A/N: This chapter took longer to write than possibly any chapter of anything I've ever written. I've had long hiatuses, but never with so much actual continued work. Hopefully it's worth the wait, and I deeply appreciate every review and favorite I've received. You all rock!

Also, I've gone back and done some edits to chapters 3 on to make the timeline match up with the MCU timeline. I had only a few months between Thor and Avengers and it was actually a full year, with Avengers taking place from May1-4th, 2012. So everything should line up now.


~x~


other than a dream, had nothing to lose

(In which there is paperwork, reunions, and friendships to build.)

~x~

After she finishes her coffee and feels more alive again, she waves Tony and Bruce off to the lab and goes back to her room to tackle the rest of her to-do list. She texts Kyle and Maria to assure them that she's still alive, and to try and arrange a time for a skype call. She wants to make sure Tony is available when they are as she doesn't think they'll believe her without him. She also wants to see their faces when Tony fucking Stark pops up in their video chat.

After sending those off, she tackles her e-mail. She replies to the ones from Brown, asking them to hold off on sending over her final transcripts to the University of Tromsø, and e-mails the University of Tromsø to withdraw her attendance. After that she tracks down an e-mail for a transfer advisor at Columbia and shoots off a formal request for transfer information for the fall semester if she's still eligible, which she doubts given that most programs have finalized their admissions by the beginning of summer, and the spring semester if she's not.

She's willing to take a semester off if need be - it's not like she won't be learning, from Jane and Bruce and Tony, and time to settle into the Tower and the whole team of superheroes thing without the pressure of maintaining her more than perfect grade point average would probably be a good thing.

Looking up volunteer work can wait until later; today she wants to stay close to Tony, just in case, and be here for when Jane and the others arrive. When she rises to her feet, she feels a little dizzy and adds keeping an eye on herself to the list. Maybe a nap is in order later.

She heads to the elevator and asks Jarvis to take her to whichever lab Tony and Bruce are hanging out in. They're in Tony's, and the moment the doors slide open she is nearly rocked back by the pounding bass of what is unmistakeably Metallica. She swallows against the painful reminder of Michael and steps into the room, eyes scanning for the two mad scientists lurking somewhere in the gleaming wonderland of technology.

Bruce and Tony are standing shoulder to shoulder, their backs to her, as Tony manipulates a holographic schematic. Bruce occasionally reaches forward to point to things, or once, to flick something away, earning a combination glare-grin from Tony.

She recognizes a mock-up of the small craft the Chitauri used and steps closer. "I could devote the rest of my life to studying those things," she says, and grins as Tony and Bruce both snap their heads around. "What are you guys doing?"

"Discussing whether or not the Chitauri were a purely biological, or mechanically engineered species," Bruce answers her, his eyes penetrating as he scans her, his inner doctor apparently satisfied with what he sees as he gives her a small smile.

"I'm arguing in favor of machine based, of course," Tony says with a bright grin. "And I will be proven right when the Mayor's office ships over the remains I negotiated for."

"They are definitely biological, just possibly a biology that evolved a metal like substance," Bruce disagrees with a fond frown in Tony's direction.

"Could be biology reinforced with armor," Liz interjects, reaching up a hand to gently poke at the holographic images hovering in the air. They shift at her touch and she smiles. The Tower is unbelievably cool.

Tony is frowning and Liz shoots him a sly grin. "However, the way they shut down so instantly after you blew up the mothership definitely implies some kind of biological/mechanical relationship."

"Hive mind?" Bruce suggests while Tony grins back at her.

"Maybe," Liz says, wishing briefly that she'd bothered to connect with one of the Chitauri while she had the chance. Tapping into a potential hive mind would have been a fascinating experience. And dangerous. But she thinks the fascination would have won out if she'd had time to consider it. "That doesn't explain the lights in their weapons going out too though. It was like a switch had been flipped when they all dropped."

"Maybe they need a power source to exist outside of space?" Tony muses, "Or they were tied to the Tesseract somehow and it wasn't the bomb, but the portal closing that shut them down."

"Probably some combination of the above - a hive or overmind, combined with either a power source on the mothership or a connection to the Tesseract," Bruce says and Liz shoots an eager glance at Tony.

"So, when is that stuff supposed to get here?"

He chuckles. "Not soon enough. In the meantime, let's do something about Mr. Nudist over here."

Bruce shakes his head and Liz laughs. Her new job is going to be so much fun.

Hours later, Jarvis interrupts them by the simple expedient of turning off the music, now blaring Hells Bells. Tony scowls at the nearest screen. "What's up, J? And it had better not be another damn reporter."

"No sir," Jarvis replies with clear amusement. "But I thought you might like to know that Agent Coulson is on his way with Dr. Foster and her companions."

Liz brightens and stops rocking precariously on her stool, jumping to her feet. "Awesome! I can't wait to see their faces. And I'll finally have stuff again."

"I don't know, I like what you've done with your shirt," Tony says with a grin as he pushes away the hologram of the polymer they've been working on.

Liz preens as she brushes her finger against the royal blue material she'd altered that morning. "It's the first in a line of Jarvis themed products. He's going to be more popular than you when I'm done," she says with a teasing wink.

"Impossible," Tony asserts cockily. "Besides, I created him, so any of his fans are automatically my fans too."

Bruce chuckles and shakes his head. "Can we continue this discussion in the elevator? I would like to meet Dr. Foster. Her last published paper was brilliant." His lips quirk slyly as he glances between her and Tony. "Maybe she'll provide some sanity for our little scientific community."

Tony sticks his tongue out at Bruce and Liz bursts out laughing. "Oh my god, that's hilarious. Jane is worse than Tony when it comes to not sleeping, and she tried to microwave a potted plant once when she was in one of her research fugues. Darcy is the sane one in our little family. And that is terrifying on a level you will come to regret understanding."

Bruce sighs, although his eyes are twinkling, and Tony grins. "She sounds perfect. We're going to give Fury an aneurysm; this is going to be awesome."

Liz grins in complete agreement and resists the urge to visibly bounce during the walk to the elevator and the ride back to the communal floor. They reach it before Jane and the others do and Liz amuses Bruce and Tony by surrendering her self-control and dancing in place in front of the elevator as she waits for them to arrive.

When they do, Agent Coulson wisely steps out and to the side as a blonde and brunette whirlwind descend on Liz, laughter and hugs and babble and a few tears ensuing as Jane watches with a fond smile before being pulled in by Liz for her own share of the affectionate reunion. When they all finally pull away, Ava is watching Coulson, Darcy is staring around the room in awe, and Jane is already halfway toward Bruce and Tony, hero worship and science pouring out of her mouth in equal measure.

Liz chuckles and follows, not sure if it's to be a mediator or a spectator. Tony is grinning and Bruce is blushing until Jane asks about the portal, and then Tony is opening a screen on a nearby window, causing a brief detour in the conversation as Jane demands technical details, before he has Jarvis display the video from his suit of the portal opening. Jane's words are no longer intelligible to those with less than three doctorate degrees and Liz shakes her head fondly before turning back to Ava and Darcy and Coulson, who has already claimed the kitchen table and covered it in sheets of neatly typewritten white paper, all stamped with the SHIELD logo.

Scrunching her nose up in distaste, Liz reluctantly takes a seat at the table and stares at the reams of forms while her wrist twinges in anticipation. "Have they worked up a gone-villain plan for you yet? Or is it too late?" she asks Coulson with a raised eyebrow. His answering smile is as bland as it was back in New Mexico and she sighs. "Definitely too late."

Darcy joins them after being summoned by a crooked finger that is impossible to resist, but Ava hops onto the counter by the coffee machine and shakes her head when Coulson raises his eyebrow in question. "No papers for me, G-man. I don't exist and neither do any secrets I may or may not know, capische?"

Her words aren't really a question and Coulson nods after a long moment of eye contact that has Liz once again questioning when she became acquainted with so many people perfectly capable of burning the world to the ground.

"Very well." He turns toward Liz and Darcy, sitting side by side, and hands them each a pen and a stack of papers. "Initial where indicated and sign at the bottom. Do not date, these have always been and will always be in effect."

Liz chokes off a laugh, but doesn't argue. The papers, and her signature, mean nothing. She's pretty sure Coulson knows that and is only doing this for the peace of mind of people way above all of them in the chain of command. She's sure they're also way above such petty concerns as reality and the likelihood of any member of their band of heroes and misfits giving a flying fuck about words on paper that try to define and delineate the parameters of their existence.

Despite that fact, she still commits every word of every page to memory, and half-hopes that Jarvis is also recording all of it with the cameras she's sure are just about everywhere in the tower. She only thinks just about because she has a feeling Tony might have one or two deadzones in case he needs to do something that no one could ever find a video file of.

Most of it is standard bureaucratic bullshit, hardly different from what she would have signed had she been hired by a traditional company, except perhaps in quantity, but there are a few things of interest - references to acronyms and events and scenarios that give her an idea of just how big picture SHIELD really is. She resolves to devote some of her rapidly shrinking free time to learning more about this World Security Council she doesn't remember having any say in or knowledge of before New York and a nuclear bomb.

Finally, they are done, and she is flexing her fingers with a grimace as Coulson collects the papers with silent efficiency before staring at her with a telling eye flick toward the three scientists still babbling across the room.

Liz sighs and then looks toward the ceiling. "Jarvis?" He doesn't respond, but a moment later there is irritated muttering interspersed with curses from the trio as their screen shuts off and Liz whistles, drawing their attention. "Your turn for hand cramps, oh genius friends of mine."

Jane frowns mutinously, most likely at the interruption to science rather than anything else, but Tony shakes his head with a smile that's all teeth and finely honed arrogance. "I sign nothing that Pepper hasn't approved first, and neither does Big Green here."

There is another staring contest and Coulson once again nods, before turning to face Jane and holding out a stack of forms. She heaves a sigh, but keeps her protest to barely audible mutterings as she drops into a chair and starts reading.

Liz stands, pulling Darcy up with her, and ignores Coulson to look at Tony and Bruce. "I assume you three will continue playtime after she's done; mind if I show Darcy and Ava to the empty room next to mine and maybe give them a small tour?"

Tony shakes his head, grin widening into something with less teeth and more warmth. "Tour away! Just not my bedroom; Pepper will get mad at me if I let someone see our toy collection. Again."

Bruce flushes, Ava makes a choking noise, and Darcy laughs delightedly. "Dude, you're officially my favorite superhero. Other than Liz of course."

Liz grins as Tony preens. "You, my dear, are welcome to explore my liquor collection. And not just the cheap stuff."

"Sweet," Darcy says, reaching out to pull Ava off the counter. "Come on, Lightning Liz, let's rock this place."

Tony looks torn between amusement and a faint hint of dismay at what he might have unleashed and Liz laughs softly before accepting Darcy's free hand. Bruce tilts his head at her, a tiny mischievous smile twitching his lips. "You're not going to join us for playtime?"

Her brain goes to very, very bad places, and Liz fights a blush as she shakes her head. "Maybe later, Jane needs some quality time with brains as big and educated as hers." She raises the hand linked with Darcy's. "And someone needs to keep this one from breaking the rest of the tower."

Bruce nods with another blink and you miss it smile, but doesn't speak, and Liz feels a little wriggle of excitement in her stomach at the barest hint of disappointment she can see in his steady brown eyes before he looks away. Darcy squeezes her hand and Liz knows there will be questions later, but shoves that thought, and all feelings, down into a deep dark hole and leads Darcy and Ava down the hallway toward the bedrooms and away from the brilliant brains behind them.

As soon as they're out of hearing range, Darcy turns to look at her with a sharp gaze and Liz shoots Ava a desperate glance. The blonde laughs, but obligingly distracts her girlfriend with the simple tactic of pulling her over for a kiss that quickly turns enthusiastic enough to have Liz blushing and giggling at the thought of Tony's pout at having missed this part of the tour.

Eventually Darcy pulls away, though not without a retaliatory and appreciative pinch of her girlfriend's ass that makes Ava squeak endearingly. "You will not distract me so easily, missy," the brunette says, waving a finger at Liz, who just grins and pushes open the door to the bedroom next to hers.

"Look! Your new home until Tony and Pepper finish the reconstruction."

Ava shakes her head in clear amusement at Liz's refusal to surrender and Darcy wraps surprisingly strong fingers around Liz's wrist, dragging her and the blonde into the bedroom and then closing the door and leaning against it to prevent Liz from leaving. "Spill. There's a gorgeous older man flirting with you and it's not even the billionaire known for, you know, sleeping with everything in sight. I want to know everything."

Liz scrunches up her face in silent protest, but then lets out a loud sigh and collapses on the bed that's identical to the one in her room. "He's brilliant. I've been reading his papers since before high school and it should be creepy, but," she shrugs helplessly. "He's even smarter than I thought, and secretly funny, and has some serious anger issues. Like, giant, green, alien spaceship smashing anger issues and…" she trails off, noting the raised eyebrows on Darcy's face and the lack of them on Ava's. "He is gorgeous and he has no idea."

Ava chuckles and Darcy shakes her head, hands on her hips as she fixes Liz with a mocking stare. "You realize you just basically quoted a pop song that I've heard you give hour long rants about, right?"

Liz scowls. No she didn't. "They're fetishizing self-esteem issues, first of all. He doesn't have self-esteem issues, he has rage monster issues. And secondly I'm not attracted to him because of those issues, I'm attracted to him because of the fact that he doesn't let those issues stop him from living or taking chances or saving the world."

"So, this is more than just wanting to tug on those curls while riding him then?" Darcy asks slyly and Liz huffs despite the rising flush on her cheeks, irritated at herself for saying things she hadn't even let herself think too deeply about. She refuses to get all twitterpated over someone she's connected with again - the last time didn't work out so well for anybody.

Except for maybe the world.

Wow, well there's a new thought for her to ponder. Not that she cares, she'd sacrifice the planet to have Alex back.

She groans and lets herself fall backward onto the mattress. Being a grown-up is hard.

The bed dips down as Darcy and Ava join her, one on either side, and Ava pulls gently on a strand of her hair. "I think he's a good man, giant monster issues aside, and I'd like to remind you of some advice you gave me about this one," she says, with a smirk in Darcy's direction. Liz looks up at her and Ava smiles. "You are ready, to find someone real again, you're just afraid to admit that. And kind of in the middle of a giant life upheaval, but since that seems to describe every single moment of our lives, I don't think that should be a sticking point."

Liz pulls a pillow down over her face, but nods anyways. Ava's right. She shouldn't let her issues over Max stop her from trying for something real again. She doesn't know if Bruce is that someone; despite similar words to Jane, it has only been four days since she met him after all. But, she shouldn't talk herself out of even liking him just because she's not sure how to find a balance between absolute obsession and the casual attitude she had toward dating and sex for most of college. Not that she regrets those years, or isn't totally fantasizing about riding him right now...

She zaps Darcy for putting those thoughts in her head and laughs into the pillow as the brunette yelps in surprise and topples off the bed.

Liz sits up and leans over the bed with Ava to look at Darcy, laying on her back on the floor, her face scrunched into a weird combination of a laugh and a grimace. "You suck," the brunette proclaims after a minute, then surrenders to the laugh. "Also, that was hilarious."

Ava slides off the bed to join her on the floor, hovering over her with a happy grin before swooping in for a kiss that gives Liz a pang of joy at how well those two have worked out, and another reminder of the strange circles her life seems to move in. She stands up, intending to start the tour that got derailed and ask about their bags, then sways as the dizziness she felt earlier flares up again. "Woah, headrush," she mutters, closing her eyes against the blurring room.

She hears the other two rise to their feet and then Ava is pressing a hand against her forehead before letting loose a soft stream of barely intelligible expletives. "Damn it, Liz, you're the scientist, you know you need to binge on calories after a large energy expenditure."

"I did!" Liz defends herself. "I had an omelet before hand, and a ridiculous coffee and chocolate and whipped cream concoction afterwards."

"And how long has it been since then?" Ava asks pointedly and Liz winces, then shrugs.

"That depends. What time is it?"

Ava doesn't answer, just grabs her hand and tugs her toward the door, forcing Liz to open her eyes or risk a concussion in addition to nutritional deprivation. "Jarvis? Is that your name?" Ava asks as she pulls Liz down the hallway, Darcy following behind and openly giggling.

"Yes, Ms. Ava, how can I be of service?" The AI responds after a moments pause and Liz spares a moment to wonder, not for the first time, if there is more to Ava's name than she knows.

"Where's that supposedly genius creator of yours?"

"In Dr. Banner's lab with Drs. Banner and Foster."

"And how do I get there?"

Liz opens her mouth to protest that A. she could lead them there, and B. she is more than capable of taking care of herself, but Ava shoots her a sharp look that has her closing her mouth and contemplating the likelihood that Pepper was one of the genetic donors for the podsquad. Some forms of intimidation seem innate.

"If you enter the elevator you used to arrive here, I will take you to the appropriate floor."

"Thank you, Jarvis," Ava responds as they walk into the common area, Coulson and his paperwork already gone.

"You are welcome, Ms. Ava," Jarvis says and Liz thinks she should be more worried about the idea of Jarvis teaming up with the terrible twosome corralling her into the elevator than she is capable of being in her current state of lightheadedness.

When they arrive on the floor with Bruce's lab, Ava manhandles her out of the elevator and then stomps her foot on the floor with a small burst of telekinetic power, making all the beakers in the room rattle and catching the attention of the three scientists huddled around a screen hovering in midair, still watching videos of the portal.

"Hey Stark," she calls, when the three turn to see what made the room shake. "You need to take better care of your heart surgeon. Come buy us lunch before she actually passes out and we have to get calories into her in a more unpleasant way."

The three of them exchange glances Liz can't read at this distance, not with her vision still blurred around the edges, before hurrying toward them, matching expressions of concern on their faces. Tony reaches them first and then kind of hovers, vibrating with energy. "Why didn't you say something, Sparky? I would have ordered a five course meal."

Bruce and Jane are next. Bruce automatically reaches out to touch her forehead, his touch not as warm as usual against her flushed skin. Liz still feels tingles though, and has a sinking feeling that she's giving him a dopey smile.

"Because she's like you geniuses," Ava drawls in a tone that implies another word entirely, "And she tends to ignore her bodily needs." She fixes all three of them with a hard stare and Liz is distantly amused by the submissive body language they all display in response. "The things we can do come at a price, even with our Antarian enhanced physiology, and we have to maintain a high caloric intake to match our energy expenditure. Especially Liz, whose body wasn't designed for this like mine."

Tony and Bruce are nodding, fascination clear in their eyes, and Jane looks like she's contemplating the metabolic needs of Asgardians, so it is Darcy who claps her hands and steps forward, ever the practical one as she slips an arm around Liz's waist and raises an eyebrow at the group. "So where are we going to eat?"

Tony grins and herds them toward the elevator. "I know a buffet place that could probably keep up with Thor, think that'll be enough calories for my new favorite doctor?"

Ava nods at Tony with a faint smile that indicates he's on his way to earning her forgiveness, but Liz frowns. "I don't remember going to med school," she mutters, honestly not sure if she's being sarcastic or not, but everyone ignores her. She's going to start carrying around power bars if it means avoiding this embarrassment in the future.

She doesn't process much of the ensuing elevator ride, or limo ride, just flashes of conversation, the warmth of Darcy and Ava on either side of her, the weight of Bruce's gaze, and the edge to Tony's voice that shows the concern he'd never give words to.

When they arrive, she is placed in a booth with Darcy to keep watch and make sure she doesn't face plant into her coke - and god does she hate soda, but the sugar and caffeine floods her system with welcome energy and clarity. She also hates needing to be babysat; she's never done well with being weak. Darcy knows this and forgives the sharpness of her tone with a knowing eyebrow raise that has Liz flushing and bumping their shoulders together in silent apology.

Ava comes back with plates for all three of them and Liz scoots closer to the wall, making room, even as she stuffs her face with Lo Mein and bites of sugared puff pastry. When she pauses to breathe, it's to let out a happy sigh that's kind of really a moan and she grins unashamedly at the amused faces surrounding her. The food is good, and that's not just her desperation for nutrients talking. She lifts her glass, "A toast to Tony's excellent taste and the entirely too patient women who keep us from killing ourselves."

It comes out a touch more serious than she was intending, but the others politely ignore it to join her toast with bright grins and muted chuckles. Tony's eyes flash in her direction with a hint of the fierceness he'd let her see the night before and Liz tips her glass in his direction, then swallows - this building a family thing isn't going to be nearly as hard as she thought.

Tony has to leave soon after, it's easy to forget that in addition to being a superhero and a brilliant inventor, he's also still the owner and head of R&D of one of the most successful companies in the world, but he pays before he goes and leaves Happy with the limo. It is impossible to forget his generosity, and Liz savors the fact that they get to see a side of him most of the rest of the world can't imagine.

Ava makes her take a nap when they get back to the Tower, and by the time she wakes up, both Tony and Pepper are home and it's time for dinner. "When I can't sleep tonight and end up driving Jarvis to world domination because I won't stop talking to him, I'm blaming you," she tells Ava when she wanders out into the kitchen and finds them ordering pizza.

Ava just laughs at her and Tony raises his head from the tablet he was working on with a grin. "I've kind of always wanted Jarvis to take over the world, can I help?"

"No," Pepper admonishes, not bothering to look up from her own tablet. "I need at least three weeks notice before any world conquering endeavors so I can get the paperwork organized."

"You're too good to me, Potts," Tony says expansively, leaning over to place a kiss on her cheek. Pepper smiles and tangles their fingers together, still not looking up, and Liz grins.

"The World Security Council should be quaking in their boots. They could never make anything secure from you three."

Tony grins smugly and Pepper finally looks up to grace her with a smile that reminds Liz of nothing quite so much as the sight of Natasha with a gun in her hand. "Yes, they should," Pepper says blandly, her tone holding no hint of the fury in her eyes, and Liz knows she's not the only one who wants to know more about the men and women behind a certain nuclear warhead.

There's a moment of silence, stretched tight with things unsaid, and then Liz perks up, bouncing on her toes. "Oh, hey! While you're both here. Want to help me shock the hell out of my best friends?"

Pepper's smile softens into something less dangerous and Tony laughs. "Do you even have to ask?"

Liz bounces again, ignoring the amused smiles on Ava and Darcy's faces (Bruce and Jane are lost to the world as they pore over a tablet together at the kitchen table) and then turns and goes back to her room, grabbing her laptop and returning to the living room where she plops onto the couch next to Tony. She swipes her thumb over the scanner and waits impatiently for the screen to load, and then Skype to open after she clicks on the appropriate icon. Tony makes a face at her use of non-Stark software and she laughs at him.

Only Maria shows as online, but she knows Kyle's with her, so she sends a call request and composes her face into a less manic grin.

There's a familiar boop-boop sound a moment later, and then there are two faces grinning at her. She blinks back sudden tears, realizing it's the first time she's seen them since Sweden. Before she can speak, Maria's gaze flicks to the side and her mouth falls open. "Is that Tony Stark?!" she squeaks, triggering a sudden swivel of Kyle's head.

"Yes it is," Tony said with a cocky smirk as Liz swallows her tears and laughs instead.

"He's my new boss, kind of. And landlord," Liz says, then tilts her head to see around Tony to Pepper. "Or do you hold those titles?"

"I'm twelve percent your landlord," Pepper says with a sharp smile in Tony's direction. "And everyone's boss."

Liz laughs again as Tony pouts, and Maria and Kyle both gape at her. Kyle recovers first, clearing his throat in an attempt at reclaiming his dignity. "So, I was wrong. You still have the power to surprise me, Liz."

"Damn straight," Liz says, still grinning. "Wait until you actually get to see the place in person. I'm thinking Christmas in New York?"

Maria lets out a high pitched shriek of excitement that has Tony and several others in the room wincing. Liz chuckles and stands up, carrying the laptop back to her room to continue the conversation in private after giving Tony and Pepper a wave of gratitude, and the others a grimace of apology.

Her best friend starts babbling at her before she even has her bedroom door open and Liz grins, her eyes burning with tears again, as unmitigated joy wells within her chest. She's not exactly sure when or how it happened, but at some point after her entire world was destroyed, her life became pretty damn awesome.

Everything, everyone she lost still hurts and always will, and old fears about the FBI have been joined by new fears about other faceless, and not so faceless, organizations, but her life is filled with amazing people and she loves each and every one of them.

She gets very few words in edgewise, and Kyle even fewer, but she's reluctant to sign-off when Darcy comes to find her and tell her the pizza's arrived. She does though, with a promise to call again as soon as their schedules allow, and then follows Darcy back out into the common area where the tantalizing scent of fresh, hot pizza is enough to lift her mood again.

She veers toward Bruce, who's standing next to a box of Hawaiian, her favorite, and grins at him as she slips a couple slices onto a plate. "Finally moved out of science-land I see."

He chuckles and gestures toward Jane, who's been cornered by Pepper and is looking a little dazed. "Someone a lot more intimidating than I am, at least in this form, intervened."

"Pepper is definitely the most terrifying person in this Tower," Liz agrees, "Which is probably a good thing."

Bruce nods with a faint chuckle. "Tony's not the only one who needs a keeper."

Liz laughs and shakes her head. Her eyes find Ava making a face at a mushroom-covered slice of pizza Darcy is waving around in front of her. "Good thing we have a few of them now, eh?"

Bruce smiles at her in agreement and Liz breaks eye contact with reluctance. She's well aware of how intense situations can heighten connections - this is not the first group of amazing and unusual people she's bonded with - but her admiration of and genuine growing affection for the man standing beside her, along with her long denied libido, are pushing her toward feelings and actions she's not quite ready for.

Not to mention her deep desire to not terrify Bruce into running for the hills, which she's pretty sure would be inevitable if she gave into the desire to push him up against the fridge and have her way with him.

Instead, she coaxes him over to where Tony has joined Ava and Darcy on the couch. She enjoys their banter, even if she does end up zapping Darcy a few times when her innuendo about Liz and Bruce gets a little too on-point for comfort.

After dinner, Tony disappears to his lab and Pepper is engrossed in her tablet and cell phone. Jane looks exhausted, but wired enough to keep going for hours unless forced to sleep, so after bidding Bruce goodnight, Liz helps Darcy wrangle their boss down the hall toward her room. They let her babble at them, Liz responding to the bits she understands, while undressing her and getting her into bed. She falls asleep almost as soon as they've pulled the blankets up and Darcy gives her a quiet high five as they slip back out of the room.

"So, I'm going to be breaking in our bed with incredibly hot celebratory sex, which means no will notice if you break into a certain genius's room for a little seduction of your own," Darcy tells her, eyes twinkling but tone serious.

Liz rolls her eyes and shoves her down the hall. "I am not seducing anyone. Go have fun with your girlfriend; I'm going to talk to Jarvis about some things."

Darcy wrinkles her nose, still grinning as Liz pushes her toward her room. "I guess you could have like, kind of phone sex with him? Assuming Jarvis swings that way of course," she adds, with a wink toward the ceiling.

"I'm not sure I 'swing' any way at all, Ms. Lewis," Jarvis says archly and Liz laughs as Darcy pouts.

Ava is standing in the doorway to her and Darcy's room, watching them with clear amusement, and Liz gives Darcy one last shove in her direction. "She's all yours."

Ava laughs and reels Darcy in for a kiss, then grins at Liz over her girlfriend's shoulder. "Enjoy the peace while it lasts."

Darcy stiffens in clear protest of this and Ava just kisses her again, pulling her inside the room and letting the door slide shut, cutting off all sound much to Liz's relief. She shakes her head with a smile and then enters her own room, determined to read more of the files Tony had found. She's not sure she can trust SHIELD on their own merits, much less as protection from the Special Unit, and the more she knows the better.

It is not peaceful reading, and neither is the sleep that follows.

There is a knock on her door early enough the next morning that the sun hasn't quite peeked over the top of the Tower yet. It is quiet, but still wakes Liz from the light doze she'd settled into after emerging from an unsettling dream. She checks to make sure she put on shorts last night and isn't just in her underwear and Jarvis t-shirt, and then pads over to the door in her bare feet, relishing the thick carpet. When the door slides open, Natasha Romanov is standing on the other side, watching her with a cool, assessing gaze.

Those eyes that can't decide if they're blue or green flick over her from top to bottom and she nods slightly. "Those will do, but I recommend a sports bra."

Liz stares at her, not sure if it's the barely awake thing or just a complete non-comprehension thing and Natasha smiles, a barely there flicker of red.

"You need training. Your powers are impressive, but you would have been more effective, and avoided injury, if you were as aware of and in control of your body as you are of them."

Liz can't disagree with that assessment, nor does she think she could ever find a better trainer than Natasha, even if the idea justifiably terrifies her, so she nods and turns toward the pile of clothes she'd left on a chair in the corner after unpacking the bags Ava and Darcy brought with them. She shucks her t-shirt and pulls on a red sports bra, then touches her shorts and changes them from sheer cotton to something a lot more suitable for exercise, along with adding a couple inches for comfort. Below the chair are her combat boots, heels, and a pair of tennis shoes she'd purchased for lab use, but will do just as well for this.

Once she's pulled on socks, laced up the shoes, and grabbed her cell phone and wallet, she stands and turns back to Natasha, who has a faint smile on her face. "Let's do this."

Natasha nods, and turns without another word. Liz makes a pit stop in the kitchen to grab a banana and a gatorade out of the fridge before following Natasha to the elevator. She does not need a repeat of yesterday.

Natasha looks faintly approving as Liz eats the banana on the way to the ground floor, and Liz tosses the peel in a trash can once they make it out on to the sidewalk, wondering where the other woman is taking her, but content to wait and see.

A part of her that wasn't really awake when Natasha knocked on her door is just now starting to process, and to wonder just how broken she's going to be whenever this first training session ends. It's also feeling a flicker of warmth that Natasha even offered to train her, an offer she is quite sure that very few people have ever received. The warmth helps keep the terror to a manageable level.

Eventually Natasha leads her into a nondescript office building, that, once they get past the initial facade with a wave of the redhead's ID badge and a razor sharp grin that no security professional is stupid enough to question, has too many armed individuals in skintight suits to be anything other than a SHIELD building. She follows Natasha down several flights of stairs, until they're several basements below ground level, and into the most state of the art gym Liz has ever seen.

There's equipment she doesn't even begin to have names for, and different sized mats for sparring practice and who knows what else. There are a few others already there, but Liz only has eyes for Natasha, who leads her to one of the smaller mats in the back corner of the room and gives her another up-down glance that if it wasn't so potentially lethal, Liz would want to return with interest.

She might be crushing on Bruce, but that does not change the fact that Natasha is incandescently attractive, in ways far less immediately obvious than her breathtaking appearance.

Right now though, she's a woman who could kill Liz with one single strand of her hair, and who can, hopefully, teach Liz how to stop anyone else from doing so.

"Stretching before warming up your muscles can lead to tearing, so let's start with some basic self defense and work our way up from there," Natasha says with a smile that is one part amusement and three parts more lethal than a shark's.

Liz swallows a squeak and nods. She is absolutely not calculating how many minutes it's going to take her for her to regret this.

The answer is three.

But after she recovers from that painful fall, and the dozen that follow after, and the realization that there will be many, many more in her future, she savors the glint in Natasha's eyes and the "Not as bad as I expected," as the compliments they are.

Her exhaustion and soreness is complete enough that she is totally surprised by Clint appearing next to Natasha, his lips quirked in the faintest of smirks although his eyes are dark. "I am feeling outnumbered by ninjas," Liz tells him, after she catches her breath, and his lips twitch a little wider.

It's Natasha who speaks. "I know you have your own weapons, but you also need to know how to handle and fire a gun."

Liz's fingers tighten against her plastic gatorade bottle as she breathes through the sudden roaring in her ears and the memory of a gunshot that lights up her abdomen with phantom pain. Guns are the enemy. They have been since one almost took her life, since they almost took it again along with the boy she loved, since she's only ever been on one end of them and it hasn't been the end that comes with control.

She looks up at two pairs of steady eyes, in faces that have been on every conceivable end of a gun, and nods as she exhales. Maybe it's time to change that.

Clint offers her a hand up and she takes it with a small smile, appreciating the trust and kindness inherent in initiating physical contact with someone who's been inside his mind, after the kind of violation Loki subjected him to.

As she follows him and Natasha to the next level up and the gun range slash armory it contains, she stares at the back of his broad shoulders and contemplates bravery. Natasha could have taught her how to shoot a gun. Hawkeye might be the best marksman the world has ever seen, or at least the best one she's ever seen, but the Black Widow is perfectly competent, even deadly, with firearms.

But Liz had helped Clint, in however small a way, and she has a feeling that neither of the two people in front of her are comfortable with debts. Even if the person they owe it to doesn't think of it that way.

Tony's very similar. But he resorts to being so generous that no one, other than Pepper, could balance out the other side of that ledger.

Liz has had to turn down three more offers of private islands, an entire wing built at Columbia specifically for her, and other ridiculously extravagant gifts since she healed him. She has no doubt that there will be more offers until Tony feels satisfied, however much she knows she could never repay him and Pepper for their, very large, role in how amazing her life is at the moment.

Convincing the bulk of her team that families don't need the concept of debt is probably a task far more daunting than attempting to mold them into a family to begin with. Not that she doesn't intend to try. She's never liked the phrase 'the sky's the limit' because that implies there is a limit at all to how far one could reach for, and she refuses to stunt her thinking that way.

Which is something she thinks at least a few members of her team, Tony and Steve for two, would agree with. The others, well, sometimes limits aren't so much about actuality as they are about being afraid to reach for things at all. Something she is determined to train out of Bruce, even if they never become more than friends, lab buddies, and teammates.

She's suddenly dodging to the left without knowing why and snaps out of her mental haze to see Natasha grinning at her, hand back at her side from where it had lashed out toward her ribs.

"You have better instincts when you're not paying attention. We'll have to work on that."

"If you and Pepper joined forces, every single world would surrender out of sheer terror," Liz informs her, once her heart has slowed to a normal rate.

Clint cracks an actual smile at that and Natasha's grin sharpens into something that could definitely make Liz surrender out of sheer terror.

Clint's smile disappears again as she checks out a gun and is instructed on range rules and proper firearm safety, all while ignoring the hints of dizzying black at the edges of her vision when she stares at the gun for too long. She's told she'll be spending several lessons on disassembling and reassembling, but today, lucky her, she actually gets to shoot.

Natasha stays back, just watching, and Clint's hands are impersonal and firm as he directs her in a proper stance and curves her hands around the cold metal.

Her breathing sounds too loud, despite being muffled by the noise-cancelling headphones that connect her to Clint's surprisingly soothing voice as he walks her through the mental and physical preparation of releasing the safety, aiming, and pulling the trigger.

When she finally does, it takes every ounce of will power she has to keep her eyes open as her hands rock from the recoil and distant echoes fill the room from the firing pin crushing whatever form of explosive powder is in the gun they gave her. She fires again, and again, following Clint's instructions, until she's emptied half the clip.

There's a hole in the edge of the torso on the target in front of her, approximately where a kidney would be, along with a few others scattered across the center mass.

Liz ignores the trembling in her fingers as she lowers the gun. It's far too easy to picture bleeding flesh instead of paper and she flinches when Clint touches her hand. "Sorry," she says automatically, still not looking away from the target. "After flambéed aliens this really shouldn't be a big deal."

"We all have our things," he says quietly, finally drawing her gaze to his face, which is stoic although the flicker in his eyes hints at the emotions running beneath the facade. "We're all allowed to have our things."

She manages a half-smile in response and he turns to face the target. "You did good. Better than most do the first time they use a gun."

"Not better than you I bet," Liz says, actual humor slipping into her tone, and he gives her another smile that almost qualifies as a grin.

"No, not better than me."

"Because he's a freaky savant with any weapons involving aim," Natasha observes dryly, stepping up behind them with her own pair of headphones, and Clint turns his grin on her with a raised eyebrow.

"And you're a freaky savant who can murder people with your thighs. Like I said, we all have our things."

Liz laughs, something like relief bubbling in her gut as her hands finally stop shaking.

Clint's smile drops down a notch and he shifts his gaze back to her. "Do you want to finish the clip?"

She takes a breath, and then nods. He gives her some pointers based on seeing her shoot, with Natasha jumping in with a few that, in her words, "someone without breasts and hips wouldn't understand," and this time there are fewer holes at the edges of the target.

Her hands are still shaking, but Liz expects it will take more than one lesson, and more than one nightmare, before that changes.

After she's turned her gun back in, and agreed to meet them both at the same time the next morning, she pauses in the hallway, both of them stopping to watch her with muted curiousity.

"I'm sure you already know about Tony's plans to move everyone into the tower because knowing shit is basically your job," she says, earning a smirk from Natasha and another glimmer of amusement from Clint. "But you may not know that my friend Ava is there." She meets Natasha's gaze, forcing her tone to remain casual. "She's the expert on mind control I mentioned on the helicarrier."

She can feel Clint's eyes burning into the side of her face as sudden tension chases away the ease they'd built over the course of the morning. She turns to look at him, catching his eyes for only a second before he looks away, jaw clenched tightly. She was going to tell him that Ava would be happy to answer any questions he might have, but knows somehow that those words won't be received well. Instead, others tumble out, almost against her will.

"My best friend, Alex," she says, digging her nails into her palms to keep her voice from catching on his name. "He died because someone controlled him, for months, and his brain couldn't handle the strain."

Clint's eyes have snapped back to hers, wide with blown pupils, and she sucks in a shuddering breath. "I don't know what it's like to be on the other end of that, but if you ever want to talk about it, Ava's not the only one willing to listen." Her lips twist into an almost smile. "She's less likely to cry on you though, fair warning."

Clint nods, a tightly controlled motion, and Liz bites her lip, then raises her shoulders in an awkward shrug. "Either of you know the closest coffee place? Cause I need a metric fuckton of caffeine before I'll feel even slightly sane again."

Natasha's answering smile is one of the warmest Liz has ever seen her give, although it disappears quickly into her usual half-smirk. "Yes. SHIELD coffee isn't drinkable unless you've already given up on life, but there's an obnoxious hipster joint half a block down that uses espresso syrup on their drinks. It shouldn't work, but it does."

Liz grins, shoving every bit of emotional misery out of her mind as her mouth waters. "If you're free, either or both of you," she adds, glancing back at Clint, who's still tight with tension, but not quite as stiff as he was a moment ago, "it'll be my treat."

"Payment for the bruises you'll have later?" Natasha asks sweetly, earning a rough chuckle from Clint and a blinding grin from Liz.

"More like bribery for hopefully less of them tomorrow."

"Nice try," Natasha says with her shark's smile. "But yes, you may buy us coffee."

"Us?" Clint asks mildly, and then takes a step back when Natasha looks at him. "Yeah, us, definitely us."

Liz snorts, and then grins again as Clint gives her a mildly betrayed look. "You're the one who pointed out the terror she inspires," he says, his lips curving downward in what she's pretty sure is an attempt to hide his smile.

"Yes I did," Liz admits. "But I'm not a ninja. Shouldn't you have like, immunity or something?"

Clint just looks at her, then at Natasha, then back at her, and Liz chokes on another laugh. "Right, maybe not. Coffee?"

"Coffee," Natasha agrees, stepping forward to lead them up and out of the building.

The coffee place is as ridiculous as Natasha described, but the drinks and pastries are amazing and Liz knows she'll be back. Especially if training continues to be such an emotional and physical workout.

There are awkward pauses in the conversation with Clint and Natasha that haven't occurred with her and Bruce and Tony - science is an excellent bond. But when they part ways, Liz feels like they've managed to deepen the connection formed from fighting the Chitauri together, and has hopes that they will take Tony up on his offer of living space when the Tower is finished.

Standing on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop, she texts Ava, knowing she, at least, will be awake by now. The text is to let her know that Liz is out of the Tower, but safe, and will return later. She'd found a lot of volunteer crews last night, when she'd needed a break from the FBI files, and has chosen one on the edge of the destruction, outside of Manhattan and far away from the gleaming office buildings that will have the highest priority in reconstruction.

She takes a cab after using the GPS on her Stark Phone to determine that it's farther than she wants to walk, and is dropped off in a neighborhood that is full of buildings that were clearly showing signs of wear before the attack, and now looks almost like post-war pictures of bombed out ghettos in Europe.

It might be that comparison that draws her gaze unerringly to a tall, blond figure, hefting blocks of rubble into a truck with an ease that is hard to believe even after she's seen him in action.

She doesn't call out to him, not wanting to blow his cover if no one has recognized him as the man in the shaky cellphone stills of the battle. Instead she finds one of the individuals carrying clipboards and asks where she can help.

They assign her to a group helping sort through the piles of smaller bits of rubble and trash for items worth salvaging, all of which are either being set aside to return to their owners, or donated to other survivors. She forgets that she even saw Steve until there's a light touch on her shoulder hours later and she turns to see him smiling at her and proffering a water bottle.

"I think you've earned a break," he says, the open smile on his face transforming him from the focused and implacable man he'd been the last time she saw him on the streets of New York, covered in grime and sweat.

"Ditto," she says, grinning as he mouths the word before shaking his head in a clear refusal to be bothered by yet another thing he doesn't understand. "You look like you've been here a while."

He shrugs, smile taking on a hint of bashfulness. "I've been coming here since SHIELD let us go." His mouth quirks ruefully. "I figure I broke enough walls, the least I can do is help clean up the mess."

She laughs. "I don't think anyone else would hold you accountable, given why you broke those walls." He shrugs again, smile fading a bit, and she tips her water bottle in his direction. "But I admire you for it."

His smile warms as he taps his water against hers. "Ditto."

She laughs again at his smug little grin at having used the word correctly. "You need to come home with me."

Steve's eyes go wide and she quickly shakes her head. "That was not a proposition. I promise." His shoulders slump a little in relief and she chuckles. If it wasn't for her crush on Bruce, well, she'd probably have a hard time deciding whether she'd rather proposition Steve or Natasha. Or both. She's on a team with entirely too many pretty people, who are attractive in ways much deeper than the surface. "Bruce and I are staying at the Tower, with Tony and Pepper. I know everyone would love to see you, and Tony has some plans for the reconstruction that you should definitely hear."

Steve looks thoughtful, she'd seen a hint of wariness in his eyes at her mention of Tony, understandable given their rough start at communication, but eventually nods. "They break for lunch in an hour, if you don't mind working until then."

"Not at all," she says with a smug smile of her own. Tony might be building the Tower, but she's going to help him fill it.

True to his word, an hour later she and Steve are taking another cab back to the Tower. He'd wanted to walk, but she'd insisted after pointing out that A. she wasn't a super soldier, and B. she'd spent the morning getting her ass kicked by Natasha. He'd laughed and surrendered the point, then spent the entire ride quizzing her on what the training had entailed.

She has a sinking feeling that if she survives Natasha, a certain super soldier's going to be joining them in the ring to give her experience against a different sized enemy.

Now she just needs to con Tony into joining their training sessions. He can't always have his suit, and watching his pain might make her feel better about her own.

The man at the front desk recognizes her and waves her through to the elevator, though not without an appreciative glance at Steve, and Liz grins at the expression on Steve's face as she asks Jarvis to take them to the communal floor.

"Look who I brought home!" she exclaims, fanning her hands out like Vanna White as she and Steve step out of the elevator once they arrive.

There is a brief pause in noise as everyone present turns to look at her, before immediately returning to an increasingly loud conversation. The smile falls off Liz's face as she registers the tension in the room. Bruce is standing in the kitchen, his body tight and his face pale. Tony and Pepper are close by, Tony yelling and Pepper speaking in low, controlled tones. Ava and Darcy are on the couch, watching in confusion, and Jane is nowhere to be seen.

"What's going on?" Liz asks loudly, putting a little extra into her voice that earns a wince from Steve (she'd forgotten about his enhanced hearing) and stares from everyone else. It is Tony who answers, his eyes bright with fury and his voice harsh.

"General Giant Asshole Ross keeps calling and demanding we turn custody of 'The Hulk' over to him and the military." Tony snarls, then turns back to Pepper before Liz can respond.

Pepper shakes her head at him, clearly also furious, but more in control of that anger than Tony is. "No, you can't blow him up this time. We can destroy him, but it has to be legally."

Tony's hands are clenched into fists and Liz understands the rage, anger of her own starting to simmer in her gut as she turns to face Bruce. His eyes have slid closed and he's breathing slowly, working at maintaining control. She steps toward him and, after hesitating for a moment, wraps her hands around his, noting and ignoring the flicker of green as his eyes snap open before his body slumps when he sees that it's her.

"Is he your Special Unit?" she asks in an intentionally light tone and he nods, lips twisting with bitterness and self-recrimination.

Before she can say anything else, Steve's voice rings through the room, silencing everyone. "General Ross, this is Captain Rogers; I understand you have a concern about one of the members of my team."

Liz spins and sees everyone else gaping at Steve, who has somehow gotten Jarvis to put the call through on one of his hovering screens. Steve is turned so that he is facing them, but the General can only see him. His arms are crossed over his chest and despite still wearing a grime streaked, and clingy, white t-shirt and jeans, he radiates more authority than the sputtering man on the screen, clad in full dress uniform.

"That man is a monster, and he is to be turned over to my custody immediately," General Ross snaps, the menace he is attempting to project falling entirely flat when matched against Steve's stoic regard.

Tony growls and Bruce's hands, still tucked in hers, are repeatedly tensing.

"And who are you referring to?" Steve asks calmly. "Stark's suit can hardly be called monstrous and referring to Thor that way would probably set off an unpleasant diplomatic incident." The General snarls, his face bright red, and Steve raises an eyebrow. "Unless you're referring to Dr. Banner and myself, who were both subjected to versions of the same serum. At the behest of the military I might add."

"You sneaky son of a bitch," Tony mutters, his tone admiring despite the fury still visible on his face, and Liz can't stop her own grin as she squeezes Bruce's hands. The Captain really is too good to be true.

"You cannot compare yourself to that thing," Ross spits and Steve's expression shifts into one of the most intimidating stares Liz has ever seen. Pepper has new competition for most terrifying force of nature in the Tower, and General Ross doesn't stand a chance.

"Bruce," Steve says, with stern emphasis on his name, "Is a civilian and a hero who was asked by our government to assist with the recent attack. I, my team, and the city of New York are all deeply grateful for that help, given that none of us might be standing today if he had refused out of justifiable fear of and anger toward your continued persecution."

The General is pale, his hands clenched into fists, and Steve takes a step closer to the screen, his eyes boring into the other man. "You will cease that persecution, immediately, or you will bear witness to what happens when the rest of us get angry."

His fingers twitch in some kind of signal and Jarvis cuts the feed before the General can work up a response. The room is deathly silent, all of them staring in awe and shock, and a faint flush rises up Steve's cheeks.

Bruce exhales shakily, half chuckle and half something else, and Liz tilts her head just in time to see him shoot her a sly smile before he turns his gaze on the Captain. "Marry me?"

Tony lets out a bark of laughter and Pepper grins as Liz raises her hands to her mouth in a futile attempt to hold in her own giggles. Darcy and Ava look confused, as does Steve, his blue eyes wide with astonishment, and Liz gives into her amusement, sliding into a nearby chair and holding her head in her hands as her shoulders shake with laughter.

She's beginning to think her team would have figured out this family thing without her.

She's also beginning to think it was a bad idea to start this inappropriate proposal trend. One of these days, someone's going to say yes, and then where will they be?


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So apparently ditto has been in use since the late seventeen hundreds and Steve most likely would have heard it before. But the scene was too adorable to cut so I decided to ignore historical accuracy just this once.

Also, just a reminder note, if I ever need to include trigger warnings, please tell me and I'll add them, no questions asked.