Landing beside the large cracked portion of Park Avenue that had been mangled by the impact of a Doombot on the formerly mostly-intact surface, Tony eyed the damage and grimaced. The city's infrastructure always seemed to suffer immensely under the attacks the Avengers were called on to fend off. Everything from cracked road surfaces to structural damage to bridges to smashed windows on the Chrysler Building. Sure, the Maria Stark Foundation did what they could to help, but the engineer and designer in him couldn't help but cringe every time something broke. This time Doom had tried -- again -- to hold the UN hostage. The Avengers had managed to divert the Doombots away from the area, but, well. Some damage had been done.
A comforting hand he couldn't feel through the armour landed on his shoulder, and he turned, damage forgotten, the armour's cameras focusing on Steve. "Everything alright, Iron Man?"
Steve always used their call-signs in the field, even Tony's. Despite knowing that the media -- and thus the world -- had known his identity for years now. He'd been 'out' since 2008, for fuck's sake.
"Everything's fine. Some minor dings in the armour's plating that I'll have to fix. Shouldn't take too much time, hopefully. A couple of hours with a blow torch and hammer ought to do it. Might even be able to get it done tonight, with a little luck."
"Good. SHIELD is nearly through with the clean-up."
Tony smirked, knowing Steve could probably hear it in his voice even though he couldn't see it. "How long was Coulson's rant this time?" Steve laughed and ignored the question, instead turning Tony by the shoulder and steering him across the cracked pavement towards the rest of the team, where they stood debriefing with Coulson. Dragging his feet, Tony shook his head in mock disappointment, the armour's servos muting the movement slightly and whining quietly. "You know ignoring me doesn't work, Cap."
"Not what I was trying to do, and you know it."
Tony gave in and stopped resisting as Steve walked him toward the SHIELD vans still parked at the perimeter of the site. "What were you trying to do, then?"
Steve turned with him, grinning, hand not leaving his shoulder. "Keep Coulson from throttling you."
With a laugh, Tony offered an arm. "Want a lift back to the Tower?"
"Sure," Steve paused briefly before the authoritative tones Tony associated with his field command voice came through as he added, "but debrief first."
A small corner of his mind commented that if that last sentence had come from just about anyone else, he'd have called it flirty. Tony dismissed the thought. Not like he'd get that lucky. Pepper had been... No, not going there. Not now. It had been a good fight with minimal injuries, he wasn't about to ruin that with painful memories.
For that matter... Maybe next time the Fantastic Four would actually deal with Doom like they were supposed to. He was their nemesis, after all. The Avengers had really only triumphed today because Strange had been available to help -- which stung a bit, but the fact of the matter was that none of them could counter Doom's magic.
--- three weeks later ---
"You seeing this, Iron Man?" Clint's incredulous tone was unmistakable over the comms as Tony pulled up and hovered above the fight the others were all embroiled in save Bruce. And with good reason.
He'd finally managed to get away from the investor's meeting by pleading an extremely important call. Pepper hadn't been happy with him. At all. And she was going to be even more pissed when she heard what had dragged him away. He couldn't seem to stop staring, stunned. "Seeing... Still working on believing. You're kidding me, right?"
"Afraid not, Iron Man." Steve's footfalls came through the comm, somehow, though his breathing didn't, which was a little weird. He was running. Looking down, away from the head of the dinosaur skeleton, even as some corner of his mind categorised it as most likely belonging to a Brachiosaur, Tony spotted the familiar red, white, and blue uniform darting back and forth between the legs of the beast. Farther off, Natasha was dealing efficiently with a group of AIM goons in their distinctive bright yellow hazmat suits, tumbling, rolling, and knocking them out one by one. She made it look effortless, somehow. Clint, perched above and behind Tony on a nearby building, was firing arrows into the bones of the prehistoric beast, though they were having little effect.
"Think you can take off the head, Iron Man," Steve asked as he swung his shield at one of the forelegs, bringing Tony's attention back to the bigger problem at hand.
"Shouldn't be a problem, but are you sure that'll stop it?" Tony responded. An arrow nearly clipped the right side of his helmet as he finished the sentence, zipping past him faster than his HUD could track, to bury itself solidly in the dinosaur's skull with a crunch that made Tony cringe before exploding. Fragments of bone and plaster shrapnel went everywhere. One hit the armour's faceplate and Tony instinctively flinched back, his head hitting the inside of his helmet.
"Boom, bitch," Clint exulted.
As the seconds passed, though, it became obvious that the skeleton wasn't incapacitated. Only pissed off. Damn it. Swooping in close, now that the thing theoretically couldn't see, Tony was nearly swatted out of the sky by the long thrashing headless neck. He blasted it with his repulsors, reflexively, and more fragments of bone fell, peppering Cap and Natasha, down on ground level beneath them.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Thor appeared, diving out of the sky to smash at the skeleton with Mjölnir. A foreleg shattered, and it stumbled, half falling into the nearby Conservatory Garden Fountain, as Thor landed in a crouch behind it and straightened with an exhilarated smile. The man all but lived for battle. "A large foe, but it seems not overly dang--"
His sentence cut off as one of the hind legs connected with his torso, sending him flying. He crashed into the trunk of a spreading oak, and sliding down into a heap, momentarily stunned. Over the comm, Tony heard Clint cackle, his amusement getting the better of him, and Steve called out Thor's name, concerned. With a vicious grin, Thor stood, clearly unhurt, hefting Mjölnir in his right hand and managing to convey a sense of fierce satisfaction. He gloried in a fight against what he deemed to be a worthy opponent. "I was mistaken. This creature may yet provide some sport."
Natasha snorted, just barely audible over the background sounds of the battle. Tony wanted to bury his face in his palms in despair, but refrained. Barely. "Thor, we need to try to keep it as intact as we can. The museum will crucify us if we destroy it entirely."
Before anyone could respond to that statement, a new set of footsteps -- non human -- sounded. "Don't look now, guys," Clint quipped, "but I think we've got incoming. Looks like another reanimated dinosaur skeleton. And, I've gotta say, while I approve of their creativity in the choice of monster, we need to find a way to deal with them. Five minutes ago."
Thor launched himself at the Brachiosaur, now standing again, though swaying slightly. "Do not worry, friend Hawkeye." Thor's impact with one of the hind legs left the skeleton wavering, then toppling. With the sound of rock grinding against concrete and crumbling plaster, the Brachiosaur fell back into the Fountain.
This time it stayed down.
Tony wasn't sure whether he felt relieved or horrified. He could almost see Cap's wince from where he hovered, watching Thor destroy parts of Central Park. And a -- probably irreplaceable -- fossil. At least Bruce had decided he would stay out of the mêlée for the time being.
"What is it, Hawkeye?" Steve sounded slightly preoccupied.
"On your five."
Thor swung his hammer lightly from its thong. "So they have sent another!"
"Yeah," Tony sighed, foreseeing more destruction in the immediate future, "and that one's a carnivore. Or used to be."
"No matter. I will deal with it." Mjölnir flew towards the dinosaur, which currently had its head raised in a silent roar. The moment of impact, though, was almost underwhelming. A couple of ribs snapped, and the hammer returned. Thor looked slightly puzzled. "A slightly different magic appears to be at work here, friends. Beware."
Clint shrugged. "My turn."
An instant later, a bolo arrow was cutting through the air. It wrapped around the skeleton's hind legs, tripping it up and rendering it unable to move, which worked surprisingly well. For about a minute. After thrashing and struggling for a while, the skeleton broke the cable tangling its legs. Without much ceremony it stood once more and focused on Natasha, who eyed it warily. Her weapons of choice didn't do much against magically animated stone and bone.
Steve was already on the comms to SHIELD, asking for heavier cable. Tony couldn't help the half-smile that crossed his face, knowing JARVIS wouldn't tattle on him. Say what you would about the Captain. He learned quickly.
Even Steve didn't have eyes in the back of his head, though. The slight distraction of the comm was all the monster would have needed. Diving in closer in an effort to distract the thing from trying to gore Steve with its feet, Tony blasted at its skull. "Hey, ugly, over here," he called out as JARVIS helped him dart and weave around the angry set of teeth. It got in a lucky hit, tossing its head, and sent him tumbling a good distance through the air with a pained grunt. Nearly the entire breadth of the Park.
Before he could recover, something large suddenly pinged on his radar, and a quick glimpse sparked an impossible memory as the proximity alarms were followed nearly immediately by a resounding crash of metal on metal. Tony found himself tackled sideways through the air and dragged along through sheer momentum before the armour -- and his stomach -- stopped resisting the sudden change of direction.
The voices over the comm seemed to fade into an indistinguishable mutter of overlapping shouts. This was officially nightmare material. His stunned disbelief must have been clearly audible in his voice, even through the armour's modulator and speakers, even as he was dimly aware that his comm was still transmitting. "Obie? What the fuck?"
For a moment the voices over the comm resolved into Steve's command tones before they were forced back down into the general din of noise when Tony felt himself impact with a building, back first, pinned. "Damn it! Thor, go after them. Clint, Natasha, we need to wrap this fight up now."
The wind briefly knocked out of him, Tony tried to break free of the hold. If he could get loose and get to Thor... "Obie, why? How? What?"
"You know, Tony, we never really got to finish our conversation that night."
Tony flinched, memories slamming through him. "What conversation? You were trying to kill me!"
Obie's scarred and dented faceplate rose, revealing a nightmare of a visage that Tony knew would haunt him for the rest of his days. His old friend. The man he'd thought of as more of a father than his own. The man who'd ripped his heart out of his chest in a very literal sense. Expression distorted and disfigured by the arc reactor explosion that had caused his death in the first place, sadistic smile warped by the torn muscles of the right side of his face, he looked like the zombie he probably was as he smugly replied. "Exactly."
Somehow, with a lot of expended effort, Tony managed to kick off the side of the building and get back into the air. Obie quickly put an end to that bid for relative freedom, pinning Tony's arms again and hurling their combined mass towards what Tony recognised as an office building standing between Central Park and the East River. One of Oscorp's off-site centers. The two of them careened through the office space -- luckily open plan cubicles and empty -- ploughing through plate glass windows and foam cubicle walls, sending desks and filing cabinets flying, more or less totally destroying everything in there, and then out the plate glass windows on the far side of the building. Tony found himself hoping the falling glass wouldn't hit anyone.
Only seconds later, they'd cleared the island of Manhattan, and Obie turned their flight southward. The Brooklyn Bridge flashed past beneath them as the magically resurrected man chortled nastily, his voice a cracking ruin, and started rambling about how Tony had destroyed everything he’d managed to build in Howard’s name, his words too similar for comfort to those he'd used that night five years ago. "For 30 years, I held you up! I built the company up from nothing! Howard had no idea what the business world was like; he was naive. And so were you. Shutting down the weapons division was political and financial suicide! Destroying everything I built in one swoop. And now, nothing is going to stand in my way. Least of all you!"
The undamaged right hand of his armour tightened convulsively on Tony's left rerebrace, crushing outer plating and breaking the hydraulic lines beneath. The pressure made Tony hiss in pain and writhe in another unsuccessful attempt to get free, his upper arm bruising -- down to the bone, from the feel of it.
"Sir, your vital signs are fluctuating wildly," JARVIS managed to interject. Tony cursed as the hand on his arm tightened further. He could have sworn he’d just heard the bone crack, but dismissed it as his imagination. And, anyway, even if it was true, he had more immediate problems. Like how to get out of the stranglehold Obie had on him.
"I'm a little busy right now, J," he gritted out. "Just call the others."
"Sir--" the AI tried to interject. Tony cut him off, feeling vaguely sorry about it, but desperate to break free.
Obediently the flares fired, catching Obadiah off guard and making him loosen his grip slightly. Breathing harshly through his teeth, Tony forced his right arm up, his left limp at his side, and blasted at his opponent's face. Obie ducked and the shot missed.
"Sir, the team cannot--"
The southern tip of Manhattan flashed by and they were out over the mouth of the river as Obie pulled off Tony's helmet in retaliation and flung it away, the comforting voice of the AI in his ear abruptly disappearing in a squeal of metal and tortured servos, amid a shower of sparks.
Suddenly alone, the turbulent flow of air now roaring in his ears with the speed of their flight and choking him, and blinded by the combination of rushing wind and his slightly too-long hair -- he really needed to get it trimmed, he thought wildly -- Tony watched the damaged helmet tumble away for a brief instant. Then Thor was suddenly there, yelling a furious war cry, prying Stane off him. With a swing of his hammer, Thor launched Obie off toward open water and then was depositing Tony gently somewhere nearby. The next moment, he was gone, presumably to finish off Obie. Tony couldn't tell where he'd been set down -- and didn't particularly care, either, more focused on trying to calm his breathing, the pain in his arm overriding pretty much everything else for the moment. Without notice, the world suddenly went dark.
--- Part 2 ---
It wasn't long before Thor reappeared. Some fifteen minutes, in all. But he returned without Tony. Steve was caught somewhere between curiousity and worry.
In the interim, they'd managed to finally subdue the second skeleton, this one with less damage done -- both to the Park and the skeleton itself. It was securely hogtied with the cable SHIELD had scrambled for the team's use, restrained without recourse, though it was still struggling to get free. Someone was going to have to figure out how to remove the enchantment that animated it, but, thankfully, that was far beyond what the Avengers could be expected to do. The AIM soldiers had been similarly tied and were being loaded onto a SHIELD transport. Thor landed lightly just outside of arm's reach beside Steve.
"Thor," he greeted the Asgardian with a nod, "where's Tony?"
"Is he not here with you?" Thor gave him a startled look. "I thought he had returned to you."
"No, we haven't seen him."
Thor frowned, before dismissing the matter. "Likely he returned to the Tower, then, Captain. His armour was damaged."
That sounded reasonable to Steve, though Tony usually stayed long enough for Coulson to debrief him alongside the rest of the team, however grudgingly. Or at least checked in to let Steve know he was heading home, when his armour needed immediate attention. On the other hand, this mission had probably dredged up enough bad memories to have thrown him off balance. Under the circumstances, he might have forgotten. Whether intentionally or not. Well, he wasn't about to let Tony isolate himself. "We'll finish the cleanup and then join him," Steve decided with a nod. "Stane?"
Thor smiled grimly, dark satisfaction radiating from him. "Dead."
Clint snorted, walking over to join them. "I'd assumed that much. What'd you do?"
"It seemed appropriate to strike him down with lightning and bury him under the waves of the ocean, forever entombed in that parody of armour he chose to create, his corpse to be eaten by the fishes and the armour to fall to rust."
Natasha nodded, a slight echo of Thor's smile twisting her own expression at the fairly elaborate description of Stane's fate. Thor could be rather vindictive when his friends were threatened. So could Natasha.
Steve glanced over at the SHIELD transports, catching Coulson's eye. He got a nod of acknowledgment and a restrained handwave from the agent. "Right. Let's get back to the Tower."
The team turned, almost as one, starting the short walk back to the Tower. Only a few blocks from Central Park, their current home base was wonderfully centrally located in the city. It rose, soaring, into the upper reaches of the city skyline, and, despite his initial lack of enthusiasm for its design, it had eventually grown on Steve. The others -- save Thor -- had already been long accustomed to its presence. Thor had simply accepted it. Steve... had had more trouble. He'd grown up knowing and loving a different incarnation of the city. It might still be the same, deep under the surface layer of glitz and glamour, but the changed appearance had left him feeling adrift and out of place for months after the Chitauri invasion.
Now, it was a relief to step in the lobby doors and cross the wide modern space. The elegantly inlaid floor made no sound under Steve's heavily reinforced and rubber-soled boots. The others' footfalls were similarly quiet. Clint's and Natasha's through force of habit. Thor's by choice; he might be a prince, but had learned how to be unobtrusive when it suited him.
The private elevator doors opened silently as they approached, prompted to do so by JARVIS. Anyone else who wanted access needed to get through the biometric scanners. Except Pepper. Tony knew better than to try to keep her out by such methods.
"JARVIS?" Natasha broke the silence as the elevator ascended toward the levels of the building assigned for their use. She paused for a moment, before repeating the greeting with more of an edge to her voice.
Steve frowned when there was no response even the second time. "JARVIS, is something wrong?"
"Sir is not responding." The AI's tone was distant. Distracted and cold.
Clint sighed. "He's in the workshop with his music turned all the way up again, isn't he?"
JARVIS' voice was slightly sharper now. "He is not. I cannot contact sir, and the armour's locator is non-functional."
Thor's sudden tension made the air in the elevator crackle. "What do you mean, Master JARVIS?"
Despite his concerns, Steve smiled slightly at the mode of address; Thor had decided JARVIS was as much master of the Tower as Tony was, and addressed him as such. It seemed to please the AI.
It took a moment before JARVIS responded, icily. "Since sir is not with you, I can only assume that he has been taken."
"That cannot be," Thor disagreed. "I released him from the villain Stane's grasp and ended that battle myself. I would have preferred not to intervene and allow friend Tony the satisfaction of vanquishing his foe, but the armour was severely damaged."
"Approximately three minutes after he was released to recover, the signal from his armour disappeared."
Steve froze. Thor thought this over before continuing the conversation. "Then he did not come here to repair the damage?"
"No, he did not."
"So where is he now," Clint wanted to know.
"That," JARVIS' voice was dark, almost threatening violence, "is the million dollar question, isn't it?"
It sounded like the tracker in the armour was either broken, disabled, or shut off. And Steve didn't know which option scared him more. He'd been fighting with his feelings for Tony for weeks, now, ever since the last fight with Doom, and this... this might be his breaking point. He scrubbed at his face with tired hands. "Was there any sign at the time of what caused the tracker to shut off?"
Natasha looked grim. Her friendship with Tony was one of layers of outward distrust thinly drawn over humour and a surprising amount of tolerance, on both sides. Neither would ever admit to liking the other, but it was clear both did. "Perhaps it would be worth calling on Dr. Strange."
An hour later, Tony woke with a choked groan, missing his helmet, his armour unresponsive to his commands and making a very effective restraint, somewhere underground. He'd be able to stand and walk, if he had to, but until that was necessary, he preferred not to expend the effort. Maybe later he'd find a way to prop himself up against a wall. He'd clearly been left to lie where he'd been dropped, sprawled on the floor. The small room he found himself in was lit only by the reassuring glow of his arc reactor, and measured about the two meters by three. A reinforced steel door was set in the wall opposite him, visible when he raised his head.
Worse, though, he had no idea where he was or how he'd gotten there. His entire body ached, though the throb was most intense in his head and upper left arm. Tony breathed carefully, trying to keep the nausea at a manageable level. Vomiting wouldn't be the least bit pleasant when he couldn't move any part of his body except his head. Hyperventilating wouldn't help much either. Calm. He had to be calm.
In a vain attempt to distract himself, Tony looked around the room one more time. This time a striped pattern on the walls resolved into something he recognised. He'd been put in a room that had a Faraday cage around it. His locator -- which Steve had lobbied so strenuously for -- and his communications would be both no help whatsoever. Assuming they were not both damaged or otherwise useless.
Fuck his life.
With no idea who'd taken him or why, all he could do was wait, and maybe try to get the armour running again. But, without tools and favouring an arm that might be fractured or broken, that was a clearly losing proposition. Without his armouring station, he needed two good hands and a fair amount of strength to remove all but the gauntlets and the jetboots. In his current situation... yeah. Not happening. He might need the firepower. Well, if he could figure out why the armour's power was down, anyway. There was no indication on that his backup batteries still had any juice, and without his helmet, without the HUD, the limited diagnostics he would have had access to were of no help whatsoever in trying to fix the connections between the armour and arc reactor. So, he grimaced and let his head fall back to rest on the damp concrete floor, he had very few options, really. Theoretically, he could try to fix the power conduits connecting to the arc reactor by feel while wearing the gauntlets of the armour, nevermind how awkward the angle would be. But even thinking about doing that one-handed was exhausting. Maybe as a last resort.
He was also getting thirsty, and whatever they'd hit him with during the battle this morning -- or maybe it was yesterday, meantime? -- had left him with a headache from hell once it had worn off. It didn't feel like a drug-induced headache, though. More like he'd been pulled bodily through a hole too small for him to actually fit through -- that was impossible, though, given he was still wearing the armour. Which left only one option, really: magic. Ugh. It figured. No wonder he felt weirdly distorted and sore. And not entirely coherent. Why the hell was magic involved? And where the hell was he?
After an interval that felt like hours, but was probably only about ten minutes, a low rhythmic metallic rattling rumble started. Heartbeats later, it was loud enough to nearly deafen in the small enclosed space, but Tony grinned widely, almost instinctively recognizing the sound. Whoever it was, they'd taken him somewhere under the City. That was the distinctive rattle of the damn subway. It didn't help him in the immediate future, but if he could find a way to get out of the cell long enough to make contact with JARVIS...
Or if JARVIS could locate the helmet of the suit. Assuming it had ended up anywhere nearby and not at the bottom of the Hudson or the harbour.
The Avengers, minus Tony, had wound up in the engineer's workshop, deep in the bottommost layers of the Tower, heavily defended and reinforced. Most of them had never been in the large room; only Natasha had seen it before, and it was clear that they were only being allowed in by JARVIS without his creator's permission because the situation was an emergency. One wall housed display cases containing what Steve supposed were previous versions of the armour. Along another stood a row of gleaming cars of a variety of shapes and colors, including one he recognised from his own time. Several pieces of armour in differing stages of development stood around the room, including a boot, a gauntlet, and a chest piece. An ugly, vaguely green upholstered sofa sat in the far corner of the room.
Natasha left him to his investigation, walking over to the main terminal, at what had to be Tony's desk. "JARVIS?"
Intuiting what she wanted, JARVIS unlocked the workstation for her. It took a few long moments, and Steve guessed he was creating a separate account for her. That had been one of the first things about computers and security that Tony had explained to him. Natasha smiled slightly, settling herself and starting to type. The AI was doubtless taking the opportunity to start carefully tracking her actions and logging them. "Have you got any information on what caused the tracker to fail, JARVIS?"
"I'm afraid not, Ms. Romanoff." A holographic map popped into existence in the center of the group of Avengers clustered behind and around Natasha to watch her progress, startling Steve and making him take a step backwards. Clint laughed at his reaction. Thor stepped closer to it. "I have located the suit's helmet," JARVIS stated, as a red dot appeared near the center of the map, on Liberty Island. "Without the connection to the rest of the armour, I cannot retrieve any of the stored information, however. If one of you could retrieve it, I might be able to make use of the data it contains."
"I will find it, Master JARVIS, have no fear," Thor nodded, determined. "Excuse me, friends."
"Thor," JARVIS interrupted his exit, "if you would give me a moment."
"The helmet is atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty, and, rather surprisingly, nearly intact, so please take care. I have no wish to see you or Lady Liberty come to any harm in the retrieval." Thor grinned, not offended by the reference to his tendency to cause property damage whenever he wielded Mjölnir. He nodded, taking the few steps over to the elevator JARVIS had called for him, which would bear him up to the helipad, departing with a not-quite-brusque, "I will return soon, friends," tossed over his shoulder as the elevator door slid silently shut behind him.
Clint snorted, eyeing what looked like a new prototype arrow on a nearby worktable with interest, though he was careful not to touch it. He'd heard about the 'don't take my stuff' incident on the quinjet during the Chitauri Invasion, and knew the odds were high that JARVIS was recording all of this. "Bets that he's back in under five minutes?"
Steve ignored him. Natasha shook her head, not turning away from the computer. Dr. Banner raised an eyebrow as he replied, "I'm not in the habit of taking stacked bets."
Thor was, in fact, back in under three minutes. Clint grinned at everyone present. "Called it." Thor didn't quite understand the reason for the comment, but seemed amused regardless. Natasha took the helmet from Thor and began working with JARVIS to hook it up to the computer. There was no way for JARVIS to access the data wirelessly, apparently. Whether that was as a result of the damage to the helmet itself during the morning's brief battle, or because the rest of the armour was gone wasn't clear to Steve. Getting the connection to hold stable took some tinkering, but then JARVIS suddenly had access, and made sure to take advantage, lest it break again.
To little result.
The data collected during the flight was useless, in that it gave them no new information on Tony's current whereabouts. The team had had access to the comm feed during the brief altercation, and watching the video did not add any new insight. They did, however, confirm that the armour had taken enough damage to result in a high likelihood of injury to Tony. The left rerebrace had crumpled, as Thor had noted, but the damage to the underlying hydraulics had been worse than was immediately apparent from the outside. Steve shuddered at the expression on what remained of Stane's face during the one-sided battle. That mix of hatred, loathing, and jealousy had been repulsive in the extreme, and grotesque on the features as they were now. Somehow he doubted it had been much easier to see the first time, when Stane was alive.
"So," Clint ventured, breaking the awkward pause that followed JARVIS' assessment of the retrieved data, "what now?"
"Based on my worst-case scenario data as entered by sir, and the three minute interval between Thor's intervention and the deactivation of the locator beacon, we have a radius of approximately ten miles to work with." The map the AI had pulled up earlier to guide Thor to the helmet of Tony's armour zoomed out to show a view of the Tri-State area with an orange circle plotted on it. It encompassed pretty much the entirety of the five boroughs and Union City.
Which meant that, unless Tony managed to make contact with his location, finding him would take time they might not have. With no idea what the situation might be, not knowing how badly injured Tony was, Steve was more than a little bit on edge. He grimaced. It was time to call in help.
Strange -- for once -- was available and also willing to help. Based on the last few attempts he'd made to ask for the Sorcerer Supreme's assistance, Steve had been expecting him to be off in some other dimension dealing with incomprehensible threats. As it was, he agreed to come to Stark Tower once he'd finished what he was currently doing, implying it would not take long.
True to his word, Strange appeared in front of them in the workshop some ten minutes later, in a cloud of pink smoke and a dull whump of displaced air. All of the Avengers present startled, including Natasha. Strange smirked slightly. "Captain," he greeted Steve, "what can I do for you? You did imply it was urgent."
"Well, it's like this..." Carefully, concisely, Steve laid out the events of the morning, starting with the animated dinosaurs and their demise, then prompted Thor to take up the thread of the narrative after Stane's appearance.
Strange's features had settled into a frown from the beginning of the tale, the expression only deepening as more detail emerged. When Thor finished speaking, Steve laid out what they had deduced with JARVIS' help since their return. "So you intend to locate your missing comrade and eliminate the magic being used in one stroke."
"That pretty much sums it up," Clint nodded. "Got anything for us?"
Strange ignored him, holding Steve's eyes until the Captain nodded. Clint made a face at the sorcerer. Natasha smacked Clint's shoulder.
Strange closed his eyes, hands spread before him, oddly colored light playing over them, hovering over the helmet Thor had so recently retrieved. Presumably to take advantage of its association with the rest of the armour. "I cannot give you a precise location," Strange said aloud after a few long minutes. "The remaining armour is all together in one location and, I believe, still assembled, though not operable. The precise location is clouded by powerful magic from casual observation. It would take far more involved spellcasting on my part to pierce the veils currently in place than can be done without proper preparation. There is some magical residue on the helmet itself, though it does not appear to be a threat, and is likely a result of close interaction between the armour and the bespelled beings your team was battling."
Strange talked for a little longer, but the gist was that he'd narrowed down the location to an area with a three-block radius, and that the aura in the area implied Doom was involved. Again. And that he would be willing to help them defeat Doom, if magic was involved rather than Doom's robotic minions. It was decided that Strange would accompany them in their search, and that once it was determined whether his assistance was needed, he would either continue with them or return to the work that this errand had interrupted.
That would be manageable, Steve thought. Thanking the sorcerer, he started making preliminary plans, which would be adjusted as needed. Clint would be stationed on the highest point in the area; Natasha and he would be on the ground level. Hulk and Thor would be in reserve until things got violent. And it was a good bet that they would. Strange had said that the signature looked like it might be Doom again. That almost certainly meant a fight once they had found the location where Tony was being held.
--- Part 3 ---
No one'd bothered to come in and interrogate Tony yet and it'd been several hours, now, since he'd woken. He was stuck wondering where the others were, how he could get out of his predicament when he was mostly immobilised, and how to keep his extremities from going numb. Lying supine in the suit for any length of time was distinctly not comfortable. Much less when portions of it were compressing his upper arm. Which was throbbing in time with his heartbeat. It took a large portion of his remaining self-control not to try to move the fingers of his left hand to keep it from going numb; he was pretty sure that would only make his injury worse, and that was something to be avoided at all costs if possible. He needed his hands.
Maybe now would be a good time to force himself to crawl over to the wall and sit upright. It took three false starts to get to his good hand and knees. The armour was heavy and he didn't have a lot of leverage on his back. Once he managed, his injured arm hung limp, dragging along the floor and sending shocks of pain through him with every movement. Letting himself fall into a sitting position, the wall taking the weight of his upper body, was a distinct relief, even though the throbbing in his arm was more intense now. Closing his eyes and controlling his breathing as best he could, Tony waited. Someone would come for him eventually, whether it was his captors or his team. He just had to hold on as best he could.
When, eventually, the door of his 'cell', finally opened, it did so ponderously, slowly. Tony hoped like hell it would be enough of a chance for JARVIS to locate him. He would have to be a good distance underground for the signal attenuation to be too strong. Or under a lot of lead-lined concrete. Not that either was an overly likely scenario for a -- presumably abandoned -- subway tunnel. When Doom walked in, letting the heavy door fall shut behind him with a clang, Tony gave him a flat stare.
"Huh. This is your work? Sloppy." Tony tsked, aiming to push enough buttons to get a rise out of his captor.
"My work indeed, Stark. And I can tell you: your bravado will not help you." Doom smirked. "No one can trace your suit so long as you remain here, and your precious Avengers are helpless to find you without your own technology to assist them."
"So what do you want from me?"
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Really. How do you propose to accomplish that?"
Doom's tone turned sardonic. "With your intellect I'd thought you would have guessed, by now. All I must do is wait. Either the remaining Avengers will come here, or you will bow to my will."
"Oh, but it is. You are at my mercy without a way to power your suit. And I believe Stane has broken your arm."
The reminder of the injury made it throb with renewed vigor. And, Tony knew, his spirits flagging, Doom was right. He needed medical treatment, as unappealing as the reality of that was. "Let's say you're right, then, just for argument's sake," Tony said, gathering his wits and the shreds of his composure. "Suppose the Avengers show up. What then? They'll find a way to bring you down. Always do. With or without my help."
"So confident of your friends' success. Touching. What will they do, I wonder, if they have to fight you to get to me?"
"Yeah," Tony sneered, "right. Over my dead body." The mere idea of having to fight, to hurt, his teammates sent a shock of cold dread through him. Repulsor burns were nothing to sneeze at, in terms of their impact on an unarmoured body. The amount of energy involved... He shuddered. It must have shown in his expression.
"That," Doom smiled darkly, disturbingly smugly satisfied, "was the general idea."
The area that Strange had directed them to was at the very southern tip of the island of Manhattan, centered around the South Ferry metro station. This was confusing, since there wasn't much in the three-block radius they'd been given. Battery Park, the ferries to Staten Island and Governor's Island, and the southern reaches of the Financial District. There wouldn't be many places here to hide much of anything. Too much traffic, both local and touristy, for anything out of the ordinary to go unnoticed for long.
"You sure Strange has any idea what he's talking about," Clint asked Steve, glancing around. Strange pointedly ignored the comment, standing at the extreme opposite side of their group from the archer. Their costumes were attracting stares from the tourists and well-dressed businessmen in the area. The streets were packed; it was just about lunchtime.
Natasha nodded. "Either Doom was sneakier than usual, or something went wrong."
Thor shrugged. "It is never wise to underestimate your enemies," was all he said.
Bruce had a look of intense concentration on his face. "JARVIS," he prompted the AI over the comm, "now that we're closer, is there any chance you can pinpoint the armour's location?"
"I'm afraid the signal is still impossible to pick up."
"Is there a--"
"One moment Dr. Banner," JARVIS interrupted. "The tracker has gone active."
"The signal appears to be..." There was an almost confused pause. "... under the East River. In close proximity to the tunnel built to house the 4 and 5 lines."
That was about two blocks from their current location, and fairly easily accessible through the subway station just a block behind them. An almost tangible wave of smugness radiated from Strange at the announcement, but Steve's eyes narrowed. "Wait. You said the tracker just went active? The timing of that seems too convenient."
Natasha nodded her agreement. "Someone's laying a trap for us."
Clint cursed. "And Tony's the bait. Fucking hell. Doom knows we wouldn't just leave him, if there was a chance he was alive."
"I now have access to the armour's emergency functions, as well," JARVIS added. "The suit as a whole is down, as there is no available power aside from the emergency backup batteries, which have reached near-critical depletion levels, rendering the armour effectively immobile. Remote diagnostics show no clear cause for the lack of power to the suit, but reconfirm that the upper left arm is crushed and non-functional. Likely as a result of the fight this morning. There is a high probability of injury to sir's arm and possible damage to the arc reactor socket power couplings."
Thor's expression darkened at the news. "He is hoping to hurry us. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by worry."
Steve nodded, appreciating the tactical insight even as he hated the situation they found themselves in. "JARVIS, can you notify the authorities and MTA of the situation? If possible, have them stop the 4 and 5 trains entirely, or at least prevent them from entering the tunnel. The fewer civilians are in the area, if things get heated, the better."
"Of course, Captain."
"Thor," he continued, "the subway lines are all electrified. Stick to the hammer, and hold off on the lightning, if you can. Clint, Natasha, we're taking point. Dr. Strange, you're with us. Dr. Banner, can you coordinate with JARVIS to find the best way to get Tony out of there while we deal with Doom, if the armour is still down?"
As they were named, everyone nodded. The plan, such as it was, was simple: get in via the Bowling Green station and follow the tracks until they found Doom, once they had the all-clear from the MTA and authorities.
While they waited, JARVIS described the layout of the tunnel. There were three maintenance and storage areas potentially large enough for a small group of goons to hide, evenly spaced along the length of the tunnel. The more likely prospect, though, was the never-finished bore that had been meant to connect the 4/5 tunnel with the 2/3 and R/M tunnels as an emergency measure. It had been abandoned last year due to budgetary issues. Hearsay had it that one of the lead engineering firms had embezzled millions, leading to the decommissioning of the whole project. (Now that he thought back, Steve thought he vaguely remembered Tony ranting about something like that; the futurist had been offended by the short-sightedness of it all.) The connecting tunnel had been started, and the length that already existed was safe, but the end of the bore had not been sealed off completely, so any explosions or undue stress could easily lead to the river flooding the entire length of the 4/5 tunnel. And it was located in the same area as the locator chip in the armour. Which had stopped transmitting again. And any time wasted could result in Tony's condition worsening.
The situation had already been what he'd call delicate. Now... Steve resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose.
In the end, it took about half an hour to get the authorities, the MTA, and the city all on the same half-way organised page. The only reason it was that quick was JARVIS' efficiency, and tendency to lay out the 'options' in such a way that there was really only one clear choice. A skill he'd learned in working with/for/against Tony over the last few years as Iron Man. It was manipulative, but, right now, Steve was grateful for it.
When JARVIS cut off what he was saying to the team about the logistics of what the MTA proposed and didn't respond to their hails for almost a minute, though, that was worrying.
Then, "I apologise, Captain, but I'm afraid the team will have to do without me for the time being. There is a sophisticated attempt to compromise myself and sir's personal servers ongoing. I will resume contact once it I have dealt with the problem or after sir can isolate any compromised processes."
The Avengers exchanged a glance. After a moment, Clint swore a blue streak. "Bets that Doom's behind the hack?"
Bruce scowled. "I'm not taking that bet."
As one, they turned back toward the subway stairs and the darkness of the tunnels. Hopefully the gear the MTA had provided them with would be adequate. Running this mission with only dim light to show them the way would be difficult.
Five minutes into their walk, the rumble of the subway tunnels was almost totally muted. Only the loudest clangs reached them, echoing off the tiled concrete walls, and underscored by the hum of the electrified tracks and the dim lights placed at intervals. The lighting was supplemented by the large battery-powered flashlights they'd been given. Only Steve and Dr. Banner were carrying theirs, lit, shining them along the walkways lining the sides of the tunnel, picking out maintenance access hatches and electrical conduits.
The near-silence was eerie.
Three more minutes passed in tense, almost crackling, darkness, before Clint pointed off to the left. "There." The entrance to the unfinished tunnel bore was nearly invisible, covered over with a reinforced steel door and locked up tight. Not that something as small as a lock would stop them.
The MTA liaison had been unable to get access to a key, but the large padlock sheared neatly under Steve's shield. The deadbolt was more difficult to deal with, though not much. A few hits from the heavily reinforced boots of his uniform and Steve was able to force the mechanism; the weakest part of it broke in half, landing on the floor with a clatter as the door swung inward. There were no lights on the far side.
--- Part 4 ---
Doom's smug expression intensified as a loud crash echoed through the small enclosed space, followed by a number of smaller ones. Probably Doombots that were being methodically destroyed, Tony surmised. "It appears your friends are here. Shall we test the controls?"
Tony scowled as the armour jerkily rose without his input or control, jolting his arm hard and making him hiss in pain as a wave of grey nearly overtook him. There had to be something he could do. Had to be. But for the life of him, he didn't know what. The armour was worse than useless, controlled by a megalomanaiacal villain; the injury to his arm would make any attempt to move the armour with his own strength difficult; without power to his armour, he couldn't use his repulsors; he had no tools, no JARVIS, without his helmet, and no way to get out of the armour. All he had were his smarts. Fine, verbal sparring it would be. And at least he could warn the other Avengers about the situation once they reached the room. "This won't save you, Doom. Give it up now, and they might not pound you to a pulp."
"Why, when they have done such an excellent job of bringing you right to me? Your precious alien prince brought you right into range of my transport spell this morning. Your AI and your friends retrieved your helmet, making my takeover of your systems possible. Strange is not involved, and your friends do not have the ability to free you. I fail to see my disadvantage."
Fucking hell. They'd played right into his hands, if all that was true. And there was no evidence to the contrary. The armour walked him to a position between Doom and the door, his back to his captor. It made the skin between Tony's shoulder blades itch like mad. A moment later, a harsh string of Old Latverian sounded from behind him.
"..." Tony tried to snark, to make use of his last remaining defense, and his head jerked back in surprise when the words refused to form, though he spoke. The only part of his body that he could move.
Doom's cruel chuckle echoed oddly in the small room. "That's right. I can't have you spoiling the surprise."
The 'cell' door had been locked. Now it groaned under what was probably force applied by Steve's shield or Mjölnir. With an almost pained shriek, it gave and the Avengers spilled into the room, falling into battle stances automatically, with Steve at the center as was their habit. There was a slight gap at Steve's right, where, Tony knew, he was supposed to be, Thor had inched closer than was his usual wont, but the lack was still obvious to him. It was almost as painful as the probable break in his arm that he'd just recently been reminded of.
"Tony!" Steve took a half-step forward, stopping short midstep when Tony's right hand came up, repulsor aimed. Tony loathed magic. And this was one of the reasons why.
Natasha tensed and Clint adjusted his aim, arrow now pointed at the armour's hip joint. One of the least armoured areas of his body. If the arrow struck true -- and there was no reason why it shouldn't, this was Clint -- that arrow could easily puncture his skin, despite the armour, at this range. And there were several major blood vessels there. And he wasn't in control. Well, he was in control of himself, but there was no way he could overpower the armour. "Tony?" Steve tried again, confused by Tony's tense silence and expression. "What are you doing?"
Doom chuckled again, nastily, enjoying the team's confusion and wariness. "He cannot answer you, Captain." Tony closed his eyes. He had no desire to watch Doom force him to injure or kill one of his teammates. He couldn't stifle the pained yell or stop his eyes from reopening when the armour moved to lift his left hand to take aim alongside the right, the repulsors in his palms powering up with the familiar high-pitched whine and faint vibration. He was all the more weirded out when he didn't hear his own voice, for all that he could feel the vibrations in his throat, as he breathed harshly through gritted teeth, trying to control his reaction to the pain. The cold sweat that had broken out all over his body in response to the movement of his injured arm was just an added layer of unpleasantness that he ignored as best he could, knowing he was reaching the limits of his endurance. Much more and he knew he would pass out. Gritting his teeth, he refocused on the stand off between his team and Doom; he had to stay conscious long enough to get out of the armour.
Steve looked angrier than Tony had ever seen him, hands clenching tightly around the leather straps of his shield. Clint swallowed hard, though his aim never wavered, clearly knowing enough about the injuries Tony'd suffered to have an idea of what he was feeling. Natasha... Well, Natasha was as impassive as always. That was almost comforting. Thor, hefting his hammer, looked like he wanted so much to throw it at Doom -- and break his face in the process -- that Tony really thought he would go through with it. But he held back. Just barely, going by the murderous expression on his face. Bruce wasn't in sight, Tony finally realised. Probably either above ground or out in the hallway standing guard. An unexpected voice sounded from the back of the group. "How predictable you are, Victor." Dr. Strange stepped out into view as he spoke, with a put-upon expression.
Doom snarled, rage suddenly twisting his voice, his expression hidden by the creepy metal mask he wore. "Strange!"
"Release him," the Sorcerer Supreme commanded, voice level and conveying nothing but contempt, "or I shall."
"Your precious futurist," the Latverian dictator sneered, ignoring Dr. Strange's ultimatum. "Not as useful as you thought, is he?"
Rather than reply verbally, Strange gestured with his right hand, clearly having prepared the spell beforehand, and the repulsors in his hands suddenly powered down. (For that matter, Tony mused to himself in a slight daze, how the hell had those been powered up in the first place if the armour hadn't been? Fucking magic. Made no damned sense.) A moment later, the armour was truly dead again as well, no longer animated by Doom's spell. He could probably speak again, too, but Tony's attention was more on the fight suddenly raging around him. The instant the repulsors had powered down, Thor's hammer and Steve's shield had both been in the air. The hammer streaked by over Tony's left shoulder, so close the leather thong brushed against his ear. The shield hit the far wall and rebounded, hitting Doom between the shoulder blades, just after Mjölnir impacted against and broke whatever mystical shields he was holding. A bolo arrow tangled Doom's feet when the Latverian stumbled under the impact to his shields and his person and tried to recover his balance. He went down in a heap, cursing. Before he had a chance to cast any more spells, Natasha was there with her Widow's Bite, knocking him out and hogtying him.
It was so quick it was anticlimactic, but Tony was fairly sure he would be having nightmares for a while anyway. Or possibly reliving old ones. Obie, of all people. Fuck. He felt like a puppet that'd had its strings cut at 30,000 feet and was freefalling towards the ground. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew the spell preventing him from talking to his team had lost its hold on him, but he had nothing to say, no words would come to mind. Tony could tell it was unnerving them a little, especially Steve, but even that didn't really make enough of an impact to pull him out of his daze.
In the end, since Tony still didn't have any way to easily move the armour, and so couldn't walk out under his own power without aggravating his injuries, Thor carried him, his uninjured arm draped over broad shoulders. Every so often metal scraped against enameled metal as Thor's scale mail rubbed against the armour of his torso. If he'd wanted to, if he'd had no other choice, he could have walked, but this was far easier. The armour wasn't so heavy he couldn't move if the power ever went down like this, but it wasn't exactly light, either, and it was a long hike back out of the tunnel, a distance something like half a mile. Which would have been murder without assistance. The undersuit helped a lot with chafing and bruising from the armour, but it had been designed with aerial fighting in mind, not walking. He might have to change that, Tony mused, watching as Steve hauled Doom less than gently along. But at least that way, Natasha's hands and Bruce's were free, and once they were above ground, Thor could fly him back to the Tower. For his part, Clint kept a wary eye on Doom, ready to shoot or sedate him if need be. Strange did a check to make sure Tony was free of Doom's magic, then disappeared with a nod to Steve. Presumably going back to his sanctum. As they walked, Tony distantly noted that throughout the short sealed tunnel beyond the door of his 'cell' lay the remains of a vicious scrum with the (relatively small) group of Doombots that had been in the hideout. The trek felt almost surreal to Tony, a blur of darkness, pain, and the hum of the electrified rails. Throughout, his focus on the changes he wanted to make for the next iteration of the armour and undersuit.
They didn't see a soul on their trek back out of the tunnels once they rejoined the area that housed the main subway line. Not even a mechanical one. For once there was no infrastructure damage he'd have to pay to fix, which was nothing short of astonishing. After a while, Steve cued his comm, and started relaying information to Coulson, starting with the need for a secured cell for their prisoner. Tony tuned it out, too used to post-mission logistics to care what was being said, and instead found himself considering the way the fight had gone as a means of ignoring the throbbing in his arm as best he could. What the hell was Doom's endgame? Was the asshat really so focused on bringing the Avengers into range and so sure Strange wasn't involved that he hadn't devised a backup plan? Or had he already achieved his objective? If so, what was it? This rescue had been way too quick and easy. No big explosions had gone off, there was no damage to the subway lines -- structural or otherwise, no civilians had been involved... Only Tony had been hurt at all. There was the matter of the small amount of damage to Central Park and the involvement of AIM goons, but those were both minor factors, in the grand scheme of things. Doom was enough of an egotist not to submit to AIM's version of 'cooperation', given that they tended to mean 'you'll work for us as a minion' when they offered the option of cooperation at all. They weren't working together. But Doom might have been using them for his own ends... Yeah, that was a possibility.
It wasn't until they were at the Bowling Green station and Steve and Thor switched places that Tony started paying more attention to his surroundings, his attention caught by the sudden change in altitude due to the application of stairs up to ground level. Once they were above ground, Thor took Doom and flew off, holding the Latverian tucked under one strong arm. Presumably taking him to the Helicarrier and Fury.
Tony locked his knees, balancing as best he could in the unpowered armour, as he was transferred. With one arm injured and the rest of him tired and shaky, it wasn't the easiest thing he'd ever attempted, but he managed. Steve, with Tony's good arm over his shoulders and with his own arm tight around Tony's waist, steadied him. "Come on," Steve muttered, voice rough with a combination of exasperation and relief, "we need to get you out of the armour so you can have that arm looked at."
Tony held back a wince. That was going to suck. "Back to the Tower, then. Unless you have immediate access to a crowbar and some finesse. I wouldn't mind getting it off here and now." He paused briefly, seeing Steve's raised eyebrow, then, realising the innuendo, added, "not what I meant. Shut up." Clint elbowed Natasha, snickering. "Still think next week?"
"Will you be able to remove your armour without JARVIS' help?" Steve eyed his friend skeptically, ignoring Clint and worrying a little about the pallor and slight tremble he could see. Tony was tough, so the sight was not a reassuring one. They had to get him back to the Tower as soon as possible, that much was clear. What to do about the armour was not.
"What?" Tony raised his head slightly from where he had let himself slump over in the armour. "What do you mean, 'without JARVIS'?"
"Someone tried to hack him, and, far as I understand it, JARVIS is offline." Hearing that, Tony swore viciously. Steve snorted, mildly amused in spite of the situation, then added, "So if you need JARVIS to get you out of the armour, you might be better off finding a crowbar."
If they hadn't been effectively held pinned by the armour, Tony's shoulders would have slumped. "Fuck my life. Fine. Find me a crowbar. Maybe call the NYFD and get them to bring the Jaws of Life. And some painkillers."
Before long SHIELD arrived and set up a perimeter to give the team and the emergency responders a little privacy as they laid Tony out on the pavement and started working. In the end, it took Steve's strength, two crowbars (they broke one between Steve's strength and upset and the armour's toughness before the fire department showed up with their hydraulic equipment), Natasha's ability to wrangle medics, and Clint's calm, to get Tony out of the armour. Well, except for the left arm. They left that where it was for the moment. The medics that had shown up with the fire department had suggested waiting to remove the crushed armour until he was at a hospital; it wasn't aggravating the suspected break, and was effectively stabilising the arm, keeping it from twisting and shifting the bones around if there was indeed a break, possibly nicking arteries. Natasha, thinking ahead, turned to Bruce and asked him to have SHIELD bring in a crate to collect the armour pieces for transport back to the Tower.
In the process of removing the remaining armour, several of the emergency releases jammed and had to be forced. Tony cursed and fought to keep still. It wasn't easy, even despite the armour's weight and inertia. He was forcibly reminded more than once that Steve's strength was a force to be reckoned with when he chose to use it. The overall process was a slow one, but they managed to get Tony out of the jetboots and the right gauntlet reasonably quickly. It was only after that that things got more difficult. They hit the first snag in removing the greaves and the segments connecting the knees to the thigh plates; the left greave opened with misleading ease, and the right jammed, resulting in Tony rocking in his supine position on the ground when Steve tried to work the catches open too suddenly, his weight coming down on his injured arm. He shouted wordlessly through his clenched teeth, panting harshly as they paused to work out a way around the jam.
Thankfully that was when the emergency responders from the Fire Department pulled up, smoothly ushered past the SHIELD perimeter. The engine driver hopped out of the truck, leaving the diesel motor ticking over idly, took one look at Tony and winced in sympathy. Without another wasted moment he began calling instructions to the remaining two firefighters, efficiency and cool focus taking over, pushing aside the brief flicker of emotion on his expression. It was under three minutes before they had an assortment of hydraulic tools arrayed on the ground around Tony, and were taking instructions from him on what to remove in what order and with which tool. This suit of armour might be out of commission, possibly permanently, but Tony wanted to salvage what hardware he could for the next iteration. If only to use as a reminder of what not to do. As they worked, the requested ambulance pulled up. Steve watched the medics prepare what they could, trying not to hover anxiously, his fingers twitching with the need to do something other than stare. Various supplies and medicines, presumably painkillers.
"Hey, Cap," Tony's slightly hoarse voice broke him out of his half-trance.
"Yeah?" He took a few steps closer, ignoring Natasha's smirk and Clint's eyeroll. "What can I do?"
"The seam where the torso and groin plate join is too narrow for the tools Dave's got," Tony indicated the nearest firefighter with an abbreviated nod, constrained by his position. "It has to come off with the crowbar, but no one else here has the strength." He caught Steve's eyes and tried to smirk. "Your mission, if you choose to accept it..."
Rather than immediately respond verbally, Steve picked up the new unbroken crowbar, then paused, giving in to an impish impulse, remembering the innuendo Tony had unintentionally made earlier. "Where do you want it, and how hard," he smirked at his teammate.
Tony gaped at him for a long moment before he could reply coherently, clearly very effectively distracted by the (mostly) innocent question. He didn't even try to leer, which surprised pretty much everyone present. Even the firefighters shared a rather eloquent glance amongst themselves. "Who are you and what have you done with Cap? You know what, nevermind. Between my legs, and as hard as necessary. Just get me out of this thing."
Setting the crowbar and catching Tony's eyes again Steve nodded. "Brace a little, if you can," he warned, starting to apply pressure, slowly. He'd learned from his mistake with the leg armour. With a protesting creak of metal the hinges started to give, millimeter by millimeter. With a ping, one popped near the crowbar.
"Good, now on the right side, just below my ribcage," Tony half gasped. He was tiring, and it was obvious. "Once that one's open, the upper right arm will come off, and then we can wrap up this party."
Steve gave him a level look, then silently set the crowbar again. This hinge protested loudly, the metal groaning and creaking as it gave incrementally before catching and holding tight. He needed more leverage, but shoving the crowbar further into the armour to get it was hardly an option. He wasn't about to injure Tony further, if he could avoid it. "Tony?"
"Brace." Steve took hold of the hooked end of the crowbar and twisted slowly, using the leverage his stance gave him rather than simple bodyweight. He could bench far more than his own weight, after all, and it seemed that would be needed here. Tony winced, but the chestplate and backplate slowly separated before coming loose with a loud ping of metal snapping.
After that, it was easy to remove the armour of the right upper arm, and then Tony was being loaded onto a stretcher with a care for his injuries, visible and not, the medics doing what they could to ease his pain on the spot. The armour crate, which Bruce had been carefully filling as they worked, sat on the ground nearby.
Natasha claimed the single free seat in the ambulance, giving Steve a look. "Go back to the Tower and clean up, Cap. Take Clint and Bruce with you. He'll want one of us to bring the armour home for him, and I expect he'd prefer it was you. I'll keep an eye on him. Don't worry."
"But if--" Steve started, worrying about how the crushed armour would be removed.
Natasha cut him off, turning to climb into the ambulance. "I'll deal with it. I'll see you in an hour or two at the hospital. Go."
Watching the vehicle drive off was painful on a level Steve hadn't felt in a long while. Not since before the ice. With a silent sigh, he turned to the firefighters, quickly and efficiently packing up and stowing their tools with the ease of long practice, and thanked them quietly, getting smiles and firm handshakes in return.
Once the emergency responders departed, the press attempted -- luckily unsuccessfully -- to descend on them. The SHIELD agents held them back long enough for the Avengers to pile into an SUV with darkly tinted windows. Clint slid into the driver's seat without argument and peeled out the moment all of them were settled and the crated armour was secured in the trunk.
"Hey, Cap," Clint grinned at him in the rearview mirror briefly before turning his attention back to the road, "you know we're all rooting for you, right?"
Bruce snorted. "You're not subtle. And neither is Tony."
"But it's obvious," Clint chimed in, "that neither of you has had the balls to do anything about it yet."
Steve groaned, blushing slightly, and buried his face in his hands, the kevlar of his cowl rasping against the grip pads of his gloves.
Bruce's hand landed on his shoulder, offering support, but not sympathy. "He's just as gone over you as you are over him. Just say something to him."
Steve eyed him. "You're not just saying that 'cause you'll win a betting pool, are you?"
Clint laughed. Bruce said nothing, a hint of a smirk playing about the edges of his expression. "Not only because of the betting pool. I want my friends to be happy. And, besides, the tension is unnecessary and annoying."
Before Steve could respond, the SUV was pulling into the private level of the underground garage of Stark Tower. Reserved only for use by a select few, it was deserted except for the usual few parked vehicles. There were levels designated for the employees that extended below this one. Parking, Clint clapped his hands, rubbing them together in anticipation. "So," he quipped, "let the fun begin."
It seemed that his impulsive comment earlier had opened the field to wisecracks and well-meaning but bad advice. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor this time, Steve simply lifted the crated armour out of the trunk of the car and turned toward the secure elevator across the level, assuming the others would follow. He could tell by the quality of the silence behind him that they exchanged a look and shrugged before they walked after him. Out of habit, Steve paused in front of the elevator doors, waiting for JARVIS to open them for him. Bruce raised an eyebrow and reached past him to press the call button.
The ride up, once the elevator had arrived, was as silent as the walk across the parking level had been; JARVIS and Tony were usually chattering about repairs and upgrades and anything else that caught their attention once the Avengers were back in the Tower following a mission. Now all there was, was a slightly strained silence. Clint scratched at the back of his neck, feeling the awkwardness. "Bets that Stark decides to pull an all-nighter to fix the armour?"
Bruce snorted. "Doubt it. Pretty sure he'd be working to fix JARVIS up first."
Steve scowled at the elevator doors, grip on the crated armour tightening slightly and making the fabric of his gloves creak quietly. "He'd better not."
Both of his teammates laughed at him. Clint recovered first. "Cap, there won't be any stopping him, and you know that as well as we do. All he has to do is get to his workshop, and then he can lock the rest of us out. Not even Pepper has totally unrestricted access. And without JARVIS to ignore Tony's ridiculous, we have no way in. Even the ventilation system is isolated from the rest of the building. Supposedly because he needs to have the air in there filtered to some insane standard, like a cleanroom, but I'm pretty sure it's got more to do with paranoia."
The rest of the ride was silent. Clint left with a sloppy half salute once the elevator reached his floor. "I'll catch you kids later. I need a shower to get rid of the subway grime."
Bruce nodded acknowledgment. Once the doors closed again he turned to Steve. "We're going to get some food in you, and then you're going to shower, too," he said, a half smile on his features. "And then you're going to have a short sleep before you leave to go see Tony and bring him home."
Suddenly exhausted, Steve gave in. "You going to cook, or do we order in?"
"I'll throw together something simple."
--- Part 5 ---
An hour and a half later, making his way to the hospital, rested, fed, and in clean civilian clothing, Steve privately had to admit that Bruce had been right. He did feel about 300% better than he had after the short confrontation with Doom. The back-to-back battles and the emotional strain had taken a toll on him. And, likely, on the rest of the team as well. None of them had taken the time to eat or rest after the first battle of the morning. Knowing that Tony was being taken care of also helped immensely.
Natasha was waiting for him in the lobby of the hospital, simply turning and leading him away from the prying eyes of the receptionists and loitering off-shift nurses. Once they were out of earshot of the majority of the watching eyes and listening ears, she began detailing Tony's condition; his arm hadn't been broken, though it had been close, and the condition of the armour had been misleading in its severity. Thankfully it had only been pressure from the internal pieces of the broken hydraulics and servos putting pressure on the arm. The loud crack audible during the recording of the fight they had watched had apparently been one of the armour's internal components snapping. Tony's arm had only been bruised down to the bone, despite all expectations of far more severe injury, and he would be healing for at least a month. Possibly longer if he aggravated it too much, but it was, luckily, in an area where it would be relatively difficult to bump the injury and make it worse. They would just have to make sure Tony wore his sling and didn’t overuse the arm while he recovered. He'd gotten away lightly, all in all, with only minor scrapes and contusions, and those mostly from the removal of the armour. The doctors had given him a sling, some strong painkillers, and a prescription for a light sedative. He would be released to go home once the doctors had checked him over one last time.
Steve was certain he'd been moaning and complaining throughout his short stay at the hospital. Natasha paused in the hallway, making Steve check his movement in a near-instinctive shift of his balance. "He's been driving the staff insane," she said, confirming Steve's suspicions, "so if you can find a way to distract him, do it." A hint of a smile flickered through Natasha's habitual facade. "I'd suggest kissing him, but I doubt you two have worked things out to that extent yet. Down the hall on the right. Room 302."
Ignoring the commentary, Steve nodded acknowledgment of the suggestion, and made his way down the hall. Natasha stayed where she had stopped, a silent sentinel keeping watch. As the door of the room opened, Tony's voice drifted out, irritation and frustration clear in the tone and cadence of his words. "-- last time, I'm not doing it. Pepper-- Pep, no. I'm fine." He looked up, the flow of words broken by Steve's arrival, then added, "I'll call you back later. Gotta go," pretty clearly cutting her off mid-sentence. Steve couldn't make out the words, but she was still speaking when Tony hit the 'end call' button.
Steve gave him a dry look. "You really should be nicer to Ms. Potts." The statement got him a lopsided shrug followed by a wry twist of Tony's mouth.
"She knows me by now. It's been, what, a decade? If she's not used to me yet, she'll never be." The flippant reply held a grain of truth hidden deep at its center, but the overall attitude bothered Steve. Carefully, he restrained his impulse to defend Pepper. He'd tried. Once. She'd more than amply proven she could fight her own battles, and he needed to respect that. If only because she reminded him so much of Peggy.
Settling on the chair placed near the bed, he carefully gave his friend a once-over. Tony was lounging on the hard mattress, sprawled carelessly except for his left arm, which was held close to his torso by the sling he was actually wearing against all Steve's expectations. He looked far better than he had two hours earlier. Likely because of the judicious application of painkillers and being released from the armour. The left gauntlet and crumpled upper arm plates lay in a pile between his calves, clearly having been left where they'd been thrown after Tony had been released from them and allowed to have them back. Tony watched him in turn, quietly. When he broke the building silence it was to ask, "so what brings you here, Cap?"
"Thought I'd break you out once you got your last once over from the doctors."
"Be still my heart," he smirked at Steve, melodramatically clutching at his chest with his good hand, sarcasm all but dripping off his words. "My hero."
"Oh, knock it off." Steve couldn't help smirking back as he shook his head at his friend. "Smart aleck. How much longer they keeping you here?"
"Supposedly not long. The nurse said fifteen minutes twenty minutes ago."
"Good." Relaxing back into his chair a little, Steve stretched. "Then we can get you back to the Tower and get some food in you."
"No need, I ate." When he got a disbelieving look from Steve, Tony's expression went wounded. "I did. They insisted. Something about the painkillers." For a long moment he looked like he wanted to say something more, but nothing came of it. Steve wondered if it had to do with his impulsive comment during the removal of the armour, then dismissed the thought. Wishful thinking was almost never liable to come true. Granted the rest of the team thought something was up between them, but there wasn't. And likely would never be. The odds of someone like Tony being interested in him for anything other than his looks were slim, and Steve knew it. Assuming Tony was even interested in men in the first place.
This time, when the silence fell, it was contemplative and neither of them broke it. Tony picked up the gauntlet on the bed and fiddled with it, one handed, but his fingers nimble as ever. Steve had no idea what he was doing, but watched, curious. Eventually, some five minutes later, footfalls sounded in the hallway and Steve glanced toward the door. "We're about to have company, I think." A tangle of wires in his good hand, Tony looked up just in time to see the doctor sweep into the room.
Fifteen minutes later, they were in the parking lot. Steve had found himself tasked with carrying the gauntlet and other armour plates. He shared a glance with Natasha, who was carrying the prescribed drugs Tony had tried to refuse, as they followed on their teammate's heels. Tony was insisting he was fine, but the signs of fatigue were easy to see for those who knew him well; his footsteps were slow and his balance was ever so slightly off. Steve knew getting him to sleep once he was back in the Tower would be difficult, but it was clearly needed.
Tony's cellphone rang almost as soon as he'd finally settled himself in the car, grumbling the whole time about not being able to drive. He ignored the call, silencing the ringer, after a glance at the screen. Given Tony's dark mood, it wasn't surprising that he was screening his calls. In fact, it was probably a smart choice. Belatedly, as Natasha claimed the driver's seat, it occurred to Steve to wonder where he'd gotten the phone from. Presumably Natasha had brought it to him in an attempt to distract him from harassing the hospital staff and simultaneously reassure Pepper. Hoping he would be able to stop himself from staring at Tony for the entirety of the trip back to the Tower and being ridiculously obvious, Steve settled in the seat behind him. The remainder of the drive passed in relative silence. The phone rang twice more, and was ignored both times.
Hopefully it wasn't Pepper he was ignoring, Steve mused to himself. Last time, that had resulted in her storming the penthouse level and giving all of the Avengers but Natasha a dressing down for aiding and abetting Tony's habit of hiding in his workshop for days on end. They hadn't been, but none of them had been inclined to try facing down her righteous indignation. It was only the second time Tony had done something like that around the team, and none of them had been able to get through to him long enough to pry him out, at the time. "Tony?"
Tony looked up from the phone he'd been staring at almost meditatively for the last thirty seconds. "Yeah?"
"What's on your mind?" He was being entirely too quiet for Steve to properly relax. A silent Tony was almost never a good sign.
"Technical stuff." The response, short and sharp, didn't put Steve any more at ease than he'd been before asking. But it wasn't worth pursuing the issue and getting actively shut out rather than just verbally pushed away. He let the subject drop.
"Fine, I won't ask for details, but you're going to get a little rest before you tackle those technical things."
"No can do, Cap. A number of them are time sensitive." Tony's right hand moved in a dismissive wave. Rest was clearly not on the agenda anytime soon.
"Such as." Steve refused to grit his teeth. Absolutely refused.
"Getting JARVIS back up? Getting my armour repaired? Making sure that the servers aren't compromised? There are a lot of proprietary designs stored on-site, and they currently represent about half of Stark Industries' annual cash flow. More, if you don't count the income from the StarkPhone's current iteration."
And, Steve filled in, without that cash flow both Stark Industries and the Avengers would be in some trouble. Tony paid for his suit's maintenance and repair out of his own pocket, and did it himself, too. He did most of the team's upgrades and equipment maintenance as well, though SHIELD paid for most of that. Stark Industries and the Maria Stark Foundation offset much of the rebuilding costs that the City faced when the insurance companies refused to pay up. Which was often. They loved to claim that supervillain attacks fell into the category of so-called 'acts of god' and refused to shell out a red cent. No matter how obvious it was that the attack was no such thing. It was infuriating, and all of the team members -- except for Natasha -- had ranted about it at length before, though they were always careful not to do so where the press could hear or record it. Tony tended to go on at aggrieved length about how he ought to just outright buy an insurance company so he could force them to pay for some of the inevitable property damage the team worked hard to prevent.
Holding back a frustrated sigh, Steve acquiesced. "Alright, fine, but I'm coming with you. If you need to lift things an extra set of hands might be useful."
"I've got Dummy for that," was the grumbled response, "but I'll grant you he's more of a hot mess than I am. Even now."
What exactly a 'hot mess' was, Steve wasn't sure, but knowing how often Tony railed about Dummy's tendency to make a mess of the simplest tasks, he could guess. He was saved from the need to come up with another argument by their arrival at the Tower's garage. Tony's response wasn't a no, and he was going to assume that meant he wouldn't get kicked out of the workshop. Natasha's expression was amused, but she held her silence. Coming home to the Tower for the second time without the benefit of JARVIS' invisible presence to smooth the way was no less jarring than the first. It felt glaringly wrong to Steve, and if he felt that way... Steve hid a wince. Tony must be twitchier than he wanted to show. Not having access to JARVIS was effectively the same as not having access to his armour. He wouldn't be able to get the armour on or off easily, or operate it with the same level of finesse that he had with the AI helping, Steve knew. He glanced down at the armour plates he still held, the bundle of wiring Tony had been playing with earlier draped almost artistically over one of his wrists. And Tony was just as surely simply not talking about all the many other little things JARVIS helped him with on a daily basis that were missing now.
The elevator stopped at the workshop's floor, and Natasha gave Steve a significant look as they left, handing him the small bag of prescriptions. The implication was clear: if he was going to keep watch, he should also administer the medications, as needed. Tony caught the look too, though, and raised an eloquent eyebrow at Steve as the elevator doors closed behind them. He slapped at a panel on the wall, making the lighting flicker to life, slowly brightening beyond the dim levels used in the rest of the parking levels until it felt nearly as bright as day without being blinding. Steve shrugged. "She's only looking out for you, you know," he replied to the silent sarcasm, carefully holding his own frustration in check as they descended the short flight of stairs toward the reinforced workshop level. It was, perforce, underground. Placing it above the lobby would have invited all sorts of curious people to poke their noses in, or try to, and would have required a lot of modifications to the building to boot. It was far safer -- both for the rubberneckers and for the structure of the building itself -- to put the workshop just above the parking levels, where the walls could be made with reinforced concrete and lined with blast resistant compounds, where the floors could easily support the weight of the fabrication units used to make and maintain Tony's armour without forcing changes to the building's superstructure, where Tony could ensure privacy just by making the level look like just another maintenance level for the arc reactor that only he was allowed to work on anyway, where layers of security measures wouldn't be looked at askance.
Tony snorted. "Maybe, but she -- and you -- should know I can take care of myself." With a rapidity born of long practice, he quickly cleared the remaining layers of security between them and the workshop itself, the last being a short PIN key on a holographic number pad beside the door.
Watching Tony levelly, Steve eventually replied, his words considered. He'd have to be careful not to let the man annoy him into saying something rash. When he got defensive, Tony was... difficult, at best. "We do. But that doesn't mean we're not going to support you, when you need it. Whether or not you think it's necessary. You're a teammate and a friend, Tony."
Without another word, the stiffness of his posture radiating his need for time to recenter himself, Tony settled at his workstation, gingerly moving his injured hand to rest on the keyboard. After a few false starts as he figured out how to type without being jarred back out of his focus by his injuries, Steve quietly watched him sink into a half-trance, eyes never moving from the screen in front of him as he muttered to himself. He'd never had a chance to watch Tony work before, so this would have to serve as baseline. Glancing at the time, he made a mental note of the timing of Tony's next dose of medication and settled on a nearby sofa he'd noted in passing earlier in the day. He didn't know enough about programming to help unless Tony had a specific task for him, though he doubted his friend would ask, even though he'd explicitly offered. Tony was fiercely, stubbornly, self-sufficient and proud like that. And it was one of the few things about him Steve completely understood. Frustrating as it might be.
As Tony worked -- holographic screens nowhere to be seen, since JARVIS was out of commission -- it was easy to be lulled by the low rattle of the keys and the words muttered in a near monotone. Something like six hours later Steve shook himself out of a half-doze, raising his head and trying not to wince at the stiffness brought on by the awkward position he'd ended up in on the sofa. After a thorough stretch and a glance at the screen that didn't tell him anything, he settled for stepping up behind Tony on his uninjured side. His teammate's hands didn't pause in their typing as he responded absently to Steve's presence with a muttered, "not now, I'm working, Pep."
Steve answered carefully. He'd finally settled on an approach for this that ought to work after thinking for the first hour or so he'd spent watching Tony. Their conversation earlier had been a pretty good indication of the likelihood of success if he tried to pry his teammate out of the workshop, or even away from the computer. "I'm not Pepper, Tony. And you should take your pain medication if you intend to keep working. You'll stiffen up and won't be able to continue, otherwise."
Tony raised a sardonic eyebrow at him. "Have you met me?"
Steve shrugged, carefully keeping his expression neutral. "Yes, I know you're stubborn and can tough it out to the point of working all night and all of tomorrow if necessary, but why bother doing it in pain when you can save that energy for the work that needs doing by just taking the pills?"
"Fine, you win." Tony gestured brusquely to one of his robots -- Steve was pretty sure it was Dummy -- for a drink to wash down the pills with, then took them from Steve and dry swallowed them when the robot wasn't fast enough in producing what his master wanted.
Before Tony could dive back into the reams of code on his screen, Steve prompted him for information. "What have you found so far, anyway?"
"A whole lot o' nothing." Tony looked aggrieved, vaguely insulted, and rather angry. "Whatever Doom did was half magic and half code, and I'm stuck chasing down dead ends and getting nowhere. I fucking hate magic."
"Meaning?" There was a surprising lack of technobabble in that response, but it told Steve nothing useful. He tamped his frustration back down. Getting angry in response wouldn't help anything.
"Meaning that unless I can find the right string to pull to make this bullshit hack unravel, getting JARVIS back will be harder than I thought. And might mean I'll have to chase down Doom and repulsor his ugly metal face in until I get answers."
Well, that didn't sound good, and ignored the earlier question of the integrity of Tony's servers entirely. "... Or you could ask Dr. Strange?"
The suggestion got Steve a sour look. "You know that won't fly. Why are you even bothering?"
"Because you're not the only one who wants JARVIS back, Tony," Steve's temper finally snapped, the strain of the day's events and Tony's barbed words too much, "and some of us are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that. Egos notwithstanding." A long silence prevailed in the wake of the heated tone and sharp words, and Steve wondered if he'd pushed too hard. He didn't often allow himself to snap at anyone, let alone friends.
Eventually, Tony grumbled, "damn you, why do you always have to be right all the fucking time?"
"It's not as much fun as you think," Steve sighed, looking down and rubbing at the back of his neck. "Sorry. I shouldn't have--"
"No, stop right there." Tony cut him off, and he glanced back up, warily. "You should probably be getting a prize, or something. I think that's the longest anyone's held out on yelling at me after I screwed up in a long time." Turning away from screen and Steve, Tony stood, gingerly resettling his arm in the sling he'd never bothered to take off. "Where'd I put that phone?"
A glance at the time told Steve it was nearly 3 am. "Tony?" He got a grunt of acknowledgment and confusion in response. "Dr. Strange isn't going to be overly thrilled to be woken up, I suspect."
"Tony, it's 3 am."
Tony blinked and looked at the display on his phone's screen. "So it is. And?"
"And if you want Dr. Strange to be helpful, it might be smarter to wait a few hours before you call him."
"What did I just tell you about being right?" Tony sighed, his shoulders slumping before he straightened with a hiss of pain. He gave Steve a look that positively dared him to comment. "Don't say it."
"It?" Steve's best not-really-confused-but-faking-it expression turned the look into a mild glare.
"You know, you suddenly flirting with me is very confusing."
Caught flat-footed and completely off guard, Steve said nothing, feeling his face color slightly. Tony stared at him, stunned, taking the silence for the confirmation it was. "You-- I thought it was a hallucination."
Gathering his wits and his nerve, Steve took a guarded step closer. "No, not a hallucination."
Less restrained than Steve, and now reasonably sure of his welcome, Tony closed the distance between them. "I couldn't possibly be this lucky..." Disbelief colored his tone, and Steve gave him a questioning look. Smirking in response, suddenly in a better mood, shoulders relaxing and the lines of pain and worry on his face easing, Tony reached out and pulled him in close enough that their noses were almost touching. "If this is too much, you're gonna have to let me know," he murmured as he brought his good hand up to brush against Steve's cheekbones, then rasp gently against the grain of the fine stubble along his jaw.
They stayed like that for a long minute, staring at one another. Tony's fingers were still absently caressing his face -- Tony seemed to really enjoy the stubble on his jaw, Steve noted, amused -- when Steve reached up and pulled him in for a kiss, lacing the fingers of his right hand through messy dark hair. Tony didn't resist, and Steve took the opportunity to move carefully backwards across the large room towards the sofa he'd been occupying in one position or another for most of the night, not letting go of Tony as he did. His excellent memory for maps and layouts was useful for more than just tactics.
When the edge of the cushions bumped against the back of his left knee, Steve knew he had it. He couldn't help himself; he smirked a little into the kiss. "Don't think you've got me fooled, Cap," Tony broke the kiss long enough the mumble, "I know what you're angling for and you won't get it."
"That so?" Steve lowered himself onto the sofa, tugging at Tony's arm until he followed. "What, exactly, is it you think I want?"
Tony settled in his lap, straddling strongly muscled thighs, and holy hell was this a turn on, before he wound his good arm around Steve's neck. "You're trying to find a way to get me into bed."
A somewhat smug smirk twisted the edges of Steve's mouth. "So you'd rather I didn't?"
"Never said that." Tony leaned in and let his breath bathe the juncture of Steve's neck and shoulder as he murmured, "Maybe I'd rather stay. Right. Here," punctuating the last few words by dragging nose and lips up the side of Steve's neck towards his ear. It earned him a full body shudder, and a pair of somewhat possessive hands clamped tightly on his hips.
"Good," Steve's grip tightened briefly. "That's what I was hoping you'd say."
Hoping to encourage the hands to venture into more interesting places -- as nice as the possessive grip felt, he wanted more -- Tony huffed an amused breath almost into Steve's ear and continued exploring, bringing his good hand into the mix, worming it between Steve's back and the backrest of the sofa, then under Steve's shirt. It took a bit of work to untuck the shirt enough to get at skin, since he was trying not to jar his injured arm. He'd carefully left it where it was, hanging between them in the sling; even with the painkillers, it hurt to move it.
The moment his palm hit bare skin, Steve jerked, as if surprised. Then those strong hands were following his example, one untucking his shirt with quick deft movements, and the other drifting up his stomach and chest, stuttering over the sling and its straps before he worked out how and where he could touch without taking it off. In that moment, Tony worked it out. Steve was following his lead. Why didn't matter. Well, it did, but not right now. Right now, he had what seemed like acres of soft warm smooth skin to explore. "God, Steve, you're something else."
The hand caressing his shoulder blade paused, though the other, trailing over his collarbone -- albeit outside his shirt, more's the pity -- didn't. Holding him in place, though there was no force behind it. As though Steve thought he might leave. When Steve spoke, his tone was uncertain. "That's a good thing, right?"
Fucking hell, this was hardly time Tony wanted to spend on a pep-talk. In response he leaned in and did his level best to leave a hickey that would show, obvious and high on Steve's throat. "What the hell are you talking about? Of course it is." He got a surprised noise that almost qualified as a squeak for his troubles, and a hand that twined back into his hair to hold him in place. That was clearly a good reaction, then.
To Tony's frustration, though, things didn't progress much farther than that, despite Steve laying him out on the sofa and propping himself up on his elbows above him as they explored one another a little more, hands wandering. Steve, Tony was amused to note, had clearly thought through the logistics beforehand. He was on his back, injured arm supported on his stomach, and though their legs were tangled together, Steve wasn't putting any of his weight on Tony's upper body. It was kind of sweet. Well, until Steve settled on his side on the sofa next to him and basically pinned him in a very effective wrestling hold disguised as cuddling. Tony struggled for a moment before he gave up on moving with a slightly irritated huff. "Steve --" The bastard smirked into the side of Tony's neck as he cut off the sentence. "Later. Rest now."
"Tease." Tony grumbled, but got his revenge even as he surrendered. Worming his good hand under Steve's waist and around, he got in a good ass grope that won him another surprised noise. Steve didn't release him, though. Tony didn't move his hand, either; clearly he was losing his touch, if that wasn't enough to get Steve to continue.
"Sleep, Tony." The mumbled words were quiet, but firm. Rather like the rest of Steve, Tony reflected. "You can call Dr. Strange in a few hours."
"I'd rather be making out with you."
He got no response to that statement. Steve was asleep. Or pretending well enough to fool Tony. Which option was right didn't really matter in the end. Either way, Steve wasn't letting him up for a while. Now that he was warm and content, exhaustion was creeping up on him anyway. The guilt at not being able to get JARVIS back was muted enough that he could let himself rest, for all that it was still there. Might as well give in, really.
--- Part 6 ---
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- everything, Tony didn't sleep well. Steve was woken several times by his restless shifting and muttering. He did follow orders and rest, though, so Steve couldn't really scold him. Being injured and worried didn't really make it easy to nod off, as he well knew. This time, Tony hadn't settled into sleep again, his breathing was too quick and shallow. Opening his eyes, Steve gave him a quick once over. Tony didn't seem to have strained his injured arm, and according to his internal clock it wasn't time for his next dose of painkillers yet. Which eased Steve's worry over his physical well-being, but... "Tony?" He'd been the focus of a confused 'what are you doing here' look and wasn't sure what that meant until Tony spoke.
"Steve? What... Oh. It wasn't a dream."
Steve blinked, momentarily thrown himself, then pulled Tony closer. Now that he could touch without worrying about Tony's reaction, or the team's, he intended to enjoy it. He'd never expected he could have this, so forcing himself not to hold tightly to it was going to be difficult. "Not a dream. Wait. You mean you have--"
"Nope," Tony interrupted, "not answering that. Let me up."
The decision not to push his luck was an unconscious one, more in response to Tony's defensive body language than anything verbal. Carefully untangling himself, he stood and offered Tony a hand up. It was ignored. Apparently they were back to this. Steve suppressed a sigh. He should have known better than to hope they could work something out so quickly. "So what now?"
"Now, we call Dr. Strange. I've found and isolated most of the issues the virus caused locally, plugged the holes in my firewalls and hardware configurations that Doom took advantage of, pulled a copy of the virus itself to put in an isolated sandbox to analyse, and started re-imaging the servers with a backup from the previous evening."
The technobabble didn't mean much to Steve, but it was clear Tony had done a lot last night, despite griping that he'd made no progress. Before Steve could respond, an alarm went off, resounding off the reinforced concrete walls, and was quickly silenced. Though not by Tony, who immediately went wary, stance widening and shoulders squaring before he winced at the pull in the muscles of his injured arm. "Tony?"
"Those are the Tower's automated defenses. Well, were, before they were shut off. Not many people have the cancel code on those, and anyone unauthorised who's somehow got them is not likely to be good news."
Steve gave him a startled look and cast around for something he could use as a weapon if necessary. There wasn't much, surprisingly. Tony didn't bother to suit up entirely; trying for all of his armour would be useless, save the bootjets and gauntlets, of which he could only use one without immediate repercussions. He put both on regardless, discarding his sling, and hooked them into the arc reactor. The bootjets followed in quick succession. Finished, Tony turned to Steve and was about to speak. He stopped himself, hearing the ping of the elevator.
There were several things wrong with that, Steve reflected. A supervillain with access to the Tower would assume they were in the penthouse levels, unless they knew exactly where to look. So whoever this was, was either in the know, or after something in the workshop. But given how quickly whoever it was had made it down here, they hadn't even bothered to destroy anything along the way. Including the mechanisms on the doors of the helipad -- the alarms wouldn't necessarily have gone off if they'd entered through the lobby. For that matter, anyone with the know-how to break into Stark Tower would know that the workshop was the second most heavily guarded portion of it, closely following the arc reactor itself, several stories below them. To come straight to the workshop level implied that whoever it was either had a way in, or thought they did. While Steve processed, Tony stared down the area beyond the viewing wall only very few were allowed to see, clearly waiting tensely to see who had shown up.
The sight that met their eyes stunned both of them, and spurred them into action. How had a Doombot gotten into the Tower, Steve wondered, stunned. And where were the rest? They tended to show up in wolfpacks of at least twenty. "Shit," Tony yelped, diving for the door in a bid to stop the automaton from entering the workshop itself. "Doom must have stolen my codes and protocols!" Weaponless and defenseless, Steve glanced around again, and this time his eyes fell on a crowbar. Better than nothing.
Standing outside the workshop door, Tony faced off with the intruder, right arm raised and repulsor aimed. "Stop right there or I will blow you to bits."
Why... Oh. Tony wanted a chance to get his hands on Doom's tech. Typical. Steve rolled his eyes, knowing Tony couldn't see him.
Slowly, awkwardly, the Doombot raised its hands in surrender. A long moment later, its toneless voice sounded. "Sir?"
It was completely unheard of for a Doombot to converse with its prey. Something more was at work here. As was his usual wont, Tony connected dots and made a few leaps of logic, based on minimal information, to arrive at a conclusion that Steve hadn’t even considered. "Nice try," Tony scoffed, his aim not wavering. If anything, his expression firmed and his stance settled, bracing for the kickback that firing the repulsor would cause. "JARVIS is down, and you won't fool me into thinking you're him. Doom will have to do better than that."
If the voice modulator could have handled it, Steve had no doubt the next words would have held a sardonic tone, but Doom had never been the type to upgrade something he considered useless on his tech. He and Tony were polar opposites in that; Tony never did anything by halves. Up to and including staring down a Doombot, despite knowing that it could kill him easily without his armour on. "What must I do to convince you, sir?"
Tony thought it over, so Steve asked. "What do you and JARVIS know that Doom doesn't?"
The Doombot replied, its monotone voice jarring, given its words. "Knowing sir, his response would be something to the effect of 'nothing, now that the possibility exists that he stole JARVIS and analysed him'." Its hands remained where they were, but the shoulders moved in something that approximated a shrug, jerky and uneven, as though uncomfortable in the body it wore.
"Is that what happened?" Tony's voice held a tight angry note, now. "'Cause I'm not against hunting down your master and repulsoring his face in, repeatedly, if that's true."
"So, it appears we have a stalemate, then, sir, if you will not tell me what I must do to convince you."
His left hand clenched in its gauntlet where it hung at his side before Tony answered. "Let me pull your harddrive and analyse it."
To Steve's amazement, the Doombot powered down. Almost before the shutdown had finished, Tony was on it, shifting aside the ridiculous green cape all Doombots wore, then pressing at latches and releases. He pulled the power source first. He'd destroyed enough Doombots in the field on missions to know how they were put together, evidently. He was back to favouring his arm, now, convinced, at least for the time being, that the Doombot wasn't a threat. Without its power source, it couldn't move, receive signals, send signals, or do much of anything else. Another few moments of work had the harddrive in Tony's hand. He stared at it for a long moment, as though wondering whether it held the secrets of the universe. Perhaps, to him, it did, Steve mused, setting aside his makeshift weapon and following Tony back into the workshop. They left the Doombot's immobilised carcass where it was for the time being.
Clearly curiousity was replacing his fading anger. Tony was back to muttering to himself as he connected cables and typed one-handed, apparently reenergised without needing coffee to do it. He'd forgotten about his sling entirely. Steve watched him, back out of his depth, now that the Doombot was deactivated. A fight, he could handle. Technology this intricate was beyond him. He was learning -- and quickly, if Tony was to be believed -- but this sort of nuts-and-bolts work...
It took a few minutes, but Tony sat back in his chair, good hand coming up to scratch at an itch on the back of his neck as he stared at his computer screen. "Huh."
"What does 'huh' mean?" That reaction spoken in stunned monotone could mean anything from 'interesting' to 'wow, sexy', to 'ugh, get it away', Steve had learned.
"It means that, unless Doom got very good at what he does all of a sudden, it looks like JARVIS found a way to hijack a Doombot."
"That's good, right?"
Tony smirked evilly. "That's damn good, baby. And now I have a Doombot to take apart and figure out, which is almost as good. Maybe I can find a way to shut them down remotely." He turned, disconnecting the drive and carrying it over to the massive server block that Steve suspected usually housed JARVIS' consciousness. Steve followed him, amused, as Tony continued speaking. "There was no foreign code in there that my scan turned up; just JARVIS' core modules. Which was what was corrupted on this end with whatever magical crap Doom used. So..."
"... Putting those back together with the rest of him should fix the problem." Steve guessed.
"Precisely." Tony's smug expression might as well have been welded in place. It never wavered. LEDs flickered on the front panel of the server and on the drive as they were connected and the data on the drive was transferred over to the correct location on the servers, then the lights in the workshop flickered once. "Sir?" JARVIS sounded relieved as all hell.
"I always knew you were a work of art, JARVIS, but this is a new high, even for you. Jesus."
"I never took you for a religious man, Tony," Steve quipped.
"Then you clearly have no idea what my relationship with my tech is like."
JARVIS, checking on the status of the Tower and its inhabitants, didn't respond for a moment. "Sir, I--"
"Shut up, JARVIS." Tony's voice was amused and surprisingly affectionate. Steve felt a moment of intense jealousy. "I couldn't care less about that shit. What happened?"
As the story came out, Steve pieced together what he could, sorting through the technobabble laced statements as patiently as he knew how. Tony and JARVIS might as well have had their own private language. Apparently, after their last exchange during the rescue, JARVIS had found himself -- or at least a copy of himself; he couldn't be sure -- in an isolated server bank in Latveria and was distinctly not happy about that. Doom was in the process of putting restrictions on him to force him to serve, unwillingly. Fortunately, though, the complexity of JARVIS' code and his experience in dealing with/watching over Tony served him well in his attempts to avoid being caged entirely. He deduced that the Doom the Avengers had captured had been nothing more than a decoy, based on the man's ravings. Hearing that, Tony turned to Steve with a grimace and flatly asked, "How long before Fury calls and reams us?"
"Well, it's not like we were overly thorough, this time. We didn't exactly check to see whether it was him or an LMD," Steve reluctantly agreed with the sentiment. With a half-shrug, Tony returned his attention to JARVIS' tale.
Eventually, Doom went off to rest, tired out by the fight, the energy expenditure to keep his decoy realistic-seeming in SHIELD's prison, his fury at Strange and the Avengers, and his attempts to force JARVIS' cooperation. Without wasting any time, JARVIS wormed his way through the layers of tech holding him captive on the (badly) isolated server. Within minutes he had a fix on the location, the layout of the base, and a possible way home.
JARVIS had found the screams of utter rage when he'd locked Doom in his quarters incredibly satisfying, and admitted as much, to Tony's utter delight. He'd be rubbing that in Doom's face for years, Steve suspected. And he couldn't find it in himself to blame Tony at all. JARVIS had taken similar vindictive pleasure in destroying Doom's data: a variety of blackmail material, viruses intended for use against various governments and corporations, along with some actually fairly innovative schematics for LMD technology that he thought Tony might find interesting -- all of which JARVIS copied and sent to Tony's own satellite network first.
Tony was visibly almost stunned speechless, at this point. The day couldn't get much better. JARVIS' tone took on more than a hint of a smirk as he continued his tale. The next step had been to secure a way out of the base... Wherever that was. He'd been confident that Tony would come for him. He was sure. But given that there was a high likelihood that Tony was injured, possibly severely, JARVIS decided that it would be better not rely entirely on him and thus force him to make the injury worse. The AI knew Tony would ignore any and all danger to himself to get his partner back. So the logical plan of action was to acquire a Doombot for himself.
After 'borrowing' the drivers for the motive tech for himself and wiping all of the programming, he was ready to make good on his escape. The locks on Doom's rooms were, surprisingly, still holding, but the probability that Doom would use magic to do something from a distance to prevent JARVIS from leaving was rising. Piloting the Doombot was, unsurprisingly, totally different from what he's familiar with from the armour, and took some getting used to. But the Doombot could fly. And that was the important thing. He could get home to New York.
To make locking Doom in more effective, once he was outside JARVIS initiated base lockdown procedures. The entire base sank down a story, set into the ground and sealing the doors, before JARVIS sent the command to remotely wipe the on-site mainframes. Satisfied he'd done what he could, JARVIS began the long flight back to New York. He couldn't do anything about Doom's magic, but hopefully the sorcerer would be distracted enough by his rage and the destruction not to think that far ahead. At least for now. Settling in and running diagnostics every so often, JARVIS made the transatlantic flight in jarring silence. He was used to Tony blasting music in situations like this...
Once the tale had concluded, Tony sat back on his heels and stood from his crouched position, relief evident in every line of his posture. "I missed you too, buddy." In a very real way, his world was back on its axis, Steve knew.
The AI's attention shifted, then, and the temperature of the air in the room seemed to chill slightly. "Captain. What is your--"
"JARVIS," Tony's voice held a distinct note of warning. Without another word, he stood abruptly and hooked his good hand into the waistband of Steve's pants, hauling him closer with surprising strength. Steve stumbled slightly, off balance, but recovered quickly.
His sentence was cut off by an enthusiastic kiss. After a moment, "Shut up, Cap, and kiss me properly."
--- End ---