Tony Stark walked through the narrow door and basked in the glory of the innumerable glints and glistens reflected at him from the neat, recessed cubbies lining the closet walls.
He ran fingers over the shelf bottoms at shoulder level along the right wall, then the left. Taking a luxurious two minutes from his schedule to enjoy his collection before making a selection.
Many might question the validity of, and definitely the need for, a walk in closet whose sole purpose was housing designer shades accrued over a half lifetime of globetrotting.
Ask Tony Stark to explain that closet's existence? He'd probably summarize it with: The sun was an ass.
Step outside of... anything? Shooting pains, right in your eyes!
Solution? Shades. Problem solved.
It just becomes a little more complicated when it just so happens to be comfortable to keep them on indoors as well. But indoor lighting was often -often enough anyway- overdone itself. White, daylight fluorescents? No thank you.
Then there was what his father had told him:
"In this business, you can't afford to show weakness. Competitors see a chink in the armor, they'll take a bite outta you faster'n you can patch it back up.
"Remember, Tony: The eyes are the window to the soul. You'll need to harden yours. So expressive. Too expressive; Starks are made of tougher stuff."
Granted, the guy had been on his third scotch, but he'd imparted to his kid some important wisdom. And Tony'd taken it to heart.
Over the ensuing years he'd trained his face to only express the thoughts, emotions, strengths, that he wanted it to. But for some Godforsaken reason, his eyes refused to learn. Every time he looked in a mirror it was like having a staring contest with the world's brownest eyed, begging puppy. He'd never survive the weapons industry at that rate. Let alone his first semester at MIT.
So... sunglasses. Beautiful, fashionable, luxurious, sunglasses!
And that thought brought him to the end of his perusal.
With a spin, he reached down to hip level and snatched a fetching pair of red and golds. Savoring the feeling of the cool alloy sliding into its rightful place above and behind his ears; the way the world dimmed pleasantly as the front snuggled down to hug the bridge of his nose.
He allowed himself the extra time and glanced into one of the handful of reflective circles hung at head height between shelving tiers.
Hm. He always got a kick out of those mirror coated grey lenses. People never could make up their minds whether they wanted to check themselves out in the reflection, or ask him to remove the distraction from the conversation he wasn't paying attention to anyway. Rather: the conversation they thought he wasn't paying attention to.
Walking to the narrow door whence he'd entered, Tony paused with his hand outstretched... Nah. He wasn't going to change what he felt like wearing just because it might add to some rando's discomfiture at being in the same room with a Stark.
If only his parents could see him now.
Smoothing out the purse his lips had betrayed his beautiful face with, he gave the door a push and made for the foyer. Knowing full well that Happy would be waiting and... 'happy' to see him.
"Boss," delivered with the customary head tilt and hand signaling the direction he was hoping Tony felt like taking.
"Happy," accompanied by the customary, 'naw, let's walk this way today', head tilt rejoinder.
Falling in step nearly abreast of the billionaire, Hogan whispered something into his sleeve cuff and adjusted his standard black tie.
"Something going on I should know about? You know it makes me nervous every time you do that thing you-"
"I don't know what you're talking about-"
"You just did it like, seven seconds ago. Don't tell me you 'don't know-"
"Don't know what you're talking about, Boss."
"Yeah, see: that's not helping." Tony huffed and sent a covert glance around the atrium like anteroom they were trekking across. His ride visible through the ceiling high glass... walls that made up the majority of that cardinal direction of the manor. Modest manor.
"That Men in Black routine gives me the cold and clammies. You got something to say, how 'bout try just saying it?"
Happy slowed his paces to match the eccentric, sharply dressed philanthropist's and sent a hand signal to a nearby, nearly invisible camera he knew would catch it just fine.
"I don't know what you're talking abou-"
"Yeah, yeah. That's getting a little old, don'tcha think?" Tony asked. Flicking his shades up just long enough to give Happy a clear shot of his 'serious mode' eyes.
"I really don't know what you're tal-"
"You don't wanna talk: Fine. Aborting communication attempts... now," said while fishing a Stark phone from a front pocket he'd never needed to put anything else into. "You're impossible when you're like this, you know that?" He said, pulling up his personal email server and flipping through boring, boring, and more boring business headings he really wasn't in the mood for right then.
"You wanted the Audi today, right?" Happy asked, speaking only as he opened the manor door and held it for the guy suddenly engrossed with a stray piece of coding he'd put on hold earlier that morning.
Brushing your teeth was a heck of a lot more efficient without one and a half hands laying down the base for the Pentagon's next firewall update.
"What's that, Mr. Hogan? I couldn't hear you over the sound of my own awesomeness," he said, glancing through his glass phone with just enough attention to confirm with an offhanded nod that that was indeed the car he'd wanted.
"Sorry. I'm walking you to the car. Nothing else going..." Tony looked away from his screen at the pause, attempting to track where it was that his glorified bodyguard's attention was suddenly transfixed, "on. Every thing is completely normal, and safe, and there is absolutely nothing to worry about." A less than 'completely normal' face swiveled his way. "Now get in the car," Happy said. Two seconds before he remembered the doors didn't open themselves.
Tony stopped just far enough from the safety of his bulletproof chariot that he was pretty sure he could see Happy's skin beginning to crawl.
"Mm-hm. That's why you have your agents on my roof? With anti vehicle weapons and-"
"Those are long range stun guns. You designed them yoursel-"
"Yes, myself. Stroke of genius, but not the point, Hogan," Tony said. Swaying slightly from one foot to the other. Loving the slight squish of his new sneaker's soles against his seamless socks.
And the way the guy holding the luxury car door for him was getting twitchier every second he didn't get his butt in the back seat.
Taking pity when the poor nanny's face started on a light sheen of nervous sweat, he offered, "This will all go much easier if you just spill."
A heartbeat and three quarters devoted to mulling over the words and Happy was giving a terse nod. Ushering his employer slash long time friend into the plush seat and shutting the door as soon as all limbs were clear.
He rounded the rear bumper and slipped in behind the wheel, securing his seatbelt before rechecking his mirrors and making sure 'The Iron Man' had his fastened as well.
"Hokay, so when am I hearing that excellent explanation? I was promised juicy and ribald," insisted the goatee'd passenger.
"I lied. Not telling," said while the engine turned over and the transmission was put into drive.
Tony's jaw dropped. Happy- Happy never lied to him.
That beat where his glorified chauffeur spun the wheel and pulled away from the house, Tony spent staring out the window, glad that he hadn't removed his shades just because all his cars were blackout tinted. One hundred ten percent UV blocking. Full spectrum light-
"Yeah, Boss, that was the lie," Happy said, breaking Tony out of his fast developing funk.
Not phased by being stared at by the billionaire in the back seat, Hogan continued. "Didn't wanna say back there. In case the area was," he paused as the car hit the end of the drive way, giving the street a thorough sweep and listening in on his security only comm channel. Tony could always tell when he did that. His head tilted ever so slightly to the left. Though Happy'd deny it even while looking at his own reflection doing it, staring him down impassively.
"In case our position was compromised."
"What?" The straight delivery had Tony slightly concerned. Especially since his head of security usually kept all the secret agent stuff pretty darn close to the vest. "You mean right in front of the house? You thought someone was spying on us, right in front of-"
"Not us. You," said the guy finally pulling out onto the deserted lane and taking off.
Tony saw him glance in the rear view and once again was grateful for the sunglasses keeping prying eyes out of his personal space. He gave Happy the chance to continue at his own, sloth's pace.
"We got a call last night, around the time you went to sleep-"
"So, actually this morning then?" Happy didn't smile at the correction. Tony wasn't disappointed.
"Your head hit the table; a call came in. JARVIS answered. The voice was scrambled." Happy followed the smooth curve the road took and checked every mirror 'covertly' before reopening his mouth. "JARVIS traced the call to a cell tower not ten miles out, but nothing more solid. Signal was pretty well impeded," the last words bit off like a hunk of tobacco in an old western movie. All they needed were a pair of horses and some wide brim hats. And saddle sores.
"So you, your security team, and JARVIS can't trace the call?" Tony asked. A little creeping feeling tickling up his ribs. Almost making him want to scratch.
"That is correct, Boss."
"Nothing further? No, 'we're working on it'?" He wasn't gonna let that be where this conversation ended. And since when did Happy say 'correct'?
"We're working on it. Everyone's working on it. JARVIS is working double time on it, and my team's got the house covered from stem to stern. They're not slacking until we've got a handle on this." The confident tone almost assuaged some of the worry Tony hadn't noticed taking up residence in his chest.
"Uh-huh. Is that why we're taking a different route to the venue? Our normal thing 'compromised'?" Tony nearly preened at the completely aloof tone he managed.
"Uh, it's why we're not going to the conference. Like, at all." The clunk of the doors being double locked did nothing to make that sound one iota less disturbing.
"Happy, buddy, where are we going, if not the one conference I've... ever actually looked forward to? I wrote the guest list personally. When has that ever happened?!" The guy driving the car opened his mouth but got about half a vowel out before Tony was speaking again.
"Pepper looked proud when... PEPPER!" The driver swerved just a hair at the loud name yelled from right behind him.
"Pep; what about Pepper? Is she being targeted? Is she safe- do we have eyes on- why am I not on the phone with her now?!" Tony felt in his phone pocket, heart rate jumping higher than a cushy ride in one of his favorite cars should push it when all he found was emptiness. "Wha- wher- Where's my phone? Happy? Why don't I have my phone?!"
"Security risk, Boss. I lifted it off you, left it at the manor. And don't worry about CEO Miss Potts; she's in Bangkok. Our East Asian security team is with her, has been alerted of the threat, is being kept abreast of the situation and," he paused just long enough to replace all the air he'd just used, "only Iron Man was mentioned on the call. She's clear of all potential danger." Again, the confident tone didn't add to Tony's building- mounting anxieties, but to say he was feeling any less worried... wouldn't have been truthful.
"Happy. Stop the car."
"Wha- No. We're en route to a secure location. I cannot deviate from the cleared-"
"I'm serious; pull over. Dinner's coming up and it's coming up fast."
"When did you eat dinner? There's nothing about 'dinner' in my logs- Oh, God, no." Happy took one hand off the wheel and pressed it against the side of his head, activating a comm channel, "I'm gonna need a med team on standby. I repeat: Need medical team on standby. Mr. Stark has been poisoned- we need a poison specialist stat!"
"Really, Happy? Do I look- It was a euphemism- a figure of speech," Tony said, barely managing not face palming at the ridiculous overreaction. "No breakfast yet either. I scheduled a buffet to kick off the conferen-"
"Belay that- I repeat: Belay that. False alarm. False alarm everybody. Mr. Stark is fine. Everything is going smooth on my end," Happy spoke a little louder than Tony figured was necessary for comms that had the Stark name behind them, but he'd forgive the frazzled guy his transgressions.
"I was told you skipped dinner to 'work on some intense coding'. And play a three tier round of Minesweeper. So, don't scare me like that,"
"First: It's three-dimensional Minesweeper. And second: Who told you that?"
"JARVIS. We have a 'thing' worked out."
"Uh-uh. Not happening,"
"It's already happened-"
"I don't like it when you two have 'things'. I like it when we keep our personal stuff personal. Happy?" He prompted when there was no immediate response.
"Can't do that, Boss. Gotta keep you safe; gotta have 'things' with every possible-"
"See, that's called an 'invasion of privacy', and I'm not digging that. Now can we stop so I can vomit, or is this car going to the cleaners?" A pregnant pause filled the cab far longer than Tony was comfortable waiting.
"No can do, Boss. I'll have her detailed when this whole mess blows over-"
"Okay, fine! I'll swallow it." After several deep breaths and a little bile coming up to bite him in the throat, Tony decided it was once again safe to speak. "What is your deal, Hogan? What kind of threat could possibly be so bad that the entire worldwide security retainers network is on red alert?"
After a sour moment where Tony was considering jumping into the front seat and wresting the steering wheel and pedals away from his 'valet' type... person, he sank as far back into the plush leather of the bench as possible and caved. "Sure."
"Okay. Last night-"
"Last night, a call came in. Some schmo, disguised voice, bad grammar, saying some really really messed up things. Lots of giggling. Long story short, 'Iron Man's gonna get it', and I'm gonna have nightmares for the next... probably three months." The barest hint of levity bleeding into the last half sentence sent Tony's heart rate a few ticks higher.
"We deal with that kind of thing all the time, right? Why all the amped up... everything?" Tony asked with an exasperated hand flourish.
"... Keep your head down, Boss." Happy mumbled as they pulled through the first vaguely busy intersection of the drive.
To spite him, Tony stayed exactly as he was. Slouched really low in his seat. So not the greatest spite possible, but, eh.
"Alright. What're we doing instead of the- my conference? Hm? Where you taking me?" Tony took a second to listen to what he'd just said. "Okay, that sounds bad. Forget I said that last part." Great. Now he was saying weird things and Happy was bound to notice that tiny bit of sweat building up along his forehead and his heart was going a little faster than it maybe should, off a treadmill, and someone really creepy was after him and-
"Boss? Take a sec- Take a deep breath, hold that. Now out. You do that while I talk, yeah?" Tony sent a small nod the rear view's way and breathed from his diaphragm.
"Cool," said Happy, after about two of those. "The reason everyone's panties are all twisted up, is, and get ready for this one: This creepy scumbag called up on our secure line." He checked the backseat with a glance thrown over his right shoulder. "Right?"
"Only SHIELD has that number. I thought we gave that one to old One Eye?" Tony asked, noting the perplexed expression visible on the unobstructed portions of his own face. In the rear view.
"Right," came the grim reply.
"Yep," affirmed with a little extra annunciation on that 'p'.
Several dozen seconds of... taut silence elapsed, broken only by the sound of the occasional car traveling in the oncoming lane, before the chauffeur opened his mouth again. "We're here."
Tony looked up from where he'd been distracting himself staring at the callused pad of his right index finger. Thinking it ridiculous that that fingerprint, with its genetically dictated whirls and waves, was worth more than Stark Tower itself.
"Um, no. I don't think so. We are definitely not there," he insisted, sitting straight and blinking to make sure what he was seeing wasn't actually some terrifying mirage.
"'Fraid so, Boss. It's a safe building-"
"It looks like a tomb waiting to happen! Why do we- I even own a warehouse?"
"You own a lot of warehouse-"
"Not like that one, Happy. That one's about to cave in on itself and take us down with it!" Tony crossed his arms and shoved himself to the exact center of the cushy bench. "I'm staying in the car. 'Nothin' you can do to change my mind."
"... Not even booting up a full lab and computer array?"
"You're shitting me," said while staring hard at the half of his driver's face he could get at from the back seat.
"Swear to God, all the bells and whistles," said while ignoring the scrutiny.
"... We leave as soon as the coast is clear?"
"Well. Alright then," Tony nodded, breaking off the stare to scoot back near his door and uncross his arms. Rather looking forward to finishing that code that was floating around, tickling the back of his mind, loath to leave him be.
Happy parked as close to the front door as possible, killed the engine while scanning the spacious, empty lot, and opened the driver's door.
Tony watched through the window as his overprotector took one more protracted look around, even attempting to peer up onto the warehouse roof, which was an impossible angle, before reaching down and opening his boss's door.
When Happy didn't step back from the open door to allow him the customary room to climb out and stand, Tony went back to crossed arms mode and posed the most obvious question.
"What're you doing?"
"Covering. In case of snipers." Delivered with not an ounce of 'don't worry, just kidding'.
"Uh-huh. No. Scoot- Scoot back, I need blacktop under my shoes, not black leather." Taking a peek down, Tony confirmed that the, size twelve maybe, shoes were indeed in his way.
"Right," Happy said, obliging the request to not get himself stepped on.
"Nice shine job, by the way. You do that yourself?"
"Nah; new pair. Keep your head down," the bodyguard said, giving the door a firm shove shut soon as Tony was fully out of the back seat. "Stick close," he added, putting an arm around Tony's shoulders and the other over his head.
"You know all my suits are reinforced with Kevlar, right?"
"Sure, Boss, but your skull isn't, and neither are your billion dollar hands. Stay close," Happy insisted when Tony halfheartedly attempted to win himself an inch or two of personal space.
They quick-trundled to the door, which Tony was practically pinned against while the guy he generally considered a friend took two seconds too long fishing out a key to unlock the thing.
"Can we hurry this along? I mean, this is flattering but, frankly, a little uncomfor-"
"We're in," Happy seemed to say more to... someone else than to the guy he was now smooshing through the suddenly open door.
Thankful that the guy had a good enough hold of him that he didn't fall backwards, Tony extricated his person, brushed himself off while Happy shut and locked the door, and turned to take in what promised to be a temporary nightma-
"SURPRISE!" Tony, again, nearly fell backwards, this time squishing Happy into the stupid warehouse door. Fumbling his shades pretty well as they slipped off his face and... Yep. He was never wearing those again. They'd touched a strange floor. Maybe he'd burn them? Butterfingers, You, and Dummy always loved getting to hold the fire extinguisher when he-
"Uh, Boss?" A breath against his ear queried.
"Yeah?" Said Tony, glancing back and to the side to bring the bodyguard's face into view.
"...Surprise?" Said with a head tilt devoted to indicating in front of them.
Tony cocked his head frontwards and-
"Happy Birthday!" Came a call from a crowd that sounded far more confused than previous... Oh yeah. That's why he was squishing a grown man into a door. Right.
Finally getting over the 'surprise', he patted an errant Happy forearm and took a few swaggerific steps into the open space between the two of them and a gaggle of gussied up... work associates? Oh wait, that looked like Bruce back there...
"Surprise enough for you, Hogan?" Quipped a mellow voice from the crowd who looked like they'd collectively been nearly as surprised as the one they'd been surprising.
"Yeah, Widow. Good hustle everybody," Happy said, raising his voice as if giving a pep talk to his security team. "I just want everyone to be mindful and remember that we are on lockdown, and that windows are your enemy," instructed while pointing to either side and realizing that... there were no windows. Hm.
"But, my birthday isn't for... like, two weeks. What gives?" Asked a Tony who was, unbelievably, more confused than ever.
"It had to be early, or you would have seen it coming." That voice- Natasha's- once again rang over the crowd that, like the tectonic plates of old, was beginning to break into factions and scatter about the spacious warehouse panic room slash party pad.
"Yeh, Bozz. H'ppy Birffd'y," said a Happy with an entire half slice of cake in his mouth. Buttercream icing threatening to slough off his bottom lip and doom his blazer to an early cleaning.
Tony hoped it happened soon. He wouldn't be paying for that. And- wait. Where'd the cake come from?
"We know you hate lock downs," began exactly the partygoer Tony'd been most excited to score a conversation with, "and that you're near impossible to surprise, so we moved the party up a few days and... here we are." The last three words said while the approaching curly haired brunet used his free, non tea-laden mitt to execute a glee club worthy jazz hand, indicating the oodles of fun awaiting Tony in the foreboding recesses of the warehouse.
"Bruce! Hey, long time no see!" The birthday boy said, shaking the no longer 'jazz' hand of one of the world's premier scientists. "I thought you were in Calcutta. Again. You were, weren't you?"
Bruce gripped Tony's hand more firmly than he dared anyone else's, knowing with firm conviction that the fellow connoisseur of the scientific arts would never flinch away.
Bruce'd always been told growing up that a firm handshake was a sign of self-confidence and respect. He expected a Stark would have been as well.
To his pleasure, Tony gripped back with matching force, the grin not wavering from his rather perplexed face.
"I am- was? Am," Bruce managed to settle on, giving his head a little scratch with the hand he'd just gotten back. "When the call came in, that an Avenger had a serious threat against them, soon as the other guy heard 'Tony', we were on a nonstop. Destination: Malibu."
"You flew?" Asked a Tony wondering where he could get his hands on some of that tea Bruce was nursing. He could smell cinnamon, star anise, and that was definitely a little spiced rum.
"The Other Guy, in an airplane?" Bruce posited, one eyebrow raised.
"No, yeah. Probably not," Tony smirked back.
"No," Bruce said, noticing the attention his drink was getting and making a rather tentative attempt at offering his cup. He made sure Tony noticed before continuing. "Nonstop hopscotch half way around the world."
"In... a few hours? You'd have to achieve speeds that'd break-"
"The sound barrier?" Bruce said, giving the mug in his hand a little nudge in his conversation partner's direction. "My ears are still ringing."
"Then I feel bad for anyone happened to be within, oh, a ten mile radius of that bullet train," Tony said, internal debate raging on the subject of really wanting some of that tea and... wishing they were standing next to a table so Bruce could slide the drink over to him.
Bruce adjusted his glasses to hide a snort. "I think some caribou got the fright of their lives, but the Big Guy was fairly considerate this time around. Even stole some clothes on the way over..." He trailed off, perhaps remembering that stealing wasn't generally considered a 'good' thing.
Bruce looking down to inspect the previously 'not his' shirt was just the opening Tony'd been hoping for. He reached out and snatched the mug from the loose grip that'd been offering it for the better part of a minute and cradled it in two hands. Taking a couple subtle breaths as his pulse came back down.
Mission accomplished. Then, all he had to do was count to fifteen and it'd be safe to drink.
"At least it's my size," Bruce said, looking back up as he ran his now empty hand over the unfamiliar fabric.
"Too bad it's not your color. Though, to be fair, no one pulls off chartreuse."
Both thermo-nuclear astro physicists turned a good forty-five degrees to one side to locate the source of the flagrant lie.
About fifteen feet off, looking as if she'd just been deep in conversation with both a towering, civvies clad Captain Spangly Pants and her bff, Hawk Eye, stood perhaps the deadliest ginger on planet earth: Black Widow. Decked out in the brightest yellow -green?- dress it had ever been Bruce or Tony's displeasure to see. Though, on her... it was kinda working. Especially with those matching hi-top Chucks.
"I stand corrected," Tony conceded with a stately mock bow.
"Welcome to the party, Iron Man," greeted the tallest guy in the room, now that there was a lull in everyone's conversations.
"Yeah, uh, 'Tony' is fine, Cap," the birthday boy said, sending a little wave in the three's direction.
"Make it 'Steve' and we have ourselves a deal, Tony."
"Uh," Tony hid a cringe behind the mug he busied himself taking a protracted sip from. Just long enough to wrap his head around how that would feel coming out of his mouth.
"Yeah, alright. Have it your way..." with a shrug, he decided it wouldn't kill him and went for it, "Steven."
Captain America had nothing but a flute of champagne behind which to hide his cringe. Which is to say that everyone saw it.
Not a bad birthday present.
Turning back to each other, Tony took another sip from his drink, rather enjoying the warming sensation in his pre-breakfast belly, and Bruce scratched at the back of his own head, rather confused by... all that.
"Guess Steven and I are on a first name basis now," Tony offered.
"I'm not sure-"
"Although, that could be for today only..." Giving Bruce a conspiratorial look he tacked on, "Guess I'll have to ask him," the billionaire turned back toward the super group and opened his mouth to-
The sound of the warehouse door being quickly opened and shut and the ensuing click of heeled footwear cut Tony off before Bruce could give it a shot himself.
"Happy, where is Tony? How's he doing?! I haven't been able to reach him all morning!"
"Well, I was busy prepping Bill to sub at the conference -he's doing a solid job with that, by the way-, and then it was, 'We need the CEO to say a few words to kick things off' and 'We're moving the party to-"
"Pep?!" Two pairs of eyes met across the 'foyer'. Any other thoughts or concerns falling away in a relieved blink as the two made like bees right into the other's newly waiting arms. Two sets of anxieties slacking at both the proof of health and the familiar mix of scents that always happened when they got that close to one another.
Tony pulled just far enough away that he could see his CEO's entire, slightly flushed face. "I thought you were in Bangkok?"
"I was. I hit U.S. soil two days ago. Remember; you called and we spoke last-"
"Last night, yep. You were eating white spaghetti and some got on your- I remember. Now," Tony sent a caustic glance Happy's way, rather disappointed when he found no buttercream smear on the guy's shirt front nor lapel.
Happy sent a nonplussed wave his direction then ducked his head and began arguing with his sleeve cuff, quietly as he could.
Yeah. Tony couldn't hold a grudge in the face of that.
"Are you- You look good, Tony. How's- How was the drive? Were there any-"
"God it's good to be face to face again, Miss Potts. Video calls are nice, but-"
"This way you can be sure I'm not a life model decoy, Mr. Stark?" The two shared a chuckle, topped off with a fond nose nuzzle.
"Aww," came a strange, resounding coo in full HD surround-sound.
"Did I mention we're not alone in the universe?" Intoned the Stark, suddenly aware of the audience their affection had enticed.
A snort and shake of the head and Pepper pulled out of the lax embrace to simply hold her Tony's empty hand. "Not even in this private warehouse," she said, glancing around at the suddenly busy with anything else faces scattering once more. "Looks a little bit like a party. What's the occasion?"
"I love it when we role play," Tony said, an eyebrow hitched and a hint of a growl poking through his warm tone.
"Mm. I hear; It's famous billionaire Tony Stark's birthday." Pepper inched forward until she was close enough to whisper in her majority shareholder's ear. "I'm wondering what I could possibly get someone who flies around in a titanium metal alloy suit, saving the world in time for the next board meeting. Which he will undoubtedly skip," added low enough that even the party guests with enhanced hearing couldn't catch it.
Tony took a moment to chew his lower lip, understanding what kind of power was being offered him and regretting how very unsure he was concerning what to do with it.
Then, the not so far off shuffling of ill fitting sneakers caught his attention and his mind was thrown into overdrive.
What the heck? It was his birthday. "Dinner reservation for three? You, me, and that dashing lug over there," he said, indicating an obviously Bruce Banner direction, "a table at the establishment of your choosing."
The most powerful chief executive officer on either United State seaboard tossed her head the 'lug' in question's way, almost fast enough to send her ponytail straight into her roleplay partner's face, looked back, and gave a hearty chortle.
"Pep, I'm not kidding: Can Bruce come on our dates? Or, well, the next one anyway? We'd have to pilot this before-"
The CEO's nose crinkled. "He wants to third wheel?"
"No, just, I- No, you're right. It'd be-"
"Great! I've always wanted to meet the only scientist in the world who can keep up with the Tony Stark." Tony squinted and eyed her eyebrows, looking for a tell. Often, when Pepper 'lied', one would twitch just a hai- "I'm serious, Tony," said with two stationary eyebrows.
"Did he ask, did you ask, or do I get to?" Asked while giving the strangely dressed brunet half way across the warehouse foyer a glance Tony couldn't read.
"He handed me tea," Tony said, indicating the mug he realized he was still holding, "I asked you."
With a face lit by an excitement generally reserved for moments the two of them spent perusing freshly 'acquired' Stark Industry art galleries, each making a running commentary in a language rife with the jargon of their personal field of expertise, Pepper pecked the confused man in front of her on the cheek and strode off to strike up a friendly conversation with the physicist leaning against a funky table as if he didn't know what else to do with himself.
Tony watched the conversation slowly grow more animated and was pretty sure when the two started laughing that it was at his expense.
He took a sip from his mug and realized the thought didn't bother him. Sure, it reminded him just how hard it was to understand what exactly about the impressionism was so impressive, or for Pep to wrap her mind around why that particular, piece needed a frame that was exactly two and a half millimeters wider on both the east and west edges, but he wasn't breaking out in a cold sweat.
Watching the two get to know each other while he sipped rum infused tea that he hadn't made himself, he figured whatever weird, fluttery sensation was mixing with the warm drink in his belly; it was probably a good feeling.
"Having a special birthday, Boss?" A voice asked from way too close.
"Happy, you are fired."
"... Ha! Good one, Boss," the chauffeur, body guard, long time friend chuckled at the retreating form of the only Stark he'd ever known.
"Not a joke, Hogan. Pack your bags. Take a hike," Tony insisted, glancing over one shoulder to see whether- Nope. He wasn't falling for it.
"Boss?" Happy jogged a few strides to catch up with the billionaire. "You like the party, right?"
"Questionable choice in guests," he whispered into the closer side of his head of security's... head. Pretty sure that all three members of the close knit group could hear anyway. What with one being a super soldier, one an archer equipped with nigh on invisible Stark designed hearing aids whose sensitivity were cranked up too high -Tony could hear a hint of feedback on the air-, the bird brain must've been on high alert still, and a Russian spy who he was pretty sure had some super soldier enhancements herself. Not that she needed them to hear a passing conversation. He'd plain been nursing that hunch ever since they'd first met and she'd taken Happy's face to the mat like he was a noob on his first day in the ring.
At least, he'd been nursing that suspicion since after he'd found out she was there to spy on them all.
Yeah, they could overhear what they wanted. Tony wasn't seeing any presents with his name on them, so he could say whatever he wanted at his surprise birthday party.
"This is the most secure building on the west coast because they-"
"Because they're here? Yeah, I get that. But why no Rhodey? Isn't he like, a trained military officer- a lieutenant commander or something?" Tony tried not to pout as he realized one of his best friends wasn't there.
"Colonel James Rhodes is stationed in Hong Kong at present. Also running interference on the media shitstorm missing out on your own-"
"Conference! Tell me we got somebody to take the podium, please?" He asked, batting a few lashes and praying he didn't have to cash in a birthday wish to make his baby still happen.
"We got Bill from R&D. He's the one Obi-"
"Good choice. And good for Bill! I hope he took those public speaking lessons I threatened to pay for," Tony said, grin breaking out a little bigger than it maybe should have at the thought of the poor engineer trying to keep his mind straight in front of all those flashbulbs.
"He did, Boss. Tutor followed him around the compound for two weeks. We had to vet him first; make sure he had zero reasons to steal advanced tech or Stark Industry's computer sciences or-"
"Got it- And that's great! JARVIS? Record that. I need to see this with my own eyes if..." He stopped several feet short of the snack table. When it became clear no one was going to acknowledge his request, he turned to Happy and pinned him with a sardonic almost glare. "You lied. This place does not have 'all the bells and whistles'." Happy at least had the decency to squirm. A little.
"Would you have stepped foot in this warehouse otherwise?"
Tony took a moment, squinted, and broke his stare off to examine the humble spread on the table. "You would've had to drive the Audi through the wall."
"Mmhm. That's what Miss Potts said. When we acquired this place. Speaking of:" Said while scooting much too close to Tony's personal bubble, "You want me to keep an eye on that?" He asked, utilizing one of his 'subtle' finger gestures to indicate the happy conversation going on a few dozen feet off, looking like it might be moving from the table to a nearby living room set.
"Dr. Banner's gettin' kinda chummy with the CEO."
"Really, Happy? Name calling? How low will you go?"
"Huh?" Came the very confused head cant.
"Like, the majority of the heroes in this room hold at least one doctorate, yet Bruce is the one who gets 'Doctor'd," he questioned, fingers making air quotes for emphasis.
"He's a securit- I haven't read his file; I know zip about the guy-"
"Except what you've seen on TV, and you don't like the thought of a giant, green rage monster gettin' 'chummy' with the 'CEO'. Hm? That about it?"
"Fine. All you gotta say is, 'He's cool,' and we're good," said with two hands raised in a 'you're the boss, Boss' configuration.
"Right," Tony said, hooking a brow.
"Really," Happy insisted.
"I don't know. You hesitated."
"That's my job. I hesitate so no one else has to."
"And everyone appreciates it, Happster, but you need to learn to loosen up. Here, try one of... whatever these are," Tony said, holding out a cookie or dumpling or muffin of some sort. Snatched off the modest snack table.
"... You don't want to be poisoned, do you?"
"Your job to hesitate, Hogan. Said it yourself."
"That I did," said the bodyguard, followed by a small sigh and the holding out of his hand.
Plopping the little confection into his palm, Tony watched as Happy popped the entire thing in his mouth and gave it a thorough chewing. Musing that his face looked very similar to the one he wore while chewing people out when they forgot correct safety protocols.
"A little dry, to be honest."
"But not deadly?"
"About that," the guinea pig said, brushing any crumbly residue off his chin. "Just got an update on... everything."
"They found the perp. So... prrreeetty sure these aren't sabotaged," mumbled while reaching forward to snatch what appeared to be an oatmeal raisin cookie off a tray. Kinda throwing off the already questionable 'flower' shape the display had been going for.
Not into letting that kind of inadequacy slide, Tony took one of his own. So the strange offering was at least symmetrical-ish again.
"Uh-huh. How'd'ya figure?" Tony prompted, deciding on giving Happy at least time to polish off the last of his vanishing cookie before pulling out the 'tell me now' tactics.
"Uh, on account of them being in first grade?"
"... You're kidding, right?"
"'Fraid not, Boss. The kid's name is Sally and she seriously-"
"The secure line! The call came in on the SHIELD only secure li-"
"Yeah. Team says the... 'child' lives in an area with really spotty reception and that her parents let her play with their cellphones sometimes when they're doing housework." Tony was growing more impressed by the second by how little eye contact Happy was making even though the guy appeared to be looking him directly in the eyes.
Kinda like a ventriloquist's dummy. Maybe. No- scratch that. Just thinking of those gave him a nasty case of the spine tingles.
"That doesn't explain-"
"Yeah, our available child specialist questioned 'Sally' and told me that... she just typed random numbers in until she got a live line."
"Yep. I'm gonna be looking into this further, but it gets better: Then, when JARVIS picked up and gave the standard greeting, this kid probably missing a pair of front teeth went straight into 'villain mode' and was 'just having fun'. So the parents explained."
"Random numbers? Role play? What-"
"Kids at school. 'Sally always gets picked for a villain role. On account of her evil laugh.'" Happy took a moment to flip what must have been a chunk of baklava onto a paper plate near his edge of the table.
"Couldn't the most advanced AI on the planet and a team of specialists tell it was a kid on the other end of the call?" At the nod, Happy took a bite of his newest confection and did his best not to drop crumbs through his next sentence. "Old school, handheld voice modulator coupled with really bad - I'm talking, a couple'a cups connected by a long string would'a been better, kind of bad- reception. Stumped the stumpers," he finished, raised eyebrows attempting to impart the reality of just how truthful he was being.
"Hokay, so, you're telling me that... I'm here, hangin' with the coolest, and the coldest, kids on the western half of the planet, chowin' down on this," Tony inspected the cookie he was frankly on the fence about eating, "double chocolate delight, while someone else runs my conference, on account of some three year old running a crank calling service? Tell me how that adds up, Happy. 'Cause the math's not working on my end," he finished, deciding 'what the hell', and biting at least twenty-eight percent of the supposed delicacy off as precursor to a yet to be determined breakfast.
"You... wanna go to the conference? We could be there before they break for lunch. Just say the word, Boss," said an all seriousness Happy as he set his freshly empty plate on top the fresh looking stack of unused ones.
If Tony wasn't mistaken, more shoulders than just those belonging to his über-protective 'buddy'guard dropped at the almost suggestion. And then the heavy pause as the philanthropist gave it thought.
"And Sally's at least four, Boss."
"Mm. And you're at least... forty? Or are you older than me? Never mind- not important! What is is that I'm celebrating a birthday and I need to find something to eat. Before it's officially too late to say I didn't skip breakfast today." Tony looked over at a couple of people he hoped were feeling peckish, managing to get a little caught up in how bright their faces were as they sat a polite distance from each other on parallel couches. A coffee table between them set with the makings for tea -so that's where Bruce got it- going completely ignored.
He turned back to Happy, took another hesitant bite of the treat he needed to eat at least two thirds of, and did his best to continue ignoring the three nosy superheroes standing in a triangle formation not fifteen feet off who were so listening in on everything he said.
"Would help explain why the call ended with, 'Bye bye, it's time for my bath'," Happy said, giving his frazzled head a shake.
"I need her. Get her on my payroll soon as she's out of diapers."
"Pretty sure she's already out, and not eligible for even an internship for-"
"Awesome. It's settled. She'll work for me. After all: Keep friends close; keep creepy children with maniacal daydreams... building a sizable 401k? You get the idea," Tony said, just as he nibbled off the requisite last few grams of his cookie and tossed the rest into a nearby waste basket. Knowing the likelihood that the bin was meant for recyclables, in a place such as his 'party crib', was pretty damn close to zero.
"How is the... other thing going, by the way?" Judging by the way Happy barely held in a hefty snicker, he must've gotten a pretty juicy update sometime after they arrived.
"I was told there was a little Gerald Ford type mishap."
"He tripped on the way to the podium, didn't he?"
"How'd you know?"
"I've said it before; those darn lights are too bright," he waved a dismissive hand at the memory. "Sparkle someone else's eyes."
"How would you know? You're always wearing shades when you take the grand stand. Boss," tacked on at the severely unimpressed look he got for his troubles.
"Why do you think I'm wearing the shades?" The billionaire posed the million dollar question with a wrinkle to his brow.
Happy's face betrayed more and more of his dawning, really really late in coming, understanding as his mouth stretched into more and more of an 'oh' shape. "No worries, Boss. We're putting diffusers on those, stat."
Tony gave a bit of a grunt as he rocked back and forth on his feet. Loving the feel of his new sneaker's soles squishing against his seamless socks.
"Mm, that'll cut down on glint, but not on actual-"
"We're switching out the bulbs too. Lower lumens equals lower power consumption, right, Boss?"
"Happy," Tony said, stepping forward to clap the man in black on the shoulder, "you're a genius. Welcome to the club, help yours of to some overinflated ego, and by all means: Work your magic."
"We'll leak it to a small, Environmental Journal, they'll source it to the big publications. We'll set a trend. Pretty soon-"
"Lower output lights everywhere," Tony said. No doubt failing to prevent the sense of giddy excitement from reaching his eyes.
Happy ducked his head a few degrees in a bashful direction and made a 'subtle' gesture meant to invite hugging. "Happy Birthday, Boss."
"... Thanks, Happster," Tony said, doing everything humanly possible to give off, 'sure, why not' vibes.
He didn't cringe as a pair of familiar arms ensnared him in a hold he knew he could break if the need gripped him.
Two point two seconds in, he let out about fifty percent of the tension that'd stiffened his body. Getting dangerously close to wrapping his mind around, maybe, pulling up his arms and... hugging ba-
"Aww, we want in on that too!" To which, Tony's eyes popped open to see a fast approaching Pepper Pott's and a trailing-
"I could get in on that," Bruce Banner.
"Here we are; make room, Happy!"
"The Big Guy will literally kill me if I don't squeeze in here somewhere."
"Jolly Green cares? About group hugs?" Asked a Tony who was surprised by how little the generally claustrophobic proximity of other's bodies was affecting him.
"... He does now. He also wants that tea back," Bruce said, making a grab for the mug Tony hadn't realized was about to slip out of his forgotten digits.
"Sure- Don't you dare! We're at maximum capacity as it is," the birthday boy snipped at the tactical sally of the last three of his surprise party's invitees.
The super heroes stopped short barely over an arm's length away and just watched as the huddled neutrons broke away from their nucleus and took up plates for filling at the snack table.
Tony sucked it up and looked them in the collective eyes, wishing he even wanted to think about distracting himself with food, but fully aware that he hated all of it.
"Happy Birthday... Tony?"
"Thanks, Barton." Leaning in just a bit, voice modulated low, Tony added, "You can turn down the sensitivity a notch or two." Then, just as quietly and with a little shrug, "Unless, of course, you like the sound of feedback in your ear."
"Damn. I thought only I could hear that," said a Hawkeye busying himself with the aide's controls on his watch.
"I don't think most would, buddy."
"S dnem rozhdeniya, Stark," said a yellow and red agent who was keeping a respectful distance. On account of Tony's rather obvious -to her anyway- 'not being stabbed' birthday wish.
"As long as that wasn't a threat: Thanks, Romanov."
"You'd know if it was a threat." Delivered just as straight as anything else shed said that day, the longtime assassin got a room full of aghast looks for it. Except for the raised eyebrow from Hawkeye. Who then started fiddling with the settings on his aides again.
"What? He speaks Russian. Right, Stark?"
"Vozmozhno, Pauk." To that, about half the room balked. The other half snickered at the former.
"Why do you-"
"Speak Russian? With an impeccable accent, if I say so myself," Tony preened as he cut the man from the past off.
"It is pretty good. Little crisp, but," the Black Widow gave a shrug, "there is leeway for regional variations."
"You read about a little thing called the Cold War?" Tony gave Natasha an appreciative grin and turned attention to Steve in time to catch the nod. "Howard was foisted quite a few occasions on which he was expected to convince Russian leaders that opposing the United States was a poor national decision. Tactically."
"Howard was a diplomat?"
"... Insofar as the guy showing up with the bigger stick can plead peaceful intentions; sure." Rogers' forehead crinkled. "Anyway, not the point." Tony looked each of the three in the upper cheekbone before continuing.
"Stark Senior, understandably, wasn't familiar with the intricacies of the Bolshevik tongue," to use nomenclature Rogers would be familiar with. "Cyrillic, as it just so happens, wasn't a specialty of his either. So he hired an interpreter, learned greetings, manners; boring." A couple of people who looked as if they didn't think behind the scenes historical tales from before the fall of the iron curtain were boring, politely did not voice their opinions for the class. Tony would have gone home if they had.
"Several month long story short-ish, I ended up learning more from dear old dad's interpreter than he did. And mainly on coffee breaks." He could still remember the flavor of the roast mixing with the smell of the strange, 'not mom's' perfume.
Maria didn't like Tony drinking coffee, he was too young for such an adult drink after all, but Jarvis and he had a little thing worked out: So long as he kept all his manners in and put the circuit boards back together when he was finished with them, young Sir could have a Tony sized cup of decaf.
So long as Mistress Stark didn't see; everything came up roses.
Tony felt pressure against his upper arm and suddenly he was back in a dumpy warehouse, facing off against three of the world's finest who just so happened to be looking at him with weirdly soft expressions.
He glanced down to find a giant hand giving his arm a pep talk and recognized those forearm muscles as belonging to the one and only, Captain America.
"Please tell me I wasn't still talk-"
"I'm sorry for your loss, Tony."
What in the- Right.
It was his birthday -sort of-, he was getting nostalgic, his shades had fallen victim to a strange floor the minute he walked in, and his stupid puppy eyes were-
"Vam ne nuzhno skryvat'sya. Ne sredi drusey."
Tony shared a quick look with the one out of the three he'd known the longest, then gave the captain a pinched nod. "Yeah. Me too."
Whether Rogers took that to mean 'I too feel sorry about my -supposed- loss', or 'Sorry for your loss too', Tony really didn't care. He just wanted to get that hand off his arm.
The birthday boy took in a breath and span away from the touch he found, rather unexpectedly, didn't leave his skin crawling. Free at last, he voiced something he'd been wanting to for quite some time.
"Okay, who else hates the spread as much as I do? Show of hands." At least one red head, one blond, and one brunet gave a tentative several inches elevation to their voting hand.
"Alright then. Well, seeing as there is no threat against my life, my conference is in the care of a reasonably qualified surrogate, and," he made a quick glance at each party guest in turn, to make sure they were keeping up, "this is my birthday: Who wants lunch?"
A rather raucous, "God, yes- thought you'd never ask- can we get Chinese?- No, we had that for dinner- Do we need reservations?- Where'd our ride get off to?," filled the space as Happy started up an animated conversation with his sleeve cuff.
Tony watched, trying not to let the jumble of four different voices reverbing in his head all at once mess with his fast developing birthday glow. After all; he was getting lunch out of it.
"Well, this sounds exciting," said a Pepper coming to stand near enough to touch.
"Is this our next date?" Blurted Tony with perhaps a touch more verve than he'd meant to give it.
"No, silly," the ponytailed tech mogul informed as the rather bashful looking Dr. Banner came up to complete the triangle. "That's tonight."
"Miss Pott's arranged for a table at... Sorry, I don't remember the name?" Bruce said, lips somehow managing a self deprecating tilt.
"That's fine, I've never been there myself." Pepper turned slightly so as to have both physicists in comfortable viewing range at once before continuing. "It sounds lovely though, and the owners don't have a personal interest in the tech industry, so it should be a quiet evening all to ourselves,"said with a little wrinkle- no, a little smile to her mouth.
"Pep, you're the best and I'm being spoiled right now."
"I don't know about the spoiled part, seeing as it is your birthday, but, Miss Potts," Pepper's eyes focused on Bruce to let him know she was listening, "you are the best."
After an incredulous giggle, the CEO who was definitely having an interesting dinner that night made a face which positively oozed endearment and addressed her dates at once. "You two are ridiculous." Then, with a shake of her head, she added, "This is going to be fun."
"Can we rent out the entire restaura-"
"Not if you want the authentic date night experience, Tony."
"C'mon Pep, it'll be fun!"
"And an unnecessary expenditure, Mr. Stark. The board-"
"The board don't get a say in where and how we eat. I vote we replace half of them anyway. Been there since Howard ran the place. Whadd'you think, Brucey?"
"... I honestly have no idea what's being discussed right now," the poor guy admitted, looking to Pepper for help.
"I'll explain later," she stage whispered in his direction. Then at regular volume, "You'd like a nice night out at a four star restaurant full of other perfectly nice people who also made reservations to be there this evening, right, Dr. Banner? No need to clear the place out?"
"Uh, I've eaten out of dumpsters," he said with a shrug. "So pretty much anything is an upgrade from there."
"Wow. My stomach did not need to hear that, like, ever," Tony said, unable to suppress an all over shiver. "But... you don't need to scrounge anymore. You've got friends in the highest places, and we know how to live it up," said while hooking an arm over the pair of shoulders to either side of him. "Huh. Did you know we're all the same height? How weird is that?"
While Happy finally, blessedly started motioning the party out of the bunker like party venue, the three attached at the shoulders took a moment to measure with pure reckoning who was actually tallest, decided with mutual shrugs that it didn't matter anyway, then stepped out behind the others into the painful, blinding sunlight of a partly cloudy, Southern California day.
A sudden pop which the three did not flinch at, and most of the horrible, hateful, halo of pain was blocked by a black shield of unknown origin.
A multi-head twitch to the side revealed one Agent Romanov, extended arm holding a standard black umbrella above their little cluster.
Where'd she gotten an umbr-
"Svetochuvstvitel'nost'. YA pokroyu tebya," spoken with enough discretion that anyone near who might've also secretly understood Russian probably wouldn't hear.
"Don't mention it," she said, walking the CEO, the engineer, and the physicist the ridiculously short distance to where Happy was holding open the passenger door to a Stark Industries limo already filling with rambunctious Avengers.
Taking a seat inside the blackout windowed chariot, a gaggle of good folks taking up most of the extra space, someone he enjoyed being close to on each side, one thought rang clearest in Tony's buzzing mind:
Overall, not a bad birthday.
Hope ya'll enjoyed this Tony centric Rain Of Madness!
About halfway through I realized that Tony is autistic (like the author) and that I've subconsciously headcannoned him as such from pretty early on. This will stay that way forever and no one can stop me! ;D
Beta'd on AO3, where it was first published, by the generous NinjaSalad! *Whom's'd've is also The Autisms*
Please assist me in giving them a well deserved round of applesauce! Er, applause! *:3c*
Hope everyone's having a great day!