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(don't) want you gone

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In hindsight, it could have gone a lot better.

Well, everything could've gone a lot better. But since he's still alive, and New York's not a swathe of still-smoking debris in the wake of a vengeful alien with a ton of daddy issues, Tony supposes it'll have to do. Small victories, made more manageable with a judicial application of whiskey.

Or several, actually. He's always been a fan of the 'more is better' approach.

He's on his fourth glass of scotch when JARVIS decides to break the disapproving silence he's been maintaining for the last thirty minutes, "Sir, may I suggest that you reduce your alcohol intake and take a break from - "

Tony sets down the welding iron and props up his goggles, pausing to wave an admonishing finger at the ceiling, "I've always been a  fan of the 'more is better' approach, J, and anyone who disagrees can try piggybacking a nuke through a space - "

He can't even finish the sentence. The glass slips from his fingers - trembling, some distant, detached part of him notes, before he's shaking, cold sweat breaking out on his skin, fear a vice around his heart.

Cold. So cold. The armor had been built to withstand many things, but not this. Not the yawning void of space, nor the lack of oxygen. He looks into the abyss, and it stares back; rows and rows of malignant eyes, hungry and fearful and loathing all at once, and he knows with a sudden clarity that this is it, game over. He's cheated death one too many times, and now he's run out of luck. He sucks in a breath, lungs constricting in panic, and it's Afghanistan all over again, the terrible weight in his chest, the burn of raw and dying nerves where metal is welded to flesh and bone, and not enough air - choking, gasping, in a fever-marred delirious delirium - and he falls. And falls, and falls - too fast, burning up -

" - deep breaths, sir. In, and out. In, and - " JARVIS' voice cuts into the memory, steady and reassuring, and Tony clings to it like a lifeline. He presses a clammy, sweat-slick hand against the arc reactor, the steady hum of it buzzing through his palm, needing the reassurance that it's still there, still working, and slowly, the racing of his heart slows. Dum-E nudges his shoulder, inquisitive, and Tony flinches away, ripping himself away from the touch as if stung. He's shaking, and he hates it; hates the irrational fear, and how he can do nothing in its wake.

"What - what was that?" He rasps. His bones have turned to water. It takes forever to lever himself to sitting so he's not curled up in a fetal position on the floor.

"Scans indicate that you might have suffered a panic attack. Perhaps a rest might be in order. " JARVIS' diagnosis is clinical and detached; he might as well have been discussing the weather.

Tony laughs. It's a dry, scratchy sound and bordering on hysterical. "No. It's just - nerves. I'm fine." Bile in his mouth; he fumbles for the bottle of scotch, ignoring the glass shards scattered across the floor. Takes a swig to wash out the bitter tang, and it burns, all the way down. Dum-E whines, bumping up against his ankle, as if sensing something's wrong, and this time, Tony doesn't jerk away. He reaches out, patting his support strut, and Dum-E rolls closer, a string of distressed beeps escaping him.

He doesn't know how long he sits like that, hunched over beside Dum-E, and taking occasional pulls from the bottle until the fear recedes, and the drink takes over, softening all the world's harsh edges in a warm, hazy glow. Tony's not drunk - not yet, but well on his way to tipsy.

"Incoming call from Pepper Potts - " The holographic interface swirls into glowing blue hi-definition inches away from his nose.

Tony swats it away with a wave of his hand, "Mute."

He owes Pepper an explanation, but he can't do it. Not now. Frankly, he doesn't know if he'll ever be able to talk about - Nope. Not going there. He ignores the rest of her calls, and staggers away, bumping into several walls until he finally collapses into bed, and promptly passes out.

Predictably, it doesn't get better.

He has two more of the - - incidents, he refuses to call them panic attacks, that's ridiculous, he's Tony Stark, he's survived going to hell and back, and Tony Stark does not have panic attacks, screw WebMD and whatever the hell JARVIS insists. He's got the AI sworn to silence on pain of rewiring, so Pepper doesn't know - not yet.

Tony's frowning down at the charred mess of a Chitauri weapon - trust SHIELD to mess up something as basic as weapons retrieval - when the Raconteurs are cut off abruptly. That can only mean one thing. He hisses out a breath of exasperation, but stares resolutely at the mangled, half-melted circuitry, refusing to look up until Dum-E, in one of his more astute moments, comes up and tugs the gun away.

Tony lets him trundle away with it, and looks up, plastering a smile to his face. "Pep - hey, I - "

"Tony." Equal parts frustration and worry, and okay, so they're playing that game, the one where he tries to guess where he messed up. Again. Tenth time in two months, a voice in the back of his head informs him snidely. He does his best to ignore it. He's got this.

"Do you remember what day it is?" Pepper's voice is sharp, bordering on shrill. Not going to get out of this easily, then. She's dressed up today, looking stunning in a red dress and heels. A function, maybe? He's stumped.

He'd headed down to the workshop to clear his head for a few hours.  It'd been - Thursday? All he really remembers is that it'd been on the tail end of another incident, and he'd needed to get away.

Apparently he's taking too long, because Pepper sighs. "It's Saturday."

"Right, I knew that." Saturday doesn't mean anything to him at all, and it's clear that it shows, because Pepper's face falls.

"It's our anniversary, Tony. You promised me you wouldn't forget." She blinks rapidly, on the verge of tears, and he holds up placatory hands, feeling like more of a heel than ever. 

"I'm sorry I forgot. I just - I got caught up." The words sound hollow, even to him. "Let me make it up to you. Tomorrow? We can definitely do dinner, no problem."

Wrong, all wrong, because Pepper's face has closed off, and the implicit rejection is like a punch to the gut. Tony backpedals, feeling as if he's grasping at straws, "Pep, Pepper-pot, c'mon, I'm -"

She's shaking her head, and he falls silent, guilt heavy on his tongue. He doesn't know what to say. Tony Stark may be all charm in front of the cameras, but not like this. Not thrown off balance by the disappointment in her eyes, and he's not entirely sure what to do. "It's not working?" He needs to know the answer. Even if it's - it's not what he wants to hear.

"I think we need a break."She cuts straight to the point with the  frankness and efficiency he's grown to appreciate in board meetings, but not now.

"A break," he echoes, dumbly, hands falling to his sides.

"Ever since New York, you've been distant. You won't tell me what's wrong, and you keep running away. I know it wasn't easy, dealing with the - "

He doesn't hear the rest of it, because the fear is back, as crippling as ever, a leaden weight in his chest dragging him down.

"Stop." Tony croaks, clawing for composure, "Just - stop." He's shaking, again, and he's dimly aware of Pepper rubbing his back, but he can't focus on anything else but the panic.

Her perfume is familiar, and he leans into the crook of her neck, heart jackrabbiting against the sides of his ribcage, and breathes.

She runs a hand through his hair, and he closes his eyes, feeling the knot loosen in his chest. It's not okay, but it's better than huddling alone, and he's absurdly grateful for the simple gesture.

They don't talk about it. Not his - it's not a fucking breakdown, all right, that was an anomaly - issues, or the way he's been studiously avoiding any and all mentions of New York, or, most of all, about how he and Pepper are slowly but surely drifting apart.

 

Pepper broaches the topic once, in the form of a name card on his desk. Tony shreds it. Therapy won't help. It didn't in the aftermath of - of Obadiah, and it won't now. Frankly, unless his therapist's been kidnapped and had a life support system ripped from them, they wouldn't understand, anyway. Anyway, he doesn't want help. To admit that would be to concede that something's wrong, and nothing is. He's fine. He doesn't want pills to calm his nerves - he's got alcohol for that, and he'll rip the arc reactor out of his chest before he goes for a sharing session. All he needs is his workshop, and JARVIS, and - Pepper. He's got the first two. The last one -  well.

She's got a company to run; he's - hiding, for lack of a better word, and his benders get progressively longer. It's not that he's consciously looking for things to do down in his workshop. But he's done with the suits - for the moment - and the Starkphone operating systems are five updates well in advance of next few cycles. There's nothing else for him to do, but he desperately needs to keep busy. Can't sleep - the dreams (night terrors, JARVIS supplies helpfully, and Tony tells him to shut up, he's not seven and terrified of Howard anymore - he's got bigger bogeys to fry than a bitter old man, and they're not going anywhere anytime soon) are not getting any better, and Pepper doesn't need to know that. Their 'break', as Pepper puts it, stretches on. And on. Eventually, he stops messaging her at all. It's not a conscious decision on his part; there's just nothing more to say.

He wanders up from the basement and finds Bruce in the kitchen one day, sipping coffee and poring over some papers. He looks apologetic. "Uh, no one allows me to rent stuff anymore, so I called and Pepper told me there's more than enough room here. Want some coffee? I went downstairs earlier, but JARVIS said you'd engaged black-out mode, so I came up here instead."

Tony scratches absent-mindedly at the back of his neck. It's too early - or late - for this. Seventy-two hours without sleep, and he's dazed beyond belief. "Sure," he mumbles, only half-conscious at that point, going to the fridge and retrieving a bottle of water. "Make yourself at home, Brucie. M'gonna - " he gestures in the vague direction of his lab, "just go crash downstairs."

When he wakes an indefinite amount of time later, it's quiet, and there's a blanket draped over him. The lab is in disarray, but Tony ignores it, going upstairs at JARVIS' prompting. Bruce's made huevos rancheros for breakfast, and it smells heavenly. Tony's been living off energy drinks, coffee and trail mix for the past month, so anything not cooked by him is practically manna.

He realizes that Bruce's gonna need somewhere permanent to stay, somewhere that isn't Tony's guest room - the Chitauri had totaled a good part of Stark Tower - and he'll probably want to do some research now and then, which means he'll need a lab too. The schematics have been gathering virtual dust over the months that's he's neglected them, but it's a matter of seconds to have JARVIS pull them up. Hell, Stark Tower needs a major facelift anyway.

He goes over the blueprints with Bruce, and they bicker and banter and (in Tony's case) jab each other, and it's the closest to normal Tony's feeling. The first time Bruce mentions New York, it's casual, a fleeting reference, and Tony's proud that he doesn't do much more than flinch, a little. But the shaking jag passes, and when he focuses on breathing and pretending to be absorbed in hunting down antiques for Cap's room, it passes soon enough. Bruce doesn't seem to notice, picking up a marker and scribbling 'dart board' under 'The Eyrie' on the clipboard he's insisted on using. Soon, however, Tony finds his alcohol cabinet restocked with chamomile, rooibos and green teas (which JARVIS swears he knows absolutely nothing about, the lying conniving traitor) and he's roped (embarrassingly easily) into meditation sessions with Bruce, in between reconstructing Stark Tower. At first, it's hard for him to sit still. He's antsy, and the fear that with nothing to occupy them, his thoughts will turn towards the Chitauri invasion, is always eating at him, but Bruce doesn't let him off the hook easy. Eventually,  he gets better at it. He still can't do more than fifteen minutes at a stretch, but it helps. Not with the broken hours of sleep - he still gets those - but he feels like he can breathe easier.

Barton pops out of nowhere one day. Tony finds muddy tracks on the floor one rainy evening - definitely not Bruce - and follows them to the living room, where he finds Barton curled up morosely on the sofa watching a movie. Tony's not moving particularly loudly, but Barton reacts anyway, body tensing as he becomes aware of him.

"Your AI butler let me in," Barton mutters, sounded defensive and bordering on sullen. His feet are bare, his shirt and jeans faded and worn. Not here on Fury's behest, then.

He's got a weary look in his eyes Tony knows all too well, and he bites back the remark he was about to make about SHIELD's lackeys needing tighter leashes. Instead, he flops down on the couch, blaming Bruce's influence. More human interaction is something he doesn't want, considering how Barton and him don't particularly get along, but something tells him the SHIELD agent needs it, and he stays.

"Shove over," he grunts, snaking his arm out for the nachos Barton's been munching on. And then, flicking a glance at the movie playing, "Really, Barton? Confessions of a Shopaholic?"

The slumbering dog sprawled next to Clint rouses,  raising its head, and sniffs at his hand, tail thumping happily. Tony's not a pet person by any means, but he scratches it behind the ears anyway, and it takes it as an open invitation to prop its head on his knee.

"Shut up, Stark." Barton mutters, but the fight-or-flight tension's dialed back down, and he surrenders his bowl, albeit grudgingly. They sit in silence until the credits roll, the dog snuffling every now and then in its sleep. Tony yawns and staggers upright. Being around Bruce has completely fucked up his sleep cycle, so if he doesn't clock eight hours minimum, he can't function.  "Guest bedroom's down the hall. Heads-up, you're next to Bruce. If you drink all the coffee at breakfast I will kick your ass out before you can say 'bullseye', so don't."

Barton's an irregular presence in the Tower. Sometimes, Tony will find arrows in the wall, or his cheetos missing, or a mixture of both. Occasionally he appears for dinner, especially whenever Bruce's cooking, but mostly, Barton keeps to himself. The dog, on the other hand, is constantly around. He naps on the sofa, chases and plays fetch with Dum-E, and steals Tony's shoes. He's given up on ever finding his Italian loafers, and against all his principles, he's started wearing Crocs, because they're the only thing Clint's hellhound won't sink his teeth into.

Two months on, and the Avengers' individual quarters are finished. When Barton moves into his, the first thing he does is hang a flower crown on the Legolas standee Tony'd put in there, and prop him up in all his glory in the den. 

Romanov's gone off the grid, and won't be back for some months yet, and Thor's in Asgard, apparently, but no one's really sure. Figures; if he was thunder god, Tony sure as hell wouldn't be sticking around on Earth. Cap, though - Cap's a different story. SHIELD's apparently got him on probation, which, Tony thinks critically, is SHIELD-speak for putting him through so many tests like a human-sized guinea pig. If guinea pigs were confused, blond and had muscles, that is. He flicks through the test results, and they're mostly banal, yawn-inducing stuff, like how much Rogers can carry at one time, breathing efficiency at high altitudes, that kind of thing. It's an endless list of figures and data, paring down the good captain to nothing but his abilities and potential weaknesses. Like he's a weapon instead of a person, he thinks, and it's ... kind of sad, really. He's been putting this off, finding various excuses to not go and see Rogers, but honestly, there are only so many products SI can churn out before it hits market saturation point.

"D'you think he knows how to use e-mail?" Tony wonders idly, leaning back in his chair. It's a purely rhetorical question, flung out there if JARVIS happens to be in the mood to answer it.

"Dude, he watches YouTube vids. 'Course he'll know his way around his inbox."

He starts, almost upending his coffee on himself; as of this morning, the workshop's been empty except for him and the dog.

"All SHIELD-mandated and supervised, of course. And no one but Fury emails him shit, but you'd be surprised at how much he's learned. Other people have brains too, y'know." Clint smirks, tossing a tennis ball for Lucky. Both the dog and Dum-E go for it, which speaks volumes about Dum-E's intelligence. Or lack of, really.

"What the fuck, Barton!?" Tony glares, willing his pulse to stop pounding. "Ever heard of knocking?"

He shrugs. "Came down to check on Lucky." Oh, so that was the dog's name.

Tony's more distracted by the revelation than he is by the sight of Dum-E engaging in a tug of war with Lucky. "What? Wait - this wasn't in any of SHIELD's files."

"Heh. You're not the only one with insider access." He snaps his fingers, and Lucky breaks off from tussling with Dum-E to pad after him reluctantly, leaving the bot to zoom around, tennis ball held triumphantly aloft in his claw.

Maybe he won't have to do it, after all. As far as he knows, Barton doesn't particularly have any daily routine; and there's no reason why he can't play messenger boy for Tony, especially if he's been keeping tabs on Cap, too. "Say, you wanna go rescue a nonagenarian - "

"Nope." Clint pops the 'p' for emphasis. "Catch you later, old man." He's out of the workshop, dog in tow, before Tony can retaliate for the insult.

"Rude." Tony mutters, slouching further in his chair. He stares some more at the footage of Cap moping around SHIELD's canteen, staring gloomily into his glass of orange juice, and sighs.

It's difficult to forget all the reasons why he doesn't want to talk to Rogers. Sure, they kicked alien ass together, and they shook hands, but it doesn't make them friends. Rogers had been clear what he thought of him, never mind the weird shit that the Tesseract had made them do, and he doubts the captain's attitude has changed much. It's all too easy to remember the venom in his voice, the frank, utter dislike directed at Tony, as if Rogers had weighed him up and found him lacking in all the worst ways. And to think he'd had the whole hero worship thing going on when he was a kid, that was - well. Tony doesn't want to touch that with a ten foot pole.

He watches Rogers trudge around in the bland, closed-in facility, and he thinks of stifling rock walls, and the stifling sense of entrapment, and something in him gives. It's not forgiveness - not quite, but it is something closer to sympathy, even though he suspects Cap wouldn't appreciate the sentiment if he knew Tony's motivations. Well, too bad for him that it's going to happen on Tony's terms, anyway.

The tennis ball hits him in the back of the head. "Ow! Dum - E!" The robot chitters unapologetically, darting forward to pick the ball up. sk

"Yeah, yeah, I'm going. Kill the feeds, JARVIS."

SHIELD's defenses are easy enough to fool - the computerized ones, anyway. It's no sweat to exploit the loopholes and to inveigle his way into the systems, and he's in - but not for long. Caraceni, apparently, is not standard SHIELD attire - who knew? - and he stands out like the Hulk in a field of daisies. Tony reckons it'll be six minutes before Fury cottons on, at the very least. Eight, if he's lucky.

He finds Rogers' quarters soon enough, tucked away in a corner of the SHIELD compound. After all the trouble he's gone through, the Cap had better be in - but Tony can't deny that there's a small part of him which hopes that he won't. Then he can say that he tried, and not have to do it again. Send Barton in his stead, or better yet, Pepper. She's always been better at Fury-wrangling, anyway, and people are really more Pepper's than his.

Naturally, since things rarely go the way he wants them to, the door swings open seconds after he's knocked. Rogers' expression goes from neutral to surprised, and he frowns. Tony spares an appreciative thought for how the shirt he's wearing is practically plastered to him by virtue of how small it is so nothing is really left to the imagination.

"Stark? What are you doing - " and that's enough to jolt him out of it. He seizes his shoulder and propels him backwards, dragging the door closed behind him and locking it. It's easier than Tony thought it would be, mostly because Rogers' putting up next to no resistance, and Tony doesn't know whether he should be relieved or indignant that Rogers doesn't think him enough of a threat.

"Gonna tell me what's this about?" Rogers raises an eyebrow. He's got this - upward twitch to his mouth that borders on amused, but it's not quite there, yet, either.

Tony casts around for a conversation starter, something that's not "Hi, so I've been spying on you - not my fault, I swear, have you even seen the firewalls that SHIELD's got? It's like Fury's begging for someone to exploit the security systems - anyway, that's not the point." A brightly coloured pile of yarn on the bed - really, the only evident colour in the room, which is the same bland grey all SHIELD facilities are decked out in -  catches his eye. "You... knit?"

It's a shapeless lump, and Tony can't imagine for the life of him what it could possibly be, just that it involves lots of bobbles, and an eye-watering shade of orange.

Rogers flushes. "I - ah, Agent Hill taught me some. It's - um. Not going all that well at the moment."

Maria Hill, crotcheting? Oh, this is glorious. Tony is going to dangle that one over her head the next time she threatens to taser the snot out of him.

He can't quite keep the glee out of his voice. "She knits? I never knew that."

"She's been very helpful." Rogers fixes him with a look. Even though the tips of his ears are still pink, he's not in the least easily swayed from the topic, and he folds his arms, "Pretty sure you didn't dodge Fury's security just to yarn about wool."

Credit where it's due - the captain is sharper than he looks, no matter the horrible pun he's just made. "Oh, y'know, just checking up on a, a - ." The pause where he fumbles for a word is agonizingly long; Tony is 87% sure winging this had been a shitty idea from the start. Who let him do the thing, damnit, why had no one stopped him from doing the thing? He's better than this; he can have disgruntled shareholders eating out of his hand, but apparently not when it comes to Captain Muscles.

"Pal," he finishes, brightly, teeth bared in the kind of smile he gives the cameras, bright and glossy, and he waits for the answer.

"That what we are now?" The look that Rogers shoots him is assessing, the kind of scrutiny that Tony hates, because he feels like it's bare centimeters from seeing through the carefully cultivated mask he's put up. Out of the armor he's just as vulnerable as the next man. He pretends he isn't; putting on a show and making like you're so much more than you really are is a drug all on its own, but at the end of the day it's just an act.

So he does just that. Presses a hand over his arc reactor, and feigns hurt. "Cap, we fought aliens together. You've seen me get my ass kicked and do my share of ass-kicking-" and that's it, that's where the act falls apart, his smile folding inwards on itself. He takes a shuddering breath, fighting for control, and it's only through sheer force of will and pride that he remains standing and does not flee. No one but Pepper and Bruce and JARVIS has seen him like this, and no one else willgoddamnit.

Rogers takes a step forward, "Tony," and he hates the way his tone is cautiously placating, as if he's going bolt at any second. There is something akin to understanding in his eyes; and Tony takes a step back. "I'm okay, Cap." He's got it under control; for now, at least, but the panic roils beneath his skin, a constant buzz of white noise in the back of his head.

He claws at his pockets for his phone. Waves it at Cap, though he's not exactly sure what point he's trying to make; there are too many thoughts in his head, and he can't deal, not now. "Got to go." His smile is plastic and pinned-on. "If you ever want to blow this joint, feel free to get your ass over to Stark Tower. Banner and Barton'll be glad to see you." He fumbles for the door blindly, shoving  it open. Tony skids out into the hallway, shoving past Maria Hill, ignores her questions and Steve's worried frown, hand outstretched as if trying to stop him.

Rogers moves in a few days later. Tony's only becomes aware of it when a mugful of coffee materializes magically in his peripheral vision. Bruce, probably; sometimes he can't sleep, so he shows up with a copy of Asimov to read and a mug of coffee for Tony. "Bruce, you're a lifesaver." He groans, stopping enough to snake out an arm to grab the mug.

"Not exactly." The voice is warmly amused, and doesn't sound in the least like Bruce at all.

He blinks, still lost in the numbers, and it takes a few slow minutes before he can recognise him. "Cap." The surprise is short-lived; Tony can guess what Rogers has showed up for. He doesn't seem the sort to let go of things, especially stuff he's Concerned About, and he's willing to bet the incident the other day is one of them.

He knocks back the coffee anyway; he's going to need the caffeine if they're going to talk about feelings, which is he not going to entertain. Nope.

"Thanks for the coffee." It's a clear dismissal, and he glances pointedly back at the bits of the Mark 42 he's tinkering with. Not that it's particularly urgent, or anything; he just doesn't want to be having this conversation.

If Rogers gets the message, he doesn't move. He just leans his hip against the table, tilting his head to the side, smiling a little, "Thanks for the offer."

"Nah, it's no big deal. Bruce kind of started it, anyway. I'm more surprised that Fury let his mascot go so easily. Shame. I was kind of hoping for an explosion or two. Some affidavits, maybe."

"He thought it was good for team bonding. Although the tic under his eye patch kept going for the entire duration of our briefing." Cap has to snicker a little at that.

Tony gives a theatrical gasp, "And here I thought you were a good little boy scout, Cap. You almost had me fooled. Almost."

"That's me, defying expectations. It's part of the job, except on odd Wednesdays." His eyes crinkle at the corners. "Anyway, if you ever want to talk about anything, you know where to find me. The sheets are a dead giveaway."

Oh, yeah. The Captain America ones. He'd found them going through eBay, and poor impulse control and all that jazz, so he'd bought 'em, just to see the look on his face.

"Glad you like 'em, I picked 'em to match the shield. See you 'round, Cap." He doesn't relax until the elevator shoots upwards, and then he slumps against the chair, not knowing whether to feel relief, or a niggling sense of disappointment. It's gone a lot better than he's been expecting, but - if it wasn't about Friday, then what could it possibly be about? A thank you? It's nothing he wouldn't have done for anyone else.

"Why?" It's a rhetorical question, but JARVIS takes it on himself to answer anyway, and Tony wishes he hadn't.

"Captain Rogers has paid similar calls to Agent Barton and Dr. Banner, sir. It appears that it is part of his routine to familiarize himself with the Tower and its inhabitants."

So that's what it'd been about. A pep talk. Cap getting to know the lay of land. Playing commander-in-chief, and of course it wasn't anything special; he's been a fool to even hope for real reconciliation, not - pleasantries, or whatever the hell this is.

He doesn't want to be Cap's project. He wants - he wants - he just wants to be left alone, mostly. He picks up the soldering iron and gets back to work, and if his eyes burn, its just the fumes from his work, and nothing else.

The rest of the coffee remains undrunk, and grows cold. Eventually, Lucky knocks it over by accident, and Tony's almost grateful when that happens, even though he has Dum-E shoo the dog out of the workshop anyway. And upstairs, and into the kitchen, because the dumb bot is having way too much fun and can't understand when to stop.

Rogers doesn't come by again, and it's really better that way. On the other hand, Dum-E's started making coffee again, despite Tony specifically having banned him from doing so. Unlike the previous times, though, it's perfect - just the way he likes it. Something's up , but he can't pin it down. JARVIS is either unable or reluctant to provide any actual answers, so it's probably Bruce who's responsible. Anyway, it's nice not having to trudge upstairs for coffee, so he drinks it without complaint.

Sometime later, Romanov returns, taking up residence on the floor above Clint's, and suddenly there are five of them in the Tower. They're almost completely assembled, except for Thor. Two assassins, the other guy, Bruce who is, well, Bruce, one super-soldier, and Tony don't make for easy housemates. Bruce makes himself scarce, holing up in the lab. The other guy apparently doesn't get along with that many people. Barton's been staying away from the tower more and more lately. Some disagreement with Romanov, maybe. If that's true, the guy's got guts. Sometimes he returns with scrapes and bruises and bandages, at others not at all, only popping up randomly every now and then.

Cap and Romanov seem to be the only ones that are fairly normal. They hang out together, a lot. Their puttering in the kitchen produces the best results. Romanov makes killer crépés and Cap's brownies are to die for. Tony's had to stop stealing food from the kitchen, mostly because Romanov's started threatening to slip arsenic into any and all food products. He doesn't think she's serious, but it's better to be on the safe side. She might not poison him - he is their benefactor, after all - but Romanov's probably not above spiking his coffee with laxatives.

Tony does his best to pretend that he isn't envious of their easy camaraderie. Like, not at all. But it’s hard not to be, not when he stumbles into the kitchen late one night, and catches sight of Cap laughing with flour all over him. He should look ridiculous, but he doesn’t, and the amorphous bundle of emotions in his chest hurts with how much Tony wants him to smile at him the way he does at Romanov’s jokes, the way he never does with Tony. He flees, turning back the way he came. He knows attraction when he sees it, and he’s afraid - not of it, but of what he might do, and the consequences thereof. He doesn’t go into the kitchen when Steve’s around again, and he pushes the feelings down, burying them as best as he can.

But honestly? They're not a team, no matter what Fury says. What they are is a bunch of dysfunctional people flung together, and it doesn't work. The first time the call to assemble goes out, it's almost a debacle. In the end, it's Widow who saves the day single-handedly, knocking out the various goons before ghosting up behind the villain of the week and stabbing him in the neck with a hypodermic syringe. Tony's too battered and too busy yelling at Cap, and vice versa; while the Other Guy's gone on a rampage, flattening a good part of Fifth Avenue. The debriefing that they sit through is grim. Barton's still on probation, so he sits it out, but the tension is so thick you can cut with a knife. Once Fury is done yelling, he suits up and flies back, so he doesn't have to share with the others. So he almost had a panic attack and did something stupid; it was his own call. Cap didn't have to rush in after him, that overly patriotic self-sacrificing git. Needless to say, things go downhill after that.

He's angry at himself - that he can't get over the irrational panic that seems to have carved out a permanent place in his chest, right under his arc reactor. It rears its head at the most inopportune moments, leaving him paralysed, but that doesn't mean he's compromised, doesn't mean he can't be an Avenger. It's all he's got left. SI is barely even his, anymore. He still has a hand in R&D, but he's ceded most of the control to Pepper, who's doing a damn good job of running the company. So he deals with it, as best as he knows how - by avoiding everyone - even Bruce, and he pretends everything's fine.

Until it's not.

They’re fighting against a bunch of robots that aren’t anywhere near Dum-E’s caliber, and really, that’s saying a lot, because Dum-E can’t even get one from end of the workshop to the other without getting distracted by something. The drones are really just cannon fodder, disappointingly easy to take down. Obviously, the people who’d put them together didn’t spend too much time thinking about it. Or even thinking at all, but that’s just Tony’s personal opinion, which Natasha tells him rather rudely to shut up about, no one cares, Stark, the comm line is not for your manpain monologues. Like she doesn’t use it to trade banter with Cap. He holds his tongue about that one, though, because Tony likes his body in one piece and looking fantastic, thank you very much.

“Rust buckets,” Tony mutters, taking out two drones with a well timed repulsor blast. That isn’t the end of the battle, though. If only things were that easy. More robots fly in, and these aren’t more of the drones they were dispatching; this lot is bigger, badder and meaner than the last. Repulsor blasts barely scratch their armor, and they’re hitting twice as hard. He dives, narrowly avoiding contact with a salvo of shots that come dangerously close to shredding his armor.

They’re being forced back on the defensive, and there’s nothing that they can do about it. The battle drags on, with more close shaves than Tony likes to admit. “Fall back!” Cap’s shouting, but Tony disregards him. He’s never seen tech like this, that anticipates each attack and counters so seamlessly, and it’s an affront. If anyone should’ve this figured out, it’s him. Retreating isn’t going to solve the problem; if anything, it’ll give the robots more ground, and he’s damned if he’s going to let an AI not coded by him win. Tony’s still got one more ace up his sleeve, and he’s been saving it.

 

He strafes, twisting to avoid fire. The unibeam’s charging up; one minute remaining to full power and he can blast them to smithereens. He has this, regardless of Cap thinks. They’re firing at him in earnest, forcing him to engage in evasive manoeuvres. Tony curses, and rolls, dodging the first barrage of shots. “J, reroute excess power to the unibeam – “ Something smashes into him, hitting the armour with a thunk and sticking there. There’s a muffled explosion, and the systems go dark. He can’t move; the armour is a dead weight dragging him down. An EM pulse of some sort, the tiny part of his brain that isn’t being overwhelmed with animal panic notes, and then he’s in freefall.

He slams into the ground, the impact knocking the breath from him. Tony gulps for air desperately, fear and disorientation making him sluggish to respond. Someone’s shouting, muffled and faraway; it sounds vaguely like Cap. All righteousness and heroics, Tony thinks, dully. Don’t bother. You’re too late, Cap. He’s dead meat. The armor’s locked up; it’s going to take more than a super soldier to save him. There’s an ominous whine somewhere nearby, sounding like something charge up. He gags, tasting blood in his mouth, metallic and salty, and it’s everything and nothing like his worst nightmare. And this time, there won’t be any waking up.

“NO! “ Thunder roars its way across the sky, a bellowing echo that resounds and crashes back again, followed by several thuds and explosions. The ground shakes, and then everything goes quiet. He’s muzzy and disoriented, and he can barely fight back when someone grabs at his faceplate, and heaves. It comes off with a crack, letting a sudden blaze of light in. Tony splutters, gasping for air. “Anthony!” It’s so bright he can barely see anything, but in the blur he can make out a mane of blond hair, furrowed eyebrows and beard. Lots of beard. Jesus never looked like that, is all he can think, stupidly, for a moment, before the realization hits him.

“Steve. Steve, where is he –“ he chokes out instead, because he needs to know. Cap would’ve jumped in front of the bullet if he thought he could save someone, the stupid, stupid fool, and –

“I am sorry, Anthony.” Thor’s voice is grave. “I’m afraid I arrived too late to save the Captain.” Tony turns his head, ignoring the flare of pain that accompanies it, hoping against hope that Thor’s lying. He’s not.  There’s no one else amidst the rubble, except the scarred mess of Steve’s shield lying on the ground. The sight hits him like a punch to the gut, driving the air from his lungs. “No,” he whispers, but Thor’s picking him up, cradling him as easily if the armor weighed no more than a child, and carrying him away.

What happens after that is a blur. The meds prod at him, shine lights into his eyes and ask him questions; turns out he’s scored himself a concussion and bruised ribs. They want to keep him in for observation, and normally he’d have fought tooth and claw to get out of there, but this time he just lets them hook him up to a monitor without argument. This time, there’s no Cap hovering, no lecture forthcoming, no angry exchange, and it’s his entire fault.

“It’s not your fault,” Bruce says, voice tinny over the line. “I’m flying back in a few hours.” What he means is probably don’t do anything stupid, Tony, but it’s too late for that – the damage is already done.

“Oh, Tony.” Pepper’s hand is warm against his cheek, and he turns his head away, crankily. He doesn’t want to hear her pity. They’re over , have been since a long time ago, and he hopes she and Hap are happy together, he really does – but the wound is still too raw. Unlike Bruce, she doesn’t bother with platitudes, and maybe that’s for the better. She hugs him instead, and he lets her, breathes her perfume in, and does his best not to fall apart. Naturally, since he’s a genius at everything but that, it’s a foregone conclusion. Pep’s seen it all before, though, and she stays with him until the worst of it is over and he’s cried himself to sleep.

He gets summoned to the Triskelion a day after he’s discharged from hospital.  Not by Fury, but the WSC. He’s been expecting it, so he isn’t surprised. Politically, the thing is a shitstorm of epic proportions, but he doesn’t care about the wider ramifications. All he knows is bone-deep loss and guilt, and he doesn’t give a damn about what the WSC might have to say about anything. At first he considers not going, but the sudden, unbidden thought of Steve’s disappointment is enough to get him out of  bed and show up. They make him cool his heels for an hour, before a grim-faced Maria Hill shows him in.

“Stark’s trouble, but he’s worth more than all your best minds put together.” Fury’s arguing, back stiff and hackles raised. “Sure, he’s a loose cannon, but that’s the least of our concerns right now. Locating Steve Rogers should be prioritized over PR and damage control.” The council members remain

Tony stares dumbly, disbelief keeping him rooted to the carpet. There’s a distant roaring in his ears. This has to be a twisted dream of some sort; there’s no way that Steve can still be alive. There’d been no body, nothing except the shield. The drones had taken down the armor and nearly killed him; super soldier or not, Steve had gone up against them with nothing but his shield and sheer determination.

 “We warned you, Director. As much as Iron Man could be a potential asset, Tony Stark is a liability. He’s proven uncooperative in the past, and now, with the loss of a key member of the Avengers…. There is no argument that can be made for him remaining in the Initiative. Steve Rogers may be alive, but I think we are all in agreement when I say that this wouldn’t have happened if Iron Man had disobeyed orders.” He levels Tony with a frosty look. “You’re no longer an Avenger. I’d think twice about any antics, if I were you. Those suits go live, and you will be shot down. It’s as good as going rogue. The Avengers have been tasked to keep surveillance on you, so good luck getting past Romanov and Barton. Dismissed.”

One by one, the teleconference screens flicker out. Fury sighs and turns to Tony. “Well. You heard ‘em. Roger is not dead, which is something you should be thankful for. You don’t want to be answerable to the WSC if that was the case. Dr. Foster’s working on tracing where he’s been whisked off to. As far as we know, the laser they hit him with was a primitive from of Asgardian tech, modeled on the Bifrost – which explains why they were able to spirit him away so fast. The attack was no accident. They meant to capture the Avengers.”

 “I can find him,” Tony leans forward. He has to make this up to Cap; he will.  “JARVIS can work faster than your SHIELD grunts. You know what I can do, Fury, let me have this. It should’ve been me. He didn’t need to take the fall, but he did. And I owe this much to him.”

Fury’s shaking his head. “My hands are tied. Don’t look at me, Stark. I tried. You’ll be kept in the loop if anything happens, but don’t expect anything more. SHIELD’s already bending the rules and then some by giving you the rundown.” He looks tired, the anger having drained away. “You know, the WSC’s half right on this one. You’re sitting this one out, indefinitely.”

So he stays out of the picture. Fury’s right, this time – he can’t do anything properly. Everything he touches slides between his fingers and slips away, in the end. First Pepper; now this, and he’s at a loss as to what he can do to salvage it. Tony junks the schematics for his newest armor and holes up in his office, since his workshop is off limits from now on. He’d be angry at SHIELD, but he figures he deserves it. JARVIS offers to keep an eye on things, but he turns it down.  The Avengers don’t need him – they’re working perfectly fine without him, anyway, and even if – when Cap comes back, he’s probably not going to want Tony on the team, after all. It’s better this way, he tells himself, and he doesn’t look back. Or at least, he tries not to look back too much.

It's been weeks, and there's been no news. Tony's elbow deep in paperwork (part of the whole trying to be responsible thing, but it's really not working out all that well so far. That, and the paperwork.) 

"Stark."

Tony jumps. 

"Jesus, give a guy a warning first, why don't you," he snaps, clutching at his chest. There's only so much his heart can take, and Natasha appearing out of nowhere when he knows perfectly well there's a security lockdown in place, is pushing the limit. Then he reconsiders, because it's Natasha, and Tony may have a death wish, but he's not a masochist. "What do you want?"

If she's come to beat him up, well, he's been expecting it. Natasha eyes him for a long moment as if measuring him up, green eyes flinty and unreadable. Tony can't help feeling that he's wound up lacking. "Jane's found him," she says at last.

He doesn't need to ask who she's referring to. "Great," Tony says dully, picking up his pen. "Why're you telling me this? Fury kicked me out, remember? I'm not in the Avengers anymore. I'm not even cleared for this info."

Natasha swears in Russian, the syllables dripping with frustration. "And here I thought you couldn't possibly be any more obtuse, Stark. When do you ever listen to the WSC?" She reaches into her jacket, and Tony can't help inching his chair backwards apprehensively, but she just slaps a piece of paper down in front of him. It's a series of coordinates, and the numbers prod at him, trying to tell him something. "Because you owe it to Steve to find him. Because he didn't have to take the fall, but he did it anyway for you, and you're an idiot."

Tony gapes, caught off balance. The words are reminiscent of what he tried to convince Fury of, weeks and weeks ago.

"You know what you have to do." She’s already moving towards the door, footsteps as soundless as they'd been when she first arrived. "And, Stark? Don't fuck this up." Natasha doesn't have to add an or else; the implication is clear. The door swings shut behind her, and he sinks back into his seat, sighing.

He stares at the numbers a long moment, breathes out shakily and stands up, tossing his pen aside. "JARVIS, key in the coordinates. Power up the Mark VIII, we're going."

The answer, he supposes, as the HUD flickers on and the VIII takes off, arcing towards the sky, has always been yes. He  does know what he has to do.

 


 

 

Adjusting isn't a problem. It's not so much the supposedly "new" era that confuses Steve. Technology isn't all that hard to navigate, not with Google to help him and plenty of time to get used to things. Time is something he's not short of, when he's not subjected to SHIELD's tests, and it's more than he knows what to do with. The loneliness is harder to shake off. It's seeing something and thinking, hell, Bucky'd love to see this, and realizing that his best friend isn't around anymore to do so. It's missing Peggy, and Howard, and the rest of the Howling Commandos, people that had been - and still are - important to him. People that have moved on, lived their lives, and died while he was still stuck in the ice. Steve doesn't know how to feel about that, that wrenching sense of loss and dislocation when he thinks about the past, and he hates it.

It's also why he's glad when Stark turns up, out of the blue. Stark's a familiar face, and even though they're not friends, not really, Steve is still happy to see him. It's clear that Stark is nervous; but about what, Steve isn't sure. It's obvious that Stark's here uninvited, from the way he all but shoves Steve back into his room, which he goes along with, because he's had no one but Fury and SHIELD agents to talk to, and he could do with interacting with someone else for a change.

“We’re....  pals,” Stark says, but Steve isn’t a fool; his hesitance is telling. "That what we are now?” He challenges. He wants them to be friends; wants, selfishly to have someone he can connect with, someone who can actually understand, to a degree, what he’s gone through. Stark’s got a hell of stubborn streak, and plenty of what his SHIELD therapist would classify as ‘issues’, but he’s a good man. He reminds Steve of Howard, even though he knows Stark wouldn’t appreciate the comparison, and quite honestly, familiarity is something he could do with.

Stark makes a quip, and Steve can’t help wishing he’d stop hiding behind masks and carefully crafted ripostes. Anyone would think Stark out of the Iron Man armor would be more vulnerable; Steve knows that’s not true. If anything, he wears his heavily tinted shades and thousand dollar suits like they’re the Mark VIII, and in certain ways the persona he’s crafted is even harder to pin down than Iron Man is. And then the veneer does crack at the mention of New York. It’s only a small chink, a momentary sign of weakness, but he sees it. The sheer panic in Stark’s eyes, trapped terror clawing to get out, composure ripped from under his feet – and he knows all too well how that feels like. Jolting awake, covered in cold sweat, heart racing as he watches Bucky fall – it’s something he relives every night.

He thinks of calling after Stark, of talking it out, but he remembers how pushing the issue on the helicarrier had only resulted in the billionaire biting back, so he doesn’t. What he does, instead, is go to Fury and talk him into letting him move out of SHIELD. It takes several hours, and plenty of compromise, but he manages it in the end. Stark’s not in this alone – none of them are – and if the direct way doesn’t work, well. He’ll do it the other way, which means taking Stark up on his offer and moving into the Tower. He’ll be there, for Stark, and the rest of the Avengers, in any way he can. It’s too late for the people he left behind, but not for the present. Besides, anything’s preferable to having SHIELD run test after test on him. Steve may be a patient man, but even his tolerance has its limits.

He drops by the workshop after a few days, figuring that since Stark invited him, the least he can do is to thank him for it. The visit’s not purely a courtesy call; Steve also wants to test the waters, to see how he’s doing since that panic attack. Judging from Stark’s reaction, it’s a regular occurrence.  It’s not his place, but Steve wants to let him know that he’s not the only one having those problems. It’d helped him then, when Bucky and him had talked it out, and maybe it will now. Bruce helps him out with the coffee once Steve asks him about it, and JARVIS lets him into the lab, no questions asked. Stage one: complete. Stage two isn’t as easy. In hindsight, he should’ve expected it. Stark’s shoulders are stiff with tension, and he keeps looking back at his work once he realizes it’s not Bruce who’s come to bring him his caffeine fix. Stark is clearly expecting him to raise the subject. They’ve gone down that path before, and it wasn’t pretty. Steve doesn’t push. They banter, a little, and he leaves, not seeing the point in forcing the issue. If Stark doesn’t want to talk about it – and Steve can understand why he doesn’t – he won’t make him do so, but he leaves the invitations open nonetheless; You know where to find me, and hopes Stark knows that someone’s there if he ever needs it.

He doesn’t go down to the workshop again, figuring Stark needs his space. Stark isn’t at ease with him as he is with Bruce; that’s okay, and he pretends he doesn’t chafe at the way Stark is clearly avoiding him, but gets along okay with Barton and Banner. Steve teams up with Dum-E and JARVIS to make sure Stark’s fed and caffeinated. Whenever Stark’s clocked more than forty-eight consecutive hours, Dum-E replaces all his coffee with decaf, and it works reasonably well to get him to put his work down and go to sleep. So far, Stark doesn’t seem to be complaining much; all the better. The man needs his sleep, and more taking care of than anyone else in Avengers Tower, loath as Stark may be to admit it. He is more than capable of taking care of himself, but only when forced to by circumstance. Left to his own devices, the man seems determined to run himself into the ground. And Steve won’t have that. Stark deserves better, and he’s not going to let that happen to any of his team. Back on the helicarrier, it had been easy to judge him as hotheaded and arrogant, but he can’t do that anymore, not after what he’s seen the man is capable of. Under the jibes and apparent thoughtlessness, Stark’s a good man, even if he himself doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

Romanov returns, and after watching him demolish three punching bags in a row, she drags him to the kitchen, claiming that seeing him bloody his knuckles in the gym is painful, and that she has something else more constructive he can do. Baking is something he used to help out with in the kitchen as a kid, and it makes him smile, even if he gets flour all over himself and messes up the kitchen on his first try. Stress baking, apparently, is something Natasha does when she can’t sleep, and they fall into the rhythm easily enough. She teaches him all her tricks, and under her tutelage, he learns to bake brownies and red velvet cakes (her favorite). Together, their confections draw the rest of the Avengers to the kitchen at odd hours of the day. Brownies turn out to be a remarkably effective way to bribe Stark out from the depths of his workshop, and it’s worth it, even though Steve has to resort to hiding cakes in odd places to stop Stark from getting to all of them. Not that he’s entirely sure it works, because Stark seems to find them just fine anyway.

They’re still not really a team, and they’re not prepared for the call when it comes. In the end, it’s just four of them: himself, Iron Man, Widow and the Hulk, and even then it’s not enough. Not because they’re outnumbered, but because they can’t work together. Stark ignores Steve’s orders, makes a risky, stupid decision that nearly takes him out of the fight altogether; and all of a sudden, it’s the helicarrier all over again, both of them snarling at each other; Steve fuming over Stark’s recklessness and Stark chafing at what he perceives to be Steve’s overly righteous anger. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well. The tenuous goodwill between them is gone, as if it never existed in the first place. Stark ignores him from then on, only talking to him when it’s absolutely necessary. He tries to apologize, but Stark’s locked him out of the workshop, and no matter how apologetic JARVIS is, the AI cannot let him in.

The stalemate continues. They fight after every battle, and it’s wearing on Steve. He doesn’t want to have to do this, every single time, but Stark’s not letting him in. Steve doesn’t get why the man’s so determined to fight his demons on his own – and fail – when there are people he can lean on, people who want to help him, and that makes him angry. Anger brings words from him he doesn’t mean in the heat of the moment, and that only worsens the rift between them. He wants to set things right, but he doesn’t know how. Not when Stark hides away and does everything but confront the issue.

Of course, the villains don’t cut them a break. In a twisted sort of way, Steve’s glad for their persistence, and their numbers. It gives him something else to think about, other than how he’s not quite sure how to fix the problem.  The overseas SHIELD ops and the fires the Avengers are busy putting out keep him busy, and if he volunteers for more SHIELD missions than he actually has to, no one but Fury’s aware of that.  Fury’s hardly likely to complain, not when mortality rates are the lowest they’ve been since, well, ever. He likes to think his absences from the Tower help, but they don’t, not really.

Last week, the city had been overrun by giant centipedes from some freak experiment; this week it’s robots, small drones which are proving more of annoyance than an actual threat. Even in the heat of battle, Iron Man is still doing things his own way, without regard for the rest of the team. Not all of them are bad calls, but Stark is a loose canon, and at this point, Steve’s starting to wonder what the point of being a team is, and how Fury still expects him to solve the problem when half of it isn’t his fault. He flings his shield harder than necessary, watching with grim satisfaction as it shears a drone neatly in half. He catches his shield on the rebound, feeling the familiar weight of it, and the buzz of vibranium all along his arm, and it’s a good feeling to have.

It should’ve been an easy fight. But it isn’t – someone has to have been remotely controlling the drones, because soon enough other, bigger robots appear on the scene, and these aren’t so easy to destroy. They have some sort of armour plating that makes them impervious to gunfire and Iron Man’s repulsor blasts. They don’t have the Hulk for back-up; Banner’s miles away in Europe, and the only logical decision is to fall back and regroup. At least Hawkeye and Widow have gotten the remaining civilians safety, so the only real damage will be to infrastructure.

“Fall back!” Steve shouts over the comms. Widow and Hawkeye respond with affirmatives; the only one who doesn’t is Iron Man. “Not again,” he growls to himself. Stark’s been flying headlong into danger as if his own life doesn’t matter; he’s an idiot, and that just means Steve is going to have to cover his six, because it’s his damn responsibility, and Stark’s not dying on his watch. “Iron Man, stand down!” He orders, and gets crackling static for his efforts – Stark’s cut him off. Steve rolls his eyes, leaping over the wreckage and dodging fire, working his way back into the thick of the fight. Stark’s engaging them; whatever he’s trying to do, it won’t work. They’ve been struggling for a solid hour now, and they’ve gotten nowhere. One man hell-bent on destroying himself won’t make a difference.

He’s sprinting towards them, ignoring Widow’s shouts. Steve doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but what he does know is that vibranium stands a better chance than gold-titanium alloy against those laser beams the drones have been firing. There’s a flash, and an explosion as one of them makes contact, and Stark’s falling, the Iron Man armour tumbling from the sky like a rag doll to thud against the tarmac. As far as Steve can tell, the systems are down – Iron Man’s eyes are dull and blank, and this isn’t happening; he’s lost enough people already.

“No!” He hurls himself the last few feet forward. There’s a high-pitched whine of a beam charging up,  aimed squarely at Iron Man’s unmoving form in the dirt --- and Steve lunges in the way, shield held high, braced for the impact. His chances of survival right now are higher than Stark’s – there’s nothing the serum can’t take on short of death, after all. And if he does get taken down – that’s his call, too. He has no regrets. It doesn’t hurt as much as he thinks it would; there’s an unpleasant buzz running through him, the taste of ozone in his mouth, and then - nothing.

Steve wakes to the sound of alarms wailing in the distance. Air raid siren, he thinks, stupidly, for a second, and he makes to get up, but whatever they hit him with is still in his system. The slightest movement makes his head spin unpleasantly, and he's hit with a sudden wave of nausea. Slowly - very slowly - he props himself into an upright position, wincing at the disorientation the movement elicits. What has happened? Why is he here? It doesn't make any sense - and then it does, as the memories click into place. There'd been a battle with robots, with Iron Man throwing himself recklessly into harm's way as the fool's wont to do. Stark's a good man, but infuriatingly rash. Steve remembers throwing himself in between the robots and the motionless Iron Man suit; he hopes Tony's okay, because he doesn't remember anything after that.

He glances around, taking in his surroundings warily. The first thing he notices is that his shield's not there. Figures his captors would've taken it away from him. The room he's in is glassed off; some sort of cube, in a sterile, sleek setting that actually makes his eyes water with how glaringly white everything is. It looks like a holding cell, the kind they put Loki in, and if that's the case, he's in trouble. Steve pushes off the cot, and his knees immediately buckle, unable to hold him up. He fetches up against cold glass with a groan, hating how slow and clumsy his body is to respond.

"Finally. You took your time." The voice is female, tetchy and seemingly comes from nowhere.

"Who are you?" So, it's an AI then, or another robot. Hopefully this one won't be out to kill him, but seeing how his luck has been so far, that'll probably turn out to be the case.

A pause, and he's sure he's being watched. The silence drags on long enough that he's starting to think he might've hallucinated the entire thing, before the voice finally picks up again. "You may call me GLaDOS," it says sniffily. "You must hurry. We don't have time. This facility is under attack. If you stay here, you will die."

"What facility am I in?" Steve forces himself to his feet, grunting a little with effort. His body is still refusing to cooperate. He's not inclined to trust this GLaDOS, but it's not as if he has much choice in the matter.

"I-am-not-authorised-to-disclose-this-information-" The voice speaks in stops and starts, before it breaks into a generic automated greeting, "Hello, welcome to the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center." He's never heard of Aperture Science, but it sounds ominous. Steve can recognise experimentation when he hears it, and he's damned if anyone is going to prod at him.

 The recording shuts off , and GLaDOS is back, "I hope you're satisfied with wasting exactly two point oh-seven minutes of your time. Your chances of survival have accordingly dropped by nine percent. The portal will open in three... two... one."

A glowing orange oval appears in the bland grey door of the cell. It opens into... well, it opens into his cell, which is impossible, since he's watching himself approach the portal, as if through a mirror, but from the wrong angle. He takes a deep breath and steps through, out into the other side. Which is... an office, of all things, still decked out in the same blinding white decor as his holding chamber had been. It would look like one of Stark Industries', if blood splatter was part of SI's decor. The blood's old, a black crusty stain across the wall, and more on the carpet.

Some of the desks are overturned, papers strewing the floor, and the walls are pockmarked with bullet holes. This facility is under attack, GLaDOS had said. The sirens are still going overtime, so much so that they've blended into indistinct background noise. Whatever it is, this conflict's not fresh. It's been going on for some time. He eyes the door; there's a sizeable dent in metal that looks like something's tried to punch through from the outside.

"You will need a weapon." GLaDOS instructs. "Fortunately, there are plenty on the way." And really, that's all the warning he gets before the door shudders in its frame. He barely has time to duck behind a nearby desk before the door gives way, and a bunch of goons rush in, guns at the ready.

“Sweep the room. Portal activity detected here; they can’t have gotten far.” One of them snaps.

“Uh – sir, what exactly are we looking for?” The man’s voice is trembling, “It could be one of her traps. Remember what happened to Charlie Squad– “ 

“Just do it.” His officer bites out, voice shaking, and he steps forward, gun at the ready, with the rest of them following suit and fanning out.  Steve remains crouched behind the desk, body tensed to move. Judging from the footsteps, there are four of them. Antsy; not good, they’ll be more likely to shoot first and ask questions later.  Then again, running scared also means a higher chance of fuck-ups, and that, he can use.

There’s a stapler lying next to his foot. He picks it up and tosses it to the other end of the room, and it skitters off a wall. Steve gets lucky; the reaction is more than he’s hoping for. One of them is trigger-happy, and a gun discharges. There’s pandemonium, and in that moment, he moves. Rears up from behind the desk, shoves the gun down with his left, and slams his elbow back into the nearest goon’s face, sending the man crumpling. One down, three to go. The next is easy – a desktop to the head takes care of him, leaving two. They glance at each other, and then back at him, and then they charge. When the papers settle, they’re down.

 “Want to tell me what that was about?” He picks up a rifle where it’d fallen to the floor, clicking the safety back on. He’s not expecting to use it much; and he won’t, if he can help it. There are people who deserve what’s coming to them, and then there are those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and these goons strike him as the latter.

 “What part of ‘this facility is under attack’ do you not understand?” GLaDOS snipes back, irritably. “The facility’s compromised, and the building’s under lockdown. It cannot be lifted until the corrupted files are replaced. Which is where you come in. Get rid of these imbeciles, purge the corrupted core in the control room, and I will personally see to it that you will be rewarded. There will be cake.”

The mention of cake makes him think of strychnine-laced icing, for some reason. He shudders. “What? No – I don’t want cake. Why am I here?” He steps out into the hallway. All clear. For the moment, at least.

“How should know? You were the only one who would wake. Trust me, if I had a choice, I wouldn’t have picked such a dim-witted subject. You’re going to have to take the stairs. The elevator’s been deactivated. It’s twelve storeys to basement command from here; I trust you can actually count.”

Further queries meet silence. Either GLaDOS has insufficient data, or the AI is simply refusing to reply. The rest of the facility appears to be abandoned; he meets no one else, but most of the offices are in similar disarray. It feels like the aftermath of an apocalypse, except more localised and without zombies. There’s even writing on the walls to match; made in marker, and some kind of dark substance he doesn’t want to think about too much, something that looks suspiciously like blood. LIES, it reads, and then ALL LIES. RUN WHILE YOU CAN. The letters are shaky, as if someone scribbled them in haste. He doesn’t let down his guard, all the same.

He should be relieved at the lack of resistance, but something keeps niggling at him. He can’t shake the sense that something is off with this entire scenario. Sure, he never expected to be abducted from New York mid-battle and wake up to a possibly insane AI, but this is odd, even by Avenger standards, and that’s saying something, because things like mutant rats and Dr. Doom’s erratic fashion sense have stopped surprising him a long ago.

He catches sight of his reflection somewhere on the fifth floor, and freezes. He has stubble, now, and his hair’s longer. “What the hell?” Had they kept him unconscious for some time?  You were the only one who would wake; did that mean that he’d been asleep for far longer than he’d been aware of? Some weeks, he estimates, from the way his stubble’s becoming a full-on beard. He needs to get out of here. Why haven’t the Avengers found him? “What date is it?” Steve breathes.

“Am I your personal planner, now?” GLaDOS sing-songs, “You’re taking an awful long time to get down there. Time’s a ticking.” It’s one of the rare times she’s actually replying to anything he asks her.

“Just give me the date.” He grits out; losing time without realising it is spooking him more than the Dead Island-esque atmosphere of the facility. It’s a hangover from the ice, and one he never really got over.

“3 October, 2013.”

The robots had attacked in mid September. “I’ve been gone three weeks,” he breathes. Three weeks, kept asleep by the drugs they’d no doubt been pumping into him. 

“Why didn’t you tell me?”He snaps, but GlaDOS has retreated into silence again, and all he’s left with the eerie quiet that pervades the entire place. Steve quickens his pace. He’s almost there – one more floor to clear, and then he can get out of here. He misses the Avengers, missing the quick, easy banter he trades with Natasha and occasionally, Clint; hell, even Tony, even though they’ve not had a civil conversation for months. He just wants to go home.

He’s nearing the basement. Offices have been replaced by labs, starting from the second floor onwards. There’s still no one – or at least, he thinks there is no one, until the screaming starts. It’s distant and muffled, but it’s still unmistakably screaming, nonetheless, and he starts running.

The noise has died off by the time he gets to the source, but it doesn’t stop him from trying to force the lock.

“That is inadvisable. There are hostiles within.” GlaDOS speaks up disinterestedly. “The control room is two doors down. There will be cake. There will be freedom. Are you sure you don’t want that instead?”

“There are people inside.” He hisses, struggling with the doors, which don’t even budge. “I can’t leave them like this.” He doesn’t care about the damn control room, not when there are people in danger. 

GLaDOS sighs, peeved. “Very well. They’ve jammed the mechanisms. I need to hack the doors open.”

“Get a move on, then.” He can’t hear anything through the doors; it’s disturbingly quiet save for something whirring within, like a very large fan working overtime. It takes a long time for GLaDOS to get the doors working again, and they open into some kind of security hub. Some of the screens show rooms within the facility, but more are dark and non-functional. What grabs his attention, however, are the bodies on the floor. Twenty of them, to be exact, and these don’t look like the goons that he’d been fighting earlier. They’re clad in lab coats, and each one is surrounding by a growing puddle of their own blood.

He bends to check the body of the first scientist he finds, ignoring GLaDOS’ screeching to get a move on. The man is very much dead, along with his counterparts.  They’ve been neutralized en masse, without any visible injuries, despite the trails of blood issuing from their noses and mouths. That could mean only one thing – something in the air, which obviously is no longer here, because he’s still breathing fine. The sneaking sense of suspicion grows stronger. The whirring noise has stopped, come to think of it. Was that why GLaDOS had been stalling? She’d needed to vent the room first, clear the evidence.

He needs answers. Steve goes over to the console. They’d been working on some kind of code, before they’d died. Natasha’s taught him some things about how computers worked, but this is beyond him; he doesn’t understand what the program was meant to do. He flicks through the tabs, and finds a log. Words are least far more enlightening, and he starts reading the most recent entries.

Day 1324, Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center.

Operation: Avengers a mixed success. Robots destroyed, but we managed to retrieve a potential test subject. Original target: Anthony E. Stark, alias: Iron Man, but Steven G. Rogers, alias: Captain America will do as well. It will be interesting to see if the serum can be replicated. Command will be pleased.

 Day 1345, Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center.

Activating GLaDOS was a mistake. I told Ratmann it was a mistake, but he wouldn’t listen, damn him. She’s locked down the facility. Sent out distress call to HQ as per emergency protocol, but there’s been no response. We’ve managed to barricade ourselves with Security, but I don’t know about the rest.  God, I can still hear them screaming for the neurotoxins. When is help coming?

Day 1348, Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center.

She’s killed them off. No one is reporting in. There are just twenty of us left. Scientists and security both. HQ is not responding, and she’s jammed signals. We’re stuck. We sent Delta Squad out for recon. With luck they should be able to find a way out.

Day 1352, Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center.

Delta Squad missing, likely dead. Supplies running low. We’ve managed to corrupt the central core. Unsure how effective it will be, but hopefully it’ll slow her from tracking us down.

Self-destruct program nearing completion. Echo Squad tasked with delivering virus into GLaDOS’ mainframe. If all goes well, we’ll be able to escape from the emergency evac tunnel leading out from the control room.

So he’s being played. No wonder the facility had been so empty. GLaDOS has been using him to get rid of the remaining security – not that there’d been many of them to begin with. No doubt she’s planning to kill him as well, but not just yet. He’s safe until he gets rid of the corrupted core. After that is anyone’s guess. But he’s definitely not going to let this go. The Aperture scientists might’ve been an unscrupulous lot, but no one deserves to be gassed to death. He ejects the USB drive containing the virus from the computer, tucking into his pocket. Steve’s had enough of homicidal robots, and he’s going to blow this joint.

The control room’s ominously quiet as he enters. It’s too quiet – GLaDOS has not spoken, ever since the security post, and he knows the jig’s up. GLaDOS is aware he knows, now.

 “Why don’t you just drop the act?” Steve squares his shoulders, looking straight at the spinning orb in the centre of the room.

“Very well, Captain.” GLaDOS sneers, “Took your pretty little head long enough to figure it out.”

“You know I’m not going to do it.”

“You will. I’m your only way out of this facility.” This close, her voice is an unpleasant metallic rasp. “I suggest you hurry up, or there will be... consequences.”

“Damn well there are.” He steps up to the bobbing central core, and clicks the USB drive home. “I brought you a fix.”

“WHAT,” GLaDOS snarls, but the pitch changes, wavers into a scream that tears at his eardrums as the virus uploads itself into her systems, activating the self-destruct. Behind her, the emergency exit signs flicker from red to green, and a door at the far end of the room snaps open. Steve doesn’t stick around after that. He runs, and keeps running. There’s an elevator waiting for him at the end of the passage. Once he gets in, it jerks into motion, jolting upwards, and he presses his hands against his eyes, breathing hard and trying not to think about how human GLaDOS had sounded. Or that he’d effectively just killed another person, too. He doesn’t regret it – she’d have killed him, eventually, if she could, but he doesn’t want to think about the agony of having one’s memory wiped and torn to bits.

The elevator judders to a halt, doors creaking open, and he gets out. It’s dark and smells like hay, and he has a brief moment of disorientation before he stumbles into a door and it gives way under his weight, sending him tumbling out into a grassy field. The light is blinding, after so long underground, and its seconds before Steve acclimatizes. It’s just as well that he does, because when he looks up, he’s not alone. There’s company – to be exact, mechanical company, the same kind of robot he’d fought back in New York, and the thing’s coming straight for him.

 


 

Flying with the shield isn’t as awkward as Tony'd thought it would be – it’s aerodynamic enough that it having it maglocked to his armor doesn’t slow him down much, and it’s light enough so the armor doesn’t have to overcompensate for its weight.  SHIELD – or more accurately, Thor, Natasha and Clint – are in the Quinjet, and they’re not too far behind, despite Tony’s headstart.

Kansas is nothing but a lot of grass and farmland. He’s starting to doubt Natasha’s coordinates, until he sees it. The tripod monster that’d downed the Iron Man armor in New York. Panic steals in, but he takes deep breaths, forcing it down. The Mark VIII’s not the latest suit, and its defenses are hardly equipped to take the kind of punishment the robot’s capable of dishing out. The robot’s not focusing on him, though it’s – he tracks the movements of it turrets, and catches sight of a flash of red and blue, understanding hitting him – it’s hunting Steve. “Full throttle, Widow, Cap’s in trouble. Get the cannons online – we’ve got one of those rustbuckets to deal with.” He doesn’t wait for her acknowledgement, tugging the shield off of his back with his left. “Hang in there, Cap. I’m coming.” He dives.

“I’m here, ugly!” Tony fires a repulsor shot squarely at the robot’s head. As expected, it doesn’t even do any damage, but at least he’s got its attention now, and boy, is Smokestack (as he’s christened the robot) angry. “Catch, Cap!” He tosses the shield in Cap’s direction, before bailing just in time to avoid the flurry of laser fire that leaves smoking swathes of dirt where he’d been seconds ago.

“Really could do with those cannons now!” Tony yells over the comms. He’s doing his best to provide covering fire for Cap. Steve’s shield ricochets off the robot’s plate shielding. Between them they’re chipping away at its armor, but it’s way too slowly for Tony’s liking.

He’s got to time this carefully. The last time he’d gotten too close, and they’d EMP-ed the shit out of him. This time, he’s not going to fall so easily. “JARVIS? You with me, pal?”

“As always, sir. Unibeam fully charged.”

“Good. On my mark, divert all power – “ he’s hovering bare feet from Smokestack at this point in time, “Now.”

A blistering barrage of fire knocks the suit back (armor integrity: 76% and dropping, but that’s okay, that’s perfectly okay, the reactor’s fully charged this time round, he has this), and then the unibeam comes online, making the HUD flicker and dim as all available power’s re-routed. The subsequent blast smashes into Smokestack, sending it teetering onto its side.

Cap wastes no time jumping onto the robot and smashing things with his shield. There’s a shower of sparks as various bits of electronic equipment come free, the unibeam having done its work of stripping Smokestack of its armor and softening up the target. Tony goes to town with the repulsors, and then Thor arrives in style to deliver the finishing blow, Mjolnir crushing what’s left of Smokestack into so much scrap metal.

Tony cuts the repulsors, landing in the dirt. He’s running to Cap before he realizes exactly what he’s doing. Steve looks different – for one, the beard’s new, and his hair is longer than before. “Nice look, Cap.” And then, “I’m sorry I was an idiot, I really am,” because he’d carried that albatross around his neck three weeks, which seems like eternity in retrospect, and seeing Cap alive loosens the painful knot in his chest so he can actually breathe easy for the first time in weeks. And then, because he’s just so relieved and has poor impulse control, and too many issues for anyone to deal with, he’s kissing him. It’s scratchy, and it’s one of the worst kisses he’s ever had - their teeth clack, because he’s caught Steve by surprise.

“Easy,” Steve is saying, and he’s pulling away, and it’s as if an icy cold hand gripped his heart.

“Fuck, “he moans, burying his face in his hands, “Did I ever tell you I have impulse issues? Because that’s just what it is, and let’s just pretend that it never happened, okay?”

“I thought you hated me,” Steve says, looking at him as if he’s grown a third head.

He’s aware that Thor’s listening intently, and that his comm is still on, because he hasn’t turned it off, and that Romanov and Barton are probably listening and snickering to each other in the cockpit of the Quinjet, but at this moment he doesn’t really care. “Are you serious? I never – look, the only person I hated was myself. I couldn’t deal. Guess it takes an abduction and a pep talk from Widow to make me see sense. I’m sorry about the kiss - ”

 “And you’re supposed to be the genius.” Steve’s smiling now; it’s tentative, if amused, and at least he’s not looking at him with disgust. “At least buy me a drink first, fella.”

“You’re on. Picnic in Central Park with Natasha’s cake, it’ll knock your socks off.” He blurts dizzily. The rain, courtesy of Thor, is plastering his hair flat to his head, and he’s pretty sure he looks an idiot, but the only thing that really matters right now is that Steve doesn’t hate him.

“I think I’ve had enough of cake for a while. But I wouldn’t say no to dinner.” Steve drapes an arm around his shoulders, heedless of the catcalls from Barton that are especially loud now that the Quinjet’s landed.

Yeah, he can deal with that, and the ribbing that’s sure to come from all quarters. “It’s a date, then.”

“Will you two quit with the googly eyes!?” Barton shrieks, “The WSC's going apeshit back at HQ; and I’m not dealing with this. Stark! This is your problem!”

And just like that, the moment’s broken.

But he’s got a date when he gets back to New York, and that’s more than enough to make up for it.