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The Gatekeeper

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Steve straightened when the car, some flashy thing that was worth more than most people’s houses, pulled into an empty spot in the private parking garage with a screech of tires. The Accords representative that Natasha had...convinced to bring them to the compound shifted uncomfortably. There was sweat at the poor girl’s hairline and she looked a little green around the edges.

Steve felt bad for using her like this, he really did, but it was imperative that they talk to Tony. They needed to air everything out, exchange apologies, and go back to being a real team. Tony may have been avoiding them since they were pardoned, refusing to let them move back into the compound or even get them proper equipment, but Steve knew him. He just had to convince him that it was for the good of the world, and Tony would give in. He always had before.

The car door swung open and Tony stepped out, looking calm and put together in his suit. There was more gray in his hair, but all in all, he didn’t look much different. Sunglasses were covering his eyes and he didn’t seem surprised to see them. FRIDAY had probably given him a head’s up.

He walked with sure steps across the parking garage and stopped a few feet from them. They stood in silence for what felt like an eternity. Finally, Tony cocked his head to the side and when he spoke, it wasn’t to them.

“I thought I’d made my position on allowing Rogers and his team into the compound clear, Ms. Martin,” he said lightly. 

“Y-yes, Mr. Stark. I’m very sorry, but they made some good points. About, um, the resources they currently have access to. And they were hoping to speak to you about supplementing some of those so that they aren’t caught flat-footed in the case of a global emergency.”

Steve flashed Ms. Martin a smile. She’d said exactly what Natasha had told her to and the slight tightening of Tony’s shoulders was a sure sign that he was wavering. He knew Natasha had seen it, too, from the small quirk of her lips. All they needed was to talk to him face-to-face, remind him why they were doing this. That it was bigger than them.

“Right,” Tony said after a moment of silence. “Just - I guess come up, we can talk in a conference room.”

He turned and walked briskly to the elevator and after exchanging a relieved look with Natasha they followed him, Ms. Martin bringing up the rear.

It had been rough since they came back. SHIELD had shoved them into some base in Wyoming of all places, and it...well, it wasn’t a home, not like the compound was, or even like Wakanda had been. Their quarters were small and cramped and always felt a little damp and the food...well. Better not to talk about that.

Their equipment was subpar since Shuri wasn’t around to keep up their Wakanda tech and their stipends left a lot to be desired. Steve knew why they’d been brought back. That alien superhero group, The Guardians of the Galaxy, had come bearing news that a threat was coming their way. They needed all hands on deck to defeat him and Steve’s team needed to have access to the best resources when the time came.

Speaking of Thanos, Steve knew he needed to suck it up and take the first step towards bridging the distance that had formed between him and Tony. Steve turned towards Tony, who was watching the elevator door close and tapping his fingers on his thigh, looking a mixture of annoyed and resigned.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. Tony tilted his head towards him and raised a brow and Steve continued with more confidence. “We should have listened to you when you said that the Chitauri were a prelude to something bigger. You were right.”

He felt lighter when he’d finished, but Tony - Tony’s lips were twisted in what could only be anger. “Really? That’s what you’re sorry for? All the other things you could choose from to apologize for, and you go with that? Typical. Shoulda had FRIDAY fry your asses at the gate,” he muttered.

“I could still do that for you, sir,” FRIDAY quipped and Ms. Martin made a small sound in the back of her throat.

“You wouldn’t hurt us,” Natasha said confidently as the elevators opened and they stepped into the common room. Steve took a moment to soak in the first sight of his home he’d had in over two years. God, he’d missed the place. The furniture had changed - it looked much more geared towards comfort instead of beauty, now - but everything else was the same. “You need us too much. And so does the world. Which is why you have to see that leaving things as they are in Wyoming is bad for everyone, Tony. Please,” she finished, soft and vulnerable. 

Tony pressed his lips together and shoved his hands into his pockets. He was wavering. Tony had a lot of flaws, but he was serious about protecting the world. Steve couldn’t wait to move back in. He bet Tony hadn’t even touched their rooms, he was sentimental that way.

Before Tony could reply, however, they heard a squeal and then, “Dad! You’re back!” 

Tony turned and braced himself and a moment later something came flying from left field and launched itself through the air at him. Steve tensed when the thing - person - wrapped around him like a limpet and then blinked a few times to make sure that what he was seeing was real.

There was a girl - probably around sixteen - clinging onto Tony, who had his arms around her and was holding her up easily, despite the fact that he was taking all her weight. She leaned forward and kissed his cheek loudly three times in a row and he laughed and tightened his grip.

She had curly hair and large brown eyes and - had she called Tony dad? They’d heard the rumors that Tony had adopted some kid but had brushed them off as just that - rumors. Or maybe a publicity stunt.

“Hi, sweetheart,” Tony said. “You have a good week?”

In response, she took off his glasses and tossed them on the couch, then she did some complicated flip/roll thing and ended up perched on his back with her arms wrapped around his shoulders and her cheek pressed to his. “It was okay, yeah. Ned came over and we built three of those lego sets you bought for me to try and make me forget you had to leave for a whole five days, and MJ and Gwen finally started dating, thank god, that was just painful -”

“It really was, and I only have to see them on Saturdays,” Tony said wryly, turning his head so he could look at her from the corner of his eye. His smile was wide and unguarded. Steve hadn’t seen him look like that since before Ultron.

“I know, right? They’re really disgustingly cute together and - oh!” He, Natasha, and Ms. Martin all jumped at her loud exclamation. “I got a ninety-six on my English paper.”

“See, I told you, didn’t I? Starks can do anything,” Tony said but his expression had softened and he bumped his nose against her cheek. “Good job, sweetheart. I’m proud of you. MIT won’t know what hit them.”

Her smile grew and she tightened her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek again. “Thanks, dad. You wanna go get burgers and then work in the lab together?”

Tony hummed and readjusted his grip on her jean-clad legs so she wouldn’t slide off his back. “I might be convinced -”

Steve cleared his throat to remind Tony that he did actually have a prior engagement and then regretted it when two pairs of shrewd brown eyes settled on him. 

“What,” the girl said with what Steve felt was an inappropriate amount of disgust, “are they doing here.” 

Tony sighed. “Penny -”

She clambered off his back and moved to stand next to and slightly in front of him as though she was protecting him. Which was ridiculous, Steve was one of the good guys. “You promised you wouldn’t bring them here!”

“I don’t see how it’s any of your business who Tony talks to,” Natasha said cooly and Steve noticed with some concern that Ms. Martin had taken a few steps back and was sliding her hand across the wall behind her, trying to find the elevator call button without taking her eyes off of the girl - Penny.

Penny’s eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms over her chest. It was...actually pretty adorable. She had freckles and a little upturned nose and her curls were falling in a riot around her face. Tony was watching her with a small, almost helplessly fond smile. “Considering this is my home and Captain Criminal over there almost killed my dad last time they were in the same room together, I’d say it’s very much my business.”

“Princess, why don’t you go get ready to go to dinner. I’ll be just a few minutes, okay?” Tony said soothingly and put his hands on her shoulders. She ducked out from under his grasp and backed up a few steps. Her eyes were wide and filled with a betrayal that made even Steve’s chest ache.

“Why are they here, dad?”

Tony ran a hand down his face. “Penny, we’ll talk about this later.”

“FRIDAY?” Penny said.

“Mr. Rogers and Ms. Romanoff are here to request that your father sponsor their team and allow them to move back into the compound, Penny.” 

Tony sighed and muttered “traitor” under his breath.

“You promised,” she whispered and took several more steps away from Tony, who flinched when her lower lip wobbled and her eyes became wet with tears. 

“They’re just here to talk,” Tony said and crossed the room quickly to take her hands in his.

“Why even talk to them? You’re just going to say no.” Tony remained silent for too long and Steve’s certainty that Tony would take them back rose. “You are going to say no, aren’t you?” she asked in a small, pitiful voice.

“Penny,” Steve said, deciding to take pity on Tony when he saw how lost he looked. He took a step forward and smiled at her in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. “We just want to put everything behind us, become a team again. We care about Tony -”

It happened quickly. One moment he was talking and the next she’d done some motion with her wrist and something sticky plastered itself across his mouth, cutting him off. He dropped into a defensive crouch and Natasha took a step forward, knives appearing in her hands.

“You don’t get to talk to me!” Penny was yelling from where Tony had spun her around and was blocking her body with his own while he tried to herd her away from Natasha. “And you don’t get to say his name like you’re his friend! You have a lot of nerve, coming here. You, you murderer. You’re nothing but a glorified -”

“Enough!” Tony yelled, then looked over his shoulder at Natasha when Penny snapped her mouth shut, though she was still glaring venomously at Steve. “You threaten my kid ever again and I will vaporize you where you stand.” His voice was quiet and deadly, and Steve was suddenly very aware of just how much seemed to have changed in only two years. 

Natasha met his gaze for a few long seconds before she straightened and holstered her knives. “Sorry, Tony. Won’t happen again, she just startled me.”

Penny scoffed. “It’s Mr. Stark to you,” she mumbled, then cringed when Tony turned back to her.

“And you. You can’t just web people’s mouths shut when they annoy you, no matter how hilarious it is. We’ve talked about this. And you’ve given away too much information to a super spy.”

Penny looked mutinous and very much like a poster for 'rebellious teenager.' “They would have figured it out, eventually. Plus, they signed the Accords. If they spread confidential information about other enhanced they’ll go to jail. You know, where they belong.”

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. “Penny. Just. Go to your room. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“No!” she cried out and grabbed his arm when he went to turn away.

Her eyes flicked between Tony and Steve, who was carefully trying to peel whatever she’d slapped across his mouth off with little success and then to Natasha, who was looking at her with something like realization. For a second Penny's expression was panicked. Then she squared her shoulders and narrowed her eyes in an almost carbon copy of Tony’s ‘I have an idea, and I’m going to pull it off even if it kills me’ face. Steve tensed in preparation since he'd seen the fallout from that expression more times than he'd like to count.

By the time Tony glanced back at her, though, she had hunched herself forward, opened her mouth, and let out a heart-wrenching sob. Well, that’s not what Steve had been expecting. 

“Penny!” Tony said and turned back to her again. “What’s wrong? Don’t cry sweetheart, I’m sorry I yelled.”

Steve couldn’t remember the last time Tony had looked this freaked out about something. His hands were fluttering around her shoulders and face. 

“Y-you promised!” she wailed and dropped her face into her hands. “You promised you’d try your best to never leave me the way May and Ben and my parents did, but now you’re letting people who t-tried to kill you and stole your money and lied to you move in. And you’re going to leave me all alone when they betray you again. How will I ever be able to sleep knowing that they’re so close to you? H-how will I - I -”

After that, her words dissolved into incoherent sobs. Tony pulled her into a hug and started rubbing her back. She was clinging to him, cheek pressed against his shoulder. Steve stared at her red, scrunched up face in horror, feeling all of the hope from before slip away when he heard what Tony was whispering to her.

“Sweetheart, I’m so sorry, you’re right. If you don’t feel safe with them around then, of course, I won’t let them move in.”

“A-and you won’t let them back on your team? Or go on missions with them? You promise?”

“Unless it’s an emergency that requires our teams to work together, I promise. I’m so sorry I made you uncomfortable, Princess.”

She sniffled pitifully. Steve desperately wanted to break in and defend himself - they weren’t crazed murderers, for god’s sake - but that sticky substance was still clinging stubbornly to him. Actually, it seemed a little familiar, now that he thought about it.

“It’s okay, dad. I’m sorry I made you mad,” she said in a watery voice and Tony tightened his hold on her.

“I’m not mad. I promise.”

It was actually incredibly sweet, seeing Tony acting so soft with someone. Just inconvenient that the person who Tony had adopted seemed terrified of Steve and his team. Maybe if they just explained their side to her, she’d become more comfortable with the thought of having them around and they could approach Tony again.

Just as he finished the thought, Penny opened her eyes, looked right at him, and smirked. Natasha shifted next to him and Steve was sure he would have been flapping his jaw like a damn fish if it wasn’t stuck shut. 

Tony pulled back to cup her cheeks in his hands and her expression went back to heartbroken innocence. “You okay?”

She bit her lip and looked back at them and then down at her shoes. “Can you make them leave, dad? Please?”

“Yeah, of course.”

Tony looked over his shoulder at them. “Sorry, guys. The answer is still no. FRIDAY will show you out. The adhesive will dissolve on its own in about four hours, Rogers.”

He turned away and Steve heard the elevator doors swish open behind him, followed by a relieved exhale from Ms. Martin. Indignation rose in his chest. This child thought she could manipulate Tony into abandoning his team. He made to step forward, though he had no idea what he planned on accomplishing, but Natasha’s hand on his forearm stopped him. She shook her head and he breathed out harshly through his nose.

Fine. They’d leave for now, but Steve didn’t plan on giving up. He would get his life - all their lives - back. He followed Natasha into the elevator. They were silent on the ride down and the walk to their car, though not by choice on Steve’s part.

It wasn’t until they were well clear of the compound that Natasha broke the silence. “She’s good,” she said mildly. “Still, didn’t expect Spider-woman to be so young. The papers said she’s, what, sixteen?”

Steve made an indignant sound when he remembered exactly where he’d seen this sticky stuff before. Germany, the airport, that mouthy kid from Queens. What the hell, Tony?

“P-please remember that per the Accords, you can’t reveal the identities of other signees who choose to keep their lives private. Especially the minors covered under the mentee clause,” Ms. Martin said in a small voice from the driver’s seat.

Natasha just waved a hand in the air. “We wouldn’t do that. Even if we were tempted, Tony would destroy us.”

Steve wanted to protest and insist Tony wouldn’t do that, but then he remembered how quickly he’d changed his mind about even talking to them just because the girl had cried a little.

“This isn’t just about getting to Tony anymore,” Natasha said and looked out the window. “First, we need to get around his gatekeeper. It probably won’t be easy.”

Steve snorted and crossed his arms over his chest. When was anything ever easy?

000

Okay, so Penny knew it was probably a little messed up, using her past trauma and Tony’s unwavering determination to keep her healthy and happy to manipulate him. In her defense, he had left her no choice.

Her and FRIDAY were close these days, pretty much sisters, and they were absolutely united in their determination to keep her dad alive and healthy. So, yeah, when Penny mentioned that she wished she knew what had really gone down between the Avengers, FRIDAY may have ‘accidentally’ let her see the footage of Siberia when she was spending an afternoon watching recordings of past battles from her dad’s armor instead of doing her homework. Afterward, she’d spent a full weekend clinging to him in a way she hadn’t since May died and it was the first time she’d ever seen him truly angry with his AI.

And maybe that had led to a lot of conversations between her and FRIDAY about the unhealthy relationship dynamics Tony’d had with most of the ex-Avengers. And then they might have made a blood pact to protect him by any means necessary from them when they’d been pardoned (FRIDAY didn’t have blood, so they’d used oil from one of the joints on a half-taken-apart legion suit. They made sure to never even hint to Tony that she’d smeared dirty oil into a cut on her arm to complete said pact).

FRIDAY had told her the moment Tony gave her the green light on letting Rogers and Romanoff into the Avengers Compound, probably because he was afraid they’d try to break in if he said no. She’d also patched the audio through to Penny from their conversation in the elevator. It had taken less than two minutes for them to wear him down, to make him feel like it was somehow his responsibility to pay their way in life, to let them back into his.

So Penny had decided to fight fire with fire. That’s all. It hadn’t even been difficult to say those things or muster tears, because they were true. Usually, she would keep those sorts of thoughts to herself since she knew how easy it was to get Tony to cave in to her wants (things she didn’t even know she wanted, sometimes!) when she let them slip. 

A month after he’d adopted her, five months after May’s accident, she’d said something about how MJ had gone to Disney World and Universal Studios over Christmas and how cool it would be to see Harry Potter World. 

He’d flown her to Orlando over spring break and spent the whole week taking her to every ride, show, and attraction he could find there. He’d rented out all of Harry Potter World for a full day because he was just that extra. That was when Penny had learned to watch what she said...and also learned that she had a lot of second-hand power through him, and she had very strict views on how one should use their personal power.

“FRIDAY, am I a bad person?” she asked as soon as she was in bed that evening after going out for burgers and shakes and watching whatever movies she wanted while her dad kept her right up against his side on the couch. She never would have assumed he would be a cuddler before he’d adopted her, but he really, really was. 

She’d caught him sending her worried looks at least half a dozen times like he was afraid she was going to dissolve into a panicked puddle of tears. Hopefully, he wouldn’t lose any sleep over worrying about her.

“No, Penny. You were just protecting the Boss. You did the right thing.”

She sighed and rolled over onto her side. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Did you see Ms. Romanoff’s face, though? I don’t think they’re giving up.”

“I believe you’re probably correct. I happened to...overhear a conversation they had in their car on the way to the airport.”

Penny opened her mouth, then closed it. “FRIDAY...did you bug an official Accords representative’s car?”

“She knew better than to bring them here,” FRIDAY said primly. “She had it coming. Would you like to hear the conversation, or not?”

Penny rolled her eyes. “Yeah, okay, Skynet, let’s hear it.”

By the end of the recording, Penny was torn between a sort of low-level rage and the urge to laugh. “The Gatekeeper. Nice. That’s like, my supervillain name.” 

Penny didn’t generally do petty vengeance. She couldn’t, not as Spider-woman, not when she had these powers that made her so much stronger than others, that would make it so easy to go down the wrong path. But this type of fight wouldn’t need her superpowers and if it did come to that, well, she was good at using those only for protection and defense. 

This was a different kind of engagement, though, one where a bit of pettiness wouldn't result in broken bones or disfigurement. She stared up at the ceiling for a few minutes, wondering if she could really do a repeat of that afternoon every time they came crawling out of the woodwork like particularly persistent cockroaches. Her dad would figure out her cry-to-get-her-way tactic eventually, so she’d have to be careful.

“We’re going to be ready for them, FRIDAY.”

The ex-Avengers waited a few weeks before making their move. Penny had felt a prickling on the back of her neck off and on for days, knew she was being watched, but it wasn't hard to guess by who. Especially when Karen hacked into surveillance cameras and caught a fleeting image of Hawkeye ducking behind a roof after watching her web up a mugger.

It wasn’t until she got the text right before Decathlon practice that she realized exactly why they were watching her. 

From FRIDAY: Steve Rogers’ team is en route to the Compound with Everette Ross, who has an appointment with Boss in two hours.

“Shit, shit!” She stopped walking abruptly, barely noticing the people bumping into her as they went by. Those jerks had been figuring out her schedule so they could ambush her dad when she wasn’t there to, uh, influence him.

“Hey, loser, you coming?” MJ asked. She’d stopped at the doorway to the classroom where they held practice. She was holding Gwen’s hand while exuding apathetic-about-life vibes.

“I - emergency - have to go, bye!”

She texted FRIDAY back as she ran. Bring car around, get ready to break all the traffic laws.

It took anywhere between an hour and a half to three hours to get to the compound from her school. They stayed at their apartment in the city on weekdays so she wouldn't have to make the long trip for school, but dad still flew out to the compound a few times a week and came back in the evenings.

Penny didn’t bother stopping at her locker. Who cared about homework when crazy ex-criminals were trying to con her dad out of his resources and mental health? By the time she burst out of the front doors (knocking Flash over in the process, whoops) the smart car Tony had gotten her for her sixteenth birthday had pulled up. The back door opened for her and she dove inside, sliding across the leather seats.

The door closed smoothly behind her. “Go, go, go, Karen! And I don’t care what you have to do, get us to the compound as soon as possible.”

“Hello, Penny. FRIDAY has informed me of the urgency of the matter. Initiating Leave Them in the Dust Protocol. FRIDAY will be running interference with law enforcement.”

Translation: FRIDAY would be hacking traffic cameras and lights and diverting law enforcement’s attention away from their route. This was so, so morally questionable. 

“Oh my god,” Penny whispered. “So this is how people become villains. It really is a slippery slope.”

“Don’t worry, Penny. Your father gave me a Brainwashed to do Evil Protocol,” Karen said kindly. “I won’t let you actually do any evil. Though we do have some wiggle room.” The last sentence was said with way too much cheer.

“What the shit,” Penny said faintly. Her dad was so paranoid. Her shoulder slammed into the door when the car accelerated to pass traffic on the right. Or maybe he wasn’t paranoid enough. After all, Penny had just commandeered two of his AI to break a lot of laws so she could prevent him from saying yes to outfitting a bunch of superheroes for world-saving business.

She put on her seatbelt and grabbed the handle above the window, squeezing her eyes shut to block out the frankly terrifying ride she was now on. “FRIDAY, what’s the situation,” Penny squeaked.

“Your father is drinking a smoothie and yelling at DUM-E. He seems unaware that more than just Ross will be coming to the meeting. Steve Rogers and his team do not know that you left school before practice.”

“Wait - how do you - FRIDAY, did you bug an official Accords jet?” 

“Well, it was an old Stark jet that your father sold to them for cost. They should have known better,” FRIDAY said primly.

“What the shit,” Penny said again, but didn’t bother telling FRIDAY off. 

Two terrifying and stomach-churning hours later the car came to a screeching stop in front of the compound. Penny sprinted inside, barely dodging around the Defenders (“Woah, there, little Stark.” “Sorry, Jessica!”) and dove into the elevator that FRIDAY had held for her.

“Is everyone there?” she asked her phone, not missing the amused looks she was getting from the agents in the elevator with her. They all saw her as the adorable, cuddly mascot that made Tony Stark act human every once in a while. Or that’s what Pepper had told her, anyway.

“They’ve all just sat down. I’m stalling them on closing the doors.”

Penny really did not want to add punching down a door to get into a private conference to her growing list of transgressions. It was a rule that classified meetings would get locked down from outside interference, which was actually a great way to encourage people to show up on time to meetings since most everything around here was classified.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” she whispered, bouncing up on her toes and ignoring the sounds of protests around her when FRIDAY didn’t stop at the other selected floors on the way. “Sorry!” she said and slipped through the doors as soon as they were open wide enough for her to fit through, then she was sprinting down the hallway towards conference room nine.

She heard her dad say, “FRIDAY, just close the damn door!”

She could see her destination now and the thick wooden door began to close, though it was moving very, very slowly. She would have laughed if she wasn’t so out of breath from the terrifying drive and subsequent sprint. She felt a bead of sweat drip down the back of her neck.

“FRIDAY, I can’t believe I’m asking you this, but do you have a virus or something?” her dad asked.

“Guess your tech isn’t what it used to be, huh, Stark?” someone that sounded a lot like Hawkeye asked in a nasty tone.

Then Penny was zipping through the door just before it closed and everyone was too busy yelling variations of “What the hell!” to make any more comments about FRIDAY’s odd behavior.

With her enhancements, she was able to take the room in at a glance. Her dad and Everette Ross, who she’d met a few times, were on the far side of the long table. The ex-Avengers were across from them.

Penny noted all of their positions even as she realized that she was moving too fast to stop before she hit the table. She was so relieved to have made it to Tony’s side before the door closed that is wasn’t even a conscious decision to leap up and land on her right hip on the table, scattering tablets and water bottles as she slid across the surface.

As she passed Clint she flicked her wrist, only seeing his widening eyes in a blur before she was slamming into her dad, who had stood with his arms open to catch her because he was awesome like that. She hit his chest and he let out a wheeze of air before stumbling back and sitting down hard in his chair. It rolled back with the force of their landing and slammed into the wall. Penny heard the plaster crumble under it.

She flailed and would have fallen onto the floor if her dad hadn’t wrapped his arms around her and pulled her securely against his chest. She sat there, one arm around his neck, legs akimbo, and tried desperately to catch her breath. 

Unsurprisingly, everyone was staring at her, though at least they’d lowered the various weapons they’d drawn at her ungainly entrance. Mr. Ross had stood and taken a step back when he’d seen the impending collision and had his arms crossed over his chest and a slightly amused expression on his face.

Captain America was openly glaring at her in a way that made her feel like he was going to drop into one of his PSAs at any moment and Ms. Romanoff’s expression had gone very blank. Everyone else was a mix of shocked or annoyed, except for Hawkeye, who was desperately trying to pull the webbing off his mouth.

Penny pushed herself into a more upright position and with all the dignity she could muster pointed at him and said, “That’s what you get for insulting FRIDAY and my dad.”

“Penny,” Tony said around a laugh. “What the hell are you doing here, kid? I thought you had decathlon. Is everything okay?” He studied her flushed face with concern. “Are you sick, princess?”

“Princess,” Scott Lang mouthed, looking like his whole worldview had just been tipped on its head.

Penny grinned up at him. The lines around his eyes softened. “Oh, no! FRIDAY just told me you were meeting with Mr. Ross, and I wanted to come say hi. I didn’t realize he was bringing...friends.”

Tony sent her his best disappointed-dad face. “Penny, we’ve talked about this. If you’re going to make a commitment to after-school activities, you have to honor them. You have a team depending on you.”

Penny crossed her arms over her chest. “And you promised not to meet with them.”

Tony grimaced. “I didn’t know they were coming -”

“But you still let them in!”

“Penny,” Mr. Ross said and she turned her glare on him. “It’s important that we talk through some things, put the past behind us so everybody can be at their best when Thanos comes.”

“You mean you want my dad to spend his time and money on your people. People who hurt him a lot in the past and obviously don't have any respect for him now.” She turned back towards Tony. “I’m just worried about you. Please, can I stay? Just to make sure they don’t hurt you?”

He sighed and pushed a lock of her hair behind one ear. “They aren’t going to hurt me, Penny.”

“You don’t know that.” She flopped against his chest and stared up at him. “Please? Plus, you’re always saying I need to start shadowing you and Pepper at meetings to get me ready for taking over the company -” she heard a few intakes of air at that proclamation and had to fight to keep the smile off her face “- and it doesn’t get any more cutthroat than this group.”

“Rude,” someone muttered.

Tony raised a brow, but his lips were already quirking up on one side. Penny wrinkled her nose just a little since FRIDAY had assured her that he found it adorable. He sighed. “Alright, fine. Door’s locked anyway.”

“Yes!” She pumped her fist in the air before standing and taking the chair right next to him while he yanked his own out of the wall and dusted plaster off the back of it.

“Tony, I don’t know if I’m comfortable having her here. She’ll probably be a disruption.” Mr. Rogers gestured at the mess she’d made of the table, then at Mr. Barton, who had sat back down and was actually looking a little amused by the whole situation, now. Huh.

“You’re the one that crashed my compound, Rogers. You don’t like it, feel free to leave.” Tony sat and very deliberately put his arm across the top of Penny’s chair. She was doing her best to pat down her hair and straighten her clothes, so she missed most of the stare-off between the two, though she felt the tension in the air.

“Penny’s one of us. I don’t see a problem with it,” Mr. Ross said and after some mild grumbling they all sat down again. Penny would cherish the expressions of defeat on their faces for a long time to come, she was sure.

“So,” Tony said and clapped his hands together. “You have fifteen minutes. Go.”

Mr. Rogers exchanged a look with Sam Wilson and Penny was happy to see that they hadn’t been dumb enough to bring the Winter Soldier or the Scarlet Witch with them. He cleared his throat. “Tony, we want to be a team again.”

“You want my money to be on your team again. Don’t sugar coat it, Rogers,” he snapped. Penny scooted her chair closer to him so her arm was up against his side. She knew him well enough to recognize that the way his hand flexed on the back of her chair meant he was having feelings he was trying to hide.

“No, Tony, we want you.”

“So, if he agreed to be on your team but not pay for your food, lodging, weapons, and armor you’d walk out of here happy?” Penny said sweetly.

“Part of what Iron Man brings to the table is his resources,” Ms. Romanoff said.

“I myself appreciate his awesome banter and the way he blows up a lot of bad guys. Oh, and his super-genius brain,” Penny said with a straight face.

“Aw, Pen, you charmer,” he said but he was smiling and relaxed back in his seat, which was what she had been going for.

“I don’t see you turning down a multi-million dollar suit and your room here,” Sam said.

Penny narrowed her eyes and talked over Ross when he tried to intervene. “I’d choose Tony Stark’s team even if I had to wear a paper bag to battle and move to Brooklyn,” she said, purposefully wrinkling her nose on the last word. She was fine with Brooklyn, even if it wasn’t as great as Queens, but she knew that bashing his old stomping grounds would irritate Mr. Rogers. It seemed to have worked, from his pinched expression. “He’s simply the best, and it has nothing to do with his money.”

“Flatterer. Don’t think this will get you out of trouble for skipping decathlon.” He dropped his arm so it was wrapped around her shoulders. 

“Dang,” she said lightly and lifted up the arm of her chair so she could lean against him.

“I’m tempted to give you a paper bag for your next upgrade, now.”

Penny rolled her eyes. “I’d still be able to kick your butt,” she said and poked a finger into his side where she knew he was ticklish. 

He jumped and tightened his arm around her shoulders. “This is elder abuse, are you seeing this, Ross?”

“So you admit you’re old!”

Ross sighed. “Children. Please.”

Penny gave herself a mental high five for derailing the meeting and distracting Tony from any possible angst. “Oh, sorry.” She gestured magnanimously at Mr. Rogers. “Please, continue.”

Tony shook a bit with laughter before he managed to smooth his expression. Steve took a deep breath. “Tony, I know that we’ve had our differences, but we both want the same things. I’m trying to keep the world safe while giving my team their best chance of survival. Please, Tony.”

Penny looked between his earnest blue eyes and her dad’s small frown. She knew that expression. It was his ‘I’m a self-sacrificing hero’ frown.

“If they move in here I want to move out,” she blurted. All eyes turned to her, including her dad’s, and she puffed up her cheeks before blowing out the air in frustration. “I’m sorry, but I won’t let you share a roof with them, I won’t.”

She let some of her panic bleed into her voice. He opened his mouth, but Mr. Wilson’s muttered, “Fine with us, don’t want to share space with a brat like you anyway” stopped him from saying whatever meaningless reassurance he'd been planning on dropping.

Tony went so stiff next to her that Penny was momentarily worried he’d twinge his neck. Natasha closed her eyes and let out a breath when he reached up to take off his glasses with his free hand and leaned forward. Penny forced herself to look hurt instead of gleeful at Mr. Wilson’s misstep.

“Yeah, you guys aren’t moving back into any of my properties, so you can forget it. In fact, I don't want you setting foot on them at all. FRIDAY, they try any more sneaky bullshit, you can take them down with extreme prejudice. You’ve been warned.”

“Yes, Boss.” Penny made a mental note to clarify that FRIDAY shouldn’t use lethal force unless it was absolutely necessary.

“Come on, he didn’t mean it,” Steve said.

Penny perked up when her dad opened his mouth, obviously ready to launch into one of his famous verbal assaults. Mr. Ross broke in first, though. “Okay, let's talk about weapons and armor. Tony, there really is an issue with quality. A superhero team has very different needs than our soldiers and we just don’t have the resources to build the proper equipment. What we’ve got is fine for most missions, but it won’t be when Thanos comes.”

Penny bit her lip when her dad put his glasses back on and tapped his fingers on the table. She got it, she did. No matter how little she liked them, this was about the fate of the world. But Thanos could arrive in one month or ten years. Nobody had a real time frame.

This type of specialized equipment needed upkeep and constant communication with the users to make sure everything was working properly. Penny knew it’d be a slippery slope. They’d ask for more and more and more and never think about giving him something back. That was just wrong. 

“I thought Wakanda was outfitting you,” Tony said.

“Shuri doesn’t have the time for upgrades now that we’re across the world,” Ms. Romanoff said apologetically. “Steve’s shields are fine, obviously, but our body armor and other weapons need upkeep and replacing from time to time.

“Plus she and T’Challa are busy running a country. It’s not fair of us to ask them to do this, too,” Steve said with just a small amount of disapproval, as though Tony was the one making demands on other people’s time.

“And it’s fair to ask my dad? He has an international company and a superhero team to run and I don’t see you respecting his time.” Penny motioned towards Mr. Lang. “Besides, you have an engineer on the team. Use him.”

Mr. Lang’s smile was lopsided but sincere. “I don’t really have the materials or space to work on our equipment.”

Penny leaned forward to look around her dad and raise a brow at Mr. Ross, ignoring Tony’s bemused stare. She supposed he wasn’t used to other people taking over his meetings, unless they were Pepper. “I’m sure the US government can provide at least a lab and some materials.”

“Scott’s smart, but he’s not Tony Stark,” Ms. Romanoff said with a small smile at Tony.

“Well, nobody is, but honestly I don’t think you have the budget to afford his time,” Penny snapped.

“Pen, that’s enough,” her dad said and she just knew he was planning on giving in from the exhaustion in his voice.

She turned to face him fully. “Last time a Stark made Mr. Rogers a weapon he almost killed one of us with it. Are you really willing to risk that again?” She put a slight emphasis on the word us and his face went a little pale. It was a low blow, but it wasn’t untrue. If history replayed itself, as it tended to do, it could be her under his shield next time. Not that she was actually worried about herself - she was probably stronger and definitely faster than Steve Rogers. 

Steve stood, every inch the wounded hero. “That was different! I’m not some crazed animal. He was trying to kill Bucky!”

Penny shot to her feet and leaned forward with her hands flat on the table, meeting his anguished gaze without flinching. “I wonder why? Maybe if he’d had some warning he wouldn’t have reacted that way!”

A warm hand wrapped around her bicep and tugged her back into her seat. Ms. Romanoff was urging Steve to sit down, too, and after a moment he did so. Penny felt a little guilty when she saw how wrecked he looked. It couldn’t be fun, realizing you’re the villain in someone else’s story.

“Tony,” Ms. Romanoff said. “You know this isn’t about our personal issues. This is about protecting Earth from Thanos. It comes down to him vs. us.”

Everyone went silent, thinking through the words. Penny knew she was right - she did - but this wasn’t just her dad providing a one-time service. This was a commitment that forced him to actually be in the same room with them on a semi-regular basis. 

Penny’s stomach dropped with the certainty that she was going to lose this argument. Her dad was serious about the upcoming fight. She’d even found plans for an upgraded nanotech suit for her that he’d clearly built for a war, not superheroing.

Penny sat up, her eyes going wide. “The Iron Spider!” she blurted and turned towards Tony again, grabbing his hands in hers and bouncing a bit in place.

“How do you know about that?”

She flapped her hand in the air. “You know you can’t hide presents from me.”

“It’s a highly weaponized suit, not a present -”

“You made that especially for Thanos-level threats, right? Like, there’s a code to release it that can only be used in a situation like that.”

Tony’s brow smoothed and he grinned. “You’re a damn genius, you know that?”

Penny’s cheeks hurt a bit, she was smiling so wide, and her fingertips were tingling with the force of her relief. “I know,” she said and laughed when he bopped her nose with a finger before standing and buttoning his suit jacket.

“We do actually have a precedent set up for this situation, as Penny just so graciously reminded me. I’ll develop suits for each of you,” he held up a hand when Steve smiled and stood. “They will be a highly weaponized version of what I’ve done in the past, and they will be deployed only in situations which myself, FRIDAY, or Penny declare relevant. They are not for day-to-day use - you’ll have to figure out something else for that. After the approved battles are over, they will retract and return to home base. I wouldn’t try to stop them if I were you.”

Ross sighed and folded his hands in front of him on the table. He worked enough with her dad to know when he wouldn’t budge on something.

Tony motioned for her to stand. “Come on, sweetheart, I have a lecture about responsibility to give you.”

Penny jumped to her feet and saluted. “Yes, sir.”

“Tony, you can’t be serious -”

“If we could just take a moment to discuss this -”

“Don’t let your hurt feelings get in the way of helping people -”

Tony put his arm around Penny’s shoulders and led her to the door. It opened without prompting and he paused just before they stepped outside. “You have ten minutes to get the hell off my property.”

They swept out into the hallway, leaving the cacophony of protests behind them. Penny couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the night, even when Tony informed her that she was grounded. It took the sting out of it when he told her they’d spend that time in the lab designing Steve Roger’s team’s suits.

“You’re gonna take the world by storm, kid,” he said on the car ride back to the city. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, “Thanks for having my back, sweetheart.”

Penny wondered if it was possible to explode from an excess of happiness. She’d kept her dad safe without jeopardizing the safety of the world, and she’d proven that he would never, ever be alone while she was around. 

“Always,” she assured him. If she sometimes had to act slightly villainous to keep her promise, well, she supposed she didn’t mind all that much.