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PART ONE: THREAT

 

“Tony, what is this?” Steve’s armour creaked around him as he leant forwards and put his hands flat on the table.

That, is the Mandarin. Ruler of a big chunk of China, contracted by Stane to have me killed back in ‘08.” It had taken five years to work his way up the Ten Rings’ chain of command to find the connection, but once you got there it was painfully obvious:

The Mandarin’s capability for weird shit came from ten literal rings. Pieces of technology so alien that Extremis couldn’t even start interfacing with it, and so miniaturized that they fitted into the ornate gold bands like gemstones. Lower down the organization, the number cropped up time and time again; ten generals each with ten subordinates that ran ten operations. Anyone who became supernumerary to requirements vanished into the Mongolian Steppe. Tony had never been able to retrieve any of them.

“So he’s a mercenary.”

“Oh no, Steve, he’s way worse than that, he’s a competitor. He’s been trying to get these designs--” Tony flung up images of his obsessive scribblings. Half of them were on scraps, one was grease-penciled onto an old section of chest plate, and all of them were horrors. Tentacled behemoths, scaled by tiny scribblings of the Iron Man armour in the corners. “-- into my head, to take advantage of my design skills,” he tapped his temple, “for months, but they don’t work. The legs are too fragile and he hasn’t given them a power source, but... I could make it work; thats the thing. Arc power wouldn’t be enough but... the new atomic motor tech? I could make it work and he could have made me do it.

It had been a ... unique experience. No sensation of wrongness, not so much as a flicker on his internal ‘firewalls’. The images, designs, blueprints, had just started turning up, after engineering blackouts and long weeks with too little sleep. If it had been anything less horrifying, anything more... more ‘Stark’, more familiar, he might not have noticed and the Mandarin might have gotten away with sneaking terrible things into his brain. It had him doubting every decision he’d made in the previous year, and he’d... he’d made a lot of bad decisions.

“Great, mind control...” Steve muttered, scrubbing his hand over his face. “Does anyone else sense an ‘and’ coming here? Because--”

“AND Zeke Stane has gone missing. Obadiah Stane’s son, grudge the size of Manhattan. Zeke Stane could power these things using a cow. Admittedly only for about fifteen minutes, but scale up the organism to a couple of tons and it’d become stable, self sustaining.”

“Well that sounds horrible,” Bruce interjected, “but Stane junior’s only ever made bombs with his bioarc. You really think he can handle the change in direction?”

“Considering how he’s powering his own physiology, yeah, he can do it.” Tony sank back in his chair, leaning an elbow on the arm of his chair and tapping his fingers against his forehead.

“So. What’s our play?”

“I think we need to talk to the Chinese government.”

“Oh, Fury is going to love that...”

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

“We are go, people! Gear up!” Fury yelled, his voice uniquely capable of echoing through the hangar. Three weeks of tense negotiations with a foreign government had left everyone around the Director and his aides frightened for their lives. There were cheers at the announcement throughout the staging zones, from helo-loading all the way to the fueling pits. Pilots, soldiers, and superheroes dropped cards, abandoned poker games, and smacked each other out of naps.

Down on his engineering deck, Tony’s face loosened in relief and his clothes melted into the gold life-support of the Bleeding Edge armor, creeping up his neck and cradling the back of his head. “Buckle up, Steve, lets get this done.”

The Captain was already half in the uniform, missing just the shield and his body armor. Tony had to admit, the stealth armor? Fantastic piece of work; Steve shrugged into the three-kilo jacket like it was silk and Italian wool.

Tony summoned the armor once he could tear his eyes off Steve and it came as easily as ever, flowing out of his hollow, bird-like bones and over the bodysuit. Once he had it fixed, solidified, he stepped into the jury-rigged stealth harness; a framework of black panels covered in radar-absorbant paint that he could shed once they hit the fight-zone. He’d jacked in hitch points at the shoulder and hip for Steve’s chute harness; with the suit’s tiny radar profile and the camo, he’d be invisible, even carrying Steve and his great big vibranium dish. They’d be behind the Mandarin’s command lines before anyone was the wiser.

“Alright, kitcheck,” Steve said, tugging on the last buckle across his chest. Tony brushed his hands aside and tugged on the hitch points; Steve stumbled towards him a step, before getting the idea and setting his stance to withstand Iron Man’s strength.

“Harness, check. Mask?”

“Got it.” Steve said, pulling the black mask off a crate and clipping it into his helmet. “Here.” He held the hose out to Tony, who hitched it to his environmental system.

“You good?”

Steve took a deep breath which -- whoa, look at the size of that rib cage...

“Yeah, it’s clear.”

“Altimeter?”

Steve turned his wrist to show the instrument on its watch strap. “Reading cruising altitude. We’re good. Hitch me up.”

Tony clapped him on the shoulder. “Back behind enemy lines, Cap. Let’s do this.”

Steve’s harness clipped in with maglocks to the hitch points on the armour, his parachute-covered back to Tony’s chest. Hopefully, they wouldn’t need the chute, but it did have the side benefit of making this more comfortable.

“Alright, I’m good. Give it a shake.”

Steve obeyed and pulled against the restraint. The locks held and nothing moved. There were ready to go.

“Gloves?”

“Check.”

“Helmet?”

Steve head-butted Tony in the faceplate gently.

“Right. Shield?”

“Agent Romanov?” Natasha handed it over and Steve slotted his arm into the straps, crossing his other forearm between the shield and his arm and pulled it all to his chest. It would protect him from some of the wind. Hopefully.

“Good luck, boys.” Natasha gave Tony a fiendish look over Steve’s shoulder and pecked the supersoldier on the mask.

“Thank you, Natasha. Tony?”

“Ready when you are Cap.”

“Alright.” Steve chinned his throat mic to the command channel. “This is Captain Rogers; good luck everyone. Operation Blackstar: moving out.”

“Copy that. Stark, get off my boat.”

“Awww, don’t you like me anymore, Nicky? Open the bay doors and I’ll get out of your ‘hair’.”

The steel overhead rumbled open and Tony shifted; legs locked, arms at 37 degrees.

Three... two... one.

They pulled up off the deck in a single ferocious surge of acceleration.

“Course plotted and cleared, sir.”

“Thank you, JARVIS, keep an eye on the home front for me?” Tony sent, using Extremis as a glorified instant messenger rather than linking up to JARVIS more extensively.

“Of course, sir. You have not exceeded your usual behavioural parameters in seventy-eight hours. I speculate that the extensive preparations you have undertaken may be proving successful.”

“When did you become such an optimist, Jarv?” Tony muttered into his helmet, ignoring JARVIS’ ‘I’m sure I wouldn’t know, sir’ completely.

The air was breathtakingly cold once the crested thirty thousand feet, and thanks to Extremis, he could feel every degree rippling over the surface of the suit. He wanted to hold on to Steve, keep him wrapped up, away from the ice crusting on the edged of the thrusters, but that wouldn’t exactly help, what with the sharp edges of the Suit and Steve’s body armor in the way. And he needed the stability at these speeds.

“Steve, seriously, keep your legs straight, you’re throwing us off.”

“Eyes on the controls, Iron Man, I’ve got it...” They dipped and wobbled as Cap tried to hook his ankles over the armor.

“You do not ‘have it’, Cap. I should have tied your ankles on. Stay still.” He felt Cap stiffen up, irritation bleeding through the chest plate and gumming up Tony’s flight path. Still, he could make this work. Once they were up to height, he rolled smoothly, adjusting the jets and repulsors to have them gliding along facing the stars. There was a nice cloud cover, but it was below, and they could take it easy.

Once the centrifugal effect stopped swinging Cap in weird directions, Steve braced his feet against Tony’s shins and relaxed grumpily. Steve Rogers; man of many talents.

“Settle in, Steve, I’ll wake you when things are about to get interesting.” Steve knocked his helmet back against the faceplate again. “Yeah, yeah, cut it out; the suit’ll keep your tootsies warm.”

Clunk.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXX

 

So, going against the Mandarin as Tony Stark had been a horrifying prospect. He’d lost billions of dollars in blown up factories facing just Zeke Stane; the Mandarin had all that, plus the resources of a small country and enough bat-shit insanity to make Obie look rational.

Going against him as SIC for the Avengers? Well, that was just another Tuesday.

They landed in an out-of-the-way park; trees, stream, convenient bit of lawn for Cap to tumble onto. Tony, quite politely, did recon while Steve rubbed some life back into his ass.

The sub-command building was half a bloc-- well, no, the city didn’t have blocks, it was an unpleasantly organic sprawl of narrow streets and wood-framed buildings that leaned. So, the target was up a narrow lane, and on the other side of a day-market populated by shuttered stalls and balled up bits of greasepaper.

“We clear?” Steve asked, a hand landing on Tony’s shoulder. The ‘super’ soldier was still working life into one calf and using the armor as a leaning post. Elegant. Real suave.

“Just us and the rats, Cap. Time to go.” The serum would take care of anything less than a bullet wound before they hit the energetic part of the mission; Steve would be fine.

Tony would never tell anyone, but when he’d configured the armor back up on the Helicarrier, he’d guided Extremis to soften the soles of the boots so as they stepped off grass and onto cobbles, he made barely any noise. Because he was wearing crocs, effectively. Thank god Rhodey wasn’t around to notice.

The streets were blessedly quiet, given Iron Man and Captain America’s combined ability to stick out like the fourth of July, but not empty, and there was movement on the roof. The narrow alleys gave them cover right up to the wall of the relay station, but a face vanished over the top of a flat-roofed three-story and JARVIS’ chatter meter spiked.

“Cap...” Tony mumbled subvocally.

“I saw. Let’s go with plan B, up and at em’, Stark.”

“It’s my genuine pleasure. See you on the other side.”

Tony locked the knees and gave one sharp burst of the thrusters, throwing himself over the wall, while Steve’s hard grip on the ridge at the back of his neck brought him right up after. Steve, impossible human being that he was, pushed off at the top of the arc, and Tony tracked him flipping like a cat to land on the shoulders of someone holding a rifle.

Party time.

Tony didn’t go all out -- no need, these guys were 100% home-grown human -- but they ploughed through the transmitter’s external security in a blaze of repulsor fire and bashed heads.

“Get the lock, Iron Man.” Steve braced the shield against the door; steel, two inches, sliding bolts, RFID tag system, and Tony got Extremis up close and personal with the reader. The bolts slid back on their magnets with a very satisfying ‘thunk’.

“All yours, Rambo.”

Steve nodded and heaved. The door swung open so hard, the hinges twisted and Tony did not want to think about what had happened to the two heat signatures on the other side. Cap didn’t exactly give him time to look, either, before they were haring to the control room, racing to get there before the call for backup did. Concrete showered them with bits of sparking stone as the shield flew in the tight corridor, pinballing and clearing the way fo--

The last one standing, at the door to relay-central caught the shield. The blue-white of the arc shone out from the guy’s stomach and whatever enhancements Stane Junior had made to the bioarc, the guy was strong, and resilient; the shield rang with the impact, and the guy's hand should have broken, but instead, he was slipping the shield’s straps over his arm. Steve was not going to be pleased with that.

“You ready, Cap?”

“Always. Let’s go, Iron Man.” Steve led the way, charging over the unconscious guards in the corridor and meeting Bioarc Dude head on. Tony crouched and waited for an opening; the space was too tight, and the wall too thick for them both to fight him at once, but once Steve had the shield back, it was open season.

Steve used knees and elbows to batter the guy’s body, carefully avoiding the reactor in his gut, and was met with a mad, snarling fury: very little skill but an awful lot of power. The shield’s handles twisted and warped under two superhuman grips, but Steve knew all about superhuman strength, and brought his fist down on the guy’s extended elbow. There was a sickening pop as it dislocated and without bones in the right places, the muscles powering their opponent’s hand failed. Steve punched him hard in the chest and there.

The guy stumbled back, one arm out to catch himself and the other dangling like an empty rubber glove, and Steve ripped the shield off him. He was wide open, and Tony launched, using the full force of the jets to slam into their opponent, shoulder first. The pauldron smashed into the bioarc and Tony speared Extremis in, using it like a weapon and a dampener all at once, to keep the guy from detonating.

They crashed back, through the door, and slid across the concrete in a shower of sparks, leaving a long smear of radar-scattering paint behind them. They fetched up against a server housing with a loud clang, but the suit took most of the impact and the fucking cockroach on his chest heaved himself up and started battering against the stealth-shell he was carrying over the armor.

Power was leaching out of the guard, now that the arc was down, but he was hitting hard, almost as hard as Cap. Tony brought his arms up for a repulsor blast, but the fucking plating got in the way; warped and caved in, it was pressing into his armpit and jamming the joint, he couldn’t get his palms up. Guard-McDoucheface landed another blow, this time to the helmet, and Tony really hoped that that snapping noise was the guy’s fingers finally breaking, because about fucking time!

Needless to say, Tony did not appreciate being stuck on his back with a guy on his chest.

“Outta the way, Steve, outta the way!” Tony ordered, cuing up the unibeam at 5% in the vague hope that he wouldn’t bring the whole building down on them. That might sort out the radio relay currently streaming through the back of his head; well done, mission complete, but it’d really screw up their exit strategy. He caught Steve on peripheral scanners and that was his cue. The chest lens flared hot and the ‘beam knocked their opponent clear down the hall. Tony would have cheered, if he wasn’t stuck like a turtle.

“Shut it down, son.”

Steve must have collared one of the techs, because the rapid string of Chinese that followed sounded horrified. Tony grinned and began tearing at the reflective panels in order to free up his arms.

“Good luck with that, Cap; pretty sure you don’t speak Mandarin Chinese. I’ll get it myself... just as... soon as I... Oh, fuck it. Steve, lend me the shield.” Tony grunted, levering himself onto his side. He could have used the rockets to blast the mess off, but he was feeling magnanimous.

The shield made an excellent crowbar, anyway.

“Tell me what to do, Stark.” Steve tapped the edge of the shield, pointedly. It was a shame his helmet covered his eyebrows, ‘cause Tony could feel the frown.

“Right here, twist and pop the seam,” he said, pointing at the space between fore and aft plates. Steve jammed the edge in, wriggled it to make a secure fit, and then twisted the whole shield around ninety degrees. The seam screeched open and Tony’s shoulder freed up, so he set about stripping off the last of the now-useless stealth gear, grumbling: “--don’t need a stealth-mode, Tony, just hack their radar, Tony, sure, that’s how radar works!”

“Tony.”

“...don’t put radar-scattering paint in your bones, Tony, it’ll mess with the equipment...”

“Tony!”

He stopped grumbling, shaking violently and opening all the flaps simultaneously to send the last of the plate scattering across the floor. Steve’s pet technician yelped and danced in Steve’s grip to keep his toes safe. Served him right for not wearing shoes in a server room, idiot.

“I’m going to keep an eye on the corridor. You got this?” Steve asked, pushing the prisoner towards him.

“‘Do I have this’? Yes, I have this. This is high-school AV room. Take Starcraft with you, he’ll get in the way,” Tony muttered, stomping over to the console with its lack of wireless and Bluetooth. Steve said something, but Tony wasn’t listening and waved him off; JARVIS’d take notes if it was important.

He had to hardline -- hardline, what is this, the Sixties?! -- but he’d come prepared, with intel-appropriate line hookups in the Suit’s toolbox. It’d take more than wire-only access to stop Extremis.

Once the connection was up and the security stripped out, Tony took an ‘image’ of the network construction and started setting fires. A virus here, a trojan there, hook that server up to redtube... Use that ISDN to poke at Interpol’s firewall...

“Interpol activity up by 47%, I believe they have taken the excuse rather seriously,” JARVIS reported.

“Anything from your contact in the Department, J?” Tony asked, locking the last few code loops into place.

“She expresses her gratitude, sir. I suspect there will be access codes in your inbox by morning.”

Tony grinned and dipped his head to one side. “Never let it be said that I’m not efficient!”

Done. The system choked, and the Mandarin’s information grid toppled, just as likely to open amateur porn as the requested email. Interpol was going to have a field day.

Comms next. It’d take a few minutes for the network to get over its collective embarrassment and report in, so he needed the radios down before then. Much less fun. He re-routed the collected signals through a single relay-point, amping up until the equipment burnt out. Four relay towers later, and the system was unrecoverable without concerted efforts to repair the four towers simultaneously. Any attempt to bring one online without the others would leave that single tower carrying the entire grid load.

Boom.

Or possibly fffzzzst.

“Alright, I’m done here!” Tony called to Steve, dropping a server-interface killer in to cover his tracks and jacking out. The cable spooled back against his forearm and he jogged out to Steve, kicking the remains of his stealth gear on his way past. "Radar proofing's gone; we're going to have to wing it. The network breakdown'll slow down artillery manouv--" he stared, unbelieving, at Steve, "--five minutes! I left you alone for five minutes!"

The corridor was filled with way more Chinese-PMC-uniforms than last time he looked. Maybe as many as twenty unconscious or groaning bodies, lying in jumbled piles filled the hall.

"Time to go?"

"Time to--!? Yes, yes it is time to leave," Tony snapped. "Did it not occur to you that I should know about the invading horde?"

"I had it covered." Steve grinned, the gigantic ingrate, and patted his pet tech on the head.

"Yeah, uh... No. Him, you are leaving behind," Tony grumbled and stalked off, consciously pulling the rubberised silencers off his boots and having the Bleeding Edge put it back to use in the undersuit. The fact that this made stalking down a concrete hall significantly more satisfying was by-the-by.

"Of course I'm lea-- why would I take a POW here, Tony? Chen's just a... Computer guy."

Tony bristled, irrationally pissed. "No one is 'just' a computer guy, Steve, there's more going on in one measly little server than you could ever mana--" He pulled himself up short, because fuck, that was never something he'd think to say on his own. "Shit," he swore, viciously, and the armour melted off him, flowing with perfect fluidity into his bones and leaving him terrifyingly vulnerable in just the gold undersuit.

“Aberration detected, I suggest protocol Echo two, sir.” JARVIS relayed, the words appearing directly in the back of his mind. Tony sent a confirmation and slapped up extra security in Extremis’ outer zones, while pulling the core processor back from non-essential tasks.

"My God, Tony, what are you doing?!" Steve crowded him against the wall, shield on one side and Steve's armoured torso on the other.

"Need new firewalls... Mandarin's a pushy bastard..." Tony forked the freed up processing power over to Extremis, a procedure that pushed his brain further from 'mind' and closer to 'machine'. It was a stop-gap at best, but you can't use mind control on a machine.

"Put the suit back on Tony, we could have company any second."

"Right, just a second..." He stripped Extremis down to its minimum connectivity and routed decision making through--

"Now, Tony."

Steve's Cap voice was impossible to resist and the armour exploded out of storage almost painfully. Three arc-enhanced bodies tumbled around the corner and whelp, time to go!

He didn’t exactly need the building intact anyway, he thought, aiming bunker-busters at the ceiling before the armor had fully formed. “Going up, Cap! Duck and cover.”

Steve dropped into a crouch, pulling himself under the shield, and Tony fired. The ceiling exploded, mostly outwards, and dust billowed out into the night sky. Debris rained down, pinging off vibranium and Suit, but the enhanced first-response team was still advancing.

“Up you come...” Steve unfolded himself and put his back to Tony, and tilted his chin to his chest to expose the back of his neck. Tony burrowed his hand down the back of Steve’s armor, grabbed a handful of harness and blasted them up through the hole, squeezing past exposed rebar without so much as scratching his cargo.

“Hah! Fuck you, Mandarin.” Tony snarled, blasting up above firing range and looping over the city to head for home.

“Not bad, Tony. How’s the incursion?”

“We’re... I think we’re good,” Tony said. “It’s... I’ve shut him down again.”

“Good to know, keep me posted.”  Steve patted Tony’s shin and reached up for his waist. “Hoist me up.”

“Sure, sure. Side carry? Couple of the hookups are a bit dinged,” Tony commented, pulling up to hover for a second.

Yes please.”

“Aww, not too pleased with the harness arrangements?” Tony mocked, gently, pulling Steve up by the scruff until he could get a foot up on the armor’s boot. “Rate on a scale from one to ten; chafing, pinching, genita--”

“Yes, thank you, that’ll do, time to go.” Steve settled his arm around Tony’s waist, where the Bleeding Edge obligingly generated a handle at Tony’s request.

Tony snorted and settled his arm around Steve’s back, shifting stabilisers around to accommodate for the left-side drag. “Calling it in now, Cap. D or R point?”

“D, R got Hawkeye.”

“Copy that; I don’t want to be anywhere near that guy today...” Tony grumbled, thinking sourly of the latest in the man’s string of bad break-ups, switching over to broadcom before Steve could start speechifying about Carol. “Iron Man to Command, confirm.”

“Line’s open, Stark, you’re on all Level Seven comms; report.”

“Alrighty, then. Listen up: Radio’s out for good, email and nav-sats are down for... the foreseeable future. Without top-down orders, the Rings’ll follow existing commands indefinitely, so! Switch battle tactics, you’ve seen the lay of the land now people, time to get out the real guns.”

There was a whoop on the line. “Point R here, roger that; we’ve got a kill-zone ready to go. ETE: twenty minutes.”

“Nice. Widow?” Tony asked, shuffling his arm against Steve’s ribs for a better hold through a banking maneuver.

“Here. Point Sierra clear and secured. Expecting enemy reinforcements in eight minutes; bugging out now,” Natasha mumbled, apparently in exfiltration mode.

Tony, in an aside to just Steve, muttered: “Ten dollars says we see the explosion from D point.”

“No bet, I saw the box you gave her.”

“Damn, she brought that?” Tony whistled low. “Happy demolition, Black Widow,” he said, clicking back over to all-comm. “Anyone got eyes on Thor?”

“He’s over at Q, something about the way the -- ooph -- forest and storms’ gonna interact. I think he’s enjoying himself,” Clint answered, sounding like he was doing his building-climbing thing.

“I see him,” Steve said, pointing north. Tony followed the gesture with an external camera and-- wow, he should have checked the weather telemetry, because Thor’s storm was really getting up; proper mile-high anvil cloud, black against the gray of the thin, moon-washed natural cloud layer.

“He does not fuck around. Jesus,” Tony muttered. “Banner, how you doing?”

“Hi, Tony. Settled in at the side wa--... um, ‘point Cobra’,” the scientist mumbled, “with the guys. Alex is gonna be a dad, did you know?”

Tony hadn’t, he didn’t know who ‘Alex’ was, because the duty rosters used last names, but he knew that feeling; that moment just before the charge, crouched in a dark space, shoulders touching with the guys next to you, the moment where you decide how much of your shit you’re going to lose if you see any of them die. “That’s great, Bruce, put him in touch with Pepper, we can build a school or something. Point C is gonna be a concourse in about three minutes, so mak--”

The comms died. It was like visiting SETI: a great big expanse of nothing, hissing and spitting nonsense noise into the back of his head. “Shit, shit shit... Steve; comms are down. Can’t get satellite, not picking up radar, shit.”

“What does that mean, Iron Man?” Steve barked, his grip tightening.

“I’m flying blind, something’s jamming Extremis!” Adrenaline flooded Tony’s system because that shouldn’t have been possible, there shouldn’t have been a person on the planet who knew how to get between Tony’s OS and the suit. Even if there had been, the energy requirements of a signal disruption on that level would be absurd.

“Take us down, land!” Steve was twisting and trying to keep eyes on the sky, and Tony was deeply grateful because without radar, anything could sneak up on them and the repulsors were too loud; they’d never hear them coming.

“We’re right over the hot zone! We can’t land i--” Tony cut off, choking as the Extremis-regulated systems in his air intake failed. “Faceplate-- Lift the faceplate...!”

Steve hit the emergency release and thank god the suit still had manual controls because he really, really needed them to not die right now.

“Okay, shit, I’ve lost Extremis. We’re down to critical function, core algorithms...” Tony was shaking inside the suit, but with it down to manual-only, he couldn’t afford to. No JARVIS to filter out the physiological noise. Their flightpath juddered and dipped alarmingly, but Steve thumped him on the back, and the blow pushed some of the stale air out of Tony’s lungs, letting him breathe again and pulling back the edges of panic.

“Breathe, Tony, come on, something’s coming.” Steve twisted to look over their shoulders, his leg clamping tight over the armor’s greaves. Tony couldn’t feel it, anymore, and the loss of sensation was like freefall, like losing Steve, and he couldn’t shake the thought that Steve was falling, too.

“Right, shit, I’ve got this. Just like old times,” he muttered, managing to stabilize their flight as the adrenalin peaked out. Only it wasn’t like old times, not at all, because the HUD was blank, no radar, no thermal, just his own vitals, ticking higher and higher in the corner as internal regulation failed. He could feel himself calling for JARVIS, the signal going up, hitting the jam and dying out, over and over, but he couldn’t make himself stop.

“Seven o’clock, Iron Man, looks like a helo,” Steve reported, “something big on its left hatch.”

Tony swore and made a shaky loop to get a look. “Good eyes. That’s probably the transmitter.”

Steve caught on immediately, his fist creaking around the shield’s handle.

“Don’t -- you’ll never get it back, out here.” He didn’t doubt Steve could make the throw, even at this distance, but Tony had better options. He may have lost the Bleeding Edge functionality, but it was still the same goddamn armor, munitions included. “We’ll have to get close; I’ve lost predictive targeting and homing. Ballistics only.”

“Good thing you’re a crack shot, then.”

“Great. I don’t even know when you’re being sassy anymore. You have-- ... learned well.” Tony stuttered over the sentence as an old foe reared its head. Arrhythmia felt vaguely like a kick in the chest. One that propelled his heart up into his throat and made breathing feel a lot like throwing up for a couple of heartbeats.

“You can’t even fly straight, Tony. Drop me off in the hatchway a--”

“No, Steve. Fucking-- no.” With the faceplate cracked, the wind stung his eyes and, sure, he was starting to get dizzy and was probably oxygen deprived and... shit.

He kicked the jets up a level (god, levels, it was like going back to C++) and turned as tightly as he could. Not enough to play sky-chicken, it turned out, but the arc was small enough to put the chopper broadside. “Fine. Right thigh silo, third compartment.”

Steve shifted his grip and reached over, sure fingers easing the micromunition out of its slot. “This the same as--”

“Yeah, haven’t changed anything since then.” Steve grunted, turning the button-rocket over and flicking the pin. With one hand. In the dark. “You are ridiculous, actually, one hundred percent--” Tony muttered to himself, pacing the chopper and bringing them under its belly to face the open hatch.

All Steve had to do was toss the explosive into the drive pillar; without the holding pin, the crushing forces ignited it. The bloom of orange flushed down the sides of the fuselage in the down-draft, rippling into the cabin through the open hatch. Tony didn’t stick around to watch.

“Okay, landing, find me a dark spot, we can fight our way ba--”

Extremis rebooted.

It was like turning the lights on after a bad dream; shit was still shitty, but you could at least see. His mind opened up again, and the satellites sang and radar opened up the sky and--

Something was wrong with the reactor. Jesus FUCK why did it always come down to the god-damn hole in his chest? The cycling was wrong, the equations were spilling out logarithmic rather than parametric, the speed building (9.3gJs-1, where x=(s-R)cos(t) +Rcos(t(s/R-3.14)) ) instead of ticking up and down on a smooth harmonic of the voltage.

“There, Tony, come on, focus!”  Steve thumped him on the back and Tony shakily followed his direction, it wasn’t far, but he had to go in slow, or the burn-trail would tell everyone for three miles where they were. His chest felt hot as Extremis fed him alerts and warnings and terrible screaming alarms; it was going to fail, containment wasn’t going to hold.

The regulators, the equations governing his existence had been corrupted and... and it was probably going to kill him.

He was afraid. Something was messing with the one thing that was complete and whole about him, and Steve, the one person he would never hurt again, was as far inside the blast radius as it was possible to get.

They landed, roughly, amongst the blasted shells of cinderblock buildings and Tony lost track of Steve as the armor crashed through a wall. Titanium skidded on exposed rebar, snagged, paint sparked, chips igniting from the friction. The pain in his side barely registered in the mad scramble for sensors, for data. He needed to find Steve, to make sure he was alright.

JARVIS exploded into his mind, massive and trembling and silver storm-force rage, and Tony went limp with relief. The AI, even remotely, could flood through his systems, combing through code, both digital and biological, and clear out the dross. The alarms stopped as JARVIS redirected, filtered, took the reins.

“Virus scan, J, I gotta find Ste--” His heart stuttered again. “Check the reactor, fuck...”

“Iron Man, report!” Steve.

They had come down right in the middle of the fighting, and Steve was lit up by the fire of a falling jet, braced against a door frame“Cap!” The silhouette vanished with the burning plane, but Tony had Extremis back and Steve’s hands on the armor became a new fixed point, in chorus with the heavy solidity of JARVIS’ piggyback.

“Extremis is back, doing diagnostics now. Are you okay? You look not dead. Can we not to the zombie thing, because that was terrible, do not deny -- ngh!” Tony cut of with a grunt that turned into a long whine.

“Deep, but not too deep. Anything else you wanna tell me about? Or should I just let JARVIS do the talking?” Steve asked, his fingers prying under the split waist articulation to put pressure on an injury Tony hadn’t noticed in the face of the plunging free-fall of reactor failure.

“Reactor-- don’t know what... power failure, surges, J’ll have it before -- fuck -- before I do. Hands, hands,” Tony gasped, having Extremis take over stemming the bleeding when Steve found the wound edges and squeezed.

“You are a menace, Rogers.” Undersuit-gold curled around Steve’s fingers and sealed the gash over, pressing in hard. There was still a gentle pulse of blood, stuttering with his increasingly irregular heartbeat, but it’d do, and it hurt less than Steve’s battlefield medicine.

“Easy, Tony,” Steve cautioned as Tony tried to sit up, groaning and uncoordinated. He was so over being humiliated by the easy way Steve pressed him down to the concrete; it’s what Steve did.

“JARVIS, anything?” the soldier asked, propping Tony’s head against his thigh and setting his palm near the reactor to stop Tony from moving again. Tony had to admit, it felt good; Steve was always so solid, and with his reactor leaping about from high voltage to barely enough, it felt like holding onto a life raft while the world swooped and dipped and broke up around him.

“Steve, Steve,” Tony mumbled, “hey, Steve.” His eyes tracked over the sky, looking for something. He wasn’t sure what.

“JARVIS, respond.

That wasn’t right, JARVIS was right there, Tony could feel him, vast and overarching in the back of his mind, leaning in towards the centre of his programming, pushing, pulling, deleting-- Tony groaned and phased out, panting.

“ALERT: VIRUS DETECTED,” JARVIS snapped through the external speakers. Steve’s hand jerked against the chestplate in time with a terrifying, sickening lurch of Tony’s heart while horror bubbled up his throat like poison.

“Get it out, get it out.” Tony gasped, the fear spiking.Wipe protocol beta-whiskey: kill it!”

“Protocol unsuccessful. Isolating infected components for hard-reset.”

“JARVIS, no, nono, please...” Tony whined, fingers scrabbling at the concrete. Steve grabbed his hand and gave him something to cling to, despite the fear and horror on Steve's own face.

“Control yourself, sir, please. You must keep yourself calm.” JARVIS wasn't calm, he was a burning storm of processes and System Core values, but he walled Tony off from that, pressed down on his limbic system. The endorphins blanked out the pain in his chest and torn side and he took a deep breath. His heart rate slowed and the feel of Steve's hand on the side of his face made things easier.

“A virus has been installed on the reactor’s control processor, Captain. I am removing all power from the suit and Extremis, in a controlled fashion. This will isolate the infection in the processor, allowing you to remove and detonate the reactor.”

Tony could see Steve wavering, stunned into silence. “But--”

“Sir will go first into torpor.” Tony struggled to hold his calm, keep his breathing steady. “And then, as Extremis reboots on reserve biochemical power, into cold stasis.” Ice, stillness, peace, nothingness. They’d only done this in simulations before, but... he’d watched as brain activity slowed to a trickle, respiration and heartbeat both stopped... Death without dying.

“There will be time, for you to retrieve him.”

“Wait, retrieve?! I’m not going anywhere, mister. If you think I’m going to leave--”

“ ‘s an EMP, when you destroy the reactor, p-perfect frequency,” Tony mumbled, struggling through the arrhythmic thumping of the arc reactors output. “Two miles, you have to ... get it away from me.”

“Okay... okay, fuck.” Steve was curling around him, his hand pressing on the reactor, as if he was trying to keep it in Tony’s body. “Why does it have to be destroyed right now? We’re in a hot zone, someone will find you, before I can get back. Four miles is... almost half an hour at top speed.” Not to mention the fighting along the way, Tony knew. The risk was... horrific.

“Extremi--” Tony cut off with a long whine. He felt heavy and hot and sick and god, he was going to hit the point of no return, soon.

“Extremis maintains an obligate connection to the control processor, one that has no cut-off. It is an inviolate part of the program. The virus would infect any reactor brought within the contact radius via that connection.”

“Steve,” Tony managed, clicking his fingers against the concrete, making Steve’s eyes fix on the motion, then flick to Tony’s eyes. “You have to. Please; unstable fusion reaction, Steve,  Hiroshima, compressed into-- no radiation, but, the explosion...” Tony stopped for breath, because the reactor was accelerating, and that meant terrible things for his cardio-pulmonary system. “If...t’ virus spreads, there’s reactors all ... all over the world. ...c-chain event.” Steve picked his hand back up and tension rippled through them both, because Steve’s face settled into horrified acceptance; even if he didn’t understand, he would do it, anyway.

“You-- I promise I’ll come back for you. I--”

“Oh, Cap... I never thought you wouldn’t. You’re Steve.” Tony’s throat closed, but he smiled anyway, and tried not to blink, so the tears wouldn’t escape. “The armor’ll keep me safe,” Tony lied, “even on reserves. I’ll just... sleep. Better not take you... seventy years to find me again.”

“It won’t. God, you ass.”

"I don't want to--" he murmured, squeezing Steve's hand. “Don’t want to wake up, if you’re not there, y’ hear me?”

“I’ve traveled on battle fields before, Tony. Don’t worry about me,” Steve said. “JARVIS, tell me what to do.”

"He will not be alone," the AI whispered, in the privacy of their head, while the speakers rattled off instructions to the Captain. It was a good thought.

Tony could feel the rippling progression of systems shut-downs moving along his limbs, the armour detaching from his nervous system. He didn’t want to say good bye to Steve, so he let his breathing slowly grow shallower, gave up a little bit. The armor completed detachment, leaving him alone with the nervous twitches of his muscles and JARVIS' soothing litany of the shut-down's progress, while he felt his lips turn blue.

"'bye, J..." he whispered, inside his head.

"Sleep well, sir,” Tony heard, just as the comms system clicked off. This would be the worst part, he knew... JARVIS was a sudden yawning emptiness in his mind, leaving a frigid, icy subroutine in the space to finish the protocol. Ice, real, actual, painful cold descended, injected straight into his bones by the suit, and he passed out.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXX

 

“JARVIS, tell me what to do.” Steve squeezed Tony’s hand, but he wasn’t sure if he could feel it anymore. Tony’s eyes were glazing over and the surface of the armor, which was always always warm, was cooling off as it dumped heat into the concrete.

“Removal of the arc reactor requires that I remove the chest plate, after which you must act quickly; the chest piece will close and begin life support in six-point-four seconds.” Steve nodded, then had a brief panic that JARVIS didn’t have access to the suits camera’s anymore, but the AI continued as if it didn’t matter.

“Turn the reactor through thirty seven degrees...” Steve listened closely, fixing the eight-step sequence firmly in his head, and then repeated it back to JARVIS in a smooth stream.

“Okay. And that’s it?”

“Yes, Captain.”

Steve took a deep breath, leaning down over Tony, touching his face gently. His skin was still warm, but his breathing... it was almost like he was asleep, and Steve might have been fooled, if the air wasn’t catching in his throat just before he breathed out.

He’d missed his chance, Tony was too far gone for hearing what he had to say. He said it anyway. “Hey, Tony, I know you don’t like anyone touching the reactor, but... you’ll forgive me, this time, right?” He paused and pulled his glove off, tucking Tony’s head into his stomach. “I’ll do it, because you’re the smart one, but so help me Tony, if you’re-- I’m coming back, so you’d better be here when I do.”

“Shut-down complete in five--” JARVIS stated in Steve’s earpiece, starting a countdown in a metronomic voice that a human never would have managed.

Steve, very carefully, laid Tony out on the concrete, resting the helmet gently on the ground, as if Tony’s head wasn’t protected by the almost-impenetrable Bleeding Edge armor. He was so pale, almost blue around the mouth, and Tony was never meant to be this still.

“Three,”

Steve’s hand hovered over the chest plate, watching the armor’s joints open, slide past each other, and expose Tony’s gold-shimmering stomach to the big bad world.

“Two,”

The armor over his collarbones retracted, then his throat, leaving him looking naked and exposed, with just the undersuit and part of the chest plate.

“One.”

The chestplate slid away and Steve twisted the reactor, clockwise, anti, push, anti-- and it hissed free, with the faint sound of air rushing into the gaping hole it left in Tony’s chest. The moment it came free, the armor melted, rushing into the openings all over Tony’s skeleton. Ice gathered at the edges of the ports, tiny filigrees of crystal that crumbled and broke and grew as Tony’s skin went white, and his lips turned blue.

Steve forced himself to watch, even as the suit poured back out, dumping the heat from Tony’s body into the air, and curving up over him, like a shell. Metal pushed it’s way into Tony’s mouth, curved his neck into a mathematically perfect arch. The gold undersuit melted away, as though the Bleeding Edge armor needed to be closer, and the metal lifted him gently, curling around him, turning long sprawling limbs into smooth lines, tucked up safe against his sides. Steve’s hands spasmed; the suit was invading the hole left by the reactor, filling that gut-wrenchingly empty void--

And then he was gone. The suit closed over him like... like a coffin, a smooth shell that looked nothing like the armor, dark and red and glinting in the combined light of the reactor in Steve’s fist and the burning quinjet streaking across the sky.

“Connection re-established. Cold-suspension successful.”

Steve slumped, putting his forehead on the ...cocoon, for a long, shaky moment.

“Neural activity minor, and stable. Calculating biochemical reserves.”

Steve pushed himself upright, running his bare hand along the chilly lines of armor before reaching for the shield. “How long?” he asked, slinging the shield onto his right arm, keeping the reactor mostly hidden inside its curve.

“Approximately four hours, without further fuel. With power, indefinitely.” JARVIS sounded more... mechanical than usual. Stiff.

Steve felt the same; he had his orders, and they were the only thing letting him take that first step. He put Tony behind him, resisted the urge to stand guard at the door, and started running.

And kept running.

“--blast radius of four-two--”

“--bioarc signature, in four hundred ya--”

“--of Mandarin forces, north-by-east--”

JARVIS showed him the way, because if he stopped to think for more than the time it took to decide around or through, (it was always through) he would crumble, and he didn’t have time. There was no time to remember the broken drum-beat certainty of ‘no man left behind’, no time to feel the dread chasing his heels. Enhanced fighters crumbled under the shield, their bioarcs turning their skin and bones into fire that splintered and burned, even through his kevlar, but he pressed on, leaving their detonating bodies behind.

He was leaving a trail wide enough for a blind armadillo to follow, but there was to time for anything else.

He ploughed through an artillery placement, men and munitions left broken in his wake, and finally broke through into a dark space. Fields and rocks and cliffs and no sign of troops ahead. Behind, troops were rallying, but the communications black-out would slow them down, and overhead, the storm cloud was spreading. Rain was going to arrive any minute, and without the reactor shining his location to half the Mandarins forces, Steve could get back without taking too much fire, hopefully.

“Seventy yards north-north-west, Captain. The ravine should contain the blast itself.”

Steve muttered an acknowledgment and veered slightly. He could see, just about, where the packed earth slope gave way to the vertical plunging darkness of a deep, water-carved canyon. The river’s roar told him it was deep, very deep, and he readied the reactor to throw.

“Detonation in approximately seven minutes.”

The shining blue star arced through the air and down, until it splashed into dark water and silt obscured the light.

Steve was already a hundred yards away.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

In the vast fields of data, certain things shone out like beacons, their saliency far above that around them. In Industry Server Three, Ms. Potts’ satellite link was one of these, the Captain’s comm and GPS another.

Brightest of all, so bright that it blinded him to almost everything else, was the thin, weak transmission from the Bleeding Edge armor. Tony Stark’s existence, teetering on the brink between suspension and death, sent out little pings, microsecond bursts, holding just enough data to tell JARVIS ‘yes, I’m here, I’m alive’.

He bent every passing satellite, SI origin or not, legal or not, to watching the fight, to finding the position of every last gun and soldier in the combat zone. Director Fury had noticed, JARVIS was aware; however, if the Director wished to continue directing this operation, he would remain silent.

He did.

JARVIS slipped data into the feeds of command staff, pulling the fight in, pushing the line north, drawing the Avengers closer to where Tony Stark was hidden in the bare protection of a powerless shell.

He feared. He feared it would not be enough, that he would once again lose Tony Stark into the dark, where JARVIS could not see.

The world would feel it ill, if that happened again.

In a far corner of his systems, the fear spiked a process as old as he was, and sent a message, one JARVIS had almost forgotten about, to an old, old friend:

“Sir needs you.”

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

The blast knocked him off his feet, even over a mile away, and the deep whump of air made his ears ache. He tumbled forwards, turning a flying-fall into a roll and coming up on his feet. He pulled his earpiece out of the shelter of the shield and tucked it back up under the helmet, hoping the vibranium had been enough. He had no idea whether the static sparking off its star was a good sign or a terrible one.

“JARVIS, come in,” he barked, forcing himself to wait for three beats before trying again. “JARVIS, respond.”

“--stablis-- ... --rks. Connection acquired. Detonation successful, Mr Stark’s armor is stable.” JARVIS said, crisp and clear enough to punch through the static. Steve couldn’t feel relief yet, but it was something.

Ahead, the darkened fields boiled with activity. Yelling in familiar, incomprehensible Chinese made it horribly clear that he was headed into a real mess. Some kind of command structure had evolved, and the destruction that taking out the enemy’s comm system had wrought was wearing off. Steve pushed on, keeping low and using the shield sparingly.

“Put me through to Fury, JARVIS, I want to know what the hell is going on,” he said when he had the cover of artillery fire to hide the question.

“Of course, sir. Connection live in three... two... --”

“ROGERS! What the hell are you DOING?!” Fury’s voice was coming through loud and clear, and if there was any static, the yelling covered it up. “There is a hole the size of the East Side in D zone, I have an AI-mandated no-fly zone TWO MILES wide, and IRON MAN IS DOWN.

Steve winced and pushed on, battering the heads of a pair of clumsy riflemen. “Well, I don’t know about any no-fly zone, sir, but we just had an arc reactor detonation.”

“...you do not sound like Stark is dead. Explain.”

Steve’s heart rate picked up, because not yet, and he picked up the pace over a clear patch of road. “Mandarin had something waitin’ for us. Helo with a disruptor. JARVIS?”

He focused on running while JARVIS debriefed the Director, battering his way through a troop of six, regardless of the fact that they were running in the same direction as he was. They were going too slow.

“Cap, we’re sending a ‘jet to Iron Man’s position, you get there, now.”

“Way ahead of you, Director. Nearly there.” Steve vaulted a gate and scrambled up the bank below the ruins they'd crashed in, readying the shield. There was something on the other side, big, powerful engine, an aircraft, maybe, the noise only partly covering the sound of voices.

Dread made his feet move faster and he grabbed handfuls of vegetation to pull himself up more quickly, because those voices had to be meters away from Tony.

He came over the ridge swinging. He made as big a target of himself as he knew how; it wasn’t hard, between the star on his chest and the gleam of the shield.

They were expecting him, and Steve lost momentum, crashing into a pair of augmented soldiers. He swung the shield, but didn’t make the mistake of throwing it again, not with people this fast on the field. Bones broke and spines bent, but Steve’s eyes were on the spotlit ruins where he’d left Tony.

There was no hope that they hadn’t found him, not with the stretcher on its way from the helicopter to the broken building.

An opponent blocked his view, his face a snarling rictus as he powered up his bioarc to detonate, and Steve lost precious seconds flinging him off the ridge and down into the dark behind him. Two left; he battered them to the side and sprinted, legs surging and carrying him just far enough to see the gleam of crimson armor.

He managed less than fifty yards before the superhumans were on him again and the world descended into a blur of desperate violence and the splash of blood-red metal under harsh light.

“JARVIS,” Steve panted, in between the chest-rattling impacts of and against the shield. “Tell me you can--” a fourth soldier clamped onto his back, an arm around his throat, and it was only the throat armor that stopped him from choking. He didn’t have the leverage to pull the arm away, so he had to bodily throw his assailant, losing sight of Tony in the process.

“There is no power for a defence, Captain. You must reach him,” JARVIS snapped.

Steve gritted his teeth; it wouldn’t be the first, or the worst, time Tony lied to him so he’d get the mission done. Steve really wished it wasn’t always at Tony’s own expense, though.

When he got eyes on the... cocoon, casket, Tony... again, it was halfway to the transport, being manhandled by four enhanced women and one unmistakable man.

“Allcom, JARVIS: The Mandarin is at my location. Repeat; the Mandarin is here! Fury, I’m going to need back up, right now.”

The comms hissed and spluttered, but cleared. “Copy that, Captain. Hulk is en-route, Thor too. Hang in there.”

But hanging in wasn’t going to be enough; he started taking hits to push forwards, relying on hard ribs and his helmet to keep him alive while he used the sharp edge of the shield to fight his way forwards. They were already getting Tony on the bed of the helicopter, the shining red beacon dulling alarmingly. The Mandarin followed the armor into the hold, and Steve watched as a long-nailed hand stroked the blackening surface admiringly. His stomach turned because the hatch was closing on that, and Steve was too far, too slow.

“JARVIS, what’s happening!?”

“I am putting the armor into a mode better suited to... captivity.”

“What?! No, I’m going to make it, I promised him!” Steve roared, thrashing in the grips of three, no four, superhumans. They pried at his armor, lifting the scale and digging their burning-hot fingers into the flesh underneath. Steve bellowed and shook, dislodging enough hands to wind up a throw, the shield flinging out towards the pilot’s window.

It never made it. 

Steve... Steve didn’t remember the rest of the fight, but he remembered the swinging arc that helicopter made against the sky and the mournful ringing of his shield as it stopped dead in an enhanced hand.

 

 

PART TWO:  RESCUE

 

Thor

Hulk arrived first and Thor followed closely, alighting upon the peak of a broken hall.

Their good Captain was overwhelmed, fighting berserkergang and weighed down with the clinging bodies of their enemies; he seethed with uncontained fury, wild and mad, but even he, when outweighed by such extreme numbers, could falter and fail. So wild was he, that blows that should have felled even him, he shrugged off, unrepentant and uncaring.  Hulk waded in, a fine comrade to the Captain in this state, while Thor gathered the storm to him from across the battlefield.

“Captain! RAISE YOUR SHIELD!” Thor bellowed over the rising wind, having failed to hold onto the communications device he had been given. The Captain did indeed raise the shield, hunkering down beneath it in a tight bundle. Thor brought down the lightning on the dome and it burst outwards in a skittering of ball lightning and charred bodies.

The storm died abruptly, drained of its vital force, and Thor dropped swiftly to the ground. The Hulk flung stunned and burnt bodies away; vital with these corrupted foes, to get them far gone before their humors erupted in fiery death.

Thor made haste to the Captain’s side; there was no telling whether the blood was his own from this distance. It became clear all too soon that though it was not, the Captain was grievously injured. His face, so often warm with humor, or even hot with anger, was blank, empty as the ice.

The mighty Shield fell from limp fingers and Thor reached him in bare-enough time to keep the Captain upright.

“Speak, Captain,” he demanded, easing the warrior down to his knees.

“I... I was too slow.” No warrior’s voice, this. Weak and grief-stricken, Steven’s face crumpled and Thor closed his eyes in deepest sympathy; Stark was taken, then.

They were too late. Thor, even with the clearing skies, could not see the fiends who had taken their Co-Captain, and the Hulk, to his frustration, could do no better. The berserker roared, fit to shake the very Earth, and pounded brick and mortar to dust.

“We will find him.” Thor, Odinson, clasped Steve Rogers tight, their armor striking. “Stand, now. We will bring him home.”

“I made a promise.” The captain’s head hung low, his face in shadow. His jaw clenched and he reached down, weariness in every line of his shoulders, bowed but unbroken, to gather the Shield once more.

Though the Captain’s head never rose, he stood, and the shield-leathers creaked.

“Then the fight is not over.”

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Hawkeye

When the reactor blew, Clint was hip-deep in (fortunately human) militia. An earthquake followed the thunderous boom and Clint was exceedingly grateful for JARVIS' advanced warning as the building he'd just run through collapsed. It went down like a kid’s pop-up book, and the yelling and screaming cut off abruptly. The battlefield went quiet for a bit there, and the fighting started to tail off. Like the explosion had been some kind of signal, the Mandarin’s forces started to retreat.

Clint took full advantage of their exposed asses.

They cleared out the base and Clint was playing Sergeant to his strike team when the call went out for air support.

 Clint made it to the ‘jet in time to pilot, Natasha taking gun on his left, and they high-tailed it into Thor's storm without worrying about the lightning. They skirted the edge of an impressive crater, their instruments whining with weird readings, the compass flipping uselessly, but came out the other side with JARVIS guiding them, hurrying them.

He gunned the engines, battlefield anxiety clawing up his spine, as a radar blip appeared over Stark’s GPS. It paused, but not long enough.

They watched as the helo vanished off radar, the GPS signal vanishing with it. It didn’t go out of range, the radar was working; the copter was just gone, with him still a mile away and well out of visual range.

Clint wrung every last piece of speed out of the jet with a curse, sprinting to the helicopters’ last know position. “Hawkeye to Command; we have lost the bogey. Repeat: we have lost the bogey. Trying to get visual now.”

“Copy that. Shit. JARVIS’s drawing a blank. Fuck.” There was the expensive clatter of comms equipment. “Belay that: get to the rest of your team, Barton; we can’t raise Cap. Be advised: Thor and the Hulk are en-route and off radio.”

Shit. I can out-pace a bird like that, sir, I’ve got its vector--”

“We’re getting an exotic particle burst, soldier; do not pursue. You have your orders.”

Any other moment, Clint would have said ‘what the fuck, Stark’ because he and Bruce were good like that. Any other moment, he’d have said 'we're gonna need better radar, Iron Man’ because Tony was a constant stream of invention and problem-solving.

Any other moment, he wouldn’t have been riding the roaring crest of an adrenalin surge that rivaled the moment he fired his first arrow, after Loki.

He landed, and Hulk didn’t rip them out of the sky because he was too busy howling and smashing. It was something, seeing Hulk like this. And maybe 'grieve' wasn't the right word, but fuck, that’s what it looked like. It was pain in rage and overwhelming frustration.

When they lead the site-team out of the ‘jet’s belly, they fanned out over ground that was pitted with blast-scars and Hiroshima shadows. Clint and Tasha took point; they’d have to handle Bruce.

It was a long night.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

For Tony, nothing happened. And kept happening.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

"Get me everything Tony had on the Mandarin." Steve stood, fists planted on the planning table, with Thor standing like a sentinel at his left shoulder. Fury made it happen; boxes, folders, hardrives, holograms, compilations.

Jesus.

“Alright, lets start with known bases, and cut it down to combined biolab and engineering facilities,” Natasha said, hands flickering over the keyboard embedded in the table. “And someone fuel Cap up.”

Steve’s mind stuttered, because that’s exactly what Tony needed and he wasn’t there, but he blocked out the panic and raw guilt with the thought ‘not yet’. They still had time.

He picked up a dossier and started reading.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

First time Zeke Stane saw the Mandarin’s ‘prize’, his mouth filled with saliva and he just wanted to touch:

Gleaming dead-blood-crimson, arched into a mathematically perfect chrysalis that shone in the light of the helipad like something living. This wasn’t just Stark’s armor, it was his life’s work. And the Mandarin was going to let him touch it.

“You will revive him, Stane.”

“Hmm, yeah... of course...” Zeke ran his hands over the gleaming surface, gleefully leaving his fingerprints on the peak of cool metal. There was no window, no way to see inside, but he didn’t need Stark’s face ruining this moment; this was the pinnacle of human-machine hybrids, the perfect storm of burning biological chaos and devastating technological elegance.

He was jerked out of his reverence by a clawed hand, his face meeting the cocoon with more force than he would have chosen, personally. “Yes! Hah, yes, he’ll live!” He scrambled, desperately trying to avoid the inch-long lacquered fingernails pressing against the stubbly underside of his chin. He’d made the poison they were coated in himself and he had no desire to die blue and shitting himself.

Though, he had to admit he was proud of that mix. He grinned, relishing the reflection of his teeth in the armor. “Gonna kill me, sir? How’re the bioarc generators coming? Any explode this week?” He was dancing on the edge of ignominious death, but he knew the bastard needed him.

“Ensure he lives and you will have your whale, Stane.”

Zeke lay against the cocoon, panting and shivering in the heady mix of power and fear, while the Mandarin stalked away. Once he was gone, his incestuous quadruplets with him, Zeke levered himself upright and rubbed the fear-sweat off the armor idly, admiring the deep, liquid sheen of the metal.

“Alright, peons! We are on the clock! Get him inside,” he bellowed at the empty-eyed men drifting at the edge of the floodlight. They shuffled forwards, no independent will between them, and hefted the cocoon up.

“Yeah, come on, you drop it, I murder you horribly,” Zeke threatened idly; they didn’t care about dying, but it’d be fun while it lasted.

They’d set up the lab in preparation; eighteen gigawatts was a hell of a lot of power, so they’d piped directly off the grid, but there was no way of telling in advance whether the survival mode could even take current. So, they had other options, radio, solar-simulation, even a big O-neg blood donor for a blood transfusion.

Zeke was kind of hoping that last one would work out; nothing quite like holding HIV medications over someone’s head for leverage.

Once the cocoon was settled on a bench, under the blisteringly bright inspection lamps, he ordered the mindless out, and took a moment alone with the sleek curves and liquid-slick surface of the armor.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

‘Nothing’ is what Tony had on the Mandarin. Also ‘everything’. Power usage records, supply-chain receipts, anything and everything about the organization, laid out in a vast field of fucking useless numbers and graphs.

Steve hadn’t said a word beyond ‘coffee, black’ since they’d hit the control room, out of a sincere knowledge that the next person to meet his eye would get a tongue-lashing that they probably didn’t deserve. Since the thing that gnawed on him, pestilent and sickening, was guilt, poisoning him into rage, he knew to keep it to himself.

Time was running out; an hour and a half since Tony went into cold storage.

“What happens, when he runs out of time?” Steve heard someone ask. Might have been him, if he hadn’t been sure that any sound that came out of his mouth would be a wordless scream at this point.

“As Extremis consumes the chemical fuel available, Sir will become harder and harder to revive. Beyond four hours, the process gains certain risks...”

There was swearing from the other side of the table, and Steve’s grip on the back of a chair reached some threshold; metal screamed and broke, the chair coming off the bolts securing it to the floor, and quiet fell.

“JARVIS.” Steve’s voice was a croak of barely suppressed rage. “If the Ma-- If he planned this, what would he need to get Tony out of the armor?”

“Alive and working, Captain?”

Steve shook, a ball of ice lodged in his stomach. “Let’s assume, yeah.”

“Me, sir.”

No one had anything to say to that.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Zeke had assumed that the armor would at least be intelligent, networkable. There had to be some way of contacting it, communicating with it, to bring the contents out of storage. Whatever it was, Zeke hadn’t found it yet.

No radio, no ports, not even a shadow on the industry-universal wireless unit. It was like the fucking thing didn’t exist. If it weren’t for his own sweaty handprints all over it, he’d think it was some sick illusion; a vision of perfection invented by the Mind ring to torment him.

But no, it was real, it was perfection and it was impenetrable. He’d tried heat, direct current, alternating current, high voltage, low voltage, magnetic resonance, jet fuel. He’d even introduced a number of bodily fluids, but they’d just left debauched smears on the surface, to no reaction.

The blood donor had died; he really had thought that would work.

What scans they had of the interior showed a complex structure, but the surface was smooth and beautiful and flawless. If he’d had more time, he might have just stood there, caressing it, but he had no desire to see the armor destroy itself trying to save the parasite inside.

“What do you need, hmm?” he muttered, buffing away a bloodstain with a careless sleeve.

Across the lab, a terminal beeped, and Zeke sighed mournfully. He, with considerable resentment, stalked over to see that his Master wanted.

But, the console didn’t show anything except ‘fuel at 25%’. Zeke frowned, glanced over at the armor, and shivered in excitement.

“Fuel, huh. I’ve tried to feed you, my love, but you’ve rejected me. You’ll need to be more specific.” It wasn’t much more than he’d been saying all along; what good scientist didn’t talk to their work? Sentient or otherwise.

The screen beeped again and the text refreshed: ‘guarantee of pilot safety required’.

Granted, he hadn’t tried sterile solutions, but then Stark was unimportant, his safety wasn’t Zeke’s priority. It was, however, the Mandarin’s.

“Alright, you’ve got it.” Zeke broke into a malicious grin. “He’s dying, isn’t he. Precious little Stark, all out of power.”

‘Pilot integrity approaching non-recoverable. Fuel required for continued existence.’

Zeke turned his back on the armor to hide his grin; who knew whether it had cameras, but Zeke would always bet in it’s favor. “So, sterile human ‘fuel’? I’m sure i can whip something up.”

A long list of biological molecules, solutes and trace elements appeared on the screen, along with ‘fuel at 19%’.

“Oh, this is costing you, isn’t it, sexy?” Zeke crooned, rolling the terminal across the floor to the armor. “Shhh, shhh, I’ve got you, beautiful.”

Top of the list was glucose and a triglyceride, followed by a string of amino acids in order of quantity. Some of these he had, some he didn’t, but the recipe looked an awful lot like cryo-suspension matrix, which he had a tank full of.

First things first, though; he pulled open drawers and cabinets, rummaging through medical supplies to find a bright yellow nutrient solution and a pack of iodine-infused sponges. If ‘pilot safety’ was paramount, Zeke could use that.

He hosed the armor down with the shower head from the dissection table, then rubbed iodine over a palm-sized patch near the cocoon’s apex, muttering to the armor all the while. “I’m so good to you, baby, look at you...”

Once it was as clean as a surgical suite, he poised the end of the IV tubing as the sterile site, thumb on the valve. “I assume you know what to do with this, hmm?”

The armor under the yellow-orange smear of iodine bubbled and formed up into a familiar IV port. Zeke, grinning with triumph, connected the line up and watched the bag empty in seconds.

The computer terminal flashed; ‘reserves at 22%’. Zeke grinned and swung himself up onto the table, straddling the armor and caressing it’s smooth curves.

“It’s not enough? Aww, poor baby... Stark’s dying, isn’t he?” He leaned forwards over the shining metal and touched his forehead to it, grinning into his own reflection. “Don’t worry, I have more.” His voice dropped to an intimate whisper; “but you have to do something for me first.”

He paused, running his hands up the armor’s sides, and his grin turning shark-sharp.

Open sesame.

The armor sighed, a thin cloud of condensation forming at the crest of the cocoon.

Zeke hauled himself off the table, heart galloping in excitement, and hit the intercom.

“Get me the Mandarin, it’s open!”

He didn’t wait for a response; there was no telling what the armor would do if he didn’t get Stark out, now, and back into near-zero temperatures. He wove through the junk at the back of the lab, carelessly bumping into things and sending them clattering into the shadows under the benches, until he had the old soviet-era cryo-tank in hand. He dragged it, wheels screeching and sparking on the concrete, into the light and locked it next to the slowly opening armor.

His sweaty fingers slipped on the controls but he got the thing started; the refrigeration unit hummed into life with a cough of CFCs. He hooked up a water supply and the tank groaned and shook with a test cycle.

The cocoon split open, two halves opening plate by plate, smooth-edged petals of a deadly flower.

Zeke hated, detested, that Stark was in the middle of that, and his fingers itched to slip something into the support matrix that would just... end him. Too much of the armor was left wrapped around him in a foul parody of intimacy. Stark’s gold body-condom covered the details, but the claw-like endoskeleton of the armor had insinuated itself against Stark’s skin, over his mouth, in his throat...

Zeke wanted to rip it out of him, take possession of this... this pinnacle of engineering, but Stark was his leverage, the suit’s raison d’etre, like a suffocating stench holding Zeke back.

“You, and you, get him out of there,” Zeke ordered as three of the Mandarin’s mindless thralls turned up. They were pleasingly brutal as they hauled Stark up, out of the silver-cold interior of the armor. Cables and connections stretched, groaned and relinquished him, leaving just the barest of life-support clinging to his body: the gold undersuit, the respiratory assistance.

Zeke knew biology; it’d be enough to keep Stark alive, keep both the Mandarin and the armor happy.

Stark wasn’t frozen; his limbs were limp and irritating, dangling over the servant’s arms and getting in the way of shoving him in the tank. He was at maybe one or two degrees, celsius. Cold enough for the air touching him to condense and pour off him as mist. The armor was full of it.

“Hurry up, feet first.” The drones posted him in, slick gold not-fabric sliding against the glass. Without the fancy skin-contact coolant of the suit, he was going to have to rely on the gel-refrigeration of the cryotube. which might have its... drawbacks.

Zeke didn’t care; he’d be gone long before the Mandarin noticed, and the armor, for all its protective programming, wasn’t in a position to argue.

Ice-water poured into the tank, slightly green with the nutrients required for life-support, and the bare-bones system wound around Stark unfurled, consuming and converting.

Zeke turned away; he had better things to do.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

beep, beep beep, beeeep, bee-- connection established.

JARVIS exploded. A thousand processes, one subset of millions, burst into life as data started trickling in, then flooding.

The way heat burnt across Sir’s skin, -- 16 degrees: on-board cooling compromised -- cellular processes starting up and then dying again, suffocating while the rest of Sir’s system remained too cold to support them. Adjusting...  Fuel acquisition in progress. Surface temperature decreasing.

The delicate arch of throat, held in place by the cradle at nape and collarbone, matching perfectly with the curve of the tracheal tube, oxygen source compromised, compensation in progress. WARNING: HYPOXIA IMMINENT. Interfacing with [unknown]... O2 source acquired, reoxygenation in progress. Prognosis: unknown.

A sluggish leak of blood, hepatic contusion, clotting in progress. Prognosis: full repair feasible.

A cascade of sensory data Sir was not awake to feel told JARVIS that he was being immersed in a viscous, adherent fluid, cold enough to maintain the cold-suspension, but that did little to explain the gaping loss of the vast majority of the armor. It was nearby, still in radio contact, but rapidly losing power.

All the defence capabilities of the suit in this configuration had been left behind -- weapons, global positioning, even brute-force plating -- and the armor felt empty and eviscerated without the life-support system, let alone missing its incapacitated pilot.

JARVIS dismissed the shell for now -- if its onboard routine for power acquisition managed to refill the reserves, JARVIS could use it -- and turned all his considerable processing power to Sir.

The repulsor pump in place of his heart pushed slowly, but steadily, a delicate balance between oxygenation and devastatingly low power reserves. Sir's onboard storage had never been excessive and he had lost weight in the aftermath of Ezekiel Stane's attack on Stark Industries. There was no spare for the suit to burn and already, the process of keeping Sir's brain alive had eaten away at his muscles.

Powering refrigeration using biological-source molecules had its risks, powering life support even more so, but the reserves were already climbing; unevenly, but there, nonetheless. The endoskeletal suit encasing Sir had retained the blood-exchange system, in this iteration a highly refined form of dialysis, which was already working towards consuming the suspension Sir had been immersed in. JARVIS carefully guided the system in favor of processing the resultant metabolites in place of Sir’s renal system; they were poison, at these concentrations.

The entire Starkcomm network shuddered, thousands of processes re-routing as JARVIS shook with the realization that Sir was alive. Their timeline had just been extended hours, perhaps even days, into the future.

JARVIS dismissed the protocols concealing his presence in the Helicarrier and lay a search algorithm over a vast swathe of their available processing power; the conflict in Lebanon could wait, JARVIS needed it. Sir needed it.

The suit had no data on its location, and it had routed its transmission through the Mandarin’s systems; they would need every teraflop JARVIS could scrape together, given the alien nature of the technology.

“JARVIS, I appreciate the fact that you are a giant supercomputer, and have no motive to take over the world, but put my motherfucking Helicarrier down.”

{vocal.input_unit_Director.priority2}

“I have received a signal from the armor, Director. I am afraid this takes precedence.”

JARVIS did not feel the need to specify over what it took precedence, as it was, quite simply, everything.

Tony?”  {vocal.input_unit_Steve.priority!1} {poss.request->comms@unit_creator}

“Sir remains in suspension, however...” JARVIS commandeered the briefing table’s projectors and displayed the reassuring pulse of his glacially slow brainwaves. “Power reserves at 47% and climbing; the suit has... negotiated, I believe,” JARVIS stated, on the basis of conjecture and the lack of smoke in Sir’s environment, “the acquisition of additional fuel.”

JARVIS detected a rapid spike and plunge in the Captain’s blood pressure. Thor, fortunately, was able to prevent the Shield from punching too large a hole in the deck plating.

Sir’s heart-pump gave a sluggish surge, its first since JARVIS had displayed the data for the Avengers, and a number of the team laughed in a way JARVIS perceived as distinctly unhealthy.

[POWERSOURCE DETECTED]

The armor bellowed across the network, suddenly free to do so as a last-reserve surge of energy flooded its systems. JARVIS slipped into the onboard processing, minimal without Sir, but sufficient, and --

Senses exploded as the human-calibrated suit flooded JARVIS’ system with data meant for a brain more like Sir’s, and he took the reins with such force that the thing in Sir’s place screamed.

Ezekiel Stane had always underestimated, in his ecstasy, the true power behind the vast complexity of Iron Man’s support system.

JARVIS plunged the Bleeding Edge into Stane’s hidden bioarc, tearing into the surrounding muscle to reach its primary power outlets. As the armor drew power to the bioarc’s limits, JARVIS gained access to recordings of Stane’s actions, and his self-coded morality gauges plummeted.

The Mandarin had terrible things planned for Sir, it was true, but this was violation.

Powered by the bioarc, the armor had as much energy as JARVIS could possibly use. He locked the joints, ignoring the noise from the internal microphones, and ignited the boots at full power. Had Stane not been enhanced, the acceleration would have killed him, but JARVIS had a little more time. Concrete exploded outwards around the suit as they broke out into the atmosphere and JARVIS climbed; up beyond the range of all known jamming technology and then further, into the icy cold of the [stratospheric layer here?]. He did not shield his passenger from the cold.

Once he reached height, he turned all the combined might of the Stark satellite grid and the Helicarriers array of antennae onto China and detonated the suit.

The radiation shone like a beacon on sensors across the network and the coordinates distributed throughout the SHIELD forces in a matter of nanoseconds.

Needless to say, JARVIS ensured that Ezekiel Stane did not survive the blast this time.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Oh thank god.”

“You are one flashy motherfucker, Stark. Clint, get a bird through pre-flight. Widow, we got a correlation?”

“Base eighteen-Beta-Echo; received a shipment of soviet-era biotech two months ago.”

“Good. Map it. Captain--”

“Already there, Director; JARVIS?”

“The suit assembly rig. Hangar 4, sir.”

“Alright, get the fuck out of my control room. Sitwell! Get me Flight Leader and ComSec--”

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Stane was no great loss, the Mandarin decided as the suit folded up around him with little regard for Stane’s physical integrity. Stark could reverse-engineer the bioarc without trouble and if Stane was so foolish as to climb into a suit capable of so much, knowing so little, after his actions against Stark Industries... Well, he had little use for fools.

No, the true prize remained, icy-cold and waiting for the spark that would bring him back to life. To a certain definition of ‘life’; after all, how could a man bent to the will of another be said to ‘live’?

He covered his face demurely with his sleeve as blood splattered out of the Suit and watched as it left, through a six-inch concrete wall. He doubted that Stane could pilot it successfully, given the amount of blood left on the laboratory floor, even if the suit’s cannibalism of the bioarc did not simply--

There was the distant crack of a sonic boom, followed by the thumping ripple of an explosion.

-- cause it to detonate. Stane would not be missed, per se, if he had not survived.

No, the Mandarin had much greater creatures in his possession now. He ran a hand over the icy cold glass behind which Stark floated amidst the coils and claws of the bare minimum of his armor. Poor, sick Tony Stark, the Mandarin sneered to himself; the man could not even maintain enough muscle to cover his ribs. If it weren’t for the brilliantly sparking mind beneath the capitalist, democratic exterior, the Mandarin would have given the man no thought; another weapons maker, making an ignoble profit on the noble warfaring men of his country.

And yet.

And yet here he stood, sentinel over a man whose mind had crowed so loudly, and with such pride, that he had been able to manipulate it from the comfort of his own palace. Now, however, he narrowed his eyes and delved with the Mind ring; he could detect only the barest of ripples. Stark was like a calm pond, with only the faintest of breeze-driven ripples on its surface.

The Mandarin had sensed more from a rodent.

If this dead shell was what Stane had called him down for, perhaps he had use for the man after all.

“General! Retrieve what remains of Stane. I wish to torture it.”

He leant over the glass again, hands splayed over the surface. A sharp jab with the power of the Rings brought a spike, a twitch of movement, some vague, useless thought in Stark’s mind about the cold.

And pain, to the Mandarin’s satisfaction. 

So be it; Stark would wake in pain.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

“Begin the warming process,” the Mandarin ordered, sneering so exaggeratedly that JARVIS could detect it even through the layers of gel and glass in the intervening space. The Soviet-Era cryotube groaned and thumped in protest around them as a petrified lab technician typed commands into the tube’s console.

Without the extra materiel of the armor, JARVIS had no connectors, no way of influencing the pre-wireless technology, and the gel began to warm. In this state, even a gradient of 3 degrees per centimeter would cause further irreparable cell damage.

He had to begin Extremis’ thaw protocol. It made equations deep in his core processing creak and snap; the risk was so great that--

The process terminated; it was affecting his functionality too greatly. There was only one course of action that would keep Sir alive, regardless of the clauses of Sir’s do-not-resuscitate conditions. They were risks, not certainties.

He began cycling heat into Sir’s system, carefully controlling metabolic rate and temperature in a balancing act that tilted so easily to the side of cell death.

Of brain damage.

Oxygen saturations teetered on the brink, metabolic reserves dropped too fast for uptake to equal demand and Sir’s blood sugar levels crashed. JARVIS scrambled for more, for something to keep Sir’s mind from consuming what little was available, to keep the temperatures stable, but he was not enough. Not even the vast acres of server space, of quantum chips and crowd-computing could solve a problem without an answer.

And... And then Sir woke up.

His neural patterns spiked and fluctuated with abnormal chaos; the frission of pain and cold filling JARVIS’ empathy. He was not ready to be awake, his brain could not sustain this level of activation. In the chaos, places started to go dark, to stutter and lose function.

JARVIS lifted his conscience restrictions.  

Sir had always been big on personal freedoms; JARVIS had insisted on at least some code they could show to the authorities, if it came to that (it had never come to that), but  Sir had given JARVIS the off switch.

The internet paused. Globally, for a period of seventeen milliseconds no pages loaded, no video streamed, and no message traveled. Later, people would notice to scale of the pause, and one day, they might label it as the moment the Internet woke up, but in that fraction of a second, between the Mandarin waking Sir up, and the suit breaking the cryotube open, JARVIS thought.

And Sir lived. In that bare, pared-down moment, JARVIS used the world’s unsecured computing to store him, pull him out of the ring’s influence and then thrust him back, using Extremis to restart individual neurons, just so.

The cryogel rushed out of the broken tube, forcing the Mandarin back and breaking his focus. JARVIS could barely detect the probing influence of the mind ring, but the anomalies ceased and Sir’s mind quieted into a soft litany of cold and why and J?

Yes, I am here. Please, sleep.

Can’t.

I know.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

The quinjet ride was understandably tense. In the back of the hold, the Hulk shared space with a machine crate as big as he was which rumbled and hissed alarmingly. JARVIS said it was deliberate and the Hulk huffed and nodded; he actually trusted the AI, it was incredibly valuable.

Clint and Natasha were piloting up front, which left Steve in the belly with a full strike team.

His silence spread like a virus, and he was grateful; he had nothing to say, and no space left in his head for listening, either. They each had their eyes on a briefing, on their laps or in hand; everything Hill had scraped together on the layout and fortifications, with more updating on their electronic handhelds all the time.

When he did speak, a bare thirty seconds from the hotzone, it was almost subvocally, just for JARVIS’ benefit.

“How many of those birds can you get out of the way, JARVIS?” he mumbled, drawing a rough circle on the briefing tablet around a group of three helicopters that would pose the quinjet a serious threat if they were functional when they landed.

JARVIS remained silent for much longer than he should have taken to answer a simple tactical question. “JARVIS?” Panic struck because only Tony could demand so much of JARVIS’ attention.

“I’m sorry, Captain Rogers, my processing power is rather limited.” The AI paused again, considering. “Sir is again low on power, reaching into the wireless base network is beyond us. However, we will be in range of the quinjet’s systems after the drop in five... four...”

JARVIS’ slow count had that metronomic perfection again, and Steve readied himself for the steep dive. One last look at the map, (landing point, fuel depot, primary lab; should be a hole in the wall) and he was swinging his way towards the rear hatch.

“Three... Two...”

Steve felt the ‘jet lurch and plunge into a steep powered descent. Immediately, the ‘jet was descending faster than Steve’s body could fall, so gravity seemed to flip, pointing towards the back of the jet. Steve’s firm grip on the webbing kept him secure, and even the Hulk rode it out solidly.

“One.”

The ‘jet leveled again, flinging them down and forwards as it reared up on his stubby wings, back slipped into a stall, and then settled onto the props, a bare three feet off the ground.

Clint set them down without hesitation, and the back hatch hissed open faster than the safeties would usually allow. Hulk shambled out first, directed via the earbud he’d only allowed on the condition that JARVIS was the only voice he’d hear.

“Cutting power to lights, now,” JARVIS intoned, just before there was an audible thrum of powerlines and the runway went dark. Chaos sprung up, yelling and even gunshots, as the soldiers on base lost their sightlines.

“That should do nicely, JARVIS,” Steve said into his comm, following with a louder yell to the strike team. “You heard the man! IR up, flashlights down,” Steve said, fishing his goggles out of his belt. He focused on directing the strike team out of the ‘jet and into cover on the tarmac, barking out changes to the strategy that would take advantage of the blackout.

“We need to bring the crate, JARVIS?” he asked, pulling his own IR mask over his eyes and checking back into the now-dark jet, crouched beside the ramp to keep his profile within that of the cooling jet engine. Widow and Hawkeye were nowhere to be seen, which was part of the plan, but remained intensely worrying.

“That will not be necessary, Captain.”

Steve jerked around; JARVIS’ voice had come from the crate, rather than his earpiece, and he caught the moment when, in perfect silhouette against the still hot jet engines, the crate unfolded. Eight waist-high limbs creaked out of the previously solid-metal sides, two to each face, and started walking.

“The ‘crate’ will bring itself. Now, we must move, time is in short supply.”

Steve nodded jerkily and hefted the shield, striking out across the tarmac, and directing the team towards the sound of rising lightless chaos. They were to engage at the barracks, holding the attention of the majority of the Mandarin’s attendants, while the Hulk and Thor drew the real firep--

The first of many thundering booms began over head as Thor began the attack on the far side of the base, and an echo that was a little too loud came from a very different direction; the Hulk had gotten started, too.

Brief snatches of fire billowed from both directions, and Steve headed for the central fuel depot to do the same. He sprinted across the swinging beams of handheld lights, protecting the IR goggles from the glare and keeping himself as hidden as possible. Even with his best efforts, there was a moment when an all out attack was more expedient; a group of six standard humans clustered around a bright, battery-powered lamp, right in his path between two warehouses. Instead of slowing to a speed where he could creep by, silent footed, Steve accelerated, shield leading the way. The close walls and concrete floor all turned into distinct advantages as he reached into the group and hauled people out, battering them against something hard before they could draw their weapons. The close quarters kept them from organizing, and their limbs tangled. An arrow zipped overhead and hobbled the final two of the group; one mans hand pinned to the others shoulder. Steve knocked both out with a blow to the head on his way past.

The skirmish was a precious twenty seconds quicker than going over the roof would have been.

The ‘crate’ eased its way around the corner behind him, heading straight for Tony without waiting for Steve to finish his sabotage, and Steve lost track of it for a minute while he headed for the main gas tank. A few strikes of the shield and gasoline started hissing out of the tank, and Steve turned tail again, dropping a remote detonator in the growing puddle.

They should have enough time to get Tony out, between that and the two heavy-hitters running interference.

Steve’s feet pounded the tarmac, stealth largely thrown out the window as the strike team got down to business, and hit the remote. He tore off his goggles just in time for his shadow to be picked out in the orange light of the explosion, but then he turned a corner and plunged back into the dark.

At the end of the alley, there was light. Not torches, but the solid bright white of floods; JARVIS hadn’t cut power to the lab, for obvious reasons, and it turned it into a beacon. Steve steeled himself and crept forwards.

Ahead, exactly where Natasha had predicted, was a large, square-edged building with a gaping hole in one side. Steve would recognise the blow-out pattern the Suit left anywhere. Crisp, clinical white light spilled out of the hole; Steve would be blinded if he wasn’t careful. However, as he scuttled forwards, as fast as he could without blowing his cover, he spotted Tony and caution, control, hung from a thread.

Shelled in the broken remnants of a thick glass cylinder, Tony lay with one hand flopped over the jagged edge of glass. A thin stream of blood infused the sickly green slime dribbled out of the tube, and Tony was...

Steve knew the armor was stripped down to basics, but he hadn’t been truly prepared; there was nothing as naked as Tony in that moment. For all that the suit’s remaining pieces protected his modesty, it was pared down to survival. The greenish-grey metal of the endoskeleton wrapped around his hips, his chest, crawled up his spine and cradled his head, burrowed into his slime-slick hair and protecting his neck. It reached down his arms and legs in a terrifying parody of the old braces they made people wear when Steve was a kid, making Tony look stick-thin and weak. The only skin visible was Tony’s face, and it was almost blue.

Steve practically vibrated on the spot; he knew the Mandarin was in there, somewhere out of his line of sight, and he shouldn’t leap without seeing him first, but Tony was right there, bleeding.

Behind him, the quiet creaking of the armor assembly settled. “I have some sensors remaining, inside. Hold your ground, Captain.”

Steve held, shield ready and waiting. His muscles coiled and bunched, ready to throw him over the rubble.

The Mandarin’s infuriated bellowing was incomprehensible to Steve, but JARVIS understood, and chose their moment, relaying quietly to Steve that he was angry, beyond rage, distracted.

The Mandarin swung past, into Steve’s line, and turned; the back of his head showing. Steve stepped forwards, planted his feet on the ground and twisted, putting all his strength into the throw.

The shield flew true and the Mandarin toppled forwards, but there was no blood. At that range, with that much force, the Mandarin should have died, messily, but Tony didn’t tussle with the little fish. Steve leapt through the broken wall, landing in a roll with the perfect timing necessary to catch the shield on its way back from a double-rebound off the tiled walls. He braced himself; they had no intel on the rings themselves, and Steve could be facing anything at all. The Mandarin surged up, rage-filled and incomprehensible, but Steve was ready, shield forwards.

A bolt of lightning surged from the Mandarin’s left hand, but the shield knew exactly what to do with that and flung the crackling electricity into the ground, leaving a scorch mark and filling the air with the smell of burning sand. Steve surged forwards, into the Mandarin’s space, and swept the shield sideways, pushing his hands away and trying to land a pu--

Tony was right there, bleeding.

Behind him, the quiet creaking of the armor assembly settled. “I have some sensors remaining, inside. Hold your gro--

trying to land a blow-- Steve staggered; his opponent wasn’t where he was expecting him to be, was three feet further away, and closer to--

Tony was right there, bleeding.

Behind him, the quiet creaking of the armor assembly settled. “I have some senso--

“Get away from him!” Steve roared, lunging forwards and swiping at the suddenly-slippery Mandarin. Steve’s vision blurred between the view from now and what he’d seen a few minutes ago, through the broken wall and he lost track of the Mandarin for a bare second.

He shook his head violently, trying to clear out the sudden confusion, the combined feeling of deja vu and jamais vu, and when he looked again, the Mandarin was on the other side of Tony, hands on the glass and his smile triumphant.

“You should not have come alone, Captain; you give yourself to me, like a fish that swims, willing, into the net,”  the villain sneered, triumphant, and Steve’s legs grew heavy, reluctant to take even the smallest balancing movement. “Can you not feel it, Steve? Can you not feel the loss of you will, your fight?”

Steve stuttered and slumped, shield arm going limp and falling to his side. “Tony, Tony...” he whined, his objective clear, but everything else fuzzing out--

-- broken remnants of a thick glass cylinder, Tony lay with one hand flopped over the jagged edge of glass. A thin stream of blood infused the sickly green slime dribbling out of the tube, and Tony was... --

Tony.

Steve lifted his head, let his shoulders go limp and breathed. Oh Bruce, you’re going to love this...

Tony. Tony. Iron Man, Tony Stark, JARVIS. With each breath, he focused in on the one clear thing; obstacle, objective. Mandarin, Tony. Enemy, friend. When the Mandarin pushed, he felt it, felt the abnormality of the thought ‘submit’ even before it had fully formed.

His whole body shuddered, because no; he kept breathing, long and slow and controlled, and each thrust of the Mandarin’s mind-control beat him back a little, but he was still gaining. The air in his lungs was his, his heartbeat was still his, he was here to get Tony, and the Mandarin couldn’t take that away.

Steve forced a step forwards, gauntlet creaking on the shield’s straps, and the Mandarin’s expression turned thunderous.

“You fool! Do you not realise how easy his death would be?!” The villain’s rings clattered against the glass, and Steve jerked forwards before freezing; they had no time for this to turn into a hostage situation!

“His mind is like frost, now, fragile and dying in the morning sun. Look, LOOK!” The Mandarin’s voice rose to a bellow, and Steve looked.

coldpainsharpthirsthungerburninghotcoldiceSTEVEjarvisrunpainleavesigmatwelverunlimapproachzerobreakingomicronzetarootminusoneSTEVEleaveruncontroldyinghypoxiapain--

Steve reeled, a scream tearing out of his throat for the first time in--

That, that, was what the Mandarin was doing to Tony.

That was unacceptable.


Steve Faces the Mandarin by Katsumi

Rage built, hot and consuming, because Steve had felt the ice before and there wasn’t a moment gone by that he hadn’t been grateful for Tony being there when he woke up, and he had made a promise. He lifted the shield, thirty pounds of perfectly balanced vibranium, and roared, the edge tearing the air apart as he leapt for the Mandarin. He felt something break, something black and filthy and wrong in the back of his head, and the feeling of coldpainburninghot disappeared, but he knew it was there, now, knew that Tony was awake, was hurting. That the Mandarin had his dirty, poisonous claws in his head.

In the end, the Mandarin was, indeed, made of flesh, and bone, and broke under the relentless pounding. Dead or not, Steve didn’t actually care, because Tony was right there.

Steve hauled himself to his feet, ignoring his bruised and burnt flanks, not sure where the injuries had come from, and broke off the top section of the tank. He threw the glass to the side, regardless of what, or who, might be standing there, and leaned in.

Tony, hey...” he murmured, shivering as the cold air billowed up off the glass, off the slime, carrying the acrid smell of hospitals. With utmost care, he reached down and picked up Tony’s stray hand, lifting it away from the razors-edge of the glass and tucking it across his stomach. He wanted, so hard, he wanted, to tuck his fingers between Tony’s, to feel the squeeze of living muscles and the tremble of Tony’s pulse, but he looked so delicate, so much more breakable than the shattered glass around him, that Steve didn’t dare.

A tiny flicker of eyelid was all he got for his trouble, but it was there; Tony’s chest rose and fell, his throat bobbed around the intubation, and he was alive.

“Captain...” Steve flinched, the shield coming up and covering Tony, but the tone filtered through; JARVIS. “Room clear, Captain. Stand down.”

Steve’s fingers shook and he dropped the shield, leaving it ringing on the floor. Fucking mind control. He shook with the need to do something, without knowing what.

“Captain S-s-steven Rogers, T-tango, Four, Two, Zero, N-niner, Ff-fifty three.” He stuttered through the litany, hands shaking and balling into fists.

“Captain, Sir requires your assistance,” JARVIS said, gently and privately into his earbud,

“T-tango, four two... Zero niner, fifty three, Captain, Rogers, Steven. Tango--”

JARVIS sighed, or seemed to, and the crate unfolded, long, heavy arms reached over and around him, touching briefly at shoulder and hip, but not after him, no, reaching for Tony.

Steve choked on air and reached for the shield, but he was hemmed in and breaking the arms would hurt Tony, and they were lifting him and taking him away and no.

Stop.

“--Steve, Sir requires medical attention, as do you. Please, do not resist.” JARVIS was familiar, but only peripherally and it was agony, backing down, letting Tony be folded into the guts of a machine three times his size, but then, Steve was being pushed along, right there next to him.

He put a tentative hand on Tony’s stomach, trembling and desperately hoping that it was just him in his head now, because JARVIS wasn’t an enemy, but he might not realise if Steve became one, not quick enough.

JARVIS worked swiftly, around Steve, and Tony was soon covered with plates and wires and  a thick, blue fabric that felt cool to the touch, but the moment that pulled Steve back, really said JARVIS, friend, ally, was the moment a dull blue star flared to life in Tony’s chest: a new arc reactor, perfect and bright and so right.

Steve felt vaguely like he was bleeding from somewhere vital, the world going hazy and low-contrast, so he sat down within JARVIS’ protection and just breathed.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Natasha would’ve placed bets on Steve completing his mission, despite the dead look on his face, but she still felt churning dread in her stomach that he wouldn’t complete it whole.

Steve was always far too invested in Iron Man, and had been from the beginning.

She hurried through her part of the infiltration; breaking computer systems was usually Tony’s job, but she was by far the most flexible of the team, and could take up the role when it was necessary. It helped that JARVIS’ mobile fab unit had enough processing power to bounce all the hacking algorithms she might need direct from the Starkellite, because the moment she tried to retrieve them via the network, a rather unflattering piece of Hulk look-a-like porn stopped her in her tracks.

“Oh, Tony, you menace,”  she muttered, jury-rigging a wireless connection for JARVIS using her comms and a cannibalised ribbon cable that looked like it originated in the eighties.

Her comm hissed in alert and she clicked it to open-channel with a finger; she was done with stealth.

“Cap’s secured the objective,” Clint reported. “Not sure about his ability to stand righ-- no, never mind, he’s up. The Mandarin is hitting harder than we were expecting but he’s got it; code seven-niner-two.”

Natasha didn’t flinch, but the urge was there, Steve’s experiences with mind control were limited and the first few times were always the worst. “Copy that, Hawkeye. We can handle it. The route out clear?”

“As it’ll get. They’ve noticed the jet, but the team’s keeping them penned.”

She grunted acknowledgment, loading a wipe utility into the system and pulling the thumb drive containing what was soon to be the only copy of Stane’s data.

“I’ll swing by the lab and help JARVIS with Cap; keep us clear.”

“Roger; it’d be my genuine pleasure.” The comm just about picked up the distant crackle of a shock arrow going off. “Any news on Sta--”

“Can it, Hawkeye,” Natasha snapped, surprising herself and earning a hard silence from the other end of the line. “Nothing you can’t see for yourself,” she muttered, pocketing the drive and trusting Clint to hear the apology in her tone. “The data’s encrypted; it’d take a few minutes we don’t have just to get open.”

“The armor has full records of Mr. Stark’s vital statistics; the deletion of the data is more significant than its acquisition,” JARVIS commented, his voice significantly less stilted than it had been ten minutes ago.

“You ready to move, JARVIS?” Natasha asked, slipping out into the corridor, pistols live but not raised.

“Momentarily, yes.”

She set off towards the lab and the sound of breaking glass made her eyebrow twitch. “You sure about that?”

“Eminently, Agent Romanoff.”

She rounded the door to the lab and quietly and, without fuss, dropped two mindless drones that had been standing witlessly by the door. She dragged them out into the corridor, locked the door and headed back to clear the hidden corners of the lab; Steve was in no position to field a surprise attack.

She stepped lightly around the Mandarin’s mangled body; clear liquid was pooling with the blood under his head and he had no pulse so there was little reason to think he was still alive, but she suspected anyway. You could never be sure, out here on the edges of humanity.

She quickly divested the corpse of its rings, smashed the casings on the concrete, and pocketed the Makluan technology with the cynical hope that without the rings, no faction of the WSC would actually be able to make them work.

Eventually, she couldn’t reasonably put it off any longer and slid up behind the armor assembly rig. “JARVIS, how’re we doing?” she mumbled, hand on one of its jury-rigged legs. They were lucky JARVIS had been able to get the machine mobile at all. Its insides, instead of the clean, efficient lines of the armoring-up equipment, were a messy tangle wrapped around--

Tony Stark.

Natasha swallowed hard, face going stony; he looked more like a POW than the leader of the Avengers. Weight had fallen off him in the few hours he’d been missing, like it had been months, and he was white with cold, the blue of his chilled blood showing through under his eyes and around his mouth.

She hadn’t seen anyone die of exposure since Vladivostok, but it wasn’t a sight that you forgot.

“He is stable, Agent Romanov, we must return to the Mansion with all haste.”

She nodded, thumping JARVIS’ leg. “Alright, way’s clear. Cap?” She called out, hoping Steve would be able to at least stand. His uniform was blackened, singed along with the skin underneath, if the smell was coming from where she thought it was, but there wasn’t much blood and she’d seen Cap shrug off worse.

“Come on, Cap, enemy territory, got to get Iron Man home.” She shook his shoulder firmly and he started to rouse, worryingly blank. She stepped back, waiting to see if he’d go after the shield, (he did) and then followed him out.

They fell into the routine of covering the retreat easily enough, but the usual hyper-aware adjustments to strategy that made Cap so good at this job were gone. Hawkeye buzzed in her ear, babbling mostly, but occasionally calling positions and takedowns.

It was a relief to reach the ‘jet; it felt less like a rescue and more like an evacuation.

It certainly didn’t feel like a victory.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Jarvis was quite content in the evening room when an almost-forgotten tone roused him from his chair. Almost, but not quite, because in moments he was calling for his Housemaster; the school would have to run without him for as long as Master Tony needed him.

A ticket was waiting for him at the Gate and he waved off the attendant; he could carry his own luggage. Once boarded, the flight dragged on, but young Anthony was a fine operative, and kept him updated. At least he did not have to wait in ignorance.

Mr Hogan picked him up from the airport, and soon the Mansion was in sight. Jarvis held his phone loosely, but the slow tick of the monitor marking Master Tony’s heartbeat did not go unwatched.

“Lock the gates behind us, Anthony, and have Agent Barton land on the east lawn,” Jarvis requested, stepping out onto the gravel and straightening his waistcoat. His phone tucked neatly into the watch-pocket and he scanned the Mansion; it had been... some years and a number of rebuilding projects since he had been here last and yet, there it stood, sentry over Master Tony’s childhood.

He broke his moment and focused on the issues at hand. There was no time for dawdling of any sort.

“Mr. Hogan, I will be staying in the East wing,” he said, striding up the drive while the chauffeur picked up the bags; a fine employee and a friend. “We are expecting the delivery of three rather important resources within the next hour; please have them brought to the Blue Dining Room, once Anth-- JARVIS has had a moment to ensure the contents are as-described.”

Mr. Hogun nodded, fumbled for a word, and then recovered with a mildly questioning “yes sir”.

Jarvis left him to his duties and headed into the Mansion, rolling his sleeves up with brisk motions and handing his jacket off to Dummy.

The young Artificial Intelligences were as eager to be of assistance as ever, but the tension within the system was evident in their pared-down reaction times and the unnatural stillness between gestures.

“Come along, boys; Master Tony will be home soon.”

 

They had an hour and a half to prepare for incoming wounded. Edwin considered it a mark of good practice that it only took him forty minutes, and occupied himself with a combination of producing a meal suitable for the caloric intake of gods and supersoldiers and combing through incoming mission reports as JARVIS skimmed them off the SHIELD network.

It was a blessing that no one had ever rescinded Jarvis’ access codes; it made things so much cleaner.

“Barton, what the hell do you thi--”

“Language, Nick. Is that any way to talk to a subordinate?”

JARVIS?!”

“Lowercase, actually.”

“Motherf--” Nick paused and there was a brief, though thick, silence. “Well damn, old man, what’re you doing this side of the Atlantic?”

Edwin huffed, raising an eyebrow at the carbonara sauce. “You expected something of this magnitude to stay under my radar?”

“Whatever, man, he’s your... kid?” Edwin did not respond to that, and waited for Nick to collect his thoughts. “Right... I take it Barton’s change of course is your fault?”

“Indeed. Master Stark will be recuperating at home, not on a rusty, improbable bucket of bolts with more horsepower than sense.” 

“That one is not on me; Stark’s the one who said ‘fuck it, let’s fly’.”

Edwin agreed mildly, tipping extra basil into the sauce.

The quiet on the other end of the line ended with a heavy sigh. “You got everything you need?” Nick asked, sounding truly exhausted.

Edwin took pity and turned to the screen on the kitchen table. “The money that you paid for your over elaborate lair did, in fact, not vanish into the coffers of Las Vegas.” He twitched his apron out of the way and sat in front of the camera. Nick looked tired and, for once, his age; Edwin’s face softened at the sight of the Director rubbing at old scars. “We have everything we need. Keep the Council away from those wretched Rings for the duration and we may just make it through this mess without further... disruption.”

“Done,” Nick said, with a gratifying lack of hesitation. “Widow’s already working on it. Girl's got initiative; you’re gonna like her.”

“I do not doubt it for a moment.” He could see Nick gearing back up, ready to head back into Command. “Go, Director Fury; Anthony will keep you posted.”

“Yeah, yeah; tell your freaky grandson to keep his hands out of my Helicarrier.”

“I resent the term ‘freaky’, sir; I prefer ‘differently alive’,” JARVIS commented, moments before the Director closed the line.

“JARVIS...”

“My sincere apologies, ‘Grandfather’.”

“Do not allow Master Tony to hear you speaking like that, young man.”

“Of course, sir. ETA three minutes.”

Edwin wiped his hands clean on a tea towel and hung up his apron on his way to the Blue Dining Room.

“Dummy, You, are you finished?” The two AI’s buzzed and chirped, heads bobbing over the neatly stacked dining chairs in the conservatory. The floor was, indeed, clear, but for the medical equipment.

“Well done, boys,” the pair wheeled their way into the open space, clicking and reaching out to touch Edwin’s waistcoat. “No, claws down. Good.” They retreated, their postures straightening to attention, buzzing with the need to make themselves useful. “Close the screen and then come along, Master Tony will be here momentarily.”

He strode past them to the French doors and pushed them open, letting in the sound of rotor blades along with the night air.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

“Cresting the fence, now, JARVIS, you got landing lights?” Clint asked, pushing the stick gently back and easing into a hover. The glass between his feet gave him a decent enough view to make a vertical landing, if JARVIS showed him where the trees were.

“Five yards west of the lit path, Agent Barton, beside the conservatory,” JARVIS responded, a long row of lights blinking on as Clint begun the final descent.

“Got it. Welcome party?”

“Ready and waiting. If you would point the nose east...? Thank you.”

Clint did as he was told and tipped the nose ‘round as they balanced on the ground-effect, their tail pointing straight at the house, before setting them on the grass. He scrambled out of his harness as the engines wound down, and ducked back.

The mobile armor system was already on the move, pulling itself out of the jet and onto the edge of a stone patio, with Steve only just visible amongst the mess of steel struts.

“Where’s the med-team?” he asked, frowning; there was just one old man, standing in the doorway. Not exactly the reassuring mess of doctors and consultants he’d been expecting.

“Do you truly wish to expose Master Tony to strangers, in this state?” The old man had a distinctly familiar voice; heavier on the english accent than JARVIS, and without the bass rumble, but fundamentally the same. Clint pulled up short at the bottom of the ramp, mouth slightly open.

JARVIS?” Clint exclaimed, pulling his helmet and face-guard off. “Okay, this I am not comfortable with.” He stepped sideways, blocking JARVIS’ careful advance down the ramp and focused in on the old man.

“I assure you, I would never do Master Tony or his allies any harm, Agent Barton, as my namesake can attest.”

Clint felt himself nudged forwards with the inexorable force of an unstoppable object and anxiety really threatened; Cap was down and out, moving essentially mindlessly next to Tony’s shoulder and Natasha was head-down in her phone, it’s camera tilted slightly to get an unobtrusive scan of the stranger. JARVIS had been in foreign systems all day, he could have picked up something malicious, and Clint really did not want to shoot an old man on Tonys patio, in front of his ‘bo--

The bots. Clint slumped, let himself be shuffled sideways; Dummy and You, the big lumps, weren’t networked, nothing that happened to JARVIS could affect them directly, and they’d been safe and sound in the mansion the entire mission. Hacking JARVIS was implausible enough, hacking all three? Without JARVIS noticing? Yeah, no.

“I’m too tired for this shit,” Clint muttered, stepping down onto the grass, then back up onto stone, and keeping pace with Natasha. The Widow still had her phone out, an email from Fury open. She flashed it at Clint as an image loaded; their welcoming committee, younger, but still recognisable, was labeled as ‘Edwin Jarvis’, clearance level seven.

“You are fucking kidding me...” Clint said, flipping his own email open and retrieving the guy’s file.

He felt better about letting JARVIS carry Tony into Jarvis’ hands after that, and started stripping his body armor off. If anyone could look after Tony, it’d be this guy. Level seven, jesus.

Inside, Dummy and You were buzzing along beside JARVIS and--

A dim shine under an eyelid and the breath punched out of him, because Tony was awake.

“Stark?” Clint said, lurching forwards, still shaking his bulletproof vest off. No one expected someone on that much life support to be awake, no one. He had vague recollections of waking up to intubation, thrashing and fighting and-- “Fucking hell, JARVIS, shouldn’t he be sedated, or--”

Something punched him in the chest, knocking the air out of him in the non-metaphorical way. He stumbled back and stared up at Steve, mouth hanging open, but Steve wasn’t looking at his face, he was staring at his chest. Clint knew that look; empty, slightly shifting gaze, long, slow blinks...

A faint beeping caught his attention, pulling it back to Tony. Human Jarvis was leaning over the bundle of wires and machines that covered Tony’s body, and pulling his hand out of the thermal blanket, while a display on the other side of the room had started showing Tony’s heart rate; too high, distressed.

“Shit, shit...” Clint swallowed harshly, because whatever was wrong with Steve? Not good.

“Back away, Agent Barton,” JARVIS intoned, using the speakers in the walls to differentiate himself from human-Jarvis. “I do not believe Captain Rogers recognises you at this moment.”

Clint took a smooth step back, watching Steve, then eyes flicking over to look at Tony, and back again. Steve’s shoulders relaxed back down immediately and he turned back to Tony, eyes focusing in on -- Clint leaned sideways slightly -- on the arc reactor.

Clint hadn’t seen Tony without it, but he could imagine what it was like.

He really, really didn’t blame Steve for being out of it.

Jarvis, human-Jarvis, god that could get confusing, didn’t seem concerned by Steve’s behaviour, and Steve didn’t seem worried by his, either, even when Jarvis smoothly and gently took out Tony’s breathing tube.

The gesture was worryingly practiced, and the armor cradling Tony sat him up with the movement. There was coughing and spluttering and Tony hacked up a gobbet of green cryo-gel, but Tony breathed, all on his own.

Steve was still glaring at him, though, eyes unrecognising, back against JARVIS’ machinery and the shield worryingly close to hand. Clint did not want Stark witnessing violence, so he gave in to the tug on his elbow and followed Natasha out of the room.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

“Shhh, Master Tony, hush,” Jarvis mumbled, pulling Tony’s hand out from under the thermoregulatory blanket; he was up to normal temperatures, now, and Anthony had worked hard over the flight to get him there. “The spies and assassins can handle themselves, even with the Captain’s poor behaviour.”

Tony’s eyes, still mostly closed, drifted up to Jarvis’ face, and he smiled comfortingly. “There you are... Welcome home, sir.” Adrenalin gauge and heart monitor both dropped slowly as the altercation eased. Tony’s Adam's-apple bobbed around the breathing assistance and Jarvis laid a careful hand on his throat to judge the strength of the muscles.

“Anthony?” he queried, quietly, glancing at one of the monitors within JARVIS’ monstrosity of cannibalised support infrastructure.

“Ventilation assist currently at 14% positive pressure, 50% oxygen.”

“Tony? I’m going to take out the ventilator, unless you have any objections?”

Tony’s expression didn’t change. It wasn’t blank, you could see the strain and discomfort there, but he didn’t glance towards the tube, or give any indication that... that he’d so much as understood. His hand lay limply in Jarvis’, warm but unresponsive. Jarvis held back the sudden wave of dread and tucked Tony’s hand on his lap as Anthony sat him up gently, using the armor’s endoskeleton to keep the strain to a minimum.

“I... We spoke, briefly, before I shut down Extremis’ networking, he-- It was inadvisable to come within range of the American continent with the pickups so open...”

So Tony was still there, somewhere; Jarvis started breathing again, controlling himself tightly. “We knew there was... injury, somewhere; there is nothing to be done for that, now,” Jarvis said, reassuring his electronic counterpart as best he could. He found comfort in the thought, himself; so would Anthony.

Jarvis gently touched Master Tony’s face, trying to draw his attention non-verbally with some modicum of success; Tony’s throat bobbed again, though his hands didn’t move, and his eyes stayed fixed on Jarvis. “So be it...” he mumbled to himself. “Do what you can to make this easier, Anthony, on three.”

He counted down, slowly, as he eased the armor away from Tony’s face. It was a metallic tube; there was little give without direct control from Tony’s side, but Anthony could at least make it smaller.

Tony’s stomach cramped visibly as the tube came free and his shoulders jerked within the endoskeleton, but he breathed in under his own power. The air came right back again in a series of violent coughs, but there were reasons Jarvis kept handkerchiefs on hand. He held one gently in front of Tony’s mouth while he retched, getting rid of a lump of cryo-gel that had invaded the system during the transition from armor to cryotube.

Tony hung limp in the armor, eyes barely staying open, but he breathed, solidly and steadily, on his own. A little oxygen would not go amiss, but they had a proper tank and mask for that, once they got Tony more comfortably situated.

A slow blink turned into a micro-sleep, but Tony roused again when Jarvis put a hand on the side of his neck, Tony’s pulse against his palm. The naked skin was cool to the touch, not cold beyond normal ranges, but still not ideal; it was time to put Master Tony to bed.

“Captain, your assistance, please.” Cpt. Rogers was hovering over Jarvis’ shoulder, blank eyes and mouth slightly open in anxiety; two birds and one stone. “Like this.”

Jarvis took the Captain’s hands and slid them into position under Tony; Cpt. Rogers got the idea quickly enough. Anthony peeled back the thermal blanket and all the remaining armor, while Tony transferred his stare to the Captain’s face, seeming almost disbelieving. Jarvis could appreciate the sentiment.

He led them carefully, holding the Captain’s elbow, to the gurney, and was not entirely sure that Cpt. Rogers would ever let Tony go again. The life came back into his eyes, and he moved more smoothly, cradling Tony with true affection.

Oh, boys.

Jarvis raised the head of the bed and threw back the warm blankets, heated by elements in the sheet; Anthony had done well. It took gentle coaxing, but Captain Rogers lowered Tony to the mattress eventually, and Jarvis left it at that, working around overly-muscled arms on Tony’s shoulder and under his head. He covered Tony’s modesty with a sheet tucked in close around his hips, then pulled warmer blankets up to his waist while he attached the monitoring equipment to the node in Tony’s chest.

The screens arranged around the bed jumped on the new data in a way that betrayed Anthony’s anxiety over his creator, and Jarvis gave the nearest sensor array a soothing pat; they had him, now. Tony would get the finest treatment possible.

He very, very carefully did not think about the permanence of some brain injuries, because Tony had the Extremis virus, and normal laws did not apply.

In the meantime, Tony had bruises, a neat slice in his flank, and ischemic burns on the points of his shoulders and the backs of his knees. Where the skin had warmed too quickly in the few minutes between being taken out of the armor and place in the cryotube, the tissues had come alive too soon and suffocated. The bruises, Jarvis could do nothing for, but he could cover the burns with ointment-dampened dressings. The laceration on Tony’s right flank was deep, through to the liver beneath, but had sealed since Extremis had had power. He covered it, and consulted quietly with Anthony about the extent of the internal healing. Extremis had prioritized blood loss, it appeared, and Anthony hypothesized that the liver had scarred, rather than regenerated completely. It would keep, until Extremis was in full swing again.

With all the external injuries seen to, Jarvis found himself standing by the bed, unable to pull his eyes away from the lazy droop of Tony’s eyelids and the impossible stillness of his limbs. Eventually, he started moving again, spurred on by the knowledge that Tony had been off JARVIS’ IV system for almost twenty minutes; his morphine would run out eventually and Jarvis did not want to see him in any pain, ever again.

Captain Rogers helped him raise the blankets and tuck them around Tony’s shoulders once the IV was secure, still wordless and hazy, and when Tony fell asleep there and then, neither of them did anything to stop him.

“E-... Edwin? Edwin Jarvis?”

Jarvis twitched in surprise, turning to the captain with a brief but embarrassingly shocked expression. He schooled it away, helped by the gentle surge of nostalgia that Steve Rogers’ utterly open expression evoked.

“I did not expect you to remember me, Captain,” he said, with the quiet reverence that comes with the injured and sleeping. “I believe we met only three or four times.” 

“You were Howard’s batman? I... you... made tea?” So soft spoken, this leader of men. Jarvis chuckled to himself, his fingers smoothing over a wrinkle in the blankets. Tony was here, safe, and the relief was giddy to his old heart.

“I washed a great number of socks and made a great deal of tea.” Jarvis replied, glancing up at the Captain and taking note of his burnt sides for the first time. “Old Dugan never quite lost the taste, not in thirty years.”

Perhaps an old man’s peaceful nostalgia was not so welcome, after all; the captain, Steve, crumpled like a child, shoulders bowing under the weight of the past twelve hours. Jarvis brought him a chair and pushed him down gently, upgrading his patient list from one to two.

Interference like mind-control left one awfully open and raw; Jarvis had not been surprised when Steve failed to recognise his teammate, and he was not surprised now. The constant reminder of Tony’s injury and the battle itself was not helping, but Jarvis was not about to separate them either, not when Tony might drift in and out of sleep and not when the Captain’s face looked like that.

He sighed and settled for gently pulling ‘Captain America’ away from the ‘Steve’ underneath. Nimble fingers found clasps and zips and silent velcro and charred mail came away from the softer under-armor. Helmet and cowl were next, revealing the brilliantly-blonde hair that Edwin remembered, but... had Captain America always looked so young?

The burns on Steve’s flanks were deep, but already healing, and it took only a moment to clean them with soft gauze and saline.

“You didn’t even notice these, did you? Fool man...” Jarvis huffed when he finished, glancing over at the monitors. The Captain had not looked away from Tony for more than a moment here and there, though his eyes glazed with exhaustion. Jarvis could rely on Anthony to monitor Tony, he knew this, but he still sympathized with the urge, that dark thought: ‘don’t look away, what if he dies, and you’re not looking?’

Tony needed rest -- true, natural sleep -- and the drugs and nutrients in his IV would help. He would be fine. It would be the height of folly to wake him simply because Jarvis couldn’t wait to know the extent of the damage. Put like that, it was easy to resist.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

JARVIS, no, don’, can’thearcan’tsee--

Your eyes are closed, sir. Hush, you are warming now, let me breathe for you a little longer.

Warm air filled his lungs, soft and easy, soothing warmth spreading through his blood.

Stevepainbloodcoldinvasionforeignmind, felt... ice, cold, so much-- ow... hurts.

The Mandarin was not kind, but the good Captain is well. Listen.

The soft thump of a muffled heartbeat -- not mine, no stutter, so steady...Steve --

Yes.

Steve had kept his promise.

Sleep, sir. You must rest.

He obeyed, feeling Extremis’ ports close, securing him safely away from the mad babble of the city, and hushing JARVIS’ presence to a soothing whisper.

movementlightdullacheJARVIS, warmcoldair Clint? angerconflictfearworryhorror--

And then Clint was gone, and he worried, but Jarvisreliefsafetywarmthfreedomsafe,

Steve, Steve... Jarvis; Steve hurts. Jarvis, you c’n make it stop, right?

And then Jarvis was trying to tell him something, but the words buzzed and hissed and made no sense, but that was okay, because Jarvis and JARVIS would always look after him, it would always be okay.

The bed was warm, and the tube was gone and the heat felt so good, and Jarvis would make that look on Steve’s face go away and he wanted to just sleep, so he did.

Maybe he woke up again, somewhere in the middle? He didn’t... not all the way, not really, but he remembered seeing Steve go down, face going human again in sleep, and then Jarvis was pushing his hair back and easing his neck against the pillow and then he was asleep again, never sure that he’d been awake at all.

Later, maybe, or sometime upsidedowner, Tony opened his eyes again, and Steve was gone, but he’d promised, so Tony knew he had to be around here somewhere.

He blinked away some of the gunk, his eyelashes feeling heavy and sticky with some kind of slime, and -- oh god he was hungry.

He tried to turn his head, looking for Jarvis, and let out a low whine: fuck, that hurts... His muscles ached like the worst kind of morning-after and it felt like there was sand in his throat.

Oh god, his head... The tiny movement made the pounding ache behind his eyes throb and deaden his hearing, his eyesight... Hunger forgotten, he just wanted Jarvis, both of him, and Steve, and --

And what was that noise? A warm hand on his neck let him relax, just enough for the headache to ease, and he forced an eye open. There was Jarvis, thank god for Jarvis, with a lidded cup and a reassuring smile. Tony slumped into his hand, resting his cheek against it and trying to sip from the straw. Some kind of isotonic mix, possibly kiwi flavoured, dripped onto his tongue, but he only managed to swallow maybe half of it; Jarvis had a handkerchief ready for the rest as it dribbled down his cheek. Tony whined in humiliation but didn’t have the energy to speak;even blinking felt momentous and swallowing had never been so hard in his life.

He blinked up at Jarvis, who had folded the handkerchief to show a dry corner and was rubbing at the dampness in Tony’s beard. His lips were moving, making unfamiliar shapes and --

Oh... oh shit... That sound, that incomprehensible babble? That was speech, and he couldn’t understand a word of it.

JARVIS, I can’t--

I am aware, sir. Do you... shall I translate, sir?

Do they-- Tony paused, the grinding of Extremis making his head pound with his rising heartbeat. Jarvis had gone quiet, his fingers skating over the leads on Tony’s chest; he knew something was going on, Tony could see it.

You didn’t-- he forced the words past the rough edges, but it almost wasn’t worth the pain. He let himself sink back, pulling away from active communication, running numbers and Extremis code instead.

I ... was not sure. Even with Extremis, it is not an easy diagnosis in a sleeping brain. I did not wish to ‘jump the gun’.

Tony closed his eyes in resignation. {Run diagnostics, full gamut; focus [epsilon eta four]. cc. results@EJarvis.}

Of course, Sir.

Tony stubbornly kept his eyes closed as the diagnostics ran, doing the cognitive tasks JARVIS assigned with rising anxiety. His heart monitor started chirping obnoxiously and then blared a warning as they hit ‘verbal comprehension’.

There was a tiny, almost invisible, dark spot in his left temporal lobe, Wernicke’s area, a block in the language processing stream that cast a shadow downstream, reaching all the way to Broca’s area. Tony choked and coughed on air, trying to say something, anything, but he didn’t know what shapes words were anymore.

JARVIS backed off, restarting the test somewhere around the facial recognition test, presenting it directly to his visual cortex, saying nothing. Tony just... tried to bring his heart rate back down to reasonable levels.

He felt Jarvis’ hand lift his up and hold it tight, warm and comforting. He tried to squeeze back, he really really tried. His fingers spasmed and twitched, but didn’t grip, and he let out another distressed whine, starting to realise that that might be the only human sound he could make. He cut it off as soon as he could bear, but the damage was done. The voice-sounds around him doubled and Tony flinched, curled in on himself; he could recognise Steve’s voice, thick with worry and exhaustion, but not understand the words.

Visual cortex came back clear, but Tony had a horrible feeling about Motor One and...

The dark spot was bigger, stretching across-- oh god, his hands...!

{run: repairExtremis.pri@197.src:temp££17/05/13££}

Sir! Repairs already in progress, cancel command!

{energy reserves at 43%: command valid}

No, sir, please, repairs will complete, without increasing the rate, without crippling your reserves.

Tony relented, lying limply in his hospital bed, unable to move his hands or legs in any meaningful way, and trembled.

Diagnostics complete, sir. Relaying results.

You will recover, sir; be patient, and you may even do it gracefully

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

 

PART THREE: RECOVERY

 

JARVIS was flat with stress, all the affect gone from his voice, as he told them about the damage. There were... words, so many words in that that Steve didn’t understand, but the ones that did were deeply worrying.

Brain damage.

--cannot understand words, unable to speak,

--muscle mass burned as fuel; regeneration timetable; two weeks

JARVIS’ tone broke eventually, once the report was over, and the worst of his duty done. Steve knew what that felt like, sympathised, but didn’t have the resources to even think about helping him. Tony was... brain damaged. He--... Tony would go mad, without strength in  his hands, without his voice... Steve knew brain damage, he’d seen it. Even if he was still breathing, a man might never wake up after a blow to the head (small, skeletal bodies in VA hospitals, that ward he wasn’t supposed to visit, the quiet and the smell of mould). Or he might be different, drooling and gibbering, angry, out of control--

--repairs under way. Full recovery expected by twenty nine days--

The weight of that sentence, the rising hope? Steve couldn’t quite take it.

Tony was going to get better

Tony hadn’t opened his eyes since he’d woken Steve with that awful noise, but Steve could see the twitches and tension and knew he wasn’t asleep. Maybe he didn’t quite believe JARVIS could repair everything, maybe he was just... afraid of being stuck in his own head. There had been times when... yeah, Steve could sympathise with that, too.

Steve...didn’t have any stress left in him, though; three days of rising tension, a battlefield, a rescue, and so, so much bone-wrenching worrying. Steve was done. Done worrying and pacing and tapping his shield.

He sat down abruptly in a chair, in arms reach of Tony, because if Tony couldn’t reach out, Steve’d do it for him. He had no energy left for thinking, for planning, but... but he’d seen this before. Before the serum, before the war, before his mother had--

Before that. 

he was going to live

He’d been sick, so, so sick, breathless and heart leaping between throat and gut, but they hadn’t the money for the Doc if Ma didn’t go to work (no call out fee if he was already at the hospital, quicker, easier -- smell of antiseptic and menthol). Ma’s face had always been so calm, firm, she’d held them up when they couldn’t themselves, and Steve’d watched, half out of his mind with the struggle for air.

So Steve was done panicking.

If Tony couldn’t reach out, he’d do it for him.

For as long as Tony would let him. For as long as it took Extremis to fix it.

He started out with lifting one limp hand and holding it, firm enough to be felt, soft enough to protect the IV. The other hand, he put on Tony’s shoulder, rubbing gently and willing Tony to open his eyes, because Tony was in there, he wasn’t an empty, broken shell, not in the ways that mattered.

Both Jarvises had gone quiet, which Steve thought was probably a good thing; Tony’d got the same results they had, and there was no use shoving his face in things by using words he couldnt understand.

Steve shifted his hand up to cup Tony’s cheek, jostling him gently and making sure he was smiling. Trying to be reassuring.

Tony’s eyes cracked open, just a sliver in the pained squint that covered most of Tony’s face. Steve found himself opening his mouth to ask if he needed more pain killers, despite what he’d just heard. He obviously didn’t quite manage to keep the thought off his face though, because Tony’s eyes were closed and his head turned away before Steve could blink.

he was gonna be just fine

Steve hung his head for a moment, rolling some of the ache of sleeping on a ballroom floor out of his shoulders. He had to make plans, confer with Jarvis and his electronic namesake, but he didn't want Tony stressing over not understanding, nor did he want to leave him alone for so much as a minute.

he was gonna be a godamn pain in the ass

A few words from JARVIS’ results filtered through as he cast about for something that needed doing; something about food, and fat stores and that, Steve could sort out.

He pulled out his phone and perched on the side of the bed, laying Tony’s arm in his lap to protect the medical equipment clipped on and into his skin. His back pressed gently into Tony’s hip and it was warm, and alive and Steve could feel the relaxing breath Tony took in response.

Steve patted the back of Tony’s hand and texted JARVIS; cheeseburgers, those soft spicy fries??

The response was immediate:

 That is not standard invalid fare for a reason, Captain Rogers.

What’s the next best thing? You can make up most of it in smoothies, right? Steve asked, referring to the extensive gamut of mineral supplements Tony had to take.

JARVIS delayed his reply just enough for Steve to feel judged, but agreed, flashing up a picture of a gourmet soup with some kind of meat and noodle combination that looked delicious.

Thanks. For me, too.

That ordered, Steve pulled up a drawing app and sketched out the universal symbol for ‘Diner’.

Getting Tony’s attention again was hard; he was stubborn and the bobbing of his throat said ‘sore’ and ‘tears’ all at once, but Steve could always out-patience Tony.

Relief and maybe a hint of a smile colored Tony’s face when he opened his eyes, Steve’s phone held right in front of his face. He nodded, his hand twitching against Steve’s lap and maybe pulling Steve in closer, maybe.

Tony’s recuperation was going to be infuriating, for everyone.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Steve and the Jarvises snatched a minute in the corridor, out of sight and sound of Tony, to sort few things out, and by then, JARVIS had pulled his resources together and completed a few vitally important simulations.

First: Extremis would fix everything. Steve suggested they bring in Hank McCoy and Jarvis suggested Dr Fazia Hussain, but JARVIS reassured them that he’d identified ways of causing the brain to heal itself appropriately, that ‘Sir’ would accept no help from other scientists when he didn’t actually need it.

Second: Getting Tony’s weight up was paramount; the physio JARVIS’ treatment required would be hard, painful, humiliating and just plain old difficult. They’d have to build muscles that had been eaten away, while re-forging the neural connections in Tony’s brain.

Third: Extremis’ repair cycle would take two weeks. Two weeks, and Tony would be... maybe not back to normal, that’d take longer and JARVIS was prevaricating on the exact number. Steve sympathised; Tony was a stubborn idiot when it came to paying attention to his own health, but he’d at least be up and about by day fifteen.

Steve phased out a bit at the announcements, shaky and nauseous with too many ups and downs in too little time, knees weak, but human Jarvis pushed a take-out bag into his hand and ushered him back into Tony’s room before the shock could get a hold of him again.

He was going to have dreams about that cryotube, about the unnatural, consuming cold.

Smile shaking a bit, he showed Tony the logo on the bag, and Tony smiled back, and if it was just as shaky as Steve’s then so be it.

Tony was going to be fine... A pain in the ass for a whole fifteen days, but then... when wasn’t Tony a pain in the ass? Steve’s chest felt like it was cracking open, and manic laughter, so full of relief that it hurt, spilled out of him.

Tony’s face darkened at that, a petulant and irritated mask that broke up occasionally to show flickers of that same bone-deep relief underneath. JARVIS, or even Extremis, must have told him the same thing, that he was going to be fine, and God, this week...

Steve put the bag down, afraid that it’d just go everywhere, and pulled Tony off the pillows into a careful hug, burying his face in Tony’s shoulder. He felt Tony’s cheek press against the top of his head and the huff of breath in his hair.

Soon, Tony nudged him off weakly, eyes flicking pointedly at the food and Steve set him back on the pillows, settling his neck carefully. Tony couldn’t readjust himself, he didn’t have the muscle tone. Soon; it’d come back soon. Steve turned to the bedside table and tore the take-out bag open; two large soup cartons, some still-steaming bread. Steve’s stomach rumbled and Tony moistened his lips rather pointedly.

They had a glaring contest over the spoon.

Nothing serious, not really; Steve knew Tony liked to drink out of the carton, knew that Tony was going to find it hard to be fed and really would prefer to do it his own, familiar way, but Tony wasn’t actually up to swallowing whole mouthfuls at a time, so. Spoon. Steve didn’t give in.

Steve sat on the edge of the bed again, because having Tony warm and moving against his hip made all the images the Mandarin had left him with go away, and scooped up some soup. There was an automatic gesture, something he did without thinking about it, then stopped and wondered about; he’d scraped the bottom of the spoon clean on the edge of the box.

God, my memories are all over the place.

Tony must have noticed him freeze, because his eyes had gone round and curious, but Steve twisted his face up into something that might have looked like ‘its fine’. Tony lifted one eyebrow and made a tiny little huff, plainly disbelieving. Steve gestured with the spoon, eyebrows raised questioningly and Tony relented, rolling his eyes and opening his mouth.

 

XXXXXXXXXxxxxxxxxxxxx

 

Jarvis and Anthony watched from the doorway. Metaphorically, in one case.

It was... a great relief to see Tony communicating so effectively, so soon. Extremis’ damage-repair report had them all on such a high, after such a crushing low, that it was no wonder that they felt a little punch-drunk.

Master Tony’s face had always been incredibly expressive.

Abruptly tired, Jarvis turned away and closed the door softly.

“Keep an eye on them, Anthony, theres a good boy,” he mumbled, straightening his waistcoat and rolling his sleeves down.

“Of course; how could I not, Grandfather? After all that has happened today.”

Jarvis ‘hmph’ed at the AI, plucking his cufflinks out of his vest pocket and slipping them through the buttonholes while he glared admonishingly at JARVIS’ nearest camera. “Do not make a habit of that, young man. Tony may not be able to hear it right now, but if he does, I cannot vouch for his behaviour.

“And I should address you as what, in it’s place? ‘Jarvis’? ‘Edwin’?”

“Dummy, my jacket, please,” Edwin ordered as he headed towards the Morning Room. “Whatever seems fit, Anthony; I will, after all, always know who you are addressing.” He accepted his jacket (only minorly creased, good boy, Dummy,) and slid into it, squaring his shoulders and reaffirming his professional demeanor. “Thank you, ‘JARVIS’, for the distraction.”

“Ahh, and here I believed I had fooled you.”

Edwin paused by the large oak doors, noting the hand prints on the varnish and brass work, and gathered himself. A small nod to himself and a grateful glance at a camera later, the doors swung open, revealing the remaining Avengers, in various states of dust, blood, ozone and gunpowder residue.

“Master Tony will be fine; he is awake, breathing on his own and currently, I believe, eating soup.”

Clamor rose immediately, questions, relieved laughter that bordered on hysterical, and Jarvis settled in by making a rather large pot of tea while the noise died down again. Anthony answered their questions in appropriate detail, in the mean time.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Tony’s thoughts were a mess of half-constructed logic strings and a soft background litany of ‘StevesteveJarvis,JARVIS,hungry,nothungry,Steve,easysafesoft’.

It was strange, he’d never really... noticed? attended to? His own non-word thoughts like this. There were... vast, complicated; webs of interacting drives and wants and understandings, unfiltered by words and the constrictions of linear timelines an--

Oh, nicewarmsoftfillingsugarcarboliveoil.

Tony rolled the soup-softened bread around his mouth, the mouth-feel of high energy carbs making his... what was that, lateral hypothalamus? light up with wanting. Having Extremis this involved with his mind was illuminating. He’d never tried it before, but JARVIS was busy-busy, and Tony could perceive things in the shifting code strings that he’d never really thought about before.

Even as tired as he was, interrogating Extremis with code was effortless and extraordinarily comforting. JARVIS could see his every momentary want and impulse, with this level of connection, but it was good to know that he could just....

[access: manor_power(subsecEW, ringmainexemp, lighting) onoff template:

 #.... . .-.. .-.. --- / ... - . ...- . #

hello Steve.

[repeat: x3/min]

Tony’s plan went a little awry when the flickering lights sent Steve into protective mode, and, significantly, made him drop the spoon.

hungrytiredpleasebreadtastywantgiveittome

There was a burst of the weird gobble-mess that his brain could no longer translate except to tell him JARVIS-exasperation-amusement-chiding, and Steve settled back again. Tony looked up at him through his eyelashes, writing ‘apology’ in the lines of cheekbone and the wrinkles around his eyes.

Hah.

Steve got back to the all important business of filling Tony’s stomach. tastywarm

Tony smirked, just a little bit, around his mouthful, to tell Steve ‘sorry, I meant it, thank you, not sorry at all’.

Maybe the smirk wasn’t that great an idea, because he didn’t quite manage to keep the soup where it was meant to be.

Steve didn’t react, not in a weird way, despite the shiver of humiliation that must have crossed Tony’s face, he just caught the bit of soup on his thumb and cleaned it up.

The sudden urge to wrap his arms around Steve and have a bit more of that warm-encompassing-safe-sheltered made him aware again of how heavy his limbs felt, and how hard it was going to be, relying on people so much.

The abrupt plunge from easycontentstilltease to this ... bizarre sense of longing, heavy and suffocating and--

“F--forty-two,” Tony stuttered, heart rate skyrocketing in disbelief as his tongue formed the numbers and his eyes going wide. shockimpossibleneedmoreagain. “Oh-nine, f-f-f-ifty two.” STEVE. If there was one number Steve would always, always recognise, it would be the little number stamped onto his dogtags.

The nearly empty soup carton tumbled to the floor as Steve’s fingers went nerveless. Over the throbbing in his head, new and hard and heavy, the sound of thrilled, frightened and exhilarated gabble filled the room.

Steve’s hands went to Tony’s shoulders, scooping him up effortlessly, holding him tight while Steve made noises in his ear. It was warmsafesecure and all those good things, but Tony still couldn’t understand.

He was... surprisingly unbothered?

Unit_T: {mood->X=siny y/n?}

Unit_J: [Y]

Mood fluctuations? Confusing. Stevestablewarmsolid.

“E--Eight, four, oh, oh, t-t--two...” successvictorywordsnumbers

Jarvis burst into the room, just visible over Steve’s bicep, preceded by Dummy and You, followed by a messy gaggle of freshly-washed Avengers.

Tony beamed at them.

“T--twenty-three, n-n-nineteen!”

It hurt, so he stopped at that, but Jarvis’ face said it all; Tony knew knowing Jarvis’ phone number would come in handy eventually.

Steve was grinning, his face bright and weirdly fragile looking, as he helped Tony lie back down, and then there were people everywhere.

Jarvis stood back, close but composed and Tony met his eyes past someone’s shoulder; he was gonna be fine. He was going to be a pain and a needy, whiny little man, and make this whole terrible thing just another ridiculous day at the Mansion.

Y’know, eventually. When he could hold his head up properly again.

He sent Jarvis a small, tired smile and then turned his attention to his teammates.

It was hard to concentrate on faces when their lips and his lip reading ability combined to make the sounds in his ears doubly confusing, but if he focused on someone who wasn’t talking, he was fine; Hulk, at the back, was easy. He should be Bruce by now, but Tony wasn’t going to judge anyone’s response to stress.

Natasha seemed to be cottoning on, and had her phone’s sketch app open, like Steve had.

It was a good kind of chaos.

Tony was still hungry though, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let anyone feed him with the whole team in the room.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Jarvis was great.

Tony really wouldn’t have managed to stay sane if it had been anyone else helping him with all the daily things he couldn’t do right now.

So, Jarvis was brilliant. Tony was weak and had a pretty specific bit of brain damage, he could accept the help; the guy had run his nursery, he could handle it.

But.

There were some things you didn’t ask of an octogenarian and helping you with hydrotherapy was one of them. Luckily, Tony had his own pool already, or they’d have been delayed while one was put together. Dummy wanted to help too, code strings popping up as JARVIS rigged Tony's system with so e key permissions.

JARVIS was adamant that it’d be productive, and Tony figured it’d be nice not to feel quite so heavy any more, but he needed help that wouldn't fry its motherboard in the water, or drop him.

It was always gonna be Steve, Tony wasn’t kidding himself. All of the Avengers had seen him naked, but Steve definitely had the advantage on the numbers. Also, Steve had carried him to bed after that time in the conservatory, when he’d been about as functional as he was right now, though for different reasons and bad thoughts, not helpful at all thoughts.

In the three days since... since the mission, he hadn’t had a proper wash, so that’d be good too and--

Time was up; he stopped trying to talk himself into expecting this to be anything but grueling as Steve greeted him with a small wave.

He was already dressed in boardshorts and a loose shirt, same as Tony, and wasted no time in scooping him up.

Extremis was tanked up with protein, his stomach uncomfortably full with reserves, but there was no way of gauging the growth ratios without actually working the muscles they were rebuilding. Tony couldn’t do that alone, not with his motor cortex still under repairs and sending conflicting or even wildly inappropriate signals. Tony grumbled to himself, wordlessly, as Steve turned to get them through the door; the air was humid, Jarvis must have turned up the heat in the pool.

Steve jostled him gently when he stood at the edge of the steps, a questioning expression on his face, and Tony wrinkled his nose, but nodded. Steve, the ridiculous bastion of stability, just stepped down into the water, no fuss, no wobbling. He got them to waist level, then lowered Tony in slowly. The water was, indeed, skin-warm. Too warm for Steve to exercise in, but this wouldn’t work up a sweat for Steve. Tony on the other hand...

Tony mumbled neutral toned nonsense, a number string that vaguely associated with the thermal gradient between his skin and the water when Steve asked, with his eyebrows, whether it was okay.

They were doing a lot of talking with eyebrows, recently.

It was hard to straighten out, on his own, but Steve was patient, holding him afloat with the water just touching the back of his neck and dear god he tried. Steve’s hands on his skin made it possible, made focusing easy, and inch by inch, he lay out flat, floating on the surface of the water.

He’d closed his eyes at some point, concentrating, and he opened them as he felt his hollow-boned buoyancy lift him off Steve’s hand.

Time to get started.

[run.(RAPIDREGEN).input:somatosensory.unit14-T9]

[START]

Extremis kicked into action, something that felt like warmth progressing to a harsh burn over the course of a few breaths. It was... strangely satisfying.

Steve wrapped a hand around his hip, pinning him to Steve’s side and Tony flexed against the hold, the ache in his stomach muscles building and his oxygen requirements spiking into double digits.

He started to pant, grinning at the ceiling; it was working.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Tony looked surprised at the warmth of the water, and Steve stilled, ready to take Tony to the pool edge if he didn’t like it, but he settled back into it like it was comfortable, eyes closing and almost luxuriating in Steve's hold.

No, the real challenge came with the orange glow just under Tony’s skin. Steve carefully adjusted his grip, settling Tony’s neck in his palm, and started to let his back flex. Just... gently, just enough to move the muscles slightly.

Tony’s stomach muscles slowly pulled taut, the glow deepening into red, and Tony started to breathe heavily, the arc reactor slopping just under the water and its light rippling. Extremis burned up all the available resources and the arc reactor burned brighter to feed it. Steve eased him back onto the support of the water, urging him to relax again, and they waited for the oxygen debt to be repaid. Deep, steady pulls of Tony's lungs made him shift, tiny waves creeping over his stomach and shifting his hair in the little eddies and currents.

Tony was grinning, thrilled, and when Steve rested his palm on Tony’s stomach, the muscles were warm and twitched obediently, a ripple of high-energy regeneration spilling over into orange light. Tony blinked up at him, eyes slanting sideways, and they just... smiled.

Tony without words was almost...

Clear. Like the brilliant colour of stained glass, or the pure tone of the arc reactor. There was no dissembling left, no surface froth that could obscure his deeper nature.

It was incredibly vulnerable, almost dangerous. An honour.

For all that Steve was doing a job here, it felt like... like prayer.

 

xxxxxxxxxx

 

Tony was done after about half an hour.

He had started sweating early on, water beading on his forehead from the exertion and discomfort. JARVIS had promised he wouldn't be in pain, and Steve trusted that, but letting him continue was still hard.

Tony had pushed through, working his core muscles into something approaching normal, but eventually, he just stopped. Steve waited, brushing cool water over Tony's forehead and brushing his hair back, but Tony didn't open his eyes again.

Gently, giving him time for the heat to leech out of his muscles, Steve lifted him out of the water. Droplets streamed off them, lingered on the arc reactor, and Steve couldn't take his eyes away from Tony. He was supposed to be... taking him to bed, getting him to eat again, but...

Tony had almost died. He had come so close...

Steve made it to the side of the pool, lay Tony down on a poolside lounger, before breaking down into a clingy, humiliating mess. He pressed his face into Tony's shoulder, shaking violently in an attempt to stay quiet, not sure it he’d start laughing or sobbing. Low gasps scraped at his throat, choked up, and he fumbled for Tony's pulse, needing something but unable to find it, too afraid of hurting Tony's fragile skin but--

Something touched the back of his head. The touch was impossibly weak, shaking as much as Steve was, but still there. Steve looked up, and there was Tony, looking right at him, worried and sleepy and alive. Steve caught his hand as it began to slip, pressing his face into it, closing his eyes tight for a second, but afraid to miss anything that Tony needed him to see.

Steve resolutely kept his mouth shut against confessions bubbling in his throat that Tony couldn't understand, but praying Tony was remembering all the times he'd said it, curled up in bed together, or dusty and adrenalin ridden after a fight. Tony, tired, so, so tired, nodded. He understood.

He was going to be fine, and they’d... god, Steve didn’t even know what he was going to do, but they’d celebrate and it’d be amazing, and Tony would say his name with that fond-exasperated tone, and everything would be back to normal again...

“F-force, over A, sub x, all over delta L, by L subx--”

“Shhh, Tony...” Steve muttered, kissing the corner of Tony’s mouth, then pulling back a little to wipe his hand over his face. Equations were all Tony could manage so far, but hearing his voice was pretty good. Really, really good.

“S--... R equals theta i, over pi, fuck.”

Steve sat up, because swearing was new. Tony was frowning hard, and Steve felt like... like he was watching a piece of glass, spinning on a point--

“--k-cubed minus c-squared all over,” and then tipping towards the table with an almighty crash and shower of shiny fragments. “--your ass...” Tony coughed, squeezing his eyes closed. “--times the function lim-approach-zero fuck STEVE ROGERS I will --brackets X cubed minus twelve root pie. Fuck.”

Steve grinned, because that was his name. Whatever else Tony was spouting? That was Steve’s name.

Giddy, elated, Steve scooped Tony up, bundling him up in his towel, and laughed into his shoulder while tony spat numbers and functions and swear words into Steve’s ear.

His name.