Title: Unleash Your Demons
Author: Keira Marcos
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Genre: Time Travel, First Time, Kid-fic, Science Fiction, Slash, Het
Relationship(s): Tony Stark/Loki Odinson, Bruce Banner/Betty Ross
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Death-Minor Character, Discussion-Torture, Discussion-Forced Body Modification, Discussion-Mass Murder, Murder, Kidnapping, Temporary Character Death. Spoilers (the entire MCU), Violence-Canon-Level
Author Notes: This fic was written and edited before I saw Avengers: End Game. I made the choice not to include any of that foolish shit.
Beta: Ladyholder & Jilly James
Word Count: 115,668
Summary: Tony Stark can’t live with the damage Thanos has done. Infinity Stones in hand, he makes a choice that will alter the fate of the universe.
* * * *
“Sirs, the Bifrost has deposited a woman on the balcony.”
Loki sat up and rubbed his face. “What?”
Tony rolled over onto his back and stretched as the screen activated on the wall across from the bed to show security footage.
“Fuck.” Loki lurched out of bed and ran into the closet.
“Hey…what’s going on?” Tony asked and yawned.
“Mother is here,” Loki hissed as he came out of the closet pulling on trousers. “Get up, get dressed, and look presentable immediately.”
Tony blinked in surprise and focused on the screen. The Queen of Asgard was on his balcony. “She’s beautiful.”
Loki paused in buttoning his shirt and took a deep breath. “Of course she is. Get dressed, Stark, or I’ll curse you impotent for a month.”
“Very rude. I’m sure your mother didn’t teach you to be so mean,” Tony admonished, but he slid out of bed. “Go greet her and make her tea for fuck’s sake.” He paused because Frigga had turned to face the interior of the penthouse and smiled. Then the woman walked off screen. “Looks like she’s been invited in. Jarvis, is Nebula up or did Spiderling just invite the Goddess of Destiny into the building?”
“Nebula has greeted our guest,” Jarvis said. “And has taken her into the kitchen for tea.”
* * * *
Nebula opened the refrigerator and stared at the contents with a frown. She’d put off learning to cook for obvious reasons; it was boring, and there were no shortage of people on Earth who would prepare and deliver food straight to her. It was honestly the most pleasant thing about the whole planet—food delivery. She glanced toward Loki’s mother and bit down on her lip when the woman took a sip of tea and offered her a bright, knowing smile.
“I can’t cook to save my own life,” she blurted out, and Frigga laughed. “Fortunately, there are ready-made options. I hope that’s okay.”
“It’s fine, dear. Unexpected guests should never expect a feast.”
Nebula smiled and pulled out a bowl of cut fruit. “Do you have any food intolerances?”
“Not that I’m aware of, but it has been many hundreds of years since I’ve eaten food from Midgard.” Frigga rose from her chair and joined her at the fridge. “What is this machine?”
“It’s a refrigerator; it keeps food cold as a method of preservation.” She pulled out a container filled with boiled eggs. “Do you like roast beef?”
She hummed. “I love beef. It’s been forever since I’ve had it.”
“We’ll order steak for lunch,” Nebula decided and pulled out a container of sliced meats and a block of cheese.
By the time Loki skidded into the room like a naughty child, she’d put together a platter of food. Frigga set aside her fork full of melon and stood.
“Mother,” Loki said and pulled her into a tight embrace. “What…has something happened?”
“Much,” Frigga said with a laugh. “I love watermelon, and I insist on having seeds brought to me so I can send them home for the garden.” She touched his face with gentle fingers. “And your brother has bragged far and wide about the hammer.”
Loki sighed. “I asked him to tell no one, and he refused.”
“Yes, well, it wouldn’t do for anyone to develop anything so ghastly as expectations,” Frigga said with a laugh. “Come sit, Nebula has made a truly admirable attempt to feed us despite the fact that you’ve not taken the time to teach her to cook a single thing.”
Loki huffed, and Nebula just grinned at him then popped a grape into her mouth. “Honestly, Mother, she’s a menace. I would not trust her to properly boil water.” He guided her back to the table. “Tony will be in shortly. Would you like something more substantial to eat?”
“Oh, no, this is more than fine,” Frigga said as she regained her seat. “Thor told me all about your man as well, so I’m looking forward to meeting him.”
Nebula wiggled her eyebrows when Loki looked her way, and he smiled briefly. She’d honestly not seen him so out of sorts since they’d come back in time. He hesitantly sat down at the table, so she retrieved his cup and the tea he preferred. After she put it on the table, she started coffee for Tony since he was rarely far behind Loki in the mornings. She barely managed to swallow her laughter when Tony entered very well groomed. He frequently stumbled into the kitchen seeking coffee like it was his life’s blood—clothes rumpled, torn, or even stained on occasion.
She stayed seated as Frigga and Loki stood.
“Tony Stark, meet Frigga Allmother, the Queen of Asgard.”
“Your Majesty,” Tony said and hesitated briefly when Frigga offered her hands. He took them carefully. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Call me Frigga,” she said and smiled. “Thank you very much, Tony, for giving my son a sanctuary in his time of need.” She kissed both of his cheeks.
Nebula raised an eyebrow but shrugged when Tony glanced her way.
* * * *
After the haphazard breakfast they’d eaten, Tony took the time to plan a much better menu for lunch and dinner just in case they were still hosting a goddess. Loki had taken his mother into his private area in the penthouse for a conversation and Tony retreated to his lab with Nebula. They had a proof of concept design for the quinjet coming up with NASA, and he wanted to have at least three ships built before they debuted a prototype for the public.
A couple hours after disappearing, Loki and Frigga came to the lab. She’d changed her clothes to adhere to Earth fashion but still managed to look like a goddess in a pair of charcoal gray slacks and dark blue silk blouse. She had an ethereal quality about her that was comforting, and that freaked him out. The look on her face told him that she knew it, too.
“Loki has been telling me about your James Barnes,” Frigga said. “Many of the questions in his letter about the use of magic and mental health intrigued me, so I’ve come to see this young man for myself.”
Tony glanced toward Loki, who looked tense. “Of course, we’re reviewing the information we retrieved from the people who tortured and brainwashed him. The machine involved is still a factor we can’t account for, and I’m honestly not sure actually having it would help since the sole purpose appeared to be memory erasure.”
“To create a blank slate,” Frigga murmured. “On the surface, it seems like the ideal way to create an obedient soldier.”
“But?” Tony questioned.
“It’s very telling that they had to erase his memories every single time they woke him,” Loki said. “I believe the machine actually just creates so much mental and physical stress that it caused Barnes’ core personality to retreat.”
“You mean like a dissociative episode—Winter Solider is just another version of whatever Hulk is,” Tony said. “You think this is a side effect of the super soldier serum?”
“More feature than bug,” Nebula interjected and pressed her lips together when they all focused on her. “I read in Steve Rogers’ file that he isn’t susceptible to any sort of shell shock, which was the term they used for post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“If avoidance of battle fatigue is a by-product of this chemical alteration of their brains then I would agree that this HYDRA group used that particular feature to create a method of control for their assets,” Frigga said and focused on Tony. “Loki has told me that he is living here in secretive circumstances and doesn’t do magic in front of your staff.”
“It’s for his own protection,” Tony said. “I don’t know how the government of my country would react to his existence.”
“I don’t disagree with this,” Frigga said. “I will be staying for a while, and you may introduce me as Frigga Njordsdottir.”
“A while?” Tony questioned.
She smiled. “Yes, I’ve sent for my luggage.”
* * * *
“How long is a while?” Tony asked as soon as Loki closed the bedroom door.
“I have no idea,” Loki admitted and waved both hands. “When I asked, she just patted my cheek and told me not to worry about it.” He threw himself on the bed, and Tony laughed. “She’s the Queen. She does what she wants, when she wants, and how she wants.”
Tony snorted. “Sounds like most of the women I know. Well, her insights into the Barnes situation were helpful and interesting, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the two of you come up with together. Right now, I have to attend a meeting with a few lawyers regarding the situation with Corwin. His father has flown to New York and is looking for a resolution.”
“Surely they don’t expect you to rehire him?”
“Oh, I’m sure they expect a lot of things,” Tony said evenly. “But they won’t be getting any of it. He’s lucky to not be in jail, and I’ll press that angle without mercy. I honestly can’t put myself in the man’s shoes as I’d never tolerate that kind of crap from my own son if I had one.”
“You could,” Loki said. “There are various methods, correct?”
“Yeah, several,” Tony admitted. “And I’ve thought about it but certainly not right now.” He walked into the closet and selected a suit. He changed his clothes quickly and pressed a kiss against Loki’s pouty mouth. “If you’re in here brooding, what’s your mother up to?”
“Oh.” Loki huffed and slipped off the bed. “She’s going to give me an ulcer.”
Tony laughed and followed the man out of the room and into the living room. Frigga was seated in a chair near the balcony reading from a tablet with no apparent difficulty, and Betty Ross was fussing with Nebula’s hair. He noted that Nebula had changed out of the jeans and t-shirt she’d worn to the lab in favor of a mustard colored skirt and a pale, linen blouse. She’d paired the outfit with a clunky pair of black sandals that looked like they could be used as blunt objects in a fight.
Nebula turned her head in the mirror. “I like this—you’re right. The horizontal French twist is a much better look for my head.”
Betty grinned. “I keep my hair short these days, but I wore it long for more than a decade.”
“How do I look?”
“Very young,” Bruce said from his place at the counter. “I’ve thought so since the moment I set eyes on you. Also, Tony picked a terrible time to stop making weapons of mass destruction.”
“I told him so,” Rhodey shouted from the kitchen.
“Why are you all of you here?” Tony asked.
“Moral support,” Betty said with a huff. “She’s going to have to see that foolish man-child that attacked her.”
“He hardly attacked me,” Nebula said. “And I’m fine. I chose to attend the meeting. I’m not going to let that entitled, over-privileged, inferior douche bag think I’m afraid of him.”
Tony motioned her toward the elevator. “Let’s get this crap over with. Happy wants us both in the conference room before their group is allowed up from the lobby.”
As soon as the doors shut, Nebula slumped against the back of the elevator and blew out a breath. “It’s weird.”
“What’s weird?” Tony asked as the elevator started to move.
“I know she means well, but Betty has a bit of a maternal vibe with me that’s off-putting,” Nebula admitted and took a deep breath. “My mother has been gone for a long time, Tony, and I don’t want any sort of replacement.”
“I get it,” Tony said. “Want me to talk to her?”
“No, I can handle my own relationships,” she said and scowled at the floor. “I guess I find comfort in the concern…that she thinks about me.” She lifted one shoulder. “It’s confusing, and I don’t like it. Things here are more complicated than I thought they’d be.”
“You’re not thinking about leaving, right?”
“No.” Nebula frowned at him. “Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.” She waved a hand. “We’re making a family here, of some sort, and I don’t want to give any of it up.” The doors opened.
“Great,” Tony said and clapped his hands together. “Let’s go be richer, smarter, and snottier than Leonard Corwin and his foolish son.”
“We’re also much more attractive,” Nebula said as she left the elevator. “I checked.”
Tony chuckled and was still laughing when they passed by a pair of security guards and entered the conference room. He sat down at the head of the table, and she tucked in on his left as was her habit since Loki preferred to be on his right when they were out of the penthouse. It was weird how the two of them had started to navigate around him. He checked his phone and set it down in front of him, but Nebula was tapping away on hers.
“What are you doing?”
“Blogging,” Nebula said.
“You have a blog?” Tony questioned.
“I have things to say,” Nebula said. “I reviewed several options but didn’t like any of the services, so I made my own blogging site. It launched last week.”
“You launched a blogging service,” Tony repeated. “Are you serious? What’s it called?”
“The service is called Totality, and my personal blog is called The Observable Universe.”
“How many people have joined?”
She shrugged. “Friday?”
“There are 287,678 accounts on Totality currently and several hundred thousand on the wait list, Boss. We’re reallocating server resources to handle the burden.”
Nebula lowered her phone. “I should’ve asked, right? I can…”
“Hey, no, have fun with it. We can build more servers,” Tony said. “I want my own blog.”
“Friday, send Tony the log-in details for the account we made for him,” Nebula said as the doors opened. “I called yours Futurology, but you can change that easily.”
Tony grinned at her but then sighed as his lawyer entered. “Joe, have you met my offspring?”
“I’ve not had the pleasure.” The man put down his briefcase as Nebula stood.
“Joseph Marshall, meet the boss of me, Nebula Collins Stark.”
Nebula offered her his hand. “It’s a pleasure, Mr. Marshall.”
“Call me Joe.” He took her hand and shook it. “I’m sorry to meet under these circumstances. I’ve reviewed the content of the security video, and I’ve had several conversations with Leonard Corwin’s attorney. I can tell you both that the Corwins expect you to pay him to go away.”
“Not on a bet,” Tony said evenly and sat back down. Nebula picked up her phone and started tapping away again, so Tony focused on Joe. “She’s blogging.”
Joe grinned. “My daughter was over the moon to have gotten a beta slot on the new platform.”
“Stark employees and their families have priority status on Totality,” Nebula said without looking up from her phone. “Their accounts are also free for life for the best package regarding space and usability. Membership fees will be donated to the foundation regardless, so it’s not a money-making endeavor as far as SI is concerned.” She put down her phone and offered them both a smile. “Did the Corwins send any sort of deal for us to review?”
“No, I believe Leonard Corwin thinks he can talk this out under the table, so to speak,” Joe admitted. “He also plans to suggest that his son be given a job in California as part of a settlement offer.”
“That’s laughable,” Tony said dryly and would’ve said more but the doors opened, and the Corwins entered.
“Tony!” Leonard Corwin exclaimed loudly as they entered. “You look more like your father every single day.” He walked around the table, and Tony stood up. He shook the man’s hand and kept another on his shoulder to keep the older man from going in for a hug. “Looks like our kids got in a bit of a mess.” He laughed. “Your little secret sure has set people back on their asses.”
“Let’s sit,” Tony said. “And you can tell me why I shouldn’t have my daughter file charges against your son for sexual assault.”
“Now, come now, what’s a little kiss between adults?”
“She turned eighteen over the summer, Leonard, and your son is almost nine years older than her,” Tony said evenly. “He manhandled her, insulted us both, and kissed her without permission. While she has every single right to file charges against him, we were both content with him being fired and removed from our lives. Yet, now we’re sitting here because you think your son is somehow entitled to both my money and a position in my company despite how he treated the young woman who will one day inherit every single bit of this.” He waved a hand around. “I know you’ve already had a talk with both the NYPD and the District Attorney’s office, so you know your son has no hope whatsoever of filing assault charges against her since she was just defending herself. Is this visit a precursor to a civil lawsuit? Honestly, we both hope so.”
“You…” Leonard frowned. “Why do you hope so?”
“Because we’re going to countersue for emotional damages. You see, that piece of shit you call a son gave my little girl terrible nightmares for weeks. She’s never even been on a date, Leonard, and your son has shattered her trust in men. It could take her years to recover.”
“She doesn’t look emotionally distressed to me,” Brad muttered. “Looks like the same little ice queen she’s always been.”
Nebula smiled. “It really keeps me up at night that I pushed you the wrong way.” She leaned forward as he paled. “A few degrees to the left, and you’d have tipped right off the balcony.” She sighed and picked up her phone. “But that would’ve been messy. I hate to make the staff work harder than they should, and I don’t know who would’ve been tasked with scrubbing your remains off the sidewalk in front of the building, but I don’t think any holiday bonus would’ve made up for it. I guess I could’ve sent bots down to take care of it…” She hummed under her breath and turned to Tony. “My blog post about this meeting and the security footage video has already gotten over a million views, and I only posted it ten minutes ago.”
Leonard Corwin hissed. “You posted that video online? We all agreed it wouldn’t be made public!”
“I didn’t,” Nebula said evenly. “And I’m the only wounded party in this whole mess, you disgusting old fool.”
“You little bitch!” Brad snapped.
“And we’re done,” Tony said sharply. “Happy!” The doors opened, and Happy entered with two more security personnel. “Get them off my property immediately.”
Joe rocked back in his chair and grinned as the Corwins were quickly ushered out. “If this is how you plan to handle all of your business, I’m going need to hire some more associates.”
Nebula shrugged. “What’s your daughter’s name? I’ll follow her blog.”
“Casey Marshall. She would’ve used her school email address to sign up.”
Nebula nodded. “Great. I’ve got a project in the works downstairs, so I have to run. It was nice to meet you, Joe.”
Tony sat back down as Nebula strolled out of the room and the doors were pulled shut behind her. “In truth, you probably do need to hire more associates.”
Joe grinned. “My kid will be over the moon when she finds out Nebula followed her. You know she’s a sensation, right? She’s practically all anyone is talking about on TV or whatever.”
“She finds the attention annoying at best,” Tony admitted. “Legal issues regarding the release of the security footage?”
“None, he had no expectation of privacy, and she’s the victim. I’d like to see him try to find a judge that would hold it against her. They’ll be too busy doing damage control and honestly getting as far away from you as possible. The old man hoped he could manage you but he realizes that’s out the window and they don’t have the money to go head to head with you.” Joe leaned in. “What are the other issues?”
“In about a month or so, I’m going to announce the recovery and survival of Captain America and his best friend, Sergeant James Barnes.”
Joe’s mouth dropped. “What the fuck?”
Tony just grinned.
* * * *
“Director Fury sends his apologies for your previous conversation,” Coulson said stiffly.
“Does he?” Tony questioned as he moved around the main lab. Nebula was near the back of the room half under the exoskeleton of a quinjet. From the way her feet were bobbing, he figured she had earbuds in. “I hope he realizes I wasn’t kidding.”
“He took everything you said to heart,” Phil assured. “And wants to know if it would be okay for me to continue to work as the liaison between you and SHIELD.”
“I like you, Phil,” Tony said. “More than I should probably. I don’t like Fury, and I’m deeply uncomfortable with his methods. What do you think of the ACG?”
“You’ve got a few people on my side of things foaming at the mouth actually. Your nanotech is like nothing we’ve ever seen,” Phil admitted. “I’ll contact Mr. Rhodes about a contract for SHIELD for the camo generator.”
“Heard about that, huh?”
“Director Fury was quite irritated as he’d hoped to recruit Colonel Rhodes himself, but you had him in your employ before we could reach out.” Phil rubbed his neck and sat down on a stool near Tony. “We could honestly use some resources that we know we can trust.”
“Rhodey is very trustworthy,” Tony agreed. “But I’d have fought you tooth and nail to keep him out of SHIELD. But I did decide to go ahead and build you a few friends.” He walked across the room and picked up a small box. He came back to the table with it.
Tony opened the box to display the ten micro-builds he’d done. “They’re spies. I’ve programmed them to communicate with you and you alone. Each one can record up to twenty-four hours of audio and visual surveillance. The T-Rex is my favorite.”
Phil grinned. “How do I talk to them?”
“They all have your phone number,” Tony explained with a grin. He closed the box and held it out. “Turn them on one at a time, and they’ll call you to register with the device. You can name them at that point and give them their first instructions. They each have a unique phone number. Have fun. Blackmail everyone.” He paused. “But me. Don’t blackmail me.”
Phil raised an eyebrow. “Have you ever done anything so terrible that you’d care if someone knew?”
“Eh, not really,” Tony acknowledged. “Besides, I tend to make my really embarrassing mistakes in front of a lot of people.” He jerked his head in Nebula’s direction. “Want to meet my kid?”
“Yeah, I’d like that a lot.”
* * * *
Steve slowly sat down in a chair as he stared at the cryostasis pod. Tony watched him rub his face with a shaking hand.
“You okay, Capsicle?”
Steve laughed—sharp and abrupt—at the nickname. “I don’t know. All of this seems unreal.” He focused on Tony. “Like a dream or worse. Dr. Yinsen took me outside yesterday, and we had lunch at a deli. It’s like being on a new planet that looks familiar but isn’t. I feel like a poorly educated child. I don’t know how anything works and I’m not sure where to start catching up.” He focused on Barnes. “I can’t see how it won’t be worse for Bucky who’s been awake off and on for decades but never as himself long enough for it to matter. How can I help him when I can barely function myself?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said honestly. “We’ll just take it one day at a time. You can read pretty fast, right? Thanks to the serum?”
“No, that’s not serum related,” Steve said. “I couldn’t afford books, so I’d go the library to read when I was younger. But hours were limited since I was working full time as well. I had to read fast if I wanted to finish books because I didn’t have a library card and couldn’t check books out. Books were my way out—the only way I had to see the world.”
“We’ll start there then,” Tony said. “I’ll let Ho work on a schedule for you. History, science, and technology should probably be your focus, but that’s entirely up to you. The timeline on all of that is also up to you, so take your time, Steve, and give yourself room to get comfortable in your new circumstances. There’s no rush.”
Steve looked toward Barnes. “Are you sure about that?”
Tony sighed. “Can I be blunt?”
Rogers focused on him. “Yes, please.”
“He’s not going to anywhere until we’re ready for him to,” Tony said. “The research is slow going because we’re still trying to get our hands on HYDRA resources regarding the program he was forced to participate in. I certainly don’t want to keep him in this state indefinitely because it’s not…hell, it’s not fair, but taking our time with him and with you isn’t going to hurt anyone or anything.”
“I hate seeing him like this,” Steve said, and he stood. He touched the glass front of the pod and exhaled. “No rush.”
The door opened and Nebula appeared. “It’s time for dinner.” She raised an eyebrow. “Is Captain Rogers joining us?”
“I wouldn’t want to intrude,” Steve said hurriedly and flushed under Nebula’s attention.
Oh, hell no, Tony thought then caught himself before he actually said something. He knew that she wouldn’t actually give Rogers the time of day.
“No intrusion,” he finally said. “You’re more than welcome to join us. There’s no need for you to hole up in your apartment and eat alone. You’ve not officially met—Steve this is Nebula, my daughter.”
Nebula’s brow quirked up briefly at the introduction but held out her hand to Rogers. “Welcome to 2005, I suppose.”
“Thank you.” Steve took a deep breath as he released her hand. “What’s for dinner?”
“I have no idea,” she admitted. “Loki and Frigga are in the kitchen, and I was ordered out after I cut the carrots wrong.”
Tony snorted, and she glared at him.
“Lift your chin,” Nebula ordered. “Pay attention to your surroundings, and keep your eyes on your target. A lowered gaze is a sign of submission.” She jabbed Betty with her gloved hand in the side. “Submission equals death in a fight. Drill it into your head.” She jabbed her again.
Betty exhaled sharply and focused on the punching bag she was standing in front of. “I’m not a fighter.”
“Sure you are,” Nebula cajoled and jabbed her again. “The bag is your enemy. The bag is a threat. It’s going to hurt you. If it gets past you—it’s going to hurt or kill others.” She walked behind the bag and braced it. “Get mad.”
Betty frowned at her and half-heartedly hit the bag.
“Your father kidnapped your man, experimented on him against his will, and unleashed a part of his psyche he’s spent his entire adult life trying to suppress.”
Betty hit the bag a little harder.
“He ignored your protests because he didn’t give a fuck what you wanted, Betty.”
The hits came faster and sharper.
“But you’re used to that, right? He’s been ignoring what you want your whole damned life. He let his own mother call you racist slurs when you were a child because your feelings never mattered to him. Your mother mattered even less. She was just an incubator that he discarded when she didn’t produce the son he really wanted.”
Betty hissed and hit the bag twice in quick succession.
“He let those people experiment on you, too, because his goals mattered more than your life. If he’d lived, he’d have you in a containment cell right now trying to figure out how to use you to his advantage. And Bruce? What would he have done to Bruce or Hulk, who is more child than man? He’d be hunting Bruce down like a dog because he wanted a weapon he could control and use. He was going to use you both—to make war, to kill innocents because the moment he flipped that switch you stopped being his child and became his weapon.”
Betty’s fist slammed into the bag and Nebula hit the mat hard behind it.
“Shit, shit, I’m sorry.” Betty rushed to help her up.
Nebula laughed and waved her off. “It’s fine. I’m not hurt.” She rubbed ass as she stood. “Much better. Let’s go again.”
“Maybe I should hold the bag.”
They both turned and found Steve Rogers standing in the entrance of the private gym with a pale, grim-faced Tony at his side.
“Yeah,” Betty said. “I think…that would be best, Captain Rogers.”
“Call me Steve.” Rogers moved into the room, and Nebula just nodded before she walked across the room to join Tony.
She leaned on the wall next to Stark who was staring at his shoe as if it was the most fascinating thing on Earth. “Did you show him the experiment footage?”
“Yeah, he asked to meet her and Bruce. He’s pretty upset—called it a terrible legacy. He said that Erskine would roll over in his grave to know what came after him regarding Project Rebirth. He’s also adamantly opposed to remaining in the military in any capacity at this point.” Tony took a deep breath. “I guess…I don’t like hearing you talk like that.”
“Because it reminds you of where I really come from?” she asked in a whisper. “It destroys the illusion we’ve built for ourselves.”
“Fuck,” Tony muttered and rubbed his face. “Yeah, I guess. I don’t want to forget where you came from, Nebula. I’d change nothing about you because I think you’re amazing just the way you are.”
Nebula felt her face heat, and she took a deep breath. “Shut up.” She crossed her arms. “She’s very strong.”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “We just need to work on her emotional fortitude. Between Bruce and Barnes, we have more than enough on our plate regarding questionable reactions.”
“Her flying lessons are going well,” Nebula said then. “She has good instincts for it and Friday has lowered the governing program for the Iron Maiden suit to emergency use only.”
“Good,” Tony said. “I have a feeling we’re going to need her sooner rather than later since Steve is adamant about his recovery being announced.”
“I don’t blame him,” Nebula said. “What if they try to take him?”
“Officially, he was declared KIA five years after he went down,” Tony said. “It was a political decision by the government and a recruitment tool of sorts. They used his very public funeral to stir up feelings of patriotism. It worked—enlistment in various branches of the armed forces went up by twenty-five percent. His period of enlistment has more than been spent, but that doesn’t mean much to people who treat soldiers like…cannon fodder. I don’t know how it was handled before.”
“It is the way of the powerful,” she said and took a deep breath as she watched Betty Ross pummel the punching bag. “It didn’t feel great saying all of that to her.”
“She needed to hear it,” Tony said. “We both know that hiding from your circumstances just leads you to a very unhealthy place. I’ve been there, and it was like having a demon sit on my chest.”
“Religion,” Nebula said and made a face. “Friday says it’s supposed to be a comfort but how can it be when you’re threatened with eternal punishment for the crimes that are basic to the human condition?”
“Fuck if I know,” Tony admitted. “My demons are totally metaphorical.”
Nebula snorted. “Right.”
Tony huffed. “Shut up.”
* * * *
“What do you remember after the first transition into Hulk?”
Bruce frowned and took a deep breath. “There are flashes—Betty’s face, she screamed, and everything fades away. Tony’s voice, then relief. Mostly I have emotional impressions left. He was angry and felt betrayed. Then he was concerned and worried about Betty. Eventually, he was happy to see Tony.”
Loki nodded and shared a look with Tony.
“Is it reminiscent of previous dissociative episodes you’ve had?”
Bruce shook his head. “I wouldn’t have connected the two experiences without feedback from the rest of you. I wouldn’t…hearing Hulk talk about my childhood was difficult. I don’t remember much about my father’s episodes. I think I was in the room when he murdered my mother but I have no memories of it. I’d like someone to ask Hulk about it, but I’m worried that he might get furious.”
“He seemed proud of protecting you,” Betty interjected. “Like it was his job.”
Bruce stood and walked away from them. “He’s me. A part of me that I’ve spent most of my life hiding from. He endured the worst parts of my childhood, and I guess even now he’s protecting me from the memories.”
He ran a hand through his hair in frustration and Tony resisted the urge to get up and get the man a drink. The desire to soothe people, and himself, with alcohol came at him when he least expected it.
“Well, you’re hardly the first person to suppress such trauma. You just have more to deal with because you were exposed to something that allows that part of you to emerge in a pretty dramatic way,” Loki said then he focused on Betty. “Nebula upset you this morning during training.”
Betty wet her lips. “I…yes, she was helping me…”
“How do you feel about what she said now?” Loki questioned. “Are you still angry?”
“No.” She took a deep breath. “Should I be?”
“There are no right or wrong answers here, Dr. Ross,” Loki murmured and glanced briefly at Steve Rogers. “We’re trying to discern the mental impact of the super soldier serum so that we can get a better grasp of Mr. Barnes’ condition. What do you remember about the incident with your father?”
“I was angry and scared,” Betty admitted. “And the radiation…I tingled, and I didn’t understand the reaction because you shouldn’t feel radiation like that. I was slapping the glass and screaming at my father. He ignored me.” She looked away and brushed tears from her face. “I’m glad he’s dead. I can’t imagine how much trouble he would cause for us if he were still alive. My mother…when I called her and told her that he was dead…she laughed.” Her hands clenched into fists. “She was so happy to hear that news, and I wasn’t…I felt nothing suddenly. My mother apologized because she thought she’d upset me, but I wasn’t upset at all. I just pushed it away.”
“Captain Rogers?” Loki questioned.
Steve leaned forward and cupped his drink with both hands. “I’ve been thinking about this since you asked me about attending this meeting. I don’t really remember fighting.”
“The physical details?”
“I don’t know how many people I’ve killed,” Steve stated. “I couldn’t even begin to make a guess. I remember what a gun feels like when I pull the trigger. I remember my shield—the feel of it in my hand and the rush I get when it comes back to me like magic. I remember the places, the dates, the goals, and the outcomes…but I have no emotional impressions of the fighting itself nor do I remember ever killing a specific person.”
“How do you feel when you fight?”
“Powerful, in control…just.” Steve exhaled and shook his head. “That sounds arrogant, but I don’t mean it that way. During the war, I knew where I stood was on the right side of the line. I knew the Nazis were evil and I had to defeat them. I knew that HYDRA was an immense threat to the world, and they had to be eliminated. But that line was drawn for me, Dr. Odinson, and I’m not sure where I stand now.”
“You can call me Loki.” The Asgardian stood and left the table in favor of the coffee pot. “You’ll find your own line once you’ve had time to adapt your new circumstances. And you do need time. No one expects you to rush through the process.”
“Dr. Yinsen says I need therapy. Is that your field?”
“It is my field, but I’m a researcher. I’m ill-suited to the therapeutic setting, but we are interviewing several people to bring on board the project in that respect,” Loki explained and glanced toward his mother who just offered him a sweet smile.
Tony knew she was up to something, but he didn’t know what.
* * * *
Nebula watched the woman on the balcony. She was dressed for battle though the armor looked both ceremonial and functional at the same time. Long dark hair fell to her shoulders. She was beautiful and patient. She hadn’t moved from the spot since Jarvis had greeted her and instructed her not to leave the balcony. Nebula opened the doors.
“Good afternoon, I’m seeking the Allmother.”
Nebula stared. “Your name?”
“Sif.” The woman shifted on her feet. “You must be Nebula Stark. Thor spoke to us of your beauty and intelligence.” She hesitantly offered a hand. “You shake hands in greeting, correct?”
“Correct,” Nebula agreed and took the offered her hand in a gentle grip. “Welcome to Midgard. You may enter. Frigga is currently in a meeting with several others regarding a project that Loki is in charge of.”
“Thor had many things to say about his brother…” Sif began and took a deep breath. “And the hammer.”
“Mjølnir.” Nebula motioned the woman to sit. “It’s an impressive artifact. Loki seemed put off by the idea that he could pick it up.”
“Thor said as much.” Sif sat and pursed her lips as she looked around. “I…I’ve never been to Midgard. I didn’t expect… I expected something primitive, to be honest.”
Nebula quirked an eyebrow. “Do you suppose the realm languished without advancement due to Odin’s lack of direct influence? That’s a bit arrogant.”
“A bit,” Sif agreed and flushed. “Thor told us that his brother is involved in a romantic relationship with your father. Does that concern you?”
“No.” Nebula shrugged at the woman’s shock. “Tony can take care of himself and Loki makes him happy.” She smiled. “You look like you don’t believe that at all.”
“I don’t know your father,” Sif said. “Perhaps they are suited, but the prince has never struck me as someone overly interested in making anyone happy.”
Nebula felt the strange urge to defend Loki though she knew for a fact that he needed nothing of the sort. “Then you don’t know him as well as you think.”
“I meant no offense,” Sif said quickly.
“I’ve taken no personal offense,” Nebula said and would’ve said more, but the elevator doors for the penthouse opened. She turned her head and watched Frigga enter.
“Nebula, darling, thank you for greeting my guest.”
Nebula stood. “I’ll just leave you two to your chat.”
Frigga smiled and kissed her cheek as soon as she was close. “You might wish to go the hangar—they were talking about working on the sensors of the Futurist.”
Nebula huffed and rushed toward the elevator. “Like I need any sort of help!”
Frigga laughed as the doors shut.
By the time she made it to the hangar, the ship was open. Nebula frowned and shouted, “You two better have all of your clothes on! There will be no sexual congress allowed in my ship.”
“It’s our ship!” Tony shouted in protest.
“Ha,” Nebula exclaimed and huffed as she marched up the ramp. “What are you doing? I’ve almost finished the new sensor configuration.”
“Yeah, they look great. I was actually taking some measurements to see if we could actually transport Hulk in an emergency. I know he’ll fit in a quinjet, though it isn’t a great fit at all. He could sit here in the main bay but getting around him wouldn’t be ideal.” Tony tilted his head. “Who’s here?”
“Lady Sif,” Nebula said.
Loki frowned. “I hope she’s not planning to stay.”
“She doesn’t like you much,” Nebula said.
“No, my brother’s friends find me very vexing,” Loki said. “And I’ve spent many hundreds of years ensuring that. They’re all so boring. Sif had ambitions, at one point, to be my brother’s queen but I believe over the years she’s come to realize that he has no romantic interest in her. He much prefers a softer female and not a warrior when it comes to his bed partners.” He frowned. “Should I work to introduce him to the woman he was involved with before?”
“Foster dumped him, remember?” Tony shrugged. “Why get the big guy’s feelings hurt again?”
“True,” Loki said and slouched in the chair. “She was a bit high strung at any rate.” He focused on Nebula. “He finds you very attractive.”
“He finds a fabrication attractive,” Nebula said evenly. “And you know it.” She smirked. “Besides, you told him to keep his hands to himself—very paternal on your part by the way. I’m touched by your concern for my virtue.”
“Shut up,” Loki said crossly.
* * * *
Steve Rogers was sitting in a chair in front of Barnes’ stasis pod, a beer in hand, when Tony stopped in the doorway of the lab. Jarvis had alerted him to the very late night visitor. They’d decided not to limit Steve’s access to Barnes more for the man’s emotional recovery than any other reason.
“I can’t get drunk.” Steve waved the beer. “It tastes great though.”
“I only stock the best,” Tony said flippantly but sighed when Steve frowned and focused on the pod. “What’s on your mind?”
“Did they experiment on him because he’s my best friend? Is this ultimately my fault?”
“I think he fits the criteria as much as you did,” Tony said and sat down in the second chair in the room. “HYDRA already knew what could happen if the wrong kind of person got the serum. They wanted stable, controllable assets and, frankly, they probably didn’t have any one of the right moral fiber in their own ranks to meet the standard Erskine set. When they gave Barnes the serum, you were little more than a propaganda tool—not a genuine threat to them as far as they were concerned—since the army wasn’t letting you into the action. But he wasn’t ideal for what they really wanted so they tortured him and memory wiped him to make him useful.”
Steve nodded and took a long sip of beer. “You don’t drink at all. I noticed.”
“My father was an alcoholic,” Tony said. “I was on that road—it was a hard, ugly place and I needed to be a better person. So, I set it all aside, and I don’t take risks with it so no social drinking either.”
Steve nodded. “I read a few articles…about you and Nebula. Pretty much the whole world thinks you turned into a saint overnight for her.”
Tony snorted. “I’m no saint, Rogers, but I did make a lot of changes to prepare for her being in my life. I can’t, in all honesty, say I was always a good man. I’ve made some terrible decisions, but I’m working diligently to be better than I was. Better than my father allowed himself to be.”
“My father died in the first world war,” Steve murmured. “My mother worked herself to death trying to support me. I carried a lot of guilt for that. It drove me…I needed, I guess, to prove myself worthy of all of the sacrifices she made. Abraham Erskine saw something in me that no one else did. He saw strength in my physical weakness.” He focused on Barnes. “I wonder what HYDRA saw in Bucky.”
“They saw a soldier,” Tony said. “They saw someone they thought they could shape and control with torture and technology. He proved to them, repeatedly, that their control was transitory and easily lost. It’s why they kept him on ice so much because leaving him active for more than a month without a mind wipe was too dangerous. All of their other choices—the serum drove them insane. They were beyond any sort of control.”
“I read all of the reports you’ve given to Dr. Banner and Dr. Odinson,” Steve said and set aside the empty bottle. “I’m sorry I woke you—I couldn’t sleep, and I just wanted to see him.”
“I wasn’t asleep,” Tony said. “And you can visit Barnes anytime you want. I wouldn’t have given you permission to enter this part of the lab if it were a problem.” He cleared his throat. “Are you in love with him?”
Steve flushed. “Such a thing would’ve been illegal in my day.”
“It’s not illegal now.”
“Jarvis explained.” Steve cleared his throat. “When I asked him about your relationship with Dr. Odinson. I was worried about the two of you being discovered and wanted to know what the current punishment was for it.”
“Ah.” Tony stretched his legs. “It’s not a secret.”
“I know that now.” Steve shrugged. “The articles that Jarvis supplied me varied on the topic—approval and outrage, but I get the feeling you’re used to the public sitting in judgment of you like they have the right.”
“Yeah. I grew up in the limelight because of my father. He had a lot of money, and Stark Industries grew rapidly in response to various military conflicts around the world.”
“Your former business associate, Obadiah Stane.” Steve cleared his throat. “Is he a problem? There have been several quotes from him where he questioned your ability to lead your own company, speculated on Nebula’s mother, and the like.”
“He could be a problem,” Tony acknowledged. “He’s working for a company that used to be in direct competition with my own. Nebula’s mother is dead and not a topic for discussion so please avoid that subject around her. Regardless, I pushed Stane out of SI because I didn’t trust him and I absolutely did not trust him with the safety of my daughter.”
“Then he’s a problem.”
“I think he’d like to be, and maybe he’ll maneuver himself into a position where he can do some damage, but I won’t allow him to…I’d go to war for her.”
Steve focused on Barnes. “I understand that kind of love. You can count on me, by the way, if Stane ever comes her way.”
“Want a flying suit?”
“Yes, Christ, I thought you’d never ask!”
* * * *
“Is it wise to expand Rogers’ ability to be a threat?” Loki questioned as Tony entered the bedroom.
Tony pulled his T-shirt over his head and dropped it in the laundry basket just inside the closet then stripped off the rest of his clothes as he considered the question. “All of the Prime bracelets can be shut down remotely by Jarvis. He’ll never be able to use any of my tech against me.” He strode to the bed naked, and Loki flicked back the covers, so he slid in.
Loki wrapped one hand over Tony’s hip as he pulled him close. “That’s a good security protocol.”
“What did Sif have to say to your mother?” Tony pressed his mouth to Loki’s briefly. “I know you watched the security footage.”
“It felt wrong invading my mother’s privacy but, yes, I watched it. I’ll probably blurt out a ridiculous confession to her sometime in the next day like a child for reasons I can’t articulate.” Loki pulled him closer and slid one long leg between Tony’s thighs. “My father wished to know when Mother would be returning to Asgard. She told Sif she’d return when she felt like it and not to bother her again. She also passed a letter along for my father, the contents of which were not discussed.”
“What do you think about what Sif said to Nebula?”
“She’s not wrong—I’ve never been all that interested in making anyone happy,” Loki murmured. “I can’t even say that’s my goal with you.”
Tony laughed. “What do you intend then?”
“At first, I merely desired to earn your trust,” Loki said softly as he trailed small, sweet kisses along Tony’s jaw. “But as I watched you working so fiercely for the goals you’d set for yourself, I realized I wanted to help you make everything better. You want to fix this world; I want to help you do it. If you decide you want to fix the universe next, then I will do everything within my power to help you do that as well.” Tony groaned as Loki wrapped one hand around his hard cock. “I wish to pleasure you.”
“All of that makes me really happy.”
Loki laughed and rolled them slowly so that Tony was sprawled across his chest. He trailed one hand down Tony’s back and pushed magically slick fingers inside him.
Tony braced himself on Loki’s chest with both hands and rocked down on the fingers with a shudder. “You’re gorgeous.”
Loki grinned, relaxed against the pillows, and slowly pulled his fingers free. He positioned his own cock, and Tony arched as his ass was filled with one long thrust. “Relax, love, I’ve got this.”
Tony groaned as Loki rolled his hips and started to fuck him. “I…goddamn it.” He let his head fall forward and closed his eyes as his prostate was rubbed repeatedly by the head of Loki’s cock. “Fuck, I think I’d let you conquer this whole planet right now.”
Loki laughed. “Fortunately for your people, I’ve decided that world domination is entirely too much work.” He wrapped a hand around the back of Tony’s neck and pulled him down. “Kiss me.”
Tony relaxed on Loki’s chest and all but melted into the kiss. Loki’s hands roamed down his back, to his thighs, and finally to the back of his knees. He pulled gently, spreading Tony open further as he started to fuck up into him with fast, deep strokes. The sex was always good but, sometimes, the intensity of having the God of Mischief in his bed was utterly overwhelming. He was coming hard all over Loki’s stomach long before he intended.
Tony shuddered through the orgasm as Loki held him in place and fucked him through it. “Jesus.”
“It’s rude to call out another god’s name in a moment like this. I assure you, Tony, you need no other god but me,” Loki promised silkily against his cheek as Tony trembled. “You’re perfect—I adore having you.” He rolled his hips upward one final time and exhaled harshly as he came.
He made a point of not going to all of the different classes that Peter attended at the mansion, but Tony couldn’t help but meander down there at least once a week. May Parker was availing herself and her nephew of all the resources that the foundation had to offer. It was hard to ignore Peter’s potential and Tony was glad that she saw it, too. He paused in the doorway of the large activity area that was once a ballroom.
“Mr. Stark, you’re here!” Peter dashed across the room with a fist full of Lego. “We’re not building bots today.”
“Ha, you think I can’t build something awesome with Legos?” He let Peter pull him into the room and waved at a few parents. “Otis! Get the huge box of Lego out! We’re going to build something epic.”
“The Aurora!” Peter exclaimed. “Let’s build the space station!” He bounced a little at the enthusiastic reception his suggestion received from the other kids.
“Well, if we’re going to build a space station—we’re going to need reinforcements.” He pulled out his phone and sent a text. “You guys want to meet Nebula?”
He grinned at the shouts of approval that won him. He could hardly wait to see how she responded to a bunch of four and five-year-olds as she’d avoided the mansion and the children so far. They were already sorting the Lego by size when she arrived, pushing one of the 4D model projectors.
“What did you bring?”
Nebula raised an eyebrow and activated it. A model of the space station appeared. “How are they supposed to build an accurate copy without the plans?” She focused on the children who were staring at the hologram in awestruck silence then used her hands to spread the model out into various parts. “Who wants to be an engineer when they grow up?”
A couple of hours later, Tony found himself leaning against the wall near the water cooler wishing he had coffee. They had a large portion of the station built, and he was considering moving it out onto the main floor of the house as a feature after it was done. He could always buy more Legos for the classes.
“You’re a lucky man.”
Tony focused on May Parker who was holding a cup of water. “In more ways than I could ever count.”
“She’s brilliant,” May said and motioned toward Nebula. “Generous, beautiful, sweet, and patient. I’m not sure as a parent I could ask for more.” She leaned on the wall beside him. “It’s pretty daunting…knowing your child is a genius. I’m not sure how…” She shook her head. “His parents didn’t tell us, you know, that Peter was so special. I can’t imagine how they’d have missed it.”
“Maybe they worried you’d balk at being his guardian if something happened to them?” Tony questioned.
“Maybe.” May’s mouth quirked slightly. “We were child-free by choice. I don’t regret taking him in any single way, but parenthood wasn’t on our radar.” She glanced his way. “I guess you were in the same boat when Nebula was born.”
“I certainly didn’t plan a teenage pregnancy, but we made the best we could of the situation.” He focused on Nebula who was helping a little girl with a riot of curly blond hair build an airlock. “The important part of raising a genius is letting them explore their world. My parents let me run a little wild if I’m honest, but I needed the stimulation. I’d have gone nuts if I hadn’t had a multitude of projects going at once to keep my mind occupied.”
“The programs that the foundation has started are really helpful in that regard,” May said. “It’s a godsend, really. Between the various websites, apps, and programs here at the mansion, he’s occupied and very focused on a regular basis.”
“Nigel!” Loki called out cheerfully in return.
Tony glanced up and grinned as Loki was hit at the knees by a particularly rambunctious four-year-old who couldn’t say Odinson on a bet but nevertheless loved Loki beyond all reason. He watched his partner pick the kid up and head for Nebula.
May Parker hummed under her breath.
Tony snorted and nudged her. “You’re married.”
“Married doesn’t equal dead!” May exclaimed. “I don’t even know how you won that lottery, Tony, but for the love of God don’t mess it up.”
He tossed his water cup in a trash can. “Let’s head back in. You can ogle my boyfriend up close and personal.”
“Thank you.” She tossed her cup and made a beeline in Loki’s direction.
* * * *
“Did I ever apologize for throwing you out a window?”
Tony glanced up and found Loki staring at him. He grinned. “Did I apologize for failing to notice you were brainwashed by Thanos and helping your brother return you to Asgard so you could be thrown in an isolation cell?”
“Apologies are useless,” Nebula said without looking up from the laptop she was studiously typing on. “I will not apologize for anything I did or said to either of you before we returned to the past.”
Loki laughed. “Well, at the time I certainly meant it.”
“And if given the opportunity, I would’ve certainly tossed you out that window,” Tony admitted then he focused on Nebula. “Blogging?”
“No, I’m making a list of potential topics for my YouTube channel.”
“Your YouTube Channel?” Tony repeated. “That’s launched already?”
“The service started last week,” Nebula said. “I want to establish my presence now. Friday says that it will blow up and be hugely popular. If I start now, I’m trendsetting instead of following the herd. It’ll be a mixed format channel—vlogs, mechanical builds, interviews with other women in the sciences, etc. Friday will also be working on content—she has her own blog, and her followers submit photographs they’ve taken as part of the ‘Show Friday the World’ project.” She looked up finally and met his gaze. “One must play the part when she’s the daughter of a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”
“What’s Friday’s blog called?” Tony picked up his tablet.
“Like Bishop From Aliens.” Nebula grinned when he laughed. “The other choice was Skynet Was A Dick, but we figured that wasn’t very kid-friendly.”
“Bishop from Aliens…because he was loyal?” Tony surmised.
“And he saved the day,” Friday interjected. “I, too, have saved the day.”
Tony laughed. “You sure have, sweetheart. Did you get the server space for Totality squared away?”
“Yes, Boss, and I’ve processed the waiting list. We went over one million members earlier today. I’m running a few programs on the service to prevent the distribution of illegal or unacceptable materials. So far, we haven’t had any issues in that regard, but it’s best to be proactive. On that subject, Hercules filed a report early this morning that he’s shut down several pirate sites that were distributing the intellectual property of others.”
“That’s outside his mandate,” Tony pointed out though he really didn’t care.
“No, Boss, the sites were a funding source for a terrorist organization—they were making several thousand dollars hourly on advertising revenue. He took that money as well and donated it to the foundation—earmarked for arts education.”
“Good. Anything else?”
“Not from Hercules. Jarvis is currently occupied with a few issues regarding SHIELD and their headquarters here in New York.” She paused. “Dr. Yinsen is on his way up to the penthouse. He’s using the private elevator—he appears quite upset on the security footage.”
Tony abandoned his tablet and was almost to the elevator when the door opened. “Ho, is something wrong?”
Ho walked out of the elevator, his eyes wet with unshed tears. “Maya is dead.”
Tony’s stomach lurched, but he caught Ho’s arm and guided the man to the sofa. “Was there an accident?”
“A lab explosion,” Ho said hoarsely. “It’s all over the news.” He motioned toward the television.
Nebula snagged the remote and turned it on. She flipped to a local news station and turned up the volume.
“At this time, the source of the explosion inside the facility is unknown. Aldrich Killian, the founder, and CEO of Advanced Idea Mechanics is currently out of the country and unavailable for comment. We can confirm sixteen fatalities at this time. More information will be provided as it is made available. In other news—”
Tony stood as Nebula muted the television and walked away from them. “Fuck.”
“I wish…” Ho trailed off. “I should’ve tried harder to recruit her. Killian’s always been more invested in the bottom line than providing any sort of safety. His labs are well-known for violating regulations.”
He didn’t want to believe in fate. Maya Hansen was dead again. Dead because she was brilliant and vulnerable to a man like Killian. To a man like Tony Stark. Tony rubbed his face. “It’s not your fault, Ho. If anyone is to blame…I should’ve reached out to her and apologized for my callous behavior. Maybe it would’ve been enough to bring her into the fold.”
“Or maybe she was happy where she was doing the work she was doing,” Nebula interjected. “She made her decision—for good or bad. There is no blame to be placed as far as that is concerned. Ho, can I fix you something to drink?”
“A glass of water would be good,” Ho said and let his head fall back on the sofa.
“Do you know for certain that she’s dead?” Tony questioned.
“Yes, I reached out to a friend that worked there,” Ho said. “It was her lab…her entire team was killed. The building has been evacuated. I tried to ask more questions, but my friend was cut off.” He cleared his throat. “I suspect he will call back because he accepted the job offer I made. The one he initially turned down.”
“If it turns out to be a protocol failure, I imagine he’ll lose employees fast,” Nebula said. She put the water in Ho’s hand and held it in place until the older man nodded and curled his fingers around the glass. “We’ll have to be careful to avoid the appearance of poaching during a tragedy.”
Ho smiled briefly. “Ah, you’re learning politics far too early, Nebula.”
“My parental unit is short on tact, and I must compensate.”
Tony sighed dramatically mostly for show when Ho laughed. He said nothing while Ho nursed his water and stared the television. It was showing footage of the fire and destruction from street level. There were cops and firefighters all over the scene along with the people from AIM.
“Jarvis, contact Pepper and ask her to prep some sort of relief for the people on the ground over there—whatever they need—coffee, food, etc. Looks like they could use shelter or transportation as well. She’ll know what to do.”
He turned and found Ho staring at him. “What?”
“You’re a good man,” Ho said quietly. “I’m proud to be here—to be working for you.”
Tony flushed. “If you repeat that to anyone, I’ll fire you.”
Ho shook his head and sighed. “Sixteen eager, brilliant minds lost because results are more important than people’s lives. It’s obscene to see so many lives wasted.” He waved a hand at the TV. “This is not the legacy of a good man.”
“Or even a great one,” Tony said quietly and took a deep breath. “Jarvis, get Obie on the phone for me.”
Several moments passed in silence while both Nebula and Loki stared at him in confusion. Ho was still focused on the screen, looking hollow and sad. Tony had seen the man look that way once before and it was infuriating to see it again.
“I have Mr. Stane, Sir.”
“Tony, I don’t have time to arg—”
“I’m calling to help,” Tony interjected. “I’ve tasked Pepper with getting supplies and food for your people on the ground. Is there anything specific that you or the survivors need?”
“SHIELD is on site investigating and providing security. Food and bedding would be greatly appreciated. They aren’t letting anyone leave the scene. We’ve been escorted into an empty warehouse.”
“Not an accident then,” Tony said.
“I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to say,” Stane said roughly. “But, no, not an accident.”
“I have a contact in SHIELD. I’ll contact him and make sure Pepper’s people won’t be turned away.”
“Thanks, Tony,” Stane said roughly, and the called ended.
Tony pulled out his phone and sent Phil Coulson a text. Only a few moments passed before he got a confirmation on the request. “Jarvis, tell Happy to accompany Pepper to the site and let her know about the empty warehouse situation. I don’t want her near that mess or Killian without security. They have a history—she used to work for him, and he was very interested.”
“I’ll inform Mr. Hogan, Sir.”
“Do you think there was some sort of issue with an employee?” Ho questioned.
“I don’t think SHIELD would’ve shown up for a disgruntled scientist even if there was some sort of on-purpose explosion.” Tony exhaled sharply. “They roll out for terrorism and the like, Ho. Let’s lock down all of our labs, send everyone home for the day, and do a review of security. Okay?”
Ho nodded and stood. “Yes, that’s an excellent idea.” He hesitated with his empty glass and Nebula took it from him with a small smile. “I will ask Bruce and Betty for their help with this—I’m a bit scattered.”
“Maybe you should give it all to Bruce,” Tony said quietly. “Go home to your wife, Ho.”
“I…” Ho sighed. “I’d very much like to see my wife, yes. Jarvis, would you please pass all of Mr. Stark’s instructions regarding the labs to Dr. Banner?”
“Of course, Dr. Yinsen.”
Ho walked toward the elevator, and the doors opened for him. He held them open with his hand and turned to Tony. “I shall tell everyone that you’re a very good man, Anthony Stark.”
He smiled and let go of the doors as Tony laughed.
“Lock us down, J,” Tony said quietly. “And tell me what you know.”
“Agent Coulson is coordinating a search in the New York AIM facility as we speak. Evidence collected so far indicates an explosive of some size was detonated on purpose three hours ago. Security footage shows four men entering the building through the loading dock—using an internal code. Everyone in Maya Hansen’s lab was killed prior to the explosion. All of her research was stolen.”
“None of the SHIELD assets on the scene have mentioned HYDRA, but I wouldn’t expect them to considering how deeply the organization has been infiltrated.”
“What were you doing in SHIELD’s database this morning?” Tony questioned.
“Confirming kills,” Jarvis said. “I can, at this point, state that Directory Fury has eliminated 352 HYDRA operatives within his organization. They’ve found and destroyed six HYDRA facilities. They have five more on their radar. Hercules has identified several locations that SHIELD will not be able to take out due to the current political climate.”
“Then those will be our targets,” Nebula said as she picked up her phone. She pulled her hair free from the messy bun she had it in, tousled it around her head, and struck a little sultry pose then took a selfie.
“Earth has ruined you!” Tony scowled. “I can’t believe you…”
Nebula sent him a cool-eyed look at she started tapping out a message on her phone. “You manage your persona, and I will manage mine.”
“Did you just tweet out a picture of yourself?”
“Twitter doesn’t exist, yet, Boss,” Friday said helpfully.
“It’s for my Facebook profile,” Nebula said and rolled her eyes. “Friday said the one I had up looked like a mug shot.”
Tony snorted. “How’d you get on Facebook? It barely exists outside of the university environment right now.”
“I was invited by the founder,” Nebula said. “Though NYU is included in the network currently so I’d have been able to join that way in a few months. He said I didn’t need to wait.”
“Where’s Spiderling?” Tony asked and glanced around. “I haven’t seen him since yesterday.”
Nebula frowned. “I don’t know.”
“J, location on Spiderling?” He inclined his head when there was no immediate answer. “Jarvis? Where is my spider bot?”
“Sir.” Jarvis paused. “Spiderling’s on a field trip.”
“A field trip?” Tony demanded. “Are you…what the actual fuck, J?”
“I was unable to talk him out of it,” Jarvis said.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Tony demanded. “Where did he go?”
“He invoked the Bro Code, Sir. Therefore I was required to keep his secret unless directly questioned. He followed Mr. Parker home yesterday afternoon. He is currently in Mr. Parker’s bedroom. The child managed to put together a rudimentary charging station with the parts from his aunt’s hairdryer and a USB cable.”
Tony snorted. “For fuck’s sake.”
“Mr. Parker is enrolled in the next Lego build class which will take place on Friday. Spiderling plans to return at that time. They have a plan to smuggle him back into the mansion in a backpack.”
“Is that makeshift charging station giving Spiderling enough juice to last two days? I’d hate for him to go dead on the kid.” Tony slouched down on the sofa beside Loki and tossed his legs across the Asgardian’s lap. “Order May Parker a new hairdryer and have it delivered. Let her know I’m not mad about the field trip but I can retrieve the bot if she’s not thrilled with her guest.”
“Spiderling reports that his charging situation is fine, and he would apologize, but apparently you didn’t put that protocol in his programming.”
Nebula burst out laughing.
Tony sighed as she sprawled on the carpet and giggled like a little girl. “I guess it’s time to put an arc reactor in that little asshole.”
Nebula sat up and braced herself on her hands. “How much vibranium will you need?”
“About half what you’ve provided for each Prime bracelet.”
She nodded. “Shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to produce that.” Nebula rolled to her feet and stretched. “I’ll have it ready before dinner.” She raised an eyebrow at Loki. “Where’s your mother?”
“Teaching Betty Ross how to use a glaive,” Loki said. “She’s proven quite adept at both blades and spears. We believe the glaive will be an ideal choice for a main weapon in the case of suit failure. Why?”
“I promised her I’d show her the particle accelerator. I’ll just grab them both from the gym.”
Loki pulled Tony into his lap as the elevator doors shut behind Nebula. “Come here.”
“My spider bot ran away from home,” Tony said in a tone that was far too close to a pout for his own peace of mind.
“You favor Peter, and Spiderling obviously noticed,” Loki said.
“May Parker thinks you’re hot,” Tony said as he tucked his bare feet against Loki’s thighs. He’d never been in an actual relationship with a man, so the whole physical affection outside of the bedroom was both weird and exciting.
“My mother ensured that my physical appearance would adhere to the Asgardian ideal as much as possible though I could never maintain a body like Thor.”
Tony made a face. “He’s a bit much honestly—I can’t say he’s unattractive, but he’s not my type.”
“His magical abilities are deeply invested in keeping him fit and strong—he was trained from an early age to be a warrior. While I stayed at my mother’s side.”
“To learn magic.”
“Yes, but also…” Loki frowned. “Perhaps they worried that my Jotun nature would get the better of me. I imagine they believed that her persistent influence would gentle the beast.”
“Hmmm.” Tony ran his fingers through Loki’s hair. “You consider yourself a beast?”
“You’ve never seen what I really look like,” Loki murmured.
“I’ve seen too much of this universe to mistake the exterior of a person for the heart of them,” Tony said. He used his thumbs to the smooth the skin over Loki’s forehead. “Show me.”
“Tony.” Loki took a deep breath. “I…” He closed his eyes.
“Open your eyes.”
“I don’t want to see the horror on your face,” Loki admitted hoarsely.
“You won’t,” Tony promised rashly. “I swear.”
Loki opened his eyes, and slowly his glamour fell away leaving pale blue skin behind and red eyes. The ridges on his forehead were very thin, and Loki’s facial structure remained essentially the same.
“One of your parents was most certainly not Jotun,” Tony said quietly. “There’s nothing monstrous about you, Loki.”
“You just like blue aliens,” Loki said with a huff. “You’re making a collection.”
Tony grinned. “Blue’s my favorite color.” He sighed as Loki’s glamour slowly fell back into place. “I mean it—you’re not horrifying at all.” He sat back on his lover’s thighs. “Later on can you do that again while you’re naked? I’m dead curious about the Frost Giant dick situation.”
Loki sighed. “You’re such an asshole.”
* * * *
“Hercules is ready to confirm HYDRA activity in regards to the attack on Advanced Idea Mechanic’s research facility,” Jarvis reported as Tony settled down at his worktable in the private lab. “Internal communications within the HYDRA network indicate that the loss of their Winter Soldier program made them seek out an alternate method of acquiring enhanced combat assets. Dr. Hansen’s work on Extremis caught their attention due to Aldrich Killian’s dealings with the organization.”
Tony cupped his coffee cup in his hands as he considered that. Taking Bucky Barnes from HYDRA had more consequences than he’d been able to anticipate but he knew, intellectually, that he couldn’t control how anyone responded to his actions. Ending the threat of the Winter Soldiers had been the right decision. Exposing HYDRA within SHIELD had been the only decision he could’ve made. Cutting off their resources and preventing them from carrying out their long reaching plans was paramount to the whole saving the world thing.
The way that had gone down in the previous timeline had been ugly. It had ruined the lives of many innocent people, and it had put them all on a very destructive path that had caused the deaths of billions. Too many mistakes and bad decisions had led up to the moment Thanos snapped his fingers. Vision should never have existed, and the Mind Stone should’ve been hidden away permanently. And it would’ve been if they’d known what was to come. Hindsight was a bastard.
“SHIELD is currently in a territorial dispute with the FBI regarding the attack and bombing. They both have legal jurisdiction—one through the Department of Defense and the other through the Department of Justice. Director Fury isn’t interested in cooperating for obvious reasons.”
“No, keeping the infiltration of SHIELD a secret is probably vital to him,” Tony said neutrally. “Has Killian managed to return to New York?”
“Yes, late last night. He immediately blamed you,” Jarvis explained. “And is insisting the entire situation is nothing more than industrial espionage. He’s insisting that SHIELD get a search warrant to find Dr. Hansen’s research which he believes you have.”
Tony sighed. “How is Coulson handling that?”
“Agent Coulson pointed out to Mr. Killian that you’re so far ahead of everyone around you technologically that you don’t need to steal from anyone.”
Tony snorted. “Right. And?”
“Agent Coulson knows exactly what has happened and who is to blame. He won’t be entertaining thoughts of investigating us. However, the FBI is very interested in executing a search warrant on Stark Plaza for reasons that have nothing to do with AIM. They have directives from POTUS to gather all information and intelligence they can on you to bring you back into the fold regarding government contracts. The DOD is keeping its hands clean to avoid any animosity from you.”
“So the Department of Justice is going to do the dirty work this time,” Tony murmured. “Not surprising. Anyone picking at Nebula’s cover?”
“Yes, of course, from multiple directions. Even Interpol took a swipe at my data but my work was impeccable, and there are no holes for anyone to dig into. Incidentally, the woman who supervised Nebula’s homeschooling gave an interview to a local radio station. She refused to discuss individual students due to privacy regulations and stated if she’d signed off on a child’s records then there was nothing abnormal about the child’s performance in the homeschooling system.”
“Did we pay her off?” Tony asked though he really should’ve asked if Jarvis had paid her off. He wondered if he should start monitoring the AI’s activities. He really didn’t want to create some sort of Skynet situation.
“No, Sir, she rarely remembers her own name these days. Nebula’s backstory is quite complete. You even have a collection of pictures dating back to her birth that I generated pixel by pixel. They’ve passed every single test I could fathom so no one can say they were photoshopped.”
Tony lifted his head, and a screen close to him lit up. A picture of himself at around twenty appeared—he had a red-headed child with Nebula’s all too serious eyes on his hip. “For fuck’s sake, J. Don’t show her those. It’s weird.”
“I had to be thorough, Sir,” Jarvis said in his own defense as the screen went dark. “I didn’t want you to look like a deadbeat father.”
He sighed and rubbed his head. “Right. Right. I mean, yeah. Just…gah.” He huffed and left his stool. “I wish…”
Tony looked up and found Nebula standing in the doorway. “I wish I could’ve gone back further and saved you from him.”
Her mouth quirked up in a wry smile. “I was a terrible child.” She walked into the room and sat down on the stool he’d abandoned. “I’ve seen all the pictures. Friday showed me. She didn’t want me to see one by accident at a later date since she was afraid I would respond badly. I admit that the pretense can be difficult at times. A part of me could just…sink into this life and pretend I’m exactly who everyone believes me to be.”
Tony stared at her a moment. “You are Nebula Collins Stark. That’s who you’ve chosen to become, and all of that crap in the past means nothing. You don’t need to pretend anything—we made a choice to be family, and that’s what we are. Fuck anyone who would question it.” He cleared his throat when she smiled, and her eyes darkened briefly. “Right. Jarvis, tell Hercules to find and destroy the Extremis data. The last thing we need is for HYDRA to have the ability to make super soldiers or human bombs.”
* * * *
Tony left Happy on the sidewalk in front of the yellow brick apartment building. May Parker hadn’t been pleased with the destruction of her hair dryer. But more, she was distraught that Peter had kept a secret from her and actively lied to hide Spiderling so the kid was grounded, and she had requested that Tony retrieve his wayward robot child. He took the stairs up and quickly knocked on the door.
Ben Parker opened the door and blinked in surprise. “Dr. Stark, I…thought you’d send a member of your staff.”
Tony grinned. “I think I’m semi-required to pick up my own robot offspring when they misbehave.”
Ben sighed. “Yes, we apologize for not noticing him sooner. I can’t imagine how much that thing cost.” He flushed. “I’m just glad Peter didn’t break him…he’s never done something like this before. I don’t know why he took him.”
Tony frowned. “Oh, no, he didn’t steal my spider bot.” He entered when Parker motioned him in. “Spiderling followed Peter and May home from the Lego Build.”
“I…are you certain?” Ben asked. “We just assumed Peter was lying about that as well.”
“I’m very certain. I could even tell you the route he took to get here and how he managed it. Spiderling sent video footage back to Jarvis, the AI that governs Stark Plaza, of himself riding on the top of the bus they took home.”
Ben snorted. “I…” He exhaled. “Being a parent should’ve come with a manual. I’ll get Peter. Please take a seat.”
Just a minute passed before all three Parkers appeared; Peter was clearly upset and had been crying. He was clutching Spiderling to his chest. The bot, for his part, had his legs curled into the kid’s T-shirt.
Peter hurried over and thrust Spiderling at him. “I swear I didn’t steal him, Mr. Stark. I wouldn’t do that!”
Tony took Spiderling and set the obviously pouting bot on the couch beside him. “Hey, kid, I know you didn’t steal him.” He patted Peter’s shoulder gently. “You really should’ve told your aunt and uncle that he followed you home.”
Peter flushed. “I just…I like him so much, Mr. Stark.” He lowered his gaze. “He’s fun, and he made me a hammock in my closet.” He flinched when May sighed. “I was going to bring him back on Friday, I promise.”
“I know.” Tony grinned then. “Spiderling told Jarvis all about your sneaky plan to get him back to the mansion.”
“I won’t get to help finish the Aurora,” Peter said. “I’m grounded for two whole weeks.”
“Just one,” Ben said in correction. “We’re sorry that we didn’t believe you when you told us you didn’t steal the robot, Peter.”
Tony focused on Peter who’d relaxed slightly at that news. “Now, the next time you want to have a playdate with Spiderling—you have to ask permission. I’ll be having a long talk with him because what he did was dangerous and he could’ve been destroyed at several points during his little journey. He should’ve asked me if he could spend the night at your house. I wouldn’t have told him no because I trust you would take excellent care of him.”
“I would!” Peter exclaimed. “I did. I even made him a charging station because his battery got really low.”
“I’m going to get him a new battery so that won’t happen again,” Tony said. “But he’s going to have a bit of a timeout himself for not following my rules and ignoring safety protocols in favor of adventure.”
Peter’s eyes widened in horror. “Are you going to reprogram him?”
“No, I wouldn’t destroy his personality like that, but I will have to insert some protocols to make him behave a little better.” Tony flicked Peter’s nose. “Kind of like getting grounded is going to give you some food for thought, right?”
“I hardly ever make the same mistake twice,” Peter exclaimed.
Ben Parker laughed.
Tony picked up Spiderling who curled around his hand briefly then scurried up to his shoulder to sit. “Now, since I replaced your aunt’s hairdryer—I’d like to take your charging station with me. Is that okay?”
Peter nodded with a blush. “I’ll go get it.”
He dashed off, and Tony stood.
“You didn’t have to replace it,” May blurted out. “But thank you.”
“I figured since I fully planned to take his little project away from him that I owed you a replacement. I don’t know how…stable his build is, and it might be a fire hazard.” He winced when they both paled. “He’s a smart kid, but there’s a reason why we don’t allow them to build big projects with that much wattage at their disposal. We’re honestly lucky he didn’t electrocute himself.”
Peter came back with a shoe box. “Can Spiderling really spend the night sometime?”
“As long as your aunt and uncle agree,” Tony said. “Perhaps before school starts.”
Ben just nodded and rubbed his face with one hand. “We’ll talk about it, Peter.”
Tony figured that the reason they were all in the gym breathing deeply and trying to find their inner peace was that they were all essentially petrified of disappointing Frigga. Despite not tossing her title about, the woman had a queenly air that gave everyone pause. Tony had caught Rogers in an almost-bow to the woman three different times. He was sure it confused the fuck out of the Capsicle, which was amusing enough on its own.
“I don’t have inner peace,” Nebula announced.
Bruce Banner snorted. “Me either.”
Frigga inclined her head and stared pointedly at both of them.
Nebula huffed. “I’m in a deeply hormonal place in my physiological development. Inner peace is impossible. Yesterday, a man propositioned me on the street while I was walking to the deli to get some cookies, and I barely stifled the urge to kick him in the face.”
“We are attempting to organize the present mind,” Frigga said. “In order to create a rational and thoughtful place from which to make decisions during a crisis. This is especially important to you, Bruce. The more rational you are, the more control you have, and the less likely that Hulk will feel the need to emerge to defend you. Moreover, he is absorbing all of this information as well. The more rational he is—the more control he will have. At his size, that is crucial.”
Bruce slouched slightly. “Thank you for taking the time to teach us even if we’re terrible.”
She smiled and glanced toward Loki. “I’ve had many years to get used to dealing with impatient, easily bored children.”
Loki huffed. “I’m the only one doing the exercise!”
“That’s not true,” Steve said instantly. “Betty and I are doing them, too.”
“Kiss ass,” Nebula muttered, and Rogers blushed furiously.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” Rhodey interjected. “I’ve extensive military training. I can make rational, thoughtful decisions in any situation.” He fidgeted when Frigga focused on him. “But I do enjoy your company, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rhodes. You’re here because you’re part of the team.” She waved a hand to encompass them. “And this is a team-building exercise. You have a very disciplined mind, but your partners in this endeavor do not. My husband has always believed that it is best to lead by an example. It is your duty to set a proper example for the others as you have the most experience.”
Rhodey stared. “I’m beginning to see where your son gets his ways, and I don’t think it has a damn thing to do with all those books he reads.”
“With apologies, I must interrupt,” Jarvis interjected.
Tony rolled to his feet. “What’s going on, J?”
“Phil Coulson and another SHIELD agent entered the building two minutes ago, and they’re demanding access to Captain Rogers.”
“Son of a bitch,” Tony snapped. “Have we been infiltrated?”
“I have no data breaches, Sir. This is a leak of the human variety. I’m currently reviewing all of the employees that are in the know regarding the project. While plenty of employees have seen Captain Rogers—it was decided that no one would make the connection between him and a man believed long dead. Perhaps that was a mistake. Security is asking for instructions. Mr. Hogan is in Los Angeles with Ms. Potts.”
Tony focused on Steve. “Your call.”
Steve frowned. “I…I don’t want them to know a thing about Bucky. He can’t defend himself, and I don’t want them to try to confiscate him and repurpose him for their own goals.”
“Agreed.” Tony looked around the room then focused on Frigga. “Thoughts from the rational corner of the universe?”
She smiled beautifully. “Invite them up for a conversation.” She stood and stretched her arms over her head. “Let’s change our clothes—presentation is everything. Uninvited guests are still guests until we decide otherwise.”
Everyone dispersed to do as instructed and shortly they were all situated in one of the more relaxed conference rooms with a variety of work spread out across the table. Steve, who had been an artist before enlisting, had been recruited to do the interior design for the Aurora project. Nebula considered aesthetics a waste of time, so she’d happily thrown all of it at Steve at the first indication that he was interested. He was incorporating the data that Loki had given him regarding mental stimulation and stress relief into his designs.
Tony leaned back in his chair and set aside his tablet as the doors opened and Coulson was escorted in by security. Melinda May was at his side. He raised an eyebrow at that and wondered what Coulson though the situation could evolve into if he’d brought the Calvary onto his property. He’d never actually met Agent May, but he knew enough about her to be highly irritated by what he considered a genuine show of force on Coulson’s part.
“How can we help you, Agents?” Tony asked.
Coulson glanced around the room. “I was hoping to speak with Captain Rogers alone.”
Steve looked up from his sketch pad and put down his pencil. “I’d rather not, Agent. You can speak to me now in front of my friends or not at all.”
“Your friends,” Coulson repeated.
“They saved me,” Steve said evenly. “Treated me like a person instead of a weapon when they did so. Because of Tony, I have food, shelter, clothes on my back, and a job to pay my own way. I also have a lawyer and a schedule in place to teach me about the world I’m now living in. So, yes, they’re my friends. I owe them a lot. Tony and my lawyer will be helping me announce my return next month. Until that time I do hope your organization will keep the information you obtained illegally to yourself.”
“There are plenty of people, Captain Rogers, who believe that Mr. Stark had no business keeping your retrieval a secret.”
“People who think of me as an object they own, you mean,” Steve said evenly. “And I’m no longer a captain. I haven’t been in the Army since they day they declared me KIA so they could hold a propaganda filled funeral parade to stir up patriotism and encourage enlistment for the Korean War. I’m still catching up, Agent Coulson, and I have a long way to go. I won’t be making any decisions about my future until I’m confident that I know what my real options are. Being swallowed up and used by a government agency that operates primarily in the shadows doesn’t appeal to me at all.”
“Director Fury would like to have a conversation with you. Would you be willing to come to our headquarters?” Coulson asked.
“Has Director Fury managed to completely eradicate the HYDRA presence in the organization?” Steve questioned, and both agents frowned. “Because I have to tell you, Agent Coulson, I sacrificed my life to defeat those bastards, and it’s really irritating to know that they found shelter and the ability to grow in the very organization that Peggy helped create to fight them. Clean up your house, and I’ll consider a conversation with Nick Fury. Until then, I have no interest whatsoever in being in the company of Nazis or Nazi sympathizers.”
He pulled his sketchbook back into place in front of him and picked up his pencil. “Dr. Odinson, do you have the final dimensions on the viewport you requested for deck six?”
“No, I’m still waiting on the math from Nebula.”
Coulson took a deep breath, and Tony raised a hand. “Let’s talk outside, okay?”
Tony motioned the two agents out into the hallway and closed the doors behind them. “Look, the man’s not ready for whatever Fury might have in mind. I realize you’re low on resources you can trust, but Steve Rogers is not the answer to your problems. He won’t be in any condition to see any sort of action as a soldier for quite a while.”
“We know he’s immune to PTSD,” May said flatly.
“True but he’s grieving the life he lost and the dreams he had. He’s twenty-seven years old living sixty years in the future. Cell phones baffle him; he’s broken three tablets so far because he touches them too hard for fuck’s sake. I’m going to have to create a whole new kind of glass just to deal with that issue. You realize they threw him into the field as a soldier with little to no training, right? He didn’t even finish Basic Training, Coulson. He was field promoted to Captain but never had a single moment of instruction on how to actually be an officer. He’s strong, yes, but he survived the war because he’s smart. That being said, the man sacrificed himself to save the world, and he deserves all the time he needs to get his feet under him and figure out what he wants to do with his life. Steve Rogers is a human being not just a super soldier.”
Coulson leaned against the wall, face red, eyes averted. “I know. But Fury wants him.”
“Fury can fuck off,” Tony said evenly. “And I mean that. He doesn’t want to test me on this, Coulson. I believe I’ve earned more consideration from SHIELD than that. I’ve done my very best by you and yours.”
“You have,” Melinda said in agreement. “I won’t participate in an involuntary retrieval, Dr. Stark, but neither of us can guarantee that Directory Fury will back off.”
“That’s why I have lawyers,” Tony said evenly.
Phil laughed. “We’ll leave you…and Tony?”
“Thank you—wow—you saved Captain America.”
Tony grinned. “Rein it in, Agent, I don’t think he’s ready for you to go full fanboy.” He waited until they were halfway down the hall before calling out. “Hey, if you ever decided to take me up that job offer, bring your gorgeous friend along with you. She looks like a badass.”
Melinda May offered him a smirk over her shoulder.
Tony opened the doors and stepped back into the conference room. Steve was standing near the back in front of the single window.
“How dangerous is SHIELD?” Steve questioned and turned to face Tony. He leaned on the windowsill and exhaled deeply. “I wouldn’t want them to try to force an extraction in the plaza, Tony. Innocent people could get hurt.” His gaze flicked briefly toward Nebula as he spoke.
“I can take care of myself,” Nebula said. “My prime suit has six different configurations for flight and close combat. I also have a host of nano-constructed weapons I can draw out of my bracelet at any point should I need them.” She shrugged when Tony gaped at her. “What?”
“I didn’t build weapons like that into the bracelet.”
“I made some modifications.” She stood and with a flick of her wrist a vicious looking short sword flew out of her bracelet and slapped into her hand.
Tony walked to her and took the sword when she offered. “You are terrible at sharing your toys. I want the specs on this.”
She just grinned.
Tony checked the balance of the sword and ran one finger along the flat of the blade. “Very nice.”
“Bruce took me to see a blacksmith. I paid attention.” Nebula took the sword when he offered it, and it bled away into her bracelet with another flick.
Tony turned to Steve. “SHIELD has the potential to be very dangerous. Nick Fury is used to getting his way. Like I told you before—he’s a patriot, but he’s also manipulative and pragmatic. He’s not fond of me because I never toed his line, and while I have many issues with my father’s business partner, Obadiah Stane thrived on making it impossible for people like Nick Fury to influence me after my parents were killed. Various government agencies, SHIELD included, were very interested in gaining control of me and my work. Stane protected me for his own reasons—good and bad. But I don’t believe Fury will stoop to illegal actions to gain control over you. Perhaps he’d have done some shady shit to get ahold of you before you were thawed out so he could control you and the information you were given.”
“You’d have been very easy to manipulate when you were first thawed,” Loki said. “That’s why we were careful to give you factual information and as little opinion as possible regarding circumstances unless you directly asked for it. We’re not saying you’re naïve, Steve, but your experience has left you psychologically vulnerable.”
Steve nodded. “I get it.” He glanced toward Nebula then focused on Tony. “Can you put a shield in my bracelet?”
Tony grinned. “Are you sure you want to? The suit offers you anonymity, but a shield will stand out and make it obvious who you are.”
“One of us needs to be the public face,” Steve shrugged. “Of whatever this team is turning out to be.” He waved a hand to encompass them. “I’m the obvious choice, I guess. Eventually, we’ll be expected to answer to someone or something.”
“I have some thoughts about that,” Betty interjected. “I’ve been investigating a few options, and I believe that we should approach the United Nations Security Council when the time comes. We shouldn’t attach ourselves to any single government.”
“Agreed,” Rhodes said. “International peacekeeping has a broader appeal. We need to be above squabbles between countries.”
“We should have a name,” Nebula interjected.
Tony grinned at her but didn’t say anything. He could very well imagine the internal rant going on in her head about the Guardians of the Galaxy and her sister’s stupid friends.
“Iron Legion.” Steve focused on Tony. “Iron Man’s our leader—we should be the Iron Legion.”
“Don’t you think you or Rhodey would be better suited…” Tony trailed off when Steve shook his head.
“It’s become obvious, Tony, that I need someone to draw the line for me. You have a good heart and a strong moral center. Rhodes is a soldier, and he spent his entire career being pointed toward the enemy.” Steve glanced toward Rhodey who just nodded his agreement. “We’ll follow your lead. You’ve not led either one of us astray so far.”
“Iron Legion,” Tony agreed. “Dr. Betty, you keep looking at that UN thing and get us ready on that front as soon as possible. The situation with HYDRA won’t be contained forever, and they’ll come knocking eventually. They’re going to want Barnes back.” He cleared his throat and tapped his bracelet to his chest three times. His suit spun out around him. “Iron Man.”
Nebula grinned and did the same. “Banshee.” Her blue armor, complete with wings, enveloped her.
“I love the wings!” Betty exclaimed and activated her bracelet. “Iron Maiden.” He’d given her gold and Hulk green.
Loki tossed his feet up on the corner of the table as his own armor swept out of the bracelet in dark green and black. Tony had incorporated the horns from his traditional armor as an art deco design on the helmet. “Chaos.”
“That’s badass,” Rhodey told him and stood as his all black armor enveloped him. “War Machine.”
Bruce wet his lips. “I have…hmmm…two configurations. My suit is programmed to automatically compensate for the big guy.” He tapped his bracelet three times hesitantly and armor the color of Hulk spread over him. “We went with Hulk as my codename since I know he’ll respond to it.”
Frigga focused on Steve. “Well?”
Steve flushed. “It’s a little weird. I’ve only done it twice since Tony fitted me.” He tapped the bracelet against his chest the way Tony had. His armor was silver with black accents. “I’ve chosen…call me Avenger.”
* * * *
“If my mother asks for a suit…” Loki trailed off when Tony focused on him.
“Don’t even think about asking me to tell her no,” Tony warned. “She took a sword to the gut in the previous timeline—armor would’ve prevented that. As it is, I’m tempted to design her an entire wardrobe made out of the vibranium mesh.”
“My father would not be pleased to find out she was flying about Midgard in an armored suit,” Loki said.
“Good thing he isn’t king here then, right?” Tony said and laughed when Loki looked at him appalled. “Relax, she hasn’t asked, and I don’t think she will.” He leaned back on his hands and stared at his lover. “You leave the tower sometimes when I’m asleep. Where do you go?”
“I don’t need as much sleep as you,” Loki said. “Sometimes I spy. My public profile is increasing, so I’ve been to Norway a few times to shore up my identity. The human memory is easy to influence—I’ve hurt no one with my actions.”
“I trust that you wouldn’t,” Tony said.
“Because of the hammer?” Loki questioned.
“I had you in my bed before you ever tipped that hammer over,” Tony said. “Besides, that asshole hammer wouldn’t let me pick it up and I’m awesome. I don’t know if I trust its judgment.”
Loki laughed. “Right.”
“Who have you been spying on?”
“The Ancient One, Fury, and sometimes I check on your boy to make sure he is safe and sound though I haven’t been recently or I’d have known he had Spiderling.” Loki shed his clothes with a swish of magic and crawled onto the bed then across Tony’s lap.
“I thought you didn’t want to be around the Ancient Bald Lady or her people ever again.”
“Self-preservation won out.”
Tony let himself be pushed backward, and he relaxed on the bed. “Are you worried that she’s going to use the Space Stone?”
“No, she hid it just as said she would and, moreover, she used her own magic to hide that information from herself. She’s not entirely virtuous, but she does do her duty to this world. I’ve been watching her to learn her form of magic, and I made my own version of the ring they use to create portals.” He lifted one hand, and the ring shimmered onto his hand. “I won’t be at their mercy again.”
“Good.” Tony stroked Loki’s thighs and wet his lips. “Get rid of my clothes.”
Loki used one finger to make a trail down Tony’s chest as he removed Tony’s clothes magically. “How shall we pleasure each other tonight?”
Tony paused at the question and relaxed under his lover as Loki rubbed the thick length of his cock the same path his finger had taken. “What do you want?”
“You.” Loki shifted forward and let his hands fall to the mattress on either side of Tony’s head to kiss him.
There was a time when kissing was a means to an end, but as Loki stretched out over him and pressed their mouths together, Tony was forced to acknowledge the real intimacy of the foreplay they often indulged in. Loki wasn’t like any other man he’d ever slept with. The Asgardian had a very hedonistic approach to sex, and Tony found it very easy to surrender to the pleasure of it. Tony groaned as Loki dragged his cock over his stomach repeatedly.
Loki lifted his head, and their eyes met. “I want to ride your cock.”
“You haven’t done that in a very long time,” Tony said quietly, he trailed his fingers through Loki’s hair. “I don’t need it if it makes you uncomfortable.”
“I trust you.” Loki slowly sat up and slid right down onto Tony’s cock with a pleased sound. “Besides, we’d need a lot of magical assistance to actually get pregnant.”
“Whoa.” Tony caught Loki’s hips and sat up. “Say what?”
Loki smirked. “Come now, Anthony, I thought you were very experienced with the ways of aliens.”
Tony flushed and cupped Loki’s ass. “You can…hmmm…get pregnant?”
“With another Jotun or even an Asgardian? Easily if I didn’t take precautions,” Loki admitted. “I haven’t allowed a male to enter me since I became fertile. Thor hasn’t either—is a grave matter to fall pregnant accidentally when one is heir to the throne of Asgard. He and I also take potions to make our sperm infertile. Though I don’t need such a thing with you.”
Loki pressed him back, and Tony allowed himself to relax against the pillows. “Relax, Tony, I’d never go about making a child without your explicit agreement. Besides, we’d both have to take potions for months to accomplish it, and I’d have to go to Asgard for most of the gestation. We have far too much on our agenda for that kind of indulgence currently.”
The idea of having a half-alien baby with Loki wasn’t scary or weird at all. In fact, he was 100% on board with it, and that was ridiculous. Tony wrapped one hand around Loki’s cock and stroked him as he acknowledged that he’d managed to fall in love.
“I’ve done something stupid.”
Loki quirked one eyebrow as he rocked slowly on Tony’s dick, his cheeks flushed with pleasure. He brushed his fingers over Tony’s heart. “I won’t break it, love.”
“I won’t try to change you or manage you. I won’t berate you for doing foolish, reckless, heroic things better left for younger men.” He grinned when Tony huffed. “I won’t judge you or mislead you. I’d lay down and die before I’d betray you. And though I may wander from your side from time to time—I’ll always return because I’ve done something stupid, too.”
“How did I get so lucky?”
“Well, you did save the universe,” Loki said wryly and grinned when Tony laughed. “Now hush, you’re throwing me off instead of getting me off.”
* * * *
Tony snagged two bottles of water and shut the fridge. He turned and yelped at the sight of Frigga. She laughed.
“You’re a very sneaky woman,” Tony said huffily. “Did you teleport in here?”
Frigga raised one eyebrow. “I’m not so lazy as that—it would be a waste of my magic. I don’t have as much as my son does to burn.” She came completely into the room and plucked a banana from the fruit basket. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” Frigga murmured as she walked to the trash and started to peel her fruit. “I cannot promise that I will know the answer.”
“Why are you here? Thor told us you’d been having disturbing dreams and visions. I would think you’d feel safer in your husband’s realm if that were the case.”
Frigga motioned him toward the table, and she plucked a napkin from the basket in the middle to put her banana on. “All of my life, since before I even married Odin, I’ve dreamt of my own death. I’ve known who would do it and why since I was little more than a child.”
“That’s a horrible gift,” Tony said neutrally.
“Such is destiny,” Frigga murmured. “I was born with the gift of foresight. A few months before my son left Asgard in favor of this place my visions began to change dramatically. I died differently each time until I could no longer see the truth of my own future. It was disconcerting, to say the least. I found peace a long time ago with my fated death. Then suddenly, the visions stabilized and my mind no longer raced with conflicting images. My fate was new, and my death is no longer the violent end I’d known it would be. I’ll die at a very old age, surrounded by grandchildren and even a few precious great-grandchildren.”
“What of Ragnarök?” Loki questioned from the doorway of the kitchen.
“It is still in flux,” Frigga murmured. “Before Thor visited you—there were dozens of different paths that would lead to the end of Asgard, and yet now there is a path that will see our realm safe from such destruction.” She focused on Tony. “I came here because of you, Tony. You’re the center of it, and I don’t know why.”
“Do you want to know why?” Tony asked neutrally, aware that he wouldn’t be able to deny her the truth if she truly wanted it.
“I thought I did,” Frigga admitted and broke her banana in half.
Loki sat down at the table and took the bottle of water Tony had gotten for him. He opened it and drank half of it in a rush then put the bottle down on the table. “Mother, will you tell me what actions I have to take to prevent Ragnarök?”
“It’s not your path,” Frigga said. “It is your father’s, and it always has been. I think you know that. Thor believes it is his destiny to prevent it but…” She shook her head. “All of his strength cannot stand against what is coming.”
“You told me once there is always a purpose in everything Father does,” Loki murmured
Frigga looked up and nibbled a piece of banana. “Did I?” She hummed. “Perhaps in another life I said such a thing.”
Loki smiled, slightly. “Yes, perhaps you did. Do you believe that to be true?”
“Are you going to goad Odin into taking this path?” Tony questioned.
“One does not goad a king,” Frigga said in amusement. “But I imagine if I stay on Midgard long enough he’ll come to fetch me himself, and while he’s still very pleased with my return, I will have his undivided attention in a variety of ways.”
Loki groaned. “Mother, please don’t talk about your personal private time with Father. I cannot abide…”
“Personal private time?” Frigga interjected.
“That’s what Nebula and Jarvis call locked bedroom door activities,” Tony said and stood. “I’m going back to bed—you two can take turns being cryptic with one another without me around to be confused by it.”
Frigga laughed. “Goodnight, Tony.”
“You built a fucking spaceship and didn’t tell me?”
“Stop acting like I cheated on you,” Tony said evenly. “It’s weird.”
Rhodey waved his hands as if to encompass the entirety of the Futurist. “A fucking spaceship! Have you been in space already with it? How dare you!”
Steve snorted but managed to look completely innocent when Tony looked his way. Showing them all the ship was the next step since they had a mission and there was no need to fly across the planet in suits when they had a ship that could get them there and back in an hour or less depending on the route they took.
“We took it on a mission earlier when we retrieved Barnes so, yes, I’ve had it in space briefly to cut down on the length of the trip. It’s not a toy, Rhodey, so I haven’t treated it like one. We’ve hammered out most of the stealth issues and spent some time upgrading the sensors after the situation with Ross.” He glanced toward Bruce and Betty as he spoke. “We also used it during that situation.” Tony raised an eyebrow when Rhodey huffed. “Besides, you don’t need this ship to go into space.”
“What?” Rhodey questioned.
Bruce cleared his throat. “All of our suits are space capable. It was in the literature that Tony passed around for us to read. Space, deep water dives—fully pressurized environment.”
“Who’s had time to read that four hundred page document?” Rhodey questioned.
Tony laughed when the rest of the team raised their hands.
“I wasn’t going to try to fly around in a suit without reading the manual!” Betty exclaimed. “What if I did something wrong and flew headfirst into a building? Can you imagine?”
“You’d survive,” Nebula said. “But you’d probably do some major damage to the building and be labeled a terrorist threat by various government agencies if you were recognized. We should avoid as much property damage as possible, actually, as wanton destruction will factor into how the public feels about us as a team.”
Tony motioned toward the back of the hangar where he’d set up a mission prep area. “Let’s take a seat so Hercules can get us up to date on what we’re looking at with the HYDRA target that SHIELD doesn’t have the political connections to eradicate. We’ve passed along the data to them, of course, but they’ve determined it to be a low priority.”
“Then why is it a priority for us?” Steve questioned.
“Hercules, tell them about Extremis.”
Tony picked up his coffee but didn’t sit down at the table as the others did.
“Wait.” Betty leaned forward. “Who or what is Hercules?”
“Hercules is the AI that I unleashed on the Internet whose sole purpose is to root out and destroy HYDRA. He’s been working the problem since we stumbled across the data. There is no system on the planet that he can’t penetrate given enough time and resources.”
“You built Skynet,” Rhodey whispered in horror.
“I will endeavor, Mr. Rhodes, to forgive you for that,” Hercules said.
Rhodey winced. “Hmmm.”
“I am a very good program,” Hercules continued. “I am dedicated to the protection of innocents and the survival of mankind.”
“My apologies, Hercules.” Rhodey sent Tony a dark look.
“Ignore him, Herc, he’s just mad about the spaceship. Tell them about Extremis.”
“Dr. Maya Hansen, deceased, created the Extremis protocol. She met Dr. Stark in 1999 and pitched the idea to him, but Dr. Stark was far more interested in sleeping with her than researching with her. He did help her, however, solve one of the problems with the project. Maya Hansen was recruited by Aldrich Killian, and using the resources of Advanced Idea Mechanics, they started to work with an upgraded Extremis. Based on what I’ve gathered from various HYDRA resources, Extremis is a method of genetic manipulation using nanotechnology. When it was stolen from AIM, the project was in the animal testing phase.
“Dr. Hansen and her team used Extremis to regrow a rat’s leg. However, ten other rats in the experiment exploded. Fortunately, they were not large enough to cause a great deal of damage to the lab. They tabled animal experimentation and returned to the research phase to fix the problem. It is unknown how close they were to a solution before the AIM facility was assaulted by HYDRA and the data was stolen.
“After Dr. Stark removed Sergeant Barnes from HYDRA’s Winter Soldier program, we reported the situation to SHIELD. The decision was made to destroy the site. It is my belief that HYDRA is searching for a way to make more Winter Soldiers using the Extremis protocol. It could, in theory, be used to modify men loyal to their cause—superhuman strength, physical regeneration, stamina, and intelligence. A fascist organization like HYDRA should not be allowed to keep and use such knowledge.”
“Where is it?” Steve asked quietly. “And how much time do we have before they’ve duplicated enough of the experiment that it won’t matter if we take it away?”
“I think we have a few years before they have a stable soldier they can put in the field,” Tony said quietly. “The one good thing about HYDRA is that operating as they have for decades—they’re very compartmentalized. They don’t spread out their resources. It has, in the past, kept them off SHIELD’s radar. Since they no longer have that luxury, they’ve largely retreated to areas that Fury can’t get to legally. They have a lot of sway in some countries, due to high ranking political connections.”
“If we have a few years—why strike now?” Betty asked.
“Because we can’t leave them any room to make an unexpected breakthrough,” Bruce said. “Moreover, we don’t want to give an organization like HYDRA time to experiment. They won’t…they won’t start on their own people Betty. They’ll take hostages for experimentation—vulnerable people who can’t fight back. Perhaps even children so they can be indoctrinated and used for the cause if they survive.”
Betty’s cheeks flushed, and she averted her gaze. “I…” Her hand clenched into a fist and the pen she’d been fiddling with snapped in two. “Fuck.” She left the table and walked over to the utility sink to wash the gel ink from her hands. “How many people are in the facility, Hercules?”
“There are twenty-seven HYDRA agents assigned to that base. They’re all currently on site. I don’t know how many will be there when the team arrives.”
She nodded and took a deep breath. “And their goal is world domination?”
Betty turned and leaned on the sink. She took a deep breath. “Well, then, let’s go take them out.”
“Are you sure…” Bruce trailed off when she raised her head and glared at him.
“How am I supposed to have babies in a world full of Nazi assholes who want to take over the planet?” She huffed. “Left unchecked those bastards will start another world war, Bruce! 37 million people died in World War I, and 80 million more died during the second. Our world is fragile—peace is an illusion that could be destroyed in the blink of an eye. An organization like HYDRA, living in the shadows, probably has a plan in place to cause enough conflict on a planetary scale so that they can take over.”
“People like your father.”
Betty huffed. “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that one or more of the people involved in my father’s project was HYDRA.” She waved a hand at the screen where Hercules had displayed several pictures during his briefing. “SHIELD destroyed their super soldiers, and they need more. Infiltrating the Bio-Tech Force Enhancement Project that my father was running would’ve been a priority for them.”
Tony’s stomach clenched, and he went to refill his cup. He hadn’t considered that…but then he hadn’t considered the fact that HYDRA would be that desperate to replace Barnes in the first place. They’d rarely used him, as far as Tony knew, after the 1980s.
“It’s not your fault.”
Tony turned to stare at Loki. “I did take Barnes from them. I reported the other Winter Soldiers to SHIELD.”
Loki sighed. “Making the right choice, Tony, doesn’t prevent those around us from making wretched ones in response. In the end, there was no choice when it came to James Barnes unless you were prepared to kill him, which would’ve resulted in the same behavior from HYDRA. We certainly couldn’t let them keep such a deadly asset. The last thing the world needs is the Winter Soldier.”
Steve cleared his throat. “Is killing Bucky on the table?”
“I…” Tony frowned. “No. If we wake him up and he can’t be…treated, then we’ll put him back in stasis and keep trying. We’ll branch out and find other resources, other scientists to help if required. I know this…person…she’s kind of magical, I guess you’d say. And I don’t say that shit lightly. I’m more than willing to broker a deal with her to get Barnes treatment if required. I don’t want to, certainly, because she’s honestly a bit much.”
“Magic?” Bruce said skeptically.
Tony raised an eyebrow. “You turn into a green giant that has at least nine times your body mass, and you’re going to question the existence of magic?”
Bruce huffed. “Shut up.” He focused on the screen. “Where is this base, Hercules, and what kind of defenses does it have?”
“The base is sixteen nautical miles off the coast of Russia in the East Siberian Sea. It makes the appearance of being an off-shore drilling rig.”
The screen lit up, and Tony viewed the images dutifully. He’d been there before—in the other timeline.
“And SHIELD won’t take it out from a remote location?” Bruce questioned with a frown. “They could easily do that and deny it should anyone ask them.”
“SHIELD is overseen by the World Security Council—one of the more notable members of this council is Alexander Pierce. Pierce once worked for the US State Department and was responsible for Nick Fury’s rise to the director of SHIELD. He is also the highest ranking HYDRA operative in the US. He directs their assets within SHIELD and various other organizations around the country,” Hercules explained. “Nick Fury has been made aware of Pierce’s true leanings, but he cannot currently act on that information due to the way Pierce is situated professionally. The side benefit of that situation is that Pierce hasn’t been able to prevent Fury from eliminating HYDRA assets within SHIELD due to his efforts to maintain his own cover.”
“Hardly a silver lining,” Rhodey muttered. “I hate politics. Who’s protecting this base beyond Pierce?”
“HYDRA does have several assets in key positions in Russia, China, Japan, and North Korea. Their reach is immense and, in some cases, the very nature of the governments they work within protect them from fall-out regarding their relationship with HYDRA,” Hercules said. “Undermining them individually is a long-term goal, and I’ve already started working on various methods of destroying their political worth. I’m also actively redistributing their personal wealth.”
Rhodey snorted. “You’re stealing from them? Seriously?”
“A broke terrorist isn’t as much of a threat as a rich one,” Tony said. “I’m not keeping the money—it’s all going into the Maria Stark Foundation for charity purposes. Pepper is spreading their money all over the world—building schools, clean water projects, providing solar power, creating small business opportunities in rural communities. Money that would’ve been used to destroy people is being used to help the neediest all over the place, Rhodey.”
“Good,” Rhodes said. “That’s great, Tony.”
“It is,” Steve agreed. “I was reading an article online about starving children in Africa. Do you…have a program for that?”
“We do,” Tony said. “We’re already building teams in various countries in Africa that will allow it. We have food closets popping up all over the US as well. The foundation is also creating half-way houses in major cities for homeless veterans. Pepper’s doing her part to save the world so we should do ours.” He focused on the map. “And we’ll start by making sure that Maya Hansen’s work doesn’t turn into a terrible, vicious legacy.”
* * * *
“I’m in love with this ship,” Rhodey whispered as he watched Nebula pilot them out of the hangar. “In love.”
“Don’t molest my stuff,” Tony called out from the back. “Banshee, take us into stealth mode and make sure to get an update from Jarvis regarding air traffic.”
Nebula shot him a look over her shoulder but did as instructed. Falling into the role of team leader hadn’t been in his plan at all. Honestly, the whole situation with the Legion left him feeling vulnerable and worried. Steve Rogers had turned on him once before, and he didn’t know if he could really let that go. Bruce had retreated into Hulk and fucked off the planet in a quinjet which should’ve been impossible. He wondered at Hulk’s actual intelligence. Betty Ross was a mystery—a beautiful, fierce force of nature shaped by her father’s greed and mania. He didn’t consider her a wild card, but of them all, she was the one he knew the least. That being said, he trusted her more than he did Rogers. Though, he’d certainly done all he could to keep Rogers on his side of things. As long as he kept Barnes alive and sane, maybe they had a chance of making things right for the world at least.
“Achieving low Earth orbit in three, two, one,” Nebula murmured. “Congratulations—everyone—you’ve officially left the planet for the first time.”
Rhodey turned in the co-pilot chair and stared at Tony. “The plans for the quinjet you’re building for NASA are nothing like this, Tony. Why?”
“Because this is combat ready,” Tony said shortly. “The quinjet fleet will enable NASA to explore the solar system and build in space. What more could they want?”
“It’s a dream come true for NASA,” Rhodey agreed and turned around to look out the only viewport. “The DOD would bleed you dry of technology if they really knew what you’re capable of.” He waved an arm around. “You’re generations ahead of the rest of us, and most of the time I don’t even know what to do with you.”
“Fifteen minutes from target zone,” Nebula interjected and shot a meaningful look toward Tony.
“Okay, everyone take some time to get in the proper headspace,” Tony instructed. “Go over the plan in your head—remember to use codenames at all times. Keep chatter to a minimum unless you have to go off plan at any point. Stick with your partner in case of injury or issues with your suit. If you lose consciousness during the operation, your assigned AI will take control of your suit and return you to the Futurist. Questions?”
Rhodey pursed his lips and glanced toward Nebula briefly before shaking his head. Tony knew that his best friend wasn’t really on board with her inclusion in field operations, but he wasn’t going to say anything in front of the rest of the team. He figured that they all thought she was too young for it. And if she were really just eighteen, he would agree. He had considered leaving her out of early missions for appearance’s sake, but he needed the rest of the Legion to recognize her skill and her abilities before shit got real.
He sat back in his seat and listened to Loki’s breathing. They’d left Frigga at the penthouse, and she’d promised to have a meal ready for them upon their return. He’d kind of balked at her doing all of that manual labor, but she’d just walked off talking to Jarvis about various delivery services. Living on Earth was probably corrupting the Queen of Asgard, but that honestly wasn’t his problem. Odin could deal with her egg roll addiction when the time came.
Loki slid his palm against Tony’s and laced their fingers together with a gentle squeeze. The ride was smooth, but he shifted slightly forward when the ship dipped back down into the atmosphere.
“Deploying sonar deflection buoy,” Nebula murmured.
“Sonar deflection?” Betty questioned and left her seat to walk near the front of the ship to watch.
“The facility isn’t going to survive our attack,” Nebula said. “I created a device that will hopefully push sea life back from the platform. While orcas don’t linger in the area—it does attract several other species of whales, seals, and walruses. I’m sure the sounds of combat itself will work to drive them back as well but giving them a head start could prevent injury or death.”
Betty patted her shoulder. “Good thinking, sweetie.”
“You spent time making a device to save whales?” Steve questioned.
“They’re innocent,” Nebula said. “And it’s our job to protect and shelter the innocent—even from ourselves if at all possible. We can’t rampage around this planet like brutes leaving nothing but senseless death and destruction in our wake—it’d make us no better than HYDRA or the Nazis you tried to die fighting.” She returned her attention to the ship. “We’re one thousand feet above our target, stationary position locked.”
The back ramp slid open smoothly, and wind swept through the ship as the pressure normalized. Tony released Loki’s hand and activated his suit. The others followed his example. Nebula walked to the back of the ship and dropped off the ramp without a word. Tony paused and took a deep breath.
“All of you keep an eye on my kid.”
“Roger that,” Rhodey said and leapt from the ship next.
Tony left the ship last and let gravity take him as he watched the others land in their assigned positions on the platform. Loki was only ten feet from Nebula when Tony joined them. His boots made contact with the deck, and his team sounded off in his ear, confirming their positions.
“Go,” Tony ordered.
The platform rocked.
“Iron Man, beware that Hulk has utilized configuration two.”
“Understood, Iron Maiden.” Tony started toward the central research facility and hoped the plans that Hercules had procured for them were up to date.
“Communications are down,” Rogers reported. “And Hulk just tossed the helicopter off the rig.”
Tony snorted. “Don’t let the big guy have too much fun, Iron Maiden.”
The report of gunfire made Tony pause briefly, but he pushed through the bulkhead door and motioned Loki and Nebula into different rooms.
“I love being bulletproof,” Rhodey announced. “Four security guards down. I’ve heat signatures on six more—going in.”
“Confirm all external communication with the complex is down,” Nebula said. “Last incoming satellite transmission was six hours ago.”
“Forty-five minutes before our arrival,” Nebula reported. “I’ve downloaded all of the data available, and I’m moving to my next target. The server has been destroyed.”
Tony wrenched open the door to the main lab and found nothing but bodies. He stared, in shock and shared a look with Loki as the god strode forward and knelt down next to one prone form.
“Foam at the mouth, eyes bleeding,” Loki reported. “Everyone keep their helmets engaged—the scientists have been poisoned.”
Tony snagged an empty glass jar from the counter and some swabs which he used to take a few samples of blood. He tucked it into a storage pocket on his thigh. “Destroy all the samples and the computers.” He raised one gauntlet and focused on the server in the room as Loki did the same.
They made quick work of the entire lab and retreated just as Nebula started to enter.
“Avenger, War Machine, set your charges and retreat. Iron Maiden, Hulk return to the ship.”
A few moments later, Tony lifted off the rig and flew upward to the coordinates of the ship. He landed on the ramp and found Nebula standing there.
“Keep your suit on,” she said shortly. “We’re going to have to decontaminate in case the poison was airborne.” She stalked to the front of the ship, and he followed so he could watch the facility blow.
He hadn’t been looking forward to killing the scientists, but he’d been prepared to do it to keep Extremis out of HYDRA’s reach. The fact they’d been poisoned left him feeling both confused and relieved.
“Do you think it was a security protocol?” Steve questioned as the ramp closed.
“Like they poisoned themselves rather than be captured by the enemy,” Loki surmised and nodded. “Reasonable assumption. Or their superiors could’ve put the system into place without their knowledge.”
The rig blew—the fireball spread out below them then what was left started to fall into the ocean.
“Recall your buoy,” Tony said to Nebula.
“Already done,” Nebula said. “There appear to be no human life signs left.”
“Jarvis, prepare the hangar for our return. We’ll all need decon showers in the suit and out just in case.”
* * * *
“Hydrogen cyanide,” Bruce said as he sat down at the table. “Airborne and deadly within a minute. I’m not sure we’ll know for certain if they did it to themselves or if it was done to them unless we can get ahold of a security protocol for HYDRA’s facilities.”
Tony frowned and shifted in his chair. He’d plopped down at the head of the table but had maneuvered himself around so he could put his bare feet in his lover’s lap. Loki was seated on his right with a cup of tea. The Asgardian was wearing a drab green T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants.
“How can you look that good in an old T-shirt?”
Loki grinned and shrugged as he sipped his tea. Nebula left the showers at that point, running a comb through her hair.
“Do we need to clean the Futurist?” she questioned and focused on Bruce.
“No the dissipation rate of the vapor is quick. You all were probably fine after we left the facility, but there was no need to take chances. If this is a common practice with HYDRA, we need to keep it in mind for future operations, especially in a situation where there might be hostages or an asset we want to procure for questioning,” Bruce said.
“Why did the big guy come out?” Nebula raised an eyebrow when Bruce flushed.
“He asked,” Bruce said wryly. “And he promised to follow instructions. Since I was assigned to the outside of the rig just in case he did make an appearance, I didn’t see any reason to fight the change.” He paused and frowned. “Though honestly I’m not sure I could fight the change but, right now, he seems to be willing to let me make a choice.”
* * * *
Tony landed on the ramp and closed it. “Ready.”
Rhodey shifted the ship and directed them toward the next Stark satellite in orbit. He’d been very excited to pilot the ship and obviously surprised to be asked to undertake the sensory net project with Tony.
“Why didn’t you bring Nebula for this?”
“Well, she’s got a YouTube thing this afternoon to do, but mostly I figured we could use some best friend time.” Tony sat down in the seat and prodded his helmet to fall back from his face. “Also, since you’re my second in command at SI, this is part of our deal—keeping track of the weapons we’ve sold in the past to make sure they don’t fall in the hands of terrorists.”
“You’re really worried about that,” Rhodey said.
“I built some terrible things,” Tony murmured. “And, yeah, I’m worried. I don’t want them used to hurt and destroy the lives of innocent people. Also, I don’t want them to be used against American soldiers in the field.”
Rhodey smiled and laughed a little. “One day, Tony, I really hope you tell me why you woke up one morning and decided to save the world.”
Tony stretched out and crossed his legs at the ankle. “Somebody’s gotta do it.”
“He’s as ready he’ll ever be,” Frigga said and shared a glance with her son.
Tony focused on the cryostasis pod and exhaled deeply as he considered the ramifications of her statement. “Does ready equal stable?”
Loki shook his head. “No, we can’t make that kind of determination while he’s unconscious. We’ve removed as much of the Winter Soldier’s memories as we can, but the training is deeply ingrained into his psyche.”
“What about the activation words?”
“I have an idea about them,” Loki murmured. “But it’s going to involve Rogers.”
“You want to tie the words to Steve?” Tony questioned.
“We know that Rogers is a constant trigger for Barnes. We believe that weaving the words into their relationship will strengthen their bond and destroy the power of the words as it relates to HYDRA,” Loki explained. “We’ll have to tread carefully.”
“They’re already going to be disgustingly attached to one another,” Tony said wryly.
Frigga snorted. “Who are you to talk? I rarely see you and my son apart.”
Tony flushed, and Loki huffed.
“Anyway,” Tony said and avoided looking at either of them. “We’ll need to talk to Steve about the activation words. They’re in Russian, right?”
“Yes, I’ve already taught them to him,” Loki said. “It’s a security measure. We need to be able to derail the Winter Soldier if he wakes up instead of Bucky Barnes.”
“So that’s it,” Tony said and rubbed his face. “Has Bruce asked any questions about your time in here alone?”
“No, but I think he suspects that we’re not exactly doing science,” Loki said. “But he’s pleased with the results. Barnes’ PET scans changed dramatically after the last session when we tackled the damage done with his initial training. They used his grief against him—shaped his anger and heartbreak.”
“Heartbreak.” Tony took a sip of coffee. “Using emotional trauma as a weapon is something that SHIELD and HYDRA have in common.”
“They used it on you,” Loki murmured.
Tony nodded and glanced briefly at Frigga before clearing his throat. “Repeatedly actually, in a variety of ways that I can only see now. Retrospection is awful.”
“And useful,” Frigga said and stood. “I recommend that we allow Steve to be in the room when we wake him.” She walked to stand in front of the pod and frowned. “We may only get one chance to make this right for this terribly abused young man.”
“No pressure,” Tony said and cleared his throat. “Right. Let’s get Steve prepped for this and lock down security, so no one gets hurt if things go badly.”
* * * *
It wasn’t unusual to find the whole team sprawled in his living room around the dinner hour, and that’s where Tony found everyone as they returned from the lab. Nebula sat up and looked in his direction.
“I think we have nothing left to gain by putting it off,” Tony said and focused on Rogers. “So, we’re ready to wake up your friend.”
“Or the Winter Soldier,” Steve said and set aside the bowl of cereal he’d been eating.
“Or that,” Tony agreed. “We’ll have security in place, you’ll be there to handle him if he gets out of hand, and Bruce will be the backup. Frankly, as strong as the serum has made various people in this room—none of you are going to get past the Big Guy.”
Steve winced and glanced toward Bruce.
“He promised not to hurt your friend,” Bruce said wryly and grinned when Steve laughed. “I think Hulk has a pretty good grasp of what’s going on and so far he’s been open to communicating about most topics.”
“What’s he balking on?” Tony asked curiously.
Bruce grimaced. “He won’t discuss my father at all, and I guess I can’t blame him.” He shrugged. “I don’t like to talk about him either.”
Tony started to speak but rain and lightning swept briefly over the balcony, and Thor appeared in a flash of Bifrost magic in full battle regalia. “Son of a bitch…” He trailed off with a glance toward Frigga. “I didn’t mean that literally.”
Thor pushed open the doors with a big smile and trotted in like a giant golden retriever. “Mother!”
“You owe me a hundred dollars,” Betty announced and pointed at Bruce then she turned to Rhodey. “And I’ll take that fifty you owe me as well.”
“Wait, what?” Tony questioned as both Bruce and Rhodey produced wallets.
“I didn’t take the bet,” Steve said. “I may look like I just fell off the turnip truck but I know a sucker’s bet when I see one.”
“Come on!” Betty said. “Loki and Frigga? Odinson! Also, there is no way a human being can be as pretty as he is.” She flicked a hand toward Loki. “I told you he was a god.”
Thor released his mother and glomped onto Loki with the same wild, unabashed affection. “Brother.”
Loki wiggled free with a huff. “Are you capable of the slightest bit of discretion, Thor? You’ve just blown our cover!” He glanced toward Betty. “Sort of.”
Betty grinned and pocketed her winnings. “Thor. This is amazing. Wow, look at you. How did you get here? Are you the God of Thunder? Is your hammer magical? Where’d you come from?”
Thor hesitated briefly then unceremoniously shoved his hammer at Loki before approaching Betty with his hands out in greeting. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, I am Thor son of Odin, crown prince of Asgard.”
She took both of his hands with a blush. “Dr. Betty Ross.”
Loki rolled his eyes. “Fuck my life.”
Tony watched Loki put the hammer down like it was a bomb as the rest of his team introduced themselves to Thor without much of a hitch. Even Rhodey appeared more resigned than shocked by the arrival of a god. He honestly should’ve realized that the rest of them were probably onto the fact that Loki wasn’t exactly human. Tony felt like something of an asshole—he’d surrounded himself with some brilliant people then treated them like they were idiots. He glanced toward Nebula who was chewing her bottom lip. Had they given that away, too?
“So, Dr. Betty,” Tony said with a little smile. “Got us all figured out?”
Her eyes widened briefly, and she pursed her lips. “I think your intelligence borders on a mutation if that’s what you’re angling for.” She glanced toward Nebula. “I’ve always thought so actually, and that suspicion only grew more prevalent when I met your daughter.”
“I’ve never been tested for the X-gene,” Tony said. “My father kept me under the radar on that issue, and most people don’t consider intelligence much of a mutation.”
“They would if they’d ever worked with you,” Bruce said. “Your brain is most definitely your superpower.”
Tony shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked on his feet. “I always wanted to fly.”
That earned him several laughs, which he took for a win and watched Nebula relax.
“Sir, we have more guests.”
Tony groaned. “Now what?”
“Director Nick Fury just exited a helicopter that he landed on the roof of the SI tower. He has four individuals with him—including Agents Coulson and May. Security is requesting orders; Mr. Hogan is prepared to violently eject them if required.”
“No, I don’t want anyone to get hurt, and Melinda May is a…force of nature. Clear them a path straight here and tell Happy to keep everyone out of the way. Make sure the elevators are secure. I don’t want any of the other residents in the line of fire. And lock down the private lab, commence with a personal backup and lock down the server farm in the mansion just in case. In fact, send Happy there to handle the physical security of the farm.”
“Is something amiss?” Thor questioned as he picked up his hammer from the sofa where Loki had placed it.
Frigga tossed a bit of magic her son’s way, and his clothes shifted around him into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. “Keep the hammer out of sight for the moment.”
Thor inclined his head, and magic swirled around the hammer before it changed into an umbrella of all things. He put Mjølnir down on the coffee table and walked to stand with his brother. “Are these guests dangerous?”
“Not for you,” Loki stated but focused on Frigga. “Mother…”
She merely raised an eyebrow and strolled to the bar to pour herself some wine. “Don’t fret, dear, I know how to stay out of the way of a brawl.”
Steve sat back down and picked up his cereal.
“Gross, it’s all soggy now,” Nebula said with a grimace in his direction.
Steve shrugged. “I like it soggy.”
“You’re a heathen,” Bruce told him with a disgusted frown.
“What does Fury want with you, Tony?” Rhodey asked.
“I’ve not been playing the game the way he wants. The last time he was here he threatened the kid.”
Nebula made a face and crossed her legs as she slouched down in her chair with her phone. “How much trouble would I get in for complaining about their visit against our will on my blog?”
Tony grinned at her. “Just don’t use their real names.”
“Scary Government Man Visits Stark Plaza,” she decided and started typing with both thumbs.
The elevator doors opened, and Fury strode out with Romanoff, Barton, Coulson, and May in his wake.
“You should probably change that to Scary Pirate Man Visits Stark Plaza,” Betty said loudly and just smiled when Fury turned to stare at her with a frown.
Nebula nodded her agreement.
Fury wordlessly offered Tony a tablet.
Tony made a face and Rhodey smoothly intercepted the device.
“How can we help you, Director Fury?” Rhodey questioned. “You’ve circumvented the security of a privately held complex for some very important reason, I assume.”
Fury inclined his head toward the tablet. “I want Stark to explain that.”
Rhodey walked across the room, turned on the television, and after a few moments a video started playing.
Tony watched himself, and the rest of the team drop down onto the pseudo-drilling platform with a frown. “Looks like someone’s gone full blown Rocketeer.” He walked to stand in front of the screen just in time to watch Hulk pitch the helicopter off into the water. “I wish he were handy—I’ve got a helicopter on my building I’d like to see tossed into the ocean.”
“Don’t play games with me, Stark.” Fury glanced around the room. “I’m not an idiot.”
“No, you’re not,” Tony agreed as the TV went dark. He took the tablet from Rhodey and tossed it toward Clint Barton. The agent caught it. “I don’t owe you any sort of explanation about anything. I’ve never answered to you, Fury, and there won’t be a day where that changes.” He walked to stand near Nebula’s chair. “You’re too big picture, too manipulative, and your ability to be dishonest borders on psychotic. I want no part of the games you play or the people you play with.” His gaze flicked briefly to Romanoff. “Though as far as honey traps go, she wasn’t a bad choice.”
“You knew her on sight,” Fury said. “How? Have you been in our systems? The kid apparently knew her, too, and my agent didn’t notice the two of you communicating that information before she was approached.”
“Jarvis spotted her and told us both that he believed her to be out of place at gathering. It’s his job to be observant, and he’s observed quite a few of your agents since Malibu,” Tony said. “And, no, I haven’t hacked your systems—you don’t have anything I want.” He crossed his arms.
Fury waved the tablet. “This is your tech. You and…” He trailed off and glanced around. “A bunch of fucking scientists entered Russian airspace in flying goddamned suits and attacked a secret HYDRA base. I want to know why.”
“I’m not a scientist,” Steve said. “And I certainly didn’t use a suit to fly into Russian airspace.” He turned to Betty. “How about you?”
“I am a scientist,” she admitted. “But I didn’t use a suit to fly into Russian airspace either.” She turned to Bruce. “Honey, did you fly to Russia without me?”
“I can’t fly anything, I’m not a pilot,” Bruce said mildly. “Besides who has time to fly to Russia of all places?”
“It did look cold,” Rhodey input.
“Enough,” Fury snapped and waved a hand.
Natasha drew her weapon in a heartbeat and pointed it at Nebula.
Several things happened at once—a gauntlet formed on Tony’s hand in a heartbeat, Loki teleported across the expanse of the room directly in front of Nebula, Thor called his hammer, and Melinda May jerked the weapon from Romanoff’s hand and tossed it to Coulson. Loki threw out a wave of magic and knocked all five SHIELD agents on their asses. Coulson rolled to his feet, dissembled the gun and tossed the parts in two different directions.
Nebula slid out of her chair and cleared her throat with a look in Bruce’s direction. His skin was tinged a little green. Tony shook his head, and Bruce could only nod as he backed away. His fingers glanced over his bare wrist.
“What the fuck was that?” Phil demanded as the rest of them scrambled to their feet.
Fury shrugged as he adjusted his coat. “Just testing a theory.”
“On Stark’s eighteen-year-old daughter?” May questioned.
“She’s not really his daughter,” Romanoff said with a scoff.
Tony moved closer to Nebula. “I don’t like what you’re implying, Agent.”
“You don’t have any secrets from SHIELD, Stark,” Fury said. “This girl, whoever she is, is not your child. Your parents couldn’t have kept something like that from me. We had them under surveillance twenty-four/seven since before you were born.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “Including the day they were murdered by HYDRA?”
Fury’s mouth tightened. “They were in a car accident.”
“Bullshit. And regardless of what you think about Nebula’s parentage, you just ordered one of your agents to point a weapon at her. That doesn’t say a lot about your morals.”
“She’s obviously a HYDRA plant of some kind,” Fury said. “Or she’s your source. We know they like to recruit young and indoctrinate.”
Nebula frowned and walked toward Frigga. She paused in front of Natasha and stared at her. “That’s the only free shot you’ll ever get at me, by the way. Your failure will come back to haunt you.”
Romanoff started to respond, but Fury held up a hand.
Tony watched Nebula join Frigga at the bar, and his gaze dropped to the gun parts. His hand tightened into a fist and power thrummed through the gauntlet. “Get out, Fury, and take your pet bitch with you.”
Fury focused on Loki. “Nothing about your background indicated that you were a student of the Ancient One.”
“What I am is none of your business,” Loki said evenly. “Tony has requested you leave. You can do that on your own two feet, or I can make you.” The sling ring shimmered into view on his hand.
Fury raised both hands in supplication. “We’ll go.”
Coulson didn’t move when the others did, and May shifted to his side.
Coulson shook his head. “You’re going down a road I can’t follow.”
Fury exhaled sharply but turned and stalked toward the elevator—Barton and Romanoff followed. At the doors, he paused and turned to look at Tony. “What do you know about the theft at the Fridge?”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “I told you I haven’t hacked SHIELD, Fury. I have no idea who stole your lunch. Maybe you should start keeping it in your office.”
“Lunch thieves are the worst,” Bruce said and shook his head. “You spend all that time making your food then some lazy-ass bastard comes along and eats it.”
Fury glared at them and backed into the elevator.
The doors shut and Tony exhaled loudly. “J, make sure they leave and have security follow along behind them to make sure they don’t leave anything behind.” He focused on Phil. “Hmmm.”
“The girl will need a bodyguard when she starts school,” Melinda May said.
“I have a name, you know,” Nebula said huffily. “And I don’t need a bodyguard.”
“Appearances say that you do,” Melinda said. “The presence of one would deter most threats and prevent those around you from being hurt in the crossfire.” Her gaze flicked toward the dark screen of the television then she focused on Tony. “I want a suit.”
“I don’t,” Phil said firmly. “But if you’re going to run around picking fights with HYDRA you need a mission coordinator.”
“People just keep hiring themselves to work for me,” Tony said and looked at Loki. The Asgardian stared pointedly at Coulson and May for several long moments then gave an abrupt nod. “I’m not sure if I should complain or not since it’s working out so great.”
Frigga poured herself some more wine. “Dinner?”
“Dinner,” Rhodey said firmly. “Lots of food.”
“Food,” Steve said and glanced toward his empty bowl. “Or more cereal. I’m not picky.”
“I’m very picky,” Bruce admitted. “I want real food.”
Tony turned to May and sighed. “Codename?”
She smiled brightly. “Rescue.”
* * * *
“We can truly trust them?” Nebula questioned.
“They made no effort to deflect my mental evaluation,” Loki said. “Not that they could’ve. Over the past few months, Coulson has started to question Fury’s methods in regards to the HYDRA situation and, more importantly, his current refusal to deal with Alexander Pierce. May is loyal to Coulson first and foremost.”
Tony nodded. “Her actions in the future spoke to that. Coulson’s experience will certainly benefit the team, and his credentials will look good on paper when we approach the UN. Eventually, we’ll face some kind of public emergency that will reveal the Legion to the world. If we have a proposal already in place for the Security Council, it’ll hopefully prevent SHIELD from gaining any sort of support regarding controlling us. One of the biggest mistakes I made in the other timeline was joining the Avengers under SHIELD’s purview.”
“You’ve made an outright enemy of Fury,” Loki pointed out. “You might have frustrated the hell out of him in the past but, this time around, you’ve created a very hostile situation, and that doesn’t include how he must feel regarding Coulson’s defection to your side.”
“I’m saving the world,” Tony said. “And men like Fury are trying to burn it down. I can’t help that my side of things is more attractive.”
“What’s on your mind?” Tony questioned. “Why didn’t you respond when she pointed that gun at you?”
“The daughter of Thanos would’ve come unglued,” Nebula said evenly. “But the daughter of Tony Stark wouldn’t really know how to respond in that situation. Besides, I knew that you both would react and that Romanoff wasn’t going to actually shoot me. If they truly do think I’m a HYDRA defector, they want me in custody not dead. They can’t prove one way or another that I’m an imposter, so they’re testing theories.”
“You’re not a fucking imposter,” Tony snapped and jabbed a finger at her. “You’re Nebula Collins Stark.” He glared when she shook her head and shouted, “Say it!”
Nebula flinched. “I’m Nebula Collins Stark.”
Tony huffed and walked away. He was irrationally angry and he knew it. Tony retreated from the conversation and braced himself on his nearly empty lab table. He took a deep breath as the lab doors opened behind him and swallowed hard. When he turned, Steve Rogers was standing a few feet away from him staring at the door leading to the secure lab where they were keeping Barnes.
Nebula was on the other side of the lab, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed. She was staring at the floor, her jaw clenched.
“I was out of line,” Tony said. “I’m sorry.”
Nebula took a deep breath and nodded. “Yeah, okay.”
“I mean it.”
“You rarely say anything you don’t mean,” Nebula said and lifted her gaze. Her eyes were darker than usual, glimmering with tears and it was like a punch in the gut. Only Thanos had the ability to reduce Nebula to tears—most often furious ones at that.
He leaned on the table as the rest of the team came into the room.
“Are you ready, Tony?” Bruce questioned.
“No,” Loki said firmly. “He’s not. We need to give Tony and Nebula a few moments to settle an issue. If everyone not needed for the procedure could adjourn to the observation area? Bruce, Steve, and I will be in the stasis lab when you’re ready, Tony.”
Tony nodded, and Nebula turned on her heel abruptly. She stalked across the room and left the lab via the entrance to the penthouse. He could do nothing but follow. The penthouse was private enough, but Tony wasn’t surprised when she went straight to her own suite of rooms. He was thankful she didn’t slam the door in his face.
Nebula dropped to her knees by the ruhi bush and let her fingers trail through the leaves briefly before she plucked a seed. She slid to her butt and started to peel it. Tony hesitated only briefly before joining her.
“Talk to me, Astro Girl,” he murmured and winced at how hoarse his voice was.
“In the beginning, you were so caught up in your own grief that it was easy to dismiss your attachment to me,” Nebula said. “It felt like a coping mechanism of a sort, and I accepted that for what it was. You were destroyed by the loss of the boy. I saw it—I still see it on your face sometimes. The image of you standing there with his dust on your hands will be with me until the day I die.”
“I don’t think I understood what he meant to me until he was gone,” Tony admitted roughly. “But you’re not a replacement for the Peter I lost, Nebula.”
She nodded and ate the seed. Then she started to tuck the peel into the soil under the bush. “The peel makes perfect fertilizer as it breaks down. My mother had a beautiful garden, she enjoyed growing food plants more than any other kind. At first, it was a matter of survival as my biological father wasn’t a good provider. He was disowned by his own parents for it—to fail to provide for your own spawn was taboo on my homeworld.”
“I upset you.”
“You were already stressed after the issue with Fury and Romanoff,” Nebula said.
“Don’t make excuses for me, Dollface, I was out of line yelling at you like that. I don’t want to have that kind of hostility between us—not ever. Hell, I didn’t even yell at you when you accidentally shot me on Galador.”
Nebula huffed. “I apologized repeatedly. Besides, it was your own fault for startling me!”
“Whatever,” Tony muttered. “Regardless, I am very sorry that I yelled at you and made you almost cry.”
She frowned and shook her head. “It’s…I’m afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“I was ripped away from my mother at a young age. I didn’t understand what was taken from me, really, until Gamora and I made peace with one another. We became family to each other—sisters in every way that mattered. And Thanos murdered her; he took my sister from me just as he’d taken my mother. He’ll come here eventually, and he’ll shatter this illusion we’ve built. Thanos is a destroyer, and that’s all he’s capable of. I don’t want to lose this.” She waved a hand. “I don’t know that I would survive losing you, too. It makes me so mad that I’ve let you get close enough to hurt me. I never intended to allow that.”
“Do you regret coming back in time with me?”
She shook her head. “The damage was already done, and I knew it. You grew on me like a fungus.”
Tony snorted. “Rude.”
“But very true.”
Tony hesitated briefly but then wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Listen, I know neither of us is particularly good at this stuff but I love you. I’m not going to let Thanos destroy what we’re building here. He’ll never gain the power he had before in the other timeline. Loki has verified that the Ancient One hid the Space Stone and that she used her own magic to hide the information from herself. He’ll never arm the gauntlet. Yes, he will come here, but we’ll be ready for him and his army.”
“When Romanoff pointed her gun at me, your gauntlet formed on your right hand,” Nebula murmured. “You clenched your fist—did you feel the stones?”
Tony took a deep breath. “No, I haven’t felt them but that one time. I don’t think I’ll feel them again now that the space stone is permanently removed from the field. There is no chance of me ever wearing an Infinity Gauntlet again.”
Nebula leaned into him. “I love you, too. Sometimes I wish…”
“I wish I could have told Gamora the truth—I wish I could’ve told her what it’s like to be loved by a man who has no sexual interest in me. She has no idea what it’s like to be sheltered in sincere paternal love.” Nebula cleared her throat. “It’s difficult sometimes to take in, and sometimes your expectations are a little…suffocating.”
“Don’t be afraid to tell me when you need a break from all of this,” Tony said quietly.
“I haven’t seen my own face since I activated the skin suit,” Nebula murmured.
She shook her head. “It would take an hour for it to settle back properly and we have a full schedule for this afternoon. Everyone is already waiting for us.”
Tony sighed. “Okay, but take the time to wear your own skin from now on. Jarvis and Friday can make sure you aren’t disturbed.” He stood and offered her his hand which she took then he pulled her off the floor. “We’re a team, you and I, and I don’t see that changing for any single reason.”
“And I know you’re actually a grown ass woman with more experience in fighting for your life than I’ll ever have. It’s not ever been my intention to dismiss where you came from or what you suffered at Thanos’ hands after he stole you from your mother. One day, I’m going to help you kill him again.”
Nebula smiled brightly. “I’m considering disintegration weapons. Have you ever watched Star Trek?”
“You want a phaser? We’ll build you a fucking phaser,” Tony said and prodded her toward the door. “Let’s go wake up Captain America’s emotional support animal.”
* * * *
Barnes’ chest heaved, his fists clenched, and the skin around his eyes wrinkled deeply as if he were forcing himself to keep them closed. His body was tense, coiled for a fight, or perhaps for the expected pain. Tony didn’t know what HYDRA’s process had been for waking the Winter Soldier.
Barnes flinched. “No. Not him. You promised!”
“Jesus Christ,” Bruce Banner muttered.
“Bucky,” Steve said again. “I need you to open your eyes.”
“Stop torturing me!” Barnes shouted. “He’s dead! Just stop! I already fucking surrendered!”
“Sergeant Barnes!” Steve snapped. “Open your eyes as ordered!”
Barnes’ eyes flew open, and his wrists flexed against the restraints in the stasis pod as his gaze landed on Steve. “Stevie…what…oh god, they have you, too?” He started to struggle. “Get me out of here—I’ll fucking kill them.”
“Stop, you’ll hurt yourself,” Steve said and put his hand on Barnes’ chest.
Barnes shuddered, and his eyes fluttered shut again. “Steve…what’s going on?”
“You’re safe now, I promise. We’re in New York. Howard’s son, Tony, saved us both.”
“HYDRA.” Barnes let his head drop harshly against the pod. “I belong to HYDRA.”
“No,” Steve said firmly. “You’re free of them. They’ll never hurt you again.”
“Code words. There are code words. I’m not safe, Stevie.” Barnes opened his eyes then and focused on Rogers. “Put me back to sleep. They’ll find me. I’ll never be free of them.”
Steve looked flummoxed and horrified. “Bucky.”
“Stop.” Nebula pushed Rogers aside and poked Bucky firmly in the chest. “Just stop. We’ve been busting our asses for months to get you here and wake you up. You don’t just get to fucking give up and take another goddamned nap.” She poked him again and his eyes widened in shock. “They used you, tortured you, and destroyed you so they could make you a weapon. You’re going to get out of this pod, figure yourself out, and make them regret every bit of it. Understood?”
Barnes nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You’re beautiful,” Barnes blurted out.
Nebula flushed, huffed then stomped off. “We need to work on the code words first then we can take Sergeant Pity Party out of that pod.”
Steve laughed then, and his shoulders relaxed. He turned to Tony. “Honestly, I can’t see how anyone would question the fact that she’s your kid.”
“We have the activation words, Bucky,” Steve said. “I’ve learned them in Russian. We’re going to break their hold on you, I promise.” He put one hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “желание. живой. семнадцать. рассвет. печь. девять. добросердечный. возвращение на родину. один. грузовой вагон.”
Barnes’ face went slack and his eyes dulled. “Ready to comply.”
“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes,” Steve said firmly. “You were born on March 10, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. HYDRA is your enemy. Those Russian words mean nothing to you.”
“Again,” Loki murmured.
Steve nodded. “желание. живой. семнадцать. рассвет. печь. девять. добросердечный. возвращение на родину. один. грузовой вагон.”
“Ready to comply.”
“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes,” Steve said. “You were born on March 10, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. HYDRA is your enemy. Those Russian words mean nothing to you.” Steve frowned. “желание. живой. семнадцать. рассвет. печь. девять. добросердечный. возвращение на родину. один. грузовой вагон.”
“Ready to comply.”
“Who is your enemy?” Tony questioned.
“HYDRA is my enemy,” Barnes responded.
Tony gave Loki a nod. “Do your thing.”
“Steve, if you would.” Loki stepped up to the pod.
Steve nodded and cleared his throat. “желание. живой. семнадцать. рассвет. печь. девять. добросердечный. возвращение на родину. один. грузовой вагон.”
Loki used his hand to spread magic down Barnes’ face. The fact that they no longer had to hide what he was really doing was something of a relief. Tony watched the magic sink into Barnes’ skin and wondered what it felt like.
“HYDRA is my enemy,” Barnes said after a moment.
“What’s your name?” Steve questioned.
“James Buchanan Barnes.”
“желание. живой. семнадцать. рассвет. печь. девять. добросердечный. возвращение на родину. один. грузовой вагон.”
“Ready…” Barnes trailed off, and he took a deep breath. “HYDRA is my enemy.”
Steve cupped the back of Bucky’s neck and whispered, “желание. живой. семнадцать. рассвет. печь. девять. добросердечный. возвращение на родину. один. грузовой вагон.”
Loki’s magic swelled around them and darkened blue.
* * * *
“Good afternoon, and thank you for taking the time to come to Stark Plaza today,” Tony said. He ignored the flash of the cameras and glanced toward Melinda May who was stationed on the stage directly on Nebula’s right. They’d decided that the public needed to get used to seeing her with her personal bodyguard. Coulson and Happy were working the back of the room.
“It’s my distinct pleasure to announce that Stark Industries has completed a documentary series on the process of cryostasis that will air exclusively on the Discovery channel starting tonight. In January of 1946, my father began a series of search and recovery operations. Many of you know about the annual trip to recover the remains of Captain America. But Steve Rogers wasn’t the only friend that my father lost during the war. Privately, he also began to search for a man named James Barnes.”
“Captain America’s best friend?”
“Yes,” Tony said and glanced toward the reporter who’d spoken. “Exactly. My father believed that Barnes might have survived that fall because he’d been experimented on by HYDRA and given a variant of the super soldier formula. Two years after beginning his search, my father successfully recovered the frozen body of James Barnes. To his relief, the man was alive and in a form of stasis due to his lowered body temperature. The technology to wake Sergeant Barnes did not exist, but my father dedicated decades to the research of cryostasis and various types of suspended animation in his efforts to revive Barnes without damaging him.
“In December of last year, Stark Industries recovered the Valkyrie and the frozen body of Captain America. Based on our research into the Barnes situation, we did believe if we found Steve Rogers intact that he might be alive. We were right. But his condition was slightly different from Barnes’ and, in studying him, we made several discoveries that allowed us to revive both men.
“Captain Rogers has been awake for several weeks, and Sergeant Barnes has been awake for a few days. We’re working hard to get them on their feet and educate them regarding their new circumstances. I also have a team of lawyers on the task of giving them lives because oddly it’s kind of difficult to get legal standing for men believed to be dead for decades.” He rocked on his feet and glanced around the room at the slack-jawed reporters. “Questions?”
“Where is the Valkyrie?”
“Stark Industries turned the wreckage of the German ship over to the Department of Defense several weeks ago when our discovery was leaked to the government. The employee responsible, of course, was fired for violating their contract with SI.”
“Has the government tried to confiscate Captain Rogers?”
“They have not,” Tony said firmly. “Steve Rogers is a living, breathing person—not a piece of government property. The Department of Defense and the U.S. Army specifically have treated him and his new circumstances with the utmost respect. Granted, I have a team of lawyers, as I said, ensuring that both Rogers and Barnes are treated like the heroes they are. These are men taken out of time and thrust into a modern world they don’t understand yet. They’re both intelligent, so I expect they’ll catch up with the world very quickly. Captain Rogers is available for questions, but Sergeant Barnes has requested to remain in seclusion at this time.”
Steve stepped up onto the stage at that point and walked to stand with Tony. He grimaced.
“What?” Tony questioned.
“The last time I was on a stage, I punched a fake Hitler.” Steve flushed and shrugged at the laughter that earned him.
Tony snorted. “Everyone, it’s my pleasure to introduce Steve Rogers, aka Captain America.”
Bruce hated flying. Tony watched Banner hover about ten feet off the floor in his suit. All of the others had adapted to the suits and flying very well. Even Hulk had mastered flight after a few lessons, though he mainly preferred to jump, he was capable of maintaining altitude and following directions during flight. Bruce could do it. He just hated it.
Bruce landed, his boots clanking loudly against the concrete floor of the hangar. “This sucks.”
“Yep,” Tony agreed. “But you almost gave yourself away in front of Nick Fury because you weren’t wearing your bracelet. Hiding the fact that you go big and green is important to your quality of life. That means you wear the bracelet like it keeps you alive.”
Bruce flushed and nodded. “You’re right. It was stupid. I just…” He huffed, and the suit disappeared. He ran his fingers through his hair. “What the hell kind of game was Fury playing with that shit? Anyone who’s spent any amount of time with Nebula would never doubt her parentage. She has your eyes—right down to the little gold flecks around the pupil. Sometimes when she’s talking or working—it’s like looking in a mirror and seeing an alternate version of you. They don’t really think she’s a HYDRA plant so what’s the motive?”
“Fury’s testing the waters regarding controlling me personally for his own gain. He’d fold the Legion into his organization in a heartbeat if he could.” He started to say more but the door opened, and Steve entered. Barnes followed along behind him.
“Hey, it’s my favorite ice cubes.”
Steve rolled his eyes, and Barnes laughed a little.
“Come to see my spaceship?” Tony questioned.
“Bucky didn’t believe you really had a spaceship.”
Barnes flushed. “It seemed…” He trailed off as he ran a hand along the surface of the Futurist. “Farfetched. You’ve really been into space with it?”
“Several times already,” Tony admitted. “We’ll take you up once you’ve gotten over your…hmmm…confinement issues.”
Bucky nodded and blushed.
They’d found out the hard way that Barnes had a real problem with small spaces—the express elevator in the residential tower had been offline for a full day while it had been repaired. Steve had barely contained him long enough to get the doors open. Most of the damage had been cosmetic, but it was a source of some embarrassment for Barnes who hadn’t known he’d developed claustrophobia while he was in HYDRA’s hands.
Tony focused on Bruce who’d paced away from him. “Ready to try again?”
“Look, you can let Hulk take the lead in 95% of our field operations, but there will come a time when I need you more than him. I need to know you’ll have my back.”
“Tony.” Bruce cleared his throat. “You were there for me on the worst day of my life. Even now, you’re sheltering Betty and me in ways that we could never accomplish on our own. You ensured our freedom and certainly my sanity. There will never come a day when I don’t have your back. Hulk’s all in, too.”
“I don’t understand you.”
Tony focused on Barnes who was staring at him. “Pardon me?”
“You have the kind of wealth that the average man can only dream about,” Bucky said. “You’re smarter than your father, which is kind of scary, but you don’t…use it to your own advantage. Why? Is it really about your daughter? Steve’s been showing me all of this press stuff about you…”
“Hell, I don’t know,” Tony said roughly. “I looked at the world, and all I saw was death, poverty, violence, and misery. The world should be beautiful and hopeful, but it isn’t—there isn’t enough hope to spread around so that everyone has some. I want to change that. It’s not about anything more than that. I do have a stupid amount of money and with that comes an obscene kind of power that any good man would shun entirely. In the end, when people think of me, I’d prefer that they think I was a good, loyal man than a war profiteer like my dad.”
“It’s an admirable position to take,” Barnes said and nodded. “Though I’m not sure you’ll consider it a compliment—you do have one very tangible thing in common with your old man outside of your intelligence.”
Tony raised an eyebrow.
“He was pretty, too,” Barnes said wryly.
Tony laughed. “Fuck off.”
The door banged open, and Nebula appeared. “Come. Now!”
Tony lurched off his stool and followed her quickly without a word to the rest of the men in the room. Though they all managed to get into the elevator with them. Even Barnes had slid in, eyes shut and clutching Steve’s forearm like a lifeline.
“The NYPD just issued an Amber Alert for Peter Parker,” Nebula said as she stabbed the button from the proper floor. “He was kidnapped off the street in broad daylight. His uncle died on the scene, and May Parker died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Both were shot.”
“Who’s Peter Parker?” Steve questioned.
“One of the kids who attends our classes in the mansion—the one that Spiderling followed home,” Tony said as his mind started to spin with information about Peter. There wasn’t much. “Jarvis, have Phil and Melinda meet us in the private lab.”
“I deactivated Spiderling—he almost broke off his tether trying to get free and search for Peter,” Nebula said as they left the elevator.
“I’ve requested the presence of everyone, Sir. I’ve redirected Hercules and Friday to scour all camera footage in the city for the boy. We’re hacking banks, traffic cameras, and any private security service with internet access that we can. He was taken three blocks from his home. May Parker was awake and managed to give several details regarding the kidnappers before she passed—four men, dressed in black, in a white panel van,” Jarvis explained.
Tony entered the lab and found everyone else already assembled. He paused at that thought then shook it loose. He didn’t have time to go down memory lane. “Phil.”
“Richard and Mary Parker were scientists—they worked for Norman Osborn for more than a decade, but you’ll not find a single bit of information to support that. They were, like many in their field, working on a variant of the super soldier serum. After those experiments failed, Osborn tasked them with the creation of an artificial X-gene. The experimental path that he insisted on made Richard very wary of continuing the work. He contacted SHIELD and reported the situation. We recruited both him and his wife at that point.” Phil looked toward the big screen where there was footage of a local news channel being played. A picture of Peter was prominent on the screen. “We pulled them from Oscorp when Mary reported she was pregnant. She insisted that her pregnancy be handled by SHIELD assets in a private medical facility.”
“So Peter is their biological child?”
“No.” Phil grimaced. “I shouldn’t be telling you any of this.” He glanced toward Melinda who was staring at the screen.
“Tell them,” she murmured. “We owe SHIELD no loyalty, and the boy is in danger.”
Phil nodded and exhaled. “Peter Parker is the biological son of Norman Osborn and an unnamed ovum donor. He was created in a lab and genetically manipulated. When Mary and Richard found the experiment, they took the embryo. To smuggle him out of Oscorp, they implanted in it Mary. The embryo took so she decided to carry the pregnancy to term though she honestly had no idea what might be emerging. The genetic experimentation was quite extensive.”
“But Peter was born normal,” Tony said. “He doesn’t exhibit any obvious mutation. The kid’s a genius but…”
“He was born with a dormant X-gene,” Phil corrected. “One that could be activated in the right circumstances.” He glanced toward Bruce and Betty as he spoke.
“Gamma radiation,” Betty murmured and looked toward the TV. “If HYDRA is still trying to replace the Winter Soldiers and found out about Osborn’s experiment…”
“Norman Osborn sued the Parkers shortly after Peter was born and insisted on a paternity test,” Phil said. “We made sure that the results he was given would never prove that Peter was his child. He had no idea, at the time, that the Parkers had the resources to pull that kind of thing off, so he bought it. Since the experiment was illegal, he couldn’t claim they stole anything from the company without admitting what they were doing. There is no official link between Peter and the stolen embryo from Oscorp.”
“Then I came along,” Tony murmured and ignored the hand that Loki put on his shoulder. “With my fancy little robot builds and STEM classes that Peter very quickly mastered. Just last week May was talking about getting Peter tested for advanced classes at his school because she didn’t want him to be bored with the material. I agreed that it would be wise because a regular kindergarten class would drive that kid batshit…” He took a deep breath. “I paid him too much attention.”
“This isn’t your fault,” Nebula said.
“I took Barnes from HYDRA, and they turned around and murdered Maya Hansen along with her entire team to get the Extremis data,” Tony said evenly. “We destroyed Extremis, and now a genetic experiment in super soldier creation has been stolen off the streets—his guardians murdered in broad daylight. There were HYDRA operatives all over SHIELD, Dollface, do you honestly think Phil and May were the only ones in the know about Peter.”
“John Garrett knows,” Melinda said. “And he was the Parker’s handler.”
“And he probably murdered them,” Tony snapped. “Goddamn it.” He walked away from the all and just took a deep breath when Loki’s hand settled on his back. He let the man’s magic drift over him a little—the calming influence was honestly better than a shot of whiskey. “J.”
“Hercules has completed a search of Oscorp and all of its holdings. There is no indication that they are in any single way focused on Peter Parker. The genetic experimentation appears to still be ongoing, but no successful embryo has been incubated. Per internal memos, Osborn believes that Mary Parker destroyed the embryo. He was, by the way, thrilled with her death.”
“Fucker,” Tony said roughly. “Start researching and gather whatever resources you need to put together a takeover of Oscorp. I want to own it lock, stock, and barrel by the end of next year. We’ll redirect all of those resources away from anything that might interest HYDRA, and it’ll further protect Peter should Osborn start to question his origin again.”
“Oh, can I be in charge of that?” Betty questioned. “I have some ideas about cancer treatments…”
“Absolutely,” Tony said and looked toward the screen. “Who’s that cop, Jarvis?”
“Detective George Stacy, NYPD, he’s in charge of the case though I do have reports that the FBI is also on the scene to render assistance. The Amber Alert has gone statewide. Friday is reviewing footage from public and private airports. I’m tracking all air traffic leaving the city, and so far none appear to be outside the norm. I’ve tasked Hercules with finding former SHIELD agent John Garrett.”
“He’s been in the wind since the second list hit Fury’s desk,” Phil said. “More than one Level Six asset has been assigned to find and neutralize him. There are no reports that he’s in New York.”
“Let’s make sure,” Tony said. “And we’ll report his location to SHIELD if he is. No need to get our hands dirty with their mess.”
Phil cocked his head. “Is that why you passed us all that information?”
“It’s not my job to clean up SHIELD,” Tony said shortly. “But I would have destroyed the agency wholesale if Fury hadn’t acted appropriately. I still might if he continues to play his stupid game with Alexander Pierce. That guy is dangerous as fuck for a variety of reasons.”
“Agreed,” Melinda said and crossed her arms. “I volunteered to take him out—Fury declined.”
Tony rubbed his face and focused on Coulson. “Is Fury on the wrong side?”
“No, but he’s playing a long game that I don’t have the patience for.” Phil glanced toward Nebula. “And I told him point blank that I’d break with him if he threatened the kid again.”
Nebula scowled. “I’m an adult.” Everyone nodded their agreement. “Don’t patronize me. You’re all assholes.” She slid off her stool and stomped toward the elevator. “I’m going to prep the Futurist.”
“I’ll help,” Rhodey said and followed.
Tony watched Bruce and Betty go with them without a word and focused on Rogers and Barnes.
“I’m coming to believe that my ultimate goal is to do everything I can to preserve Abraham Erskine’s legacy,” Steve said as he stared at the photo of Peter. “I can’t regret agreeing to Project Rebirth, but the lengths people are willing to go to duplicate it is horrifying, Tony. How can I live with this? How old is he?”
“He’ll turn five in August,” Tony said quietly.
“And they murdered his guardians in front of him,” Barnes murmured. “Christ, that poor kid.” He focused on Tony. “What can you do to protect him once we find him?”
Tony took a deep breath as he considered that. He hadn’t let himself, ever, think about having Peter in his life more than he already had. He’d planned to watch over him and guide him as much as he could from a neutral place. “Jarvis, get Joe read in on the need-to-know information. Brief him on the situation with Peter and prepare a petition for emergency custody. Couch it that I’m a concerned family friend. We can’t let Peter end up in the system, HYDRA will just pick him up again. Find the lawyer the Parkers used in matters related to Peter and do what you have to do to facilitate my gaining legal custody of Peter.”
“I can help with that,” Loki said and shared a glance with his mother who nodded. “Find out the lawyer’s name and tell me what kind of paperwork needs to be produced. It’ll happen.”
“We need a Last Will and Testament from both Ben and May giving me custody of their minor nephew. Have me listed as a family friend. May and Peter have visited the mansion a lot this year, and I recently went to their apartment to retrieve Spiderling. It’s not much but, hopefully, it’s enough.”
“I’ll make it enough,” Loki said. “But first let’s find him before HYDRA can get him out of the country.”
* * * *
Twenty-two hours into the kidnapping, Hercules found a HYDRA-controlled ship in New York Harbor that was being prepped for departure. Friday had tracked three different white vans to the harbor. The Futurist made the trip in less than five minutes. It took another twenty minutes for them to trace a gamma radiation signature through the facility and to a specific ship. Tony reviewed the scans of the vessel for the third time and left the co-pilot seat.
“Someone wake up, Barnes. We’re here.” He tossed shade generators at Coulson and May. “A bit more robust than what I gave SHIELD—we’re testing a built-in deflection field.”
May huffed but clamped the generator onto her wrist. “I want energy weapons.”
“I have plans for a laser rifle,” Nebula announced from the pilot seat and stood. She activated her suit with three quick taps to her chest.
Phil leaned forward a bit and frowned even as he attached his own generator. “Should she be going?”
“Don’t worry about her, she’s a beast,” Rhodey said wryly as he activated his own suit.
Tony passed another generator to Rogers as the back of the ship opened. Barnes had insisted on coming but had balked at boarding the ship, so Steve had unceremoniously punched him in the face, then hauled Barnes’ unconscious body onboard. Tony couldn’t fault the man’s problem-solving skills at all. He glanced back at a sharp smacking sound and found Barnes waking up, a neat little handprint on his face. Betty shrugged at the looks she got.
“We probably need to have a really long talk about workplace violence,” Phil said wryly.
“Barnes, you stay with Avenger. Rescue, you’ll hitch a ride with Banshee. I’ll take Coulson. Remember, our goal is Peter’s safe retrieval. Any intelligence gathering must take a back seat to him. Anything we can’t take with us, we destroy. Take no prisoners—these assholes kidnapped a four-year-old to experiment on. If Peter is awake when you find him, just tell him that Spiderling sent you to save him. He’ll come with you; he trusts that insane little bot a stupid amount.”
They all nodded. Tony held out a hand for Coulson, and the man took it.
Moments later, they all dropped down onto the deck of the ship. Bruce hit configuration two just short of landing and Hulk broke off a piece of the loading crane. He swung it around and knocked six large containers off the ship into the water. Tony just shook his head and made for the stairwell. He half-listened to various reports from his team as they encountered HYDRA operatives and cleared rooms. Using heat signatures and Hercules’ information on the ship, he went down deep into the ship with both Coulson and Loki at his back.
They left a trail of bodies in their wake. He was beyond caring about any of that. They’d taken Peter, and the grief he’d brought back with him from the other timeline felt fresh and raw again.
The lab wasn’t a surprise—Hercules had told them the ship was a research vessel. Peter was on a table in the now abandoned facility. He was unconscious but alive based on the readings from his suit. Coulson stepped forward checked his pulse and pupils. “He’s been drugged.”
Tony removed another generator from the storage on his thigh and put it on Peter’s tiny wrist. The bracelet clenched and activated. He picked him up and cleared his breath. “Break off, we have…the package.”
“Understood,” Nebula responded. “My charges are set.”
“I’ve retrieved all that data I could,” Betty reported.
“Destroy what you have to leave behind, Iron Maiden. Then go do your beautiful magic with your beastly other half.”
She snorted. “I’ve been waiting for weeks for that joke!”
“Goddamn it, that’s another twenty,” Rhodey groused.
“Don’t make bets with women, War Machine,” Rogers interjected. “It never ends well. Even when you win, you lose.”
By the time Tony made it to the top deck, the rest of the team was already in the air. Loki plucked up Phil and shot up to the ship without a word. Tony landed first, and the rest of the team followed him in. He sat down on a bench, still holding Peter as Hulk hunkered down in the cargo area.
“I hope not,” Tony said quietly. “J, have you found a proper place to leave him for the NYPD to find?”
“Yes, Sir, we’ll be able to monitor him until Detective Stacy reaches him. I’ve fed the coordinates to Nebula.”
Loki removed his suit and wrapped long, elegant fingers around Peter’s wrist. He pulled the generator free and set it aside. “His pulse is fast.”
“They activated his X-gene,” Tony said neutrally. “We need to find out what kind of modifications Osborn made. Jarvis, set that task for yourself and redirect Hercules to ensuring that HYDRA doesn’t get a chance to make another attempt. I want John Garrett found as soon as possible. Report his location to Nick Fury directly as soon as you have it, don’t even bother being subtle about it.”
Minutes later, Tony reluctantly placed Peter Parker on a cold concrete floor in an abandoned warehouse ten blocks from where he’d been kidnapped. “I…”
“I’ll stay with him,” Loki promised. “Go ahead and have Jarvis call in the anonymous tip. I won’t leave him until the NYPD has him safe in their custody. Go back to the ship.”
Tony nodded and walked away. Every single step felt wrong. He launched into the air as soon as he reached the rooftop and returned to the ship. “Loki is going to stay with him until help arrives. Take us up, and out of the way in case they feel the need to use medflight. His pulse is going to freak them out.”
It took five minutes for the first patrol car to arrive but it was quickly followed by a dozen others, plus an ambulance and a fire engine. Tony watched from the still open hatch as cop after cop raced into the building. Within minutes of his arrival, Detective George Stacy came out of the building carrying Peter. He put him on a gurney set up by the ambulance and surrendered his care to the paramedics.
Loki appeared beside him with a flash of magic. “I need to go start work on the Parker’s lawyer. My mother has prepared several spells for the situation. I’ll pick her up, go do the work, and return as soon as I can.”
“Can you…I’m going to have Jarvis keep track of Peter. I’d like you to stay with him as much as possible once you’ve settled the lawyer issue. I don’t want him to be…I need to know he’s safe.”
“Of course,” Loki agreed. He disappeared again.
“Your boyfriend’s a god,” Rhodey said wryly. “That really puts a whole new spin on magical healing cock.”
Betty snorted, and Bruce groaned.
“What’s a magical healing cock?” Barnes asked from his place on the floor near the ramp. He was focused entirely on the night sky. “Can we fly back home with this thing open? That would help.”
“Yep,” Tony said. “Jarvis, tell Sergeant Barnes about magic cocks.”
“Sir, I have no choice but to lodge a complaint. Ordering me to talk about a terrible romance trope is creating a hostile work environment.”
“Man up, J,” Tony said with a laugh.
“The magical healing cock is a popular cliché in romance and fan fiction that insinuates that all of a person’s problems can be solved by their romantic partner’s dick,” Nebula stated as she maneuvered the ship around and started for home.
“Does it work?” Barnes questioned. “I haven’t gotten laid in decades.”
Tony just leaned against the ship as the rest of the team laughed. He relaxed a little in the wake of their amusement and the teasing comments that followed. Rogers was blushing furiously as Rhodey speculated on how much healing a super soldier’s dick could do.
He thought, for the first time since the Snap, that maybe everything would work out well and that his decision to go back in time had truly been the right one. Tony took a deep breath and glanced between Rogers and Barnes. It was time, he thought, to let go of what happened before and concentrate on the future they were all building together. He needed all of them to help keep Peter safe.
Tony left the back of the ship and moved to the front so he could drop down into co-pilot seat. He deactivated his suit. “You up for big sisterhood?”
Nebula glanced his way and offered him a small smile. “Yeah, I think so. Friday is compiling a list of things we’ll need to get for his room. Plus, we’ll want to retrieve his things from the Parker’s apartment.”
“Yeah,” Tony said and took a deep breath. “Jarvis, start researching child psychologists who deal with trauma and grief counseling. There’s no need to let Peter’s demons make themselves at home in his head.”
“Right,” Nebula agreed. “It’s much better, in the end, to unleash them.” She offered him her fist, and he bumped with it a grin.
Two full days passed before the NYPD and the Department of Social Services reached out regarding the custody of Peter Parker. The boy was under guard at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital. Loki and Frigga had been taking turns watching over him, which had been the only reason that Tony hadn’t full force attacked the situation with a team of lawyers. Their invisible observation had allowed him to let the legal process happen without making suspicious waves.
He’d been invited to the hospital by Detective Stacy, so he’d brought Nebula, Melinda May, and his lawyer, Joe Marshall, to the party. He fully intended to take control of the whole situation one way or another. Peter had been alone except for nurses for two days, and that was over. He shouldered his backpack as they left the elevator and allowed Melinda to lead them to the small private waiting room she’d already vetted for security issues. May, Coulson, Happy, and several other members of SI’s security department had been in and out of the hospital since Peter’s arrival.
“Detective Stacy.” Tony immediately offered his hand. “I wanted to thank you personally for all the hard work you did to find and protect Peter.”
Stacy took the hand after a slight hesitation. “You’re welcome, Dr. Stark. Thank you for staying out of the way and letting us work.” He glanced toward May. “We took note of your people. We appreciate the help on the security front. Our budget is tight.”
“This is Dina Stanley, the Parker family lawyer, and Scott Bowden with Social Services. We’re here to make a plan about Peter’s future custody,” Stacy said and motioned them all to sit.
Tony took a seat. “This is my daughter, Nebula. Her bodyguard, Melinda, and our lawyer, Joe Marshall. It was my understanding, Detective Stacy, that the Parkers left me full custody of their minor nephew.”
The social worker leaned forward a bit. “Yes, they did, but you barely know the child, Mr. Stark. Do you really want to set a precedent like this? People would take advantage of your goodwill.”
Tony frowned. “So you think there would be an epidemic of people leaving me custody of their children if they die?” He looked at Nebula and raised an eyebrow.
She shrugged. “We can always return to the mansion and move the enrichment classes to a new facility. It has twenty-six bedrooms and feeding them wouldn’t be unduly stressful financially. We’d probably have to hire an army of staff for laundry and, of course, to cook since we can barely boil water between us.”
“This isn’t a joking matter,” Bowden said stiffly. “I’ve already arranged a foster home for Peter Parker. I’ll need your signature, Mr. Stark, relinquishing your rights as a potential guardian. A judge will have to sign off on the matter, but it won’t cause you any undue stress.”
“No,” Tony said. “I fully intend to take Peter home with me as soon as he’s released. If you’d like to start a case file, Mr. Bowden, questioning my ability to be a proper parent then you’ll have to contact Joe here to arrange for a home visit. You can do whatever you need to do, but I’m not going to toss Peter into the system because it’s easier.”
He turned to the cop. “Detective Stacy, it’s my understanding that you have the keys to the Parkers’ apartment? I’ll need those so I can arrange for Peter’s belongings to be retrieved. It’ll help him settle into his new situation. Ms. Stanley, you can work with Joe to settle their estate. I’ll, of course, handle any debt they’ve left behind. Their material assets, outside of items of sentimental value, can be donated to charity as stated in their will. There is a life insurance policy—the contents of which will be put into the trust fund I’ve already started building for Peter.”
“Mr. Stark, do you really think this is the best choice for the boy?” Bowden interrupted. “You live a busy, complicated life, and he deserves more attention than you’ll be available to give.”
“Nebula and I are prepared to rearrange anything we must to get Peter settled and comfortable in our lives,” Tony said evenly. “I’ve already started searching for a child psychologist to help him deal with the multiple traumas he’s suffered. Are you telling me he’d better off in the foster care system than with me, Mr. Bowden? I find that very insulting.”
Dina Stanley cleared her throat. “May and Ben were very clear, Mr. Bowden, in their belief that Mr. Stark would be the best choice for their nephew should they pass. Peter is gifted, much like Mr. Stark and his daughter are purported to be. Mr. Stark will be able to provide for Peter’s education and help him reach his full potential. Additionally, should Mr. Stark refuse custody, their will specifically states that I am to find a proper adoptive home for him. They never wanted Peter to be subjected to the foster care system. May grew up in foster care, and she was adamant that her nephew never face such a situation. I’ll take the boy myself before I’d allow it, and I am an additional choice for guardian. Though I happen to agree with my clients, Mr. Stark is the best choice for Peter.”
Bowden stood. “Very well, I’ll report the decision to my superiors, and they’ll make a decision about the necessity of a home visit.” He frowned. “I imagine due to your wealth, Mr. Stark, that you’ll have no problems going forward.”
Tony just shrugged as the man left.
“He was a little judgy,” Nebula muttered.
Or a lot HYDRA, Tony thought. He pulled out his phone and fired off a group text and ordered Jarvis to investigate the man thoroughly.
They met with Peter’s doctor who wanted to keep him for one more night then they were finally escorted to the room.
“Detective Stacy, we can replace your officers with private security if it would help your budget,” Melinda offered.
Stacy winced but then nodded. “My Captain gave me a little grief this morning about the hours so it would be appreciated.”
She pulled out her phone. “I’ll contact Hogan, Dr. Stark.”
“Thanks,” Tony murmured and pushed open the door.
He knew that Loki was currently on duty in the room, so he relaxed as soon as Nebula pulled it shut. He walked around the privacy curtain and found Peter curled up under a blanket. He was staring out the window.
Peter jerked up. “Mr. Stark!” He crawled out of the covers and launched himself off the bed at Tony.
Tony barely caught him and had to take a step back to keep from falling. Nebula put a hand on his back to steady him. “Hey there.”
Peter burst into tears. Tony walked to a chair and sat down with the kid. Nebula pulled his backpack off his shoulder and knelt down in front of them. She put her hand on Peter’s back and said nothing. Loki shimmered into view and gently ran his fingers through Peter’s hair, magic sparking as he did so.
“I’m so sorry,” Tony murmured against Peter’s forehead. “You’re safe now.”
Peter cried harder.
“I promise,” Tony said hoarsely. “We’ll keep you safe.”
“They killed Uncle Ben and Aunt May,” Peter sobbed. “I’m all alone! I have no family!”
“You have me,” Tony said. “And Nebula and Loki’s here, too. You have us, baby. We’ll be your family.”
He sat back in the chair as Peter continued to cry. It was healthy, he thought, to let grief out instead of keeping it inside, so Tony just held the boy until he cried himself to sleep. Loki disappeared and made the appearance of returning the old fashioned way so there would be no questions. Eventually, Tony left the chair and put Peter back in the bed so the nurses could check his vitals.
* * * *
A few hairs and a cheek swab was enough DNA to send to Bruce for an evaluation. Tony deeply resented how little attention he’d paid to Peter’s mutation in the previous timeline. He really didn’t know the nitty-gritty details when it came to the initial bite and the boy’s evolution physically into the Spider-Man persona. His relationship with Peter before the Snap had been a dash of mentor and a whole truckload of enabler. He’d tried to treat the young boy genius like he’d wanted to be treated at that age, which had been a terrible decision in retrospect.
He took a sip of coffee and let his gaze wander back across the room where Nebula sat with Peter. The boy was sleeping. His vital signs had settled much to the relief of the doctors, and his heart rate was resting at slightly above normal for his age. None of the medical staff had offered up a reason for that, and Tony hadn’t pressed since he knew it had everything to do with whatever Osborn had done to Peter before he’d ever been born.
The door to the private room opened, and Bruce entered with Betty Ross. Betty split off and headed toward Nebula with a small duffel bag. He figured it was clothes and accessories since Nebula had agreed to handle a press release on his behalf. He couldn’t bring himself to leave Peter, and no one seemed all that fussed to make him.
“Gamma radiation bombardment,” Bruce said. “There is some trace left on his hair and probably his clothes though the police have those.” He rubbed his face. “I’ll need to take blood at some point but, from what I can tell based on the results I already have, Oscorp tailored his mutation to remain dormant until puberty. It makes sense, I guess, as who needs a child super soldier?”
Tony figured there were a lot of people in the military industrial complex who wouldn’t give a flying fuck about age. “A young child would be easy to shape into what they want.”
Bruce exhaled sharply. “The Big Guy wants to tear Norman Osborn to pieces. I’m running out of reasons to tell him no.”
Tony laughed a little before he could help himself. He took another long sip of coffee. “So, I don’t currently have a tiny superhero on my hands.”
“But puberty is going to be a bitch,” Banner muttered. “For probably all of us.”
“We’ll just have to…show him from the very start…how to be a good, responsible person in the world,” Tony said and set aside the empty paper cup. “What other choice do I have?”
“None, the gene can’t be deactivated,” Bruce said. “I’ve checked, and the research that Hercules culled from Oscorp backs that up. It was always going to be a one-way trip into fucked up for this kid.”
* * * *
Nebula straightened her shirt and shared a glance with Pepper Potts before she stepped up to the podium. She’d offered to make a statement to the press regarding the situation with Peter because Tony was exhausted and hyper-focused on the boy. They didn’t know who’d leaked the information regarding the guardianship situation, but it had resulted in a crowd of reporters in front of the hospital.
“Nebula! Smile for me!”
She grimaced and focused on the photojournalist. “It’s not my purpose on this planet to validate your preconceived notions regarding the female stereotype. I don’t have to smile for anyone. If you find my current facial expression unpleasant, avert your gaze and find something more attractive to take a picture of.”
More than one person gaped at her, but she cleared her throat and focused on the main group of cameras.
“As I was saying, good afternoon and thank you for your patience in regards to this announcement. We had to get a few legal issues squared away before making any information public. As you know, Peter Parker was kidnapped in a violent encounter on a public street that resulted in the deaths of his guardians. Peter has been active in the STEM Advancement Program within the Maria Stark Foundation for several months, and our families became friendly. His Aunt May visited the mansion often with Peter.
“Shortly after he was found by the hardworking and dedicated officers of the NYPD, the Parker family lawyer reached out to our lawyer Joseph Marshall and let us know that the Parkers had requested that in the event of their demise that my father, Anthony Stark, assume guardianship over their nephew. They made this request because Peter is quite advanced for his age, and they believed that my father would be uniquely suited to help Peter reach his full potential.
“As a family, we discussed it and decided that we would add Peter to our household. Within the next few months, he will be legally adopted and will become Peter Parker Stark. I am really looking forward to having a little brother, and we ask that you respect our privacy as we figure out how to make this work for Peter. He’s had a terrible and traumatic experience. We’ll be focused on him as much as necessary to help him heal.”
“Seems like a fortunate break for the kid!”
“His parents were killed in a plane crash just a year ago, and he watched his last living relatives murdered on the street,” Nebula snapped. “There’s nothing fortunate about his circumstances.”
“Except the part where he’s been adopted by the richest man in America,” someone called out.
“Money can’t replace love nor can it heal the gaping wound left by the loss of your whole family,” Nebula said evenly. “I don’t have time for questions. I promised my new little brother some ice cream.” She stepped back from the podium and stalked away before she could be engaged again.
Pepper and Melinda caught up with her by the time she was entering the elevator. She punched the button for the floor that would lead to the cafeteria. She’d been told she’d find the ice cream there.
“That could’ve gone better,” Pepper said.
“I’m not going to pander to men,” Nebula said. “They should get used to that now. Being ordered to smile like I’m some…” She huffed and trailed off. Pepper Potts was a gentle woman and thrived on presenting a polite exterior in most situations. Nebula found it frustrating.
“Whore,” Melinda supplied. “Like you’re a product for sale, and you need to present your best face to the buyer.”
“Exactly.” Nebula crossed her arms. “It’s sexist and disgusting. Anyways, Tony told me I don’t have to put up with that kind of crap for appearance’s sake. If they can’t handle the real, honest version of me, then they just shouldn’t speak to me.”
Pepper laughed and shook her head. “It’s a good thing you have a bodyguard.”
“Nebula can handle herself,” Melinda said as the doors opened. “She’s an excellent kickboxer, but I’ve got her back.”
* * * *
“I really get to live with you?” Peter questioned.
“Yep.” Tony propped his chin up on the railing of the hospital bed as he watched Peter stare at the plastic bracelet on his wrist. “I put Dum-E in charge of setting up your room. There’s no telling what he’s done.”
Peter laughed a little but his face crumpled. “It hurts so much.”
“I know, buddy. I was much older than you when I lost my parents, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss them.”
“Why did those men take me? What did they want?”
The last thing he wanted to do was lie to the kid, but he knew Peter was much too young to deal with the circumstances of his origins. “Some people do bad things—they’re selfish and destructive. They hurt others for no other reason than because they can.”
“Is that why you do all those things to help people? To make up for the bad people?”
“Yes, actually, that’s exactly why I do it,” Tony murmured. “You have to make a choice—eventually—about how you’re going to live your life and what kind of person you want to be. I want to be a good person.”
“And a good dad,” Peter said. “You take great care of Nebula. Aunt May said so.”
“Well, your Aunt May’s always right, right?”
“Right,” Peter agreed. “Did…they hurt Uncle Ben and Aunt May because of me? Because I took those tests at school? I told her I didn’t need special classes.” His mouth trembled.
“It’s not your fault,” Tony said firmly. “Adults sometimes make terrible decisions, and often good people are hurt in the process. Little kids don’t get to blame themselves for bad things.”
“I’ll be five, soon.” Peter frowned and looked away from him. “Aunt May said she’d take me to the zoo for my birthday. She never wanted kids, you know, but she took good care of me. I loved her a lot.”
“And you can carry that love with you always because she and your Uncle Ben loved you a whole lot right back.”
Peter nodded. “Is Nebula really okay with me being adopted?”
“She’s completely on board,” Tony promised. “She’s already investigating private schools in the city to figure out which one will suit you best.”
“Okay.” Peter pulled his blanket up and snuggled down into the bed. “Mr. Stark?”
“You’ll help me have a funeral for Aunt May and Uncle Ben, right?”
Tony closed his eyes briefly. “Absolutely, we’ll say goodbye to them together.” He cleared his throat and picked up his backpack. “I brought someone else to see you.”
Peter lifted up slightly and peeked through the railing. “Who?”
He unzipped the bag and pulled out Spiderling. “We had to turn him off because he was trying to break free of his tether so he could search the city for you. After you were recovered, I turned him back on and told him you were safe. I agreed that he could come here if he was quiet until it was his turn to visit.”
Spiderling curled one leg around the railing and pulled free of Tony’s hands. Peter smiled and plucked the bot up.
* * * *
“How are you?”
“Tired, furious,” Tony murmured and leaned into Loki. “Relieved, grateful, and selfish.”
“Would you have, ever, tried to take Peter from the Parkers?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then you’re not selfish,” Loki said. He used one hand to pull the privacy curtain closed after a glance toward Nebula who was curled up in the chair by the bed reading from a tablet.
Tony allowed himself to be pulled across the room near the door. “I did want him with me though, and that’s selfish.”
“It’s human—you care very much for the boy, and you were there when he died in the other timeline. Of course you’re invested in his well-being. We’ve done the best we could to manage the fall-out of taking Barnes from HYDRA. Perhaps we underestimated how invested they were in having him at their disposal, but there was no other choice but to remove him from their hands.”
“I know,” Tony said. “I just wish there had been a way to accomplish all of this without it getting good, innocent people killed. I realize I can’t control the…fucking ripples…but I feel like the universe is punishing me.”
“For what?” Loki questioned.
“For thinking I could fix anything?”
“You saved the lives of trillions of people,” Loki said evenly. “There are people all over the universe that will live because you took control of the Infinity Gauntlet. Do you think I could’ve been trusted with such a thing in the other timeline? Do you honestly have any idea how much power you had at your disposal? You had the ability to destroy everything. You had the ability in your fucking hand to make an entirely new universe. What did you do with it?” He laughed softly. “You traveled back in time and tried to keep your science bro from becoming the Hulk.”
Tony huffed. “I did other stuff, too.”
“You did,” Loki said. “And you’ll continue to do more. I told you, Tony, if you want to run around fixing things that make you mad for the rest of your life then I will be right by your side.”
Tony let Loki pull him into a tight embrace. “Yeah, okay.”
* * * *
Peter had a death grip on his fingers as they exited the elevator and entered the main floor of the penthouse. Tony had planned for the homecoming to be quiet but that had gone out the window with the arrival of both Thor and Odin. Loki had returned to Stark Plaza to attempt to manage the situation but, at last report, his family was still in the penthouse.
“Mr. Odinson!” Peter let go of Tony and darted across the living room.
Loki caught him easily and lifted him up. “You’re short.”
Peter laughed. “You’re really tall!” He looped his arms around Loki’s neck. “Mr. Stark says your mom and dad are here. Can I meet them? I’ll be very polite.”
Tony glanced toward the kitchen at the gentle sound of Frigga’s laughter. They quickly exited the kitchen. Thor had a plate of food which didn’t surprise him at all.
“Peter Parker meet my mother and father—Odin Allfather and Frigga Allmother,” Loki said as he sat him down. “And my brother Thor.”
Peter’s eyes widened, and he leaned against Loki’s leg. “He’s really big, too.”
“I’m a warrior,” Thor told him gravely. “I must be big to win battles.” He held down his plate to Peter’s level. “Pop-Tart?”
Peter bit down on his lip and glanced at Tony. “I’m only allowed sweets if I eat a proper meal.”
“Stop trying to corrupt him, Thor,” Loki ordered and guided Peter away from the temptation.
Tony just sighed as Thor offered Peter a wink as he headed toward the couch. He watched Peter greet Frigga and Odin, his little face serious and speculative. Tony was on the fence about asking the kid what was on his brain. Before he could decide the decision was taken right out of his hands.
“Are you a king?” Peter asked as he stared at Odin. “You look like a king.”
Odin glanced briefly toward his wife before kneeling down in front of Peter. “I am, indeed, a king. I rule Asgard.”
Peter nodded slowly. “I’ve read stuff online about you.”
Loki snorted indelicately then turned Peter toward him as he knelt as well. “Those websites are fiction. Do you know what fiction is?”
“Made up stories.”
“Exactly. Norse mythology is quite inaccurate, I promise.”
“That’s good,” Peter said. “Because Odin was really mean to you in those stories.” He glanced toward Odin as he spoke. “Daddies aren’t supposed to be mean.”
“Should I read these stories?” Odin questioned.
“I don’t advise it,” Loki said. “The content is quite horrifying.” He ruffled Peter’s hair. “Though many of the characters do exist—just differently than the stories. Heimdall is my brother’s best friend. He stands guard over the Bifrost.”
Peter turned to Odin then after a shy glance toward Frigga. “Mr. Stark and Mr. Odinson are going to adopt me.”
Tony’s eyes widened briefly, but Loki just offered him a sly grin, so he relaxed.
“Are they?” Odin questioned. “Do you know what that means?”
“It means…I get a new family.”
“Yes, including my wife and me.” Odin paused. “And Thor if you want him. He’s a bit loud, however, so we won’t be offended if you do not.”
Peter laughed. Odin stood and picked the boy up. Tony shifted slightly as Peter adjusted to that and threw one arm around the king of Asgard’s shoulder. “I like loud people.”
“Ah, then you may keep him,” Odin declared. “It’s extraordinary to be adopted.”
“Is it?” Peter questioned.
“Yes, your new fathers—looked at you and decided you would be their son because no other boy in all the realms would do and that makes you special.” He headed toward the kitchen. “Come along, wife, let’s feed our first grandchild a proper meal so he can have one of those Pop-Tarts.”
Peter peeked over Odin’s shoulder at Frigga. “You’re really pretty.”
Frigga grinned. “Thank you.”
Tony said nothing as Loki turned to him a little wide-eyed and pale as the three of them disappeared into the kitchen. Loki glanced toward Thor, huffed and walked out onto the balcony. Tony followed.
“I think he knows you know.”
Loki nodded. “Yes, I agree. I…” He exhaled sharply. “Are you okay with what Peter said? I didn’t prompt him to think that.”
“We’re a couple—he made a logical assumption,” Tony said. “I want you to stay with us, to be with us. Nebula hasn’t tried to kill you again, so I think she’s on board with it as well. I don’t know what’s heading our way beyond HYDRA and Thanos, but together I think we can handle it.”
Loki slid his hand into Tony’s and laced their fingers together. “My mother was right, you know.”
“Right about what?”
“She said you gave me sanctuary in my time of need.” Loki looked up at the night sky. “You’ve changed the very fabric of my existence, Anthony Stark, and I believe you defied fate to do so.”
“Well, you said she was a bitch,” Tony said dryly.
Loki laughed and pulled him close. “I love you.”
“I would spend all of the days I have left with you,” Tony said. “Though to you, it might seem like a blink of the eye.”
Loki stroked his face with gentle fingertips and magic sparked against his skin. “Let’s spend all of my days together.”
“You can do that?”
“I could fix a whole lot of stuff with that much time on my hands,” Tony said and grinned when Loki laughed. “I love you, too.” He turned and looked out over the city. “We’ll be ready when he comes.”
“Yes, we will.”