A/N: I am slowly picking up the pieces from my earlier hard drive crash, though I seem to spending more time in avoidance. One venue of avoidance happens to be the Avengers (thank you for that, Marvel and Joss Whedon). This fic is a sequel to Before the Dawn, but reading that isn't necessary to understand what's going on here.
Disclaimer: I do not own the Avengers. That right belongs to Marvel.
With that out of the way, please, read and enjoy!
Clint never does get to put an arrow through Loki's eye socket, settling for having him shackled and knocked out by his brother. Thor hesitates slightly before handing him over to SHIELD, until Fury reassures him that Loki and the Tesseract will return to Asgard with him. Tony hovers over a groggy Bruce, snapping and snarking at the SHIELD medic who wants to take him back to the Helicarrier for "observation."
Yeah, not on his life, buddy.
Bruce is supposed to be free to leave, not held for study by shady secret supranational organizations with too many words in their name. Even if Tony would very much like him to stay, the point is, now that the threat is over, nobody should be telling Bruce to do much of anything.
Bruce puts a tired hand on Tony's elbow, saying, "Tony, relax. I'm fine, Dr. Cartwright, there's no need to take me back to the Helicarrier."
"There, see, we're good," Tony says briskly, shooing the medic away, "Chop, chop, people, look alive, I want shawarma before the first responders get back and we have to deal with the press. Banner, come on, I'll get you a shirt that doesn't look like Goodwill rejected it."
"I'm pretty partial to your couch, actually," Clint drawls from his position, sprawled across one of the waiting couches in the Stark Tower lobby. His head is in Natasha's lap, and she calmly cleans out her gun above him.
"Pretty sure the couch isn't what you're partial to-"
"More importantly, Mr. Stark," Fury cuts in, before Natasha decides to use her gun on the aggravating billionaire, "You need to debrief."
"Debrief after food."
"Fury," Tony huffs, "By now, the news crew and cell phone videographers will have realized that we're not being invaded by space whales anymore. We have half an hour, at most, an hour before the city's state of emergency lifts, and the first responders and press start swarming the area."
"All the more reason to debrief now, so you can get your stories straight before facing the cameras," Fury counters.
"Is anyone else bothered by the fact that it's a foregone conclusion that we're going to be in front of the cameras?" Clint murmurs, looking up.
Natasha gives him a small smile, saying idly, "I always forget how talkative you are when tired."
"I think Stark has a point, Director," Steve says, coming up behind Tony, and all attention shifts to him. "It's been a long day, and we could use some time to cool down and replenish our strength – as a team. Especially if we're going to have to face down the press, which, as far as I can tell, has only gotten meaner since my day."
"My inner five-year-old is shrieking with glee right now," Tony deadpans, "Glad we're all agreed. Come on, Bruce, shirt, and possibly some pants, you're about my size. Cap – never mind, stay in your suit, not only do I not own anything in size super-mega-XL, the last thing we need is you in front of reporters wearing things that would give my grandmother nightmares. Thor and Selvig should be coming back down with the dismantled portal generator right about now, anyway – please don't put the Glitter Cube on my receptionist's table, the touchscreen doesn't react well to unidentified objects."
Selvig opens up the briefcase to house the Tesseract, and Thor places the cube back in. Apparently, the Aesir don't get their skin burned off like everyone else for touching the cube.
Tony keeps up a constant stream of chatter as he ushers the Avengers out to eat, threatening to physically drag Clint up in one breath, and ordering JARVIS to call Pepper in the next. Somewhere in there, there's a discussion about the stock market, federal aviation regulations, at least two different languages, and a promise to fund the shawarma restaurant's owner's daughter's education, all the way to college.
It ends with a rush of "Oh my God, warm food, this is the most delicious thing I have ever eaten" and all that's left are quiet sounds of them chewing, and the owner sweeping in the background.
The near silence makes the thoughts swirling inside their heads louder – has it really been barely and hour since they saved the world? Since Iron Man flew a nuke into space, with no guarantee that he'd come back? Has it really been not even a day since Clint got his own mind back, after attacking and nearly crashing the Helicarrier?
Since Phil Coulson died?
Tony's chatter had given them an escape, and maybe that was his plan all along, but as they quietly, tiredly, make their way through their food, their thoughts turn to the fallen, to the aftermath of battle.
Tony's fingers twitch as he mentally reviews all the checks he's going to be signing for the Maria Stark Foundation to send out into the recovery effort, and the paperwork that's going to come with rebuilding Stark Tower. The Board of Directors gets tetchy whenever he crosses the three million mark – admittedly better than the days they threatened him with an injunction when he crossed the one million mark – but if he can get Reed and Pym to pitch in when they get back from their silly interdimensional nonsense – not so silly now, he just flew to the other end of space without even leaving Earth's atmosphere – they can get the city back on its feet soon enough.
Clean-up's still going to be a pain, though.
There'll be a storm of press conferences and interviews to deal with if they don't want this falling back on them for all the destruction, they need to get ahead of it, control it. Thor looks good in front of a camera, powerful, stately, blond. Shakespeare notwithstanding, he should be able to speak semi-intelligently, being the heir to an alien nation. Loki's probably better, is the 'Silvertongue' myths are anything to go by – thank God for the muzzle Thor clapped on him.
Speaking of the muzzle, he wonders how much it would take for the Asgardians to give him a sample. If methril existed, that would be it, and a metal that was nigh indestructible and still be light enough to carry at two cubic feet would make for some excellent armor, and there was the whole impossible-to-lift by anyone else thing. And the conductive properties…
"JARVIS, make a note, biometric sensors, reopen the files on the nanocircuits," Tony mutters in between bites.
"The hammer?" Bruce murmurs with a faint smile, and Tony can see the same burning desire to study, to examine, to know in his eyes. Thor glances over with a careful, guarded expression in his eyes. Tony feels approval stirring in his chest, gotta guard your tech. Especially tech that could be used to kill, he's learned that the hard way.
"That is a fascinating piece of equipment," Tony agrees easily, "But a hammer's not really my style. Lacks… an element of finesse."
Thor snorts under his breath, a wistful and amused expression flickering across his face. Someone else had made the same comment before, then. Loki, probably. Speaking of…
"So what exactly is the plan to get Loki home?" he asks Thor, "Because I'm thinking Central Park would be a good place for a send off, plenty of light, clear view-"
"Are you seriously trying to turn that into a photo-op?!" Rogers sounds like he doesn't know whether to be flabbergasted or repulsed.
Tony bets he's leaning towards the latter.
"I'm sorry, what were you doing for the first half of the war, again?"
Rogers rears back slightly in affront. "I was working for the Army boosting morale and increasing revenue for the War effort."
"And what exactly do you think seeing the one responsible for bringing aliens to ravage the city bound and removed from the planet with his tail between his legs before he can wreak any more havoc is going to do for the people of New York? A damn sight more than punching a knock-off on a stage, that's for sure."
Natasha's eyes are on Bruce, careful and wary, as the scientist himself looks between Tony and Steve with tired amusement.
"You know," Bruce cuts in, and both Tony and Steve immediately fall silent to listen to him, "Loki is Thor's brother. And we did say he had the final word on his brother's… punishment."
All heads turn to Thor, who looks uncomfortable for the briefest portion of a second, before his princely aura ramps up. "While I would not hold with unbridled humiliation of a fellow Asgardian, let alone my brother, it would not be… remiss, for the people of Midgard to see their protectors expel their foe. It would gladden the hearts of many, I imagine."
Tony's eyes light up, and one corner of his lips lifts up. "I knew you were my favorite Norse god for a reason!"
Thor's muttered retort of "I'm sure I was" only makes him grin brighter.
"So, I'm thinking Central Park – how soon can you get transport set up?"
"I was sent here with a spell, but the Tesseract's power would be a much simpler route."
"See, now, that's going to take paperwork, pushes back the timeline a bit. Probably a better impact, though, once reconstruction's in full swing. So how does it work, flashing lights, Voice of God…?"
"I know you said he runs on batteries, Nat," Clint says as Thor and Tony fall into conversation, "You never said he was the damn Energizer Bunny."
Natasha looks speculatively at Tony, whose grin turns a lot more shark-like. "What can I say, I do my best work when I'm not being poisoned to death."
Natasha doesn't tense, but her movements become more controlled as she eats. Tony's already turned back to plotting out logistics with Thor.
Bruce was right, they're not a team. Not yet. There are still too many sharp edges between them, still too much ego and mistrust. But as she watches Tony shove a platter of falafel at Steve barely an instant after his fingers scrabble at his own empty plate, she thinks that someday, they might be.
The conversation dies down again, and the silence returns as everyone picks at the last of their food. Thor is still going strong, but Steve stares blankly at the food in front of him, while Clint and Natasha munch on a few chips. Tony wipes his mouth and leans back, drumming his fingers on his thigh in a patter Bruce may or may not recognize, based on the quirking of one eyebrow.
There's almost awkward stillness, as everyone does their level best not to think, to slip into a mindless haze of exhaustion and satiation.
Everyone except Tony, who sits up sharply, just as a feminine voice raps out, "Anthony Edward Stark!"
An expression of sheer and open joy flickers across Tony's face for an instant, before he bolts out of his seat and darts to the door.
A slim redhead in a white suit and a dark-skinned man in combat fatigues stand at the door – Virginia "Pepper" Potts, and James "Rhodey" Rhodes.
"Oh my God, Tony-"
"Hey, I'm okay, Pepper, look-"
" – the phone was right there, by my elbow-"
" – alive, all systems normal, I'm fine-"
" – and I was so worried, watching the news-"
" – no harm, no foul, you're okay-"
" – and I almost didn't get to say-"
" – and that's what matters, in the end-"
" – what were you thinking, Tony-"
" – that you're safe, New York's safe, and everyone's happy."
Pepper's hands are fisted on Tony's sleeve, above his biceps, and his arms are around her waist.
"… Happy," Pepper echoes, because really, what else can she say in the face of Tony's declaration?
"Your eyes are red," Tony blurts out.
Pepper's lips twitch, and she explains, "Well, my boyfriend just died, without saying goodbye."
"Sounds terribly inconsiderate of him. I bet he tried, though."
Pepper's eyes grow wet and she blinks, leaning into Tony. "I'm just glad he's back. He owes me a building."
Tony huffs a laugh, and Pepper feels it vibrate through his chest. "Oh, there it is. Very subtle, Potts."
"I told you it wouldn't be."
Tony turns to the second newcomer with a grin, shifting Pepper in his embrace. "Rhodey! How was Uzbekistan?"
The dark-skinned man huffs, replying, "Uzbekistan was fine. The flight back from Uzbekistan when your Will starts scrolling across my HUD?"
Rhodey reaches out and punches Tony's shoulder. "Not so much."
Tony winces slightly, more from the pain that shoots down his arm than from anything regret. "But I'm fine now, see, Rhodey? Alive and kicking, you might say I'm like -"
"If you say 'Jesus' I will actually beat you up."
" – Maybe Lazarus, then, since Jesus was the one to bring him back – Hey, that'd make Bruce my own personal -"
"Tony, stop talking," Pepper cuts in with fond exasperation.
Tony smirks. "Why don't you make m-mmm…"
Rhodey rolls his eyes. "Seals fighting over a grape."
Pepper and Tony break apart, with Pepper rolling her eyes, and Tony throwing an arm around Rhodey's shoulder. The soldier's arm goes around Tony's back, bracing himself as the engineer turns and drags them back to the team, who have been watching them with amusement.
"Avengers, I'd like you to meet my best friend and the best man I know -"
"You're not off the hook."
" – Worth a try, Lt. Col. James Rupert Rhodes."
"Call me Rhodey," the soldier replies, rolling his eyes, "And don't listen to a word this idiot says."
"Excuse me, genius here, certified by MENSA, too."
"Tony, even I pass their IQ threshold."
Rhodey's gaze flicks over the assembled team as Tony babbles in his ear about unappreciated genius – it's an old argument, one he could hold in his sleep. He's more interested in the men and woman who fought beside Tony to save the city from invasion.
Captain America catches his eye first, tall and blond and Rhodey knows Tony's issues are going to rear their ugly heads with a vengeance. He's flanked on one side by Thor, the supposed alien-demigod-God of Thunder – the story behind that one is probably outrageous – and two SHIELD Agents. He recognizes one of them, who served as Tony and Pepper's PA during the palladium debacle. She's one to keep an eye on, especially if Captain America's already around setting Tony on edge. The last one at the table is Dr. Bruce Banner, dressed surprisingly well for someone who's been living off the grid for nearly a year –
Rhodey looks at Bruce for a longer moment, and then looks back at his friend. "Tony. We talked about this."
"What?" Tony retorts, dropping his previous argument.
"You are not allowed to kidnap your favorite scientists, Tony," Rhodey replies patiently.
Bruce, Clint, and Steve sputter, while Natasha exchanges a look with Thor because really? This was something the two had actually discussed?
"I didn't kidnap him! Bruce, did I kid-"
"He's wearing your clothes, Tony."
"I wasn't kidnapped," Bruce assures, trying and failing to suppress an amused grin, "Is that something I should be worried about?"
"You weren't there for his fanboy phase," Rhodey replies dryly over Tony's protests, "You should have heard him when Richards first appeared, he would not stop-"
"Oh, this is payback, isn't it? Whatever it is, I didn't do it. Pepper, back me up here, I've been good-"
Pepper simply grins mischievously and looks over the rest of the gathered Avengers. Her shirt is tight from where Tony's gripping it, his knuckles white. The fist on Rhodey's collar is the same. She and Rhodey aren't faring much better; one of her arms is around Tony's neck, and the other hand rests on his chest, the heel of her palm pressed against the reactor, with her fingertips hooked on the hollow of his throat. Rhodey's arm is around Tony's back, just under hers, and the other rests on top of Tony's fist.
Their Tony, theirs, has just come back from the dead. The legitimate dead, where his heart stopped for nearly a full minute, where there was no power to the reactor in body for long enough that JARVIS executed death protocols, and only a miracle brought him back. They're allowed to be clingy.
She's allowed to mistrust the Avengers.
Dr. Banner she worries about less than she probably should, given that the man is wearing Tony's clothes. But Captain America? Natasha Romanoff? Yeah, they're not getting near Tony unsupervised. Thor and the other SHIELD Agent, she'll withhold judgment on.
"Regardless," Rhodey says, extricating himself from his best friend's grasp and striding over to Bruce, "It's an honor to meet you, Dr. Banner."
Bruce blinks, surprised, but shakes the soldier's hand anyway. "Ah, thanks. You've read my work?"
"Only some," Rhodey admits, "I'm more of a hard engineering guy. Mostly, I listen to Tony babble about how, and what was it you said, Tony, 'stunningly brilliant, like reading poetry about space radiation'?"
Tony grins unrepentantly from his position wrapped around Pepper. "Oh, I said a lot more than that."
"Boys," Pepper cuts in, "We don't have much time."
Rhodey nods. "Right, we came down to warn you – the press is on its way. And someone in SHIELD has a big mouth…"
"They already have rumors about Phil," Pepper says quietly, and a hiss of pain and shock echoes around the table.
"Damn it," Clint swears, his knuckles turning white as he clutches the edge of the table. Natasha grabs his elbow, her face an implacable mask.
Tony steps away from Pepper, squaring his shoulders. "Guess it's show time, then. How much longer do we have?"
Pepper glances down at her tablet. "About ten minutes. You weren't as subtle getting here as you could have been."
Tony snorts. "What, with Captain America and Lightning Rod over here, I'm surprised we lasted this long. Come on, people, we've still got work to."
Steve pushes back his chair and stands, saying wryly, "It ain't over 'til the Fat Lady sings, right?"
Thor's bemused "A female skald will be in attendance?" is overridden by Tony's gleeful "1978, Cap? Color me impressed, that's a news story right there!" and the scrape of chairs as the Avengers rouse themselves.
"Tashakor," Tony calls out to the owners in the back of the restaurant as he ushers the Avengers out, following up with a string of what sounds like gibberish.
"He's thanking them for the food," Natasha explains, "And something about payment."
"Look, Tony, I'm sure you and the Captain will have no problem dealing with the press," Bruce points out, lagging behind and looking around for alleyways to duck into, "But the Other Guy… the Hulk doesn't tend to get a very good reception."
"Actually," Pepper replies, "Current popularity polls rank the Hulk as the third most popular Avenger, tied with Thor, and lagging behind Captain America and Iron Man, at first and second. Twitter does give the Hulk an edge, though."
"What?!" Tony squawks in outrage as Steve snorts, "Stars and Stripes is beating me? That's not right at all!"
"He's been a national icon for seventy years, you've been one for about two."
"International, thank you, and he's been a fro-"
"Incoming at ten o'clock," Rhodey warns, dropping back with Pepper as Tony and Steve step forward to meet the reporters.
Tony grins and claps Bruce and Clint on the back.
"Stand up straight and smile. We're the Avengers, Earth's Mightiest Heroes."
A/N: Tashakor means "Thank you" in Dari, one of the national languages of Afghanistan. And as far as I've researched, they eat shawarma there, too.
A "skald" is an Old Norse poet. I'm choosing to say what we interpret as "Shakespeare in the park" is just the English translation of Old Norse. Which isn't too far off the mark, as far as I've read.
This originally started as an excuse for Pepper and Rhodey to come back and reunite with/yell at Tony for a bit. It grew into something much more.
So, thoughts? Please, leave a review!