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.
Rhodey looked tired, and Tony wondered how much his changes had started to impact his friend’s life. The Air Force probably wouldn’t be interested in leaving him in a liaison position for much longer if there were no weapons to be had at Stark Industries.
“I ordered pizza.” Tony motioned toward the kitchen. “I need to talk to you about something important.”
Rhodey sighed. “All right.”
“It’s not terrible,” Tony exclaimed. “I mean, it’s not terrible for me, but it might be…weird for other people. Pepper seemed to take it okay after she had all the information.”
“I already know you’re bisexual,” Rhodey called from the kitchen. “But if you want to come out again, I’ll listen.”
“Ha, ha,” Tony returned. “Like we didn’t have that conversation when we were twenty.”
“Conversation?” Rhodey questioned as he returned with a plate loaded with pizza. “I walked in on you getting a blow job.”
Tony shrugged and grinned. “So listen—do you remember how my mother was obsessed with appearances and social standing?”
“Yeah, she was old school,” Rhodey murmured. “A class act. I miss her.”
“Me, too,” Tony said. “A lot for a variety of reasons.” He cleared his throat. “When I was sixteen…I had a weekend affair with a girl that resulted in a pregnancy. My parents paid her very well to carry the pregnancy to term and walk away. My daughter was raised by a family friend and isolated a great deal for her own protection. I had no choice but to adhere to the agreement my parents made on my behalf regarding her living situation and the limited amount of visitation I was allowed until she turned eighteen, which happened over the summer.”
Rhodey slowly put down his food. “You have a kid.”
“Yeah.” Tony pressed his lips together briefly. “Are you mad?”
“No,” Rhodey said firmly. “I’m not mad.” He cleared his throat. “Hell, Tony, you were kidnapped twice before you were an adult and there have been three nearly successful attempts since your parents died. It isn’t fucking safe to be a Stark.”
“True,” Tony said and frowned. “But she is a Stark, and her guardian passed away. She’s here in the tower and is working at SI as an intern. She’ll start NYU next fall. Thoughts?”
“You changed your company for her,” Rhodey said.
“No, not really. I changed SI for me. I want to be a part of something good, Rhodey. But honestly, I’m not on board with leaving my father’s legacy to my kids.”
“Kids? You have just one, right?”
Tony laughed. “Yeah, but I’m not ruling out another in the future. I like kids.” He picked up his pizza. “Tell me what has you stressed out.”
Rhodey grimaced. “I’m getting a lot of pressure to change your mind. My superiors are very interested in the bots you’re putting out, and they aren’t happy regarding your refusal to weaponize them for the DOD.”
“Using the Helpful Bots as weapons would be a PR nightmare,” Tony said mildly. “I designed them to be household helpers for the disabled. Turning them into a weapon would also erode people’s trust in the bots, which is the exact opposite of helpful. There are already several in households with children. If anyone tries to alter their codes, they’re programmed to shut down entirely.”
“You put in a kill switch.”
“Essentially,” Tony agreed. “I’m not going to supply weapons to the government, or any other organization for that matter, ever again. There are plenty of people out there more than willing to make bombs, Rhodey. They don’t need me.”
“You have to admit that you’re a cut above the rest,” Rhodey said roughly and sighed. “I’ve been transferred here to New York. I’ll still do some work with SI regarding the equipment you’ve agreed to design and the IED detection system, but my main purpose will be to contract work with Hammer Industries and Advanced Idea Mechanics.”
“Obie works with AIM now,” Tony said.
“He reached out to me with a several contract offers already,” Rhodey admitted. “I don’t like working with a competitor.”
“AIM is not in competition with SI so don’t let that get in your way. We don’t have a single product in common these days. They’re focused entirely on weapons development, and I’m currently designing a space station for NASA. Worlds apart, my friend.” He tossed his feet up on the coffee table. “Wanna meet my kid?”
“Yes,” Rhodey said huffily. “For fuck’s sake, I was beginning to think I’d have to beg.”
Tony laughed. “J, ask Nebula if she’s ready to eat and remind her of our guest.”
“Of course, Sir.”
* * * *
Nebula tugged on the T-shirt. “This looks okay?”
“Yes, of course,” Friday said. “Why are you worried about meeting Colonel Rhodes?”
“He’s Tony’s best friend,” Nebula said. “I want to make a good impression. He also works for the government, so I need to appear as normal as possible for him. He’s military trained, and that means he’ll be far more observant than Pepper Potts.”
“True, but he was the boss’ friend before he was ever in the military and he is very loyal to him. In fact, outside of you, there is no one more loyal to Tony Stark than James Rhodes.”
Nebula relaxed slightly and cracked her neck. “Where’s Loki?”
“Lounging on the rooftop. He had a swim, and now he’s drinking a glass of wine and reading something on a tablet. I haven’t checked the data, but I can if you’re concerned. Jarvis gave him the tablet. I’m sure he’s keeping track of Mr. Odinson’s reading list.”
“Mr. Odinson is currently reading a text on behavioral psychology,” Jarvis interjected. “As far as I can tell he’s taken his assignment regarding James Barnes very seriously. I gave him a degree in psychology, and he’s absorbing knowledge to maintain that cover as well.”
“Keep an eye on him at all times, Jarvis,” Nebula said. “If he has an ulterior agenda, I want to know as soon as possible.” She tightened her ponytail and lifted her chin. “I’m not wearing too much face paint, right?”
“You followed the natural look tutorial we found online very well,” Friday said. “You look fine. Stop procrastinating, it’s bizarre.”
When she walked out into the living area, the man she knew to be James Rhodes was sprawled on the couch, and Tony was nowhere to be seen, so she headed for the kitchen. He was at the microwave. “Hey.”
“Heating you some food.” He motioned toward the refrigerator. “Grab Rhodey a beer.”
She plucked a bottle of beer from the shelf and grabbed a bottle of juice for herself. “How did he take it?”
“Curiously well,” Tony admitted. “But perhaps I’ve just worn him down over the years to the point where he can’t muster up enough shock to throw in my direction anymore.” He pulled the plate from the microwave and motioned her out of the kitchen. “I see you mastered eyeliner.”
She made a face, and he laughed.
“Rhodey, meet my brilliant offspring, Nebula.”
James Rhodes rolled off the couch quickly and turned toward her. He stared and exhaled. “Jesus, Tony, you’re gonna have to beat men off with a stick. Now was not the time to stop building weapons of mass destruction.” He held out a hand. “It’s really great to meet you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rhodes,” Nebula murmured and took a hand as she allowed a blush to spread across her cheeks. “Tony’s told me a lot about you.”
“Believe the good things and ignore everything else ‘cause he’s a liar,” Rhodes said. “And call me Rhodey, please.” He released her hand. “Sit, eat. Your dad says you’ve been working all day in the lab.”
She held out the hand she was holding the beer and juice in. “One of these is for you.”
He took the beer. “Thanks.”
She sat down on the floor in front of the plate Tony placed for her on the coffee table and folded her legs together. “I finished the heat shield tests for the quinjet. They held up fairly well, but you were right about needing something more robust if we’re going to use it on a regular basis. I’ve asked Dr. Banner to review my calculations for the alloy before we try making it in the particle accelerator.”
“Terminal failure point on the current metal?” Tony questioned as she took a bite of pizza.
She waved a hand as she chewed.
“Good evening, Boss,” Friday said.
“Hey, Friday, did you and the offspring have a superior time in the lab this afternoon?”
“We always have a superior time,” Friday declared. “Terminal failure occurred during test twenty-two. The current heat shields rate 100% for no more than eight round trips. We both agree that five round trips is a safer limit. It exceeds anything NASA currently has on deck.”
“The standard is low,” Nebula said as she picked up her juice. “I’d prefer to rate the vehicle based on time in use rather than on a number of trips. We’d need a team on site, regardless, to keep an active eye on all of the vehicles during the construction phase. Director Monroe responded to our last email with an offer to assign NASA personnel to a facility here in New York if we want to have our own testing. He’s aware we have no interest in relocating to Florida for the build.”
“Jarvis, find some land for that. Check out local economies and politics—we’ll have to recruit for specialties but try to focus on areas where we can bring jobs for manufacturing and the like.”
“Of course, Sir.”
Rhodey’s gaze drifted between them, and she shoved some more pizza in her mouth.
“What?” Tony questioned.
“She’s smart like you,” Rhodey said quietly. “I guess I didn’t expect that. Your level of intellect is supposed to be stupidly rare.” He rubbed his head. “She’s a target already being your kid but if people knew about her potential…it would be worse. You need to be careful with security around her, Tone, and I mean that. Be so careful. There are people, even in our government, who’d pay a pretty penny to get some leverage over you. Plus, you seriously pissed off Thaddeus Ross. He’s been bitching for weeks about you.”
“Who’s Thaddeus Ross?” Tony questioned.
“Lt. General in the Army,” Rhodey said. “He’s working on some stuff that is above my security clearance and apparently you poached an asset he’s been actively seeking for years.” He paused when Tony raised an eyebrow. “Bruce Banner.”
“I wonder what the Army could want with a man who works in biochemistry and gamma radiation?” Tony asked and smiled when Nebula snorted.
“Well, the Army has never given up hopes of repeating their success with Captain America,” Rhodey said reluctantly. “And you know that since they approached you more than once for help with your father’s research into the subject.”
“If my old man wanted the Army to have his research he’d have given it to them,” Tony said evenly. “And it wasn’t their success. Project Rebirth was a success because of Abraham Erskine and Steve Rogers. Even if they’d had a fuckton of the serum to test they’d have probably just created a bunch of uncontrollable monsters. Hell, the Army fought Erskine’s choice when it came to Rogers because they didn’t want a good, moral man to be their super soldier—they wanted a weapon. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I help anyone turn other human beings into weapons.”
Nebula glanced between them and picked up her second slice of pizza. “I can take care of myself. I might be a target, but I’m not a weakness.”
Rhodey raised an eyebrow and took a sip of his beer. “I hope that’s true because you look like a soft target, kid, and that’s going to be too tempting for someone out there who thinks your dad has too much money or that he’s too smart or too arrogant or just not biddable enough to suit them.”
Tony picked up a decorative bowl from the table and threw it at her.
Nebula caught it, her gaze jerking toward him.
“She’s no one’s soft target,” Tony declared and plucked the bowl from her hand. “Finish your pizza, Dollface, then we can show Rhodey the active camo we designed for him.”
“Active camo? Did you make something awesome? Why am I just hearing about this now?”
“Because you’re here, and you have to see it to believe it,” Tony said with a grin.
Nebula shrugged when Rhodes looked her way. The Active Camo Generator was a variation on the Shade suit Tony had designed. It generated a field instead of using nanotech to disrupt visual identification, corrupt video footage, mislead heat signature scanners, and more. It would certainly appeal to parts of the military industrial complex that dealt in special operations. Though she figured it would be more useful to spy organizations, at least in the short term. The more prevalent the technology became, the less use it would have in clandestine operations.
She made a mental note to look up the word ‘Dollface’ and plan appropriate punishment if she didn’t like the implication.
* * * *
“I hate lying to people,” Tony said.
“Well, no one said saving the universe was going to be easy,” Loki said dryly. “It’s honestly terrible that we can’t even brag about that part.”
Tony snorted. “You’re such an asshole.”
“The origin story might be a lie, but your feelings for her are not,” Loki said then and turned his head slightly to stare at Tony. “You’re aware of that, I hope.”
Tony flushed. “She wouldn’t appreciate that. She hasn’t had the best of luck with father figures, as you know. Her biological father tried to sell her into slavery to pay off some debts. Her mother nearly killed him in response and threw him out of the home. A year later, Thanos invaded. Nebula found out years later that her father survived the massacre. She ran across him in a bar on Xandar—he tried to scam her for some credits.”
“My biological father left me for dead,” Loki said. “And while Odin has never mistreated me—he’s rarely been honest with me in his life. In the other timeline, he told me he loved me as he was dying. I don’t think I’d heard those words come from his lips since I was a very small child. Even Thor looked stunned to be told such a thing.”
“He locked you up. That sounds like mistreatment.”
“Well, I did lead an invasion against a protected realm,” Loki said dryly. “And I killed a bunch of humans. I wasn’t exactly thrown in a hole or imprisoned in isolation the way Hela was. I had contact with my mother and Thor—I had books to read and so forth. It wasn’t thrilling, but he wouldn’t have confined me for much longer either. It was more about establishing his control over Thor and me than it was anything else.”
“What about that all that stuff in our books?”
Loki glared. “Do I look like I gave birth to a six-legged horse?”
He couldn’t help but laugh at the disdain on Loki’s face. “Sorry. I mean…the giant snake is wrong, too?”
“Jörmungandr existed—he was my brother’s pet several hundred years ago,” Loki said roughly. “Thor adores snakes.” He cleared his throat. “Regardless, my parents’ duplicity is my biggest issue with them. I think perhaps if given a choice my mother would’ve told me long ago of my origins.”
“But she hasn’t.”
“She’d never disobey her king,” Loki murmured. “And Odin has always been her king first and her husband second or perhaps third depending on the day.”
Tony nodded. “My father was emotionally distant; he worked too much, drank too much, and died playing spy games he was honestly ill-equipped for. I resent him a great deal for my mother’s death. It’s his fault she was at risk at all, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get past it. Barnes did the deed, but he was HYDRA’s weapon—he didn’t even know who he was at the time, but my father knowingly put my mother and myself at risk by working with SHIELD on the serum when it was the last thing they needed.” He waved a hand. “Obviously.” He huffed. “You like the roof?”
“It’s relaxing,” Loki murmured. “The view isn’t bad, and swimming helps clear my head.” He started to say more but the elevator dinged and the doors opened. Nebula strolled out with Spiderling scrambling along at her heels.
Tony frowned as she stripped off a robe to reveal a minuscule blue bikini. “Whoa, Astro Girl, who bought you that? I specifically made very demure one-piece choices.”
Nebula quirked an eyebrow at him and dove into the pool.
“You didn’t bring the bush I asked for,” Tony said.
“I did. I just didn’t know how you wanted to present it to her. It would do nicely here on the roof or her personal balcony. I’m sure she’ll know how to care for it.”
“Just put it on her balcony—it’ll be a nice surprise,” Tony said and put on his sunglasses. “And thanks.” Spiderling crawled up onto the lounger and clicked in greeting. “Hey to you, too.” He plucked the bot up, checked his charge and set him near the head of the lounger. “You keeping an eye on Nebula, then?”
Spiderling clicked his one foot on the lounger and tapped out, “Yes.”
“Ask Jarvis who helped her buy that ridiculously small bathing suit.”
Spiderling immediately started tapping. “Friday and Nebula shop online.”
Tony laughed. “You’re a tattletale of the first order.”
“What did he say?” Loki asked curiously.
“Apparently Friday has been helping Nebula shop online. The bots speak Morse code. Jarvis can give you a copy of that language on your tablet if you wish.”
“I do,” Loki said and picked up his tablet to make a note of it. “Is this something that all the bots are being taught? Including the ones you’re selling?”
“It’s an add-on,” Tony said. “We agreed that having them speak would be disconcerting for most. Though there is a bot in production, who will be activated with speech and American Sign Language capabilities for a hearing-impaired child in California. We’re building him an Ewok—though I had to pay a stupid fee to get a license for that.”
Loki frowned. “How do you spell that?”
“E-W-O-K.” Tony watched the man look it up and blink in surprise. “What?”
“I’m not unfamiliar with your forms of entertainment, but I have to admit to being quite surprised by the imaginations of some humans,” Loki admitted as he worked with his tablet. “I’ll add the Star Wars movies to my list of things to watch.”
“You’ll like it. The main character has as many daddy issues as you and me combined.”
Loki snorted and set aside the tablet. “You have more going on than just dealing with the Infinity Stones. Why?”
Tony shrugged. “Why should I limit myself when I could do a lot for people that got the short end of the stick in the other timeline? Bruce didn’t deserve what happened to him, and preventing it will make his life better. The thing with Rogers and Barnes—hell that’s more for my father than anything else. He spent decades looking for Rogers, and the last thing he’d have wanted was for the man to turn into an internationally wanted criminal. Barnes was being tortured and abused by HYDRA. There was no way I could leave him in that situation knowing what I know. First, he’s too much of a threat left in their hands and, second, saving Barnes means I save Rogers from himself and that’s what my old man would’ve wanted. They’re both victims of circumstances beyond their control. If I can fix that, don’t I have a moral obligation to?”
“Morality has never been my strong suit,” Loki said airily. “But my brother would say doing the right thing is its own reward.”
“Yeah, well, your brother can be a giant pain in the ass.”
The elevator opened again, and Tony shifted slightly as Rhodey came out. He glanced to his left and found that Loki had disappeared. He sighed and wondered how he was going to explain the God of Mischief to his best friend.
“Did you get settled?”
“I’m having my stuff delivered,” Rhodey said. “Thanks for the apartment and for the roof pool access. The property manager told me that this area was heavily restricted and I’d have to get any guests personally approved by you.”
“The other residents have a big Olympic size pool on the ground floor, and it flows out and connects with the outdoor pool behind the mansion. But Nebula swims here so, of course, access is restricted.” He motioned out into the pool where she was doing laps. “I’m even using a version of the active camo to obscure the roof from surveillance.”
“Good idea,” Rhodey said. “And my boss is very excited about the data I sent him and the demo video. I’ll have a contract offer within the week with the DOD. The Navy wants twenty-five and wants to know if they’re waterproof.”
“They will be,” Tony said. “I can do different versions for use in different environments—water, desert, etc. I’ll just need the data on different scenarios. Temperature, pressure, depth requirements, and all that jazz.”
“I’ll get it.”
Nebula took that moment to swim to the ladder and leave the pool.
Rhodey sputtered. “You let her wear that?”
“She’s an adult,” Tony said. “And she bought it without my notice.”
Rhodey laughed. “You’re in way over your head, my friend.”
* * * *
They had an Active Camo Generator on a crash dummy for testing purposes in the main lab. Tony was currently trying to figure out how to offer protection against blunt force trauma. He lobbed another tennis ball at the dummy and frowned as it made contact with the chest. Reproducing the deflector shield from the Futurist with Earth tech was proving to be a really annoying hurdle but he considered it an on-going project for protecting soldiers in the field which he did consider a duty.
“Sir, Mr. Hogan is reporting that Phil Coulson has returned and wishes to speak with you.”
Tony sat back down at his work table and glanced toward Nebula who was sitting across the room with a pair of earbuds in. Exposure to Quill had given her terrible taste in music, but he was sneaking good stuff into her playlists in an effort to her expand her horizons.
“Where’s everyone else?”
“Dr. Banner is in the secure lab with Mr. Odinson. Dr. Yinsen is presenting at a conference across town with several bots from the Helpful series. I’m monitoring him and his security with onsite personnel. Mr. Hogan sent a five-man team to manage the outing. Ms. Potts is currently en route to meet with Eugene Dennings regarding art supplies for the mansion’s outreach program. He invited her to lunch uptown. Her driver is handling her security. Colonel Rhodes is currently in his residence unpacking. Dum-E volunteered to help. It’s going about like you’d expect.”
“Happy can bring Phil up,” Tony said with a laugh. “Tell Bruce and Loki we have a SHIELD agent in the house.” He looked over, and Nebula was bouncing her head a bit. “What’s she listening to, Friday?”
“Rick Springfield, Sir.”
“Jesus Christ,” Tony said in genuine horror.
He walked around the table, plucked the ACG from the dummy and brought it back to his workstation. The lab doors opened. “Does your boss know you have a crush on me, Agent?”
Coulson cleared his throat. “Well, you’re easy on the eyes.”
Tony grinned and side-eyed the man. “Thanks. What’s up?”
He sat down on a stool beside Tony. “I need to know how certain you are about the data that landed on Fury’s desk late last night.”
Tony focused on Coulson. The man was pale and looked as if he hadn’t slept in a couple of days. “I don’t make a habit of passing around data that I don’t trust. Rest assured, if I put something on Fury’s desk, you can trust it 100%.”
Coulson nodded. “Right.” He wet his lips and rubbed his face with a shaking hand. “Fuck.”
“You need a drink?”
“I heard you gave up drinking,” Coulson murmured.
“I did, but I keep it for guests.”
“I have too much to do to get as drunk as I feel like I deserve,” the agent said and picked up Spiderling who waved all eight legs at him. “He’s a great ambassador for the Helpful Bots program. The commercials are cute.”
“Clean up your house, Coulson, and I’ll make you a friend,” Tony said and took Spiderling from him. “Maybe even a couple of friends who can spy for you and make you coffee as needed.”
“That’s a deal,” Phil agreed and started to speak, but Nebula started humming. He frowned. “Is that…”
“What’s Love Got to Do With It by Tina Turner,” Tony said. “Earlier she was listening to Rick Springfield. I don’t know what I did to deserve that.”
“Who is she?”
“Nebula Collins—my intern.”
Tony glared. “Yeah, Coulson, my intern. She’s eighteen for fuck’s sake.”
Phil held up a hand. “Sorry. Beautiful young woman in your life usually equals something different.”
“Right, well, it’s not like that at all.” Tony frowned. “Tell Fury to watch his back and keep his friends close.”
“I will.” Phil slipped off the stool and paused. “And if we needed you to dig deeper to gain some specific information?”
“I’ll send you an encrypted email address to use for requests.”
Nebula shifted right into whistling Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison, and Phil laughed. “Her taste isn’t that bad.”
“Rick Springfield,” Tony repeated. He picked up an ACG and tossed it the agent’s way. Coulson caught it easily. “Active Camo Generator, first generation prototype. If you like it—let me know, and we’ll see about making some to spec for you and yours. Watch your back, too.”
Phil tucked the device in his suit pocket. “Thanks for your time.” He paused at the glass doors where Happy was stationed. “You can’t expect your activities to stay off the radar forever so keep your security vigilant.”
“I can take care of me,” Tony assured. “And Happy is a badass.”
“I am,” Happy agreed with a nod.
* * * * –
“Hercules is requesting to report directly to you,” Jarvis announced crisply.
Tony looked up from his tablet and pushed aside what was left of his breakfast. “Where’s Nebula?”
“She’s in the main lab with Dr. Yinsen. Should I have her come up?”
“No, we can brief her later.” He glanced toward Loki. “Go ahead, Hercules.”
“Good morning, Dr. Stark, I’ve confirmed the location of a SHIELD facility called the Fridge. The Tesseract is currently on the very bottom floor of the one hundred story building. Access is restricted to the roof—retrieval will be very difficult.”
“An island off the coast of California called San Nicolas. There is a naval base located on the island as well.”
Tony nodded. “Been there for a few demos. Well, in the other timeline. Do you have the plans for the Fridge?”
“I do. I’ve prepared a packet of information, and it has been placed on your personal tablet. Please be aware that the facility is also on HYDRA’s wish list. They’ve been planning taking it over for a decade to use as a base.”
“Let’s make sure SHIELD knows that, Jarvis,” Tony said. “Hercules, I take it you retrieved the plans from HYDRA?”
“Yes, they have an extensive inventory as well.”
“Thank you, Hercules,” Tony murmured and took a deep breath as his tablet’s screen cycled rapidly as it received the information the AI was downloading to him.
“Considering SHIELD’s interest in you, it would be best if you were in a very visible place when the Tesseract is retrieved,” Loki said as he sipped his tea.
Tony nodded. He picked up his tablet and left the table. “Yeah.”
“It would be easy for me to get into this facility.”
“Yeah.” Tony walked out of the kitchen and made it all the way to his bedroom before Loki simply appeared in his path. “Hey, no teleporting in the penthouse.” He poked the god in the chest.
“What the fuck do I have to do to earn your trust?” Loki demanded. “I’ve been working my arse off on Barnes, Stark. I’ve crammed more than I ever wanted to know about human psychology into my head. Some days I fall into bed, magically exhausted from sorting through horrible memories. And you could’ve fucking warned me that the Winter Soldier strangled your mother!” Loki poked him back. “If I wanted the Tesseract, I would’ve just watched you until you retrieved it and stole it from you.”
“I…” Tony huffed. “I don’t even know why you’re here, to be honest. Why aren’t you plotting to steal it? Why did you reveal yourself? How long did you watch me anyways?”
“Before you moved to New York,” Loki admitted with a blush. “You’re so dumb, Stark.”
“I’m a genius, you asshole,” Tony said hotly and tossed his tablet on his dresser. “Stalking is rude by the way.”
“Like you care about rudeness,” Loki scoffed. “I had to make sure you meant it—I had to be sure that you were going to do everything you could do to stop Thanos!” He grabbed Tony’s arm, hauled him close, and kissed him.
Tony hesitated for half a second before fisting one hand in Loki’s shirt and returning the kiss. Loki was hot as fuck, and he’d been trying to ignore it for weeks. He huffed just a little when his back hit the bed. Spreading his legs, he pulled Loki in and groaned. The heat and weight of a man on top of him was delicious—he’d almost forgotten how much he enjoyed it.
Loki trailed kisses across his jaw and sucked at the skin of Tony’s neck. “You’ve been with a man before?”
“Yeah, it’s been a while though,” Tony confessed as nimble fingers unbuttoned his jeans. “You’ve got the regular equipment, right?”
Loki laughed and looked up. “Pardon me?”
“It’s just I’m not sure I could handle tentacles.” Tony waved a hand. “At least, not right out of the gate.”
“Fortunately for you, both the Asgardians and the Jotun have the same arrangement as human males,” Loki said with a grin.
“J, lock the door and engage intimacy protocols,” Tony murmured as he unbuttoned Loki’s shirt.
The bedroom door shut and locks clicked into place. Loki shifted to his knees and shrugged out of his shirt, so Tony pulled his T-shirt over his head and fired it toward the floor.
“You’re gorgeous,” Tony said as Loki tugged his jeans down his legs and tossed them away. “It’s ridiculous.”
Loki laughed. “You’d run screaming in the night at the sight of the real me.”
“I love the color blue,” Tony said. “And I’ve been around enough aliens in the past three years that I doubt seriously you’d shock or scare me. Take off those pants and give me some cock.” He shimmied out of his boxers while Loki’s dark blue trousers bled away to nothing. “Fucking magic.”
“I can do that too,” Loki said and grinned when Tony laughed. He trailed his hands down Tony’s thighs and spread them. “How do you want my cock?”
Tony wet his lips. “In my ass. You do that, right? How do men on Asgard fuck?”
Loki’s fingers sparkled with magic and started to glisten with lube. “How about I give you a demonstration?” He rubbed his thumb over Tony’s balls as his slick fingers brushed over his asshole. “This is my natural size—I can make it bigger or smaller depending on your preference.”
Tony wrapped his hand around Loki’s cock and stroked the long, thick length of him. “You’re perfect as is.” He sucked in a breath as Loki slid slick fingers into him. “Yeah.”
“Great even,” Tony admitted and rocked down on the penetration. “It’s been so long I’d kind of forgotten how much I like this.”
Loki pulled his fingers free and slicked up his cock, glowing magic clung to the skin as much as the lube did. He shifted forward, pressed the head of his cock against Tony’s asshole, and slid in with one deep, sure thrust. “Let me know when you’ve had enough.”
Tony blinked in surprise and groaned as Loki started to fuck him with slow, deep strokes. “Oh. Fuck.” He threw his hands up over his head and wrapped his fingers around the wood slats of the headboard.
“You’re so hot and tight,” Loki murmured as he urged Tony to wrap his legs around his waist. “I haven’t had anyone under me like this in decades.”
“You’re going to explain that later,” Tony ordered breathlessly as he fisted one hand in Loki’s hair. “Yeah, come on. Give it to me.”
“Not a single one of my previous partners had the audacity to boss me around.”
“I’m the boss around here.” Tony groaned when Loki shifted and cupped his ass with one hand lifted him off the mattress. “Fuck, you’re strong.”
“Shut up,” Loki muttered and pressed his mouth to Tony’s.
Tony laughed into the kiss, but it turned into a groan as Loki’s strokes increased. The new angle sent a shocking, slick wave of pleasure down his back every time the other man bottomed out. Their skin went slick with sweat as they worked to pleasure each other. It had been a very long time since sex had been so good. Since the thought made him feel weird, Tony pushed it aside and focused on the hot glide of Loki’s cock. Every delicious stroke ended with intense pressure rubbing against his prostate.
“I’m close,” Tony admitted and tightened his fist in Loki’s hair.
Their gazes met as Loki slowed down. He rolled his hips, easy and fluid. “I don’t know why I want you so much.”
“I’ll make you a list of all of my awesome qualities,” Tony offered and arched with a shudder. “Fuck.” He came with a harsh groan, spilling cum all over his stomach.
Loki buried his face against Tony’s neck and sought his own release with quick hard thrusts. He curled into Tony as he came and shivered with pleasure. Tony rubbed the other man’s back.
“Don’t pet me, Stark,” Loki muttered.
“I’d take that seriously if you weren’t practically purring like a kitten.”
Loki carefully pulled his spent cock from Tony’s body and dropped down on his back. “That was much better than I hoped it would be.”
Tony laughed. “What?”
“Lousy sex would’ve made it easier to ignore this,” Loki admitted and motioned between them.
“Explain to me what you meant about me being under you,” Tony said, and Loki grimaced. “Please.”
Loki rolled over on his stomach and turned to face Tony. He tucked his arms under the pillow and rested there. “I have several sexual partners on Asgard—male and female alike. They’re perfectly willing to crawl into my bed, but we don’t speak in public. Moreover, not a single one allows me to fuck them face to face.”
“What?” Tony frowned. “For fuck’s sake, you shouldn’t let them in your bed at all if they’re going to treat you like that.”
Loki shrugged. “I’m used to it, Stark. They don’t know I’m not one of them, but they’ve always treated me differently. Perhaps it has to do with the magic my parents did to hide the fact that I was adopted. Not even Thor knows at this point.”
With it being just a week before Christmas, most of the schools were out for holiday break, so Tony wasn’t all that surprised to find the classes and activities at the foundation full of children and a relatively large crowd of parents. Hands-on science experiments and robotics knew no age limit as far as Tony was concerned. He’d brought Dum-E, U, and Spiderling along for the outing. He lost Dum-E to the finger painting class and really hoped he wouldn’t be required to hang the resulting art in his lab. U joined a class of older kids in their quest to build a Lego playhouse. Spiderling stayed close, mostly on his shoulder, as he wandered through a pottery class that had more adults playing with clay than children, and finally into the main robotics lab.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Stark.” The Helpful Bot assigned to the lab was mostly humanoid in shape on a cart, but all of his parts were exposed for learning purposes, so he kind of looked like R2D2 had a baby with a Terminator.
“Hello, Otis. What’s on your agenda today?”
“This hour is a freestyle mini-machine build for four and five-year-olds, sir,” Otis explained. “Will you be joining us?”
Tony hesitated, and his gaze drifted over the room. He was greeted with a sea of pleading little faces. “I guess Spiderling and I can stay and make a nuisance of ourselves.”
He was halfway to the only table in the room with an empty seat when he recognized May Parker seated at it. A man her age was with her and tiny Peter Parker was tucked between them. He kept walking so no one would notice he was freaking out. He pulled out his phone and sent Jarvis a stern text about not letting him know that Peter was in the mansion. He slid onto the bench across the table from them, and Spiderling jumped down.
Peter leaned forward. “Hi, Mr. Stark, I’m Peter Parker.” The boy’s eyes were lit with excitement. “We’re going to build a robot.” His gaze drifted to Spiderling, and the bot crawled to him. Peter reached out and tapped out Hello, Spiderling with his index finger and laughed when the bot responded with a greeting of his own.
“I’m Ben Parker, and this is my wife May, sir, it’s an honor to meet you.”
Tony took the man’s hand and took a deep breath as he considered all the options he had for trying to keep Ben alive so Peter wouldn’t lose anyone else. “I’m glad you could bring your family today, Mr. Parker. The researchers tell me that when parents actively participate in their child’s education the better things are.” He gave May a nod. “Ma’am.”
“Peter’s excited to start school next year,” May said. “We’ve already received information from them regarding your classroom donations. You’re doing a really wonderful thing.”
“We’re certainly trying.” Tony shifted his attention to Peter who was tapping away with Spiderling. “I don’t think I learned Morse code until junior high and that was so I could plot against teachers with my best friend.”
Peter laughed. “I watched the interview about Dr. Yinsen and the Helpful Bots on TV, Mr. Stark. They said that some of the bots learned Morse code, so I asked Aunt May to find it for me on the Internet.” He frowned. “I want a bot, but Dr. Yinsen said they’re just for people who have special needs.”
“Well, that’s true for right now,” Tony agreed. “It’s important that we help others before we make toys for ourselves, don’t you think?”
Peter nodded. “Aunt May says we have to be good people.” He frowned. “I don’t know why though.”
May laughed and hugged him. “Because I said so.”
“That’s reason enough,” Ben said wryly. He ruffled Peter’s hair. “One day you’ll realize that arguing with a woman is a lost cause.”
Tony laughed, and his phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out as Otis arrived at the table and slid a neat little tray of parts into place in front of Peter. He frowned briefly at the bot and Otis made a huffy sound before giving him one, too.
“The build is for small children, Dr. Stark.”
“I’m a child at heart, Otis,” Tony informed him solemnly and grinned when Peter giggled. “Also, who programmed you to huff?”
“It figures,” Tony muttered as the bot rolled away.
Text messages from Jarvis confirmed that Nebula and Loki were in place over the Fridge and were preparing to teleport down into it. He put away his phone. “Well, let’s see what we can build.”
* * * *
Nebula found magical teleporting revolting—it made her stomach feel unnaturally full and the slight squeezing around her heart as they reappeared reminded her of the surgery where Thanos had directed the surgeons to replace the last of her organic organs in the other timeline. He’d forced her to stay awake throughout the entire process. A reminder that she wasn’t allowed to be weak in front of him unless he wanted her to be.
Nebula nodded and pulled free of Loki’s hold. “Yes, the distance was disconcerting. It makes my insides feel tight.”
“Apologies, I’m not as familiar as I should be with your physiology. I’ll try to be more careful when we leave.”
“Is your magical shielding holding?”
“Yes. I don’t know why Tony gave SHIELD one of those Shade generators…it made this job more difficult.”
“Because they have the only technology that we currently have on hand at SI to hide our identities and we aren’t using it for this job. They would certainly expect that, and they have no way to prepare for magic.” She made a face. “Let’s go. This place feels weird.”
“That’s my magic,” Loki said. “Or it’s the Jotun side of my magic which my mother didn’t train me to use. I learned on my own in the other timeline.”
He reached out for the vault the inventory had led them to and wrapped his hand around the handle. It slowly darkened until it was blue and ice spread out around the handle. Loki pulled, and the lock broke with a sharp crack. The door swung open.
“He said not to leave fingerprints,” Nebula murmured.
“Jotun skin doesn’t have fingerprints nor does it shed. I won’t leave any genetic material behind,” Loki responded evenly, but he said nothing as she used her gloved hand to wipe down the handle.
The Tesseract was sitting in the middle of the vault—inert. Nebula stepped forward, put the bag she’d brought with her down on the floor of the vault, and slid the Tesseract into it. She zipped it and glanced toward Loki who was standing in the hall.
“Not even remotely,” Loki said. “And it’s a relief. That thing caused me nothing but pain. Had I not fallen into Thanos’ hands, I might have been able to prevent my mother’s murder.” His jaw tightened. “And because I couldn’t leave it behind on Asgard, Thanos killed half the people who made it out of Asgard. The sooner it’s gone and out of his reach the better.”
Magic swirled around him, and Nebula took a deep breath as she took the hand he offered. The teleportation was different, less harsh but still annoying. She appreciated the effort he made to adjust it for her. They landed in the cargo area of the Futurist. She let go of his hand, went to the pilot seat, and programmed the flight home.
“You surprise me.”
“No more than you surprise me,” Loki said as he dropped down in the co-pilot’s chair. “You’re a legend in some circles—at least you were in the other timeline. Your appetite for murder and mayhem appeared to have no limit. Now look at you, slowly but surely entrenching yourself in Tony Stark’s life. Does he have any idea how many people you’ve killed?”
“I told him,” Nebula said and glanced toward Loki. He was staring at her in shock. “I told him everything—the murders for hire, the torture, and everything in between. We spent three years together hunting for Thanos before we found him. He trusts me, and I’ll do nothing to destroy what we’ve built. Tony is important to me.”
“I can see that,” Loki murmured. “You’re like a daughter to him.”
Nebula frowned and averted her gaze. “Am I? Or am I just a replacement for the boy?” She took a deep breath. “I’ll never forget the look on Tony’s face as Peter Parker dusted in front of him. It was like someone tore out his heart, and I don’t think that kind of grief will ever be mended. He’ll never get that boy back because he’s actively working to prevent Parker from becoming what he was in the other timeline.”
“It’s a selfless choice,” Loki said. “One I would’ve been inclined to believe Tony Stark incapable of. I mistook his heroics for something else.”
“Your brother’s glory seeking,” Nebula said.
“Thor is brave. He’s also reckless and at times immensely selfish. But I know what kind of king he has the ability to be because I saw it before I died. And, yes, I did think that Stark was in it for the glory, and I was wrong.” He paused. “So are you.” He turned to her. “You’re not a replacement for anyone, Nebula. If that were true, he wouldn’t have bothered to bring you back with him. If everything that is happening here were about Peter Parker, then everything would be very different for us both.”
Nebula nodded. “Right. Let’s get this thing back in a shielded vault before someone notices it.”
“Also, he was gathering resources to build his own jump-capable ship before he even came to New York. If you hadn’t arrived when you did, he would’ve gone looking for you despite everything that is going on here. He’d be halfway to Andromeda by now.”
Nebula flushed and took a deep breath. “Really?”
“I watched him on and off while he was in California. He was serious. The plans are probably on his server somewhere so you can check for yourself. I have no need to mislead you.” Loki slouched back in the seat and stared out the window. “I have no need to mislead anyone anymore.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You might say that dying cured me of my unseemly desire to steal my brother’s throne.”
Nebula snorted then burst out laughing.
* * * *
Tony ran all the scans he could once they settled the Tesseract in the vault in the private lab. He tossed the tablet on his work table and took a deep breath. “Great job, you two.”
Nebula crossed her arms. “This sucks.” She flushed when both he and Loki turned to look at her in horror. “My sister’s stupid friends brag about saving the universe from Ego, and I can’t brag about killing Thanos or preventing him from arming the Infinity Gauntlet.”
“I told you,” Loki said with a pointed look in Tony’s direction.
Tony laughed. “There is such a thing as the pride of a job well done.”
“Bah,” Nebula said. “Friday, load my Rick Springfield playlist.” She stomped off toward the elevator. “Let’s make some metal in the particle accelerator.”
Tony groaned when Rick started singing Jessie’s Girl as the doors shut behind her. “I’m going to build a communication array that will reach Andromeda so I can send Quill hate email about his shitty taste in music. He has no right to infect other people.”
“Or you could just send him better music,” Loki suggested with a grin. He sat down on a stool and inclined his head. “Come here.”
“I told you I’m the boss around here,” Tony said but walked over to him anyway.
Loki hummed under his breath as he hooked his fingers into the belt loops of Tony’s pants. “You can be in charge all you want, Stark.”
Tony let himself be pulled between Loki’s legs and leaned into the soft kiss he was offered. He put his hands on Loki’s thighs as he ended the kiss. “J, send the message to the Kamar-Taj Library. Let her know she can come when she’s ready.”
“Of course, Sir. Ms. Potts is on her way to the lab.”
Loki sighed as Tony separated from him. “Should I leave?”
“No, I’ll introduce you. Officially, you’re on SI’s payroll as a behavioral psychologist working on the Helpful Bots project.”
“Is that why I keep getting questions from them?” Loki asked. “I didn’t even know what those little messages were. Jarvis had to explain email to me.”
Tony grinned. “You’re a fast learner and, besides, they’re thrilled with your work. Yinsen says your insights regarding bot behavior and environmental factors for the disabled have been invaluable.”
Loki frowned and rolled his eyes like it didn’t matter but Tony noticed that the man’s cheeks were slightly pink. He took it for a win. The doors opened, and Pepper strolled in, leather binder in hand. It was a familiar enough picture, and it made him smile.
“Pepper, have you met Dr. Odinson?”
She focused on Loki who had stood. “I…no. I can’t say that I have.” She held out a hand and blushed. “It’s a pleasure, Dr. Odinson.”
Loki took her hand. “Oh, love, please call me Loki. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Tony has told me all about your amazing work at the foundation.”
Pepper’s eyes brightened, and she wet her lips. “I…yes. Well, it’s challenging, and everyone is embracing the foundation’s purpose wholeheartedly which has been amazing. Have you been over to the mansion? We started arts and engineering outreach classes for kids and young adults.”
“I haven’t had time, no. Tony works me like a dog.” Loki smiled.
Tony cleared his throat. “I do not.”
Loki released Pepper’s hand and offered her a wink. “I’ll just let the two of you talk. Should I let Nebula know you’ll be late for dinner?”
Loki nodded and used the exit into the private residence to leave the lab.
Pepper blinked in surprise. “He’s staying with you?”
“He’s an old friend,” Tony said and waved her toward a stool. “What’s on your amazing mind, Pep?”
“Your visit to the mansion,” she said. “The feedback was great from parents and kids. They were thrilled with your hands-on attention, and none of them even cared that you helped their kids make a little army of robot spiders.”
“Well, Spiderling was happy to be their model,” Tony said. “Besides, those little guys don’t even have butt rope.”
Pepper sighed. “I wanted you to start looking at projects we’re setting up at the schools and pick out a few to be personally involved in. Ho and Bruce have already made their choices. In fact, you’re the only R&D asset who hasn’t donated time to the projects officially.”
“Get me the schedule and list of classes and locations—I’ll visit at least once a month,” Tony promised. “Anything else?”
“No,” she said and shrugged. She put her binder down. “It’s weird that I don’t know what you do all day anymore.”
He grinned. “I rarely followed that schedule you used to give me anyway.” Tony nudged her. “Seriously, what’s up?”
“I…have a date.”
“Well, good for you,” Tony said and was pleased that he actually meant it. “Who?”
Pepper blushed. “Happy.”
“Ah, he finally worked up the nerve then. He’s been looking your way for about a year.” Tony raised an eyebrow at the shocked look that earned him. “What? I pay attention. He’s a great guy—honorable. I trust him like I trust myself. You guys have had breakfast a few times? Rumors fly.” He made a motion with his hand, and she laughed.
“Yes, but mostly because we work out at the same time and we kept running into each other…” She trailed off. “Oh.”
Tony laughed. “He played the long game.”
“Don’t get mad at him—he’s invested. He’s treated you respectfully, right?”
Pepper clinched her teeth on her bottom lip. “I think he’s been courting me. I don’t know whether to be charmed by his old-fashioned behavior or horrified.”
“Go with charmed,” Tony said. “Let him buy you dinner and see what his next move is.”
“Or I could make some moves of my own,” she exclaimed.
“He won’t know what to do with himself so, of course, I highly recommend it.” Tony grinned when Pepper laughed. “Wear something in blue—you look gorgeous in blue.”
“Right. Blue.” She nodded. “I got this.”
“You totally got it,” Tony assured her. “Wear sexy shoes.”
“Blue. Sexy shoes.” She picked up her binder.
Tony watched her leave without another word.
“Are you okay?”
Tony took a deep breath. “I’m…good.” He nodded to himself. “It’s better this way. What I had with her wasn’t healthy for either of us. I spent too much time trying to twist myself up doing what I wanted while trying to keep her placated at the same time. It was a recipe for disaster. Happy’s had a thing for her for a while. I don’t know if he got over it in the other timeline. Maybe he didn’t.” He winced. “Wow, I don’t even know actually. I’m an asshole.”
“It would behoove me to point out that his feelings weren’t your responsibility then or now. Additionally, a magical portal opened in the living room, and a woman stepped out. Mr. Odinson is requesting that you bring the object to them. His heart rate is elevated, indicating a level of stress I’ve not noted in him before.” Jarvis paused. “Not even when you were copulating.”
“Whoa!” Tony frowned as he headed for the vault. “Don’t talk about my sex life. Also, she moved faster than I expected. I hope she’s prepared to do what we need immediately.”
He put his palm on the panel, did an eye scan, and then entered in a twenty-digit code. The door opened, and he retrieved the bag. He unzipped it quickly as he hadn’t bothered to check it when they’d put it in. The Tesseract didn’t look at all impressive in a dormant state. Tony left the lab and entered his residence. The woman inclined her bald head.
“Ancient Bald Lady,” Tony said dryly, and Loki winced. He set the bag down on the coffee table. “Did you tell her about the Aether and when it would be available to her?”
“I did,” Loki said. “The Reality Stone must be contained. The Dark Elves mustn’t ever regain control of the Aether—they would plunge all nine realms into never-ending darkness.”
“A darkness where their power would grow unchecked,” the Ancient One said quietly. She picked up the Tesseract. “It is my duty to defend this world from all threats. I will capture the Aether. No one will ever know where I’ve hidden it or the Tesseract.” She focused on Tony. “You know this already to be true.”
“I saw it unfold exactly that way millions of times in the blink of an eye,” Tony agreed. “That’s why I called you.” He paused. “And you know what happens if you fail to hide the stone.”
“I saw it,” she said evenly. “I will not fail.”
“You’ll make sure Stephen stays on his path?”
“I will,” she said, waved a hand, and stepped back into a portal.
Loki slouched down on the couch. “I don’t think I want to see her or another of her kind again as long as I live.”
Tony grinned. “When’s dinner?”
Loki huffed. “Whenever you order it.” He waved a hand. “I’m too stressed out to cook.”
Tony hesitated. “You told Nebula you’d bake her a chicken, so you’re going to tell her she’s not getting it. She loves it and was looking forward to it.”
“Can you not order it?” Loki questioned.
“J, find Nebula a baked chicken,” Tony said and patted Loki on the shoulder. “How about a blow job?”
“I’m not opposed to using sexual activities to manage my stress,” Loki said primly. “Lead the way.”
* * * *
Nebula found the main lab to be comfortable. Some of the other interns for the company weren’t exactly friendly, but she ignored that. Most of them were already in college, and they were jealous of her position as Tony’s personal intern. She understood that, but there was nothing she could do about it. Such jealousy had often featured heavily in her interactions with the people who served Thanos. She hadn’t been his favorite, but she had been treated better than most in comparison which was a nightmare in itself.
“What are you working on?”
Nebula looked up and offered Bruce Banner what she hoped was a polite smile. She needed to practice different facial expressions more often. Loki had told her over breakfast just that morning that her affect was a bit flat, and while she could get away with a ‘resting bitch face,’ that she needed to put a little more animation in her face when she interacted with others as humans used such things to manage social expectations.
“I tried making vibranium in the particle accelerator.” She paused when he blinked. “Well, I did make it actually following my grandfather’s formula for the metal, but it took me three hours to make a gram.”
Bruce sat down and exhaled sharply. “Right, that’s not exactly useful.”
“Limited use,” Nebula agreed. She motioned to the hologram in front of her. “So I’m just brainstorming other ways of manufacturing metal. Tony’s work with nanotechnology in the private lab…I think we could build nanobots to help us grow metal using electricity.”
“Oh.” Bruce grinned. “I see. What do you know about electroplating and traditional metalworking?”
She pursed her lips. “You mean like making swords? Blacksmithing? I’ve never been in a forge, but I know the general principle.”
“I think we need a field trip,” Bruce said. “I know a guy who makes swords for reenactments and stuff.” He waved a hand. “You’d benefit from seeing that process and how metal is layered to make strong alloys.”
“Okay, can you arrange that?”
“It’ll have to be after the holiday but absolutely.”
He pulled out his phone and sent a text message. She watched the movement of his thumb, easily translating that movement to figure out the words of his text. He asked his friend to call him.
Nebula focused on the model when Banner looked up. “If we could use a metal laminate method—we could grow large sheets of a vibranium/adamantium alloy fairly quickly, and the cost would be economical.”
“What’s the purpose?” Bruce questioned.
“Body armor,” Nebula said. “Tony’s going to sign a contract with the DOD to build body armor, and we’re looking for a material to use to build heat shields for the quinjets so they’ll be more efficient for use during the construction of the Aurora.”
“Tony named the space station. NASA agreed with his selection.”
“Oh, cool.” Bruce stared at the alloy formula and poked it to make that part of the hologram bigger. “This is fascinating.”
She wondered if he’d notice the qualities that were neither vibranium nor adamantium. The addition of uru was something Tony didn’t plan to speak of at all, and it shared so many qualities with vibranium that most people wouldn’t question it. Bruce Banner, however, wasn’t most people. Banner hummed under his breath. “Is he going to use this metal to power the arc reactor for the station as well? With the right mixture of vibranium, we could produce more than enough power for the gravitational shields you want.”
She nodded. “The kinetic energy collection potential of vibranium is the reason why we chose it for the mixture. Adamantium for the strength.”
“Vibranium is strong.”
“Yes, but it can be broken in some circumstances,” Nebula said. “Adamantium is currently believed to be indestructible.”
Bruce grinned. “Wanna test that?”
“Yes.” She laughed. “Yes, I do.”
He glanced across the lab, which covered the whole floor of the building, where several interns were gathered. “Problems there?”
She shrugged. “Some ugly assumptions that I can’t outright address, jealousy, and I turned down one’s offer of a coffee date.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Bradley.”
“Should I tell Mr. Corwin to leave you alone?” Bruce asked.
“No, I handled it.” Nebula waved a hand. “He just didn’t like being told no and called me a bitch. But honestly, if he were truly interested in me, he’d know I don’t drink coffee.”
“Tea with milk, no sugar.” Bruce shrugged when she glanced at him. “You order it a lot from Jarvis, and you do it in public, so there is no reason for him not have caught on. That kind of shallow behavior isn’t attractive.”
“Speaking of attractive, I watched a lecture that your girlfriend gave on biochemical treatments for cancer,” Nebula said. “She’s smarter and hotter than you. How did you get so lucky?”
Bruce grinned. “She’ll be here for the Christmas party. I told her I had an intern running circles around me in the lab. She’s looking forward to meeting you. Betty’s all about encouraging women in STEM fields.”
* * * *
Tony slid astride Loki’s hips and braced himself on the other man’s chest as nimble, slick fingers pushed into his ass. He shuddered and rocked down on the fingers until they were removed. Complaining came to mind, but Loki’s hand on his hip and the hot, blunt tip of the god’s cock against his entrance robbed him of the words.
“I love your big cock,” Tony murmured as Loki thrust up into him.
“You can have it anytime you want it,” Loki said as he continued to push up into Tony with a slow grinding motion of his hips. He wrapped a hand around Tony’s cock and rubbed the head with his thumb. “And you can fuck me as well.”
“You like that?” Tony asked breathlessly.
“I haven’t let anyone do it in hundreds of years but, yes,” Loki said. “I like it.” He jacked Tony’s cock with long, sure strokes. “You’re gorgeous like this—taking your pleasure as if it’s your due.”
“It is,” Tony said and curled his fingers against Loki’s skin. “I saved the universe. I deserve to get fucked any way I like on a regular basis.”
Loki grinned. “I helped.”
“And I’m letting you do the fucking of me, the savior of the universe.”
“You arrogant bastard,” Loki said with a soft laugh.
* * * *
Nebula was carving herself off a generous portion of chicken when James Rhodes entered the kitchen. “Hi.”
“Hey, kid, where’s your old man?”
“Having personal private time with Dr. Odinson,” Nebula said and wiggled her eyebrows. “I shouldn’t speculate on what that means according to Jarvis.”
Rhodey groaned. “I need to talk to him about some contracts.”
“He left a few for you on the coffee table in the living room.” Nebula motioned toward the chicken as she moved on to making a mound of mac & cheese on her plate. “Hungry?”
“I could eat.” Rhodey grabbed a plate out of the cabinet. “Are you okay having company?” He glanced toward Spiderling who was hanging from the fridge’s handle. “Human company?”
Nebula grinned. “Sure, I find humans fascinating.” She plucked Spiderling from the fridge. “I have water in the living room already, but you should bring your own beverage.”
Rhodes followed along shortly with a plate of his own and a bottle of iced tea. “I wanted to say thank you.”
“For?” Nebula questioned.
Rhodey settled in on the floor opposite her at the table and pushed the pile of contracts out of the way so he could put his plate down. “Your dad…he was turning into your grandfather. I don’t mean to disparage the man because he was a patriot. But Howard Stark wasn’t a great father, and he drank too much. Tony was drinking a lot—too much on a regular basis before the idea of you coming to live with him was on the table. He was reckless with his relationships with other people, and I think you’ve turned that around for him. So thank you for saving him from himself.”
Nebula focused on her chicken and shrugged. “Tony’s not that easy to influence.”
“I think you’d be really surprised by how much influence you have over him, kid. Parenthood obviously agrees with him.” He motioned toward the contracts. “Even six months ago it would have taken ten people to wrangle Tony into a place to review these contracts. I sent them yesterday, and he’s obviously already gone through them and made changes.”
“In the end, he just doesn’t want to stand in his father’s shadow,” Nebula said.
“I bet you get that better than most,” Rhodey said wryly. “Your dad being a super genius and all. How do you think you’ll handle the scrutiny when your identity is revealed publicly?”
“I can handle it. Tony’s cautious, but I’m not very worried about it.”
She really didn’t think anyone on Earth could compare to Thanos, so she was hard-pressed to be concerned about the fallout of her official identity being revealed. Nebula pulled her tablet over when Rhodes nodded and picked up the first contract from the pile. She answered several emails and ignored the one titled ‘apology’ by Bradley Corwin. He was a mild pain in the ass, but he was hardly the first male to think he was entitled to something from her.
“What’s up with your face?” Rhodey questioned.
“One of the other interns—he’s working with Dr. Chin on the next Stark phone construction—he asked me have coffee with him and I declined. He got…angry with me for saying no and demanded to know why I rejected him. I told him I didn’t owe him an explanation. He called me a bitch.”
Rhodey’s nostrils flared. “Did you tell your dad?”
“I don’t need to run to Tony every time someone does something I don’t like,” Nebula said. “He sent me an apology email, but I’m ignoring it.”
He sighed. “Kid, this is not about you being tough. His behavior constitutes sexual harassment, and it violates his employment contract. He was entirely out of line with you, and it doesn’t matter that you’re Tony’s daughter. In this instance, you’re his intern, and he has a responsibility to you that he can’t meet if you keep this kind of thing to yourself.” He waved a hand. “What does the email say?”
Nebula made a face but opened the email. “I’m sorry if you were offended by my language. –Brad.”
“That little asshole,” Rhodey muttered.
“What’s this?” Tony called out as he entered the room. He headed toward the kitchen. “You’re not allowed to date men my age, young lady.”
“Jesus, Tony, she’s your kid, so that means she’s like my kid, too!” Rhodey shouted.
Nebula was a hundred percent certain that she didn’t want another father figure. “How should I respond to this email?”
“Tell him to leave you alone and if he doesn’t, file a complaint with HR,” Rhodey said shortly.
Tony came in with a plate and a cup of coffee. “Hey.”
“Personal private time?” Rhodey questioned.
Tony just grinned.
“One of the other interns is making a pest of himself,” Rhodey said and gestured toward Nebula. “By hitting on her and handling rejection badly.”
Tony frowned and dropped his plate on the table as Loki entered the room buttoning his shirt. “Did he put his hands on you?”
“No, he just called me a bitch for not giving him a reason for saying no to coffee.”
“You don’t drink coffee,” Tony said and frowned. “Do we need to move him out of the main lab?”
“I can handle myself,” Nebula said. “Besides, it’s going to come out eventually that I’m not just your intern, and that little asshole is going to live in fear forever because he called the daughter of Tony Stark a bitch.” She smirked when Loki laughed. He joined them on the floor and set another bottle of water down beside her. “That’s going to be really entertaining.”
“Colonel James Rhodes meet Dr. Loki Odinson.” Tony waved between them. “Rhodey and I met when we were children and eventually ended up at MIT together. Though I was already on a second degree when he joined me.”
“Having a super genius for a best friend can be deeply demoralizing,” Rhodey said gravely. “And annoying.” He focused his attention on Loki. “What’s your doctorate in?”
“Psychology,” Loki said with a brief glance in Tony’s direction. “I consult on a variety of projects at SI including the Helpful Bots.”
“We’ll also be using his input on the space station construction,” Nebula put in. “Throwing a bunch of people into space to live in tin donut could have some psychological ramifications.”
Rhodey nodded. “The Navy has some studies on closed environments on ships and submarines. It would probably supplement whatever you receive from NASA in that regard. I could get you those studies—they aren’t classified at this point.”
“Thank you, Colonel Rhodes, I would appreciate it,” Loki said. “And any insight you have on combat environments would be helpful as well. Dr. Yinsen has already asked me to start working on the personality matrix for the bots Tony will be designing for the DOD.”
“Of course, and call me Rhodey, everyone does.”
“Loki then,” he said and stabbed a piece of chicken. “It’s a bit dry.”
“This is what happens when someone indulges in personal private time instead of baking the chicken I was promised,” Nebula said darkly. “I end up with dry chicken, and I think the cheese in the pasta is fake crap. I don’t know what I did to deserve this kind of treatment.”
“We had a stressful visitor,” Loki said and inclined his head when she lifted an eyebrow in question. “I’ll make it up to you.”
Since a ‘stressful visitor’ could only mean another magic user, Nebula relaxed and ate the dry chicken. The fact that the Tesseract was in the hands of the Ancient One was such a staggering relief that she could hardly measure it.
The discussion quickly shifted to the pile of contracts, and she ignored that. She’d already read them all, more out of curiosity than necessity since she knew little to nothing about the law on Earth. Though she had picked out several titles on contract law to read, so she’d be more helpful in the future regarding that topic. She set up her tablet to feed her a book at a slow enough level that it was practically like reading it and was contemplating another plate of food when her name came up. Disgruntled, she disengaged the book and focused on the men in the room.
“I mean it, Tony, she needs self-defense lessons,” Rhodey said.
His face looked stubborn or angry, she couldn’t decide. She definitely needed to study human facial expressions more. Tony rarely kept anything to himself and his face pretty much matched what he was saying.
“I’ve already had self-defense lessons,” Nebula interjected before Tony could speak. All three men focused on her. Loki looked amused, which was practically his default facial expression, so she didn’t take it seriously. “My guardian ensured that I was capable of defending myself in case my parentage was revealed. She worried that I might be kidnapped.” Silently she thanked Friday for having prepared her for this particular moment.
“What kind of lessons?” Rhodey questioned.
“Kickboxing and Krav Maga,” Nebula said and smiled when the man’s mouth dropped open. She had spent some time during the trip to Earth reviewing human fighting styles so she could adapt. “I can handle myself, promise.”
“I want to see you in the gym, then,” Rhodey said and stabbed his chicken. “Working on keeping those skills sharp.”
She offered him a smartassed salute she’d seen on TV, and he huffed. “Relax, you’re worse than Tony.”
“Tony lives in the most secure privately owned facility on this planet for a reason,” Rhodey said. “He travels with security everywhere for a reason. I don’t want you to get hurt, kid.”
“If I get hurt, the other guy is going to get hurt worse,” she declared. “A lot worse.”
“The gym, first thing in the morning with me,” Rhodey said. “I want to see you move.”
“Okay, but I hope your ego can handle getting your butt kicked,” she said and smiled as sweetly as she could.
Religion baffled her, so the company Christmas party felt more like an assignment than a celebratory event. Friday had tutored her extensively regarding social constructs on Earth and polite behavior. Nebula would freely admit she’d never really been one for niceties, but she didn’t want to be a cause of embarrassment for Tony so she’d taken the lessons to heart and she did her very best to be polite at all times when interacting with the employees of SI. One day they would know her legal identity, so she had resolved to conduct herself properly. Tony had given her his name, and she wasn’t going to do a thing to make him regret that.
Nebula fixed herself a plate of snacks then retreated to a corner to eat and people watch. She was quite proud of the fact that she remembered to cross her legs before Friday could remind her. As always, her digital sister had quite a lot to say about everything that was going on in the room, so Nebula just ate and listened to Friday’s running commentary on the attendees.
“There you are,” Bruce said warmly as he approached. “Betty Ross this is Nebula Collins.”
Nebula set aside her plate and stood. She offered her hand. “Dr. Ross, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Dr. Banner speaks of you often.”
Betty Ross greeted her with a smile that looked very genuine, so Nebula relaxed slightly. “Bruce tells me you’re smarter than him, so I’m thrilled to meet you.”
Nebula laughed. “Dr. Banner is very kind to me. I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s promised to take me to a blacksmith after the New Year. I’m going to commission a sword.”
“Oh, I’d love a sword,” Betty said and sat down in a chair next to the one Nebula had been sitting on. “Come sit, and we’ll gossip about people. Bruce, I’d love some wine.”
He kissed Betty’s cheek and ambled off without complaint.
Nebula regained her seat. “Did you wish to know anything specific?”
Betty raised an eyebrow. “Well, now that you mention it…”
* * * *
Loki had made a few brief public appearances in the lab, so he wasn’t an unknown entity to the senior staff, but Tony couldn’t help but notice how much attention the man garnered. He was attractive, and the very nice suit he was wearing did nothing to detract from that at all. The God of Mischief had a sophisticated air about him that spoke of luxury and sex. It was actually kind of annoying, and Tony was half tempted to order the man to tone that shit down. Except he didn’t even think Loki was doing it on purpose. The man wasn’t flirting with anyone. He often moved close to Tony during conversations with others, as if he were staking some kind of claim, and kept a hand on Tony when they were working their way through the crowd.
“Looks like their date went well,” Loki murmured and inclined his head toward the dance floor.
Pepper and Happy were dancing together.
“It doesn’t bother you? Truly?”
“No, I’m pleased for them both,” Tony said, and he meant it. “He’s just the kind of guy she needs.” He offered Loki his hand, and the god blinked briefly as if shocked before he took it. “Let’s dance.”
“That’s a bold statement to make,” Loki murmured.
“It’s no secret at all that I’m bisexual, and these people work for me. If a single one of them has a problem with me being with a man they’ll be fired. I don’t tolerate any kind of bigotry at SI.”
Loki nodded, and they moved out onto the dance floor.
Tony let him take the lead so he could look around the room. Nebula was seated near the balcony with Betty Ross having what looked like a pretty amusing conversation. Rhodey was speaking with Ho at one of the buffet tables. Bruce was at the bar. Content to know where all of his people were he focused on Loki.
“You’re too tall.”
Loki grinned. “I’m actually quite short for my people.” He paused. “But then I think you are as well.”
Tony laughed. “Shut up.”
“Hmmm, looks like we have an unexpected visitor.” Loki turned them gracefully so Tony could look in the direction needed. “One fake redhead on the left.”
Tony snorted. “It’s rude to point that kind of thing out.”
“She’s very annoying,” Loki murmured. “And rude. I’m sure she wasn’t invited to this party.”
“No, she probably wiggled in as someone’s plus one,” Tony said as he let his gaze drift away from Natasha Romanoff. “I was actually hoping this would be a relaxing and fun evening. Now I’ve got this to deal with.”
“You don’t have to deal with her at all,” Loki said mildly. “She doesn’t know you and has no reason to suspect you would know her. Ignore her like you have every other woman in this room. Concentrate on me, I’m much more attractive.”
Tony grinned. “You are.”
* * * *
Nebula put her empty plate on the tray of a passing server and remembered to say thank you. Pepper was always polite to the people who served her, so she made sure to be as well. Though it was a new experience as manners hadn’t been much of a concern in Thanos’ household.
It was interesting being around a man who commanded a lot of power that he’d actually earned. Granted, Tony came from wealth, but he’d surpassed his father’s wealth and power before he’d reached thirty. She walked around the edge of the dance floor, her gaze drifting over Tony and Loki who were dancing before she slid into place next to Natasha Romanoff. Friday had noticed her the moment she entered the room, and they’d watched her while she waited for a signal from Tony. It appeared that he planned to ignore the SHIELD agent.
“Mr. Stark would like you to leave,” Nebula said as she brushed her hair from her bare shoulder. She was wearing a little bit of nothing cocktail dress, but she’d been assured by everyone it was appropriate for the party. Romanoff was wearing less. “And let your superiors at SHIELD know that he won’t tolerate any other attempts to infiltrate his life or business under false pretenses.”
Romanoff took a sip of her drink. “I’m surprised Stark would send a little girl to warn me off.”
Nebula glanced her over and raised an eyebrow. “You aren’t important enough to warrant his personal attention. Find your date and make a graceful exit, Agent, or I’ll have security remove you by force.”
Romanoff smiled. “We don’t know much about you, Miss Collins, but you can expect that to change very rapidly.”
“Neither you nor the organization you work for concern me in the least,” Nebula said. She caught Happy’s attention and the man immediately disengaged from Pepper Potts, led her from the dance floor, and came to Nebula. “Happy, this woman isn’t on the guest list, and Tony wants her removed from the building. See that her date is notified that he’s brought a security threat into the building and he’ll be subjected to an interview by Human Resources after the holidays.”
“Perfect,” Friday said as Nebula walked away. “Don’t look back—she’ll think she ruffled your feathers.”
“I don’t have feathers,” Nebula muttered under her breath.
“Don’t talk to me out loud; people will think you’re nuts.”
Nebula bit down on her lip to keep from laughing and walked out onto the balcony to get some air. It was cold, but the balcony wasn’t getting a lot of wind so she could handle it for a bit. She looked over the railing and watched the slow crawl of traffic in front of the tower.
“What’s it like?”
Nebula turned and found Brad Corwin standing a few feet from her. “What?”
“What’s it like?” he demanded again as he approached her. “Being Stark’s pet? At first, I thought you were fucking him but, apparently, he’s a fag, so that’s out.”
“I’m not his pet,” Nebula said evenly. “And watch your mouth when you speak of him.”
“What else could you be? Hell, you don’t even have a high school diploma much less a college degree.” He touched her shoulder, and she stepped back from him. “You realize you’re the only intern at SI who isn’t working on their Master’s, right? You get all the prime assignments. Even Banner and Yinsen bend over backward to include you in their work, Collins, and it’s bullshit. I worked my ass off to get this internship at SI, and you waltz in out of nowhere. You’re smart, I’ll grant you that, but you just get everything handed to you, and I want to know why.”
“It’s none of your business.”
He leaned down in her personal space, blowing rancid, whiskey-scented breath across her face. “You’re so pretty. I hate girls like you—you think you’re better than the rest of us.” Brad grabbed her arm. “You’re not better than me, you little cunt.”
“Be careful, humans are fragile,” Friday said urgently. “No more than ten percent of your strength.”
Nebula was processing that instruction as Brad took her by the shoulders and pressed his mouth against hers roughly. She jerked back in disgust and shoved him. Immediately, she realized she’d used too much strength because he flew off his feet and hit the glass doors separating them from the rest of the party. They shattered on impact and Brad fell into the banquet room.
Happy was there so quickly she had to think he’d been standing nearby. He stepped over Brad’s groaning figure and went to her immediately.
“He…” Nebula took a deep breath. “He grabbed me and kissed me. I overreacted, I guess, I just wasn’t prepared for it.” She rubbed her arms, aware that bruises were already starting to rise. For the first time, she regretted how sophisticated the skinsuit’s construction was.
Happy glared at Brad who was struggling to stand without cutting himself. “Come on, kid, we’ll file a report with HR, and he’ll be removed from the premises.”
“What the hell is going on?” Tony demanded from the doorway. “Nebula?”
“Mr. Corwin made an unwelcome advance, and Miss Collins got a little overzealous in defending herself, sir. I’ll see him out of the building,” Happy explained.
“That’s fucking ridiculous,” Brad shouted as he came to his feet. “She assaulted me for no reason! I’m filing charges.” He rubbed his sternum and briefly she was worried she might have broken it. She hadn’t hit him that hard, probably. “Call the cops! I mean it, I’m filing charges!”
Nebula allowed Happy to guide her into the room where the party had definitely ground to a halt.
“Talk to me,” Tony said as he came to stand with her. “What happened?”
“He’s drunk,” Nebula said. “He grabbed me and kissed me…I pushed him off, and he fell into the doors.”
“Sir, I have the security footage if you’d like to see it,” Jarvis said.
Nebula took a deep breath but Friday assured her that it would be fine so she relaxed.
Tony glared at Corwin. “Yeah, Jarvis, show me the footage.” A panel lit on the wall and Nebula wished he’d dismissed the rest of the party-goers before agreeing to that.
The camera angle wasn’t great, she was barely visible in it, and Brad had his back to it. That more than covered up her physical response to him—it was hard to judge how close they were to the doors. Tony took a deep, ragged breath at being called a fag and several people were gaping in horror at the screen. The panel went quiet, and Tony stared at Corwin for what seemed like a very long time in silence.
Corwin flushed with fury and probably leftover alcohol. She was relieved that Tony didn’t drink anymore. “You’re going to fire me over her? My father was a major stockholder in SI for decades. I should’ve inherited his shares but…you took that from me! You fucking owe me a job, Stark! You fire me over your little charity project and I’ll sue you.”
“She’s not a charity project,” Tony snapped.
“What else could she be?” Corwin demanded. “Since we know you’re not fucking her!”
“She’s my daughter, you stupid little bastard!” Tony shouted. “And I don’t owe you a single thing. Happy, get him out of here. Let the NYPD know that they can contact the legal department if he pursues charges against her.”
Happy hesitated briefly, clearly shocked, before grabbing Corwin and hauling him away.
Tony turned to the crowd. “I won’t ask you to keep what you’ve just witnessed to yourself because one of you won’t, and I don’t want to be pissed at everyone when I read the paper in the morning. The security footage, however, is not to leave this building. If it leaks, I’ll have the person who leaked it fired, and I’ll make sure you have a very difficult time getting another job. Please feel free to stay and enjoy the food.”
He took her elbow in a gentle grip and guided her quickly toward the exit. Loki fell in behind them and brushed off more than one person who appeared to have questions. They crossed the covered sky bridge into the residential tower and entered the elevator. Tony quickly punched in the code for the penthouse, and the doors shut.
“You okay?” he asked tightly.
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
“Do not…” Tony took a deep breath. “Jesus, Nebula, you don’t owe me an apology. I never should’ve gone along with your little plan with Corwin. He was obviously more of a problem than you recognized and that’s my fault. You’re not…really prepared to deal with human males who are sexually interested in you.”
“I don’t need a sex talk,” Nebula said hotly and huffed as the doors opened. She stomped out of the elevator, paused to pull off her stupid shoes, and threw the offensive heels halfway across the living room.
“This isn’t about sex,” Tony said. “It’s about how…frankly, it’s about how dangerous human men are. A lot of them don’t take being told no without responding aggressively—the single biggest threat to women on this planet is a man.” He held up a hand when she started to talk. “You’re obviously very capable of taking care of yourself. But you’re not invulnerable, and you could be caught off guard. Also, you hesitated when he put his hands on you. What was that?”
Nebula blushed and huffed. “I was calculating how much strength I should use against him. I didn’t want to accidentally kill him, but then he put his mouth on mine, and I’ve never…I’ve never allowed anyone to do that before. Ever.” She shuddered. “And I smelled alcohol so I…overreacted.”
Loki’s gaze narrowed. “Your species can’t consume alcohol.” He offered her his hand. “Let’s make sure you didn’t ingest any.”
“I kept my mouth shut,” Nebula said, but she took his hand and let him put her on the couch. “I smelled it before he got close.”
Loki’s skin took on a light glow and Nebula watched his eyes flicker. He released her after a minute. “Your nasal passages are a little inflamed but other than that you’re fine.”
“Sir, Dr. Banner, and Dr. Ross are requesting permission to come up. Dr. Ross is very concerned about Nebula.”
“Let them up, J,” Tony said when Nebula nodded.
He slouched down in a chair across from her. “Your species doesn’t kiss then?”
“I…” Nebula shrugged. “It’s a very intimate thing to allow amongst my people—something meant for mates rather than a casual sex partner. Exchanging oral fluids encourages the females of my species to become fertile.”
“Wow.” Tony took a deep breath. “Suddenly, I want to go kill that little jerk more than I already did.”
The elevator opened and ejected Betty Ross, Bruce Banner, Pepper Potts, and Happy Hogan, who looked pissed. Betty crossed the room and sat down with Nebula.
“Are you okay, darling?”
“Yeah,” Nebula said and offered her a small smile. “I’m fine. I’m not the one that got thrown through a pair of doors.”
Happy was glaring at Tony outright.
“Let it out,” Tony said.
“This isn’t the kind of thing you keep from me!” Happy shouted. “If I’d known—that little shit would’ve never gotten close enough to touch her without permission. For fuck’s sake, Tony, a secret like this could’ve gotten her killed. She barely weighs 120 pounds. He could’ve picked her up and thrown over her that goddamned balcony! And frankly, he’s drunk and angry enough to have done it!”
“129,” Nebula corrected and raised an eyebrow when Happy huffed. “Calm your tits, dude. I handled it.”
Happy’s lips quirked briefly. “You did, but you shouldn’t have had to. The daughters of billionaires don’t engage in fisticuffs.”
“I simply cannot promise to adhere to that societal expectation,” Nebula informed him gravely.
He started to say more, but Betty held up a hand. “I believe she’s endured enough male hostility for the evening. Perhaps you and Dr. Stark could go elsewhere to have this dick measuring contest, Mr. Hogan?”
Pepper sat down on Nebula’s left, plucked up her free hand and stared pointedly at Happy.
“Right, sorry.” He threw up his hands in defeat and walked into the kitchen.
Tony took a deep breath and pulled out his phone which proved to vibrating madly. He answered it. “Rhodey.” He winced and hung his head briefly then offered her the phone. “I’m an asshole. He wants to talk to you.”
Nebula gently pulled her hands free of Betty and Pepper and left the sofa. They meant well, but the overtly maternal attention from them both was kind of off-putting. “Hey.”
“Hey, kid, it’s all over the news that you were assaulted at the party. What happened? I’m on my way back to the tower.”
“You’re on a date,” she said. “You spent two weeks planning it.”
“I dedicated a half hour of my life I’ll never get back helping you pick out shoes for that date,” Nebula said darkly. “I’m fine. Some drunk loser grabbed me and kissed me. I pushed him through a pair of glass doors. He got fired. Go back to your date, James Rhodes.”
“Ha, too late, I’m pulling into the parking garage. Tell your old man I’ll be up shortly. The press is already gathering outside the building.”
Nebula scowled when the call disconnected. “He’s on his way up, and the press is gathering outside.”
“Fantastic,” Tony said and took the phone when she offered it. “Sorry, kid, I lost my temper back there. That wasn’t the best way to get your real name out there.” He ran a hand through his hair and walked away from them as Happy reentered the room. “Happy, get with internal security and do a thorough check of the buildings. Also, contact the NYPD regarding our options for the crowd outside.” He turned to face the man. “Please.”
Happy nodded. “You owe me a half hour in the ring within the next week. I might let you wear headgear.”
Tony grinned briefly then focused on Pepper. “Help.”
She laughed briefly. “We need a PR team on the job right now to do damage control. Fortunately, for you, you have a team already. I imagine the head of that department, Stephanie Lowell, is either already in her office or struggling to get into the building. It would’ve been nice if she’d known this was coming but I know Stephanie well, and she can handle this. Let’s keep Nebula’s press contact to a minimum for right now. PR can select a few magazines for structured interviews for the both of you. You’ll need to make a statement to the press. You also need to get in front of the situation with Corwin before he decides to sue her for civil damages regarding the assault. The security footage is damning, but he might get the idea that you’d pay him to go away to avoid a trial process.”
“He wouldn’t be wrong,” Tony admitted.
Nebula frowned. “You’d better not pay that troglodyte anything.” She pointed at him when he laughed. “I mean it.”
“Friday?” Tony questioned.
“Do you have footage of all of her interactions with Brad Corwin?”
“Of course, Boss, Nebula goes nowhere in the complex without me,” Friday said. “I’ll compile a file for you and place it on your personal server.”
“Thank you.” Tony checked his watch. “Let’s see if Stephanie’s here or if we’ll have to send security to retrieve her.”
* * * *
Tony glanced up as Nebula entered the lab. “Hey.”
“Was it enough?”
“Yes, and I have enough vibranium left to make another arc reactor,” Tony said. “I want to start working on a Prime bracelet for Rhodey.”
“I thought…you weren’t going to do that.”
“We know Thanos is coming, and we need all the help we can get when that day arrives,” Tony said. “When he finds out, and he will, that I have a flying suit, he’s going to want one. He’s also probably going to lose it over the fact that you have one so the best way to manage him is to give him what he’s more than earned—War Machine.”
“I’ll start working on creating more of the element for the small arc reactors,” Nebula said as she picked up her bracelet. She put it on. “How do I activate it?”
“It’ll activate three ways—your voice command, AI controlled, or triple tap on the bottom of the bracelet. Friday is connected to your bracelet already but won’t take control unless your life signs show that you’re unconscious in a dangerous situation. You have several configurations, but your main one is Banshee. It’s programmed to only work for you and to only recognize your voice.”
“Codename Banshee,” Nebula said, and the suit spun out around her in a sweep of nanotech and encased her. She walked across the lab to the mirror and stared. “Blue.” She paused and took a deep breath. “Thank you.”
“Codename Iron Man,” Tony murmured after her joining her at the mirror he put in the room for this purpose. He’d gone with red and gold for himself. “A little nostalgia.”
He offered her his fist, and she bumped it with a shake of her head.
“The original Extremis was entirely organic in design,” Tony said as he threw open his hands to spread out the hologram for Nebula. “It wouldn’t have done much for you, honestly, since it was entirely fixated on human physiology. Friday and I have been working on it since your arrival so that we could marry the specific biomodifications to your existing architecture.”
“To what end?” Nebula questioned as she walked around the hologram of the cybernetic implant Tony had designed. “This looks like the communication implant she designed.”
“It’s very similar,” Tony agreed. “And its purpose is to correct the connection between your central nervous system and the cybernetic brain.” He watched her review the entire schematic. The topic was a sensitive one for her, as they’d never really discussed Thanos’ continued, relentless violation of her bodily autonomy.
Nebula bit down on her lip. “You’ve married nanobots with Extremis to correct my nerve receptor damage.”
She took a deep breath, and her eyes started to glisten. They darkened as the skinsuit worked to hide the shift in her natural eye color. He’d noticed the minute shifting of color in her eyes during emotionally stressful situations early on, but it wasn’t anything someone else would pick up on, and if they did, they’d never guess as to why it was happening. The human eye was complicated. Many people had eyes that shifted color depending on the circumstances.
Nebula rubbed her arm and Tony took a deep breath. It had been two weeks since the incident with Corwin and the bruises had faded—for the most part. There were a few spots of yellow left, obvious finger marks. He hadn’t asked her about the slow healing as he’d figured it was a response to how public the incident had been and the fact that the bruises had been rising on her skin before they even left the party.
“Talk to me, Astro Girl.”
“I…” She sat down on the stool next to him and took a deep breath. “I was six when I received my first upgrade.”
“Six on Earth or six on your homeworld?” Tony asked tightly.
“Six on my own,” she murmured. “I’d been in Thanos’ care for about a year, and he’d already turned several of us over to Ronan the Accuser for training. I lost a fight to Gamora, and she accidentally broke my arm. She is a Zehoberei—they’re a very sturdy race with tough skin. At any rate, I’d grown up in a heavy gravity environment, and prolonged living with Thanos had made my bones brittle. He cared little for making sure his children had proper environments to cater to their physical needs.
“She was distraught to have done it, but he praised her and punished me. He amputated the broken arm and gave me a cybernetic one instead. He also installed an implant to strengthen my bones so I wouldn’t be so easy for her to break the next time.”
“You don’t have to take it,” Tony blurted out. “I’m not trying to control you or whatever his ultimate agenda was.”
“You misunderstand me,” Nebula said evenly. “Never once, in all the time that I’ve known Thanos, did he ever do anything to me for my own benefit. Every single implant was about making me a better weapon for his own use. In the time that I’ve known you, all you’ve done is offer me comfort, and I don’t always know how to respond to that. You even built me a stupid amount of nuclear weapons to drop on Thanos’ corpse.”
“Well, it’s the only way to be sure,” Tony said wryly and smiled when she grinned. He picked up a small black box from the table and opened it to reveal the small gel coated implant. “Same as the communication array.”
“In the ear.” Nebula plucked it from the box. “Why?”
“Why waste valuable resources to make something this tiny for me when we both know that a regular sized implant would’ve been easier and cheaper to manufacture?”
“I would never offer you anything that would require surgery,” Tony said. “I happen to think you’ve suffered enough. More than enough and I don’t care if I have spend millions to build you something you need—I’d do it.”
She smiled and nudged him gently with her shoulder before she tucked the implant into her ear. “How long?”
“Friday thinks it’ll take about ten hours to complete all of the repairs, but it’ll work until it’s done then go dormant until needed. It’s designed to do repairs to all of your cybernetic structures as needed.”
“You’re welcome.” Tony jumped off the stool. “Enough squishy stuff. Let’s go show NASA our plans for the space station.”
* * * *
The reveal of her legal identity hadn’t gone exactly how Nebula thought it would. Beyond the legal issues with Corwin, the press had taken a step back while they’d waited for the press conference Tony had promised them. She knew the PR office was fielding hundreds of calls every day regarding the issue but there were no news vans outside the building anymore, and no reporters had tried to get into the mansion where the kids were, which was a relief.
She’d done a single phone interview with a science magazine, and the PR team for SI had arranged for photos to be taken for that. It was due to come out at the end of the month, after Tony’s press conference. Non-employees coming into Stark Plaza had to go through a series of security checks, so by the time they’d made it to the large conference room, only about half of their NASA visitors had cleared the process. She’d chosen a pantsuit to wear for the event, which Pepper had stopped by to approve of personally at her request. The woman was a great judge of fashion, per Jarvis, so Nebula took her advice to heart. Black suit, sensible flat shoe, no jewelry, hair down, minimal face paint—which apparently made her look fresh, approachable, and, most of all, presentable. Tony was wearing jeans and a battered T-shirt that proclaimed himself a genius.
“General Quincy, I’m glad you could make it.” Tony held out his hand as they approached. “Meet my offspring, Nebula.”
“Miss Stark.” General Quincy offered her a small nod but shook her hand gently when she offered it. “Glad to meet you in person.”
“In person?” Tony glanced between them.
“Who do you think has been handling all of the verbal communication for this meeting?” Nebula questioned and smiled as Quincy laughed.
“Oh,” Tony said and shrugged. “Good job, then.”
Nebula stepped back. “I’m going to check to make sure all of the 4D models are set up correctly.”
Tony sent her a look as she abandoned him, but she didn’t care at all. He’d have done it to her if he could’ve gotten out the excuse first, and she wasn’t going to get stuck with some boring old soldier. She checked the station first and, once satisfied with that, she moved to the quinjet. Bruce Banner was at that display with an older man she had not met but knew from pictures. She’d been told that Rhodey had arranged several invitations for the DOD to the presentation, so Thaddeus Ross’ inclusion wasn’t a complete surprise.
“Nebula, this is Betty’s father, General Thaddeus Ross.” Bruce patted the older man on the shoulder. “He’s quite impressed with the quinjet.”
She smiled. “Yes, I’m sure his head is just spinning with ideas for military applications.”
Ross grinned. “I won’t say it’s not, but your father has made his feelings regarding that perfectly clear. I’m just here for the show and to chat with Bruce. I don’t see him much since he moved to New York. Stark stole him away from us.”
“Tony likes to surround himself with brilliant, like-minded people,” Nebula said. “And Bruce certainly fits that criteria. Please excuse me, I’d like to check on the display unit modeling the suits before everyone else arrives.”
Bruce sent her on her way with a nod which she appreciated considering her not so casual urge to rip Ross’ head straight off his body. Before she’d met and gotten to know Bruce Banner, Thaddeus Ross had only been a problem in her mind as it related to how he might interfere with Tony’s goals. Now, he was a monster and Nebula didn’t like monsters. Monsters didn’t deserve to live.
She crossed the room to the table that was displaying a 4D representation of the current spacesuit prototype, Prometheus IEVA—Mark I. They’d gone in a completely different direction from his traditional armor design to avoid comparisons. They had a sample of the construction material on hand—an adamantium/graphene hybrid they’d weaved into a mesh using nanobots. She picked it up and rubbed her thumb briefly over the diamond patterned weave.
“Even you can see the military uses for something like this.”
Nebula looked up and found that Ross had crossed the room to join her. “Actually, this mesh was specifically designed for space. The body armor we’re designing for the DOD is much more suited for a combat environment, General. The Prometheus suit is lightweight, the kinetic energy absorption is minimal, and the real star of the project is the pressurized environment. No soldier on Earth needs a pressurized suit in the field. It would be a waste of time and money to mass produce such a thing.” She pushed her hair over her shoulder and raised an eyebrow when he frowned. “Anything else?”
“We haven’t seen the concept on the body armor.”
“You’ll get it when Tony is satisfied with it. Stark Industries strives to create superior products, and we’d never be lazy about something so important as body armor for the men and women fighting for our country.”
A familiar hand cupped her elbow, and she glanced briefly out of the corner of her eye as Loki offered Thaddeus Ross a shrewd smile. “Nebula, your dad is ready to begin, and he requires your presence at the front of the room.” He led her away without waiting to be introduced to Ross. “Tony is really pissed that Ross managed to worm his way into this presentation.”
“I figured,” Nebula murmured. “He’s about a subtle as a mire giant.”
Loki snorted. “Remind me later and I’ll tell you about the time I trapped Thor with one of those things on Vanaheim.”
“I will,” she said with a grin. He released her arm as they cleared the crowd and she joined Tony in front of the group.
“Good afternoon!” Tony said. “We have a presentation planned—Jarvis will be handling the information delivery as he can be trusted not to go off on a tangent.” He smiled at the laughs that earned him. “I want to thank you for being here today, and I’m honored to be volunteering Stark Industries time for the design and construction of the Aurora. Legal will be handling the contracts for construction, but I’ve instructed them that SI will only be accepting outside funds for the purchase of materials.”
The shock was evident on several people’s faces.
“And, of course, I want my own lab on the space station. Me and the kid have some space science we want to do.” He grinned broadly, and everyone laughed. “Great, let’s get started. Jarvis, tell these people about the Aurora.” Tony motioned everyone toward the first model station, and the crowd turned as expected. He prodded her back until he could lean on the wall. She followed suit. “What did Ross want?”
“Grooming,” Nebula said. “Men like him see a young woman like me, and I assume I can be shaped and controlled. They’ll come at me to get you to change your mind about weapons.” She paused. “Though that might change a little after the interview in STEM magazine is published. Friday and I shaped it like I was a wide-eyed idealist with pacifist leanings.”
Tony snorted. “Wow.”
“I know,” she said with a grin and crossed her arms. “Why did I have to present a professional image and you get to dress like a broke college student?”
“I resent how much pop culture you’ve already absorbed,” Tony said. “Also, I’m an eccentric asshole. They expect better of you.”
“Because I’m female?”
She resented that little popping sound he put on the end of his response. “That’s sexist. Next time I’m wearing something comfortable.”
“I’m sure you’ll get around Pepper,” Tony agreed. “But you really don’t own anything this ragged.”
“I can fix that,” Nebula said and pursed her lips when he laughed.
* * * *
Tony did manage to change into a suit for the dinner that followed the presentation, mostly because Loki had made snotty comments about his appearance most of the afternoon.
“Your daughter isn’t joining us?”
Tony focused on Thaddeus Ross. “No, she made it clear she’d rather not eat dinner with a bunch of boring old men. I met your daughter over the holidays.”
“Yes, Betty mentioned coming here for your company party. She enjoyed herself despite the incident,” Ross said. “I didn’t feel I should ask her—but I hope Nebula hasn’t suffered any as a result of that.”
“She’s fine,” Tony said. “Father to father, Ross, I’m going to tell you exactly once that my kid is off-limits. You have a beautiful and intelligent daughter so I know you understand the unique threats that can come her way and you’d do a lot to protect her from them.”
“I would,” Ross agreed. “I’d make war for my child.” His gaze narrowed. “And I see that same fire in you. I have to admit to being curious about your love child, Stark. I spoke with Obadiah about her—to say he was shocked to find out about her would be an understatement.”
“Obadiah has always overestimated his relationship with my family,” Tony said. “And my daughter’s existence has always been a deeply personal situation that was none of his business. Keeping her safe is my number one priority.”
“Fatherhood is a duty,” Ross agreed. “And I’m honestly glad to you see embracing it so wholeheartedly, at least on a personal level. I can’t say I agree with your choices professionally, but I wouldn’t want to leave the legacy of war for my daughter either.” He inclined his head. “Please give her my best. I believe I’ll go chat with Bruce and poke him a bit about asking my little girl to marry him.”
Tony nodded. “You couldn’t ask for a better son-in-law.”
“No, I couldn’t,” Ross said with a smile.
Tony watched him walk away, both horrified and utterly disgusted at the same time. If Ross really felt that way about Bruce then his actions in the other timeline after the accident had a whole new layer of horrible over them. He watched the older man meander back to Bruce’s side with a broad smile.
“I loathe Ross,” Loki murmured as he appeared at Tony’s side. “I’m almost ready to forgive Hulk for smashing me.”
Tony snorted. “Well, I don’t think he’d smash you now. So there’s that.”
“Yet, another small favor in my life,” Loki said wryly and motioned toward the table they were assigned. “I resent that Nebula was able to talk her way out of this, but I wasn’t.”
“Share my bed, share my terrible social responsibilities,” Tony informed him.
“The sex isn’t that good,” Loki said.
“You’re a vicious liar.”
* * * *
“Thaddeus Ross.” Nebula sat down on her stool. “Friday, what kind of threat is he to Tony and his plans?”
“General Ross is currently a bigger threat to Dr. Banner,” Friday said. “He desperately wants him for the Biotech Force Enhancement Project, which is experimenting with recreating the super soldier formula. I believe he used his daughter in the previous timeline to secure Bruce’s participation in the project. Or at least, he used Dr. Banner’s affection for Betty Ross to get him to join the project.
“After the Hulk incident, General Ross worked desperately keep Betty away from Dr. Banner even though she was, at that point, the only person on the planet who could calm him down enough to get Hulk to recede. Ross hunted Dr. Banner relentlessly to contain and ultimately use him for his own ends. Communications from Ross during that time made it clear he considered Hulk governmental property, and Dr. Banner was at best an acceptable loss. His long-term goal was to capture and train Hulk for the military’s use.”
Nebula exhaled sharply. “Show me footage of Hulk.” She turned and focused on the monitor.
“This is from the Battle of New York,” Friday said. “I have archived footage from various sources including the boss’ armor though Jarvis was his support AI at the time.”
“Did I do a good job?” Jarvis questioned.
“You did a superior job, J,” Friday assured. “The boss missed you terribly after you were gone.”
“He’s useful when focused on a task,” Nebula said as she watched Hulk rampage through the Chitauri. “I can see why Ross would’ve wanted to gain control of Hulk. I don’t like him.”
“Why?” Jarvis asked curiously.
“He reminds me of Thanos,” Nebula said quietly. “Thanos often times acts reasonable and civilized to lull you into a false sense of security then he rips it away in an unpredictable manner to make you vulnerable.”
“So that you make mistakes,” Friday said.
“Yes.” She nodded. “And to test your loyalty. Like all tyrants, Thanos knows that the loyalty he has isn’t earned. He’s paranoid, quick-tempered, and will make rash decisions. It’s resulted in the deaths of many people who did nothing more than make him think they might be disloyal.”
“And you see that in General Ross?” Jarvis questioned. “Power is corruptive, and he currently has a lot due to his position in the military.”
Nebula nodded. “He was overly friendly with me today at the presentation and made a ham-fisted attempt at getting me to agree with him regarding weapons manufacturing. I don’t get it. There are plenty of people on this planet willing to make weapons. Why is Tony’s retreat from that business model such a problem?”
“Sir is decades ahead of his counterparts when it comes to weapons technology,” Jarvis said. “Of course, they don’t know about his future knowledge or the education he received off world—he’s hundreds of years ahead of them now. He’s no longer meeting their expectations, and humans don’t deal with rejection or disappointment well as you’ve recently learned.”
Nebula sighed and picked up Spiderling, who had crawled onto her workstation. She checked his charge. “Look, bot, we don’t have the resources to waste on building you an arc reactor to keep you active so you need to voluntarily get on the charging station every twenty-four hours at the minimum or we’re going to have to confine you to the lab.” She slid off the stool and took him to the charging station then manually plugged him in and attached the tether. “Stop being so irresponsible.”
Spiderling whined, so she thumped one of his legs gently, and walked away.
“Jarvis, you’re going to have to start ordering him into a charging station on a rotation. Tony doesn’t want to reprogram him.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Jarvis said.
“The cocktail hour is about to start,” Friday said.
Nebula made a face but crossed the lab to where she’d abandoned her shoes and pushed her feet into them. She checked her reflection and tugged a little on the short black dress. Skipping the dinner had given her time to settle down, but she knew General Ross was still in the building. The fact that he reminded her of Thanos had utterly thrown her off her stride. The years away from the monster who had stolen her had relaxed her—all that time being with Tony hunting for Thanos and then being on Earth had calmed down the fury in her. Nebula didn’t know if that served her or not. Her rage had kept her alive for over thirty years in Thanos’ service.
With a sigh, she went to the elevator and punched the code in to take her to the skywalk. Half-way across the skywalk, she came across Rhodey leaning against the railing, staring out at the skyline. She’d been in many cities all over the Andromeda galaxy, but she liked the quaint look of New York.
Rhodey looked toward her and smiled. “Hey, kid.”
She propped herself up against the railing. “You look like you’re thinking too much.”
“Sometimes I wish Tony wasn’t so smart,” Rhodey admitted roughly. “The presentation went too well.”
“General Ross makes the appearance of being amused by Tony’s retreat from weapons manufacturing when really he’s furious.” Nebula said and shrugged when Rhodey looked her way. “He cornered me shortly before the presentation and tried to get me to see how the tech we were presenting could be used for the military. He didn’t like my response at all. I guess he thought he could manipulate me or something.”
Rhodey sighed. “Don’t let those old assholes talk you into not supporting your dad.”
“There isn’t a man on this planet capable of that,” Nebula said evenly. “I promised I’d return for the cocktail hour if I could skip dinner.”
“Let’s go then,” Rhodey said with a sigh and offered his arm.
“Loop yours through his,” Friday said and showed her an image.
Nebula smiled and did as instructed. “Do you like your apartment? We’ve been creating a list of amenities that people would like to have in the residential tower. Anything stand out for you?”
“In-house dry cleaning would be a plus,” Rhodey said. “I noticed that there is a lot of open retail space, so I assumed that was already on the list.”
“It is,” Nebula said. “The property manager is reviewing applications for laundry services. We have a sliding scale for rent for those spaces based on a variety of factors so you can imagine we had a lot of people interested. Tony wants to focus on local business owners rather than corporate franchises.”
“More community outreach, huh?” Rhodey said. “You know, sometimes it’s like he woke up a whole different person. I don’t know why he made all of these changes, but I’m really happy for him.” He paused. “And you. I’m glad you’re here. I just wish you’d been here the whole time. I don’t think his parents were right to make the deal they did.”
“I’m sure they had a bunch of very rational reasons why,” Nebula said neutrally.
She didn’t like misleading Rhodey, but they’d resolved early on to never tell anyone from Earth where she really came from. It just wasn’t a risk they could take, and she wasn’t going to give up the safety her new identity had given her for anything or anyone.
“Oh, Howard and Maria always had rational reasons for the fucked up shit they did to your dad,” Rhodey said with a huff as the entered the elevator that would take them to the rooftop patio area where cocktails were being served. “Nice bracelet, I saw Tony wearing one similar to it.”
“Location and communication,” Nebula said smoothly. “It keeps us connected to Jarvis and Friday should we need them. It’s a first generation prototype. He’s researching a wrist implant to prevent it being removed in the event I’m taken from the property against my will.”
“Good,” Rhodey said. “Tell Jarvis to set up an alert to my phone in case something happens.”
“Already done, Colonel Rhodes,” Jarvis interjected.
“Are you everywhere, Jarvis?” Rhodey asked in amusement as the doors opened.
“The world is my oyster, Colonel.”
They exited the elevator laughing.
Nebula let Rhodey take her around the room, introducing her to several of the men and women he worked with. They were all polite, but it was a veneer—she saw their curiosity and, in some cases, greed written all over their faces. A part of her was starting to regret reviewing the material that Loki had sent her on facial expressions and body language. Though, it was definitely helping when it came to threat assessment. As it stood, Thaddeus Ross was the only person in the room that was boiling with resentment. Finally, after a half hour, she found herself beside Tony who was having an animated conversation with a scientist from NASA.
“We must be boring you silly, Miss Stark.”
Nebula focused on the man and raised an eyebrow. “Pardon me?”
“All this science talk,” the man said with a laugh.
She turned to Tony and frowned. “Am I supposed to be amused by his blatant sexism?”
Tony’s eyes lit with laughter. “He certainly expected you to be.” He focused on the man. “Dr. Helms, Nebula has been instrumental in the design and implementation of every single piece of this project. In fact, the patent for the Stark-Mesh we’re using for the space suits was filed in her name. She grew the sample with electricity in a water tank in the lab and used nanobots to create fibers which were then braided into a mesh. These areas are, of course, off limits to non-personnel but there will be a detailed paper published about the process shortly.
Helms flushed red. “My apologies, Miss Stark, I had no idea.”
“It’s fine. I’m quite used to being underestimated,” Nebula said evenly.
* * * *
“Good afternoon, I have an announcement, and I’ll take a limited number of very polite questions,” Tony said as the room grew quiet. The reporters had been chatty with each other since their arrival, and he’d watched the group for nearly thirty minutes before joining them.
“Is Nebula joining us today?” one woman asked boldly from the front row.
Tony ignored her and cleared his throat. “When I was sixteen I had a bit of a rebellious stage. Some of you might remember it.” He paused when several people laughed. “I did some questionable things with some questionable people. Along the way, I met a startlingly beautiful young woman who was just as reckless as I was. Together, we made a fantastic mistake together. I won’t sugarcoat it because there is nothing glamorous or admirable about fathering a child at sixteen. My parents focused on securing the safety of my daughter, and they made the arrangements they believed necessary to prevent a scandal and allow her to grow up without an insane amount of lurid attention.
“Her name, as you already know, is Nebula Collins Stark. Over the years, I adhered to the custodial agreement my parents made regarding my daughter because she was comfortable, well-cared for, and, above all, she was safe. Her guardian passed away over the summer, and Nebula now lives with me. I fully intended to keep her identity a secret for quite some time so she could go to NYU under the radar and not have to face the pressure of being my kid. She is not available to take questions, but she did do an interview with STEM magazine that will come out later in the month. Questions.” He paused. “New York Times.”
“What’s it like having her with you now?”
“Weird,” Tony confessed. “She’s all up in my business, and she’s smarter than me, so that’s something to get used to. Washington Post.”
“There are some rumors about a lawsuit regarding the assault at the Stark Christmas party. What are your thoughts on that?”
“I have a team of lawyers and money to burn,” Tony said evenly. “Nebula defended herself, and I won’t be making any deals with anyone.” He paused. “London Times, you’re a little bit out of your time zone.”
“You’re news,” the woman exclaimed. “Also, I’m here in New York picking up a Helpful Bot for my nephew. He won the international lotto.” She paused. “He’s blind and is allergic to fur-bearing animals.”
“Ah, the German Sheppard,” Tony said. “Nebula’s spent a lot of time over the last week working on his instincts, and I think your nephew will be thrilled with him. Did you have a question?”
“It’s been noted by several sources that Nebula doesn’t appear to have left Stark Plaza at all since the party. How long do you plan to keep her confined?”
“She’s not confined,” Tony clarified. “That would imply some sort of punishment, and as I’ve already explained, I don’t think she did anything wrong. She was homeschooled and, as a result, has lived a fairly isolated life. We’ve been easing her into everything, of course, but it can be a bit overwhelming. And not to insult you guys, but she finds the press’ interest in her circumstances kind of appalling. Nebula’s eighteen, and mostly she wants to listen to terrible music, buy clothes off the internet I don’t approve of, and swim in the pool. She’ll take a step out when she’s ready, and if family tradition holds, she’ll at least be entertaining.”
“Sir, Dr. Yinsen is requesting your assistance. Dr. Banner has not appeared for work. He’s more than two hours late, and there is no answer at his residence.”
Tony took a deep breath as he put down his coffee and shared a look with Loki. “I haven’t seen him since the party on Friday.”
“He left the complex with General Ross,” Jarvis said. “He was not scheduled to work until this morning. I’m accessing records… It appears he never returned.”
“How did General Ross return to Virginia?” He demanded as he stood. “Did he let anyone know he was leaving for the weekend?”
“No, Sir, in fact, Dr. Banner had a lane in the community pool reserved on both Saturday and Sunday—he used neither time slot nor did he send any form of communication to cancel. There is no answer on his cell phone. I took the liberty of tracking the device, and it has been turned off.”
“Where’s Nebula, Friday?”
“She’s in the private lab working on a plasma rifle, Boss.”
“Tell her to prep the Futurist for a trip to Virginia,” Tony ordered.
“Sir, they’re not in Culver, Virginia,” Jarvis interrupted. “General Ross’ plane landed in Fort Phillips, Maryland.”
“Familiar,” Tony muttered. “Very familiar. Why is that familiar, J?” he demanded as they rushed into the elevator.
“Fort Phillips, originally called Camp Reed, is a decommissioned military base. The biggest operation there from 1943 to 1974 was the BioWarfare Project. As far as the Pentagon is concerned, the base is still decommissioned.”
“Colonel Chester Phillips,” Tony said. “He was in charge of Project Rebirth.”
“Yes, Sir, the base was rededicated in his honor in 1961 after his death.”
They entered the hangar, and Nebula was already suited up. She passed a rifle to Loki as they came up the ramp.
“Thanks.” Loki checked the weapon as he dropped down in a chair behind Tony. His clothes shimmered around him until he was covered from the neck down in green and black leather.
Tony frowned. “I’m building you a suit.”
“I don’t need a suit,” Loki said reasonably. “Nothing short of a magical weapon could penetrate my current wardrobe.”
“You can’t fly without a ship,” Tony pointed out. “You’re getting armor.”
“Well, not in this form at any rate,” Loki agreed.
“Armor,” Tony repeated pointedly. “You said I was in charge.”
Loki laughed. “Whatever you say.”
Nebula piloted the ship and out of the building with a deft hand. Tony half listened to Jarvis feeding her coordinates as he tried to work through the likely scenarios. He could see how Ross might have talked Bruce into going to visit Betty—hitching a ride to Virginia on the military plane. They’d been at ease with one another during the entire presentation, dinner, and cocktail hour afterward. Bruce had treated Ross with a great deal of respect the whole afternoon and evening. Ross had, in turn, treated him like a man he would like to call a son.
“Was it all a setup?”
“I think so,” Loki said. “He had no reason to ever expect Ross would be a threat to him. He wasn’t until after the accident in the first timeline, correct?”
“Right,” Tony said and rubbed his head in frustration. “But Bruce also allowed himself to be recruited into Ross’ project. This time, I enticed him into a position at SI and ruined Ross’ plans.” He left his seat and tossed the tablet into one of the passenger seats as he paced a bit.
“Calm down,” Nebula ordered. “We need you focused if we’re going to infiltrate a facility with an active military presence.”
“The approach should be stealthy,” Loki said. “There could come a point when your suits are connected with Stark Industries, so you need to keep the optics clean. Even if you managed to keep your real name from being attached to Iron Man, Tony, precious few people on this planet could build the kind of technology you and Nebula are wearing. You will be linked to them in that fashion. Which means you can’t blow up a military facility, inactive or not, and leave witnesses behind.”
Tony winced. “Fuck.” He dropped back down in his seat. “This is…I can’t believe that asshole stole my science bro.”
“We’ll get him back,” Nebula said. “We’re twenty minutes from the target, and it’s hot.”
“Hot how?” Tony questioned.
“Fire and radiation,” Nebula said roughly. “The ship’s sensors aren’t as sophisticated as the Benatar’s, and I haven’t had time to upgrade them though I do have the parts.” She called up a map. “We have a gamma radiation trail—air and ground—heading for New York.”
Tony stood and activated his suit. “That’s gotta be Bruce.”
“You mean Hulk,” Nebula said, and her helmet dropped to reveal her face. “Do you think you can talk him down?”
“I’ll do my best.” He turned to Loki. “Go with her to the base and check out the damage. Grab any security footage you can, and sanitize the site if possible.”
Loki nodded and moved to the co-pilot’s seat. “Be careful, Tony. Hulk is nothing to trifle with.”
Tony nodded. “I got this.” He patted the god’s shoulder as he passed him by.
Nebula lowered the ramp and Tony stepped out of the ship.
“J, call up that radiation trail for me. Where’s he at?”
“At rest sixteen miles from your current location,” Jarvis said. “I’ve had U move Sergeant Barnes into the lab vault so we can bring Dr. Banner into the secure room.”
Tony frowned. He’d made a Hulk-proof room mostly to contain Barnes or Rogers if they woke up wacko, but now he was faced, once again, with caging Bruce. It was infuriating. He was going to ruin Thaddeus Ross if it was the last thing he did. Finding a big green Hulk was really no problem at all—the big guy stuck out like a sore thumb sitting by a stream in the deep woods of Maryland. Tony stared for a moment, taking in the problem as a whole. Betty Ross was obviously unconscious on the ground some feet away from Hulk on a patch of grass.
“Hey, Big Guy.”
Hulk lunged to his feet, and his head jerked around.
“It’s me, Tony Stark.”
“Tony friend,” Hulk said. “Not see Tony.”
“I’m up here in the suit—red and gold.”
Hulk huffed as Tony lowered himself down a bit, so they were nearly eye to eye. “Tony keep secrets.”
“I’m a complicated guy,” Tony said and disengaged his helmet so Hulk could see his face. “You okay?”
“No,” Hulk said honestly. “Bruce hurt like when he was little. Betty asleep. I take Betty from fire. She not wake up though.”
“What about you? How do you feel?”
Hulk shrugged. “I rest long time. Bruce not need me after his daddy went away.”
Tony took a deep breath. “Okay. Do you think I can talk to Bruce? Does he trust me enough to come out?”
“Hulk think so.”
The rapid shrinking would never be an easy thing for Tony to watch. Bruce sank to his knees then fell forward unconscious. Tony landed and turned his friend over onto his back then removed one gauntlet with a murmured command and picked up Betty’s wrist. Her pulse was strong and, despite the tears and burns on her clothes, she didn’t appear to have a single scratch on her. Tony activated his radio. “I’ve found Bruce and Betty—both are alive.”
“We found a remote building on the old base on fire. Everyone inside is dead,” Loki reported. “Nebula is retrieving all of the data and security files with Friday’s help. Considering the fresh blood and the lack of deterioration on the bodies, I would say the event happened early this morning.”
“Ross fled the scene then?” Tony questioned. “He could be heading my way; searching for his daughter.”
“Thaddeus Ross is dead,” Nebula interjected. “Based on security footage and logs that Friday is still gathering, every single person on site during the experiment is still here except for Betty and Bruce.” She took a deep, ragged breath. “Betty tried to interfere with the experiment—she arrived here early this morning and attempted to stop her father from using Bruce as a test subject. The rest of the footage is corrupted and will have to be restored. Keep an eye on her, Tony, because I think she was in the test chamber with Bruce when everything went wrong.”
“Finish up there and make sure you don’t leave anything behind to connect Bruce or Betty to that mess—at least officially. Let’s see if the Army is willing to admit one of their generals kidnapped and experimented on a civilian,” Tony said. “Then come pick us up for fuck’s sake.”
* * * *
Yinsen was in the private lab having a chat with Spiderling when they arrived. He had two rolling beds ready as instructed. “I’ve set up everything we’ll need to monitor their vitals and give them fluids if necessary. We’ll need to do x-rays since they were both in an explosion…are you sure we shouldn’t take them to the hospital?”
“They were bombarded with gamma radiation, Ho,” Tony said quietly. “And I’m pretty sure one or both them was exposed to a version of the super soldier serum.”
Ho took a deep breath and shook his head. “General Ross was very nice to me during the presentation…how could he…”
“Men like him are desperate to protect the country from terrorism,” Tony said. “9/11 did a number on a lot of people, and they reacted in some pretty predictable ways. Beefing up military research and trying to reproduce Captain America probably seemed like an excellent damned idea.”
“I was worried,” Ho said as Nebula pushed Betty Ross into the lab. “I was concerned we were taking the wrong path with keeping Captain Rogers a secret here, but now I know…you were right. We can’t trust the government to treat him with the respect he deserves.” He took hold of Betty’s gurney. “I’ve got her, Nebula, if you would follow with Dr. Banner?”
“Of course,” Nebula said and glanced briefly toward Tony before leaving.
Tony followed Ho into the back room. “I’ve had Barnes moved into the vault for the time being.”
“It’s for the best,” Ho said. “We’ll need to check her lungs for smoke damage. She has soot in her hair, so there’s no telling how long she was in the fire before she was removed.”
“Did Jarvis show you the footage we found?”
“A small portion.” Ho turned as Bruce was wheeled in. “I am very angry with General Ross, Tony, for what he has done to my dear friend.” He attached a sensor to monitor Betty’s heart and fit her with an oxygen line. “Where’s Dr. Odinson?”
“I’m here,” Loki said as he entered. “Their vitals remained stable throughout the trip home, and none of their major bones appear to be broken.”
“Thank you,” Ho said and walked around Betty’s bed to reach Bruce. He placed the same monitors on him and carefully slid an oxygen line into place, fitting it neatly into Bruce’s nostrils. “Ah, friend, let’s hope you stay this size for a while, eh? I’m not sure how to treat a big green thing.”
Tony snorted. “God, what a day.”
* * * *
Nebula dumped the bowl of dark water into the lab sink and started to fill it up again. She’d been tasked with giving Betty Ross a bath, and she hadn’t protested since she was the only female available for it. They hadn’t told Pepper Potts what had happened because Tony was resolved to involve her as little as possible regarding his extracurricular activities.
“Are you going to tell him?”
Nebula blew air out between her lips. “Yes.”
“Good,” Loki said. “I find it surprisingly uncomfortable keeping something from him so do it soon before I blurt it out like a child.”
She nodded because she felt the same way. “Grab that shampoo, please. I need to wash Betty’s hair. I saved that for last.” She picked up the tub with both hands since Ho was in the lab and she had to pretend to be average human physical strength, and Loki followed along behind her. “We can get rid of that curtain now, I’ve dressed her in a gown.”
He pulled the curtain back as she sat the bowl on a table. “I’ll tell Tony you want to talk to him.”
“Thanks,” Nebula said.
A few moments passed before Tony came back into the secure lab and shut the door. “Ho says their brain patterns are in the normal range, but they’re in a deep sleep. Gamma radiation exposure was off the charts for them both.” He leaned on the door. “What’s on your mind, Astro Girl?”
She set the towel down on the bed and walked away from Betty. “We need a private place to talk. More private than this.”
“All right.” Tony motioned her out of the lab as he opened the door. “The kitchen?”
“Okay.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I’ll be back to wash her hair in just a few minutes, Dr. Yinsen.”
“Thank you, Nebula,” Ho said absently as he stared at the monitor.
They entered the kitchen silently, and Tony put water on for tea without saying anything.
“I.” She sat down at the table and frowned. “Thaddeus Ross wasn’t dead when we arrived.” Nebula winced as Tony took a ragged breath. “I…lost my temper.”
“How injured was he?”
“It appeared as if he’d broken both of his legs,” Nebula said. “He was calling for help when we walked in. He’d dragged himself out of the lab. The moment he saw Loki he started telling him how we had to find Betty because Banner had lost his mind and kidnapped her. He demanded that we take him to a phone so he could call in reinforcements. He said Banner was a monster—that he’d gone rogue during the experiment and killed everyone.”
“Son of a bitch,” Tony muttered.
“He was raging at us because we weren’t moving—we weren’t following his orders. And I…” She took a deep breath and focused on him. “I kicked him in the face. Once or twice.”
“Try again!” Loki called out from the living room.
“Three or four times,” Nebula said and huffed when Tony raised an eyebrow. “Fine, like five times. I broke his neck. I don’t feel guilty but I probably should because he was Betty’s father, and she’s a nice person.”
“He wasn’t,” Tony said finally. “Thaddeus Ross was a deeply unpleasant man that even his own daughter grew to hate in the other timeline. I think he managed to make that happen much faster this time around considering what he’s done. We’ll see how she feels when she wakes up, but the official story will be that he died in the explosion.” He put an empty cup on the table with a tea bag in it and sat down with her to wait for the water to boil. “Why?”
“Why did you lose your temper with him? Experience tells me that you don’t genuinely lose your temper often unless it involves Thanos.”
“He reminded me of Thanos a lot,” Nebula admitted. “And when he was shouting at us and already shifting blame for his terrible behavior on someone else—it was worse. Thanos never acknowledges his own failures, but he’s quick to punish anyone and everyone around him for disappointing him. I knew what Ross had done before, and I saw it all spread out in front of us again. He treated Bruce like an object that he owned in the other timeline.”
“Like Thanos did you.”
She shuddered. “Yes.” Nebula cleared her throat. “But I’m sorry. It wasn’t something we agreed on, and I know you wouldn’t have approved it.”
“I wouldn’t have stopped you if I’d been there either,” Tony said baldly, and she focused on him. “Because Thaddeus Ross was a bastard and he’s done his level best to destroy one of the best people I know. Bruce did nothing to earn what’s been done to him. At one point, in the other timeline, he was so depressed and lost regarding the Hulk issue that he tried to kill himself. I went back in time as far as I did so I could save Bruce from that life, and it’s happened to him again.”
“Sir, Hulk just woke up.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Tony said with a huff.
By the time the three of them made it into the lab, Ho was seated on the floor beside Hulk.
“Fuck me,” Nebula exclaimed in shock as she skidded to halt just a foot or so from Yinsen.
“Hello, Pretty,” Hulk said and leaned forward. He poked her gently. “Pretty secret daughter. I’m Hulk.”
“Hi Hulk,” Nebula said. “You can call me Nebula.”
“Okay, Pretty,” Hulk agreed. “Hello, Loki.”
Nebula snorted slightly when Loki flinched. “J, turn off the stove. We forgot.”
“I took care of it,” Jarvis said.
Hulk looked up. “Ceiling Man.”
“Hello, Mr. Hulk,” Jarvis said. “I’m Jarvis.”
“Hello, Ceiling Man.” Hulk looked at Betty as Nebula moved to wash her hair. “Betty still sleep.”
“Yes, but she’s not hurt,” Ho said. “Just taking a long nap.”
Tony inclined his head and stared at Hulk. “We’re going to have to get you some stretchy pants, my friend.” What was left of the hospital gown was draped precariously over Hulk’s lap. “You okay?”
“Bruce says we’re safe,” Hulk said. “Stark Plaza safe, get help. Help for Betty.”
Hulk had never been this chatty with him before, but he knew from Thor that when he’d found the big guy on another world, he’d been able to communicate well. On a world where he wasn’t being hunted and he was relatively safe since he was the biggest thing on the planet. An undefeated gladiator. Is that what Bruce had needed before? The idea that he hadn’t already known that was galling. He’d worked hard to be both a friend to Bruce and Hulk, but he apparently hadn’t done a great job.
“Hulk can you tell me why you exist?” Loki asked from his place leaning on the wall directly next to the door.
“To protect Bruce.”
“To protect Bruce from what?”
Hulk looked down at his hands. “Bruce’s daddy was mean. Hit Bruce. So he hide away in his mind and I took over because I’m stronger. No one can beat Hulk.” He thumped his chest. “I keep Bruce safe.”
“You did a great job today,” Tony said. “Bruce is a good friend to us all, and we’re really glad that he’s going to be okay.”
“You be Hulk’s friend.”
“Of course,” Tony said and stepped forward so he could touch the hand Hulk had extended. He gave the big guy a fist bump which caused Hulk to let out a booming laugh and shrink abruptly.
Ho barely caught Bruce as he slumped. “Well, that’s a startling and rapid change.”
Tony could only laugh. “Yeah.” He helped Ho pick Bruce up off the floor and put him back on the bed. Bruce groaned. “You with us, Banner?”
“Tony?” Bruce muttered.
“Yeah, look I know you’ve had a hell of a weekend, but we need you to wake up and concentrate for a bit.” He tapped Bruce’s cheek. “Come on, open up those eyes for me.”
Bruce obeyed and lurched slightly on the bed. “Betty.” He tried to sit up.
“She’s fine,” Tony soothed. “No injuries of any sort but she is in a deep state of REM sleep. Ho, fill him in.”
Bruce turned to look at Betty even as Ho started to speak.
* * * *
Betty Ross woke up screaming Bruce’s name. Bruce lurched forward out of the chair he was sitting in beside her bed and grabbed her flailing hand.
“I’m here, baby. Look at me—we’re okay.”
She curled into him with a sob and tried to clutch at his shoulders with her free hand. “Bruce. I thought…my father…what happened?”
He slid onto the bed with her, and she wrapped herself around him as much as she could as she shook. Tony averted his gaze but didn’t leave the room. He’d promised Bruce he’d stay in place in case Hulk came back unexpectedly.
“You opened the door to the radiation chamber, and you fought with your father. Do you remember that?”
“I grabbed a syringe off the table,” Betty said, and her hand went to her thigh. “And shoved it into my leg. I dared him to still do the experiment. He was furious. Shouting at me and telling me how I was ruining everything.” She shuddered. “And he slammed the door. I tried to get the straps off you but they were locked, and he had the keys. I was screaming at him to let us go, and he flooded the room with radiation. I felt it. Why did I feel it?”
“It was gamma radiation,” Bruce said quietly. “The syringe you recklessly injected yourself with was a variation of the super soldier serum. Your father chose me for the experiment based on the notes that Chester Phillips left behind about Project Rebirth. Phillips told the Army they needed to find a good man—smart but not arrogant. He thought he’d found that person in me.”
“How do you know this…”
“Tony took all of the records of the experiment on the site including the footage of what was done to us. Some of it is corrupted, but you can see the after effects of the experiment,” Bruce murmured. “What your father failed to take into consideration was the severe trauma of my childhood.”
Betty frowned. “You haven’t had a dissociative episode in years, Bruce. We handled that in therapy in undergrad.” She touched his face with gentle fingers. “What did my father do to you?”
“To us,” Bruce corrected. “Tony, show her the footage.”
Tony winced but didn’t argue. He figured Bruce was in a much better position to know what Betty could handle. He stepped forward and offered her the tablet. As he’d watched the video several dozen times, Tony just walked away as she pushed play. He could hear Ross screaming at his daughter—telling her she’d brought whatever happened on herself. Then he’d ordered the doctors conducting the experiment to continue.
Chaos followed the massive dumping of gamma radiation into the chamber—Betty had fallen unconscious, and Hulk had broken free from his very long sleep. She took a ragged breath as Hulk raged through the complex, destroying equipment and tossing anyone who came near her like rag dolls. General Ross hadn’t been stupid enough to approach. The last shot on the facility footage was of Hulk picking up Betty like she was made of glass and leaving. The footage cut to the river bank and Tony’s conversation with Hulk then again in the room they were in when Hulk talked about being safe.
“I’ll never forgive him for this,” Betty whispered in a horrified tone.
“He didn’t make it,” Bruce said quietly. “Everyone in the facility died but the two of us—some of them were killed by Hulk while he was defending you and the others died of radiation exposure or from the fire that broke out.”
She took a deep breath. “My parents divorced when I was young, and my mother briefly took me back to Britain where she’d been born. Eventually, my father forced her to return to the U.S. with court-ordered visitation. She’d been instructed to put me on a plane by myself. I was just five, and she couldn’t do that, so she moved back to Virginia and started working as an interpreter. She speaks ten languages. I never understood what she saw in my father—he’s always been such a brute.” Betty set aside the tablet. “If you turn into a curiously chatty green giant—what’s my damage?”
“Funnily enough,” Tony interjected when Bruce looked toward him for help. “You’re practically perfect in every single way, Dr. Betty. Based on brain scans and body chemistry—you adapted to the serum very well. We’ll have to do some testing, of course, but you’re going to look great in spandex and a cape.”
“Spandex?” Betty’s mouth formed a perfect O. “The serum worked on me?”
“You’re a complete daisy as it turns out,” Bruce said wryly.
Betty huffed and crossed her arms. “I’m not wearing spandex—it makes my ass look terrible.”
“Nothing could make your ass look terrible,” Bruce said immediately. “Hungry?”
“I could eat,” she admitted and brushed tears from her face. “And I need some clothes.”
“Nebula brought you some things,” Tony said. “We think you’re pretty close in size. I’ll send someone out to buy some stuff once you get your feet under you and have time to make a list.”
* * * *
Tony shut his bedroom door and focused on Loki who was on the bed with a tablet. “Well?”
“He fits the clinical definition for a having a dissociative identity disorder per all the reading I’ve done. I’ve spoken with Friday extensively about the incident in the original timeline, and I think the difference in Hulk boils down to you. Banner’s only real personal connection in the world before was Betty Ross, and she was injured during the first incident. Then she was kept away from Bruce by her father. He had no one to turn to for help, and there was no safe place for him to retreat. This time around, he had you and Ho and, to a lesser extent, me and Nebula.
“Hulk knew us on sight, so he hasn’t been actually sleeping all of this time—just resting, I suppose, until Bruce reached a point when he couldn’t cope. As long as Hulk views Stark Plaza as his safe place, I think he’ll stay on an even footing. Bruce is clearly comfortable here.”
“The first time out, he was hunted relentlessly by Ross and the U.S. Army,” Tony said.
“You’ll need to neutralize the military as a threat as soon as possible. They’re already going to come at you over Rogers and Barnes. Now you’ve got two more prime weapons they could add to their arsenal.”
“Ha, we’ll all migrate to another planet first,” Tony said. “You can pick it.”
“I have a few locations in mind,” Loki admitted. “I knew I couldn’t stay long term on Asgard and I wasn’t sure how welcoming you’d be at the start.”
Tony sat down on the bed and pulled off his shoes. “So far, the Army appears to be in cover-up mode. Jarvis is monitoring their chatter, and there is a press release being drafted referencing a lab accident that resulted in multiple causalities—all military. Neither Betty nor Bruce have been brought up by name in any communications. I don’t think Ross told his superiors he’d kidnapped a civilian for human experimentation.”
“Works in our favor,” Loki said. “The last thing we need is for Banner to no longer feel safe here. I think Hulk would evolve into the one you knew from before if he was approached aggressively by an authority.”
“Fight or flight,” Tony said. “Right.”
“You’ll need to bring in a real psychologist, one with clinical experience. I can read all I want, but at most I think I qualify as a researcher in the field,” Loki said with a shrug. “He needs someone with experience in dealing with dissociative identity disorder and specifically with abused children. Jarvis, tell Tony what you’ve found out about Bruce’s childhood.”
“His father physically abused him and believed that Bruce was a mutant of some sort because of his own work with radiation. Brian Banner died in a mental institution where he was confined after he beat his wife, Rebecca, to death. Dr. Banner had intensive therapy during his undergraduate studies, but I’ve not attempted to access those records. I’ve already launched a search for a proper fit for a psychologist to work with him and Hulk.”
Tony shook his head. “I don’t think Bruce is going to willingly let a stranger chat up Hulk, and we don’t know how he’d respond to a stranger anyway. So far, Hulk has been friendly with us but he sure as hell wasn’t remotely kind to the people on that base that got near him.”
“Well, they did experiment on him against his will,” Loki said. “I wouldn’t have responded well either.” He set aside his tablet. “I’m only willing to take my alternate identity so far, Tony. Part of my own…new path is live more honestly. Necessity means I have to hide my origins, but I’m not willing to actually practice psychology on human beings in a therapeutic setting.”
“I get it,” Tony promised. “And I wouldn’t ask you to. It would be a conflict of interest, surely, since you’re personally friendly with Bruce, so I don’t think he would expect you to work with him or Hulk.” He paused. “Though what Hulk will allow is another matter altogether.”
Loki made a face. “Right.” He reached out and wrapped one hand around Tony’s hip. “Come here.” He pulled gently, and Tony slid into his embrace. “Kiss me.”
Tony brushed his lips against Loki’s and slid his hands into the other man’s hair. Loki pulled him closer and slid one long leg between Tony’s thighs. “We have work.”
“Let’s not,” Loki murmured as he sucked gently on Tony’s neck and started working his belt open. “I would have you.”
Tony felt like he should protest, but Loki slid his hand into the front of his pants and cupped his cock. “I have legal stuff and people to order around.”
“I want to fuck.”
“The lawyers could wait a bit,” Tony said as he lifted his hips.
“Being in charge should come with some perks.”
“Are you my perk?”
“I can be anything you want,” Loki murmured.
Tony pulled his T-shirt over his head. “Am I the only one getting naked here?”
Loki pulled his boxers and pants down and tossed them aside before magic shimmered around them. He slid on top, naked and hard. Tony spread his legs further as Loki ran one hand down the back of his thigh and slid slick fingers into his asshole.
“I actually love magic,” Tony decided.
Loki laughed softly and moved forward. He pushed his cock into Tony with one long, slow thrust. They both groaned. Loki buried his face against Tony’s neck and slid both hands under his ass. He rolled his hips, and Tony arched under him. His own cock was hard and leaking between the press of their stomachs.
“You’re perfect,” Loki murmured as he sought Tony’s mouth. “I don’t know how we got here.”
“Me either,” Tony said with a laugh. “I couldn’t have predicted this.” He rocked into the slow roll of Loki’s hips repeatedly. “But I always suspected you’d be a superior lay.”
“The pursuit of pleasure has been a hobby of mine for centuries,” Loki confessed. “Don’t come. I want to suck that gorgeous cock of yours after I finish.”
“Fuck, then you’d better get on that real quick.”
Loki pressed in deep then and trembled through his orgasm. “Humans are so impatient.”
“Shut up and suck my dick before I come out of spite,” Tony ordered.
Loki grinned and pulled free of Tony’s ass. He slid down and sucked Tony’s cock in deep with one greedy swallow. Tony flailed briefly as Loki pressed three fingers into his ass. He fisted his hand in long dark hair with a harsh groan. Looking back on it, he’d never had a partner so intent on his pleasure before, and it was a startling revelation in more than one way. He let his hips rock up gently into Loki’s mouth and came without warning since Tony knew his lover was always game to swallow.
A few moments passed, and Loki’s fingers slid out of his asshole then the Asgardian dropped down onto the mattress beside him.
“Seducing me wasn’t in your plan then?”
“I have no plan at all,” Loki confessed. “I just needed space—space from all the lies and the life I’m expected to live on Asgard. I wanted to help you, but I was prepared to go elsewhere and bide my time until the Aether became available. I’d have found some way to hide it away forever.”
“Do you plan to tell them that you know about your origins?” Tony questioned. “Or are you going to let that lie fester between you?”
“The last time did not go well.”
“You’re different now. The news isn’t a fresh, open wound.”
“No,” Loki agreed. “And I never have to return to Asgard. I don’t have to face the horror and rejection of a people I’ve spent over a thousand years with. It wasn’t the adoption that turned Thor from me, and even in the end—when he knew he couldn’t trust me—he still wanted me close.”
“Thor doesn’t know how to stop loving you,” Tony said. “You’ll always be his brother—no matter what anyone says, and I think it would be a mistake for you to dismiss that relationship out of fear.”
“I don’t fear Thor or his love,” Loki said. “I fear…disappointing him again. Perhaps it’s better if I just fade from his life and lose touch with him over time. It’s better to be a bittersweet memory than a nightmare.”
“He braided your hair into his when he thought you were dead the first time,” Tony said quietly. “About two years into the search for Thanos, Thor met up with us on Veta II. The situation here on Earth was so bad that he’d taken what was left of the Asgardians and left. We spoke long into the night about the various scenarios I might be presented with if I managed to take the stones from Thanos, and I admit we were both quite drunk. We joked about time travel most of the night because it seemed like a pipe dream, but more it seemed like a desperate gamble that would get me killed which scared the fuck out of me and made Thor sad. He told me—if you travel in time, promise me that you’ll tell me to never give up my brother.” Tony paused. “Then he passed out.”
Loki sighed. “As I said, he loves me too much.”
“Is there really such a thing?” Tony asked. “Shouldn’t you grab all the love you can and hold on?”
“A mortal’s life is so short you don’t have time to blink before it’s over,” Loki said quietly. “Your passion is vivid and enthralling, but it burns out so fast, Tony. I don’t know how you stand it.”
“Well, it isn’t like I know anything different,” Tony said wryly. “Second chance or not—I’ve only got about a hundred or so years in the universe, so I can’t afford to waste time.” He left the bed then. “Speaking of, I need to go inform legal that we might have to fight the U.S. Army shortly.”
“Have fun. I’m supposed to take Ho’s place with Banner in an hour, and we promised Nebula we’d sit down for dinner like normal people. I don’t know where she got the idea that normal is something to aspire to.”
Tony made a face. “Right? I don’t know either.”
The Army sent two men to New York to tell Betty Ross that her father had been killed in the line of duty. It was a brief, infuriating conversation that left her speechless. Tony had watched the whole thing unfold on a security monitor and had the two men escorted out as quickly as possible. The fact that the government was going to completely cover up the incident and pretend it didn’t happen at all wasn’t a surprise, but it was galling that Thaddeus Ross would get a hero’s funeral after what he’d done. Betty had a part to play in all of it, and Tony figured she’d maintain for Bruce’s sake if nothing else.
Hulk hadn’t emerged since Betty woke up and, for that, they were all grateful since they figured a genuine threat to her might be the trigger for a rage-episode. It was different from the previous timeline, but then the incident itself hadn’t gone down the same way. Hulk hadn’t been created by Bruce in a desperate attempt to prove himself but by force at the hands of Thaddeus Ross. Bruce was focused on protecting Betty, and so was Hulk.
“I don’t think we should separate,” Betty said and glanced toward Tony as she spoke.
“You’ll get no disagreement from me,” Tony said, and they both focused on Bruce who was at the end of the work table staring pointedly at a tablet.
Bruce sighed. “I don’t know how the big guy would react,” he admitted. “I have to think he’d respond to my own concern and I’m worried that the military is waiting for an opportunity to pick one or both of us up for questions. It’s possible that everyone that knew we were there is dead, but Thaddeus wasn’t working in a vacuum. Who and what exactly they know is still a problem. It’ll continue to be a problem forever basically. The official record might protect us legally, but I don’t want to disappear into some government black site for the rest of my life.”
“Well, you wouldn’t,” Tony pointed out reasonably. “Because I would look for you and there probably isn’t a facility built on this planet that could contain the two of you. I’d like to talk to you about my side project.”
“You mean the suit?” Bruce questioned. “Because I would like to hear all about that. Why do you have a flying suit?”
Tony shrugged. “Why not?”
Bruce snorted. “Tony.”
“Me and the kid have been playing around with various suits because of the NASA project, and we thought it would be fun to make something a little more useful. I’m glad I had it because it made finding you a hell of a lot easier.”
“So Nebula has one as well,” Betty murmured.
“Yes, she’s walking around with full body armor available to her at a moment’s notice 24/7,” Tony admitted. “It’ll activate automatically if she’s physically threatened because Happy was right—that asshole Corwin could’ve picked her up and tossed her off that balcony.”
Betty pursed her lips. “Do you have call signs?”
“Codenames,” Tony clarified. “Iron Man and Banshee.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “I want a suit.”
He grinned. “Codename?”
Betty curled a lock of hair around one finger and cut her gaze briefly at Bruce who looked shocked. “Iron Maiden.”
Bruce huffed. “Betty.”
“I told you I wasn’t going to wear spandex.”
“Sir, Nick Fury just entered the lobby of the SI tower and requested a meeting with Dr. Banner.”
“No,” Bruce said firmly. “Absolutely not.” He held up a hand. “Tony, put on a skirt because I’m hiding behind it.”
Tony laughed. “How about I just use threats and lawyers? I look terrible in drag.”
“Whatever,” Bruce said and picked up his tablet. “Come on, Betty, let’s go to the main lab and you can play with some bots or something while I brood.”
Spiderling made a whirring sound from his charging station, so Betty untethered him and let him crawl to her shoulder before following Bruce out with a cheerful wave for Tony.
“Put her bracelet into production, J. Gold and green. We’ll start designing something for Bruce, something that will grow with Hulk if necessary. It could be a viable way of preventing people from connecting Bruce to Hulk.”
“Shall I start bracelets for Rogers and Barnes as well?” Jarvis asked.
“Are you being snide?” Tony demanded.
“No, Sir, just planning my work schedule.”
Tony sighed. “Yes, fine.” He huffed and stalked out of the lab. Creating a team of armored super soldiers seemed like a terrible idea but if he was going to give Betty Ross, of all people, armor than the others would certainly ask if it was an option. He should make hers yellow because Bruce was right—she was a total daisy.
He decided to go to his little-used CEO office because it was outrageously expensive looking and pretentious as fuck; just like he’d requested from the interior designer. Tony got comfortable behind the massive oak desk and fiddled with the phone and laptop on the desk while he waited for Happy to escort Fury up. Honestly, fucking with Nick Fury was probably the most amusing part about time travel. The door opened finally, and Happy motioned Fury in ahead of him.
“I asked to speak with Bruce Banner,” Fury said.
“Dr. Banner isn’t accepting visitors from shady government officials,” Tony said smoothly as Happy shut the door and leaned on it. “Is there anything you’d like me to pass along to him?”
“I have some questions about Thaddeus Ross’ death. The Army wasn’t forthcoming, but I’m aware that Dr. Banner left New York with him on Friday night. I’d like to know what Dr. Banner knows and how, specifically, he got back to New York.”
“Bruce has been in Stark Plaza all weekend with his girlfriend. Betty is, of course, very upset about her father’s death in the line of duty, so Bruce is focused on comforting her as you might imagine. I’ll let them know you expressed your condolences.”
Fury glared. “I don’t tolerate obstruction, Stark.”
“Take it up with the Army then,” Tony said and rocked in his chair. “I fail to see how a civilian could give you any information on a classified military operation. In fact, all the Army told the man’s daughter about his death was that he was killed in action in a classified location. Bruce doesn’t want to talk to you. You’ll need to present an arrest warrant to get any access to him. If you attempt to force contact in any single way, I’ll make a very large and embarrassing public spectacle of the whole thing. SHIELD flies low under the public radar, but how do you think people would feel if they found out things like due process and privacy are practically myths in your world?”
“How long do you think you can play this game with me?” Fury questioned. “Or with the Department of Defense for that matter? You have some powerful people absolutely furious with you. In the past, you’ve gotten away with a lot because those people protected you—considered you a fragile genius they needed to build their war machine. You’re fast proving yourself to be a real problem, Stark. Is that really the kind of risk you want to take with your daughter? You piss someone off enough, and she might find herself an orphan with a billion dollar company to run. Sound familiar?”
“HYDRA killed my parents,” Tony said evenly. “The car accident was a staged to hide the assassination so if you were hoping to imply something different, don’t bother. The HYDRA asset who did it actually recorded it for reasons I don’t know. I saw that footage, so I know exactly what happened.” He raised an eyebrow when Fury’s mouth dropped open. “And if I were taken out—my daughter can take care of herself and the billion dollar company she will inherit.” He stood. “Threaten my kid, again, in any single way, and I’ll make you wish you were dead.”
“You think you can play on my field?” Fury questioned. “At this point, you’re nothing more than a glorified toy maker.”
“And you’re a dried up Cold War relic,” Tony said evenly. “You have no clue what a man like me is capable of. Happy, see Director Fury all the way to the front doors and let security know that he is not welcome to return, ever.”
* * * *
Nebula scowled at him the moment he entered the private lab.
“I’m not really going to inherit all of this crap, right?” She motioned around with both hands.
Tony laughed. “Yes, of course you are. Legally it would look bizarre if my only offspring wasn’t set to inherit.”
“What am I supposed to do with it?” Nebula demanded. “You’d better live to be a thousand years old!” She huffed and stalked off toward the hangar.
“What are you doing?”
“Upgrading the sensors on the ship for the next incident.”
“If you hadn’t been spying on me with security cameras you wouldn’t be in a bad mood right now!” Tony called after her.
She shot him a bird over her shoulder.
“No more TV—it’s ruining you!” Tony frowned then muttered, “Also, I’m deleting Rick Springfield from the server.”
Nebula turned abruptly and glared at him, hands slamming against the elevator doors to keep it from shutting. “What the fuck did you just say?”
“Nothing,” Tony said immediately and offered her the most insincere smile he could.
She stepped back into the elevator. “Friday, back up my playlists to my tablet.”
Tony laughed as the doors shut. He checked his watch and did a mental review of his schedule. Fury’s visit had thrown him off a little, and he was due in the mansion for a freestyle build. He made it a point to attend that particular session regularly regardless of Peter’s attendance because he liked the energy and the kids were hilariously easy to cajole into making insane robots. The week before they’d made about forty tiny Godzillas.
He made his way down to the mansion and strolled into the robotics area with a cheerful grin. “What’s shaking, Otis?”
“All of my parts are secure, Dr. Stark,” Otis replied. “I do not shake or rattle.” He wiggled his head from side to side. “I can roll though.” The bot scooted forward to demonstrate. “I see you’ve come to corrupt the children again.”
The kids all cheered and Tony just clapped his hands together. “Who wants to build some itty bitty helicopters that will really fly?”
Several parents groaned good-naturedly as every kid in the room converged on Tony.
* * * *
Tony rarely strayed from the penthouse area in the residential tower, but Rhodey wasn’t answering his calls and the Air Force had sent an email to SI informing them that they would be assigned a new liaison shortly for future contract negotiations. With all of that information in hand, Tony had felt compelled to seek his best friend out and ask what the fuck was up. He knocked on Rhodey’s door and picked up Spiderling who’d been following him in a less than stealthy fashion.
“You’re not a good spy,” Tony said to the bot and got a series of clicks in return. “Don’t tell me to kiss your butt. If you use that kind of language in the mansion, young man, I’ll reprogram you. Dum-E’s obviously been a bad influence on you.”
The door opened, and Rhodey sighed. “It’s a good thing I’ve always known you were crazy.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “What’s up? You’re not answering my calls, and I got an email from your boss about a new liaison.”
“My phone belongs to the Air Force, so I turned it in shortly before I resigned,” Rhodey said evenly. “I haven’t had a chance to go shopping for a new one.”
“You resigned?” Tony let Spiderling drop to the back of the sofa as he followed Rhodey into the apartment. “Why did you resign? What’s going on?”
“They…” Rhodey took a deep breath. “General Helms called me into his office yesterday afternoon and gave me a series of orders that I considered to be morally reprehensible. I accepted the assignment to avoid a confrontation and potential charges for disobeying orders. Then I went to JAG. I resigned my commission shortly after I reported Helms for his behavior. I took a commercial flight back to New York, and here I sit.” He dropped down on a chair.
Tony pulled out his phone and sent a text to Jarvis. “I’ll get a phone set up for you through SI.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Well, all of administrative and management level employees have Stark phones; it’s branding,” Tony explained. “So look, I’m going to ask you one thing, and you can say—yes, no, or none of your business.”
Rhodey eyed him but nodded. “Okay.”
“Did these morally reprehensible orders involve me or my offspring?”
“Yes,” Rhodey said and rubbed his face with both hands. “Her specifically.”
Tony nodded. “I thought it might come up since Ross tried to worm his way into her space during the NASA thing. You spent a lot of time with her at the presentation and the after-party, so it’s not surprising some of the higher-ups in the DOD might have thought you could manipulate her into their way of thinking.”
“He suggested seduction,” Rhodey said tightly. “Young, vulnerable, and isolated—that’s what he called her. Ripe for the picking.” He huffed. “And I don’t work for you, Tony.”
“Sure you do,” Tony said pleasantly despite the fury that was roiling in his gut. “I only ever spoke with you directly about contracts because you’re my best friend. If the Department of Acquisitions is going to send someone else SI’s way they’re going to need a contact person. I haven’t really replaced Obie’s role in the company since we stopped building weapons and it would be a waste to ignore your years of work with acquisitions and contracts. You could, if you’re inclined, step into that role and help me build something awesome and rewarding.”
“Like the space station,” Rhodey said.
“And you can be a buffer between the kid and me when it comes to outside contracts, especially military ones since we know how that’s apparently going to go.”
“I’d like to go visit the Aurora once she’s built,” Rhodey admitted. “I mean, when I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut.”
“I’ll build you a quinjet of your own,” Tony said.
“Yes, you will.”
“I’m sorry,” Tony said then. “I know how much your career means to you.”
“My honor means more,” Rhodey said evenly. “For him to think I’d use any woman like that is obscene but…” He shook his head. “Hell, Tony, she’s your daughter. How the hell…” He slouched back in his chair. “Whatever asshole they send our way doesn’t even get an introduction.”
“Agreed,” Tony said. “Obie officially worked as the Chief Operations Officer.”
“You’ve been doing his work and yours since he officially quit?” Rhodey questioned. “When do you sleep?”
“When I pass out,” Tony said. “I’ve distributed some of the duties traditionally associated with COO. I’ve sixteen production facilities online right now, and each one has a production manager who’s been reporting to me on a weekly basis since Obie left. Those reports will shift to you if you want this position. You’d be responsible for keeping operations running smoothly and on time. My CFO has been handling the budgeting, and he would report to you as well.”
“You’re going to slot me into your second in command, and no one is going to complain?” Rhodey asked.
“Who cares if they complain?” Tony asked roughly. “I hire people I trust, and I trust you—with my stuff and with the legacy I’m building for my family. Don’t be difficult.”
“Difficult is practically a default position for a black man in America,” Rhodey said wryly. “Men that look like me struggle up the corporate ladder, Tony, and you know it.”
“They don’t struggle at SI,” Tony said. “I can’t say my father was great about it, but I don’t tolerate any kind of ‘isms’ in my space.”
“I know,” Rhodey said. “Okay, I’ll take your ridiculous job and whatever salary you throw at me.” He paused. “And the space jet.”
“Well, you were going to get a space jet regardless,” Tony announced. “Let’s go tell the kid the news.”
* * * *
Nebula worked her way through a bowl of cut fruit while Rhodey and Tony took turns telling her the story of his old job and the new job at SI. The general gist being that Rhodey had been ordered to whore himself for weapons. She understood that and even, privately, appreciated the logic of plan. She could tell that both of them were far more disgusted than anything else, so she just nodded along and mentally started arranging her work schedule for the next day, so she had time to make a pest of herself in Rhodey’s new office.
Loki had spent most of the afternoon reading and having conversations with various people on the internet about closed environments, group dynamics, and something called pressure-induced psychosis. Apparently, human brains were more sensitive than she’d ever realized. She resolved to double check the math on the prime suits—or at least the ones that the others would wear because she wasn’t as delicate as that considering her brain wasn’t organic. She could do without oxygen for well over an hour before suffering even minor damage internally due to her species. The cybernetic implants meant she would suffer even less.
Thunder sounded in the distance, and her head jerked up. “It’s not supposed to rain this evening.”
“No, the forecast is clear,” Loki agreed and slid off the couch.
She huffed, rolled to her feet, and left the living room without another word. Nebula trotted into her bedroom and out onto her balcony where she retrieved her ruhi bush and brought it inside. The last time she’d let rain fall on it there had been burns on the leaves. Loki had fixed it, but she’d felt terrible for allowing her present to be damaged. She tucked the bush into place next to her lounge and pulled the doors shut as rain swept across the balcony and lightning lashed over the evening sky.
When she returned to the living room, Rhodey was gone, and Loki was staring at the central balcony with a disgruntled expression.
“Fortunately, he remembered he had a date,” Loki said. “And went to arrange transportation for his lady since she was invited here for dinner.” Thunder rolled, and Loki sighed. “Drama queen.”
Magic swirled brightly on the balcony, and Thor appeared. The Bifrost’s magic disappeared with a sharp snap. She wondered if the disruption field they were running around the top of the building had hidden his landing.
“Brother!” Thor offered Loki a wide grin and strode into the room.
“Thor,” Loki said and sighed when he was enveloped in a hug.
Nebula shared a look with Tony, who looked more amused than he had any right to.
“Mother has sent me to check on you,” Thor announced and looked around the room. He focused on Tony briefly then his gaze landed on Nebula. He inclined his head thoughtfully but then hugged Loki tighter. “Who are your companions?”
Loki wrenched himself free. “This is Tony Stark and his daughter, Nebula. He owns the building you’ve just landed on with no consideration for discretion whatsoever.”
Nebula drifted closer to Tony’s side more out of habit than anything else. Thor didn’t strike her as a threat, but Tony was easily the most vulnerable person in the room.
She turned to Tony. “The cape’s a bit much.”
He nodded. “Capes just aren’t a good idea.”
Loki flicked a bit of magic at his brother as he walked away and Thor’s clothes changed into a simple pair of slacks and a sweater. “Did mother send a message or just…you?”
Thor grinned and put his hammer down on the coffee table as he sat down where Loki pointed him. “I am to check on your wellbeing and assess your situation to make sure you aren’t associating with unsavory sorts.” He glanced toward Tony. “I’m disappointed, brother, neither one of them appear at all unsavory.”
“I can be,” Tony assured him, and Thor laughed.
Nebula blew air out between her lips. “I’m going to my room.”
“We’ll call you for dinner,” Loki said. “We’re having Thai delivered.”
“Did you order Fuji rolls?”
She glanced toward Thor. “If he’s staying to eat—you might want to double the order.”
“Good point,” Tony said and walked off toward the kitchen. “J, take care of that.”
“I will,” Jarvis said. “The freak rainstorm didn’t appear to upset anyone over much, and there have been no calls to security or the police regarding the arrival of the second Mr. Odinson.”
“Good to know,” Tony said and leaned on the counter.
He glanced into the living room and found Loki standing a fair bit away from Thor trying to look bored. Tony knew that expression pretty well, so he felt required to rescue his lover, which was unfortunate. He grabbed a few beers for Thor and some bottled juice for himself.
“Food order updated.” He put the bottles down in front of Thor who looked at him in puzzlement.
Loki sighed, stepped forward and picked up one of the beers. He popped off the top with a flick of his thumb and handed it to his brother. “Do not throw this on the floor when you’re finished.”
Thor nodded and took a sip of the beer. “Ah, this is nice. Thank you, Stark.”
“Tony is fine,” Tony said and sat down. “Do you have any other plans in this realm or are you simply playing messenger for your mother?”
“I’ve not been to Midgard in many centuries,” Thor said. “I will not linger as our father has requested that I join him in a diplomatic visit on Jotunheim. In fact, he had hopes that Loki would return with me and join us.”
Loki shook his head. “I have no interest in ever stepping foot on Jotunheim again.”
Thor looked surprised. “Have you had a vision of some sort?” He leaned forward. “Mother has been tired lately—Father says she barely sleeps. She has terrible nightmares but will not discuss them.”
“Laufey cannot be trusted,” Loki said after several moments of silence. “He would use any opportunity presented to regain the Casket of Ancient Winters. It calls to them, even now, and it will as long as it exists. Mother dreams of Ragnarök. She dreams of the day that Odin will no longer stand between us and a threat neither of us has the ability to defeat.”
Thor opened his mouth to speak but then shut it and took a deep breath. He downed the rest of the beer and set the bottle carefully on the table before picking up the second and flicked the cap off. He caught it and put it on the table with the empty bottle. “Do you dream of Ragnarök as well?”
“I’ve seen it,” Loki said. “I’ve seen Asgard destroyed—brought low by strife and betrayal. Our father keeps secrets, Thor, and those secrets will be the death of us.”
“Father would never deceive us,” Thor said.
Loki sighed. “A secret need not be a deception, brother, and of course he would deceive us. Is it not a parent’s duty to protect their children from circumstances beyond their comprehension? Do you suppose you know all there is to know about his exploits and life before you were even born?”
Thor frowned and shook his head. “He’d not keep dangerous secrets from me. I’m his heir.” He took a sip of beer. “Will you come home with me?”
“I find myself content here in Tony’s company,” Loki admitted. “But Heimdall should know to call on me if I’m needed.” He paused. “I would like to write Mother a letter. Would you deliver it?”
“Of course, she’ll be pleased.”
Loki stood. “I’ll return shortly. Don’t be rude, Thor.”
Tony said nothing when Loki left the room and wasn’t all that surprised when Thor focused on him. “You’ll stay for dinner, then?”
“My brother is special to me,” Thor said. “He seems relaxed here—comfortable in a way I’ve not seen in many hundreds of years. Is it because of you?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said honestly.
“Is he sharing your bed?”
Tony started to tell Thor it was none of his business but then he remembered the people on Asgard who took Loki to bed but barely spoke to him in public as if he were something to be ashamed of. “We’re lovers.”
Thor raised an eyebrow but drank more beer rather than respond. Spiderling took that moment to crawl up the side of the couch and click rapidly at the Asgardian. Thor swallowed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you as well, Spiderling.” He offered his hand, and the bot crawled up.
“Allspeak covers Morse code?” Loki hadn’t seemed to know the language. He wondered if his heritage interfered with that gift.
Thor paused but shrugged. “I do not know this Morse code, but I did understand him. Allspeak is very useful. It is magic my kind shares.”
“How does it work?” Tony asked curiously.
“It is collective knowledge governed by the magic of Asgard,” Loki said as he reentered the room. “When one of us is exposed to a new language, that knowledge is passed on to everyone else. I learned Morse code, and that knowledge has been given to all Asgardians, including Thor, within the structure of the Allspeak spell.”
Nebula came through the living room at that point with a pair of earbuds in. She went into the kitchen, retrieved an apple and a bottle of water before leaving again without speaking to them.
“Keep your eyes in your head, brother,” Loki said evenly. “And your hands to yourself.”
Tony looked toward Thor and found him blushing.
“She’s beautiful,” Thor said in his defense.
“She’s off-limits to you,” Loki pointed at him with a pen. “You’re a terrible womanizer.”
“I love women,” Thor said in protest. “All women.” He glanced back toward the direction Nebula had gone.
“I don’t think I can kick your ass, but I would try,” Tony said dryly and slouched down in his chair when both Asgardians grinned at him.
Loki spread out his paper and slid gracefully to the floor at the coffee table. “Move your ridiculous hammer.” He pushed the handle with a look of distaste, and it tipped over with a thud.
Thor stopped moving, and Loki blanched. Tony bit down on his bottom lip to prevent the bewildering shock he felt from being displayed on his face.
“Brother,” Thor said hoarsely. “You…”
Loki cleared his throat. “Move the hammer, Thor. Please.”
“Don’t you wish to…” Thor smiled then and picked it up. He set the hammer gently on the floor. “I would love to stay for dinner, Tony.”
* * * *
Tony left the bathroom and dropped his towel in the basket near the door. Loki was standing by the window. “Hey.”
“My brother has returned to Asgard,” Loki murmured.
“Wanna talk about the hammer?” Tony asked and winced when Loki flinched. “It’s supposed to be a good thing, right? To be found worthy of Mjølnir?”
“Oh, I’m just thrilled my brother’s precious hammer finds me worthy,” Loki said huffily as he turned and walked toward the bed, his clothes fell away in a flush of magic as he did so.
“Okay, seriously, what happens to your clothes when you do that? Are they destroyed? Are you going to run out of clothes? Do I need to send for a tailor?”
Loki grinned. “They reappear in the laundry pile for cleaning.” He crawled into the bed and pulled a sheet up to his hips, so Tony slid in beside him and got comfortable on a pillow. “Mjølnir is a special artifact amongst my people and associated deeply with Thor’s mythos. But there was a time when Hela carried the hammer, and she used it to bend the nine realms to our father’s will. After he imprisoned her in Hel, he stored Mjølnir in his vault and enchanted it so that only those that were worthy could pick it up and harness its power. My father uses Odinforce to keep her imprisoned, but when he dies, she’ll be freed.”
“There should be another solution,” Tony said quietly.
“His arrogance will bring about Ragnarök, and I don’t know that I can do anything to stop her from breaking free again.” Loki took a deep breath. “I asked Thor not to tell anyone about the hammer.”
Loki snorted. “No, he did not. He intends to brag to everyone that will listen. It’s appalling.”
“Why?” Tony asked curiously. “You put yourself on this new path—you’ve chosen to lead a different life than the one you had. It’s proof that you’re succeeding.”
“I thought…” Loki frowned. “I’ve been reading about addiction.”
“Because of me?” Tony questioned. “I can’t say I haven’t craved a drink or ten a few times over the past few months because shit has been stressful now and then but I haven’t had a single drop of alcohol since I came back in time.”
“You were a factor,” Loki admitted. “I wanted to know what to look for in case you had a problem. Nebula has already read several of the resources I found on the subject as well.”
Tony felt his face heat and shame pooled in his gut. “I…”
“We wanted to be of help if you stumbled,” Loki clarified and looked in his direction. “Because you’ve done a great deal for us both and asked for little in return. Still, in the reading, I noted that some of it resonated with me in a deeply uncomfortable way. Some of the behaviors I indulged in the past were thrilling, and I enjoyed a sort of high. Power is just as intoxicating as any substance in the right circumstances.” He paused. “Especially, magical circumstances. Perhaps, I did worry that in the end I would I fall into temptation and revert to my old ways.”
“Is that why you didn’t pick the hammer up when it was clear you could?”
“Mjølnir belongs to Thor—it is central to his belief in his powers as a god of Asgard. I have no wish to split its loyalty. One day, he will learn that he does not need the hammer to use his powers, but until then, Mjølnir must know no other master.” He turned onto his side and touched Tony’s face with careful fingers. “You told my brother that you were my lover.”
“He asked,” Tony said. “He’s very nosy.”
“Very,” Loki murmured. “You look exhausted.”
“We had a very long day,” Tony said and yawned. “I saw Peter today. His Aunt May brought him for the freestyle build. Those are his favorite—we built little helicopters.” Loki turned him carefully, and Tony just huffed as the Asgardian spooned up behind him.
“Sleep, Tony,” Loki murmured against his hair.
“I was expecting sex,” Tony groused.
“You’re always expecting sex.”
He sighed. “J, turn out the lights.”
“Good night, Sirs.”
Bruce considered himself a threat, so he insisted that the first issue that James Rhodes be briefed on was himself and specifically Hulk. Rhodey was up and pacing around the room by the time they showed him what was left of the experiment footage.
“They’re giving that son of a bitch a fucking hero’s funeral!” Rhodey burst out as soon as they were all finished talking. He paused. “Jesus, sorry, Dr. Ross.”
“No, he’s a son of a bitch,” Betty said. “Honestly, his mother was four times the monster my father ever could’ve wanted to be.” She shrugged at the looks that earned her. “Every time she saw me when I was little she would pull my hair and call me a little sand nig…” She huffed. “She wasn’t pleased at all that her precious son had married an Indian woman and let’s just leave it at that.”
“Right,” Rhodey said. “It’s…so it looks like Hulk is capable of reason and limited conversation in normal circumstances.”
“Yes,” Bruce agreed.
“And we know how he’ll react when threatened. Let’s work to keep Dr. Banner’s work environment as stress-free as possible and the next time Hulk comes out—I’d like to be introduced.”
“If you’re certain.”
“I am,” Rhodey said firmly. “I definitely want to be the big guy’s friend.” He grinned when Bruce laughed reluctantly. “Okay, so since you started with this—I figured it was the worst of it.” He focused on Tony. “Tell me the rest.”
“Actually,” Nebula began with an earnest expression that Tony totally planned to praise her for later in private. “We started with the least of it.” She smiled brightly when Rhodey’s mouth dropped open. “HYDRA is still active, and SHIELD is infested, we found Captain America and Bucky Barnes—both of whom are alive, still young, and in a form of suspended animation. Also, Tony and I are building flying suits for fun and general mayhem.”
Rhodey slowly sat back down in his chair and took a deep breath. Then he turned to Tony. “When I signed the employment contract, I almost argued with them about the annual salary.”
“I think I just earned all ten million of it,” Rhodey said wryly. “Let’s break this down, Tone, and show me where I can help.”
“You don’t want to rant and rave about me keeping secrets from the government?”
Rhodey glanced toward Bruce. “Nope.”
* * * *
“Pissed at me?” Tony questioned.
They’d gone for a flight after Tony had given Rhodey War Machine. He’d been pleased that his friend had taken to the use of the suit with no problems and that he’d trusted the technology that Tony had given him without question. Part of him couldn’t help but worry that the secrets he did carry would drive a wedge in the longest friendship he’d ever had.
Rhodey shook his head. “No, not at all.” He fingered the Prime bracelet that was snug against the skin of his wrist. “I don’t know if I’m on board with the kid getting a combat capable rocket suit, but she’s technically an adult and your daughter not mine.”
“She could build her own,” Tony pointed out. “I feel better knowing what I’ve built her will protect her as much as possible. Bruce and Ho think it’s time to try to wake up Rogers. We’re still investigating the brainwashing technique that was used on Barnes.”
“Do you think anyone will believe the official story that SI has had Barnes on ice for decades?”
“I think the general public will, and anyone else will have a hard time proving otherwise. Deprogramming him once he’s conscious is going to be our biggest issue. We know that every time HYDRA has activated him that they reaffirm their control over him with mind wiping. We don’t know when he was last wiped as they didn’t keep accurate records of it. We also, so far, have had no luck retrieving the technology they used to do it with. Several mind control methods are discussed in the data, including the Faustus method.”
Rhodey winced. “Jesus, that’s genuinely fucked up. I’ve read some reports about black market technology involving memory suppression. It’s a torture of its own, Tony. That guy’s been through the wringer in more ways than one.”
“We have learned his activation words so we hope that we can use them to deprogram him,” Tony said quietly. “But we all agree that we need to wake Rogers up and get him settled before we even think about trying it with Barnes.”
“What if Rogers doesn’t survive being thawed out?” Rhodey questioned.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but even if we don’t have Rogers to help with Barnes, I’m not going to leave him the way he is—he certainly deserves better.”
“He does,” Rhodey agreed. “There are people in the DOD that will shit bricks when they see this armor tech, Tony. It’s the kind of project they’ve always wanted from you, and you can expect them to try to take it.”
“They could try,” Tony agreed. “But every single Prime bracelet has a kill switch that I can activate remotely that will turn it off permanently. I’ll never again build weapons tech that could end up in the wrong hands. They can’t force me to make anything for them, and stealing my tech will get them nowhere. I’m not playing games with that shit anymore. In fact, I’ve started a backdoor project with my previous weapons systems—over the past six months every single missile and bomb built by SI got a firmware update. Absolutely nothing with my name on it currently in the hands of the US government can be moved without my knowing about it. If it falls into enemy hands at any point, it will summarily be deactivated permanently.”
Rhodey’s mouth dropped open. “Is that a violation of the contracts you signed?”
“Nope, they never bothered to even consider that I would give myself that kind of access after the fact. All of the programming is encrypted on a level that they would come to me for updates anyway.” Tony shrugged. “They shouldn’t care, honestly, if weapons that end up on the black market fail. If they do care then they have bigger problems than me.”
* * * *
“I’d tell you to relax, but everyone in the place is staring at you,” Betty said under her breath.
Nebula shrugged and glanced around the coffee shop. She’d let Betty talk her into leaving Stark Plaza. They’d been followed by two reporters, per Friday’s observation, and it was already hitting various online sources that she was out of the tower. Happy had come along on the trip personally after he’d gotten a promise from Tony that he wouldn’t leave the building.
“I’m not really concerned.” She cupped her tea in both hands and shrugged. “There was a lot of attention focused on me when I went back into the main lab after the party, but now that’s calmed down.”
If she were honest, the attention she’d gotten as a child of Thanos had been much more difficult to take than anything she might endure on Earth. By the time she’d started getting solo missions, her reputation proceeded her wherever she went. Nebula didn’t like to think about that time and the things she’d done for Thanos. It seemed separate from her somehow, and she wanted to keep it that way.
“Let’s get some cookies,” Betty suggested.
“I like peanut butter,” Nebula said. “Do they have those?” She slid out of the booth when Betty did and followed along behind the older woman.
The counter had a small line, so they settled in to wait and stare at the different confections being offered.
“Miss Stark, I can serve you directly. There’s no need for you to wait in line.”
Nebula glanced around, and her gaze landed on the man that Betty had identified as the manager upon their arrival. He’d been relatively excited about it, but Happy had handled him. “Thank you, but I’ll wait my turn just like everyone else.”
“If you’re sure,” he said hesitantly.
“I’m positive.” She tucked her hair behind one ear and refocused her attention on making a selection.
The manager continued to hover as the line moved and didn’t walk away from the counter until they had their purchases in hand and were returning to the table.
“Now that kind of attention I can do without,” Nebula admitted.
“Your dad is a very wealthy and famous man,” Betty pointed out. “With that comes a level of special treatment out of respect.”
Nebula made a face. “Yeah, okay, but how does that translate into me getting favored treatment for merely existing? It’s bizarre, and also that kind of respect is transitory at best because it’s not built on anything tangible. Fame and wealth? Neither is a permanent fixture in anyone’s life so how can you build relationships on it? How can you build anything meaningful around a fallacy?”
Betty raised an eyebrow. “Are you about to start an emo phase?”
Nebula laughed as Friday hurriedly filled her in on the concept. “I’d look great with black hair.”
“Certainly,” Betty agreed. “You’re right, though, people will covet relationships of all sorts with you because of your father’s status in the world, and there isn’t much you can do about it.”
“Except ignore it,” Nebula pointed out. “I don’t have to tolerate that kind of behavior. I don’t have to accept favors or special treatment.” She scrunched up her nose. “I can already see the articles about what a rude bitch I am.”
* * * *
Steve Roger’s gaze hadn’t moved away from him since Tony had entered the room. He wondered if Steve saw the family resemblance as a plus or a minus. His old man had always spoken well of Captain America—the icon. He’d rarely spoken of the man himself at all. Perhaps that had been grief or the glossy idealism of winning a war.
“Ho, give the man some room to breathe,” Tony murmured.
Yinsen blushed. “Yes, well. Captain Rogers, you appear to be in peak physical form. We’ll have to do extensive testing to see if you’ve lost any cognitive function. But that will hold.” He patted Steve’s shoulder and gave Tony a nod before leaving. He took the team with him.
“Thanks,” Steve said. “I asked…for Howard earlier but they told me that he’s dead.”
“Yes, a car accident.” Tony walked forward and put his coffee cup down on the table near the end of the bed. “Ho said you insisted on taking a look outside.”
“Yeah.” Steve cleared his throat. “I…I can’t really believe that it’s 2005. Sixty years—gone.”
“Just about,” Tony agreed. “My dad never stopped searching for you. In fact, the ship that found you was part of an annual search and recovery mission that Stark Industries has been funding since 1945. He went out personally for years before the trip became too much for him physically. I’ve gone out a few times myself. I honestly expected to find a corpse if we found anything at all. I can’t say anyone expected this outcome. Many others have tried to work on the super soldier serum since Abraham Erskine died, but none came close to his success with you. We had no data to work on regarding survival scenarios.”
Steve’s fist tightened on the blanket. “Did you pull my body out of the water to experiment on me?”
“Nope,” Tony said. “In fact, I intended to cremate your remains to prevent anyone from trying to extract the serum from you. The last thing I’d ever do is give the government or any organization, for that matter, access to such a thing. I’ve learned over the years that most people can’t be trusted with that kind of power. I want to build a better world, Captain Rogers. I’d honestly like to advance mankind.”
Steve grinned then. “Flying cars?”
“If I wanted to make a flying car I totally could,” Tony said gravely. “And my dad did, in fact, make several eventually for SHIELD.”
“What’s SHIELD?” Steve asked.
“An organization founded by my father and Peggy Carter—espionage, counter-terrorism, assessment of superhuman or paranormal threats, etc. It stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. It’s run by a man named Nick Fury these days. He’s a patriot, but Fury’s also manipulative, cold, and utterly incapable of empathy. He fakes it pretty well. I met him for the first time as a little kid and, frankly, he scared the crap out of me. Fury doesn’t scare me these days, but I go out of my way to avoid his company.”
“Will I be meeting him?”
“He’ll certainly be very interested in acquiring you as an asset,” Tony said. “And that’s all you’d ever be to him—a weapon he can point in the direction of his choosing.”
“Are you normally this blunt with people?” Steve questioned.
“Yes, there are whole swaths of people all over the planet who think I’m a raging asshole.” Tony picked up his coffee and took a sip. “So it’s like this, my old man considered you a really good friend. He invested time and a stupid amount of money in bringing you home so he could put you to rest properly. I think he’d be startled but really happy to be sitting here in my place. I’ve got a medical team on standby and a few lawyers in the wings trying to figure out how to carve a life out for you. I’d be thrilled if you’d let them do that.”
Steve took a deep breath. “I don’t want to be a secret. The government…they can make secrets disappear.”
Tony grinned. “Oh, Captain, announcing your survival to the world would be my distinct honor. Let’s get the lawyers on task to secure your complete freedom from government control, and we’ll have ourselves a good old fashioned press conference.”
“Call me Steve.”
He held out his hand. “Tony.”
“It’s really nice to meet you, Tony,” Steve said as he took the hand. “Thank you for doing all of this. I can’t see how I’d ever repay you.”
“Friends don’t keep score on that kind of thing,” Tony said and ignored the burn in his gut.
Steve offered him a brilliant smile.
“I do have something else to speak with you about, and it’s difficult. In fact, I’ve been cautioned against telling you this immediately as they’re a bit worried about your heart as it appears to be the only organ that didn’t go into full suspended animation while you were frozen.”
“I can handle it,” Steve said. “I’m stronger than I look.”
“Well, you look like a brick wall,” Tony said wryly and smiled when Steve laughed. “Here’s the thing—a couple of months ago my kid moved into my life and turned it upside down. I had her when I was young, and she was raised by others due to my parents’ decisions. Now I grew up in a war machine of my father’s design, and I built weapons for years because that’s what he did and that’s what I thought I should do. But I don’t want my daughter in a war machine, and I don’t want her building weapons for the rest of her life, so I’ve been carving out a new path for Stark Industries as a result.
“My father was at the heart of everything a war profiteer. There are more glamorous ways of saying that, but that’s the base, as ugly as it is. His yearly trip to find you was the one thing he had going on officially where he had absolutely no ulterior motives. It’s one of the few parts of his legacy that I can be proud of.
“When we located the wreckage and your not-so-dead body, we also found some communications that had familiar codes in them. Codes I’d seen recently. I used that information to start researching, and I’ve found some pretty ugly things, Steve.”
“Like a cache of crazed super soldier assassins, HYDRA bases, and deep cover spies in various levels of dozens of governments all over the world. So far, I’ve anonymously reported over three hundred operatives to various organizations all over the globe. I’ve also personally seen destroyed one base and reported another directly to SHIELD, who took it out with maximum force. In the midst of all this, I found someone unexpected.”
“I thought…” Steve trailed off and cleared his throat. “When the ship was going down I thought I’d won…I thought I’d destroyed HYDRA.”
“You dealt them a blow that they spent decades recovering from,” Tony said. “And if those you left behind had been more thorough, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Regardless, I found someone unexpected.”
“Who?” Steve finally asked.
Steve lurched up in the bed, and the monitors went crazy. He took a ragged breath and held up a hand when the door was thrown open. “I’m fine. Promise.” The heart monitor slowed down quickly and stopped screaming. “I…Dr. Stark…Bucky died. He fell off a train.”
Ho shut the door with a knowing look in Tony’s direction.
“Your friend, James Barnes, was exposed to the super serum when he was held captive by HYDRA. He survived the fall off the train and was eventually recovered. He spent decades being brainwashed, tortured, and turned into an assassin. He was in a cryostasis tube with a bunch of other super soldiers, who were crazy by the way, when I found him. I removed him from the facility, erased every bit of data I could locate related to him and brought him here. He’s in my private lab, still in stasis as we’re not exactly sure who will wake up—your friend or the assassin called the Winter Soldier.
“Now, the official story is that my father found your friend frozen and has kept him in cryostasis for decades until the technology could be found to revive him. Any reports generated at SI will have this as his origins. We’ll use data from your recovery to create his, and we’re still working on getting a handle on how he was brainwashed. He’s suffered a lot, so I’m not prepared to hurt him more to advance his healing. It’s slow and easy from here on out.”
“Can I see him?”
“Yes, and no.” Tony held up a hand when Steve started to speak. “We can’t let you out of here until we finish doing testing. We don’t know how sturdy you are, Steve, and I’d hate for you drop dead before you got to see your friend. Jarvis, activate the camera in the secure lab.”
Steve blinked when the wall screen in front of him lit and his shoulders relaxed as the camera panned around to focus on Bucky’s face. “He doesn’t look like he’s aged much at all.”
“No, they kept him on ice basically until they needed him. Then they would revive him, erase his memories, and brainwash him for a mission,” Tony explained and winced when Steve’s expression shuttered. “Not your fault, you know.”
“I didn’t…he fell.” Steve took a deep breath. “What the hell kind of super soldier am I if I can’t keep my best friend alive?”
“I can’t say much about the super soldier part, but I can say that you can do every single thing right and still fail. It’s not a reflection on your character or your abilities. Life just isn’t…fair.”
“No, it’s not,” Steve said quietly. “I’ll behave, Tony, and stay put until the doctors tell me I can move around but I’d like to see him in person as soon as it can be done.” He focused on the screen. “Can I watch this?”
“Yeah, you’ll see Dr. Banner in there in a few minutes or so checking on his vitals and setting up more tests. We’ve been working on Barnes since we found him and Banner is his primary caregiver. He was on your team until we found Barnes. You’ll probably also see two women in there. One is a brunette, that’s Dr. Betty Ross, she’s Banner’s girlfriend and excellent scientist in her own right. You’ll meet them both later when you’re officially on your feet. The second woman is my daughter—she’s a redhead, and she’s keeping up with the various issues around powering the cryostasis pod. Due to Barnes’ unpredictable personality, neither Dr. Ross or Nebula, my daughter, are allowed in the room without Dr. Banner.”
“If Bucky is as strong as me….” Steve flushed. “I don’t think your Dr. Banner will be much of an obstacle, Tony.”
Tony grinned. “Dr. Banner isn’t your average guy. We’ll explain later.”
“You’re taking a lot of risk with Bucky,” Steve said. “With yourself, I mean. Why?”
“Because I might not be my dad’s kind of patriot but I still believe in protecting the American warfighter, Steve, and that’s exactly what you and Bucky Barnes are. It doesn’t matter that your war ended before I was born. Barnes got fucked over, and I’m not okay with that. My old man would’ve burned down a lot of shit if he’d known. He’d have searched for Barnes if he’d thought for a minute he was alive. I know that.”
“Howard was a good man,” Steve said quietly. “A little…arrogant but good. Can you tell me what happened to Peggy? I asked Dr. Yinsen, but he didn’t seem to know.”
“Peggy Carter.” Tony took a deep breath. “Currently she’s in Switzerland undergoing treatment for a condition called Alzheimer’s. The war ended in May of 1945 with Germany’s surrender. Eventually, she helped create SHIELD with my father, and she married. There were two children—a girl and a boy. All of their names are secured due to Peggy’s work with SHIELD. She didn’t want her family to be targets for her enemies. I do know that her husband also served in the Allied Forces during the war and that you saved him near the end of the war in Germany when the battalion he was serving in was being blockaded by HYDRA. She said once in an interview that it was just one more way you’d had an impact on her life. I chatted with her a few months ago when I helped her move to Switzerland for treatment. I’m honestly not sure how seeing you would impact her.”
“I wouldn’t want to cause her pain,” Steve said. “Or make her remember things that are best left forgotten. I’m glad…I’m glad she had a good life. She deserves peace now above anything else.” Steve cleared his throat and focused on the screen. “Tell me how he was tortured.”
“Mental conditioning for a start. HYDRA also used a machine to erase his memory which would’ve been an excruciating process. He went through that every single time he woke up, and we don’t know how many times they did it to him.”
“Do you know how many people Bucky murdered?”
“Zero,” Tony said, and Steve’s gaze jerked to meet his. “Your friend, Bucky Barnes, has never murdered anyone. The Winter Soldier killed hundreds—the records are spotty at best. HYDRA doesn’t care about collateral damage as long as the target is taken out. There were mass bombings and killings over the last few decades that can be attributed to their operations.”
“The brainwashing was that complete?”
“His memories will be jumbled up regarding his actions as the Winter Soldier based on the data we’ve gathered already. He never retained the training they gave him completely, so they had to wipe him repeatedly. There are notes in the scientific data that indicate that you were consistently a trigger for him.”
“A trigger?” Steve questioned with a frown.
“Your name and image cause the Winter Soldier to remember who he really is. They never managed to erase you from Bucky’s mind—not completely or permanently. I believe we can get him back, but it’s going to be a lot of work.”
“I’m not afraid of work,” Steve said and took a deep breath. “And I appear to have a lot of time on my hands.” He cleared his throat. “What about HYDRA?”
“I’m passing most of the information off to various parties as needed, but there are circumstances and situations that I don’t think anyone needs access to. In those cases, I took matters into my own hands.”
Steve nodded. “Future plans?”
“Unsure,” Tony admitted. “I don’t want to go to war with HYDRA, but I’ve already stuck my foot in it a bit with you and Barnes.”
“You take care of Bucky, and if HYDRA comes our way, I’ll take care of them,” Steve said evenly. “One way or another.”
Tony stood. “Get back on your feet, and I’ll show you something fun that will make that particular fight a bit more even.”
* * * *
“Apparently, you’re down to Earth and lovely,” Tony said and raised an eyebrow at Nebula who glared at him. He waved his phone. “Also, you’re gracious and unaffected by the Stark wealth.”
“Bah.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “There are a whole bunch of pictures of Betty and me eating cookies like it’s some kind of thing.”
Tony snorted. “Yes, apparently that bakery has business around the corner right now because you went back for a third peanut butter cookie.”
“Humans are ridiculous,” Nebula said. “Also, I want more cookies, but the line is outrageous.”
Tony snorted. “I can send someone out for them.”
She hesitated. “Well, as long as they wait in line like everyone else. Peanut butter for me and Betty liked the chocolate chip ones.”
Tony sent a message to Happy who would delegate the task for him. He got a confirmation almost immediately and put his phone down.
“You spoke with Rogers.”
“He’s…” Tony took a deep breath. “Christ, he’s gullible as fuck. I don’t know if it’s because of my relation to Howard or just because he desperately needs to trust us due to the circumstances, but he’s vulnerable and would be easy as hell to manipulate. I can’t imagine what SHIELD did with that in the first timeline.”
“Fed him all of their propaganda,” Loki surmised and set aside his tablet. “You said they tried to create a fake reality for him first, but he saw through it. I’m sure that was just the first stage of the manipulation they had planned for him. You said they also planted an agent in his apartment building to keep track of him.”
“Yes, Peggy Carter’s niece,” Tony murmured. “Sharon Carter—she’s probably still in college at this point. They used her as a honey trap of sorts, but I don’t know if Steve actually fell for that part of it. I never asked. I know that Fury used Natasha to wrangle Steve and Bruce at various points.”
“Wrangle is an interesting term to use,” Loki said. “She seduced them both?”
“No, she only seduced Bruce, and I always figured that was so she could control Hulk. It was well known that Hulk was prone to protecting Bruce’s intimate partners,” Tony said. “I should’ve said something then, but Bruce…” He sighed. “It was a delicate balance with him and Hulk, who came out raging 90% of the time.”
“There’s no point in focusing on what happened then since we’ve taken steps to keep that woman away from us,” Nebula said. “We just need to keep Rogers on an even keel until he can stand on his own feet and navigate his current environment well enough that he can’t be easily manipulated.”
“That might be easier said than done,” Tony said roughly.
“Technology has changed, but human nature is quite static,” Loki said. “Right now, the environment is overwhelming for him, so fix that first. Get him up to speed on the new world he’s being forced to live in and focus him on helping Barnes. His entire demeanor changed when you revealed Barnes. He’s a soldier, so let’s keep him focused on Barnes as a personal mission. The biggest factor is keeping SHIELD and various government agencies at bay while we do this.”
“That’s why lawyers exist.”
* * * *