Pairings: Steve/Tony, Clint/Darcy, Thor/Jane
Word Count: 13,894
Summary: What it says on the tin, but strangely less cracky. Movieverse.
Disclaimer: I know this may come as a shock, but I am not, amazing as it may seem, Stan Lee, Avi Arad, or Marvel Pictures. Just so you know.
A/N 1: Most of the good jokes in this fic come from librarian_7. That is all.
A/N 2: There’s always good stuff after the credits.
A/N 3: wihluta has made a podfic!
Sometimes the worst part of being an Avenger was how thoroughly it skewed your sense of weird.
“That’s a—” Clint sounds like Tony feels. “I mean, seriously? Seriously?”
The unicorn idly grazing in Central Park flicks its tail, unheeding of the stares of civilians and Avengers alike. Steve and Natasha are arrayed on the ground, with Clint perching in a tree like the Robin Hood knock-off he really wants to be. Banner’s sitting this one out, as there’s nothing particularly enraging about mythical creatures like this one. Thor is on his way, or at least he’s supposed to be.
“It’s okay, Hawkeye, I’m sure it doesn’t believe in you, either.” Tony eases up on the repulsor blasts, coming closer to the creature as stealthily and nonthreateningly as is possible for a man in a gleaming metal suit. All the initial scanner readings are showing it to be a fairly standard example of a member of the equine family, plus the notable horn jutting from its forehead. “JARVIS, can you cross-reference this with, ah, anything?”
“Aside from the obvious, sir?” If anything the AI’s electronic voice is even dryer than usual. “I suppose selections from The Last Unicorn Original Soundtrack would be unwelcome?”
The unicorn neighs in protest as Natasha approaches on foot, her hands up and open. “Easy, boy, easy.” Tony is pretty sure she’s going for reassuring, but—exercising a fine sense of instinctive judgment—the unicorn is not impressed: its ears are back and its tail swishes anxiously. In fact, as she creeps closer, it starts to lower its head, and JARVIS helpfully maximizes the image analysis of the horn that is currently aimed at her.
It’s three feet long, two and a half inches in circumference at the base and tapering to a wicked point at the end. Its density readings confirm that it is part of the animal’s skeleton: some form of bone, though its pearlescent appearance indicates its actual chemical makeup is something else again. In short: it’s not something you want coming towards you with any kind of momentum behind it.
The unicorn paws the ground restlessly.
“Black Widow, retreat! That is an order,” Steve says. She stops, freezing instinctively as much from the command as from the animal’s behavior. “Repeat, retreat, now!”
Natasha is moving backwards slowly, but apparently the unicorn takes that as a cue to actually attack, so of course Steve takes that as a cue for some thrilling heroics, throwing himself between the pair of them.
“Steve, no!” Tony doesn’t like the idea of Black Widow-kebab, but the idea of Cap-kebab is even worse. He’s ready to fire a series of repulsor blasts on instinct alone, but stops himself when the unicorn pauses in its tracks before Steve. It sniffs the air curiously, then whickers at the man, coming closer with its head up again. “Cap?”
“It’s uh, okay, everyone,” Steve says, gingerly approaching the animal now himself. He has one arm out, hand fisted and stretched to the unicorn’s muzzle to sniff, like he’s greeting a strange but very large dog. “I think I’ve got this.”
“No kidding.” Clint’s tone still holds a thread of tension within the amusement. “Looks like you’ve got a new friend, Cap.”
The unicorn is actually licking Steve’s knuckles now, and Steve is scratching it behind the ears, a small smile on his face. “Hi, guy,” he says gently, low enough to be undetectable to anyone but Tony’s own suit sensors. “It’s alright.”
Yep, he’s watching Captain America giving a unicorn scritches. This is Tony’s life now.
“FRIEND STEVEN, I SEE YOU HAVE ACQUIRED A NOBLE STEED!” Thor booms approvingly as he arrives. “TRULY, IT IS A MAGNIFICENT BEAST!”
The unicorn shies away as Thor touches ground nearby, and Steve hastily puts his arms around the creature’s neck to keep it in place and calm it. “Thor, could you—back off, a bit?” Steve says. “It doesn’t seem to, uh, like you that much.” The unicorn looks as mutinous as it’s possible for a unicorn to look, in fact, but it stays where it is. It even nudges Steve with a butt of the head, like it wants to move him out of the way—as if it wants to…protect…him.
“Oh, wow,” Tony says, because he can’t help it. “How’s that cross-referencing coming, JARVIS?”
“According to available mythic lore, the unicorn is wary of human companionship, not least because of the human propensity to hunt the creatures for their horns—which are said to have miraculous properties. Indeed, the only humans the unicorn will allow near itself are virgins, preferably beautiful maidens,” the AI concludes helpfully. “Apologies, Captain Rogers,” it adds, and damned if it doesn’t actually sound apologetic.
“Wait,” says Natasha, after the pause that follows.
“Whoa,” says Clint.
“Oh boy.” Steve is actually turning pink, but he keeps his arms around the unicorn’s neck.
Thor’s brow furrows in confusion, then clears. “AHA! YOURS IS A MAGNANIMOUS SACRIFICE, MY CAPTAIN! I DID NOT KNOW THAT THOSE OF MIDGARD YET KEPT CHIVALRIC IDEALS AS OF OLD!”
“Is that what that’s called now?” Clint wants to know. “’Cause I thought—”
“Shut up, Hawkeye,” Natasha says almost automatically. “God.”
“Someone call Coulson, please,” Steve says, sounding very tired. The unicorn nudges his shoulder again and he resumes scratching behind its left ear. “We need to get our friend here some place safe. And, ah, specify the special need for team member selection.”
It’s about an hour before backup arrives, in the form of one Darcy Lewis driving a horse trailer. She’s escorted by two pairs of policemen on motorcycles who secure the perimeter while she parks the vehicle, exiting it with a slammed door.
“No way,” Clint says with something like horror. Tony represses a laugh; he’d known the archer was soft on the kid but, well—schadenfreude was such a beautiful ugly emotion, wasn’t it?
“Shut it,” Darcy snaps without looking at him. “I’m getting quadruple hazard pay out of Coulson for this.” She holds a rope in one hand, a pair of reins tucked under her arm. “Let’s do this thing.”
“Uh, Darcy, do you uh, know what you’re doing here?” Steve asks as she comes up to him and the unicorn. He visibly relaxes when the animal doesn’t tense at her approach, and actually loosens his hold when she pulls out a few lumps of sugar from her jeans pocket.
“I was on the dressage team in high school.” She waits for the unicorn to lick her palm clean, then clicks her tongue. When it doesn’t respond she begins a low monotone of calming words and soothing noises, slipping the rope over its head. It doesn’t balk at that, but protests when she pulls out the reins. “Okay, you don’t want that, that’s cool, we can work with this then.” She shortens the loop of the rope, then pulls a length of cloth from her other pocket. “Trust me, buddy.” The unicorn does, letting her tie the blind over its eyes, and then she’s leading it with calm assurance into the trailer.
“Um.” Clint drops out of the tree to the ground, joining Steve, Thor, and Natasha, though Tony remains hovering nearby. “Was it just me or was that—strangely hot?”
Steve pinches the bridge of his nose like he’s getting a headache, but Natasha laughs. “New kink you never knew you had?”
“It’s like we didn’t all sit through that sexual harassment seminar together,” Steve mutters.
“We sat through it, we just didn’t listen,” Tony says cheerfully.
Darcy locks the back of the trailer securely, then turns back to them. At this distance there’s no way she could have heard their conversation, but she clearly knows them well enough to at least guess who started it all.
“Hey, I have a riding crop in there and I know how to use it, pal!” she says, glaring at Clint, who makes a most un-badass squeak.
“Now that I knew about.” Natasha smirks.
“TMI,” Tony says out of habit, just as Steve says, “Never tell me.”
“LADY DARCY, DO YOU NEED ANY FURTHER ASSISTANCE WITH YON STEED?” Thor offers.
“I think I’ve got it,” she says, pulling the keys out of her pocket. “See you guys back at the ranch, huh?” She gives them a jaunty wave and hops into the truck, leaving with her police escort. With her gone, the atmosphere suddenly feels more awkward, Steve uncharacteristically quiet.
“Well that was fun,” Tony says with more animation than he feels. “Who needs a ride back, then?”
Steve holds up a hand, and without even thinking about it, Tony puts an arm around his waist in their standard carry; Steve puts one arm around his neck, and they are off. He can feel the tension in Steve’s spine, his embarrassment quite literally palpable. Hopefully he can—well, Tony honestly doesn’t know what he hopes here, but he wants to do it for Steve.
Somehow it always feels safer up in the air. Well, no, maybe that’s not the right word, exactly, but they can talk about things they can’t seem to on the ground.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Tony.”
Okay, maybe not.
It’s a nice day: sunny and clear, with a light breeze, and even if he’s not talking about it, Tony can tell Steve doesn’t want to head straight back to SHIELD. So Tony maintains a light cruising speed and takes the scenic way home.
“It’s embarrassing,” Steve says eventually.
“No it’s not,” Tony says automatically, because it’s Steve, and if it was anyone else Tony would be cracking jokes a mile a minute and offering solutions (of one kind or another) to the problem, but, again, Steve, so Tony just makes his mind up to be all supportive of his choice and—whatever. “It’s, ah—”
“Please don’t say chivalric.” But at least Steve sounds like he wants to laugh about it. That has to be a good sign, right?
“Wasn’t planning on it.” This much is true, but after that, he’s really not sure what to add. Particularly after Steve’s earlier comment about the sexual harassment class they did, in fact, all have to take, Tony figures that any variation of I can fix that problem just isn’t going to go over all that well.
“It’s just that—there was never the right time, before,” Steve says after a while. “And, well, Bucky—” And Steve’s voice goes all strangled and peters out, and Tony is so glad for his faceplate right now, because what?!, and also for the fact that flying in the armor is so nothing resembling flying a plane or driving a car because he would have swerved wildly into Stark Tower otherwise.
“Well, y’know, wartime, and all,” Tony supplies in a surprisingly even voice, like he totally understands. And in a way, he kind of does: he and Pepper danced around their—thing—for years, and there was never a good moment to say something real, not when they were picking at each other or fighting for their lives or, well, stuff. Hell, they barely knew what to say after the fantastic implosion that was their thing, only somehow not talking about that made it manageable. He flies vertically upwards to overtake the Tower slightly and then starts their decelerated descent, finally setting them down near the helicopter pad. “Things get—the way they do.”
“Yeah.” Steve doesn’t look at him, his mouth set and grim. Tony is reminded of how it was when Steve first got out of the ice, that weird mix of tight control and hidden anger, and oh boy, does he not want Steve to revert to Captain Dickhead again.
“Hey, what do you say to a late lunch at Antonio’s?” Tony offers quickly. “We can even make it a working lunch, write our field report over a couple of slices.”
Steve’s expression, remarkably, lights up at that suggestion. “That sounds great, Tony.”
Little more than half an hour later, Steve and Tony are comfortably ensconced on stools by the windows of the best pizzeria in the five boroughs, wide slabs of fresh pizza spread out on their paper plates and accompanied by slender glass bottles of Coca-Cola. Steve actually looks relaxed here; Tony had had JARVIS look the place up once, and it really doesn’t look all that differently than it had back in ’38 when it opened.
“Thanks for—back there,” Steve says when he’s inhaled his first slice. “For—you know.” Actually, Tony doesn’t, and his confusion must show so Steve explains, “Not making a big deal about—it. Unlike some people.”
“Yeah. Well.” Tony shrugs, because on the inside he’s still shaken by the not one but two, count them, two revelations he’s had about Steve’s sexuality in as many hours. “Contrary to popular belief, I am a well-adjusted adult. Well I’m an adult. Well, I’m legal, anyway,” he revises at Steve’s increasingly dubious expression, until he finally huffs a laugh. “So, the point is, if there’s a point—is there a point?—well anyway, it doesn’t matter what we think. It’s what you think that matters.” Tony feels pretty pleased with that conclusion; see, he knew it, he could do this. He thinks it’s a pity that Rhodey isn’t around for this fine demonstration of maturity.
“I’m a ninety-seven year old virgin,” Steve says as neatly as if he had intended to actually crush Tony’s inner contemplations. “That’s what I think.” He sips from his Coke bottle.
“Well you look amazing for your age,” Tony says with more lightness than he feels. “Seriously, where do you get your work done, I’m jealous, I have these crow’s feet—” He pulls the skin by his eyes down with his index fingers, smoothing the crinkles there. “—Really, you need to give me the name of your doctor, it’s not fair, Rogers!” And he stops, because Steve’s laughing at his antics now, and something in Tony’s chest tightens, because he loves it when Steve laughs like this, open and honest, his head thrown back and his eyes shut tight, and oh God, Tony is in so much trouble if he notices things like that. He drinks his soda and wishes it were something else.
“Oh, Tony,” Steve says when he can speak again, “I love you.” Says it like it’s easy, like it’s no big deal.
Tony swallows and smiles and says nothing, like he’s totally heard that all the time before, even in the teasing way Steve clearly means it, like it’s natural for him to have heard those words from anyone but Pep and Rhodey (and yeah, it was usually in the context of a near death experience, but still). The only thing being, of course, that that’s not remotely the truth at all.
Tony can’t actually identify the moment he fell in love with Steve Rogers. He can remember the moment he fell in lust with the guy, though, very easily: the minute he walked into the first Avengers meeting, all but poured into his blue scale mail that neatly defined his muscles and, frankly, made him look like the most badass male revue star known to man. Unfortunately, that had been followed by the “what are you without the suit” tiff of 2012, and, well, there was no way to go but up from there, really, was there?
As for love, though, that was more difficult, especially with the attendant feelings of having somehow regressed back to being fifteen years old again, all inappropriately-timed boners and his mouth moving without connecting to his brain and honestly, the only thing that made life liveable was being an honest-to-God superhero. And hey, unobtainable epic loves, that was all part of being a superhero, right, he’d read enough comic books as a kid to know that.
Didn’t make it suck any less, though, especially when Pepper was in town and she’d give him that fond/pitying look she wore so well and so often and he’d pretend he didn’t understand what she was looking at him like that for and she’d tell him that didn’t work on her, Tony, honestly, and this was usually followed by hiding out in his workshop for as long as it took to engineer an upgrade or seven. And true facts, Black Sabbath and hot coffee and the smell of grease had always been the things that made his life work, especially since the age of fifteen, and—he wasn’t going to think about this anymore.
They don’t actually get their field report written at Antonio’s, surprising no one, which unfortunately means they have to go their separate ways when they get back. Fury and/or Coulson and/or SHIELD are apparently of the opinion that the Avengers are like kids who need to do their homework independently, which means that on any given mission there are five different reports from five different points of view. Steve maintains it makes sense from a tactical perspective; Tony maintains it’s busywork, and honestly, when Namor decides to lead giant lobsters into Manhattan, how many ways are to describe an Atlantean prince in ridiculous swim briefs leading shellfish through the streets are there? And who would want to read about it when they could watch all the news footage; the part where Thor fried a particularly gleaming specimen with his lightning bolts ended up on Youtube for Chrissakes. So yeah, reports again, why?
But all the same, he goes to his workshop, pulls up a bench, and starts narrating his version of that morning’s adventure while sketching out the new specs for what he is privately calling the Quinjet (and is also privately convinced Steve is going to have kittens when he sees it—and oh God, doesn’t it say everything about his life that he can think phrases like “have kittens” when no kittens are actually involved?).
He’s distracted enough between the holographic models and remembering he’d seen a unicorn—seriously, a unicorn, and trying very hard to again forget that the unicorn meant that Steve was a virgin and his confession he’d had a thing for Bucky, for Bucky, of course Rogers would have a thing for the most worshipped soldier aside from himself! Jesus, Rhodey had kept a framed poster of Barnes on his wall from the age of like seven ‘til like now, that’s the kind of guy Bucky was—that when JARVIS announces that “Sir’s attention is wanted,” he doesn’t quite hear the first…three times it’s said.
“Yeah, JARVIS, what is it?” he asks, blinking, and feeling completely smug over the beautiful sleek lines of the model before him, traced in blue light on air.
“Ms. Darcy Lewis requests entry, sir.” The AI sounds coolly impatient. “You have kept her waiting for some time.”
“You know me, JARVIS, I like to keep people on their toes.” He lets loose a long exhalation. “Submit that report to Fury and let her in, would ya.”
“Very good, sir.” The open document of Tony’s narrative, displayed to one side of his computer worktable, elongates and then disappears with a tiny whoosh as it is sent to Fury’s inbox. Tony absently picks up a rag and rubs it along the spaces between his fingers, though he hasn’t actually done any grease work this afternoon.
Darcy emerges from the stairs a moment later, peeking her head around curiously. “Whoa. Hi there.”
“Hi yourself.” Tony gives her a short, curious nod. He doesn’t know Darcy all that well, aside from the odd downtime outing with the crew. Thor is fond of her, Clint has a crush on her, and Coulson actually likes her but would never admit it: “She actually does her job, Stark,” he’d said once, giving them all a truly impressive glare. So while her bona fides are quite literally astronomical, that doesn’t make him any less confused as to her presence here right now. “What’s up?”
“Can I hide out here?” She holds a pile of books and a laptop in front of her like a shield, looking unbelievably young and hopeful. “Just for a bi—Holy shit, what is that?!” She comes up to the worktable, ducking her head this way and that to take in the beauty that is the Quinjet, and he steps back so she can get a better view, because what is art without appreciation?
“Right now I’m calling it the Quinjet,” he answers like it’s no big deal, this mechanical marvel he’s designed in an afternoon. “What do you think?” His fingers skim the touch-pad, pulling up the schematics for the interior: The seating for five, the specialized weapons locker. “Oh, check this out.” He pulls the image up a little, displaying the emergency medical bay in the back, the table that descends from one wall that can become a gurney if necessary, the defibrillators and the cabinet of supplies. “We could do a heart transplant back there if we have to, assuming we have a surgeon and, uh, an actual heart.”
“Prepared for any emergency, huh? This is like extreme boy scouts!” Darcy’s words are teasing, but he can tell she approves.
“Little known fact, all boy scouts are extreme. What did you think the kerchiefs were for? No, really!” He smiles as she cracks up, lets her get it out of her system, because it’s nervous laughter, too. “Why d’you need to hide out, kiddo?”
Darcy’s amusement evaporates and she makes a face. “You saw from earlier,” she says, not looking at him. “It’s embarrassing! I just want some place where I don’t have to deal with people for a while, and this is like the most locked-down place in the city. Well, the most locked-down place I’d actually want to be, not like, The Raft or something. You know what I mean! Oh, come on,” she says a little desperately when he doesn’t answer, “I’ll be really, really quiet! I even have a term paper I have to do—you won’t know I’m here, I promise!”
“Okay,” he finally relents, “so long as you’re quiet. And get rid of that,” he adds pointing at her iPod. “Steve Jobs, may he rest in peace, was a worthy adversary, but Apple has no place in my sanctum sancti.”
This is how Darcy ends up camped quietly in one corner of his workshop with a new StarkNano, four books spread open before her as she types away on her laptop. That monstrosity is a beaten Dell that has to have come from the cutting edge of 2002, and when he hears the clickity-clack of its keys Tony tells JARVIS to get her a Stark tablet because really? Really? Actual keys, what the fuck! She has her earbuds in so she’s oblivious to his consternation, and he turns his music up a little louder to drown the sound out.
Two pots of coffee later, the specs are done and Darcy is slumped over her computer, snoring softly. Tony looks around for something that could possibly function as a blanket, because that’s what people do in movies, right, they put blankets on sleeping people? But all he has are some towels and rags, most of them already stained with either grease or cleaning fluid: fine for him, but unlikely to be welcomed by her. Shrugging, he leaves well enough alone and heads upstairs.
He steps out of the shower an hour later feeling warm and relaxed. He’s ready for some dinner, or, okay, breakfast, since it’s almost four in the morning, and heads to the kitchen. Steve is there, occupying one of the stools at the counter and absently reading the NYT on a StarkPad by his bowl of cereal. An open box of Kix sits nearby, because a Steve Rogers Breakfast can be either half an entire box of anything (this had only ever gotten really ugly after the Great Pop-Tart War with Thor, in the aftermath of which it had basically been decided that an unending supply of dry breakfast goods was the only way to go in this house; seriously, if there’s ever a catastrophic event at Kellogs, they are set) or an entire pan of eggs, and clearly it was Cereal Day.
“Mornin’, Rogers,” Tony says, peering into the fridge. He recognizes the container of cold sesame noodles from the other night and pulls it out, retrieving a pair of chopsticks from a drawer. “World still here?”
“More or less,” Steve answers, putting the StarkPad down and eyeing Tony’s noodles—eaten straight from the cardboard box—uncertainly. “Is this, ah, breakfast or dinner for you?”
Tony swallows before answering. “You know me, I’m an original. How do you feel about breaker? Or dinfast? What?” Steve’s gaze has gone from bemused to disapproving. “I was busy. I’m going to bed right after this, I promise.”
“It’s not healthy, Tony,” Steve says in that careful way he has when he knows he’s treading on sore ground between them. “I—worry.”
Something clenches uncertainly in Tony’s stomach, but he forces a cheerful smile. “Don’t worry about me, Cap, I’m a big boy now.”
“Mornin’, fellas.” Clint is in the plain tshirt and sweatpants he uses for running. He raises an eyebrow at Tony. “Unless it’s still evening?”
Steve gives Tony a See? look and Tony holds his hands out like What? and Clint just looks at them both. “God, you’re such an old—” he starts to say, but that’s when Darcy comes in, blinking sleep out of her eyes.
“Wow, it’s a party in here,” she says. “What’s up?”
“Dinfast,” Tony answers authoritatively, brandishing a fat noodle with his chopsticks. “Help yourself to whatever.”
“Thanks.” Darcy roots around in the cabinets and locates the one with the Pop-Tarts—set high over the fridge in a devious attempt by Thor to maintain the status quo, or lack thereof, in the post-Great Pop-Tart War-world. She’s just tall enough to get the cabinet open but not enough to easily access the stash. “Um.”
“Which ones d’you want?” Clint asks, hand on her shoulder.
“Strawberry, please.” Darcy keeps her eyes on the boxes as Clint snags the requisite flavor—topmost, of course—and hands it to her. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Clint looks disgustingly fond as she retrieves a foil packet, then sobers his expression as she hands the box back and he returns it to the cupboard.
Throughout this interplay, Steve hides a smile and Tony represses a snort of amusement, because, really, this is like one of those romcoms Pepper liked to have them watch on their few, misbegotten date nights. Really, all they need is a pop-laden soundtrack.
Popcorn? he mouths at Steve.
No, Steve mouths back. Behave.
Of course, despite having his back turned the whole time, Clint doesn’t miss a bit of this. Oh my God, he turns around to say to them silently. What even?
“What are you guys doing?” Darcy asks, her Pop-Tarts safely in the toaster.
“Nothing,” all three of them answer at once. Clint winces.
“Riiiight,” she says, drawing the word out long, and turns back to the toaster like it’s the only sensible thing in the kitchen—which, in fairness, it probably is at this point.
“So, Darcy,” Steve says in a visible effort to make them all not look completely insane, “why are you here so early? Did Coulson need you for something?”
“Nah,” Darcy says as she retrieves her Pop-Tarts from the toaster, Clint wordlessly supplying her with a plate. She licks her fingertips absently as she moves to sit next to Steve on the far end of the counter; Clint frowns because this forces him to sit next to Tony instead of her, and he’s less than pleased about this arrangement. (And really, for someone who is a secret agent type, Barton is amazingly transparent sometimes.) “Things were awkward in the office with the v-card revelation, so Tony let me hide out in his shop.”
“V-card? Oh!” Steve flushes and looks down in embarrassment.
“Solidarity, bro,” Darcy says, holding her fist up. After a beat, Steve bumps it with his own. “Yo.”
Tony swallows the last noodle in the carton. “Weren’t you going running?” he asks Clint innocently.
“Huh? Oh!” Clint shakes himself and stands up. “Uh, yeah. I’ll do that. See ya, Darce!”
“See ya.” Darcy holds her hand up in a brief wave, then pauses. “Actually, wait a sec, I’ll share the elevator down with you.” She runs out of the room to retrieve her bag.
“You are so whipped, Barton,” Tony says once she’s safely out of earshot.
“Shut up,” Clint says. “Like you can talk! Geez!”
“What?” Tony asks blankly, just as Darcy returns with her messenger bag slung over her shoulder.
“C’mon, Darce, let’s leave the odd couple to it.” Clint gives Tony a narrow-eyed look.
“Thanks for breakfast, guys!” Darcy says as she grabs her second Pop-Tart off her plate and salutes them with it. “See you in a few hours!”
“See ya,” Tony says, not missing how Clint makes an aborted effort at putting an arm around her as they leave. “He has it so bad.”
“No kidding,” Steve agrees. “He reminds me of fellas back in the service, always sweet on this or that dame at the U.S.O., convinced it was the real thing. I used to envy guys like that.” He looks morose for a heartbeat, then visibly pulls himself out of it, pushing his bowl away. He leans back and stretches. Tony tries not to admire how the material of his shirt stretches across his chest, or how the hem of it lifts up to expose an inch or so of pale skin. He gives Tony a cheerful look when he’s done, like it’s a brand new day and he’s ready to show it how it’s done. He raises his eyebrows. “Odd couple?”
“Old television show, the original bromance,” Tony explains. “JARVIS, could you help him out? I’m ready for some shut-eye.”
“Of course, sir,” JARVIS intones promptly. “Captain Rogers, shall I download a selection of episodes to your StarkPad for viewing, or would you prefer the television in your room?”
“Ah, television is fine, I guess. Thanks, JARVIS,” Steve says. “Want to watch them with me sometime, Tony?”
“Yeah, sure, Cap. Any time you want,” Tony says, standing up and putting his empty food container in the trash and his chopsticks in the dishwasher. “I’ll, uh—Good night. Good morning. Good—whatever.” And as gracefully as that, he makes his exit.
Tony wakes at the crack of noon. For a moment he lies in bed, comfortable, then he bolts upright. “Thrusters! JARVIS!”
“Could you pull up that Quinjet model for me?” He scrubs his eyelids with his palms, removing sleep. “I need to check something.”
“Certainly, sir.” The rotating image of his new project appears: bright blue in the dark room, otherwise lit only by Tony’s arc reactor and the slits of light from around the doorframe.
Tony peers closer at the engines and their location respective to the turbofans and runs the math again. He does it twice more, tweaking the variables each time and then alters the entire structure by just a few degrees—a little less sleek, but now capable of being prepared with some additional heat tiling. He grins at his work. “JARVIS, I think I just made this baby spaceworthy.”
“I’m sure the other Avengers will be thrilled.” JARVIS sounds extra dry, even for an AI. “Sir is also advised that Agent Coulson is on line one.”
“Yeah, I’ll take it in the bathroom, JARVIS.”
That goes about as well as expected.
“Agent Stark, we have to discuss the issue with our intradimensional entity,” Coulson informs him, his voice echoing around the tile.
“The what?” Tony says blankly as he untucks himself.
“The—the unicorn.” Coulson sounds pained to be using the word. Tony doesn’t blame him, but can’t help but feel a little amused, like this is somehow karma for the man’s Supernanny obsession. “Is that a toilet flushing?”
“No,” says Tony. “So what’s up with our friend Unico? Are there any critters showing up with red eyes?” The silence is deafening. “I can safely take that as a no, right?” More silence. “Right, Coulson?”
“Stark,” Coulson says in that way of his that means that Tony is on his next-to-last nerve (and Tony should know, he’s spent enough time there), “just find Captain Rogers and return to SHIELD, asap.”
It’s only after the call is terminated that Tony really wonders why exactly Coulson asked him to find Steve.
“Yeah, I don’t know why,” Clint says with a straight face when Tony asks him as much in the kitchen shortly afterwards. Tony is making one of his protein shakes and Clint is looking disgusted. “It’s not like you guys are joined at the hip. Oh wait.” He snorts and turns the page of his paper, because apparently Hawkeye reads print and Captain America is the one with a StarkPad, who’d have thought?
(Sure, see you there! is the response Steve texts back immediately when Tony shoots him a message. Be there in twenty! :) Honestly what’s the big deal?)
“Whatever.” Tony retrieves his shake from the blender and downs a healthy portion of it directly from the jar. “Look, we are not joined at the hip, okay?”
Clint peers at him over the edge of the paper. “First of all, dude, that’s just sick,” he says as Tony drinks some more protein shake. “Second of all, who are you even kidding? You guys are together all the time.”
“No we’re not,” Tony says hastily. “C’mon, we only really see each other when—” He pauses, mentally reviewing the last few days in reverse: almost all their meals were shared (and actually, had been for months, how about that); workouts and sparring sessions plus intermittent training drills, and they saw each other on missions, of course; somehow Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights had become pop culture education nights, usually with movies but sometimes TV shows, too (And really, how much fun had it been to watch a couple of old Star Trek episodes back to back with a couple episodes of Firefly? Which had obviously led to an all-night marathon of the latter series concluding with Serenity because Steve was clearly a man of impeccable taste and even having been frozen in ice for almost seventy years he still recognized something good when he saw it, unlike, say, Fox executives), and—oh.
“Oh,” Tony says.
“Yeah.” Clint makes a show of rustling his paper a little louder, because he’s a jerkwad.
“No,” Tony says, because what? Exactly when had he—gotten all domestic? “No!”
“Yep,” Clint answers, turning another page. “Face it, Stark, you guys are the old married couple while some of us are still wild and free.” He pauses, because there’s the sound of a door opening and Darcy is calling out “Hey, guys! Anybody home?”
“In here, Darce,” Tony calls back, raising an eyebrow at Clint, who is hastily rearranging his paper sections from the Sports pages to—anything else, apparently.
“Heya. What’s up?” She enters the kitchen, waving at them shyly, before turning to Tony. “I think I left one of my books in your workshop?”
“No problem, JARVIS can help you out down there,” Tony says.
“My pleasure, Miss Lewis,” JARVIS intones. “Please follow the guided lights when we reach the stairwell?”
“Sweet,” Darcy says. She pauses on her way to the workshop, stepping close to read the opposite side of the pages Clint is reading. “You like the Books section, huh?”
“Yeah,” Clint says, shifting the paper to look at her. “I’m a big reader.”
“I can tell that,” Darcy says. “Particularly with how the newspaper is upside down.” Clint stares at his pages in horror as she all but skips in the direction of the workshop.
Tony laughs into the remainder of his protein shake.
“Dude, shut up,” Clint mutters. “What happened to the Bro Code, man? Honestly. Upside down?!” He folds his paper up and slaps it on the counter in frustration.
“What was I supposed to do?” Tony asks, rinsing the now-mostly empty jar out in the sink. “Is there like a secret gangsta sign for that now? Really.”
“I hate you,” Clint says.
“Sticks and stones, Barton,” Tony smirks and salutes him with the clean jar. “Besides, I’m pretty sure she thinks it’s all cute.” He emphasizes the last word with a slight rise in pitch.
“Great. Just what I always wanted.” He actually looks morose now. “Cute.”
“Found it!” Darcy returns, holding the book up triumphantly. “Thanks, Tony!”
“No problem, kiddo.” Tony gives her a polite smile and wipes his hands on a clean towel. “Anyway, I’ve gotta get going.”
“Yeah, me too,” Darcy says. She turns to Clint. “Could you maybe give me a ride? There’s a subway outage on my line and the free buses suck ass.”
Clint blinks. “Um, yeah. Yeah, sure, no problem.” He actually looks cheerful now. God, it’s disgusting. “I’ll, uh, yeah. See you, Tony.”
Tony keeps up the friendly smile as they leave. “See you kids later. Be good. Have safe sex!” This last part is yelled at the closing door.
Clint opens it just enough to stick his head back in. “Hate you, Tony! Hate!” The door slams closed.
“My job here is done,” Tony says in satisfaction.
In his armor, the trip to SHIELD takes all of five minutes. Tony meets Steve in the hallway to the main SHIELD conference room. Steve is still in street clothes, though an unbuttoned shirt reveals an inch or so of his dark blue mail; his customized backpack that holds his shield and cowl hangs from one shoulder. “Hey, Tony,” Steve says. “Any idea what this is about?”
“Three guesses and all of ‘em have horns.” Tony considers for a moment. “Okay, obvious carnage aside, if we were to take our new friend out to say, a Victoria’s Secret show—”
“No,” Steve says before he can finish. “Don’t tell me, don’t even try to explain. Just no.”
“Right.” Tony resists the urge to snap the faceplate back into place, thus largely allowing himself to keep his thoughts interior, or at the very least inaudible.
Inside, Fury is waiting, as are Coulson, Thor, and Natasha. “GREETINGS, FRIENDS STEVE AND TONY,” Thor booms as usual, looking remarkably cheerful.
“Glad you could make it,” Coulson says dryly.
Natasha merely looks attentive, sitting at Fury’s side like the sleekest human equivalent of a Doberman known to man. And if she knew that I just compared her to a dog even in my head, I would be Tony tartare on a cracker by now. She says nothing.
“Where’s Hawkeye?” Steve asks with a frown.
“He was giving Darcy a ride home. That’s not a euphemism.” Tony pauses. “Well, it wasn’t meant to be.” Coulson gives him that squinty-eyed look that Tony has come to recognize from Supernanny marathons in the Rec room and, well, his own presence.
“That’s such a relief,” Fury says with more than a little bit of disdain. “Meanwhile, back in a world where I give a rat’s ass, we have some issues.” He presses a button. “Dr. Foster, could you join us, please?”
A moment later Jane enters with a clipboard and a laser-pointer. She gives Thor a goofy grin and a tiny wave, and Thor beams back. Tony refrains from throwing up a little in his mouth. “Ah, could you—” Coulson hits a button on a nearby console and the massive wall of TV screens suddenly display dozens of images of—well, there are stars and clouds and a whole lot of nothing immediately identifiable, really. “Thanks! Yesterday there was a minor stellar radiation event in the upper atmosphere coinciding with a series of fold waves emanating from—”
“The short version, Dr. Foster,” Fury interrupts with surprising politeness. “Please.”
Jane pauses. “Oh! Uh, sorry. So in, uh, English,” and she smiles nervously again, “basically there was a bright light and a ripple in space time. We didn’t notice it here so much because it was during daylight hours, but in other parts of the world it was a different story: lots of scared people over in Tokyo, for instance. No one seems to have been hurt, but it’s clear that for just a few seconds that—things could move from here to there. Including the, uh, the unicorn.” She makes a jittery movement, then breaks the cool scientist façade altogether, grinning widely. “Is it a real unicorn? Can I see it?”
“No!” Most of the room choruses together.
“IT WOULD NOT BE WISE, MY DEAREST JANE,” Thor says kindly.
“Why not?” Jane wants to know.
“Think about it,” Tony says.
She does. “Oh.” She looks confused for a moment. “Well, wait a second, then how did you—?”
Steve starts to grow pink, starting at the ears, but says nothing.
“Well, you know, we’re like Boy Scouts.” Tony starts talking instinctively; all eyes turn to him rather than Cap. “Extreme Boy Scouts,” he adds, thinking Darcy will enjoy that, “we’re always prepared! I mean think about it, we could get kerchiefs, have a jamboree. Or, y’know, porn stars, porn stars too, they’re always prepared.”
Steve is shaking and Tony almost pauses, but then he realizes it’s because he’s laughing, and oh God, he loves it when Steve laughs, he really really does, so he just keeps going.
“I mean, they probably have more medical personnel on hand for everyday work than we do, and what’s up with that? I mean, how many field agents do we have reporting here every day and we only have like ten doctors, like, doctor-doctors, not like Jane or Bruce. I’m kinda upset about this, come to think of it, should I need to be worried? What if we run out of qualified medical practitioners and we have to call 911, I mean, do you think my armor would travel well, and oh God, could Hulk even fit in a standard ambulance?!” He turns to Natasha and Coulson earnestly. Natasha looks amused while Coulson looks more disapproving than ever. “Do you guys have decent health benefits? Because I signed off on a waiver, but if you guys need it I can totally set something up, I mean, the StarkCare plan is pretty good but I can totally make a special one for the Avengers, who really need it more, I think, kind of like Frequent Flyer Miles but with more band-aids—”
“Thanks, Tony,” Fury interrupts dryly. “I really, really appreciate that.”
“Anytime,” Tony says cheerfully, subsiding into silence.
“Thanks, Tony,” Steve echoes, too low to be heard by anyone else, and more genuine.
“Going back to the problem of the intradimensional rift in space time,” and Fury is louder on those words, all but shouting them like it will either a) make sense or b) just beat them all into submission through sheer volume, “would you like to tell us what else you found, Dr. Foster?”
“Oh, ah, yeah—yes, sir,” Jane corrects herself. She uses her laser-pointer to flick little arrows of light across several of the TV screens. “So these star clusters—this is where the radiation was emanating from; basically, it’s following a very specific series of paths—”
“I RECOGNIZE THOSE,” Thor supplies helpfully, standing up and leaning forward, expression intent. “ASGARDIAN HISTORIES SPEAK OF VOYAGES ACROSS THE YGGDRASIL, BEFORE WE HAD THE BIFROST. SUCH JOURNEYS TOOK MANY AGES.”
“Traveling in real time, or at least not in light years,” Jane says, nodding her head. “Trips like that would take decades or even centuries. But then, as your wormhole technology improved, you could go places faster—shifts in time and space, but if you weren’t careful, you could move in just one or the other.”
Natasha frowns. “One or the other? How is that even possible?”
Jane pulls a sheet of paper from her clipboard. “Okay, pretend this is the universe, and, uh, three dimensional, okay?” She pulls out a few more sheets and holds them together in a neat sheaf. “Now here are a bunch of universes, or a multiverse.” She pulls one of the sheets out again, holding it up by a corner. “Now pretend I’m here, and I want to get there.” She holds up the opposite end of the page. “With the Bifrost, I could just do this.” She rolls it up so the ends are touching. “Easy, right?”
The Avengers regard her silently.
“Right,” she says slowly, then starts talking faster as she holds up her sheets of paper again. “But before the Bifrost, wormholes would have been less stable, and they wouldn’t always get the—ends to match.” She folds a sheet of paper up into a messy rectangle. “So say you meant to go here—” She waggles one end. “—and meant to go here.” She waggles the other, then turns it to the side, along the fold. “Now if everything worked right, you could follow this path.” She runs a finger along the crease in the paper. “But maybe something happens—a solar storm, an attack of some kind, who knows.” She unfolds the paper again, and holds up a third corner. “You end up here, instead, but because you’re so off the path you can’t get back again without a little help.”
“You’re saying the unicorn is….lost,” Steve says after a moment.
“Pretty much.” Jane looks relieved that someone got it.
“So how do we get it back home?” Tony can’t help making a face. “More origami?”
“That’s the thing.” Jane bites her lip. “I’m honestly not sure how to get the unicorn home, because we have no idea where it’s home even is.”
“Why not just take it back to where it came from here?” Natasha asks. “If there’s basically a hole in—in the fabric of space-time, wouldn’t it make sense to just lead it back to Central Park?”
“That assumes the hole is still open,” Coulson points out. “We haven’t had any more reports of other intradimensional entities—”
“Unicorns, Coulson, just say unicorns.” When Coulson glowers at him, Tony raises his eyebrows. “Sorry, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and tries to charge you with its giant pointy horn because you have engaged in sexual congress, I’m pretty sure you can call it a unicorn.”
“‘Sexual congress?’ Really, Tony?” Natasha sounds like she’s torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to slap him; a typical reaction when they aren’t being shot at, come to think of it.
“I BELIEVE THE POLITE TERM IS ‘MAKING THE BEAST OF TWO BACKS,’” Thor says helpfully.
Fury just looks appalled and stands up. “Cap, see what you can get your people to do about solving this problem,” he says, and strides out of the room. “And good luck to you,” he adds for good measure.