Characters: Tony, Bruce, Natasha, Steve, Pepper, Fury, J.A.R.V.I.S, daemons
Warnings/Triggers: swearing, some light injuries, mentions of surgery
Spoilers: IM3, a few references to Ultron, but set before it and mostly character beats
Pairings: Tony/Pepper, hints of Bruce/Natasha flirtation
Word Count 7,868
Summary: Tony is recovering from surgery, Natasha is recovering from a concussion, and Bruce is still learning how to be at ease in his new home. But people have scars, and that's okay.
Author's notes: I have now seen Ultron, and am using this new found canon knowledge to...write AUs. But canonish AUs! I actually started this sometime around March, I think, but it got put aside, and then I picked it up again and have used new character stuff to my advantage.
Medical stuff is accurate as much as it can be when talking about a surgery to remove a thing that doesn't exist. I've kind of gone with how I think it might have worked. Natasha's concussion has been exaggerated for drama purposes, a little.
Set post IM3, pre Cap 2, and continues in the series of 'Tony and Mim Build Apartments for the Avengers' stories, which include "Baby Steps", "One Step Back", and "Put it on the List". This story stands independent of those, and can be followed without having read them.
For reference: Demira ("Mim") (a common tailorbird), Nemi (a qinling panda), Altan (a rainbow boa), Lev (a veiled chameleon), Issie (a teddy roosevelt terrier), and Chariovalda (a black jaguar).
Knowledge of His Dark Materials is not required. All that's necessary to know is that, in this world, humans' souls live outside of their bodies in the form of animals. There's an excellent primer here.
“Sir, Director Fury is on the phone,” Jarvis said, in Tony's dream.
Dream!Tony put down the vacuum he was holding and told Director Fury to fuck off because he was planting a garden and couldn't talk. Mim, who was an otter, echoed his sentiments, and they high-fived.
“Sir, please do not curse at me, I am only relaying the message,” J.A.R.V.I.S's voice said, through Jarvis' mouth.
And Tony woke up, and Mim was a tailorbird, and there was no vacuum or garden, and Jarvis wasn't there. Mim lifted her head from under her wing and shook it, tumbling off of Tony's shoulder as he rolled onto his back.
“Mmmokay!” her mumbled voice said, from a puddle of blanket. She popped out again. “Why are you awake? I was dreaming about robot shoes and it was really cool. Go back to sleep right now!”
Tony blinked at the clock. “J.A.R.V.I.S?” he said. “Is Fury there?”
“Yes, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S said. “Should I patch him through?”
“Am I naked?” Tony asked.
Mim looked him over carefully. “No, you have clothes on,” she assured him.
“Okay, patch him through,” Tony said.
He put his forearm over his eyes as a screen was projected over the bed and waited for them to adjust before he moved it again. Fury was all big and eye-patchy on the screen, Chariovalda looking like she was going to jump through it and kill someone. Like she always looked.
“Sorry to wake you, Stark,” Fury said.
“I bet he's not even a little sorry,” Mim said, grumpily.
“What's up? I'm still on bed rest post-reactor removal. I can't save the world yet,” Tony said, rubbing at the tight skin over his sternum.
“I don't need you to save the world, I need you to do some babysitting,” Fury said. “Agent Romanoff has been injured on mission. She needs a quiet place to recover.”
“You think giving her to me is going to be quiet?” Tony said.
“Considering you're recovering from heart surgery, yes,” Fury said.
“How's she hurt?” Mim asked, her head cocked in concern.
“What's wrong with her?” Tony relayed the message.
“Concussion,” Fury said. “Took a bo staff to the head. Broken ribs, some bumps and bruises. Nothing that won't heal up with some rest, but she's a little muddled and I'd like her somewhere where she won't be walking off into the night.”
Tony wasn't sure how Fury thought that he could keep a Russian assassin from doing whatever the fuck she wanted, concussion or not. Especially with him still not being recovered from the surgery, which had kicked his ass more than he'd like to admit. It wasn't like he could chase her down.
“You should totally help,” Mim declared.
“Yeah, okay, send her over,” Tony said. “When is she getting here?”
“The helicopter will be there in two minutes,” Fury said. Chariovalda looked smug.
Tony raised an eyebrow. “What if I'd said no?”
“You wouldn't have,” Fury said, and the line went dead.
“Wow, 10/10 for ominous exit,” Mim said.
“No kidding,” Tony said. “I guess you get to be the director of S.H.I.E.L.D based on how badass you can be when you end a conversation.”
He threw off the covers and Mim flew up to his shoulder as he made his way to the helipad.
“Do you suppose looking after assassins is an approved activity for five weeks post-op?” Mim wondered.
“I don't know. I didn't see it on the list, maybe I should have said no,” Tony replied. “Pepper will be all mad at me.”
The helicopter was already coming in for a landing when he stepped out of the elevator. He winced as the backwash hit him and Mim dug her feet into his shoulder to avoid being blown back. The door slid open and Issie hopped down to the pad, followed by Steve. He reached back in and helped Natasha out. Altan was wrapped around her waist like a belt and his eyes were kind of glazed, his tongue testing the air like he couldn't figure out what was up. Issie ran ahead and then back to them and repeated as they made their way over to Tony. Natasha moved slowly, limping on her right foot, and Steve kept putting his hand out like he wanted to take her arm, then pulling it back before it made it there.
Mim flew down to talk to Issie and Tony stepped out to greet Natasha.
“Hey, how many fingers?” he said, flashing her a peace sign.
“How many fingers do you want when I'm done?” Natasha replied.
“Aww, you're fine,” Tony said. “Don't know what Fury's on about.”
Steve shot them his 'this is not a joking matter' look. “She needs to be on bed rest — painkillers every four hours and lots of fluid,” he said. “No working out, no heavy lifting, and she should be sleeping, not awake and reading or watching television.”
“Okay, cancel the raves and the 1930's strongman competition, got it,” Tony said.
“I had my singlet and my mustache all ready to go,” Natasha muttered. Altan blinked and cocked his head to the side, tongue still going.
Steve handed Tony a tablet. “All the doctor's orders are on there,” he said. “I think it's like a computer book. It works like that. Like a StarkBook.”
Awww. “'Kay, Gramps, I think I can get the hang of this super tricky piece of technology,” Tony assured him. Steve also handed him a gym bag, presumably with Natasha's things in it.
“I can't stay,” Steve said. “There's a mission they want me on, but I wanted to make sure she got here safely.” He looked to Natasha. “Do what you're supposed to do. Don't be stupid about it.”
“Yes, sir,” Natasha said, with a smirk.
Issie stood up on her back legs and Altan unwound himself enough to lower his head and touch her nose. He wound himself back around and Natasha gave him a pat. Steve gave her shoulder a soldierly squeeze and bid goodbye to Tony, before ducking to go back to the helicopter. Issie hesitated, looking up at Altan with concern before she bounded after Steve and leaped into the back of the chopper.
“Issie says Natasha isn't allowed to have any fun, basically,” Mim reported, when she returned to Tony's shoulder. “Just like you!”
“All right, well, misery loves company,” Tony said. He offered a hand to Natasha if she wanted it. She didn't. “Welcome to Stark Tower's Home for Invalid Superheros and Assassins. I hope you don't enjoy your stay, because you're not allowed.”
“Why do I have an apartment?” Natasha asked, as J.A.R.V.I.S welcomed her to it.
“'Cause I made you one,” Tony replied.
She took a brief wander around as Tony pointed out the salient features. Mim tried to get Altan to pay attention to her, but he was kind of zoned out. He looked around, his tongue all darty and curious.
“Do you like it?” Mim asked.
“It's very soft,” he said.
Mim looked around. Did he mean comfy? Because comfy was what they were going for. It was hard to decorate Natasha's place because she was such an enigma. Who knew what she liked, except for catsuits and fighting? Mim thought maybe what she'd want was, like, a home. She was a nomad, so maybe she'd like a cool place to just chill and have be hers. They'd done everything really cozy and fluffy and chic.
“Is soft a good thing?” Mim asked.
“It's not a bad thing,” Altan said.
Okay, groovy. Total success.
“And this is the bedroom,” Tony concluded. He put her bag on the bench at the foot of the bed. “Do you need help getting ready for bed? Okay, I know I said that in a suggestive voice, but I swear it's just habit. I'm not coming on to you. I'm happily taken.”
“I think I can handle it myself,” Natasha said.
She took a seat on the bed and Altan slithered off of her and into a little coil next to her. His tongue stopped going, and he looked sleepy.
“If you need anything, tell J.A.R.V.I.S,” Tony said. “He'll get me if it's a person-with-hands job. Don't be stoic about it. I have a shitload of money. If I'm annoyed by a request, I'll just pay someone to do it for me.”
Natasha nodded. “I did work for you for a while. I remember.”
“Oh, man, memories,” Tony said. “Back in the days when you were lying and I was dying. Good times.”
Natasha gave a chuckle. “Yeah,” she said. “It was a blast.”
Tony looked over the tablet Steve had brought. Mim peered down, too, to see what the instructions were. Pretty much standard common sense stuff, which was always good to have because Mim's common sense was faulty sometimes.
“Okay, so you can have pain stuff in two hours if you want it,” Tony said. “Otherwise just sleep and don't have fun. That's my prescription, too.”
“How are you?” Natasha asked.
“My heart hasn't stopped,” Tony said. “So, good.”
Natasha gave him a thumb's up. “I'm probably pleased about that."
“Thanks,” Tony said. “That's the general consensus amongst polled parties.”
Mim went over to Altan on the bed. “Does Tash need anything else?” she asked. “You can say. Tony won't judge.”
“She's fine,” Altan said. “I think she just needs to sleep.”
“The mattress is adjustable if you want something softer or harder,” Mim said, bouncing on it. “Don't sleep all uncomfortable if you don't have to.”
“Thank you,” Altan said.
“Okay, so continental breakfast is served in the lobby from 7AM to 10AM and the pool is open from 6AM to 10PM,” Tony said, in a snooty hotel concierge voice. “Please put any towels you want washed in the tub, all others will be left to be used again. We care about preserving our environment and saving water in this giant tower.”
“Got it,” Natasha said.
“None of that is true,” Tony added.
“I know,” Natasha said.
Mim flew back over to Tony. “You should let her rest now,” she said. “And you should sleep, too, I guess. J.A.R.V.I.S'll get mad if you don't.” He was being supernurse, which was cute, but annoying.
“You want me to tuck you in?” Tony asked. “Read you a bedtime story?”
“No, thanks,” Natasha said. “I'm good. Goodnight. And thanks for letting me stay.”
“I know, I'm a saint,” Tony said. “I'm really squeezing you in here, Romanoff. I can barely spare the room.”
Tony woke up normally in the morning, without any asshole Directors yelling at him. He got up and had a shower and shaved. After five weeks, he was getting better about not freaking out when he didn't see the ARC reactor in his chest when he looked in the mirror, but he still got a mental jolt sometimes. Mim examined the state of his scar.
“Do you think that's a hot scar or an ugly scar?” she wondered.
Tony was leaning toward ugly, himself. Dr. Wu and his team had done their best, but there was a lot of scar tissue and damage there. Yinsen hadn't been working under the best conditions and had been McGuyvering the crap out of the situation, so the cuts weren't the cleanest, but Tony's ill-will toward him was in negative integers. Guy had saved his life, like, eighty times, let's not quibble about how he chose to do it.
“It could be a badass scar,” Tony said.
He poked it a little. It was all spongy and weird. Dr. Wu had shaved down the reactor socket that was fused to Tony's sternum, so the skin could grow over it, but it was tight and felt stretched at the start. That had settled down, but it was numb now. Tony knew he was touching it, but couldn't really feel it.
“Yeah,” Mim said, with a little nod of her head. “You're a badass, so it's a badass scar. People have scars. That's okay.”
Tony's mom had said that. She had a huge burn scar on her hand from a lab accident and everyone wanted her to cover it up for photo ops, but she used to tell Tony that. 'People have scars, Tony, and that's okay.'
“And Pepper thinks I'm hot,” Tony said. “So, technically speaking, it's all three kinds of scars.”
“Groovy,” Mim said.
Tony finished shaving and asked for a status update on Natasha. J.A.R.V.I.S said she'd been up once during the night, but was sleeping now.
“Was she up for pain stuff?” Tony asked.
“She went into the lavatory,” J.A.R.V.I.S said. “I'm assuming it was a call of nature, though I didn't monitor closely. I can check my water usage records.”
“No, it's cool,” Tony said. “No further info needed. Let her pee in peace. Anything I need to know about in the world?”
“Dr. Banner has arrived home,” J.A.R.V.I.S said. “He entered the building half an hour ago while you were showering. He's currently in the first R&D lab, entering new information into my databases.”
Mim jumped up and down on Tony's shoulder. “New information is fun!"
“Dude, chill,” Tony said. “Don't be a dork.”
“Sorry,” Mim said. “I'm just excited.”
“We'll head down to say hey in a totally nonchalant fashion once Pepper calls for her daily mother hen chat in a second,” Tony said.
“And Miss Potts is on the phone, I'm going to patch her through,” J.A.R.V.I.S said, continuing his news report.
“Like clockwork!” Tony said. It was nice to have someone who loved you enough to annoy you on a schedule. He turned to face the projection. “Hey, hun, how's Cali? Am I still rich and famous?”
“Richer and famouser,” Pepper said.
“That's what I like to hear,” Tony said. He lifted up his shirt in anticipation of impending interrogation. “My scar is still intact; I haven't burst open and spewed my squishy parts everywhere. I slept last night. I didn't do anything stupid. I'm still eating boring food. And I love you.”
Pepper raised an eyebrow, but Lev was changing colors in amusement. Mim gave him a wing wave and he flicked his tail back. “Please never use the term 'spewed my squishy parts' again,” she said. “I've seen enough of the inside of you and I don't even want to imagine what any more of it looks like.”
“I'm trying to think of a way to turn that into innuendo, but I feel like it'd just be gross,” Tony said.
“It would, but the fact you know that is worrying,” Pepper said. “You're not totally well, yet, obviously.”
“Don't worry, I'll get it back,” Tony said.
“Joy,” Pepper said. She gave him a long look. “How are you?”
Tony felt Mim nudging his cheek and told the truth. “Still kind of wiped, but better than I was,” he said. “I'm getting better, honey. It's just slow.”
“I know,” Pepper said. “I wish I was there.”
“No, you don't,” Tony said. “You wish you were there, and you are, and that's totally cool.”
Lev's tail twitched in agreement, but Pepper made some weak protests that she should be there to take care of him, and she was sorry she had to go back to work, but he sort of made her, and—
“And that's totally cool!” Tony spoke over her.
Pepper stopped her diatribe. “Thank you, I needed to hear that,” she said. “Twice.”
Tony gave her a thumb's up. Mim nudged him and told him to mention Natasha, so he explained about the head injury thing, and mentioned that Bruce was back, too.
“So, you don't even need to worry because I have a concussed assassin and a guy with terrible rage issues here to look after me while you're gone,” Tony added.
“Sadly, I feel like they'll do a better job than you looking after yourself,” Pepper said.
“Word,” Mim agreed with her.
“Hey, that's...totally fair,” Tony also agreed with her.
Lev rolled his weird eyes and Pepper chuckled. “I have to get to a meeting,” she said. “But I'll call later, and I'll be home—”
“On the weekend, like you always are,” Tony finished. “I'm fine. You're an awesome girlfriend, and a kickass businesswoman, and an amazing human being, and if you have any ideas of that not being the case, you can just stop right now.”
Pepper's face softened and she smiled. “Thanks,” she said. “Okay. I love you, too.”
Mim did a little twirl for Lev and he waved his tail back. Tony made some stupid kissy-faces that made Pepper laugh as she disconnected the call.
“All right,” Tony said. “Let's go bother Bruce.”
Mim flew ahead of Tony into the lab. Bruce was standing with a tablet, reading stuff off to J.A.R.V.I.S, and Nemi was working with her NemiPad on the floor. Mim came in for a landing on her head, but Nemi lifted it just before Mim arrived, and she flew into her nose instead and landed on the NemiPad.
“Gesture not recognized,” J.A.R.V.I.S said. And repeated it a few more times, as Mim got herself up and on her feet.
“Hi!” Mim said.
“Hi, sorry,” Nemi said.
“No worries,” Mim said.
“Gesture not recognized,” J.A.R.V.I.S repeated, and he was starting to sound annoyed about it, so Mim got off the screen.
“Hey, welcome home,” Tony said to Bruce. “How was Miami? Any Code Greens?”
“I think you would have heard about it,” Bruce said. “What with the mass destruction and all.”
“It's Florida, who'd notice?” Tony said. “You had fun? Got to chat with all your doctor friends?”
“It was...okay,” Bruce said. “I mean, I did it, so...” He shrugged.
Mim knew it was a big step for him. Getting him in the Tower was a big deal to start off with, and once Tony got him in there, he was super hard to get out. Not that they wanted him out. He was just kind of determined not to interact with the world. He was afraid. It had taken a huge amount of nagging to get him to agree to go to the Bio-Research conference in Miami. Tony couldn't even go with him, because of the heart surgery restrictions on flying, or he would have provided moral support.
“It was interesting,” Nemi said to Mim, with a little more enthusiasm than Bruce was showing. “The lectures were interesting. And everybody was really nice.”
“Good,” Mim said. She held up her wing for a high-five and Nemi nosed it, in unison with Tony and Bruce's fist bump. “Bruce can go speak at that thing in France in April, then.”
“We'll see,” Nemi said.
Mim didn't press it, because she'd learned that was the opposite of being helpful.
“Well, I'm glad to have you back,” Tony said. “I've had to wallow in self-pity with no one here to not listen to me because they aren't that kind of doctor.”
“I'm really sorry I missed that,” Bruce said.
“We should have waffles,” Tony said. “In celebration of your return. Do you want waffles?”
“Yeah,” Bruce said. “I could eat waffles.”
“Awesome. I'll get us some waffles,” Tony said. “J, is Natasha up? And, more importantly: does she want waffles?”
“Agent Romanoff is awake, I will inquire as to her waffle preference,” J.A.R.V.I.S said.
“Romanoff is here?” Bruce said.
Tony explained about her head smashy stuff. Nemi looked concerned and Mim couldn't get her to pay attention to her while Tony was talking about Natasha.
“Ouch,” Bruce said.
Nemi went over to him and he started asking questions about Natasha's treatment and symptoms, and Mim, like, technically knew what he was talking about because she was really smart, but she didn't know the answers to any of the questions, and so she couldn't help Tony when he looked at her.
“Dude, I just live here,” Tony said, holding up his hands. “Talk to her yourself. When we have our waffle party. J, what's the waffle status?”
“Agent Romanoff would like waffles, if there are blueberries involved,” J.A.R.V.I.S reported.
“All right, waffles for everyone,” Tony said.
“Waffles is starting to sound like a weird word,” Mim said. “Waffles. Waffles. Waffles.”
“Fuck, I am so glad I have people to talk to now that aren't you,” Tony said.
“Hey!” Mim said. “...Me too.”
“J.A.R.V.I.S, order waffles from that waffle place I like and see if they deliver,” Tony said. “And if they don't deliver, keep offering money until they do. We'll meet Natasha on the second leisure level. Bruce and me'll be up once the waffles are on scene.”
“Yes, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S said.
Nemi was looking worried, so Mim went over to see what her little panda mind had come up with to be upset about. She was a worst case scenario kind of dæmon and Mim tried to get her to chill, but she and Bruce were on eggshells all the time. There was a lot of residual damage from the years of being on the run. Tony wasn't the only one with scar tissue.
“Do you think Natasha will mind if Bruce is there?” Nemi wondered. “At the waffle thing?”
“She'll be stoked!” Mim said, confidently. “Why wouldn't she be?”
“Well, the last time Bruce saw her, he kind of tried to kill her... a lot,” Nemi said.
“Pshaw,” Mim said. “That was, like, forever ago. And then Bruce totally saved the day. That instantly counteracts any accidental murder attempts. Just come say 'hey', it'll be fine.”
Nemi looked skeptical, but that was her default expression when Mim was talking to her so it could mean that she was totally on board with the plan.
“Okay,” she said, after a bit.
Not quite the level of enthusiasm Mim was hoping for, but it was better than how she was when she first came. She would have never agreed to it then. They were making some progress.
“...But the applications of that are—”
“I know, I was thinking that. If we could use it for—”
“Right, which is way better than what we had for it. Tissue regeneration is a huge deal. We should invite this Cho chick to visit and let her play around here.”
“I have her number.”
“Geez, Banner, you got a hot girl's number? It's like I don't even know you.”
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S interrupted them. “The waffles are here.”
“Awesome!” Tony said. “Tell Natasha. Send a bot down for them. We'll be up in a second.”
“Nemi thinks Natasha doesn't like Bruce because he tried to smash her to death,” Mim reported, as they got ready to go. “She's being wiggy about it.”
“Nemi is wiggy about everything,” Tony said. “It'll be fine.”
“That's what I said,” Mim said. “But sometimes trying to get her to listen to me is harder than getting you to listen to me.”
“What?” Tony joked. “Were you saying something?” Mim pecked him.
Bruce and Nemi did look a little apprehensive as they went to the elevator. Tony hoped they would calm down once they saw that Natasha didn't have any hard feelings. Unless she did have hard feelings. Then it would be hella awkward. But, Tony had successfully navigated his way through dinners with rival warlords and a party with six ex-girlfriends in attendance; two Avengers being snippy about accidental death threats wouldn't be that hard to deal with.
Besides, there were waffles. Nobody was a bitch when there were waffles involved. They were the great equalizer.
Bruce hadn't lost his elevator weirdness, Nemi still clung to his leg as they headed up to the second leisure level. Natasha was already seated at the kitchen island, Altan wrapped around the barstool next to hers. She looked awful in the proper daylight. Washed out and bruised, and Altan still looked kind of dead in the eyes.
“Hey, look, I found a hobo on the way up,” Tony said, gesturing to Bruce. “He looked hungry, so I invited him for waffles. Hope that's cool.”
“J.A.R.V.I.S already told me he was here. It's fine,” Natasha said. “Hey.” She hopped down from her stool and then looked like she regretted it. Altan curled up in distress and she held her side, but in a casual way, like they weren't going to notice her sudden decision to crumple sideways.
“Stay there, I'll come to you,” Bruce said, quickly, and Nemi got on all fours to pad with him. “Hey.”
They shook hands and there was slight awkwardness, more on Bruce's part than Natasha's. Nemi waved a paw at Altan, shyly, and he tongued back at her.
“Nice to see you again,” Natasha said.
“Yeah, right,” Bruce said. “I mean, it is. Sorry. Um, are you okay? Tony told me what happened. How's your head? Did you lose consciousness?”
“Briefly,” Natasha said. “Steve says I was out for about a minute, but I was up and on my feet again right away once I woke up. But apparently, I called him 'Chuck' for the next ten minutes and kept asking him to get me a grilled cheese sandwich.”
“Did he?” Tony asked.
“Yes,” Natasha said. “He did. I think he might have made it himself.”
“Of course, he did,” Mim muttered.
“Yeah, that's classic concussion,” Bruce said. “Uh, the confusion, not the grilled cheese. What did they give you for pain?”
“Tylenol-3s,” Natasha said.
Nemi was moving her paw around and making Altan follow with his head. He was looking blank but also kind of amused at her.
“Are you taking them?” Bruce asked.
“My head's not that bad,” Natasha said.
“But your ribs,” Bruce said, pointing to her side. “If you're in too much pain, you won't expand your lungs fully. You'll get pneumonia, and that'll set you back longer than if you just take the medicine and rest.”
Natasha gave him a lopsided smile. “I'll take that under advisement, Dr. Banner,” she said.
Bruce remembered he didn't know how to talk to people and froze up for a second. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Force of habit. I was a doctor doctor, for a while.”
“It's fine,” she said. “I don't mind.”
Bruce was done with his talking, and nodded and moved away, Nemi hurrying after him.
“Did he, like, just have a conversation?” Mim said. “Like a human conversation with someone who wasn't you?”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “I think he did.”
“Is this what it's like being a parent?” Mim wondered. “I feel so proud. You've raised him to have social skills, Tony. You're an awesome dad.”
“I know, right?” Tony said. “He didn't even get all bashful until the end. That was a solid conversation. And he went and did that conference thing and came home with a girl's number. I am an awesome dad.”
He held up his fist and Mim bumped it with her head. The elevator dinged and Butterfingers rolled out, holding a bag in his grasper. He pip-pipped hello and rolled over to Tony to deliver the waffley goodness within.
“Good job,” Tony said. “Did you tip?”
“Weee-eee-whoop!” Butterfingers said.
“Good boy,” Tony said. “See, I raise all my kids to have good manners. I am an awesome dad.”
Nemi relaxed once she realized Altan wasn't going to try to strangle her or anything. Well, she Nemi-relaxed, which was not relaxed, but more not actively curled into a ball of anxiety. She sat in a chair at the table and Mim sat near her paw, in case she needed back up.
“How's your apartment?” Tony asked Natasha, as they ate. “Too girly? Not girly enough?”
“It's a good level of girly,” Natasha said. “I like the blue.”
“Excuse you, it's ocean green,” Tony said, in mock offense. “Pepper was excited to work on something less testosterone-fueled, but I didn't think you were a lace and toile kind of girl.”
“It's nice,” Natasha said. “I like it. It's big.”
“That's how we do things here,” Tony said. “We've got Bruce moved in and you're covered. We've just got Thor's epic worthy abode and Hawkeye's bachelor nest to finish up.”
Natasha and Altan exchanged weird, conspiratorial smiles. “Yeah, Barton's gonna love a bachelor nest,” she said.
“Oh, and Steve saw his, but he didn't seem as impressed as he should have been,” Tony said. Mim nodded. He'd been polite, but when wasn't he? “I don't know if I did it wrong or he just can't express emotions other than wholesome.”
“Wholesome isn't an emotion,” Bruce said.
“Steve makes it an emotion,” Tony said. He nodded to Natasha as he swallowed some waffle. “You see him. How's he doing in the Great Big World?”
Natasha shrugged. “He's adapting,” she said. “He still has his moments, but mostly he's figuring it out.”
“Nat had to explain sexting to him the other day,” Altan told Mim and Nemi, with a grin. “That was interesting.”
“Oh-Em-Gee! Was he appalled?” Mim wondered.
“No,” Altan said, cocking his head to the side thoughtfully. “He just nodded and walked away. And Issie said something about 'you guys don't do anything face-to-face anymore, do you?'. She wouldn't answer any follow-up questions.”
“Lame,” Mim said.
“The weird thing about him—” Natasha said.
“One of the weird things,” Tony corrected.
“One of the weird things,” Natasha said. “Is that he's fine if you give him something really complicated to do. Computer stuff, fine. Texting, fine. Laying out strategy on the 3D projection screen, fine. But then you walk into a room and he's looking at a coffee maker like it's the most confusing thing he's ever seen and Issie is standing in a puddle of watery grounds, with her tail deflated.”
Mim giggled in delight at the image. Her favorite Steve stories were always the ones where he looked like an idiot. It was petty of her, but after so many stories from everyone—especially Dejeni—about how perfect Issie was, Mim was thrilled when someone came along to poke a hole in her magnificence. Knowing her now, Mim actually didn't mind her that much—liked her even—but she couldn't shake off years of thinking of Issie as the poster on the wall she'd never be.
“I think it makes sense, though,” Bruce said. “I mean, it's one thing to be taught how to do something you've never done before. But...everyone knows how to use a phone, right? But anyone under thirty, if you give them a rotary phone, they're going to freak. They don't know what to do. That's what we're asking Steve to do in reverse. Here's a thing you're sure you know how to use, but it doesn't work like that anymore.”
“That's a good point,” Natasha said. “But it's still hilarious.”
Bruce flicked an eyebrow. “I didn't say it wasn't,” he said.
“I've been trying to get Issie to tell Steve he needs to go out more,” Altan said. “And she says she is, but he's not listening.”
“Yeah, I know what that's like,” Mim said, giving Nemi a glare.
Nemi blinked at her, looking innocent. “Bruce goes out,” she said. “He went to the conference. In a plane and everything.”
“Aww, I know,” Mim said. She banged her head into Nemi's paw in a bro fist motion. “You did good, Nem. I'm, like, super proud.” She told Altan, “he got a girl's number!”
“She's just a colleague,” Nemi said, quickly. “She's doing interesting work.”
Altan hissed in amusement. “Very cool,” he said. “Better than Steve's doing. He won't even go bowling.”
“Oh, man,” Mim said. “We should have an Avengers bowling night. We could build an alley in here. It would be super team-building. I'm going to tell Tony right now. Hey, Tony!”
She flew over to his shoulder, but behind her, she could hear Nemi say, 'yeah, she's always like that'.
Breakfast went well. Bruce didn't say much, but he was totally not weird, and the waffles were great. Tony bridged the conversation gaps and had a great time talking to people that weren't Pepper or J.A.R.V.I.S. Not that he didn't love them both, but people he could actually have in the same room as him was nice.
Bruce cleared Tony for 'very light work' after breakfast and then proceeded to say no to all suggestions Tony made of what 'very light work' might entail. Mim kept getting lower and lower on Tony's shoulder, moping until her beak was in his neck. Finally, they found something Bruce deemed to be safe, and Mim perked up.
Natasha insisted she didn't need anyone to hang with her and put herself in front of the television, Altan making a saddle of himself on the couch behind her. Tony and Bruce went down to the lab to engage in very light work.
“Sir, Agent Romanoff is behaving strangely,” J.A.R.V.I.S said, at some point later in time. It could have been five minutes later, or three days, Tony hadn't been paying attention.
He was literally elbow-deep in a project; Mim actually inside it, checking to make sure all the wires were where they were supposed to be. He had no idea what time it was, or where he was in the Tower, or if Bruce had gone to bed, or if it was time to go to bed, or how long he'd been at it for.
“Strange how?” Tony asked. Mim peered up out of the hole she was in, a wire in her beak.
“I believe she might be somnambulating,” J.A.R.V.I.S reported.
“Sleepwalking?” Tony said. “Natasha? Does she do that?”
“That can happen after a head injury,” Bruce said, from somewhere behind him. Evidently, he had not gone to bed. “Lots of weird sleep stuff can.”
“Are you sure?” Tony said. He looked over his shoulder to say, “J.A.R.V.I.S, not you, Bruce.” He pulled his arm out of the hole and Mim followed, still holding the wire. “Where is she?”
“She's on the gym level,” J.A.R.V.I.S said. “I've denied her access. She's...not pleased.”
“How did she get down there?” Bruce said.
“That's my fault,” J.A.R.V.I.S said. “I didn't notice anything was amiss until she headed for the gym. I reminded her of her restrictions and she didn't answer. I thought perhaps she was merely ignoring me, but I now believe she's simply not hearing me. My brain scan puts her in an NREM stage of sleep. I've attempted to speak to her and wake her gently, but it's been ineffective. She keeps entering the same wrong code into the keypad. If she tries too many times, my protocols will shut down that level entirely. Should I let her in?”
“Yes,” Tony said.
“No,” Bruce said, at the same time.
They looked at each other and Nemi made a 'what the hell?' gesture.
“She'll hurt herself,” Bruce said.
“Once J.A.R.V.I.S shuts down, it'll take me hours to reboot him,” Tony said. “We won't be able to get to the—”
“Dude, it's the gym,” Mim said. “You can't even use it right now.”
Okay, that was a valid point.
“Keep her out, J.A.R.V.I.S, we're coming up,” Tony said.
As reported, Natasha was standing at the door to the gym, entering the same series of numbers into the keypad, which beeped grumpily and denied her access. Just as they got off the elevator, J.A.R.V.I.S' pre-programmed message about entering lockdown sounded. The keypad went red instead of green and the blast doors closed.
“Shit,” Tony said. “Sorry, J.A.R.V.I.S.”
“It's fine, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S said. “I've isolated the protocols; the rest of the building is operating as normal.”
Natasha didn't seem to notice that anything had changed. She kept entering the same code. Altan was curled around her leg, scoping the hallway behind her, like he was looking out for attack.
“Wait,” Bruce said, as Tony went toward her. “What are you doing?”
“I...don't know,” Tony said. “What do you want me to do?”
Bruce and Nemi looked at each other. “I don't know,” Bruce said. “Best thing to do is get her back to bed without waking her up.”
“Okay,” Tony said. “You first.”
Bruce gave a chuckle. Neither of them moved. Mim flew over and put herself on the ground, waving her wing to Altan. He didn't notice her. Tony ventured forward.
“Hey, Nat,” he said. “What's up?”
No response. Nemi padded past him, going to join Mim.
“It's Tony,” Tony said. “You're being weird. You should stop it and go to bed.”
No response. Tony was almost right behind her now.
“Nat? Sweetheart?” Tony said. He reached out and put his fingertips on her shoulder.
Next thing he knew, he had a fist in his face. He barely managed to grab her wrist and prevent the punch from landing, but her foot swiped his knee out and he was on his back on the floor. All the wind was knocked out of him and for a moment he couldn't breathe and it was like having his ARC reactor pulled out. He instinctively grabbed at his chest to make sure it was there. It wasn't, because he didn't have it anymore.
“Ouch,” Mim said. “Not cool!”
“I'm okay,” Tony said, to Bruce. “Retrospectively, that was not a good life choice.”
“Um...” Mim said.
Tony lifted his head. Altan was slowly winding around Nemi. Natasha was poised to fight but wasn't attacking anyone.
“Um...” Mim said, again, as Altan wound tighter.
Nemi was perfectly still and calm.
“Um...” Mim said.
“It's okay,” Bruce said. “Natasha. You're okay. We're not trying to hurt you. We're friends. You know us. Just relax.”
Altan was now totally wrapped around Nemi. He wasn't squeezing, more just using her as a resting place, but Tony was afraid he might start if they did something wrong. Mim was on Nemi's head, looking down and flapping her wings like she was going to just shoo him away.
“Natasha,” Bruce tried again. “Please. Please stop...” He reached out to her.
“Stop!” Tony said, sitting up fast. “No offense, but it's going to be a fuckton worse if she hits you. The Other Guy won't like that.”
Bruce's hand went back. He looked down to Nemi and then back to Natasha. He took several huge steps back from her.
“J.A.R.V.I.S, make a really loud noise,” he said.
A second later, some sort of End of the World Siren went off, and Natasha hit the ground, did a roll, and...woke up. The lights were on in her eyes, but she looked understandably terrified. Altan shook his head and was looking Nemi right in the eyes. She blinked at him and he blinked back.
“Natasha?” Bruce said.
She went into a defensive pose.
“It's okay,” Bruce said, in a really soothing voice. “You're okay. You were sleeping and now you're awake. You're safe. It's just me and Tony. We're friends. You're fine.”
Natasha relaxed a smidgen. She reached around her, patting desperately.
“Altan's over there,” Bruce said, pointing.
Natasha and Altan looked at each other and Altan dropped away from Nemi, slithering super fast to her. Tony was only now able to breathe properly and rubbed at his chest. Mim patted Nemi a few times, then came to see Tony.
“That was intense,” she said.
“No kidding,” Tony said.
“Don't tell Pepper,” Mim added.
“I won't,” Tony said.
“But actually tell her, because you should,” Mim said.
“I will,” Tony said.
Bruce somehow had Natasha pretty calm. She was still confused, but not hostile, and Nemi was over and smiling at Altan like he hadn't just tried to squeeze her to Dust. Tony got to his feet. He wasn't going to lie, just getting knocked on his back was a testament to how much the surgery had taken out of him. It was hard to recover from a minor blow.
“There we go,” Bruce said, helping Natasha up. Altan was curled around her neck now. “We're going to take you back to bed.”
“Okay,” Natasha said. She held her side as she walked. Probably her ninja moves hadn't been great on her ribs.
Tony and Mim held up the rear as Bruce guided Natasha to the elevator, chatting in a doctor-doctor voice and keeping her calm.
They got Natasha up to her floor and into her apartment. There were signs of her bumping about in there, with a few things knocked over. Tony righted them and followed Bruce and Natasha into the bedroom. She sat down on the bed and Altan slithered into a coil beside her.
“Sorry about trying to kill you,” Natasha said, still sounding confused.
“Don't worry about it,” Bruce said, amiably. Nemi waved a paw in a dismissive fashion. “You were asleep. I know a thing or two about doing stuff when you don't know you're doing it. Besides, I tried to kill you, once. Now we're even.”
Life was weird, Mim thought. After Altan tried to kill Nemi, Natasha and Bruce seemed to be, like, friendly with each other. Much more at ease. Bruce was still Awkward McAwkwardson, but he was holding conversations, and even joking with her, and Altan and Nemi stood closer to one another. And it turned out both Natasha and Bruce liked to meditate, so they did that together, and then, after a couple of days, when Natasha was allowed to be more active, they did yoga together, too.
“That's fucking adorable,” Tony said.
“I know, right?” Mim said. “They're chill friends. That's so cute. Bruce is making friends, Tony.”
“I am an awesome dad,” Tony said.
They did invite Tony to join them in their yoga stuff because Bruce said it would be a good way for Tony to start getting active again. So, Tony tried. He went up to the now unlocked gym, and sat on a mat, and followed instructions as Bruce and Natasha bent themselves around, and Nemi stretched her arms and legs out, and Altan tied himself in knots. Mim stretched her wings and her legs and waited to be filled with the peace that Tony's new-found inner calm was supposed to bring her, but she didn't. Tony didn't have any inner calm.
“This is lame,” he said.
“I know,” Mim said. “Let's go build stuff.”
“Okay,” Tony said.
They left Bruce and Natasha to be bendy together and went back to the Very Light Work. Tony wanted to do Light Work while Bruce was distracted, but Mim made him stick to doctor's orders. Mostly.
Tony had been having weekly check-ups from S.H.I.E.L.D doctors and this week he got the all-clear for flying again (regular flying, not Iron Man flying; that was specifically mentioned) so he would be able to go to L.A and see Pepper if he wanted to. Or just make a run for it to somewhere where people would stop telling him to eat salads and sleep more.
“But he should be eating salads and sleeping more,” Nemi said, when Mim complained. “He should have been doing that before the heart surgery.”
“You are terrible at listening to people complain!” Mim said. “Stop helping and being right!”
“Sorry,” Nemi said. “I'll be really wrong from now on.”
The S.H.I.E.L.D doctor cleared Natasha to go home, too.
“She's not allowed field work for another week,” Altan said.
“That's sensible,” Nemi said. “Um, I mean...sorry to hear that and...yeah. That."
Altan laughed his little hissy laugh. “I know they're right,” he said. “It's just annoying. Natasha likes to be doing things. Not that being here hasn't been...interesting.”
“Interesting is how Tony lives,” Nemi said. “If you want normal, you have to go elsewhere.”
“Normal is overrated,” Altan said.
“Agreed,” Nemi said.
Aww, they were getting on so well.
The S.H.I.E.L.D chopper came for Natasha later that day. Mim half-expected Captain Chivalry and his Homemade Grilled Cheese to be there, but it was just some agents she didn't know. Tony and Bruce walked her up to the helipad to say goodbye.
“Thanks for letting me stay,” Natasha said to Tony.
“You don't have to thank me,” Tony said. “It's your home, too. You have a place, you know the codes. J.A.R.V.I.S will let you in. Come whenever, stay for whatever. You don't have to talk to me or anyone. Doesn't matter if I'm here. It's yours. You need it, it's here.”
Natasha looked at her feet and Altan smiled at Mim. “I'll remember that,” Natasha said, after a second. She looked up and then gave him a hug around the neck. Altan twisted down her leg and Mim flew down there to touch her head to his.
“Keep Nat safe,” Mim said.
“I will,” Altan said
“Okay, we have to stop being girls now,” Tony said, and stepped back from the hug. He ducked from Natasha's playfully raised hand. “Hey! You can't karate chop me yet, you're on Very Light Asskicking.”
“It doesn't take that much effort,” Natasha said. She lowered her hand and nodded at him.
Tony nodded back and he moved away for Nemi and Bruce to get in there. Mim couldn't hear what they were saying, but Natasha had her head cocked to the side and was talking through a little smile, and Bruce was half smiling back, and Nemi had her paws folded in front of her while Altan looked all sly.
“Are they digging each other?” Tony wondered.
“I think they might be,” Mim said. “If not digging digging, then definitely friendly digging.”
Natasha looked like she was going to hug Bruce, but he got bashful and stepped away before she could, offering her a handshake instead. Tony and Mim both groaned.
“Dammnit, Banner, you are not smooth,” Tony said. “He should have gone for the hug.”
“He'll get there,” Mim said. “We just need to give him more time. He's still got stuff to work out.”
Tony nodded. “Yeah, fair enough,” he said. “I just want him to be all right.”
Mim did, too. But people had scars. That was okay. Especially when you had people who loved and understood you enough to overlook them.