, bringing the phone back up, “That's the Sanctum Sanctorum. That's- We know where you are. I absolutely know where you are, you are safe, you're still in New York, and I swear to you, you are safe.”

Strange's doing, somehow, Clint didn't ask how. Magic, of course, that was the way Strange did his business. Clint didn't know, and honestly, he didn't care. He knew where they were. He knew where they were, and they were close.

“I don't think I am,” Lucy said, and her voice shook, the words unsteady. But she was holding herself together, she was holding on. “Someone- She tried to kill us.”

Clint's teeth c“The person that lives there knows DJ. One more thing, Lucy, I swear, just one more thing I need you to do, go to the door and pound on it until someone comes.” There was no response, and he looked at the phone. He'd lost the call. “Fuck, Jarvis, get her back,” he snapped.

“What's happening?”

He turned, to find Natasha right behind him, Bruce right behind her. “I think that DJ's hurt,” he said. “Get your bag, Doc.”

Bruce nodded, his face going tight. “There's one in the hanger, and in the garage level. Where're we-”

“They're at the Sanctum,” Clint said. “Garage.”

“I'll get the car,” Natasha said. “Thor and Tony-”

“Steve'll go with Tony,” Clint said. Their eyes met, and she did not ask questions, she didn't ask him for information that she knew he did not have. She met his eyes and knew that he had given them what he had, and demanded nothing more. The phone, still clutched against his ear, gave him nothing, the call rang and rang, but whatever was happening, Lucy wasn't picking up.

He was familiar with fear. He still hated it. “Move,” he said, just as Steve and Tony came around the corner, meeting them at the elevator bank. “Where's Thor?” Clint asked, his hand still locked on the phone. The ringing went on and on against his ear.

“Inbound,” Tony said, armor gleaming along his form. His helmet was under his arm, his face alive with eagerness.

“Situation,” Steve snapped, fully suited, shield in hand.

Clint refused to flinch, but he made sure they were all on the elevator before he said a word.. “I just got a call from Lucy.” Understanding dawned on Steve's face, in his eyes, but Tony was slower to catch on. Tony didn't expect loss the same way that Steve did, despite all that had happened, Tony could still be blindsided by grief.

“What's happened?” Tony asked.

“Is DJ all right?” Steve said, almost at the same time. “Are they both-”

“They're with Stephen Strange,” Clint said, because he had to believe that. He had to believe that she had dropped her phone, or just forgotten he was there, that she was safe inside with the sorcerer. That she'd gotten DJ somewhere safe.

Tony's face went white, color draining away. “Why-” he snapped. “Why, I thought they were going to a movie, they were-”

“How bad?” Steve said, his hand coming down on Tony's shoulder, holding him in place, pinning him in place as the elevator

“I don't know. I lost the call. She said someone tried to kill them,” Clint said. And because he had to say it, he couldn't let them go into this without a warning, he added, “She said he was breathing. But she couldn't find a pulse.”

Tony's eyes were flat, empty hollows in his face. “Jarvis, start scanning the databases for Dummy's code, monitor the networks to confirm that he doesn't reappear there. If you find any hint of him, I want to know about it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tony jammed his helmet on. “Open the bay doors,” he said, even as the elevator came to a stop. The doors opened, Tony's arm went around Steve's waist, and Steve's arm went around his neck, and one step, two, and they were gone with a blast of repulsors.

“Let's go,” Clint said.

“I'll drive,” Natasha said. “Call it in to SHIELD.”

*

The crash of thunder shook the air, the concussive impact enough to cause Stephen's attention to waver. He lifted his head from his book, blinking myopically at the room. Another crash of thunder brought his head around. The high, arched windows of his library were sheeted with water as the rain poured down outside, and he frowned.

“I didn't know it was going to rain tonight,” he said.

“It wasn't supposed to.” Clea didn't look up from her book, her fingers tracing idle shapes in the air. Thin little flickers of light chased after her every gesture, and Stephen found himself smiling at her. “Late summer in New York. It is always unpredictable.”

Stephen leaned back, watching the rain pound against the massive windows. His eyes narrowed. “Unpredictable,” he agreed. He shifted off of his stool, his feet never hitting the ground. Instead, he floated upwards, his feet moving easily through the air. He came to a halt next to the window, one hand ghosting over the glass. “But this feels... Different.”

“Does it?”

“Mmm.” Stephen floated back down to the ground, moving to the shelves. “Where is that scroll, the one from- From that-” Muttering to himself, he pulled a few titles off of the shelves, stacking them up in the air. “That mess two years ago?” he finished at last.

“Medusa's issue?”

“No, not the Immortals, the...” Stephen flicked his hand to the side, and all the books on the shelf shifted to the side. “The lake.”

“Oh.” She pointed. “Wrong section. Back behind the Alchemical treatises.”

“Thank you, darling.” He jumped down to the ground and strode back across the library, pulling books down with snaps of his fingers. They tumbled lightly down to his desk, arranging themselves in a neat stack.

“Why that, of all things?” Clea asked. Her head stayed down, but her eyes flicked up, catching Stephen's gaze. “Have you even looked at it since we got it?”

“About eighteen months ago, yes, I did, but-” The thunder shook the brick of the Sanctuary, and his fingers paused on the leather spine of a volume. Stephen paused, a strange feeling of unease curling in his stomach. “Do you remember-”

A sudden banging from the front door echoed through the building, interrupting him. Startled, Stephen glanced over his shoulder, towards the open door to the library. He grabbed another volume, flipping it open. “Do you remember when we-”

Clea sat up. “Are you going to get that?” she asked,

Stephen flipped through pages, his fingers flicking over the thin paper. "What? Oh, the door. No. Wong can get it," he mumbled, studying the information. He frowned. What had he been doing with this? Why this, of all things? “Growing old is quite annoying.”

"I wouldn't know, darling. Wong is on vacation," Clea pointed out.

"On vacation?" Stephen's head came up. "What vaca-"

"That wrestling championship in North Carolina?" She slanted a look at him over her shoulder, twisting on the couch. "Do you have any memory of this, darling?"

"I'm sure I do, I just can't recall that particular memory at this time," Stephen said, his voice arch. He pushed himself off of the library ladder, heaving a sigh as he floated to the floor. "Most inconvenient time to take a vacation."

"You didn't even realize he was gone until someone knocked on the front door," Clea pointed out. "So it would appear that he picked an excellent time."

"This is just the first time-"

"He's been gone for three days."

Stephen paused. "I have been exceedingly busy," he told her.

"Of course you have. You're also getting old, and your memory is going." She flicked a hand in his direction, and because of who she was, he felt the push of her magic, propelling him towards the study's door. It was a gentle push, barely enough to lift his feet from the floor, but it was a push none the less.

"Fine," Stephen said, chuckling under his breath. He dropped his book on the desk as he passed, his feet skimming over the floor. "But if this is someone selling something, I reserve the right to scare them senseless.”

She smiled, covering it with her hand. “Must you?”

“They chose to knock on the unfamiliar door,” Stephen told her.

"Still knocking," she pointed out.

“I shall do my best to get them to stop.”

Her only response was another flick of her fingers, and this time, he was pushed, every so carefully, right out the door. Laughing, he took over for her as soon as he hit the hallway. Down below, the knocking was still echoing through the building. Stephen skipped the stairs, tossing himself over the bannister and floating to the ground.

“I'm coming,” he called. “Do leave the door unbroken.” He threw open the door, a sharp word hovering on his tongue. It died unsaid.

The girl was breathing hard, her lips drawn back from her gritted teeth. Water dripped from her hair, over the planes of her face, over the slim column of her neck. She was soaked to the skin, her clothing clinging to her. And there was the limp form of a boy against her back, his arms over her shoulders, his legs dragging against the steps behind her.

For a second, Stephen stared at her, horrified, and her lips parted on a sound, a horrible, agonized sound.

"Help. Him," she said, and it was not a plea, it was not a request, it was an order. Her eyes snapping sparks, she shoved forward, and crossed the threshold, stepping into the vestibule as her legs went out from under her.

Stephen caught them both. "CLEA!" he yelled, and she was there, next to him, in the blink of an eye, her breath coming out in a curse or a prayer.

She had the phone in her hand. “They're here, we've got them,” she said. “Yes. I understand.” She disconnected, dropping the receiver to the floor with a clatter. "What happened?" Clea asked the girl, even as Stephen rolled the boy over.

He'd known. He'd known, but he'd hoped he'd been wrong. He'd seen the dark hair, the pale hands, and he'd known. He'd known it was DJ.

But seeing the boy's still, white face was a punch in the gut.

“He doesn't have a pulse.” The girl's voice shook, and he spared a glance for her. Lucy. The intern from StarkIndustries, he recognized her from her employee file. Her eyes were huge, her pupils dilated. Stephen knew the signs of shock, knew it in the way her hands were shaking, in the way that she seemed only vaguely aware of her surroundings.

“He doesn't have a pulse,” she said, her eyes darting from Stephen to Clea. “But he's breathing. I checked. I could feel it. How- How is that possible.?”

Clea stroked Lucy's hair away from her face, wiping water away from her chilled skin, tipping her face up. “Stephen?” she asked, even as she spread her hands, a blanket fluttering into existence between her hands. She wrapped it around the girl. The girl startled, but after a second, her trembling hands came up, dragging the fabric close around her.

Stephen leaned in, one hand coming to rest over DJ's breastbone. His lips moving with silent words, he pressed down, willing the response that he was looking for. DJ's body arched off the floor, his breath leaving his body in a sustained sigh, and then he slumped back down.

And beneath Stephen's hand, his heart was still. He looked up. “His heart isn't beating,” he said, his voice quiet. “But he's breathing. He's alive. He's just...” He shook his head.

“She took his heart out,” Lucy said. “She- She said that's what she was doing.” Her shoulders shook, a bubble of hysterical laughter rolling out of her. “That's what she said. That's what she-” Her head jerked from Stephen to Clea. “How is that possible?”

Clea looked at Stephen. “Magic. And not the good kind.”

Stephen leaned over, scooping DJ into his arms. He was terrifyingly light, far lighter than he should've been, even with the water that soaked his clothes. Something was missing, something that reduced him to a hollow shell. “Come upstairs,” he said, and he was already moving, his legs not moving fast enough for him. He ran across a floor that moved with him, like it was pushing him along, magic bleeding out of him without a thought.

He headed into the library, knowing that he'd need its contents more than DJ needed a bed right now. “Clea, darling, the desk, please.”

Everything on his desk went flying, books and papers raining down to the ground, and he stepped through the mess without a second thought, laying DJ down on the wood. “Thank you.” He glanced back over his shoulder. Clea was helping Lucy into a chair. “You're Lucy, aren't you?” he asked, and the girl nodded. “What happened?” Her throat worked, her lips parting, but for a moment, she couldn't seem to manage words. “What happened?” Stephen repeated, his hands moving over DJ, light pouring from his fingers. He swept his hand over the boy, and the water dissipated with a hiss, steam rising from DJ's clothes, from his skin.

“Stephen,” Clea said, her voice carrying an edge. She crossed the library to the tea pot. “You are not helping.” She poured a cup, and carried it back to Lucy. “Here,” she said, crouching down. “Hold onto this. The heat will help.”

Lucy took it, her eyes huge, her whole body trembling.

“You are safe now,” Clea said, her voice soft and coaxing. “My name is Clea. His is Stephen Strange, and he is both Sorcerer Supreme, and a medical doctor. We will help him, but we need to know what happened.”

Lucy nodded, her eyes squeezing shut. “We were, we were walking to a movie,” she said. “And I stopped to take a phone call. DJ, he went to throw something away. He walked, he didn't go far. Just a few feet away, into the park, into Central park.”

She took a breath, and her fingers were locked on the tea cup. “There was a woman. She looked old at first, but she wasn't. She-” She shook her head. “She gave him a rose and he just-” Her breathing was ragged now, shock obvious in her face, in her posture. “He died.”

“He's not dead,” Stephen said. “Somehow.” The light around DJ formed a network, and he stepped back, studying it. “He's breathing, his blood is flowing, his brain activity is normal, almost as if he's sleeping.” He reached out, his finger hovering over the dark hole in the center of the network. “But his heart...”

“She said she took it,” Lucy said. “She said, she said that she gave it to him, and she took it back.” She looked at Clea. “What did she mean? How-” Her eyes darted from Stephen to Clea and back. “Was that his mother?”

Stephen looked up, meeting Clea's eyes. “No,” he said. “Is that what she said? That she took his heart?”

Lucy nodded. She brought the cup to her mouth, taking a quick sip of the tea. “She said-” Her eyes narrowed. The blanket around her shoulders radiated a quiet, comforting magic, leeching the water from her clothes, warming her skin. As he watched, her breathing relaxed, the waxen sheen leaving her face. “She said that he didn't die because I had the last beat of his heart.” Her eyes came up, meeting Stephen's, then darted to Clea's. “She said I had his heart.”

Stephen looked up, his eyes meeting Clea's. Without being asked, she moved across the room, slipping into his place. Stephen crossed over to Lucy, crouching down in front of her. “I know this has been horrible,” he said, “and trying to remember is difficult, and painful.

“But if we are to save him, I need information. Information only you have.” He held her gaze. “I need to check if there is any fragment of him in you, that we can use, and I need to know who this woman is. I can check for both with a quick spell.”

She recoiled, folding into the blanket. “I don't-”

“It's your choice,” Stephen said, very quiet. “I'm not going to do anything against your will, and I swear I will not hurt you in any way.”

Lucy stared at him, nodded. “What do you-”

Relief swept over him. “Just stand up and come stand over here. It will be very quick.”

“It feels a bit like static electricity,” Clea said. “Gives your hair a bit of extra body.”

“I don't think I need any help there,” Lucy said. Slowly, she got to her feet, stumbling as the blanket tangled with her legs. She paused, fumbling the blanket off of her shoulders, then pulling her bag off, then her coat. The movements were stumbling, almost mechanical, and Stephen waited, resisting the urge to rush her.

But finally, she was standing in front of him, her chin up, her eyes huge. Stephen smiled. “Ready?”

She nodded. “Ready.”

Stephen's hands came up, light sparking around his fingers, and he smiled. “Take a deep breath, and hold it,” he said, and Lucy followed his instructions. Stephen's hands snapped out, quick and sharp, and light went rolling over Lucy's frame. Before it could die off, disappear into nothing, Stephen reached out, one finger brushing lightly against her forehead. A spark jumped from her skin to his, and he caught it with a flick of his wrist.

Stephen stepped back. “Thank you, Lucy.”

Lucy's eyes snapped open, and she stared at him. “That's it?”

“That's it,” Stephen agreed. She was shaking, and he took her arm, his free hand closing on her elbow. “Please, sit down.” He helped her onto the chaise, and handed her the blanket. It was warm to the touch, and she smoothed it over her legs. “Lucy.” He waited until she looked up at him, and smiled. “There is no magic in you. No piece of DJ, or the attacker. You're just you.”

Lucy nodded, scrubbing at her cheek with the heel of one hand. “I-” She stopped, biting her lip. “Dr. Strange?” Her eyes met his, and hers were dark and red rimmed. “What did she mean, then?”

“I don't know what she meant, but we will figure it out.” He took a seat next to her. “Now. Tell me everything you remember.”

Lucy took a deep breath, and started talking.

*

He hadn't asked. He hadn't looked for permission. He had simply picked up his child.

Steve had carried DJ a lot through the years. DJ had always liked to be carried, he'd always liked the contact, the closeness, the support. Steve couldn't even begin to count the number of times he'd walked the halls of the tower, or the distance between the playroom and DJ's bedroom, with DJ curled against his chest, his head tucked easily under Steve's chin.

Somewhere along the way, he'd lost that. DJ hadn't needed it anymore, he got his contact by leaning against Steve's back or tucking his chin on Steve's shoulder when he was sitting down. He'd gotten it by hovering close until Steve had ruffled his hair or tapped him on the nose. Somewhere, in the years, as they passed, Steve had stopped carrying DJ.

Because DJ didn't need to be held in the same way anymore. And Steve had missed it, but he had known, all along, that DJ was going to grow up, and growing up changed things.

What he had always been angry about was he couldn't remember the actual last time he'd held DJ. That the act of picking up the boy and walking around with him, tucked easily in Steve's arms, had once been so commonplace that he hadn't bothered to make a mental note of it. He hadn't bothered to cherish that moment. He'd picked DJ up, and eventually put him down, never knowing, never even considering, that it would be the last time he carried his son.

Until today. He didn't ask Strange, and he didn't ask Tony. When Stephen had suggested, his voice quiet, that they move DJ from his library to one of the bedrooms, Steve had just picked DJ up. He was the one who carried that boy.

No one challenged him for that right. Not even Tony.

His head was spinning. None of it made sense. None of it. And from the moment they'd walked through the front door, he'd known he wouldn't be walking back out, or at least, he wouldn't be whole when he did.

But he carried DJ, with the boy's head resting on his shoulder, his body light and limp in the cradle of Steve's arms. He listened to the discussion around them, listened to the rise and fall of voices, he heard, and he understood. But he wasn't sure he cared. All he cared about, at this exact moment, was the soft, warm flutter of DJ's breath against his shoulder.

In the room that Strange had chosen, Steve lowered DJ onto the bed. He removed DJ's shoes, his jacket, his hands gentle, his eyes locked on the slow rise and fall of DJ's chest. Fear was alive in his chest, overwhelming everything else. Every touch, every thing he did, he was terrified that he would someone cause DJ's breathing to stop.

It was agony.

“How could you have let this happen?”

Steve's head snapped up, the argument that had been happening around him finally sinking through his grief-stricken haze. Tony was yelling now, his face twisted in rage, and Strange was blank faced and tight lipped, his eyes dark and unreadable.

“She found him!” Tony yelled. “You said that-”

“I said that I would keep him safe, and that is something I might've been able to accomplish, had anyone bothered to tell me that he'd broken the wards!" Strange moved forward, into Tony's space, his voice dropping into a timbre that Steve had never heard before, a timbre that terrified him.

"But as no one saw fit to inform me of that very. Salient. Fact," Strange said, and it was demonic or angelic, his voice amplified by something that could only have been unearthly, his eyes going glassy and white, light flickering in their depths. "There was only so much I could do to protect that child, when I am not given the information that I need to do the task."

He took a step forward, and he was massive and monstrous and no longer human. "But do not dare to imply that I have failed him, that I have done him a disservice. I have poured more time, life, and energy into that child than I have to spend, and I will not-"

Tony let out a sigh, then reached out and patted Strange in the middle of his chest. “Yeah, you've been a good fairy godfather.”

Strange blinked, and just like that, he was Stephen again, whole and familiar and Steve realized he was halfway to his feet, his shield already off of his back and clutched in one hand. But Strange let out a sharp exhale of breath, sinking back into himself. “Dear Gods, Stark, but you are an ass,” he said.

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. He tucked his hands in his pockets, then pulled them back out. “Sorry. Just-” He shifted his weight, rubbing his hands over his face, through his hair. “Fuck.”

“Everyone sit down,” Steve said, his voice calm. Controlled. Both of them opened their mouth, and Steve gave them both a look. “Sit. Down.”

They sat.

Steve took a deep breath. “He's alive. For now, that's enough. He's alive, and we will keep him alive.” He looked at Strange, then at Tony. “Won't we?”

“Yes.” Strange said, and Tony was silent, his face gaunt and still.

Steve reached out, his hand closing on Tony's shoulder. “We are going to keep him alive,” he repeated, almost more for himself than for Tony. Tony's hand came up, covering Steve's fingers with his own. His grip was painful, and fleeting. His hand fell back to his side, and Steve's chest clenched.

“How did they end up here?” Tony asked.

“That was a spell I placed,” Strange said, crossing his arms over his chest. “A few of them kicked in last night. The teleportation, and the rain.”

Steve shook his head. “Start with the rain. What rain?”

“I thought I recognized it, but I'm going senile in my old age,” Strange said. “Anthony Druid did it, that's why I had only the smallest recollection.”

“Doctor Druid?” Steve asked.

“He's the best with nature spells, we handed it off to him.” Strange's fingers traced patterns in the air. “Very basic. If he was in danger, if he was threatened, it causes rain.”

Tony straightened up. “The other day, when he left-”

“The first time he left,” Steve agreed. “It rained. Without warning.”

“It kicked in. Hard, almost violent rainfall that carries a magical masking,” Strange agreed.

“But not when he left today.”

“No danger today.” Strange shook his head. “When he first left, she must have been watching. The wards were weakening, even then. She might've started to get a hint of what was happening, that he was vulnerable. When he left, when he broke the wards entirely, she was watching. But the rain kept her from acting. Either she didn't know he had left the building at that point, or she did, and she couldn't act on it.

“Today, he left, and until they were actually attacked, nothing happened,” Strange said. “And after they were, the rain hid them.”

“And that lead to the teleportation,” Steve said. He smoothed the blanket over DJ's chest. “How did they end up here?”

Strange leaned forward. “In the case of physical injury, in an unwarded area, ie outside of the Tower, he would be recalled here,” he said. “Fairly simple. It's been in place for years, it was one of the first that I laid on him.”

He braced his elbows on his knees. “But something strange happened, that makes me think that the sorceress, who ever she is, is right about his current state.” His fingers rolled through the air, traces of magic curling in their wake. “Lucy says he was injured, and then there was a delay of several minutes between when he was hurt, and when the spell kicked in.”

He stood, a hand coming up. A book formed in the hollow of his palm, falling open. He turned a few pages with a flick of his fingers. “It shouldn't have taken that long. Lucy moved away from him, she was being chased, then says that she ended up back beside him. I attributed this to her getting turned around, confused, panicked.

“But the spell didn't take effect until Lucy was back with him, and then it took her, too.” Strange looked up. “I don't understand why. But the spell appears to have manipulated her back to his side, then went into effect.”

“Why?” Steve asked. He rubbed a knuckle against the warm skin of DJ's cheek.

“Because some part of him was with her. I just can't figure out how.” Strange closed the book with a snap. “But until his heart was with his body, the spell couldn't materialize.”

“His heart.” Tony shook his head. He stood, started to pace. “He fell in love with her. How does that-” He shook his head again, sharper.

“It happens,” Steve said, a smiling just a little. “He's allowed, Tony.”

“I know, of course he is, but-” Tony shoved a hand through his hair. “But how does falling in love mix with magic?”

“It happens more often than most magic users would like,” Strange said. “The question is, can we get whatever sliver of his heart that's in her back?” He set the book aside, and it disappeared. “Without hurting her.”

“But we still don't know who the sorceress is?” Steve asked.

“We're working on that.”

Tony let out a nasty sounding burst of laughter. “Well, you've got a long list of women who have issues with me, and most of them have reason,” he said, his tone full of self-hatred.

“We will find her,” Strange said. “For now, DJ is sleeping peacefully. I'm going to speak with Bruce, but I'd recommend treating it like a coma. Normal medical procedure, get him hooked up to monitors and start a drip for hydration.”

Steve nodded, because Tony seemed to have no interest in the conversation. He was leaning over the bed now, smoothing DJ's hair away from his forehead, leaning over to press his lips against the skin there. He was whispering, light little teasing words, and Steve tried to give him some privacy.

“Can you-” He managed a smile for Strange. “Can you give the three of us a minute?”

Strange nodded. “Of course. Let me know if you need anything further. I'm going to check his files, Bruce brought them for me.”

Steve waited until he was gone, then said, gently as he was capable, “Tony.”

Tony didn't even look up. “She was right about one thing.” His shoulders hunched forward. “I'm not equipped for grief.”

Steve was hanging on with a force of will, with everything he had. “Tony.” When Tony looked up, Steve forced a smile onto his face. “I cannot lose both of you.”

Tony stared at him for a long moment, and then took a step forward, walking into Steve's arms. “You've not going to lose either of is,” he said, his voice fierce, and Steve clung to him. “Oh, God, don't hate me. Please, don't-”

Steve's laugh was gritty and hard, muffled in Tony's hair. “Stark, you idiot.” He clung, a bit too hard, but Tony was holding on just as hard. “I love you, and I need you, and DJ needs you.” Tony didn't say anything, and Steve's arms tightened. “You kid needs you, Stark.”

He felt Tony inhale, a desperate sort of breath. “I'm sorry.”

“I am, too.” Steve was glad that his face was buried in Tony's hair, in his neck. The words were whispered there, against the warmth of skin. “I should've protected him. I promised that I'd keep him safe, I always thought I could-”

His throat closed up, and he just held on. He just let Tony cling to him. Comfort was a physical thing now, and he was desperate for it.

“If anything happens to him,” Tony whispered against his shoulder, and Steve just hugged him tighter.

“We'll fix it,” Steve said. “We will fix this, Tony.”

He just had no idea how.

*

Lucy's eyes opened, and for a moment, she didn't know where she was, or how she'd gotten there.

“Lucy?”

Her head snapped to the side, and her head spun. Her eyes wouldn't focus, too much light, bright white ceilings and walls and she was starting to panic when someone moved.

“Lucy, it's all right. You're safe.” The voice was calm, and almost familiar.

“Where am I?” Lucy said, her voice cracking on the words.

A face came into focus, right in front of her, and she flinched. “You're safe,” she repeated. “You got DJ away, to the Sanctum Sanctorum. Do you remember?”

Lucy stared up at the woman, at Natasha Romanov. “Yes. I-” She pushed herself up, just a little. The soft blankets that covered her fell to her waist. It all seemed hazy, but it was there. The attack in the park, the sudden appearance in front of the brownstone, Natasha and Clea ushering her into this room, promising her that she wouldn't be left alone. At the time, she was sure that she'd never sleep again, but she'd fallen asleep almost immediately. She looked up at Natasha. “DJ, is he-”

“He's fine.”

The deep voice made her jump, made her head swing around. There, beside the window, was a big blonde man, a huge hammer in one equally huge hand. He smiled at her. “I am sorry to startle you,” he said. “I wanted you to be aware I was here.”

“I have many talents, but magic isn't my thing,” Natasha said. “We thought that it would be best to have someone with that experience keeping watch over you.” Her head tipped to the side. "This is Thor." Her lips curved up in a smile. "He's far less intimidating than he looks.

"Such lies," Thor said, grinning. His eyebrows arched, and his eyes were dancing. "I am exactly as intimidating and imposing as I appear, my lady, but not to ones I call friend."

"Gotta tell you," Lucy said, through dry lips, "the little ponytail kind of detracts from your air of menace." She coughed, her hand coming up to her throat. There was a pitcher next to the bed, and Natasha reached for it.

"Sometimes I sit behind him on the jet and just play with his hair," Natasha said, even as she poured Lucy a cup of water, and Lucy stared at her.

“Really,” she said, taking it. She downed it in a couple of quick gulps.

"I permit this," Thor said, his grin stretching wider. He inclined his head in Lucy's direction. “I shall let the others know that you are awake, if that is agreeable to you?”

Lucy scrubbed a hand over her face. “Yeah. I mean, yeah.”

Natasha looked up at Thor. “Give her a few minutes.”

“Of course.” With another nod and a reassuring smile, he headed for the door. It shut behind him with a firm click, and Lucy relaxed. Natasha leaned back in her chair.

“He takes up a lot of space, without realizing it,” she said, smiling.

“Yes, he does.” Lucy shifted on the bed, and realized that she was still wearing the clothes from last night, now sadly wrinkled, mud dried into dark patches at her knees and wrists. She picked at it. “Sorry, is there-”

“The bathroom's right through there,” Natasha said, pointing at a door. She took the cup from Lucy. “And Marnie put a bag together for you. There's clean clothes in it, all your things.”

Lucy nodded. “Thank you.” Relieved by the idea of at least not looking like a filthy street child when facing this, Lucy headed for the bathroom on legs that wobbled.

She was pleased that she made it without help.

When she came back out, clean and dry, her hands and face stinging from the way she'd scrubbed them, and dressed in comfortable jeans and an old, well-loved sweater, she found the room had gained a few occupants.

Clea and Strange were sitting, side by side, next to the small table, a pot of tea and an assortment of cups and plates in front of them. Agent Coulson was standing next to the window, his arms folded over his chest, his hands tucked under his arms as he stared outside. Natasha was seated on the end of the bed, a tea cup in her hand. She smiled as Lucy slipped out of the bathroom. “Better?” she asked.

“Better,” Lucy agreed.

“Would you like some tea? Or something to eat?” Clea asked, already pouring.

Lucy crossed back to the bed, sinking down on top of the covers, and folding her legs under her. “Yes, please.” Something touched her hand, and she looked down to find Furbro there, his paws on the back of her hand. “Hey, there,” she said, scritching the lizard on the head. “Did you come to visit me?” Furbro nipped at her finger, and ran up her sleeve to drape himself over her shoulder.

Strange handed over the tea cup, a few cookies on the saucer next to it. "How are you?"

Lucy looked up, her mouth tight. "I watched a friend get turned into a vegetable by a woman using MAGIC," she said. "And then I broke her hand. I literally smashed her hand and maybe broke her nose." She shook her head, slowly at first, and then with more force. "How... How do you think I'm doing?"

His smile was gentle, and real. "Very well, actually."

"Ignore him. He should know by now that if he's attempting to offer sympathy, which he is very bad at-" Clea slanted a look in his direction, and he spread his hands wide. "You are, darling. You are absolutely wretched at it."

"We all have our weaknesses. Mine appears to be human empathy." He leaned in, his fingers brushing against the curve of her shoulder as he brushed a kiss against her temple. “There's a reason I chose surgery instead of another field of medicine. My bedside manner used to be even worse.”

“That's a terrifying concept,” Natasha said. She tucked one leg gracefully beneath the other. “I think you're handling it very well, Lucy. All things considered. You did very well.”

Lucy snorted. “Yeah, that's- That's not even close to true, but thanks.” Her fingers were shaking, too much to attempt the tea, but she shoved a cookie in her mouth. It was sweet and buttery, the subtle flavor of cinnamon and brown sugar familiar and comforting. She chewed, slowly, using the time. When she swallowed, she felt better, felt more like herself. “Is DJ-”

“There's been no change,” Strange said, quietly. “He's still breathing, and still sleeping.”

“Still no heartbeat,” Lucy said. She ate another cookie, blinking hard. “What- What happens now?”

“That's up to you,” Agent Coulson said.

“Oh, shit, no, I don't want it to be up to me,” she said.

“Sorry about that.” He settled into a chair with a nod. "Here's the situation, Lucy," he said, his voice calm. "You're a minor. Under ordinary circumstances, we would already have notified your parents about the situation. However, the circumstances are far from ordinary."

"We don't know how this magic works," Strange said, drawing Lucy's gaze. "We don't know the caster, or her origins, or her skills. We know only that she seems to think you have what she wants. If we contact your parents, or if you do, she may be able to use that contact to locate them."

Nausea curled in her stomach, sick and sharp. The cookie crumbled in her fingers, and she dropped the pieces to the plate. "What will-"

"I've made discreet inquiries," Strange said, meeting her gaze without flinching. "People I know, people I trust. They're going to set wards, keep watch over your family, and your friends here in New York."

"My friends-" Lucy's head snapped back to Coulson, who nodded.

"SHIELD handled the movie," he said, a faint smile on his face. "A voice mail on your friend Hilary's phone, letting her know you two decided to go to dinner instead. It was made from your number, by an agent. A little background noise, a little computer modulation, there's no reason for her to suspect anything."

He folded his hands on his lap, long fingers weaving together. "Marnie is here, your dorm is under guard. So far, our sorceress hasn't made a move."

"That we know of," Strange said. Everyone looked at him. His eyebrows arched. "What?"

"Very comforting, dear," Clea said.

"Well, I'm trying to be."

"I'm uncertain if I should instruct you to try harder, or stop trying," she said, and Lucy started to laugh. It was unexpected, she didn't even see it coming, but something about the droll, long suffering delivery just pushed Lucy right over the edge.

She bent forward, laughing almost hysterically. A hand touched her lightly on the back, and then stroked. She blinked tears out of her eyes, looking up at Natasha, who was smiling down at her. “Sorry,” she managed, as Natasha took the tea cup and saucer from her. “Sorry, it wasn't that funny.”

“No, but it was funny enough,” Natasha said, her hand rubbing up and down Lucy's back as she pulled herself together. Lucy leaned into the touch, comforted by the contact, as small and as commonplace as it was. Or maybe because it was so small, so normal.

Finally, she sat up, her breathing ragged. "Okay." She drew her legs up against her chest. Her toes curled inside her socks. "What do you think I should do?"

Natasha looked at Clea, then to Strange. They both nodded. She looked at Coulson, and nodded as well. "Wait," Coulson said. "You have a week left in your internship, before you're due to be head home. Give us a couple of days to pin her down. To track her. We have the tools now."

"We have traces of who she is, of the magic she uses," Strange said, crossing his arms. "We've never had that before, other than what DJ himself carried, and that was too muddled, too complicated to use, especially since we could not take the risk of hurting him."

"Now, we have pure traces," Clea said.

"That's important?" Lucy asked.

"Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because every person, every creature who uses magic is different,” Clea said, her voice gentle.
She crossed the room, sinking down next to Lucy. Which would've been comforting, other than the fact that there was no chair there.

"I hate to sound, you know, like a bigot," Lucy said, "but the magic thing is still kinda freaking me out here, my first experience with a person who does magic was pretty bad, so if you could not, you know, float, just for a while, that would really help me out here."

Clea's eyes widened. "I'm sorry," she said, her legs unfolding. Her toes touched the ground, and she sank gracefully to the ball of her foot, her skirts swirling around her as she settled. “But every magic user is different. My magic is different than Stephen's, and his is different than this woman's. Part of it is the source of the magic, or who your teacher was, or how you acquired your powers. All of it is different.”

“We never had any real trace of this caster,” Strange explained. “What we had was lost, and even that was difficult to decipher. Because the caster knew we would get access to it. She was careful. Here?” He shook his head. “She wasn't.”

Lucy nodded. “All right,” she said. “If I stay, if I let you do this, what happens?”

“We think you'll be safe here, and in the Tower. You can resume your work, as normal, finish your internship, under guard,” Agent Coulson said. “You and Marnie can remain in the guest rooms here until we can be certain that the tower is safe.”

Lucy took a deep breath. “You think you can save him?” she asked Strange, who nodded.

“Yes.”

“Okay.” She nodded. “A week. To figure this out. Then, no matter what's happening, I have to tell my parents.” She looked around the room. “And I reserve the right to change my mind if this goes weird.” She stopped. “Weirder than it already is.”

“All we ask,” Agent Coulson said, “is that you tell us if your plans change. So we can do whatever we can to protect you.” He held out a hand. “Fair enough?”

She took his hand. His grip was firm and strong, but he didn't squeeze or pull any macho stupid on her. “Fair enough,” she said. “Is Marnie okay?”

“Marnie is unsurprised by anything, it's rather disconcerting,” Agent Coulson said, with a faint smile.

“She was in with you a while ago,” Clea said. “Right now, she's playing a game with Clint. Would you like to see her?”

“Yes, but-” She stopped. “Can I see DJ?”

“Of course you can.” Strange stood. “I can-”

“I'll take her,” Clea said. “The rest of you have work to do, if I am not mistaken.” She looked at Lucy. “Whenever you're ready.”

Her eyes were burning, and Lucy slid off of the bed. She plucked Furbro off of her shoulder and set him on her pillow. He kneaded at it with his paws, then curled himself into a little ball. “I'm just going to splash some water on my face,” she said. “If that's okay.”

It wasn't really a question, but Clea nodded. “Of course it is.”

“I'll be right back, then,” Clea said. People were clearing out of the room, Strange and Agent Coulson talking in low tones, Natasha smiling at her as she beat them both to the door. Lucy smiled back, and slipped into the bathroom.

She spent a minute, maybe two, splashing water on her face and struggling against the impulse to just break down sobbing. She'd done that too often already. She'd already made that mistake. She could make mistakes, she could forgive herself that.

But she hated making the same mistake over and over. It always seemed like laziness to her.

When Lucy came out of the bathroom, her feet silent on the plush carpet, Clea was sitting on the bed, the small table in front of her, tea cups on either side of it. Lucy braced her back against the door of the bathroom, her heels digging into the carpet.

“Clea? Can I ask you something?”

Clea looked at her, caught in the act of pulling her white hair back in a loose topknot. “Yes, of course,” she said. “What is it?”

“Why didn't he die?” Lucy asked. She swallowed, leaning against the door frame, her hands tucked behind her back. “She was trying to kill him, wasn't she?”

“Yes. In all likelihood, she was.”

“She said she made him.”

“That's a bit more difficult,” Clea said, her mouth pursing up. “She was... One of his creators. But she has enough control over this form that yes, she should have been able to undo what she did. And yet, she failed.”

Lucy stared at her feet. “Why?”

Clea's head tipped forward, her eyes slanting up. "Think of magic like planning a trip."

Lucy stared at her. "Ooookay," she said, when it was clear that Clea was waiting for a response.

Clea's lips twitched. "No, really." She settled back. "You have a destination, right? You know where you want to be, the intent of the spell, or of the trip. To get to a particular point, and maybe you must reach there by a certain date.

"When you plan your trip in advance, carefully, thoughtfully, you can pull up maps. Check traffic patterns. Calendars of events, since running into a street festival will put you far off your intended course. You can calculate tolls, figure out the route that gets you where you want to be, without costing you too much, in tolls or gas or time."

She paused. "That's if you plan in advance. That's if you think, clear headed and careful. Correct?"

Lucy nodded, her fingers locked around each other to keep them from shaking. "Yeah."

Clea took a deep breath. "Magic done under the influence of strong emotion is much like you throwing a random town name into your GPS and pounding on the 'Go!' button. Chances are, you will get there. You'll get to your destination, or at least close enough. But without careful consideration of the route, it may take you longer, or go in directions you never intended, and there is no telling how much it will cost you."

Her smile was slight and sad. "Some bridges, once crossed, have a horrible toll."

Lucy considered that. "Yeah, if you pay cash, it's like, I don't know, thirteen dollars to cross the George Washington Bridge during peak hours, you know?"

Clea considered that. "I don't do much driving, actually," she said, and Lucy laughed. Clea's smile was puckish and quick. "I have more efficient ways of getting around."

"Yeah. I noticed." Lucy pushed away from the wall, crossing the room to stand next to her. She struggled to hold her hands still. "So, don't magic angry?"

"Don't magic angry," Clea agreed. "It has a will of its own, sometimes. And a spell woven with care and consideration will not always give you the results you seek, but your chances are much greater than if you just..." She pursed her lips. "Go off half-cocked?"

Lucy looked down. "That's what happened to Deej?"

The silence stretched out, and then Clea's delicate fingers brushed against Lucy's wrist, the contact feather light against her skin. "Something... Unexpected happened with DJ. Something amazing. May I tell you a secret?" Lucy glanced at her, and Clea smiled. "I think what happened had less to do with the magic, and more to do with, well, DJ himself. He has a will of his own, and I'm told that it was always very strong."

She stood, crossing the room on silent feet. "We think that magic shapes our world, our time, our very reality. That is what we are taught, that magic is a great well-spring at the very heart of the universe. That a few rare beings can tap into that magic."

"But I think, and Stephen would roll his eyes at me," she said, smiling, "that we alter the magic, more than the magic alters us." She cupped the tea pot between her palms, and as Lucy watched, a wisp of steam rolled from the spout. In a moment, it was a sustained trail, and when Clea poured the tea into her cup, the steam rose from the surface. "I think a spell, improperly aimed and poorly planned, becomes something someone else can use.

“Sometimes, power misplaced becomes someone else's power.” Clea looked up. “I think she couldn't kill DJ, because the magic that sustains him is no longer hers to command. It's his. And he has will. Do you understand?”

Lucy nodded. “I think so. At least a little bit. I'm not going to lie. This is really weird.” She shrugged, quick and sharp. “Magic. I don't know anything about magic.”

“Well, then, you're quite lucky,” Clea said, pouring her another cup of tea. “I'm quite the expert.” She held out the steaming cup to Lucy. “Please drink that. It'll settle your nerves.”

Lucy studied it. “Is it magic?”

“It's peppermint and chamomile,” Clea said. “The magic is that it isn't nearly as disgusting as it sounds.”

“Gotcha.” Taking a deep breath, Lucy took a drink. Clea was right, it was much better than it should've been. “So, if Dr. Strange is Sorcerer Supreme, what are you?” she asked.

Clea's head tipped to the side. “Queen regent and immortal ruler of the dark dimension, formerly ruled by Dormammu, who seeks the destruction of my consort.”

Lucy considered that. “Consort.”

“Yes.”

“And that would be Dr. Strange?”

“Depends on how much he has annoyed me this week,” Clea said, her eyes dancing. “But yes.”

“And Dorma-”

“Dormammu,” Clea repeated. She sipped her tea.

“Yes, that-” She shook her head.

“You might call him my uncle.” Her nose wrinkled. “He occasionally seeks to invade and destroy this dimension.”

“Well, of course.” Lucy nodded. “Dark dimension?”

“It's a bit complicated, I fear.”

“Yeah, I would guess so.” Lucy nodded. “Is there more tea?”

“Of course.”

*

It was a very nice room. Big and airy, with large windows and solid furniture. The lights were low now, the curtains mostly drawn against the sunlight, but the wallpaper and fixtures were old and beautifully made.

Lucy noticed all of it in the most peripheral way. Her attention was focused on the still form that lay, unmoving, on the big bed. Slowly, Lucy crossed the floor, her eyes locked on him.

Even from a distance, she could see his chest rising and falling, could hear the very faint sound of his breathing. There were machines ringing the bed, tracking his breathing and his brainwaves and a hundred other things that she didn't understand. But she recognized the heart monitor, from when her grandmother had been hospitalized, she recognized the flat, unmoving line that signaled that there was no heart beat.

Despite the way he breathed.

"All right," she said, and her voice shook with the words. She stopped, took a deep breath. "All right," she repeated, and that was better, that was the way she should sound, not scared, not wobbly or traumatized. Because she wasn't. She was not.

She could do this.

"Okay." She swallowed. "So, if I've got your heart, and that's weird, boy, we are gonna talk about how weird that is, don't-" Her eyes stung, and she blinked hard. "Don't do that. People aren't worth it." She paused, and reached out with a shaking hand. His skin was warm under her fingertips, his hair soft between her fingers. His dark eyelashes lay against pale cheeks, and his lips were curled into a faint smile. "Please don't be dead," she whispered, and it hurt, the words hurt. "I don't-"

She stopped, blinking hard, her teeth digging into her lip until she was sure she wasn't going to start crying. "All right," she said. "Okay. Stupid. I need a plan of action, and I have one." She looked down at him. "So. Disney movies have taught me there's one sure way to deal with this, and while I can't believe I just used the phrase 'Disney movies have taught me,' that's really what we're doing here."

Lucy shrugged. "I'm not saying, true love's first kiss or anything, but... If I have your heart? You should have it back." She squeezed her eyes shut. "I can't believe I'm doing this."

Taking a deep breath, she leaned over, and brushed her lips against his, a kiss so delicate, so fleeting that it barely counted as a kiss. But his lips were warm against hers, and she lingered, just a breath away, needing the contact, needing the illusion. As long as she stayed here, her eyes closed, her hand on his, she could imagine that it was fine. That he had his heart back.

Slowly, she straightened up, her eyes shut, her heart pounding. “Please,” she whispered. “Please.” She wasn't sure who she was taking to, and she wasn't sure anyone was listening. But the plea slipped from her lips anyway,

She clapped a hand over her face. "Oh, GOD," she mumbled. "I'm a pervert and it didn't even work."

"Don't worry, I'll tell him you did it under duress."

Lucy let out a shriek, turning around so fast that she nearly fell over. There, tucked in the corner beside the door, half hidden in the shadows, Tony Stark was slumped in a chair, a faint smile on his face. "Sorry," he said, his fingers ghosting over his mouth. It did nothing to hide the smile in his voice. "I am sorry. You were just so serious about the whole thing."

"Oh my GOD," Lucy managed. "Oh, GOD."

"If it helps, I'm pretty sure that was his first kiss," Tony said.

"That does not help, that makes it like ten thousand times worse, oh my GOD," Lucy moaned. Her face felt like it was on fire, and she buried her head in her hands. "Why would you even SAY that?"

“I'm kind of an ass,” Tony said, and there was a wry twist to his lips. “Don't know if you've seen any of my many YouTube appearances, but-”

“I use safe search,” Lucy said. “That filters most of the stuff on you.”

Tony's teeth flashed in a grin. “Ouch,” he said. But he was still smiling. “You okay?”

Lucy nodded. “Sorry, I didn't- Didn't know you were in here, really, or I wouldn't have come in.”

"You can stay, if you want." It was quiet, almost inaudible, and Lucy stilled. Her head twisted back in Tony's direction. He wasn't looking at her, his hands were folded in front of his face, in front of his mouth, and his eyes were on the bed. There was a sort of grief, or melancholy to the words that made Lucy's throat tight.

"I don't want to intrude," she said, even as she sank into the chair next to DJ's bed.

His shoulders flexed, almost a shrug. "I'll be honest with you, kid, at this point, the company would be welcome." The words were flat, emotionless, edging to amused.

Lucy swallowed, a shiver chasing its way down her spine. "Are you sure? I mean...” The words trailed off, and she willed herself to find more, to find something else to say. But there was nothing. Her shoulder slumped. “You should be with someone you like, I would think.”

"I find I like you," Tony said, turning his gaze back to DJ's still face. "Kind of knew I would."

"I kind of thought you'd hate me." The words slipped out, past her lips and past her guard, and Lucy crossed her arms over her chest, her fingers sinking into the fabric of her sweater.

Tony glanced at her. "Well, I am an ass, but any particular reason why?"

Lucy swallowed. “It's my fault. Isn't it?” She hugged herself a little tighter, almost rocking into the comfort of her own grip. “That he's like this, I mean.”

Tony leaned back in his chair. “Not sure how you arrived at that conclusion, but I'm guessing some guilt logic was involved.”

She glanced away, her eyes catching on DJ. So still, so quiet, and her eyes burned. “He hadn't left the tower, had he? Before me, I mean. He hadn't left, and that meant he'd been...” She blinked hard. “Safe.”

“It's not your fault.”

“Yeah.” Lucy nodded, her head dipping forward. It felt too heavy for her neck at the moment, and she was exhausted.

“It's not your fault,” Tony said again, waving a hand through the air.

“I know.”

“Ah, fuck it, are we really-” Tony sighed. “A long time ago-” Tony stopped, and shoved a hand through his hair. “A fucking lifetime ago, actually, but a long time ago, Cap said something to me.” He met Lucy's eyes. “He said that you're not responsible for the shitty things that people do to you. That nothing you do, or don't do, gives anyone the right to hurt you.”

“Yeah,” Lucy agreed, not sure if she believed it, but some of the tension went out of her spine anyway.

“You've pretty much gotta listen to Captain America, it's a law or something, I think,” Tony said, his face going tight. “Anyway, if anyone is to blame, it's me. I was the one who refused to acknowledge that things were changing. That DJ would've left the tower eventually. He was growing up. He was starting to...”

He sighed, his fingers flexing. “He was going to leave,” he repeated. “He left with you, because he wanted to. For the first time in his human life, he... Wanted to.” He gave Lucy a thin smile, but his face relaxed with it, the lines around his lips, around his eyes, smoothing out a little. “I'm glad. And I'm glad that you were there to help him when he needed help.”

“I kind of fucked that up,” she said.

“Your first time someone trying to kill you?”

“First and hopefully last, that was horrible.”

Tony's eyebrows arched. “Then I think you did a damn fine job.” He pushed himself up, crossing the room to stand by DJ's bed. “Sorry it happened to you. Really, you should hate us. For involving you at all.” He reached out, stroking his fingers over DJ's forehead, his fingers sliding through the dark curls there.

“You didn't,” Lucy said. “DJ did.” She took a breath. “I like to think he's my friend. I... Like him. A lot.” She smiled. “I fight for my friends, Mr. Stark.”

Tony chuckled. “He picks his friends well.”

“Yes, he does.”

She turned in her chair. Captain America was leaning against the door frame, his arms folded over his chest. “Hi,” he said. “I'm Steve.”

She stood. “Lucy. Lucy Piero.” She took his hand when he offered it.

“I'm sorry to be meeting you like this,” Steve said. “And thank you for the picture. I appreciate it.”

Lucy smiled. “I think he looked cute.”

“I think so, too,” Steve said. He came up behind Tony, his hand sliding across Tony's shoulders, pulling Tony into the shelter of his chest.

“You're still supposed to be resting,” Tony said, leaning against him.

“Don't need much sleep. You know that.” Steve kissed his temple. “What're we up to?”

“Lucy was molesting your child while he was lying there, helpless and unconscious,” Tony said.

“Oh my GOD,” Lucy said, burying her face in her hands. “I was not MOLESTING him.”

Tony waved a hand through the air. “Molesting, kissing, whatever.”

“Leave the poor girl alone.” Steve was laughing now, faint and warm. “This is why DJ wouldn't let you talk to her, Tony.”

“No, he wouldn't let me talk to her because he is an ungrateful brat,” Tony said. “Ungrateful. And a brat.”

“What're we talking about?” Clint wandered in, his hands in his pockets. “Hey, Luce, how're you doing, kiddo? We're ordering food for lunch, Marnie gave us an order for you, but if you want to go over the menu.”

“Thanks, I will-”

“Lucy was kissing DJ,” Tony said.

“I thought it would wake him up!” Lucy said throwing her hands in the air, and Steve was laughing out loud now.

“Hey, it's a cute story to tell the grandkids,” Clint said.

“Oh, my GOD.”

“This is why we don't let you talk to anyone,” Natasha said from behind him. “Ignore him, Lucy.” She shoved Clint lightly on the shoulder. “I thought you were staying with Marnie.”

“No, Darcy showed up with a knock off Avengers game to play.” Clint arched an eyebrow. “It's in Japanese, so we got a bit into it before we realized it's pretty much a dating sim.”

Natasha paused. “Awkward.”

“I thought so. Thor is down there giving them advice on wooing our little knockoff avatars. So they started over AS Thor, and he's really pleased.”

“You people have seriously saved the world?” Lucy asked. “Really?”

“A couple of times,” Tony said. But the strain, the horrible darkness in his eyes, had faded. He was smiling, just a little, still stroking DJ's hair. “Want an autograph?”

“I'm going to tell him about this,” Lucy said, and for the first time since it had started, she believed that maybe she'd have that chance. “What're we getting for lunch?”

*

Chapter Text

“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."