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The thing about Nick Fury is that he somehow manages to fascinate me, frustrate me, and bore me to death, all at the same time. Like now, for example. I suppose part of this is that I still don’t know whether to look at his eye patch or his eye because he never answers – I mean, how did he lose it? I have to know, and hacking SHIELD records would deprive me the challenge of prying the tale from his clenched jaws. Which may not be important to some people, but considering the man is a tougher nut to crack than Fort Knox (and I know, I’ve totally been there), I consider it a much more impressive achievement than hacking SHIELD files. But that’s not the important thing about ways in which Nick Fury fascinates me. Mostly, it’s that I just can’t comprehend how he can drop all sorts of recommendations that he upheld with an iron fist since they were made on the fly, just to suit his immediate needs.

I mean, I know a lot of people think I do that all the time with the whole being-a-playboy track record and the Iron Man thing, but truth is that whole… side, I guess, is an act governed by carefully set rules. And it’s what people expect. Both the magazines, and actual people. As for The Iron Man, I have my reasons. Clearly. They’re called morals, some people have heard of them. I had, just not really felt beholden to them until Afghanistan.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Nick and I have similar personalities and he actually planned this well in advance like I would, except then he would hate being in charge of SHIELD. And I Digress.

Nick Fury. Last year he was completely adamant that I would remain a consultant to the Avengers Initiative and nothing more. Which, contrary to SHIELD’s belief, I was totally fine with. I never worked well in groups way back in high school and college. Even now, negotiating with SI’s board of directors is pure torture, and trying to get R&D to understand my latest innovation and where I’m going with it is like pulling teeth. So you can imagine my surprise when Nick announced to the entire room of avengers, including Thor and Natasha and Captain Fucking America that he wanted me to suit up and join the team and save the world.

This may also be where the “Nick Fury is a frustrating asshole” thing comes in. I mean, I need time to deal with concepts like teamwork. Most people laugh when I try to explain the kind of mental preparation that goes into me dealing with others (well, Obadiah did…I never tried to tell anyone else after that) and the kind of solitude required to recover from a day in board meetings or a night acting the socialite. There’s a reason I spend more time with my cars and Dummy and JARVIS than anything or anyone else. So I feel my response was completely justified (and perhaps a bit conservative), considering this is the type of thing that can push me to full blown panic.

“Yeah… I don’t really play well with others.” And it’s a true story. Because for some odd reason, I can’t stop myself from saying exactly what I’m thinking when Nick Fury is in the room. It’s like his creepy super power or something.

But at least he didn’t look at all shocked when I said it. In fact, he didn’t look anything. Remind me to never play poker with the man.

What I didn’t expect was the sneer on Captain America’s face. Sure, I’m pretty used to the outright dislike most people greet me with, but to be fair, they’ve all been in this millennium and hearing about me a lot longer than Steve Rogers has.

“Big man in a suit of armor, take that away, what are you?”

Coming from Captain America, who wouldn’t be anyone of notice without super serum, that hurt.

On the rare occasions that Howard Stark was actually something that resembled a father, they involved reading the original Captain America comics to me at the age of three. And as much as he swore the depictions of the man were laughable – this being before I realized dad had a serious man-crush on his hero – I think I prefer the fictionalized version to the one standing before me. At least that one never sneered at anyone who wasn’t a Nazi.

At least a dozen train wreck press conferences have taught me to be nothing if not quick at thinking on my feet.

“A…genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist.” All true. Some for most (or all) of my life, others more recently, but no less factual.

Except none of that eases that nagging feeling that Captain America – The Captain Fucking America who punched Hitler in the face more than 200 times – is disappointed in me. And I don’t even know why.

***

Another reason that Nick Fury is infuriating: he thinks that his word is the highest law of the land. And if I don’t want my life to be a living hell, I have to follow it. He has that kind of power. Which sucks.

That aside, Nick Fury is infuriating because up to the point where he decided I needed to be an Avenger, he absolutely forbade me to bring the Mark VI to New York. Which wouldn’t normally be a big deal since I do have the Mark V, but he wanted me on aerial support.

The Mark V doesn’t have flight capabilities. And the Mark VI can’t be auto-piloted here from Malibu by JARVIS, because it’s battery is sitting in my chest. Clearly, this was not well thought out.

So while I’m stuck waiting for my jet to touchdown with my armor crated inside, the rest of the Avengers leave to find Thor’s annoying little brother Loki. And surprisingly, they do. Even more surprising, is that they capture him with relatively little fuss, Thor apparently talking him down from whatever shenanigans he’s up to.

This should have been our first clue. Though, it seems Loki makes a very convincing actor.

He breaks out an hour after being assigned a cell in SHIELD’s brig. Of course his capture was a ploy, and he is in fact after something SHIELD has. Or several things. I don’t suspect one of them is me. Though, in retrospect, it does seem someone always wants me for something.

***

Loki is taller than I expected. Which is funny, because one would think that having seen Thor I’d just automatically assume that his little brother is tall too. Even if they aren’t related by blood, they’re both gods, right? I should have seen it. But that’s not important. I do business with men taller than myself every day. Height does not intimidate me.

What does intimidate me about Loki, is that in his presence I feel off balance. Like I should question everything and anything because he’s probably manipulating it. Kind of like Obie the last couple days before…well.

But anyway, Loki has this aura. It’s not really describable how it feels. Sure there’s the part where you feel suspicious of everything, but there’s also this weird feeling where you can trust him and another feeling like you should be terrified. All together it’s unnerving, and even after three months in captivity with a gun to my head, I have no idea how to deal with it. Which I suppose was his plan all along, to catch me off guard and back me into a wall with no defense before I realize what is happening.

SHIELD had shipped me back to my own New York headquarters with a few agents on guard duty when Loki Houdini-ed his way out of the brig. As much as I know they were doing it to protect me, I still think I could have done a better job of protecting myself if Fury had let me bring my full armor to New York in the first place. At any rate the poor agents charged with my defense don’t really stand much chance against the Norse god of mischief. Though to be fair, when he steps out of the elevator (I shuddered to think what his magic had done to JARVIS), he looks as surprised to see me as I am to see him, while at the same time giving this weird know it all smile like the Cheshire Cat’s. Looking back, it’s seems more like surprise that I’m not armed or in the armor than surprise at me being there.

“Tony Stark.”

And the way he said it? It was creepy. Like he knew everything about me. When Thor says things that way, he manages to sound like JARVIS does when he’s humoring me and already knows the conclusion I’ll arrive at. The way Loki said my name? Universe’s creepiest stalker. Hands down.

I don’t know why, but I tried for nonchalance. Which in retrospect, was probably not the best plan. But hindsight is 20/20. People say that, right?

“Who’s asking?”

And Loki, he just smirks at me. The man? God? Frost Giant? Has a very disturbing smirk. It kind of makes one wish they’re in the middle of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

“You don’t belong here, Tony Stark.”

See, and that’s what really knocked me off balance. Because my immediate question was what the hell did he mean by that? Here being New York? Here being Stark Tower? Here being an avenger-as-soon-as-the-Mark-VI-arrived? Here being alive? I had no clue. And my brain being my brain, was determined to figure it out.

“You see Tony Stark, you have no special training. You have no extra strength and no extra powers. All you have is a suit.”

And just when I thought that smile couldn’t get creepier, it totally did.

“Except you don’t even have that now, do you?”

No, no I didn’t. I really dislike it when others point out the obvious to me. I’m a smart man, I can grasp the obvious pretty well. I didn’t say so though.

“We are both intelligent. We each rely on more than muscle and might. You could join me, and together –

“No.”

At least I still had the mental capacity to make that declaration. The same way my heart screamed not to take the Ten Rings offer, it screamed at me not to take Loki’s either. And here, I trusted that judgment unabashedly. I’d still make the same decision today, even knowing what it feels like to be thrown out of a skyscraper without a gold titanium suit to protect me.

“I have an army.”

“We have a hulk.”

Loki has this smirk that makes your blood instantly run cold.

“Do you really think one Hulk is capable of protecting your Earth?”

No. Not really. It will take more than any one of us.

“If we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it.”

And that of course was all it took for him to back me up to the plate glass window. Thing is I don’t really remember how he did, it’s all just a sort of odd grey blur, the same as I got when Whiplash destroyed my car and it was flipping down the track. Which is odd, considering we were moving at a walk, and what happened next I recall in vibrant, terrifying color. Even more unusual, the words themselves I remember with perfect clarity. Thor suspects magic was involved.

The sound that glass makes when it shatters is actually beautiful. It’s like a symphony, when you’re close enough to hear the cracking, followed by the breaking. You can actually feel them, if you happen to cause the damage. And then there’s the wind whistling past your ears, a completely different pitch than when it’s filtered through the armor. The whole experience is both breath taking and terrifying.

My penthouse takes up floors 80 through 83 of Stark Tower. Falling from the 80th story is easily the worst thing I’ve ever done. It’s a height of about 317 meters. The fall from the first floor of the penthouse will take just over eight seconds. And without the Iron Man suit, it is most assuredly going to be fatal.

At least, that’s what I think as I tumble towards the asphalt below, while I desperately try to keep my back to the ground. Call me strange, but even when the stars are whited out by New York’s light pollution problem, I’d still rather die looking up at them then guessing which little car below will hit my dead body first.

I black out when a bus hits me, a second earlier than it should have.

***

I can’t decide which is worse about waking up: the pain, or Nick Fury staring at me with that one eye. The one is well…painful; the other is just plain disturbing. I don’t think Nick Fury blinks at all. Probably sleeps with his eye open, too. I wonder if it’s from paranoia. But that’s not the point. The point is I woke up to burning ribs, throbbing hips, and Nick Fury’s unwavering gaze.

“Stark.”

I attempt to reply, but my tongue is too dry to move properly and form sounds. Fury sighs but relents and picks up a glass from the table at my bedside, directing the straw into my mouth. The water tastes almost as good as it did when Rhodey poured half a canteen down my throat in the back of that pave hawk.

“Please tell me you got the number on that bus.”

“There was no bus.”

“Truck, then.”

Funny thing about annoying Fury, it does take one’s mind off the pain.

“Stark.”

He really needs to work on that temper.

“Okay, okay. Am I going to die?”

“There are days I think I should have let you.”

“That’s right, just let it all out, dear.”

I can tell he’s praying for patience. Or for something to smite me.

“Thor caught you about 17 floors off the ground.”

“Ah. Thought it seemed a bit too early. So?”

“You’ll be fine. Cracked ribs, cuts from the glass, and what I’m told will be very pretty bruises from him catching you.”

“I’m sure.”

I attempt to get up, but decide against it when my ribs protest. I can feel now that they’ve been taped. Fury seems unimpressed.

“Why are you still here anyway?”

“What did he want?”

“Who?”

Fury’s eye twitches. Right, stupid question.

“He wanted me to join his army.”

“And you said no.”

“No, I said yes and he pushed me out a window for the hell of it.” I look at him in disbelief. “Of course I said no!”

For the first time since I’ve met him, Fury seems concerned about something. Not annoyed. It’s enough to freak me out a bit.

“What?”

I can see the internal debate going on. There’s something he’s not supposed to tell me, that I’m sure he might just tell me.

“Have you ever heard of the Tesseract?”

Okay, maybe he’s not so bad after all.

“Tesser…” I think it doesn’t ring a bell, and then a little flag goes off in my brain. Not something I’d ever heard, but something I’d seen. Written, in fact. In my own father’s familiar hand. And next to it, sketched in intricate detail, rivaling that in the original Arc Reactor blue prints.

“Yeah. I have.”

“Howard?”

“His foot locker.”

“Good.”

And he leaves. I have no idea what it means, but I know I want Dad’s notebook here, and I want it here now. It’s on the way via the War Machine after five minutes on the phone with Rhodey.

***

It turns out I was out cold for a full day. Between the shock of falling 63 stories and then getting grabbed out of thin air and slowed to safety by a Thor shaped train while traveling at 157 miles per hour, I’m fortunate he was able to slow me enough to land on the street without causing more than some cracked ribs, a Grade 2 case of whiplash, and some truly brutal bruising. A SHIELD doctor releases me from the infirmary a few hours after my discussion with Fury, with a bottle of Vicodin in my pocket and strict orders not to drink. I’m inclined to obey for once, if only because I’m sure various SHIELD agents aren’t above tasing me and leaving me drooling on the carpet while they watch Super Nanny. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a line. What does surprise me though, is the sight of the Avengers sitting or standing outside the doors, waiting for me. Natasha is the first to speak, springing up and giving me a careful hug as she does so.

“Tony!”

There’s a warmth in her voice I haven’t heard since she told me I had my best friend back during the Vanko incident. As much as we annoy each other at times, we’ve gotten a bit protective of each other since the whole Whiplash thing. She steps back and Banner and Barton both nod at me from across the hall.

“Man of Iron! It is good to see you unhindered by the injuries my brother hath inflicted upon your being!”

Someone needs to explain to Thor why it is a bad idea to clap the shoulder of someone with cracked ribs and whiplash. To my relief, Captain America comes to my rescue just as tears start to form in my eyes, Thor oblivious to my distress as he prattles on about the wrong Loki has done me and how regretful he is to inform me that he’s escaped to fight another day. He carefully pries me from the God’s grip, making excuses as he does so.

“Sorry Thor, I told Director Fury I’d take him up to meet Colonel Rhodes before our meeting.”

I give the biggest nod I can manage, the neck pain much more noticeable now that I’m on my feet and have been thoroughly thored. Cap remains quiet until we’re in the elevator, away from the other’s ears and eyes.

“You okay?”

I don’t even dignify that with an answer.

“Right, stupid question.” He glances around the elevator, clearly trying not to stare. “Thor can get…um, enthusiastic, can’t he?’

I frown at him. And then it hits me, he’s trying to be nice. Which is just weird. I mean, people aren’t nice to me. Not unless I’ve saved their lives or we’ve been through battle together or I’ve paid them to be or they’re Pepper. And Captain America falls into none of those categories.

I sigh.

“Look, Cap. I don’t want your pity.”

He and Fury have the exact same expression when they’re desperately digging for more patience. After a moment, he speaks, leaning against the wall as he does so.

“I’m not giving you pity, Mr. Stark. I just figure, if we’re going to be on the same team, we might as well be –

“Friends? Don’t say friends, that’s such a cliché.”

It totally is.

“No, not friends. Friendship can’t be forced. But it would be better if we at least aren’t enemies. We’ve already got one of those.”

Fair point. I know that better than anyone else on the team after yesterday.

“It’s Tony. Mr. Stark was my father.”

He hesitates barely a second before extending his hand.

“Steve. Steve Rogers.”

There’s something about the handshake. It’s like with it, my expectations for Captain America fall away, as do his for Iron Man. The air in the elevator feels lighter. It’s a fresh start. And after the days I’ve been having, I’m okay with that.

***

As it turns out, Steve is completely different from Captain America. He’s shy and enthusiastic. We don’t really talk as we wait on the roof for Rhodey, and he politely pretends not to notice when I elect to sit in a spot definitely not near any ledges. But when War Machine actually touches down in front of us, his eyes go wide as saucers. I belatedly realize he hasn’t seen my suit in action, has probably only seen the few low quality cell phone photos and videos posted to the internet by the public.

“Wow.”

“You should see mine.” I tell him. “Help me up.”

He grasps my hand and carefully pulls me to my feet just as Rhodey removes the War Machine helmet. My old friend gives me a once over and shakes his head.

“Tony, you look like shit.”

“And yet, falling out a window still hurts less than getting hit with a missile from an F-22. Who knew?”

“You’re never going to stop bring that up, are you?”

“Of course not! Wouldn’t have any fun if I did.”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

But he’s smiling, and I know he’s humoring me because he’s just glad I’m in one piece. Rhodey’s seen me in worse shape than Pepper has, specifically, the after effects of having the reactor removed, and he knows very well the type of fire power I’ve been up against. Coming out of another near death situation is enough for him to let me tease him consequence free for a day. I like to think that had my parents produced a second child, they’d have been something like Rhodey.

“So, who’s the…”

He trails off as he motions to Steve, who is still gaping at the suit.

“I’m sorry. It’s just…that’s one of the neatest things I’ve ever seen!”

“Just one?” Rhodey is amused, and I’d guess maybe he sees a little of himself. He had very similar words the first time he saw me suit up.

“Yeah, well, he spent a lot of time with dad, so I guess that can be forgiven.”

“Your dad – “ Rhodey breaks off and his eyes widen, military decorum temporarily forgotten as he realizes who is standing here.

“You’re Captain America?”

And he teases me about my childhood hero. I snort.

“Of course not. Captain America is this big douchey guy who walks around in a red white and blue uniform. This is Steve. We met in the elevator.”

I’m not sure why, but Steve actually seems to find this amusing. Maybe he’s not so bad, if he has a sense of humor about Captain America. Rhodey on the other hand, is looking at me like I’ve defamed a national icon. Which, maybe I have. Can you call Captain America a douche? Eh, I’m claiming it was justified.

“Anyway, do you want this notebook or not, Tony? I’ve got to get back to California.”

“Aw, Sour Patch, stick around, we’ll have a night on the town.”

“I’d have a night on the town; you look like you’d collapse after the second drink.”

I glower. He’s probably not far off.

“Besides, the only reason I was allowed to fly it out here in the first place was because you called from a SHIELD line and the general didn’t want to deal with Fury in the event it was actually important.”

“Good choice.” I nod, and detach the cover to a hidden storage panel from the right leg of his suit. One of the advantages of the War Machine Armor is that its bulk allows it to carry more. More heavy ordinance and more emergency supplies, which are normally kept in this compartment. I remove dad’s notebook, which appears to be completely unharmed by its flight, and hand it to Steve before replacing the panel.

“Sure you don’t want to stay, fight a god with us?”

“After what he did to you? I think I’ll pass and wait for him to show up in Malibu.”

“Whatever. See you, Sour Patch.”

“See you, Tony.”

I’m almost to the stair well door, when he calls back to me again.

“Hey Tony!”

“Yeah, Rhodey?”

The helmet is back on his head, only the faceplate is up.

“Be careful man, okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll try.”

My words don’t comfort either of us.

***

Steve lets me know that we actually have another hour before our scheduled meeting as he hands over the notebook. I don’t really know what to do in that time, it’s not like there’s enough to make it to Stark Tower and back. Just as I figure I could find the cafeteria, Steve seems to notice the lost look on my face.

“You don’t have any quarters here, do you?”

No. I attempt to shake my head and stop at the pain that flares in my neck.

“Come on, you can lie down on my bed while we wait.”

“Oh no, I wouldn’t want…”

But my voice trails off into silence as I realize from the look on his face that it wasn’t a suggestion. I’m already trailing him down the hall when I realize Captain America gave me an order and I followed it. No questions asked. I can’t decide if it’s because he’s that commanding or if I’m just too tired and sore to care.

Steve helps me prop up on some pillows and even provides a notebook and pencil when I ask for paper. I don’t realize until I look down to start making my own notes that it’s not a notebook at all, but a sketchpad.

“You draw?”

He looks up from the book he’s reading (something about 21st century social norms), surprised by the question.

“Oh, yeah.”

He’s shy about it. Not like he’s ashamed, but like he doesn’t know what to say. Like no one’s ever been interested.

“I was in school for it, before.”

I take a moment to flip through some of the sketches. There are only a few, but there’s something oddly familiar about the style. I store it away for future reference and flip back to my page, scribbling information related to my current reactor. I get lost in the relationship between the big reactor my dad built and the Tesseract, coming to the realization that he was trying to generate the same energy the Tesseract produced. But he never succeeded, because he couldn’t make the right element. The element sitting in my chest.

I don’t even realize I’ve stopped writing until Steve’s weight sinks into the mattress beside me.

“Tony? Are you okay?”

No. This is the reason Loki wants me. It has something to do with the energy produced by the very thing keeping me alive.

“That’s the Tesseract.”

I follow his gaze to find it’s resting in my lap, glued to the drawing of the cube in the little notebook.

“You know it?”

“Schmidt had it. That’s what happened to him.”

I frown.

“What do you mean that’s what happened to him?”

“I…it was…he was holding it. And this void, it just opened up in the middle of the plane. And it swallowed him.”

“Void? Like, darkness, you mean?”

Steve shook his head.

“No, like…space.”

I raise an eyebrow, waiting for him to elaborate.

“They’ve shown me pictures. Of nebulas and star clusters from the space telescope. It was like those.”

“Like nebulas.”

“I’ve tried to draw it. I just can’t seem to do it justice.”

He seems disappointed with my skepticism.

“The SHIELD doctors didn’t believe me either.”

Definitely disappointed.

“What did the Tesseract do, after?”

Steve thought for a moment. “It burned through the metal. All the metal. Though, it didn’t seem to glow as bright. It’s probably still lost in the ocean.”

“No, it’s not. And that’s why Loki is here.”

***

Steve gets me to the meeting on time by threatening to carry me if I don’t get up. I refuse to let that happen, though I do insist that he carries the sketchpad and dad’s notebook. Barton and Natasha both seem impressed to see me walk through the door on time, and it’s difficult to resist sticking my tongue out at them. I can totally be punctual when there’s someone around who isn’t afraid to make sure I am.

“Gentlemen, have a seat.”

And there’s Fury behind us. He sits at the head of the table, while Steve and I take seats across from each other. The rest of the team ignores my squirming as I try to find a comfortable position for my ribs. They’re as good at it as my board has gotten, after too many Iron Man missions gone south. My mind is completely distracted from my discomfort though, when Fury lifts a metal briefcase and sets it on the conference table.

“This is the reason we believe Loki has targeted Earth.”

Some of the group stares blankly at the unopened case.

“What is it?”

Banner’s voice radiates curiosity. Fury lifts an eyebrow, and then keys in a code on the handle. The case pops open and he spins it to face the group. A dim but familiar blue-green glow emanates from the object that lies inside.

Steve sucks in a breath, and I know I’m looking at the Tesseract. I flip open dad’s notebook to the drawing and pull out my cell phone-slash-PDA, leaning forward to take scans and holo-images for Jarvis. I belatedly realize that the entire table is staring at me.

“What?”

“Sit down, Stark. You can get your scans when we’re done here.”

I stare at Fury for a long minute, but eventually slide back into my seat. When a voice finally fills the silence, it’s Thor that speaks.

“How, pray tell, have the warriors of SHIELD come to possess a cosmic cube?”

It figures that he would know about the thing.

Fury nods.

“Good question. Cap?”

Steve startles, and I realize it’s now Captain America who’s sitting there, staring at the Tesseract in silent contemplation. He sits straighter and begins to speak.

“According to Zola, Schmidt took it from a monastery in Norway. After he had it, he used it. Zola built a device that could transfer its energy to other objects. They built guns that disintegrated people. They built a whole plane, in fact, to be powered by the Tesseract.”

“This is the plane you were found in?”

Cap nods.

“Schmidt tried to use it, against me maybe or for himself, I’m not sure. But when he did…a void opened, and I could see stars through it. Schmidt was sucked in, or disintegrated, something. After that, it fell through the deck plates.”

Fury picked up the story from there.

“Howard Stark found it while searching for the Captain’s body. Upon recovery, he found that it was no longer a viable energy source. He dedicated most of his life to finding a way to generate the same energy it’s barely emitting now and recharge it. Reigniting the Tesseract became one of SHIELD’s top objectives when it was founded.”

“So that obviously went well.”

Fury shot Barton a nasty look over the interruption. Nice to know other people annoy him too.

“Howard knew what he needed to do. But he was limited by the technology of the times. He never succeeded, but he left clues for the one man that he knew could. 18 months ago, we believe that man created the right power source, the right energy. It was kept secret and nothing was ever scanned or compared, due to the dangerous nature of the Tesseract and the energy itself. It wasn’t necessary until he was attacked yesterday.”

I shift uncomfortably as everyone’s gazes switch to me. It makes me nervous to tell them of the Arc Reactor. Not after it worked out so well with Obie.

“I have wondered the reason for the cosmic energy I sense from you, Tony Stark.”

Of course Thor can sense it. Stupid magical god powers. I sigh, and reach under my layered shirts. A twist and a yank later, and I hold the reactor out before my teammates, the glow of it much brighter than that of the Tesseract, but ultimately the same.

“It powers an electromagnet in my chest. It keeps shrapnel from Afghanistan from entering my heart. Keeps me alive.”

Barton frowns.

“But that was two years ago. I thought you built this 18 months ago.”

“This one, yes.”

I wince as I put it back under my shirts and punch it back into the socket. Once the pain subsides I twist it back into the locked position.

“The original used a different element as its power source. It was slowly killing me.”

“And you just built this in the middle of Afghanistan.”

Banner is looking at me with disbelief.

“Technically, in a cave in the middle of Afghanistan. And it was either that or die on the car battery, so…”

“The point, people, is that the only device capable of reigniting the Tesseract is sitting in Mr. Stark’s chest. And Loki knows it.”

Banner and Barton look chastised by Fury’s statement. Captain America on the other hand, is again frowning at the cube in its case.

“Why does Loki want the Tesseract, sir?”

“My brother wishes to return to Asgard and make war against our father. Cosmic Cubes are objects of great power and capability, and may bend to the will of those who possess them. Should my brother wish to return to Asgard, a Cosmic Cube would allow him to do so, and provide him great advantage against the Asgardian warriors.”

“Your current objectives are to keep Loki away from the Tesseract and away from Mr. Stark. Dismissed.”

***

Fury gives me enough time with the Tesseract to finish taking my scans, and then relocks the briefcase and sweeps from the room. I call Happy for a ride back to Stark Tower, and am relieved to see there is already a crane set up, a work crew replacing the shattered window in the penthouse. I consider a shower, but instead take the elevator down, 10 stories below street level to my workshop. Sure, there’s my show one up on level 61, where I tinker and fix things and let the board think they’re seeing something cool.

And then there’s this one. The better one. This is my real workshop in the building. It’s almost a carbon copy of the shop in Malibu, and fully linked to its systems. Anything I can machine or build at the house in California, I can do here. But mostly, this is where the majority of my SHIELD designs come from. Most recently, the Quinjet prototype Fury asked for. Between deciphering those blueprints and his helicarrier blueprints, he must have his hands full, because he hasn’t really asked me for anything in the last few months. Beyond suddenly promoting me to Avenger, that is.

The first thing I do is a full reboot and restore of JARVIS’ system by syncing with Malibu. If Loki was able to take him offline, I don’t want to risk anything else. Once He’s run a full scan of himself, I decide JARVIS is doing okay and set him to work.

“JARVIS, I need you to compare these scans with those from the arc reactor.”

Jarvis reads the data from my phone and sets to analyzing, as I pull up some of my more recent designs, including my newest armor, the Mark VII. It’s a more heavy duty version of the Mark VI, built for greater hardiness and power. It incorporates a jet pack set of repulsors to compensate for the speed lost from the bulkier frame, which rivals War Machine’s. The suit is less stealthy and I developed it mostly for long knock out, drag down fights. I had been debating whether I would ever have Jarvis actually machine it, but I’m starting to think that with Loki around, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a back up waiting.

“Analysis complete, sir.”

“And?”

“The device appears to emit energy identical to that released by the arc reactor, though in much lower concentrations. If I were to speculate, it would seem the device is either dormant or nearly dead and ready for recharging, similar to a cell phone battery after heavy use.”

Well, that confirms one theory, at least. I take another long look at the Mark VII, picturing the Mark VI in my mind as I do so. The crate containing it was delivered to the Level 61 workshop while I was still unconscious.

“Jarvis, machine the Mark VII.”

“Manufacturing and rendering will be complete in 8 hours.”

“Great. Let me know how that goes.”

“Of course, sir.”

I head upstairs to sleep. All anyone can do at the moment is wait for Loki to make the next move, and hope we’re prepared for it.

***

We get two days of peace before all hell breaks loose.

There are giants in New York City, terrorizing and smashing and wreaking havoc. I’m in a board meeting when I get the call. Pepper looks offended that I dare answer my phone, even though we’ve both been waiting for something bad to happen since I got shoved out the window. Coulson says only two words.

“Avengers assemble!”

I don’t bother to take anything with me, don’t bother to apologize to the scandalized looking board. Pepper will smooth things over.

By the time I reach the workshop, JARVIS has the suit prepped and ready for assembly and I’ve removed my jacket and shirt. Pants go next and I instead pull on the black Kevlar under sheath You is holding out for me. I step onto the assembly platform and close my eyes to the familiar sensation of the suit being built around me. I open them again at the sound of the faceplate snapping shut, skimming the information Jarvis has prioritized on the HUD. Foremost is the location of the battle.

The closer I get, the more obvious it becomes that this is an all out assault on SHIELD headquarters. Thor is hitting enemies indiscriminately with his hammer, while Barton is perched on the rooftop and is firing arrows into the giants below. Captain America swings he shield, using it offensively and defensively, while Black Widow covers his back, knives flying. Inside, I can see some SHIELD agents fighting, others evacuating. Where to, I’m not sure.

A proximity alarm lights up on the HUD and I accelerate away, suddenly noticing that somewhere, Loki picked up some air support. I can’t say what the vehicles are, but they can match the Mark VI for speed and maneuverability. And they’re firing some type of energy weapon at me. I do my best to lead them away from headquarters, flying low enough that Hulk can easily destroy one with a thrown chunk of building as we pass. But there are too many, and I realize too late that they’re herding me in a circle as more cut into my path from the sides. We’re heading straight back into the heart of the ground battle. I weave in and out of buildings, trying to catch them off guard when I fire my repulsors, but it’s not going well.

I open a com link and issue a warning to the team. They’re closing on me, and I’m pretty sure Loki has joined them.

“Guys, incoming. Duck!”

I barely have time to register Cap jumping a car to stand in front of Black Widow, shield held aloft to fend off the latest fireball that’s been generated by Loki’s goons, as I make an abrupt left, trying to head towards open water. I might be a sitting duck there, but no one else will be. Somewhere off on my right, Clint falls backwards off a building, firing a grappling hook from his bow as he does so.

I think I’m going to make it when it happens, and one of Loki’s energy beams impacts my armor. My left foot feels like it’s on fire, and the suit jolts as the right foot repulsor and hand repulsors redirect the energy flow in an attempt compensate for the destroyed left boot. I find myself desperately hoping that my actual foot still exists somewhere in the twisted and melted metal framework. I have enough distance between us and enough momentum that I can make it to open water, and I crash into the waves, heart pounding. Loki’s vehicles are open air, they can’t follow me here. And he can’t get half of what he needs as long as I stay submerged.

He’s smart enough to realize I can stay down for a long time thanks to the armor’s life support system, and if really necessary, I can go somewhere he isn’t before coming up. After two hours, the final watching goon leaves. I can tell the sun is setting by the tint to the water. I wait until nightfall before I emerge, provide quite the photo opportunity for a passing ship as I climb on my three good repulsors. Once I’m a few hundred meters up, I activate my SHIELD com link, hoping someone is still out there. Its mere seconds before they pick up my homing beacon, and I’m ashamed to say that for once I’m relieved to hear Fury’s voice.

“Stark! Where the hell have you been?”

“Hiding from Loki’s air force. They destroyed one of my repulsors.”

“How bad?”

He sounds a little less angry, more annoyed and slightly concerned now.

“I’ve lost most of my speed and a lot of maneuverability. The hand repulosrs are really just stabilizers, they can’t compensate for the loss of one of the boots.”

“Can you make it to the helicarrier?”

Helicarrier?

“JARVIS?”

“Approximately two kilometers north of your current location sir. Hovering at an altitude of one kilometer above sea level.”

Huh. Guess government money really can get shit done.

“Yeah, I can make it.”

It doesn’t escape my notice that there seems to be another platform hovering in the direction of SHIELD headquarters.

***

The helicarrier is amazing. It’s the product of a month of obsessive design work, the first I did for SHIELD after being offered the consultant position. It had been requested by Fury himself. When I get over how cool it is, we’ll have to have words, because there’s no way it could have been completed this fast without contracting work out. And absolutely no one gets to build Stark Industries hardware without the express permission of a certain Stark.

But right now, I’m just psyched that it’s here and complete and working. I land on a special platform, designed specifically for my use. It lowers into the deck, and JARVIS’ robotic arms are waiting to remove the armor. I put a hold on that and ask for a status scan first. I remove the helmet when I realize Captain America is waiting in the workshop bay below my catwalk.

“Cap?”

“Iron Man?”

“You okay?”

“About to find out.”

Taking his cue, Jarvis’ voice fills the space between us.

“Sir, it appears the left boot has been fused with the left shin and calf plates.”

“Can you remove it?”

“Negative. The section of armor in question will require a cutting torch for removal.”

Figures. I stomp down the catwalk to the lift, grimacing at the unusual clunking the suit makes. The boot isn’t moving properly at all, I suspect all the movement motors have fused as well. The lift delivers me to the main level, and Captain America stands next to it waiting. I lean onto his shoulder without asking, and while he seems annoyed, he doesn’t complain when he sees I’m walking more easily with his support to balance the melted boot.

I raid one of the tool lockers, and am glad that Fury at least supplied the tools I requested. I talk the Captain through helping me manually remove the suit, until only the lower left leg remains. He takes a step back when I fire up the cutting torch and begin working at the fused metal.

“Are you sure it’s not a better idea to let the infirmary –“

“Cap, they wouldn’t know what to do. Even if I gave them the blueprints, no one knows this suit but me. I got it.”

He smirks when I accidently slice into my calf.

It takes a half hour of careful work, but I finally get the boot off (with no more blood spilt, a bonus). The under sheath is melted and sticky under it and I can tell my foot is burned, but intact. Cap again agrees to support my weight, and helps me limp to the infirmary. The doctor has just cut the sheath from my lower leg and carefully peeled it off my foot to clean the burns when Fury shows up, Coulson at his side and my teammates at his heels.

“How bad is he?”

“Second degree burns to the sole of his foot. First on top.”

“Haven’t you been hit with missiles before?” Barton asks. I’m pretty sure he’s referring to the no-fly zone incident back in the Mark III.

“The suit is built to withstand those missiles. I don’t know what type of energy Loki was shooting with.”

“Can you repair the damage?”

“Nah, I’ll need to manufacture new boots. I’m better off switching to something more heavy duty.”

Natasha frowns now.

“The Mark VI is the heaviest duty Iron Man suit you have. Unless you plan on borrowing the War Machine.”

“Nope.”

“Stark, we don’t have time for you to spend a week designing something new.”

“Well then, you’ll be happy to know it’s already designed and built.”

I attempt to get up and steal Coulson’s phone, but one the nurses that’s materialized from nowhere has pinned me down so the doctor can continue tormenting my foot.

“Stay still!”

“Yeah, well, when the world blows up it’ll be because you couldn’t wait 30 seconds to treat my foot. You want that on your conscience? Coulson, I need your phone.”

Fury nods and he reluctantly hands me the device.

“Christ, what is this thing? It’s ancient.”

If looks could kill I’d be dead several times over. I dial one of the two numbers I have memorized, this one being a direct line to JARVIS.

“JARVIS, prep, the Mark VII for transport. Coulson will be by shortly to pick it up.”

“Shall I have it sent to the roof or to ground level, sir?”

“Roof, definitely. He’ll be in a Quinjet.”

Coulson looks livid to have been volunteered.

***

I am not a happy camper. The Shield doctor in charge of me has decided that between my foot and my ribs, I am not to be allowed to walk. Asshole. Bet he hangs out with Pepper. Bet he’d try to keep me from fighting too, if it weren’t for Fury’s eye nearly popping out at the suggestion that I be benched. Nice to know I’m actually needed. So I’m pushed to the meeting in a wheelchair, arms crossed and daring anyone to make some sort of comment. I really want to bite someone’s head off. Anyone. Provoke me, please!

We’re grouped on the bridge of the helicarrier, where we can be easily shown real-time satellite feeds and overlays of the previous battle. Fury lays it out, no frills.

“Loki has taken SHIELD headquarters. Which is actually fine, all computers there were wiped before evacuation and relocation. The problem, is that he also took the Tesseract. From what we can tell, he’s taken it into that flying monstrosity of his and prepared it for use as a power source. He just needs to reignite it.”

Yup, never expect Fury to sugarcoat anything.

“What’s our plan, sir?”

“The weak point is directly underneath this thing. We’re going to have to fight our way back to headquarters and give Thor and Iron Man the opportunity to take it out.”

A SHIELD agent somewhere in the room obliges us with a play by play overlayed on a recent picture.

“Now, chances are slim to none that the Tesseract will be destroyed. So once you blow the thing, it’s up to you to find it, Stark. Got it?”

“Yeah, but what am I shooting at in the first place? A small thermal exhaust port that’s only two meters wide?”

Fury face palms. The unseen agent controlling the screen puts a close up of the target on the screen. And I sit up straighter in my wheelchair, mouth falling open in glee.

“Holy shit it is. This is my life! Why is this my life? My life is awesome!”

Around me, Barton tries to muffle his snickers, Natasha is shaking her head, Banner has joined Fury in his facepalm, and Cap and Thor just look confused. This is just way too clichéd and good and awesome to be true.

***

We all manage to get a few hours of sleep over night. Fury has decreed that the battle begins at dawn. Coulson shakes me awake sometime around five with what smells like pure caffeine. My hero.

Steve meets up with us in my work bay, uniform already on, but cowl stuffed in a pocket. Together, they help me into a new under sheath sent by Jarvis and get me up to the assembly platform.

“You know Stark, you seem awfully cheerful for someone about to head into battle.”

“Yeah well, side effect of getting to be Luke Skywalker.”

Steve (and this is definitely Steve, he isn’t wearing that commanding aura he has as Captain America) looks thoughtful.

“Clint says you keep referencing something called ‘Star Wars’.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“What? You mean they have you reading books on social pleasantries of the 21st century and you don’t even know what Star Wars is?”

Steve just shrugs, and Coulson offers no answers.

JARVIS finishes assembling the Mark VII around me, dropping the helmet into my hands.

“Tell you what, Steve. When we get back, we’ll watch it together. In fact we’ll get the whole team in on it.”

This seems to cheer Steve and he and Coulson step onto the Iron Man lift up to the deck. Fury is waiting there with the rest of the team, a grenade launcher over one shoulder, as SHIELD agents scramble into quinjets around them.

“Oy, we’re all watching Star Wars with Steve when we get back. No exceptions. Everyone has to swear.”

I even put my gauntleted hand out for a team handshake thing. Teams do that, right? It’s not just movies. The others look at me like I’m crazy, but then Steve’s hand joins mine, followed (surprisingly) by Coulson’s. After that Natasha offers a smile and puts her hand in, followed by Thor, even though he’s clearly confused, and Barton and Bruce. We all grin stupidly at each other. It’s like we all have definite reason to come back now. We have plans.

Fury nods approval at us.

“Avengers, assemble.”

And we do. I lock my helmet into place and Captain America pulls on his cowl. The team, excluding Thor and myself, pile into the final empty quinjet. As they begin launching from the helicarrier deck, we too take to the skies in the morning twilight, me weaving in and out of quinjets to get a feel for the new suits maneuverability, balance, and momentum. Not as much agility has been lost as I feared, and the raw power provided by the jet pack repulsors is exhilarating. We close in on the evacuated city blocks in silence. Waiting.

As we enter into the hot zone, Thor takes point, hitting anything capable of flight with his hammer. I follow close as I dare without getting hit by the rebounding tool and finish anything he didn’t quite destroy with my repulsors.

Quinjets are landing, and we go to ground as the Avengers appear, fighting towards the center of the war zone, SHIELD headquarters. Having only fought together once, we’re surprisingly on top of things, anticipating each other’s movements and attacks and planning accordingly. Occasionally I see Fury firing his grenade launcher at something, or Coulson destroying Loki’s henchmen at hand to hand. But my primary concern is protecting my team and fighting with them.

It takes nearly an hour but we eventually find ourselves centered directly under Loki’s floating castle island. The avengers have been trying to maintain a rough circle and have succeeded, despite several attempts by frost giants to break us apart. There’s really nowhere for us to go but up. Except Loki seems to have spotted our plan and has been sending in waves of his odd little air-skis to keep Thor and me grounded. It’s really starting to get annoying. Especially to Hulk. None of us really realized how annoying though, until he was leaping into the air, straight at the oncoming flight. I registered him grabbing onto one and sending another spinning as I turned to Thor, a shout of “Hulk Smash Giant Bugs!” echoing back to us.

“Let’s do this.”

The god nods and raises his hammer.

Accelerating in the armor is easily the best feeling in the world. Indescribable, in fact. Rhodey says piloting a Raptor is dull in comparison, that the jet is slow and sluggish and completely unreliable when you need immediate response. The new systems are functioning beautifully, and with repulsors up to eleven, I’m swerving around incoming air-skis (I’m have no idea when I started thinking of them as that) before they even realize I’m there. I hit Mach 1 in the time it takes to get attack height, and abruptly deploy flaps to slow myself down and skim the underside of the floating island. I’m doing a loop and taking aim as Thor arrives beside me, hammer swinging to ward off any attackers. Lightning flashes out from it, generating a barrier against the energy attacks that aimed at us.

I decide it’s better to take this thing out with one shot and go for overkill, rather than having to do it again. I allign myself before I give the command, knowing once I do so, I’ll temporarily loose boots and stabilizers.

“Jarvis, full power to chest piece. Activate the unibeam!”

The beam is a brilliant blue white as it impacts the port. The explosion itself is breathtaking. My repulsors have barely started to comeback online when Thor grabs me, hammer creating a vortex that shields us from the flames and shrapnel. As the metal raining down subsides, so does the vortex Thor’s been generating.

“JARVIS, begin scanning for energy signatures matching the arc reactor.”

“Scanning, sir.”

In the meantime, Thor and I begin descending, attacking and destroying any leftover air-skis that happen to come near us. We aren’t rushed, as the battle on the ground seems to be going alright.

And then things start to go wrong.

We start hearing panic and alarm in the voices of the agents on the com link.

“Hulk is down! Repeat Hulk is down!”

We pick up speed at the next yell.

“Cover Banner! Guard him with your lives!”

The next thing we hear is Coulson, who sounds midway between exasperated and resigned.

“Is that a pickup truck? Why the hell is he in a pickup truck?”

My question is who the hell is in the pickup truck, and where the hell did they get it?

And that of course, is when JARVIS gets a lock on the Tesseract. It’s location? The end of Loki’s staff, as he stands in the bed of a pickup truck, which is currently charging towards the Avengers, who scatter. Hawkeye takes a shot from the staff, but I can see him attempting to move after he drops to the ground where he was slammed into a building. Black Widow manages to avoid it, but only by tumbling down and behind a pile of rubble. It dangerous, but it’s not doing as much damage as it’s capable of at full power. Cap’s shield fortunately seems capable of rebounding cosmic energy. Vibranium is good for everything. Thor takes the lead again and lands in front of the truck.

It crumples on impact and Loki goes flying. As does his staff. I waste no time and grab it in the precious seconds it takes Loki to climb to his feet. He isn’t capable of flight, so I accelerate through the buildings, taking cover while I work to pry the Tesseract free of the metal. And then I hear his voice in my ear.

“Now really, Tony Stark. Just give me what I want, and none of your precious Avengers must die. I don’t have to refreeze your Captain.”

JARVIS confirms that Loki is on the Cap’s com link. I open the link to everyone but Steve.

“Does anyone have a visual?”

“He has Rogers.” Confirms Coulson’s voice, sounding haggard and tired. “I don’t know what he’s doing, but Cap is looking cold.”

“My brother is a frost giant. He is capable of freezing the bodies of others.”

Thor’s voice is unusually quiet. I get the impression that if he attempts to make any move, Captain America will die. I finally pry the Tesseract loose, and stare at it, thinking.

Loki wants the Tesseract. And he wants me to reignite it to full power.

“Thor, you said this thing responds to the will of those who possess it, right?”

“That is correct, Man of Iron.”

“So if I were to recharge it, couldn’t I, I don’t know, use it to stop Loki?”

“Cosmic Cubes respond to the will of the possessor, but they tend to react badly when used to harm others.”

“Cap said when Schmidt tried to use it, a void opened, and he could see nebulae, stars, that sort of thing.”

“It is possible the captain saw the tree of Yggdrasil.”

“Loki survived there before, right? When he fell from the rainbow bridge?”

“Yes. I am still uncertain how it he made his way to Midgard.”

“So why don’t we send him back there?”

“Charge that thing Stark, and I will eat your balls for breakfast.”

Good to know Fury’s still alive and kicking.

I close down the SHIELD link, maintaining one with Thor alone.

“Is there really a way to stop him Thor?”

“Nothing on Midgard will hold my brother for long.”

“Look, I’m going to do it. And attempt to summon the void. All you have to do is toss him in with your hammer.”

“To do so will put you at great risk to be pulled in yourself.”

“Yeah, I…don’t worry about me. Once I charge this thing...I’m a dead man walking anyway, with nothing holding the shrapnel in place. I told Loki we’d avenge the Earth. Promise me you’ll do it, Thor.”

He’s silent. I almost think he’s going to refuse, when his words sound, oddly husky over the comm.

“Your sacrifice shall not be in vain, Tony Stark.”

I swallow, and fly to a location where in can see Loki standing on the street, a knife at Cap’s throat and his boots iced to the ground. His shield lies a few feet away, glinting in the sunlight.

I swallow, knowing my chances of survival are slim. The only arc reactors I have are the one in my chest, my old palladium one, and the palladium one in the War Machine. Only one of those happens to be on the east coast. Somehow, this seems a lot more final than having Pepper blow the big reactor while I was on the roof.

I manually remove the armor, stripping down to the under sheath. I pull some wiring from the chest plate and connect it back into the reactor, connecting the opposite end to the softly glowing cube. It just sort of adheres to the surface, and I can feel the hum of the reactor slowing as the Tesseract brightens, reawakening. I stumble to my feet as the arc reactor dies, leaving my chest oddly numb. I make it to the bottom of my rubble pile before the sharp stabbing pain starts to leach my strength, the shrapnel beginning to lurch towards my heart.

“Loki!”

He turns at my shout, smirking when he sees what I have. What I’ve done. Captain America looks frantically over his shoulder, encased in ice to his waist. He pales as I yank the wire from the dark reactor, holding the Tesseract above my head.

“You want it? Come get it!”

He doesn’t hesitate to accept my challenge, moving swiftly over the ground. I focus every last thought on the cube in my hand, every ounce of will I possess, and hope beyond reason that it responds to me. That it bends to my wishes.

Please open the void. Protect my team, my friends, my people. I don’t care if I die, as long as they’re safe. All we need is Loki to not be here.

Loki is closing, and I think nothing is happening. SHIELD agents, the Avengers, all are shouting at me to move, to run, to do anything but stand there. I’m losing strength fast and stagger as a particularly brutal stab of pain passes through my chest. I think it’s all lost, when I feel it.

My skin goes cold, but not the cold of ice. This is a prickling awful cold, the kind you feel when your skin is exposed to a vacuum. A rift is forming on the street beside me, the void that I had desperately hoped to create. I can see the nebulae, the stars, the galaxies that Steve spoke of, and I suddenly understand why he’s been unable to draw it. It’s beautiful, in an incomprehensible way, that no number of photos from Hubble could ever do justice. And even though I can feel it pulling at me and drawing me in, I find I don’t mind. To die looking at that? I don’t mind at all.

I vaguely register a cry from Loki as Thor’s hammer rams him from behind, shoving him towards the void. His eyes widen when he realizes this was the plan all along, and he tries to reclose the distance he lost to me to the void. A second blow from the hammer knocks him to the ground and the void pulls him faster, even as he scrabbles at the pavement, trying to gain a hold.

It’s pulling me too, but I’m somehow still on my feet. I’m about to fall too, when something in red, white, and blue connects with the outer edge of the Tesseract, sending it spinning from my grasp, straight towards the void. Balance lost, I fall to the ground, but the cube is pulled faster than I, and as it separates further from my hands, the void begins to shrink. It isn’t enough to save Loki though, and he vanishes into with a scream as the void closes, Tesseract teetering at the edge. I collapse on my side, staring at it as it glows softly on the pavement.

***

I see and hear things, but they don’t really register. I’m too far gone. Natasha is yelling for a car battery, like she hopes I can be saved. Steve’s removed his cowl and has my head in his lap. His uniform is freezing, and I feel like I should know why, but I just can’t find the energy to remember. He’s asking me why I did it, why I would sacrifice myself like that. He’s babbling, and I get the feeling he’s trying to apologize for something. Misjudging me maybe? When was that? I have no answer. Barton’s voice stands out for some reason, sounding oddly cracked and hurt.

“Don’t you dare die on us Stark. I’ll never be able to watch Star Wars again if you do.”

Star Wars…were we supposed to be doing something after this? I don’t know. Steve is setting my head on the pavement now, and as I feel the first jolt of electricity though my chest, everything goes black.

***

I feel like I’m floating. I can feel an arc reactor humming in my chest, but it’s not a familiar hum. More a distantly remembered one. SHIELD managed to get one of the palladium versions out here, then. There’s a familiar voice, rising above the bright beep of a heart monitor. James Earl Jones?

And then the battle, the void, the Tesseract come flooding back to me. And stronger than those, the memory of our promise. I open my eyes, grateful for the dim lighting in the infirmary room.

On the television screen, Princess Leia argues with Darth Vader about Alderaan. But it’s not what’s on the screen that’s important, but who I’m able to see in its light.

Natasha sits curled an armchair, cheek bandaged and wrist wrapped. Thor sits in a second arm chair, making it resemble a throne. Barton lies on the other bed, not under the covers, but still in a hospital gown. An empty wheelchair is at its side. I can’t see what’s wrong with him though. Bruce is reclined in a another wheelchair, likewise in a hospital gown. Coulson lies relaxing on a couch next to the window, head propped against his arm on the armrest. Steve sits cross legged at the foot of my bed, childlike smile visible from his profile. Even Fury is here, leaning against the door frame, looking ready to bolt lest anyone notice him. It’s oddly touching that they’d all congregate here, just to watch a silly movie and keep a promise. Somewhere in the last however many days (I need to find out how long I’ve been out this time), we’ve gone from being barely civil, to teammates, to concerned acquaintances, to – dare I say it – friends. I’m legitimately glad they’re okay.

But what gets to me most of all, are the bright smiles that begin to form when they see I’m awake. They’re as glad for me as I am for them. And as they look at me with fondness (Natasha, Fury, and Coulson), acceptance (Barton and Banner), joviality (Thor), and pride (Steve), I have to fight to keep tears from running down my face. None of them look disapprovingly at me anymore, none of them sneer and look disgusted. And for once, there’s a group that I look forward to working with.

We will fight, we will protect, we will avenge. And at the end of the day, we’ll come together and remember what brought us together. As friends.