"-adoption won't be final until... Tony?"
Tony snapped to attention, looking up at Pepper. She was doing the dishes in her pajamas, hair pulled up into a messy bun. He smiled around his burrito.
"Were you even listening?"
He swallowed. "No. No I was not. Sorry."
Pepper dried her hands and slid into the seat beside her boyfriend. "What's on your mind?"
"Laynie. It's a relief to have Carter back, don't get me wrong, but..."
"I know," Pepper said, heaving a sigh. "I can tell Carter's not happy about it either, but from what she's heard, Walter's treating her nicely."
"Carter said she texted Laynie Wednesday about being adopted and she never replied. She called and she didn't answer."
Pepper patted Tony's shoulder. "It'll be okay. Im going to bed. Don't stay up too late." Pepper kissed Tony's cheek and went off to their room.
Tony sat at the counter and stared at his burrito. It was like the Mexican dish was laughing at his pain, making him unable to eat it.
It had been a week since Carter came back, and the Avengers were happier than they had been in weeks. But an integral part of the family was still missing.
Tony's phone began vibrating in his pocket and he answered it quickly, eager for distraction.
"Laynie! Hey! You okay?"
"No no Tony- it's Walter and-" Laynie kept talking, but Tony couldn't understand her.
"Oh God, kiddo, slow down."
She took a panicked breath, then let it out. "Walter's drunk, I'm scared."
She sounded like she was on the verge of a panic attack. She was already past the point of sobbing.
"Hang up and call the police."
"No!" she cried. "They'll take him to jail."
Anger welled up inside of Tony. Walter only deserved jail if he'd hurt Laynie.
"Did he hurt you?"
"N-no, he shouted at me. He wants me to leave."
"I'm calling the police if you aren't. I want you safe."
"I know," she cried.
"What can I do?" Tony was starting to get close to tears himself. He was two thousand miles away, and she was in trouble.
"Come get me."
He put his head in his free hand. "It would take me hours to get there."
"I don't care," she whispered.
"Make a deal with me. I'll take the fastest suit I have to get there in a little more than an hour, and you call the police. I'll meet you at the police station as soon as I can." Laynie was silent. "Deal?"
He heard her take a ragged breath. "Deal."
"I'll see you soon Laynie."
He stood up so fast that the chair behind him clattered to the floor. "Pepper!" he shouted. He didn't care that there were other people sleeping in the house. Laynie was the only thing on his mind.
He charged into his and Pepper's room and grabbed his suit. Or rather, the clothes he wore underneath the suit.
Pepper scooted to the edge of the bed. "Tony? What's wrong?"
"Laynie. Walter's drunk. I told her to call the police, but I have to go meet her at the police station."
"Oh my goodness, is she okay?"
Tony shook his head vigorously. "I think so."
Changed and ready to fly, Tony ran to his armory. "JARVIS, get the Mark Seventeen ready."
"But sir, it's not yet fully functional and prone-"
"No two ways about it buddy, I don't care. Set coordinates for Walter Martinez's house."
"Walter Martinez, Miss Combs's father?"
Tony spent the flight constantly worried about Laynie. On the way, he told Pepper the whole story and tried calling Laynie, only to get her voicemail.
He hovered over Walter's home with his armored arms crossed. "Scan for heat signatures."
JARVIS found none. The house was empty.
"JARVIS, where would the police have taken her?"
"The local police station, sir. Would you like the coordinates?"
Ten minutes later, he parked his armor and walked into the police station.
The woman at the counter in the front was surprised, dropping her pen.
"I'm here for Laynie Combs."
He had to wait a minute, but Laynie came out, happy to see him. Tony instantly noticed she was walking oddly, but let it be for the moment.
Her knelt down and wrapped his arms around her. "Are you okay?"
"I'm okay," she answered quietly. "Thanks for coming."
"I had Pepper get the jet ready for us, we can go home whenever they let us."
Laynie pulled out of the embrace enough to give him an astonished look. "What?"
"I know I'm just the guy whose house you stayed in for a few weeks, but we miss you. We have Carter back but you're still missing. Me and Pepper would happily adopt you. Any of us would."
"Tony, they aren't going to let me." Tears began welling up in her eyes. "But I would be honored to call you my dad."
He gave her a squeeze. "We'll see. What did he do? Why are you walking weird?"
Laynie looked down at her feet and made a face. "I guess he didn't get his beer all the way into the fridge or something, because I opened it and a bottle fell out and broke. He was angry, I got half a bottle's worth of glass in my feet running. The paramedic already got it all out, but my feet still hurt."
Tony nodded thoughtfully, then stood up. He didn't let go of her hand. "Where's Walter?"
"It's not like I'm going to murder him in the police station." He gave her a toothy grin. "That can wait until I can frame someone else. What I meant was do they have him in custody?"
"Yeah. He's in a holding cell or something."
"Okay." Tony turned to the officer who had escorted Laynie out. "Tony Stark, pleased to meet you sir. Where's Laynie supposed to go now?"
"I can't say I know, Mr. Stark. Laynie's case manager has been contacted." The officer held up a hand, then spoke into his radio. "Has Laynie Combs's case manager arrived?"
"Yeah, where's Miss Combs?"
"With me. Permission to bring Tony Stark, her previous caretaker?"
There was a long silence on the other end of the radio. "Permission granted."
Tony stifled a sigh of relief.
Laynie gripped his hand desperately as the group paraded through the police station. He knew she was having a hard time keeping herself together. Laynie always protected herself so much, always put others before herself, and it was rare to see such a raw display of emotion from her.
He shook their hands. "You okay?"
She looked over and gave him a watered down smile. "I'm fine."
As they entered the meeting room, trailing behind the officer, Tony gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
They sat down beside each other, across from another police officer and two middle aged women.
"Mr. Stark," said one woman slowly. "My name is Sarah, I'm Laynie's case manager, and this is her guardian ad litem, Martha."
All was silent for a moment, then Laynie spoke up. "Can I go home with Tony?" The question was rushed and timid at the same time.
Both women were speechless.
"Well, legally... No. We can't let you. Walter is your legal guardian at the moment, and since he's... Not able to care for you, the next step is to rehabilitate Walter and get you with another registered foster family within the county while we do so. Mr. Stark isn't either of those."
Tony expected Laynie to leave it at that, but she didn't.
"But he housed me for a long time! That has to mean something!"
Martha looked down at some papers in her hands, and exchanged a glance with Sarah. "Laynie," the lawyer began calmly, "if we wanted to transfer you to Mr. Stark's home, I believe we could. We can petition a transfer to the judge the next court date-"
"Ma'am, if I may, wouldn't all of this be null and void if we had a transferal of legal custody paper with Walter's name on it?"
Both women began shuffling through papers in front of them.
"Mr. Stark, you're right. How do you plan on going about all this?"
Tony looked down at Laynie. He felt a sudden surge of love and a need to protect her. It was if someone had opened the floodgates of his heart, or something equally cheesy and sentimental.
Ten minutes later, Tony gave Laynie a reassuring smile and walked into an interrogation room.
It looked just like the ones from the movies, and very similar to others he'd been in before. Except he had been the man in the chair more often than not.
Walter, pathetic as he was, had his head resting on his arms, seemingly asleep. The words of Laynie's social worker floated through his mind.
Remember not to be too rough. He has to do this on his own terms.
Tony tapped him on the shoulder, lightly first, and then harder. He gave a sigh of impatience and looked up at the mirror, where a police officer, Laynie, and Sarah all stood. Looked back down to Walter.
Roughly grabbing a handful of his hair, Tony pulled his head a few inches off the table and dropped it.
Walter startled awake at his head hitting the table. "What's going on?" he asked gruffly, clearly still intoxicated.
Giving Walter an ingenuine smile, Tony plopped down in the chair across from him. "Hello Walter. My name is Tony Stark, I'm Laynie's previous caretaker. You wanna know something, Walter? Laynie's hurt. She has bandages on her feet and tiny shards of glass even underneath those. Even worse," he growled, leaning forward, "her feelings are hurt."
Tony eased back in the chair, putting his feet on the table. "I have a list of super villains who would like to kill me or otherwise make my life miserable, and then I have the list of villains who want to hurt my family and friends. What do I do about those lists? Well I watch out for the people on the first, and I watch the people on the second. I know where they are, who they love, and I'm no Captain America. I will not hesitate to stoop to their level."
Walter glared at Tony through clouded eyes. "You don't scare me Stark."
He shrugged. "Fair enough. I am admittedly rather short and not very intimidating. You know what should scare you though? The judge that's going to review this case tomorrow at the emergency hearing. Him, and my friend Bruce Banner. It's one thing to make me angry, but," Tony laughed, "he's another story."
"What do you want?" He slurred.
Tony put his feet beneath him and leaned into Walter's face. "I want custody. Laynie doesn't want to stay with you, and according to your drunken side, you don't even want her."
Walter looked down at the table, and Tony's heart soared. Maybe this wouldn't be so hard, he thought. Until Walter looked up and spat in his face.
"Can't have her."
Tony faced the mirror, wiping the spit off his face. He couldn't see it, but on the other side Laynie was fighting tears.
He turned slowly. "Walter, please. All you have to do is sign a paper and she's out of your hair."
The man wouldn't speak.
Tony lunged across the table and grabbed a fist full of his shirt. "I can either help you make your life better, or make it very, very bad. I just..." He let go and sat down once more. "I just want Laynie. Either clean up your act or let me have her."
"She ruined my life, made Alissa leave me, why shouldn't she be miserable too?" Walter hissed at him.
Tony slammed his hand on the table. "Every single one of us almost died for Carter and Laynie the first two weeks we had her. My mom used to tell my dad, come hell or high water, we're making things work! Family is about sacrifice! Give and take! Laynie left her friend -her sister!- to try to make this work."
He narrowed his eyes. "Do I look like care?"
Tony's eyes flew wide, struck with inspiration. This guy was drunk beyond reason, and Tony's only a genius. It would be easy to...
"Do you care?" He asked, clearly, simply.
"Are you deaf?" Walter growled. "No, of course I don't care!"
Tony sniffed, pretending disinterest. "What are you even going to do with her? I mean, you really can't have her walking around the house."
Walter thought about it. "No..."
"Can't have her getting into your beer again," Tony mused.
Walter frowned. "No."
"She certainly can't contact social workers and all, they wouldn't approve." Tony laughed. "You'd end up in jail for good!"
It hit him. Walter's eyes grew wide and he heavily sat back in his chair.
"I'm sorry I even asked man, obviously you've got her under control," Tony said, holding out a hand. "But I could take her off your hands anytime."
"Wait..." Walter said slowly. "What do I have to sign?"
Tony whipped the papers and a pen out of his pocket and pointed to a line.
Walter solemnly signed the paper, and Tony was out of there in a second flat.
Laynie met him halfway to the mirror room, all sorts of falling apart. She tripped and fell into him, crying and laughing. "You did it!" she exclaimed.
Tony pulled her into a bone crushing hug. "You can come home! You can come home!"
By the time everything was sorted, it was four in the morning and they were both exhausted. They clambered into the jet and fell fast asleep, Laynie with her head in Tony's lap.
The best part of the day was yet to come.
Shambling off the jet into the half-light of the sunrise, as they squinted out across the sea of asphalt, a line of figures came into view.
"Carter!" Laynie screamed, running across the lot.
She fell into the open arms of her friend, already crying again, and was quickly buried in a multitude of other hugs.
"You're back!" Carter cried happily, hugging her friend tighter. "I missed you so much..." she sniffed.
Steve, Clint, Bruce, Natasha, Thor, Tony and Pepper all layered in on top of the girls, all shouting and crying their relief at their being reunited.
Ten yards away, the pilots sat in the plane and wiped tears out of their eyes.
Finally, after the tiring and painful journey they had been through, the girls had found a home. Carter Banner and Laynie Stark had found a home in these war-torn and hardened men and women.
There was nothing in the world that could make the group, the family, any happier.