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It’s funny how easy it is to make the mind subservient.

Tony has always been a strong-willed man. He has never bent for anyone or anything; always believed in doing whatever he wanted and always had the money to do so. He’s learned charm, how to interact with people because snake-charmers are a dime a dozen in his world and he never wanted to be the snake, never wanted to be the one with the broken heart.

Hardened mind; hardened heart. Simple equation. Become the heart-breaker, retain the self.

He’s always believed that he was upwards of being the best snake-charmer in the league.

He never sees himself for the hypnotized snake he is until the master has him by the throat and stares into his eyes with malice and deceit, smile smug and fake in the desert sun as he pulls Tony out of the burning sand, promising everything will be alright.

Stane pulls Tony out of the desert, nurses him back to health in the quiet hidden part of Stark Industries, New York. He tells Tony that they can’t release the news that he’s alive yet, but they will soon. They will and Tony doesn’t know why the fuck he goes along with it at first. He must have still been hypnotized by a man who was supposed to have been his mentor and friend. He must have been tired and aching from the sun beating down on him for two days without water. He must have been stupid and naïve like he had been when he thought there was no way his company could ever double-deal under the table.

It should have been so obvious that Stane never had any intention of bringing him back to life. It should have been obvious that Stane had never intended for him to even make it out of the desert and it was only by the grace of Tony’s brilliant mind, quick hands, and the soft, kind heart of Yinsen that he hadn’t died in a cave just as planned. It should have been obvious that Stane was never going to let him out of a twenty-by-twenty cell the moment that door first clicked shut behind him.

The snake-charmer has only ever been a snake to be tamed.

IMCA

The will takes a longer to bend, but it proves to be just as malleable after a very short time. One only needs the proper heat.

Tony spends a month in that white, white room that has been built into a miniature workshop with barely enough room to move around. Metals appear overnight while he sleeps in a sleep that isn’t natural. He paces the room looking for the vents, but he can’t find any. He knows they have to be somewhere, but damn if he can find them and he designed the damn building.

Tools come next, ones he recognizes from Afghanistan, only a little more high-tech. His own designs he had created to help his work go smoothly, to help him build his company with bombs and weapons. He stares at them for hours on end. Not that he has much else to do. The white walls glare at him mockingly, Cheshire smiles cruel and frozen.

He doesn’t do anything with his makeshift lab. He actually becomes pretty good at pacing in that one month. Four and a half weeks. Thirty-one days. He can go one. He’s broken it down into milliseconds once and he could probably go on further, but his attention usually switches to something else, schematics, escape plans, his favorite engineering equations fitted with different variables of the metals he knows by feel now, more escape plans.

He’s left alone for most of the time. Psychological torture. He knows that somewhere in his brain. Seclusion has the ability to break people; tears down walls between coherence and memories. Tony has been used to that feeling for ages.

He’s left alone with an almost lab in a too tight space with no computers, no phone, nothing electrical. He thinks he handles it well. He sits on a tiny cot in the corner of the room, and remembers he practically did the same thing in Afghanistan. He had Yinsen to be sure, and he misses his friend, likely the only person who will ever see him for what he is.

‘So you are a man who has everything, but nothing.’

He smiles to himself sometimes when he thinks of those words, refuses to let himself think about how he has more of the nothing now than he ever did before. Yinsen truly had been a man who lost everything. He still has his friends. He knows he does, even if he hasn’t seen them in approximately four months. About a hundred twenty-two days. Close to two-thousand nine-hundred twenty-eight hours. Give or take. How long had it been since Yinsen had seen his family? Did he count the hours out like Tony sometimes did? Tony had never asked. He’s suddenly glad he didn’t.

The door opens eventually, locks hissing away from holsters until Obadiah Stane pushes open the door and stands in the jamb looking around the puny work space curiously. He has a cigar in his hand, partially chewed on, but his hands are on his hips like a disapproving father figure in a child’s dirty room.

Tony’s teeth clench as he pushes himself up from the wall he’d been leaning against.

“Tony, m’boy,” Stane says, still looking over at his untouched stations. Tony has never felt words creep over him like tar before, but he now knows firsthand what the sensation is like. The words slide down his back coldly, pulling a barely repressed shiver of hatred out of him. “You haven’t really done much here. I’m surprised.”

He forces himself to glance at the untouched station. It’s pretty bare, almost militant. Tony doesn’t like it. Doesn’t even like glancing at it. He’s always worked better with noise, ever since he was a kid. He pushes a shrug out of his body, easy despite being forced. He’s always been a fair actor; had to be. “I haven’t been feeling very inventive lately.”

Stane tilts his chin up, looks down his nose at Tony. “Is that right?”

He nods; meanders over to one of the tables laden with metals. He picks a few things up randomly, puts them down with distaste. He makes a show of waving his hand in the air around his head. “It’s too quiet. I can’t focus on one thing. I don’t have computers to filter through equations while I do the building, which you haven’t told me what I’m building yet, just so you know. I can’t build you whatever the hell I’m being held captive for if I don’t know what you want.”

Stane huffs a laugh, actually has the audacity to look amused at him. “Tony. Tony. Tony. You know what I want.” He really has no fucking clue, thanks, and it must be apparent on his face. The older man comes further into the room, always keeping his larger body between Tony and the exit. “You got out of the cave,” he says with a gleeful, near maniacal smile. “You built a machine to destroy that entire encampment.”

Tony meets his gaze, feels dread building in him though part of his subconscious has always known this is how it would be. Why keep him around if it weren’t for the development of better weapons? He takes a deep breath. “I’ll still need computers, with music, and the capability to read algorithms without being constantly monitored. That suit was primitive. I can do it better.”

A glint flashes across Stane’s eyes, like he doesn’t trust Tony. He’s a snake-charmer who knows his snake well, then. “I’ll get you that computer, Tony, but I expect work to start the second it’s in this room.”

Tony shakes his head. “I’ll need at least three.” At the unimpressed look Stane narrows him with, he goes on. “I told you. What I had in that cave was primitive. The more computers I have at my disposal the shinier your suit will be. I’ll be able to add upgrades, make actual systems, integrate a better weapons system.”

Even as he’s saying this he’s thinking of the way he’ll be able to use the information on the computers at his disposal. Stane knows he’ll need new models, state of the art software. Already he knows they’ll be linked to Stark Industries mainframe. They’ll have to be. Almost all Stark products have the ability to be linked in with the mainframe of the company. It’s why his help centers have always done so well. His technicians have been able to access customer merchandise through the system.

It’s a place to start.

Stane brings his cigar to his mouth, chews at the end contemplatively as he continues looking down his nose at Tony. Then he smiles and opens his arms wide. “Alright, Tony, if this is what you need to work, I can do that for you. They’ll be here before the week is out.”

Tony currently doesn’t know what that means. He has no idea what day of the week it is. Can only give a brief estimate that this is week number five as Stane’s hostage and not the terrorist groups. He nods anyway. He doesn’t want to push his luck right now.

Stane nods back and turns away.

It takes all of Tony’s self-control not to jump for his back. To control that snake-like impulse to attack. He watches as he disappears out the door with a quick, “I’ll see you soon, Tony-boy,” and then the lock snicks into place behind him. Tony nearly sags into the table with relief.

Instead, he keeps himself upright, glances around the small room again, wonders if he should even try to build another suit or if it would lead to his death before he could actually try any type of escape or of he should break out in a different method. He’ll know as soon as he has the computers. He’ll have more data to look into and figure out the best way to tackle this.

IMCA

He’s made to sleep three times, which makes him think that perhaps seventy-two hours have gone by, but he can’t be sure. He has no way of keeping any measure of time. He considers building himself a clock, but doesn’t think he would be able to handle the ticking units. He’s lived without the conveyance of time for approximately five months now. To have that steady stroke of seconds reel by him in a hap hazard countdown towards his own demise would probably dismantle him more than a month of solitary confinement.

In the midst of those three days, give or take with the variables in the strength of whatever drug they’re using, his mind whirs specifically over escape plans. So far, algorithms, formulas, and safety parameters tell him not to build another iron suit. With three computers he’ll be able to break into the camera feeds, get a good schematic of where in the building he’s being held captive, as well as a good idea of what he should expect to meet on his way out.

There are times when he’ll get side tracked. It’s easy to do in such a quiet room where everything stares so lifelessly at him. It’s almost like he computes escapes in one part of his mind while the other half goes through other activities. Who he should go to first? What will he do with Stane? Would state authorities help?

He needs to take his company over again. He’s done with weapons manufacturing and has many more ideas he could use to make his company work for the better. It would cause a serious fall in stock market prices, but Tony has accounted for that already. Whatever the cost, it’s evident that he needs to take Stark Industries away from Stane, remove Stane from the picture. He may have the power to do it, but the downfall of Stane is that he is a master snake-charmer.

It’s never been a contest between the two of them. Tony is charming, but he’s eccentric and brash at the same time. Stane is a smooth-talking son of a bitch. If Tony even does somehow manage to escape tomorrow, they’d look at him and see post-traumatic stress disorder, breaks with reality, and so many psychoses that they’ve been making up since before he even went to Afghanistan.

In quiet times, when his mind is exhausted and he’s rerun calculations so many times they’re burned into his eyes like brands, he’ll think of the people he loves.

He can count them on one hand. If he moves under skin and muscle he can count them on one finger, the bones that make up phalanges representing each person. All three of them. There would be four. Technically, he guesses there still are four because he didn’t stop loving Yinsen, and he did love Yinsen, just because he died, just because he sacrificed his life for Tony and to see his family again.

Still one hand, and if he counted the metacarpal as part of his finger he supposes that it still counts. One finger of his hand, and all the love he’s ever felt focused into it.

He thinks of his three friends, the ones that are still living. He sometimes wonders if they’re over him, if they’ve moved on and moved Tony Stark to the quiet part of their mind like what used to be their favorite doll or action figure as a child. He has no doubt that he’s an easy man to move passed. He was a snake; leave him alone and it’s easy to forget one ever looked upon him. It’s easy to forget that he hissed and spit, all the while trying curl around as if trying to protect and suffocate simultaneously.

They’d be better without him, Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy would. He knows he caused them a lot of grief and headaches over the years. He knows he’s set their teeth on edge and they’ve had to resist the urge to attack him in such a violent sense. He knows he’s ruined their lives bit by bit and it’s always amazed him that they had more to squander.

Yes, their lives are probably extraordinarily better without him around.

It doesn’t always stop the pure selfish thoughts. The ones that can’t wait until he’s back, until he can see them again. He wants the chance to see them again, to try to be the better friend even if he knows he’ll fail so spectacularly, because that’s what he always does. Tony Stark may be a genius, but his greatest ability is to falter in every relationship he has.

It doesn’t stop the aching want, though. It never has.

He wants Happy there to bullshit with and talk to him about cars.

He wants Pepper to scold him and indulge him simultaneously.

He wants Rhodey and he probably wants Rhodey the most. He’s known Rhodey longest and Rhodey has just been there even when it was apparent Tony was just two centimeters from driving him to murder, he was always there and he wants that right now.

He wants them but he’s not sure how he would ever just show up and talk to them when he escapes. He’s been dead for about five months and that’s a lot of days to mourn and forget someone. He doesn’t know how he would come back to life after all that time; not sure how they would see him or the machinery in his chest; not even sure if he would ever be real for them again.

Then another thought crosses his mind.

It crosses his mind when he’s tired and he’s tired of being in this small room that’s too small to even fucking breathe in and he’s tired of Stane and his stupid fucking snake-charming ways that he would just like to go to sleep.

And not wake up.

IMCA

He’s forced to sleep on the third night and by the time he wakes, there are the computers, but there’s also Stane sitting on a work stool and staring at him with dangerously glittering eyes. His cigar is half-chewed in one hand, a small black remote in the other.

Tony scrambles to a sitting position on the floor, where he had apparently passed out. The movement is a terrible idea, he discovers as a wave of nausea rolls over him. “Stane,” he says, wearily. He must have been hit with a larger dose than expected because there’s a buzzing feeling around his head, the inability to focus. He can feel his heart beating arrhythmically as it will do for all his life as well as the arc reactor whirring near violently in his chest.

“Tony,” Stane says, rearranging himself on the stool. He licks his lips and leans his arms onto his knees, sinking closer to Tony’s level and regarding him with a cool glare. He’s quiet for a moment as he regards Tony still on the floor, as if he’s a broken toy that needs further damage inflicted to make it work properly again.

He wishes he could get up but whatever has been pushed into his lungs is lingering. His arms feel like noodles and his brain has obviously been disconnected from his lower half because his legs and feet toss and kick uselessly but do nothing to solidify beneath his torso. The more he struggles the more the urge to vomit grows. Gravity becomes a cruel master and he eventually just flops backward onto the floor, slamming his head against the tiled floor of the room with a sickening crack that makes the nausea worse but strangely doesn’t hurt.

“You’re a brilliant man, Tony,” Stane says, mostly to himself at this point because Tony is blinking rapidly from his place on the floor. “It’s not surprising that you would pretend to appease me to get these computers down here. I do have to say that you’re lack of ingenuity is a letdown.”

He stands from his stool and Tony gets to see how one man can become three, gets to wonder what the hell is in his system.

Stane stands over him, head tilted as he watches Tony on the floor, like an experiment gone horribly wrong. “You’ll have access into Stark Industries mainframe,” he says softly. “I can only imagine what you would do with it, but I have a pretty good idea it isn’t to help you build shit.” He follows his statement with a sudden and completely unexpected kick to the ribs.

Tony feels the air leave his lungs quickly and the urge to throw up triples as he manages to curl around his ribs, shooting one hand out to the floor in an attempt to push himself up and away. A trail of anger blazes down his spine, but it doesn’t seem to get passed the shock, pain, and sick feelings that swirl in his stomach as he tries to make his arms work.

It makes a damn good effort though as Stane lands his expensive shoe in Tony’s side. He flops to the floor again, his nose almost coming directly in contact with the hard stone below him although he somehow manages to turn his head in time. He glares up at Stane from his place on the ground, swallows back vomit and tells himself Stane has nothing on an entire terrorist organization. He’s got nothing on them.

Stane frowns at him, head still tilted to the side as he tugs on his pant legs and squats down. He takes a deep breath, rolling his cigar between his fingers. “You know me, Tony,” he says, still speaking softly as if trying to sooth him. “I’m not a stupid man. Anyone would try to break out of here. All things considered this would probably be a cakewalk with a brain like yours.”

He reaches out and raps his knuckles savagely against Tony’s temple, a smile easing across his face like stagnant water. “I have to let you know, though, I would stay here if I were you.”

“Fuck you,” Tony manages through his rapid swallowing.

Stane chuffs a small laugh and pats his cheek in a demeaning manner, the smell of cigars permeating in Tony’s nostrils for a moment before a hand is in his hair and his skull is knocked against the ground again. This time he does register the pain and his stomach rolls violently.

He reminds himself again he’s been through worse, breathing as steadily as he can through his nose.

“I wouldn’t say that just yet.” The hand that had been holding the remote waves in front of his dazed eyes. “You’re stubborn, Tony, but you’re sure as hell not without weaknesses.” He clicks a button and from his position on the ground, he can make out one of the computer monitors coming to life. He stares at the blurring screen cut in three ways, thinks he may see people. There’s no need to see their faces to know who they are.

His heart drops and he scrambles toward the microscopic bathroom, but Stane pushes him down and his hip clashes cruelly into the side of his cot.

“This is a warning, Tony!” Stane says loudly as he stands up. “I would heed it if I were you.” He aims one more kick and it’s so close to the arc reactor that he scrambles away and the kick hits his solar plexus.

He can’t control it this time no matter how much he swallows against it and bile does rise up his throat. He sees blood in the bile. Not surprising considering the previous two kicks. He moves away from it, wiping his lips with the back of his hand as he glares up at the man in front of him. “You do one goddamn thing to them and I’ll-”

“You’ll what?” he asks, pressing the cigar between his teeth. He smiles meanly. “You can’t do a damn thing down here and I promise you. I promise you, Tony.” He makes a show of pulling the cigar away from his mouth and pointing with it. “Cross me and you’ll watch them die.”

Tony doesn’t look at the computers again, but he has a feeling that he’ll recognize the angle as sniper view. He keeps his eyes leveled on Stane, hopes the man feels a fraction of the hate Tony is sending him.

Stane just meets his gaze, completely unaffected as he says, “I think that’s enough for now.”

The door opens behind him and he stalks away, leaving Tony on the floor. The computer screen goes blank, and Tony is left trying to get his limbs to cooperate, because he has work to do.

He has a lot of fucking work to do.

IMCA

Over the next three hours he finally gets his body to work with him and goes over to the computers, ignoring the pain all over his torso. He has one goal at the moment, over all of his other goals, and that is JARVIS. He can do a lot of this on his own, but now that he has computers he wants his computer system to be there to help him. It will make it easier, because JARVIS can watch several things while Tony tries to get out. Tony can tell him what programs to block, which cameras to loop and JARVIS would be able to make it all flawless.

He spends an hour blocking Stane out from his computers, leaving enough that it isn’t suspicious, while giving him privacy. He hacks into the cameras in his room so he knows the angles the cameras are at. At the moment he doesn’t bother looping them. For all the surveillance knows he’s building schematics for the suit, so they can just suck his dick. With the camera angles he moves the computers to where nothing is easily tangible, screens hidden from all of them as he begins his serious work.

His houses are all triple guarded against hackers in a code he came up with in college and that no one has been able to crack. It takes all of about ten minutes to negate it all and worm his way into JARVIS’ system. He can see JARVIS struggling to keep him out as he was programmed to do. He quickly enters his personal override code so that JARVIS will stop fighting him and follow him into the computers he has with him.

He knows he has him, but he still can’t resist calling out, “Hey, baby? You still love me?” as he mutes the cameras. The guards probably won’t even care, even if they do notice. Audio glitches. One can never account for them.

He’s almost too relieved to stand when he hears JARVIS answer him, “Always, sir. And let me take this moment to say how wonderful it is to hear your voice again. Shall I send assistance?”

Tony has a moment where he thinks of his friends and his heart starts beating erratically around the arc reactor. “Not just yet. I gotta get out of here first,” he says. “And I need your brilliance to help me. You’ll do that, right?”

“Absolutely, sir,” JARVIS answers immediately. “Direct me to where I am needed and we shall have you home in no time.”

He claps his hands as he answers. “This is going to be a bit of a work in progress, JARVIS. I need the plans to this building, work on video loops. I want the loops to look flawless. Just tell me when to look busy and when I can move. Capisce?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Good. Great. Okay, I’m also going to need eyes on the guards. I’m pretty sure I know when security will be suckiest, but I also need to come up with some designs for posture, so I’m not going to be able to keep an eye on them to make sure. I need you to calculate the best possible time of escape.”

“Will you need help with your ‘work’, Mr. Stark?”

Tony fakes a smile for JARVIS. “Oh, sweetie-pie. I always need your help.”

He outlines the suit for JARVIS, typing on an actual keyboard, god help him. He pulls up all the designs that Stane could possibly want just in case the bastard comes back to check on him and after about five minutes, JARVIS intones, “Beginning recording, sir. I shall inform you when I have finished.”

He glances at the computer and nods, before flying off to a different computer and starting it to work on a few equations for the suits internal systems, including temperature controls and oxygen inlets. With his third computer he pulls up employee records for Stark Industries and searches out his friends’ names, noting if they’re still in the same positions that would bring them in contact with Stane.

They are, but they are still working in the Los Angeles. Stane has always gone back and forth between L.A. and New York, but most of his time was in New York especially when Tony was actually at his L.A. branch. It had actually been a pretty good deal. Now he wishes he could go back in time and slap his younger self for falling so easily into Stane’s charms.

This of course doesn’t mean that they don’t have tails on them, spies or some such being paid by his captor. It sends another wave of nausea through him at the thought, but he’d only just cleaned up his last run in with sickness. He isn’t going to have a repeat on his computers.

He tries to think if he should send them an email or a text message telling them to lay low or go visit family, but knowing them they would start actually looking for their follower and probably start a scene. He knows the people he hired. If they shirked from danger, they would never have been hired into his staff.

A message pops up on the screen, JARVIS’s signature encrypted into it. ‘Return to your original computer, sir,’ it says and he goes, looking over the work done by the computer while he had been otherwise occupied.

“Finished, sir,” JARVIS says. “Implementing the loop now. I am compiling the information I have gathered in the previous hour and sending it to you now.”

Tony breathes a sigh of relief. “Awesome. JARVIS you are too good to me.”

“I know, sir.”

IMCA

He waits for the clock on the computer to count down. He’s gone back and forth in his head if it would be smart to try sneaking out tonight or if he should wait. He doesn’t know which would be less expected. If he waits it would probably make Stane think he’s being complacent, but he’s anything but complacent and Stane would see it for the trickery it is. If he tries now, he could probably get out fast, but Stane would probably also be expecting it. The older man had said it himself. Nobody would like being in this cell.

He decides on the more time efficient plan though, because he’s been a captive for five months, just a little over, and he wants to breathe fresh air.

He’s waiting for two AM before he goes. By then, the building should just be a ghost town. He keeps watch to see who all has clocked out and knows when the last person has gone home. Stane had clocked out at four, so he at least shouldn’t have to worry about that.

He talks to JARVIS as he bides his time, leaning against the wall with his arms around his folded legs. He rests his chin against one knee and speaks into empty air. He built JARVIS after his butler; a man who died shortly after his parents and always felt like more of a father to Tony than Howard ever did. He closes his eyes and imagines Jarvis in the room with him, picturing the way the man had been when Tony was young. Tall, blond, and horribly English.

“You know I miss you, right?”

And the computer somehow knows. It’s always known when it was JARVIS and when it was Jarvis. “I know, sir.”

Tony smirks, glances at the clock again and sees it’s only 1:45. He sighs. “I’m going to teach you how to make cookies, JARVIS.”

“You would have to learn how to cook, sir,” JARVIS says dryly.

He laughs and it feels okay. He feels okay, despite nerves dancing over him. He can do this, but all of the ‘what if’s’ prance in his mind. He has a bad feeling about this; the same kind he had when he was in the Afghanistan and he and Yinsen were first working through their plan. The same kind of nerves that skyrocketed when Yinsen broke away from the steps they had worked out to follow his own agenda.

He looks around the room idly, looking at the metal and tools that stare back at him blankly. He’ll return for them when he’s actually free again. He’ll have them melted down, fashion himself a trophy the size of a small house and put it in one of his lawns so people will know not to kidnap Tony Stark because he will fucking escape. He may even have those words engraved into the trophy.

Pepper wouldn’t like it, but he has a feeling Rhodey would be quietly amused while Happy would giggle like a schoolboy every time he saw it.

He closes his eyes as he thinks of them. He’s seen their photos in their files when he pulled them up that afternoon, but he doesn’t like them. The people in the files look stiff and fake.

He likes to remember them the way they were when he last saw them, even Pepper herding him out of his own house in L.A., and Rhodey giving him that patented ‘I’m going to lecture you so hard later’ look when Tony locked him out of the ‘Fun-vee’.

“How are they?” he asks JARVIS and that program is about ten seconds away from sentient because he knows precisely who Tony is talking about. His erratic jumps in conversations have never meant anything to JARVIS and never did to Jarvis, either.

“They are as well as can be expected,” the computer returns, sounding morose, sad and it just sucks that Tony programmed him so well. “I have not had much contact with Ms. Potts or Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes, but Mr. Hogan has been by to the L.A. garage a few times, although despite your automobile collection technically being his, he has thus far only taken the Rolls Royce out.”

He tries not to feel disheartened about that.

He knew they would move on after him, but…

He’s so unsure about how to approach them once he’s out.

IMCA

He uses one of the computers to unlock the door at two like he had planned. JARVIS says that the loop is playing on the feeds and that the security crews are mostly away from the route of escape that Tony has devised, which mostly focuses on back exits with keypads he can hack and escape through quickly. He and JARVIS have come up with a tracking system that mostly consists of Tony hitting the star button three times on every phone he comes across and then Tony walking out to the hotel across the street to phone Happy.

Crude, but it’s the best he has with no cell phone and no way to link JARVIS into the entire building without wasting weeks.

However, when he opens the door, he is very much halted.

“You act like you’re surprised, Tony,” Stane says from the other side of the barrier, lit cigar in one hand and smoke curling around him while his other hand rests against his thigh with something resting in his loose grip. He smiles, charming and just snake-like. Tony sees himself in it, and he hates it.

He just fucking hates it.

His mind moves in a whirlwind. He’s calculated for this. He knew there was a chance that adversity would come up. He knows what he could do. Happy has been teaching him boxing for what seems like eons; he’s taken a few other martial arts classes when he was bored and his mind seemed to settle on pretending he was normal. He could probably subdue Stane. He calculates Stane’s age, relative speed given his weight, flexibility and decreasing bone density. All simple numbers that he keeps in his head just as easily as his equations.

But it takes too long.

He doesn’t know how it takes so long but Stane is suddenly right there and there’s a sharp ringing in his ears before all his muscles just seize, dropping him to the floor. Blood vessels burst in his ears and he feels the sickly slide of the thick liquid leak out his ear canals. His brain is in a hurricane flurry now as he stares at the floor. Pain radiates through him but his muscles refuse to move even an inch. He panics, trapped in his own body as he is. Stane grabs an arm and yanks him back into the room violently. He feels the joint where his arm and shoulder meet groan angrily, thinks anymore pressure and his shoulder will be dislocated.

His brain struggles, sending out drastic alerts from dendrites through somas to axons down his nervous system and screaming for it to do something. Neurotransmitters are firing, but whether they’re received or not remains a mystery because his limbs don’t move. He doesn’t fucking struggle the way he wants to; his muscles don’t even twitch.

So, yes. He’s panicking and his body doesn’t even have the good graces to show it as blood pools in the shell of his ear and he’s literally skidded across the shiny floor of his ‘lab.’

His eyes can still move. Great fucking achievement, there. They twitch around before landing on Stane who sets something—what he quickly realizes as the Sonic Tazer the Government had banned a few years ago— on one of the work stations, twisting a computer around so he can see it. It shows Happy’s picture, his stiff face and staring into the blankness of the room with serious eyes that Tony has always kind of admired.

Stane’s smile is snake-oil congealing on his face. “I had a feeling you wouldn’t have the patience to wait,” he says, taking a puff off his cigar and blowing it in Tony’s direction. He’s beginning to despise that smell, but he can’t turn away, can only breathe it in and stare at Stane and for the second time in twenty-four hours, hope that Stane can feel the hatred in his eyes.

His mind struggles harder when Stane walks over to him calmly and lifts him by his tank top; pulling and stretching the fabric, letting the straining seams dig into his skin. It’s a petty pain but it irks Tony because he can’t move to alleviate it, hangs their limply as Stane displays impressive strength and hauls him onto the cot, props him up and stares into his eyes like he’s trying to shove Tony’s hate right back at him.

Too late, really, but fairly effective.

Stane taps his face with the tips of his fingers, cigar butt coming in and out of his peripheral vision and smoke burning his eyes. He sticks the cigar between his teeth, stares down at Tony with consideration, before punching him squarely in the jaw and sends his head viciously to the side, pain blooming over the side of his face.

It sadly helps to focus him. All of the equations and numbers stop panicking. He also, perhaps again sadly but then again maybe this is what he deserves, is used to this. Afghanistan. Doesn’t do much for pain tolerance, but it helps make the pain a focal point. The focal point helps to dull the panic. Without panic, he can start calculating logically again.

He stares at the open door, because his head is twisted to the side thanks to the blow and that’s all he sees. Blood drips onto his shoulder, hot and sticky. He feels bruises blooming at his jaw. No matter how much he tries, he can’t move.

He calculates all the ways this could go.

Death could easily be in his future. Stane hadn’t even wanted him to escape Afghanistan. And there are a number of ways he could do it here in this tiny room. After having reevaluated Stane, he thinks he would make it quick and clean. Good, because neither of them is fans of messes and Tony can deal with pain, but he doesn’t want it drawn out just before his death. He’s finicky like that.

Torture. Torture would likely be his next bet. Stane has proven that’s he’s not above physical violence. He calculates what his worst injury would be. Stane wants him to build shit for him. Nothing too damaging. Maybe enough to take him out for a few days, but not for more than a week. He suspects bruised ribs, perhaps a hairline fracture in a bone somewhere. Perhaps his leg as that would be the least likely, in Stane’s mind, to keep him from working. His hands and eyes would at least be spared.

A punch to his ribs stalls his calculating, sends numbers skittering away briefly.

He closes his eyes, takes a deep, painful breath. His body doesn’t even flinch, doesn’t move to protect itself.

Okay, this may be a new sort of hell.

His head is rotated back to the computer. The last option comes slinking back into his mind as Stane steps back to the screens, and he clicks through the windows.

“I thought I would let you pick,” Stane says.

After Happy’s serious face, Pepper’s neutral face appears. Her green eyes stare at him blankly, the essence of her everyday face without her hidden amusement, fond gaze, and never-ending knowledge.

Rhodey’s face is next. Military, head up, eyes straight, lips set.

“Which one gets to die first, Tony?” he asks, cigar smoldering in his hands.

He tries to keep his breathing even as he looks at her, looks at them back and forth in his mind. Happy. Pepper. Rhodey. Happy. Pepper. Rhodey. Their pictures, smiles, frowns, glares, mirth all flash within his mind, but he keeps his inhales as neutral as possible.

He blinks calmly, his eyes settled on Rhodey’s picture.

It’s involuntary. His eyes are burning, getting dry. Stane doesn’t take it that way. He looks back at Rhodey’s picture and Tony has the clear, terrified thought, ‘Oh fuck. What did I just do?’

“Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes,” Stane says almost to himself. “Rhodey…it’s a good choice.” The fucker nods. “His death is probably the least graphic. You know, I actually picked the assassins to match their personality. Rhodes’s killer is a lot like him. Quick and efficient. No psychological trauma. Hogan’s and Pepper’s assassins…well…I’m not sure if I should tell you.”

He huffs a quick laugh, puffs on his cigar a few times. Then, he takes a seat beside Tony on the cot, still looking at the strong picture Rhodey always presents.

“I didn’t want it to come to this, Tony. I like all of your little friends, but, you just, you force my hand, m’boy.” He leans back against the wall and pats his hand against Tony’s arc reactor, lingering there for a second in a way that would make Tony lash out if he had the ability to even wiggle his toes.

Stane drags his hand away, fingers skimming the edge of the reactor, pressing his tank top into the small seam between the case and the whirring machinery keeping him alive. Tony knows his heart can’t, but he still feels it stutter. The clean thought, ‘Please,’ whispering across his conscience. Please, don’t hurt them. Please, don’t punish them for his stupidity. Please. Please, just take him.

Stane pats the reactor with a bit of force, and, okay, that actually hurts more than he thought it would. No one’s ever just pounded on it before and he feels it echo in his ribs, in the remains of his heart, and fuck, nearly down his goddamn spine. Yinsen had to cut bones and muscles to wrestle the original pacemaker in. He’s not exactly healed and he had realized it then as Yinsen had fretted about him engaging in such heavy work.

Stane’s negligence is not exactly comfortable as he puts his fingers around the edge and, Jesus, he’s trying to wiggle it.

Tony’s breath catches with pain, but his body still does nothing. His eyes are wide, staring at Rhodey’s face still on the computer screen in front of him. Thinks of his friends as Stane drags the neckline of his tank top down and prays that Stane just stops with him, just yanks that thing out of chest and leaves them alone.

The older man’s fingers trace the edge and if he strains his eyes all the way to the side, he can see Stane’s gaze staring at the arc reactor in awe. A venomous smile creeps onto his face. Tony’s sure that he had seen it when he was first snatched out of the desert, but his brain had been boiling and hypnotized. He’s not sure of anything from that first week.
“We’ll talk about this when it’s more convenient for you,” Stane says, pulling his hand away. The cotton catches on a few ridges of the reactor. Tony can’t fix it.

This is definitely the tenth level of hell.

Stane reaches into his suit pockets and pulls out another remote; clicks one of the buttons and Rhodey’s stiff face disappears from the computer. It’s replaced by a dark field, a building in the short distance. A large door is open. Tony has no choice but to recognize it as an air force bunker. He has no choice but to realize that it’s probably where Rhodey is.

The sniper must be close, probably in or on a building close by. The doors of the hangar bays are visible even in the dark light of the California night. He wonders what Rhodey is doing out so late, but no matter how much Rhodey, Pepper, or Happy always bitched at him for erratic sleeping patterns, they were all prone to the same hours.

The small side door opens, emitting light across the stretch of landing strip. A lone figure walks out, casting a long shadow. Tony wants to yell at the computer so as to tell Rhodey to fall back, but the gunshot rings out surprisingly loud in the makeshift lab and Tony can’t help closing his eyes. He feels part of his heart just rips.

Tony’s will is made of iron. To melt iron, the proper heat is 1535 degrees Celsius. Rhodey, Pepper, and Happy combined heat up to about 1534 degrees Celsius. Just enough to bend him.

They’ve always been just enough to bend him.

Even as three more shots ring out and Tony forces his eyes open by some unknown grace to see Rhodey running towards an overturned camera, he knows this is a game of Chess that will probably be played to stalemate. He is a snake thoroughly subdued at the moment, even as Rhodey goes up to the sniper, gun drawn and at his side. He won’t risk his friends like that again.

Blood slides over his shoulder, onto his tank top, having dripped steadily from his ears. His body refuses to move more than the simple closing of his eyes as Stane let’s out an outraged roar, part anger, part shock, all crazed.

He doesn’t feel the first blow to his collarbone. Nor any of the following hits.

Yes, the will proves surprisingly easy to bend.

IMCA

He keeps JARVIS in his computers, but forbids him the ability to tell anyone that he’s alive. Stane has been very clear that he has Rhodey, Pepper, and Happy under his thumb. Click of a remote and that’s it. He says the assassins won’t miss twice. He’s sure there’s a way around it, there has to be. He’s sure he could send videos or whatever to the police, to senators, the fucking president if he needed to. He can’t force himself to though.

Each scenario just takes a second too long. There’s no way he could have authorities arrest Stane before the call was activated. He watches the security feeds from one of his computers at all times and that damn remote to the killers never leaves him. It’s always in his pants pocket and he takes it with him as he leaves. He probably sleeps with the fucking thing and unless he could hold it, find a way to look at it and disconnect it or scramble the frequencies…

He builds a suit in a month’s time, but leaves it with some tweaks that he says he can’t figure out with the shitty programs these computers have. It pleases Stane well enough that he leaves him alone most of his time, and he even brings in a pizza for Tony, the bastard. He never finds some of the back-entrances into suit, and Tony hopes to keep it that way.

Months go by, and the computers and JARVIS all keep track of them for him while he fidgets with schematics on his computer screens and recreates another arc reactor. It takes a while to install it into his chest. The hold is small and his hands aren’t as small and narrow as Yinsen’s had been, but he manages it after several painful minutes. He tries to destroy the original somehow, but he can’t so he does the only thing he can think of and he hides it. He puts it in the tiny cabinet beneath his tiny bathroom sink.

He’s had the new arc reactor in his chest for about three weeks when Stane charges in, fury acidic in his eyes. He demands a reactor to power the suit and Tony tries to reason that he’ll power it with something else. Not enough. Never enough. Stane wants the arc reactor and when Tony says no the third time he doesn’t even go for Sonic Tazer. Tony manages to fight back, lands a few blows, but Stane gets the better of him in three moves that Tony recognizes to be the ones Happy taught him.

He still, to this day, wonders where Stane learned it from every time he rubs the reactor through his shirt.

That is the first time Stane took it out. The first time he watches Tony struggle while pain rippled through him as the cardiac arrest takes over. He feels hot and cold and his heart starts palpitating. And Stane, the fucking sadist, stares down at Tony with his head tilted to the side only sparing a few glances to the machine in his hand.

The world had started to tilt, and it’s only then when Stane replaces it into his chest with a harsh snap that hurts almost more than the cardiac arrest. Tony is still shaking on the ground as his body tries to stabilize the shock, when Stane leans closer, the smell of cigar smoke making him nauseous.

“Don’t think it’ll be that easy, Tony.”

Then he walks into the bathroom and pulls the old one out from beneath the sink and walks out, smiling at Tony maliciously as he shuts the door.

IMCA

He’s talking to JARVIS about drones and robots, Stane’s newest fixation since demanding Tony rebuild the suit, which Stane has never used. The fucker.

But he’s talking to his only source of good conversation and he clears his throat for the eighth time in approximately twenty minutes. He’s been struggling against sickness for the last three weeks, a sore throat, tiredness, some troubles with his memories, the whole nine years. He’s working through it, because Stane demands that a few robots be done in time for the Stark Exposition by the beginning of the month.

He’s been in this tiny room for fourteen months by this time. And although he tries not to succumb too deeply into the misery, he feels it weighing down on him. Fourteen months of being alone with nothing other than his music and JARVIS, monotony only broken by Stane, sometimes in a good mood, sometimes in the mood to rant and hit, sometimes in mood to toy with him.

It’s, well, it’s definitely a challenge not to lose himself after so long.

He manages somehow, through JARVIS, through the work he’s doing and small little ways that he gets one over on Stane, always letting himself have a way into whatever he builds and causing little malfunctions that sometimes keep the subpar scientist and engineers Stane has working for him at wits end.

Small victories but they help.

He’s leaning back in his work chair as JARVIS reads off equations. He’s been fighting a migraine on and off, working through it like he always does, but he’s never had one that comes and goes like this. He’s been fighting this one since last year it feels like. Stane won’t give him anymore than two Advil, which do absolutely nothing to help and are only administered when Stane even bothers to make his imperial entrance into Tony’s cell.

He takes a deep breath a mutters to JARVIS, “No, no, we’ll have the main circuit board in the chest. Makes it easier to work on them for the idiots upstairs. We don’t want to make it too complicated for them or they might cry. Scrap the idea of spreading it out like a nervous system.”

JARVIS obeys him and he slits his eyes open just enough to see that the spreadsheet for the circuit system is deleted and also enough to feel pain stab his eyes.

What he wouldn’t give for a pair of sunglasses right now.

He listens to JARVIS’s soothing tones, and lets part of his mind wander off over the symptoms of his ailments, trying to decide if they’ll fade soon or if it will turn into a drastic situation. Without proper medicine he knows it has the ability to turn into something fatal. His focus may not be on biology and medicine, but even this can be turned into a simple equation.

He takes a deep breath as he goes over everything and his hand reaches up to his arc reactor, but stops just before his fingers make contact with the warm, cloth covered glass of it.
“JARVIS!” he yells, cutting off the computer as it continues relaying data to him. “Save the data for the robots. We need to work on something else!”

“Of course, sir,” he replies, maybe shortly. He’s always hated being interrupted. “What new idea has taken your interest, sir?”

“I need to make a blood tester, like for diabetes patients, but focusing on palladium,” he says, and even as his head throbs he starts over to one of his boxes, filled with wires, half broken down electronics, and spare hard drives. As he goes through it, JARVIS pulls up the basic designs for a blood sugar tester on one of the newer computers Stane has supplied him with. “It should be able to tell me the saturation of palladium in the blood stream.”

He hops back over to the computer that JARVIS is working on. “What are you looking at? Let me see.”

“This is the basic layout of a blood sugar testing unit,” he says as Tony moves it onto a spreadsheet and begins taking it apart, looking at the inner working of it quickly and making changes to it as he goes so that it will measure palladium in the bloodstream instead of glucose.

He works single-mindedly on the designs of it, giving instructions to JARVIS as he goes as they work around each other to get it to work, before Tony begins building it.

After fourteen months, he’s accumulated everything he needs and even if he has to substitute certain parts for others that work a little slower, but just as well.

He keeps at it for twelve hours before he has the completed project, crude, but it doesn’t need to be as flashy as his other works. Nothing needs to be as flashy as his other works anymore. That’s what the nitwits upstairs are for. This is just for efficiency. It’s just for measuring palladium levels in his bloodstream.

It’s just for telling him that the saturation in his blood is currently at nineteen percent, and confirming that yes, he does have palladium poisoning.

He stares at the number for a moment and takes a heavy seat in his chair.

He swallows and for a moment all the ailments are pushed to the back of his mind as scenarios play through his head. What this means, and what he should do.

“What do we do now, sir?” JARVIS asks.

For a moment, Tony almost tells him not to do anything. It’s still a strong impulse when he says instead, “I’m sure there’s something to slow this down, JARVIS. Let’s start looking at some options. We’ll go from there. Sound good to you, sweetheart?”

There’s a slight pause, too long for how JARVIS normally acts as he says, “Sir, you are in need of a doctor.”

“I’ll get to that later,” Tony says with a wave of his hand, fingers flying across his keyboard as he squints through his migraine. “Not really a reason to go right now. No one else knows how the reactor works. Working on a way to get this under control is a better plan of action right now. We’ll work on gritty details in a few minutes. In fact, go ahead and start pulling up different elements, see if there’s anything to replace the palladium core with. I’m gonna just…be in the bathroom. Hold on.”

He goes in and pulls out the arc reactor watching as it exposes the palladium chip he had settled into the remake. It’s disintegrating. Nothing too bad at the moment, but he’ll need a new chip. Something he hadn’t expected so soon after making the replacement. He’d calculated the chip to last for at least a year before he had to worry about making anymore.

He hadn’t calculated the variable of the palladium sizzling and dispersing into his blood stream.

Wonderful.

IMCA

He makes his last batch of palladium cores on the second anniversary of his captivity. He watches news feeds in the back ground as he throws the twenty-fifth core into his second plastic bag, and stares at it while the annoying anchorwoman goes on about the Avengers, and whether they’re a threat or not. He isn’t sure why he continues to listen to Fox news, but he always does on Tuesdays.

On another computer are a few schematics for some bits and pieces he’s working on, and on still another one are some tabs on his friends. He keeps that one up all the time, no matter how hotly Stane is breathing down his neck for whatever it is he wants that month. He has their medical records, credit card history, and bank statements constantly around, and keeps their articles on JARVIS’s mainframe back at his houses.

He’s not sure why anymore. It’s not like he’ll be going back.

He stares at the bag in his hand, counts the thirteen chips he had put into it. At the rate the palladium is progressing, these and the twelve in the other bag would last him about four months, maybe less if he continued to use himself as a battery when the tools cords weren’t long enough. Definitely less if his work on those repulsors took off.

And after two years in this special level of hell, well that’s enough.

He’s tired of this place. He’s tired of Stane and his constant need to fuck with his mind, and use him for stress relief. He’s tired of this room and its tiny, claustrophobic air. He’s tired of waking up.

He thinks he has it all figured out. Rhodey has been in Iraq for the last year. Pepper had left Stark Industries a year and a half ago, taking Happy with her to a branch of the government called Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, and holy fuck, that is a mouthful. Loose ends are taken care of. He’s broken into Stark Industries mainframe and bugged everything he’s ever built and then some. He has a plan, and JARVIS knows what to do if something happens to him before he expects.

Roughly a week later, he’s working on some random design that Stane has dropped off, going through it and chugging down the nasty concoction JARVIS and he had come up with to subdue the worse effects of palladium poisoning in between cursing the engineers up in R&D and swearing that they’ve just grown stagnant in the two years he’s been gone. Really? Did they live to come up with layouts that would never work in a million years?

He is ranting to JARVIS about it, when he’s suddenly cut off by the computer he was in front of switching images randomly. He blinks at the new scene for a moment, and sees… shit, he sees his lab from the New York mansion and he stares at it for a moment, wondering how he had pissed off JARVIS in order to deserve this!

His throat closes as a large painful lump grows there and his eyes sting so badly for a moment. He blinks rapidly, trying to breathe around the softball in his throat. “JARVIS!” he yells into the small room. “What the--!”

He cuts himself off as the door opens into the darkened room and a strip of light shines for a moment before a shadow topples in, broad and likely that of a man’s. He watches as the shadow springs up, his darkened head whipping around, and, oh, thanks JARVIS. The audio is working so as he hears the man call out in a strangely familiar, yet foreign voice, “JARVIS, where are the lights?”

And wow. Okay, so the overwhelming urge to talk to a human hits him hard. He’s been battling it for months now, so tired of all the silence that permeates this room, but yeah. It slams into him painfully with the force of a nuclear bomb. He breaks into the lab’s PA system that had been around since before Tony was born, he’s almost positive, and answers the man’s basic question, forcing himself to sound flippant instead of desperate. “Well, normal people put them on the right, but it’s been a while since I designed this place. Sooo…”

The figure halts in place, back going even straighter in the dark. Tony has a brief moment to look back on what he just did and have a tiny panic attack, because he’s dead. He’s super dead and what if this is someone he knew? Not that he thinks they’d recognize his voice. At this point he’s almost forgotten the sound of Pepper’s voice, and Rhodey’s is distorted. Happy’s is gone all together.

He panics, but his mind, brilliant as ever, kicks him to come up with a cover. With that thought, it only takes a split second to unwrap a plan and fill in holes.

“JARVIS?” the man calls again, deep timbre blotted with confusion and something odd, something hurt. He flicks the light on and looks around with his entire body as if expecting a surprise attack.

Military, likely. Tony wonders if this is Pepper’s boyfriend or something. He doesn’t recognize him as anyone from his past that would have reason to be down in his old lab.

He shakes the thought away, uncaring who it is, so long as they keep talking. “No, not JARVIS. Kind of like a sub-program of JARVIS that I started when I was really drunk.”

The figure stops then, just stops and then almost breathlessly asks, “Anthony?”

Oh, yeah. And that’s just despicable. Anthony? Really? He glares at the man through the window without even knowing he’s doing it. But then figures, what the hell? It’s probably the only time the guy will be down in the lab.

“Okay, I may answer to that once I know who you are. Voice detection is giving me shit.” Not that he really looks, but it’s a pretty good way to get a name. At least he thinks so.

“Captain Steven Rogers.”

Tony may or may not have a moment where he chokes on his own tongue. He’s talking to Captain Steve Rogers. He backs out of the PA system for a split second to say, “Holy fuck!” then waves his imminent geekgasm away to go back to the man in his old lab. “Oh! Captain America. Yeah. Y’know, I so should have gotten that. But whatever. Aren’t you dead?”

Not smooth. At all. But he can’t seem to help it. He’s talking to Captain America. More than that, he’s talking to Captain Rogers. His mother had relayed stories of that man when he was a child, his past filled into her by his father and Aunt Peggy. And despite following the Avengers through the news and knowing that Steve Rogers is alive, he never once thought he’d get the chance to talk to him.

Unfortunately, his complete glee is diminished when he shoots back, “Aren’t you?”

As it is, he shrugs a little, and rolls out his premeditated lie easily. “If you’re listening to an AI program of me…probably.”

He stares at the screen, watching Captain Rogers and literally trying to drink this entire experience in because this will be the only time and he wants to memorize every nuance, every detail of it. He almost enters in the command for the monitoring system to zoom in. The graphics are still sharp despite years of disuse, but he feels so far away from him.

Even further away when he hears the upset tones respond back to him. “You’re an artificial intelligence?”

Tony scratches the back of his head, noting that his hair is way too long and way too tangled. “Yeah. Yeah, I am. I programmed JARVIS to initiate me if he hadn’t heard my voice pattern in more than a year.”

There’s no response for a while, and Tony watches as Captain Rogers just stands there in the doorway of his lab with a myriad of emotions flashing over his face, though they’re too far away to really categorize. The silence looms heavily on Tony’s mind, because he’s used to silence. He’s only had JARVIS to talk to and sometimes Stane and the few shady doctors he brings in to monitor the poison’s progression, but he doesn’t like talking to Stane or the doctors so mostly it’s just JARVIS. He really doesn’t want to have silence right now, not when he has this man on the other side of his screen.

He takes a deep breath, asks, “Are you still there?”

Cap’s face tightens, but the camera is still too far away to tell why. “Yeah. I’m still here, Anthony.”

Tony supposes it doesn’t matter as long as he’s been answered. “Good. I hate talking to myself.”

The small grimace he’s met with is forced, and it’s so easy to tell even from the distance between them. “How often to do you talk to yourself?”

Too much. He’s wasted way too many hours just pacing and talking to himself and JARVIS. It’s not fun. It makes him feel crazy, though he reassures himself that he’s been talking to himself years before he was captured. He’s not always sure that’s actually reassurance or perhaps proof he’s been going crazy for years.

“More often than I would like to admit,” he says, taking a sip of his green drink. “But enough about my sad, computer life. How was your day, Captain Rogers?”

Tony’s expecting a “Good”, or maybe a “Fine, thanks,” but Cap shuts his eyes for a moment, takes a deep breath and just says, “It was tiring. I, uh, had to take care of a few problems in Long Island and things almost got out of hand. There weren’t many injuries and no one was majorly hurt, thank heavens, but there was some serious damage to some of the structures around.”

Tony looks back at the computer where Fox news is running. He hadn’t been paying much attention to it earlier, lost as he was in his ranting at JARVIS about the idiots in R&D. Now that he looks at some of the banners running at the top and bottom of the screen he can see it playing out.

Cap shakes his head. “There was a lot of paperwork to do and I had to debrief with my, uh…” he pauses for a second, then says carefully, “My boss. It was just…I don’t know. I’m feeling tired. I should probably go to bed.”

Tony nods, though he knows the man can’t see it, will never, ever see it. But it makes him feel better. “Night, Cap.”

He doesn’t respond as he walks out of the room and Tony watches as the lights go dark before he backs out of the PA system. He takes a deep breath, leaning his weight against the table he’s been standing by. It was a short meeting, but it means a lot to him.

He knows Captain Rogers won’t be back, but it had gone a long way. Closing his eyes for a moment, he calls out, “JARVIS?”

“Yes, sir?” is his response.

Tony smiles sadly. “You know you’re lucky you’re my favorite operating system, right?”

“Of course, sir.”

IMCA

The next day, Tony doesn’t move much. He tinkers with a few designs, checks the progression of the palladium poison, both the physical manifestations and internal. He’s far into the poisons effects and when he catches his reflection in the tiny bathroom he sees a brief glance of the network of raised veins tracing up his neck. He can feel some of internal damage being done, as well. The concoction he came up with keeps most of his organs from failing, but it still isn’t comfortable. He sometimes thinks he can feel metal particles settling in his system.

That’s not the only reason he doesn’t move from his cot for hours at a time. He feels worn. Talking with an actual person was wonderful, orgasmic, really, but it throws into sharp relief the fact that he is so lonely.

And that he’s going to die that way.

He’s going to die on this stupid cot, with green tracing all over him, and no one to care that he’s gone. Just Stane to miss his works of destruction, before Tony wrecks his entire life with files he plans to send to the media and his creations he’s set to basically self-destruct. Turnabout is fair play after all.

He fades in and out of sleep, stares at the walls, the ceiling, and the sad little makeshift workshop that makes up his life. He gets up and looks over newsfeeds, checking to see what the world is doing while he withers away in here. He looks up Captain America and goes through the videos of him, chuckling a little when he sees some of the PR the man has to do and how uncomfortable he looks when he has to go to any sort of gala.

He sees a few videos recorded of Cap taking morning jog, caught by random pedestrians from their cell phones. Tony takes a few moments to admire the man’s physique before he closes it out and moves back to his cot.

He hasn’t spoken to JARVIS past the few times that he’s awoken and the AI has told him the time and how long he’s been asleep, as if it matters. So he’s a little surprised to hear JARVIS from the computer closest to him say, “Sir, Captain Rogers is requesting permission to enter your laboratory.”

The news causes something in his arrhythmic heart to pick up and he stands like his organs aren’t weighed down my palladium particles and hops over to the closest computer to see a picture of the dark lab already on the screen. “Go ahead and let him in. And turn on the lights. You know, in case he’s forgotten where they are again.”

If JARVIS could snort, he would have as he says, “Yes, sir.”

Tony watches as the lights kick on in the lab and Cap comes in looking hurried and lost. The observation system zooms in on him, and follows his face so that Tony can always see him. He’ll either have to thank JARVIS later or reprogram him. He hasn’t decided and in the end it’s a fleeting thought as Cap calls out, “Anthony?”

Tony rolls his eyes. “That name is atrocious, I just want you to know. What can I do ya for, Cap?”

“What do you know about palladium poisoning?” the man demands in what must be his army voice, because it’s not as soft as it was last night.

Tony can’t fight the self-deprecating grimace as he thinks of the network of green forming over his skin and the way the palladium ravages his body. He huffs a quiet snort. “I’m a computer simulation, Captain Rogers. I know everything about palladium poisoning.”

The captain swallows, looks around the room, and the cameras follow him, switching around so that he can always see the man’s face. The almost desperate way he looks around the lab, like he’s looking for Tony. “Stane is developing a weapon using palladium poisoning.”

Tony feels something in his stomach swoop. Nausea rolling over him, he tries to come to grips with that fact. He should have known those doctors weren’t just for his benefit. Stane can care less about Tony as long as he’s able to develop new and terrifying weapons. He should have known that this has always been coming, but still somehow, the palladium sits heavier in his system.

“Well, that’s not good at all, is it?” he breathes, thinking of all the people that could be effected by his inability to just roll over and die. He moves to another computer, pulling up all the research and his work when he’d first found out about the poison coursing through him. He’ll need to start this work again, see who he could send it to.

He knows he can email it without leaving a trace but he needs someone he can trust, someone who is firmly not affiliated with Stane. He can’t have this getting back to that man or he may do something even more deplorable. He starts on one computer, hacking into Stark Industries for the blue prints to the weapons. It doesn’t take long before he has what he needs.

“Would you have endorsed it?” Cap asks.

“Absolutely not,” Tony says firmly. Even when he had been okay with making weapons there had been lines he didn’t feel okay with crossing. Poisoning people had definitely been one of them. “I don’t play in chemical warfare.” He realizes his folly only after it out of his mouth, but he’s so busy looking at the intricacies of this weapon. He can’t be blamed. “Or didn’t. Whatever, this is confusing,” he adds quickly as a way to cover up his mistake.

He hears a deep sigh over the connection. “Bruce is looking up some ways to help with it. Is there anything you can think of to help?”

Tony perks up at the name. This could be very beneficial to him. “Bruce?” he demands. “Who’s Bruce?”

He looks over at the screen where Cap is still on display for him, sitting in one of his old swivel chairs. He’s smiling it a little, and Tony can see that Bruce must be somewhat important to him, because it’s a fond sort of smile. “Bruce Banner. He’s a scientist who lives in the manor with me,” he says. Then, he pauses for a few seconds and Tony is so far into his work on the bombs and if there’s a way to dismantle them that he doesn’t notice until Steve speaks up again, almost hesitantly. “I’m on a team of super human people. We’re called the Avengers. We live here, in your mansion.”

And he knows that. Tony has seen the videos and news reports, but for some reason he hadn’t known they lived in his mansion. He halts in his snooping and planning to say, “That’s really fucking cool.” And then he opens a new window, and Googles ‘The Avengers’ and reads almost everything he can about them. “So, it’s you, this Bruce guy, Natasha Romanov, Clint Barton, and some character named Thor?”

Cap laughs, and Tony takes a moment to love it, to just practically bathe in it, until he says, “Thor is a Nordic god.” Humor is still in his voice and Tony, strangely, doesn’t want that tone to ever go away.

“Really?” he asks, half humorously, half seriously. “There’s a god living in my house? Is it still standing? What’s his power?”

Cap sounds absolutely amused as he says, “His power is the ability to eat a restaurant into bankruptcy.”

Tony laughs. He can’t help it, because gods would naturally eat a lot of food. It’s practically all he remembers about mythology. They hated humans and ate themselves silly. It always sounded like they had a pretty good deal. Still smiling as he moves through folder after folder, he says, “That’s an impressive power. Tell me more about this team of yours.”

Cap doesn’t hesitate, although he does falter a few times. “Um, well…You know their names, I guess. Uh, I guess I’ll start with Black Widow?” And he’s so unsure, so unlike how he was earlier in the conversation. “She’s, she’s pretty deadly. I mean, I’ve met some deadly women in my time, but I think she blows them all away. Hawkeye isn’t far behind her. I don’t know how long they’ve been working together, but they seem to have a thick as thieves’ attitude. But Hawkeye is a sharp shooter. Put anything in his hands, gun, bow, slingshot, it’s almost guaranteed he’ll hit his mark.

“Hulk is…I don’t know how to explain this one to you. He’s like Jekyll and Hyde. He’s Bruce, but he’s also Hulk. And Hulk is a big, green five-year-old with anger issues, if you can imagine that. He just…I don’t know. Hulk is easy to deal with if you think of him like that. Bruce is a bit of a hermit. He likes hanging out in his room, and popping up randomly to give us a quick anecdote.

“Thor, though, Thor is something else. I guess he’s a lot like you would imagine a god to be if he decided to live on the human realm, or the Midgardian realm, as he says. He’s pretty out there, but I think he gets me in a way. We are both so lost when it comes to…to all of this world. To the electronics and everything…”

Tony smiles and watches Steve’s face as he explains his team. He feels something warm in his belly, calculates the odds of it being Steve versus just being the ability that he finally has someone to talk to. He isn’t sure which it is, but it feels good so he doesn’t fight it, isn’t even sure how to.

But then Cap says, “Alright. I should probably go to bed, now. It’s pretty late,” and Tony feels part of himself falling, despite the fact that it is late at night. Near 03:30. Cap should probably go to bed because he has a life and has duties and so on.

He knows this so he only says, “Night, Cap.”

The fond, “Night, Anthony,” does a lot to help ease the pain of being left alone again as Cap steps out his lab for the second night in a row.

He takes a deep breath and reviews the conversation in his head, his heart tightening as he calls out, “JARVIS?”

Even as JARVIS calls back, “Yes, sir?” he’s moving into the systems and breaking into three data banks. He needs to do a lot of work. He’s found what he needs and he starts breaking into Bruce Banner’s work email so he can send details.

“Delete the conversation between Captain Rogers and this console.” It’s a precautionary measure. Just in case something goes wrong. Tony doesn’t want Stane to zero in on the Avengers despite the fact that it has been proven for the last few months that they can take care of themselves. It’s just…he doesn’t want Stane to have any leverage against them.

JARVIS takes a moment longer than he should, but he does eventually say, “Yes, sir.”

Tony takes a deep breath, and starts his email to Bruce Banner, outlining what will help him with the poisoning. He starts going through doctors of the world. He’ll need the best if he isn’t able to stop or disable the missiles in time. He makes contact with a few, leaves a few such as McCoy and Watson for a later date, because he knows their partners. They won’t be nearly so complacent when it comes to anonymous emails and they know his lack of signature enough to back hack him.

Pricks that they are.

IMCA

Tony talks to Steve every night for the week it takes Stane’s idiot scientist to figure out that someone’s trying to disable the palladium missiles, and Stane comes whirling into his little hovel of a lab with an angry face and threats against Pepper that wrench the remnants of his heart tightly.

Stane hasn’t attacked him physically many times since he found out about the poison coursing through Tony’s body, not unless Tony is downright belligerent. Tony fights back when he does, but fighting with palladium bogging his entire system can be like fighting with weights strapped onto him. The sludge he drinks keeps his organs from failing, but it doesn’t do much for the fatigue anymore. So when Stane does come down on him, it sometimes feels like the Sonic Tazer is keeping him down.

Now, he’s in his tiny bathroom, sitting in his even tinier shower stall. It’s about the time that Steve comes to talk to him, about two in the morning. There’s bruising around his throat where Stane held him down with his hand, pinning his pet snake to the floor while it hissed and writhed. A deep ache resides in his ribs, making the subconscious act of breathing a task wrought with calculations. Sitting, also, isn’t comfortable, thanks to the shove that had landed him on his ass.

The water isn’t running, but the shower feels strangely safe and he can stare at the clouded glass and let calculations, algorithms, and schematics govern over his head, while the cameras in his lab loop to make it look like he’s still working.

He’s finished the new specs on the bots, just as Stane had demanded earlier in the evening in between threatening to hang Pepper’s head in his lab as a reminder of what happens when Tony fucks with his things and nearly squeezing the life out of Tony’s body. He’s done for the day and tomorrow when Stane comes back to take the prototype, he’ll be a smug bastard, and Tony will be smug right back because even if he’s been beaten again and is in more pain on top of the poison inside him, he still delayed the missiles release by at three weeks and two days.

It’s a hollow win, but at this point in time, Tony takes what he can get.

Not to mention those three weeks and two days, give him enough time to disengage the missiles.

He’s sure he can do it, but at the moment, he wants to breathe. He wants to breathe in another day that he’s stupidly survived. He wants to breathe in another threat against his friends that he’s only narrowly avoided. He wants to breathe in bruises, and hate, and logic, and feelings, and cold, hard depression. He wants to breathe…

“Anthony?”

…something real.

He jumps out of the shower stall and runs into his lab with a smart, “The continuation of this horrible name is a blight on my voice recognition software.”

Somehow, pretending to only be a computer program makes his pains and aches recede. He’s just computer codes and a voice program as he comes up to the computer that he has rigged to show Steve’s face when he enters the lab. He’s a ghost in the wires who haunts his laboratory when Steve shows up. No longer human, no longer real…no longer a hostage. He no longer struggles with himself.

He’s just someone for Steve to talk with, and he likes that.

He hears and sees Steve chuckle, like this is some great ongoing joke. It’s only partially so for Tony.

Tony looks around his computers, the one always playing the news catching his interest, but there’s no mention of any world-saving that the Avengers do every other day on the screen. Just reruns from the last Hammer drone outbreak that New York suffered through, and that ultimately, the Avengers took care of. Some politician is on the news, but Tony doesn’t hear what he’s saying. He’ll catch it tomorrow morning or after Steve has gone to bed.

“I see that you haven’t had any battles to win in the name of America,” he says lightly, returning his eyes to Steve’s screen just in time to see him roll his ridiculously blue eyes, and though it’s sort of irritated he thinks there could be the trace of a smile on his lips.

Tony notices that the smile comes more than it had last week. Last week, when the cameras began following Steve, there had seemed to be a sort of sadness about him. A loneliness that didn’t, and still doesn’t, sit well with Tony. Steve is surrounded by people, but late at night he comes down to Tony’s lab, and he sits on Tony’s favorite old swivel chair, and he talks to Tony, who he believes to be nothing more than a computer simulation.

It makes it seem as if Steve has a specific breed of loneliness; one that Tony used to know well, but is now a distant memory. It’s the loneliness of being in a crowd, but still somehow apart from it.

This man is seventy years away from everything he knows, of course, so it makes sense that he would exude that sort of drift, but it still hurts Tony in a way, to look at Steve’s face and see the man, apart. To see the man who smiles just because he’s talking to a ‘computer program.’

“You’re stalking me now?” Steve asks over their connection, small smile still on his lips as he takes his seat in the swivel chair.

Tony smiles. “Stalking you now? You’re assuming I haven’t been stalking you for a while.”

And he has. Maybe not for months or anything, but he’s been keeping with Avengers and a few other heroes over the U.S. and Europe, even a few in Asia and Africa. He’s really only been looking up Steve since they started talking. He’s looked up everything there is to know about him; hacked into SHIELD’s database to look up more about Captain America and the team of superheroes he leads. It’s all very fascinating.

Steve looks around the room, and for a moment, Tony thinks they’ve made eye contact. His burning, blue eyes look directly at the invisible camera, all the way through wires circuitry and distance, straight into Tony. He takes a deep calming breath against the trip in his heart, so different from its normal offbeat pattern.

“Reading up on the adventures of Captain America? Comics or articles?” he asks, this small smile twisting into a brief grimace that he tries to play off.

For having been an actor for the first year of his ‘new’ life, he can’t act to save his damn life.

“None of the above,” Tony says flippantly, because redirection is key. “I found some old videos of you from your time serving in the USO. Nothing is safe from an artificial intelligence.”
Steve groans and covers his eyes with one hand. “I thought those were destroyed in a fire or something,” he moans while shaking his head.

Tony stifles his laugh, and says, “Warner Brothers’ studios thought the Animaniacs were locked up in the water tower. Look what happened there.”

Steve is silent for a moment, but Tony watches as his brows fall under his hand while a small wrinkle breaks across his brow. He picks his head up. “Warner Brothers’…? What? What are Animaniacs?” The way he says the name of the show is absolutely hysterical.

Tony for a flash of a second wonders who the hell hasn’t seen the Animaniacs, but then he remembers just as quickly. Oh, yeah. Steve is from the 1940s and has only been in this decade for four months and a week. Then he’s struck by the question if anyone celebrates, or maybe mourns, the anniversaries of his rebirth into this modern world.

He remembers his father mourned often enough that he wasn’t around.

He bats it off and quickly pulls up another window, speaking as he types. “Animaniacs was a crazy cartoon show started in 1993. It hosted a variety of cartoon shorts that were varied and more than a little off the wall. Most notable are, of course, the Warner brothers and their Warner sister. Then there are Pinky and the Brain, who got their own spin off in 1995. There were several other characters and miniature plots that were zany and offered horrible morals to the children of the 90’s. However, that does not mean that you shouldn’t see at least one episode, and since I happen to have the first episode on hand…”

He sees Steve’s head jerk to a computer screen that Tony can’t see but that he called to life from his lab. Tony dims the light just as the opening music unravels in his old, dusty lab. He has the camera zoom out so that he can see how far the episode has progressed.

Steve is immediately caught up in the show, but just as quickly trying to tear it apart.

“So, these…things? What are they?” he asks as he watches the Warner brothers and sister bounce around the creation studio.

Tony can’t help but smile. “Y’know, I don’t think it’s ever actually clarified. In the show they’re referred as like…monkeys, puppies, and all sorts of other animals.”

Steve’s face scrunches like he’s not sure he’s okay with that explanation. The lights play across his face as he watches the screen intently. “And they just hop off the paper?”

Tony nods, taking a seat in the stool behind him. “Yeah. It’s not so weird. Didn’t Looney Tunes do basically the same thing in the 1930’s? Like…they drew moustaches in thin air, right?”

Tony gesticulates, even though he knows it’s useless. He thinks that maybe Steve sees them though, because he smiles and looks in the general direction of the camera with an amused smile on his face.

It causes something warm in Tony to see that smile directed at him, or the closest ‘him’ he can give Steve as a distraction from the loneliness he feels. It’s not as if his little shanty of a lab is cold, temperature wise, but it’s cold in every other way. Steve’s looks, whether they are at the camera or as he watches the show, dispel that chill.

Steve questions things randomly throughout the episode, slowly leaning further towards the computer as the show progresses until he’s resting his arms on his knees. Tony answers them all with a fond smile on his lips.

He keeps his eyes trained on the screen in front of him and the rest of his morose world fades completely away. It’s just him, Steve, and an episode of Animaniacs and it’s so precious to Tony. It breathes life back into him, though his subconscious knows that it won’t relieve the palladium in his system or the bruises on his neck, in his ribs.

So when the episode ends and Steve asks to see another one, he complies and sets up the second episode for them to watch, because he doesn’t want this world he’s in. He wants a world with Steve, a world where he can reach out and touch Steve, and have Steve look at him, even if his eyes would only ever show disappointment…because that’s everyone’s default setting with Tony. Everyone’s.

When they get to the scene where the Warner brothers and sister are trying to sell Einstein cookies, Steve lets out his first laugh since Tony began playing episodes for him, and it vanquishes everything from Tony’s thoughts. It’s the first time he’s heard Steve laugh and it’s small, a little bit of a chuckle, but amused and heartfelt and Tony feels satisfaction in that alone.

The warmth that come from Steve’s small smile is exponentially increased by the number of every muscle it takes for the human body to produce a laugh. Needless to say, it’s suddenly very hot under his skin and it’s not something he’s accustomed to feeling outside of physical lust and passing attractions that sometimes used to be so dangerous even his self-preservation took notice. This isn’t the same heat though. This is a flush of something new. Something he’s never been familiar with, but that he thinks could have made a difference a long time ago.

IMCA

He begins dreaming of Steve after a short while. Always sharp edged dreams that feel so real while he’s in them. Dreams that leave him, if anything, even more lost when he wakes. He feels sunshine, rain, snow, the elements all around him for the first time in two years, but only in his dreams. He can see New York around him instead of from a computer screen, and once, he even sees his Malibu spread. He tastes the ocean and smog. He smells liveliness and other people, people who aren’t Stane, who always smells of nauseating cigar smoke.

And there’s Steve.

Steve, who in most of his dreams, accompanies him through the din of whatever life he’s missing out on.

He dreams of Steve and him in his old lab, mostly, and Steve talks to him while Tony works on his inventions. He dreams of them watching old shows together, some newer, but mostly older. He thinks Steve would like watching shows and movies, and listening to music though part of Tony knows Steve would probably never like Black Sabbath, and that is blasphemous.

More than that he dreams of touching Steve. Small touches, touches that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else, but to Tony, who even in dreams has been so deprived of human contact it’s nearly a blessing. There are grand touches, sexual, sensual, and loving as they sweep over his flank down his calf as hot breath moves across his skin.

He dreams of Steve as Captain America, and what it would be like to see him in real life action. He sometimes thinks that he could have been able to work with the Avengers. The thought used to cross his mind a lot in his waking hours. He knew he would have built the alloy suit again. He would have lived up to Yinsen’s wish.

He could have made something work. He knows he would have done anything to help Steve and his team. Government organizations aren’t well funded and they always vie for extra money. He knows he would have at least backed the Avengers, and probably SHIELD.

Sometimes he sees himself wielding the repulsor system he’s been working on in his spare time when he just doesn’t fucking feel like fueling Stane’s mayhem. Sometimes he can see the blue-white beam of light that’s so much like his arc reactor shoot across a battlefield to help the team and he’ll feel so right as JARVIS spouts logistics at him.

He likes that feeling, even if he hates it in his waking hours. He likes the feeling of right that happens while he dreams.

Something that isn’t just subsistence.

Tonight he dreams of arguing. It’s not a reoccurring dream, but it’s a fairly easy one. Some of their arguments are fun, like he imagines normal people would do. How he remembers Pepper and Rhodey used to argue against him, but somehow different, deeper in their connection. This argument is serious. In his dream they circle around each other while in his New York mansion’s lab. They glare and snarl and maybe a few cruel things are said.

He cuts Steve deep and realizes it a moment too late. He doesn’t take the words back. He probably wouldn’t have in real life either. He’s a bastard like that, and it permeates through his dreams as he turns back to work on a schematic of what he recognizes even in his dream as a new arc reactor.

He almost comes to consciousness then, because this is quickly moving from dream into the realm of nightmare, but his mind fabricates the next scene, almost like a continuation of the first part, but they’re in the living room of his Malibu house—minutes, hours, days, years later—and Tony looks up to see Steve staring at him with that same hurt he had just turned away from him.

“That was uncalled for,” Tony admits, setting the freshly-materialized tablet on the newly-discovered coffee table.

Steve crosses his arms over his broad chest with a put out look on his face. “Most things you do are uncalled for. I don’t see why you can’t just…” Steve looks away, his fire-blue eyes disappointed just as Tony knows they always will be. “Just come back, Tony. You can always go home.”

Tony blinks.

He blinks and he’s back in the claustrophobic work space and Steve is looking around it sadly. He stares at all the computers and the small cot in the corner, the narrow door leading to the tiny bathroom. He glares at the mutilated and half-built machines that Tony has been forced to create for Stane for two years.

Tony feels small as Steve stares around the even tinier lab.

He feels like a failure.

But Steve looks at him again and they’re in Time Square and Steve is standing so close to him. With every breath they take Tony can feel their clothes brush against each other and it feels good against his perfectly healed chest.

“You can always go home,” Steve says again and then Tony blinks into reality.

Steve isn’t there and this lab is suddenly as cold as icebergs. Tony aches deep down to his marrow as he turns on his side, causing the cot to squeak angrily beneath him. He stares at the white, white wall before him and sees evil smiles and impossible formulas that stare at him as he wishes that the fading memories of his dream had been true; as he wishes that it was easy as all that and that he could just catch Stane without that damn remote that holds the fate of his friends in its wiring; as he wishes Steve were right. He wishes he could be warm.

Snakes have never done well in the cold.

IMCA

Tony helps Steve and his team during a particularly violent onslaught of robots that Doom has ordered on the Manhattan area. He’s not sure if he does it because it’s Steve or because in Queens, Stane has unveiled a prototype of the Iron Monger, and Tony feels that it is his fault.

Either way, he breaks into SHIELD’s communications system, a frightfully easy thing to do, and speaking to Steve, updating him with what he sees from the news coverage over Queens and breaking into Doom’s server so that he can help disable the hundreds of robots that has been unleashed upon the streets of New York, and that the Avengers are taking on single-handedly.

When everything is said and done, Tony backs out of everything, making sure to erase all his virtual steps from all the systems he hacked into, he watches on the news as the Avengers arrive in Queens with the newest masked face, apparently one Spider-Man, in the New York City area. They’re able to take down Stane’s prototype easily and Tony feels proud of them and a little better about himself when the news relays that there were no fatalities and injuries were minimal.

After the Avengers leave the scene, SHIELD agents carting off the mangled suit and the man inside it, while officials answer questions by the press, Tony goes back to his work. Stane hasn’t given him anymore work since the robots he demanded, so Tony squanders his time on his own little projects.

The palladium missiles are on a separate server he has yet to find, but knowing Stane it shouldn’t be too far away from him. He just has to look for them and that can take patience. JARVIS is always on that task with the order that he is to tell Tony the instant he thinks he has something. So far, JARVIS has not been able to detect it.

While JARVIS and he hunt for them, Tony has two other side projects.

One he has to set in his loops to work on for the fact that if news gets back to Stane, he’ll be in Tony’s lab so fast he might actually move back in time. He’s been working on repulsor systems every now and then. It’s supposed to be his final ‘fuck you’ to Stane. When the last palladium core is set into his arc reactor, he intends to destroy the company from the inside. The structure of the tower is sound and the blast he plans on setting off won’t cause the building to fall or anything, but it should destroy all of the physical work he’s done while another virus he created a few months back will destroy Stark Industries’ mainframe. He’s been working on this plan for a while.

The other, however, he only started on about two days ago. Steve spends a lot of time in the lab now, and it’s always easy to be available for him without the fear that Stane will come charging in. Steve usually comes down in the night, well after Stane has left the building. But Tony is dying, and he knows one day Steve is going to have to talk to an actual artificial intelligence, instead of a man masquerading as one. He’s begun the base of it, and works a little on it each day to integrate his own voice and speech pattern into the system, much like he did with JARVIS. When he’s finished he’ll set it as a subprogram of JARVIS and have him play it in the lab, so Steve always has someone to talk to when he feels alone.

He’s only been working on it for about two hours, Ozzy screaming in his background, when he feels eyes staring at him.

He turns around with a small smirk, tapping at a key to pause his playlist, to see Stane in all of his snake-charming glory.

Tony cuts off whatever rant Stane has prepared for him with a simple, “Took you a while to get the suit out. So, did you plan with Dr. Doom or was that just coincidence?”

“I should ask you the same thing,” Stane says, his hands on his hips and his cigar curling away with that gut-churning smell. “Did Vic give you the database access or are his security systems just that piss-poor?”

Tony just smiles.

“Helping the Avengers now,” Stane says after a beat as he strolls further into the room, smoke wisping after him. He looks at one of the computer screens, the one replaying news reels of Steve and his team battling Doom’s robots. Stane’s lips curl. “I know you didn’t help them destroy my prototype, don’t I, Tony-boy?”

Tony shrugs. “That was all them. Or, y’know, the guy in the red cape. Did you see that guy’s swing? Jesus, he’d be hell at playing baseball. Which, uh, reminds me did you see the Dodgers game? It’s a good thing L.A. got them or I’d be really disappointed in my home state.”

Stane doesn’t look to be at all amused, but really, he never looks amused unless Tony is in some sort of pain. He stares at Tony with his cold blue eyes as he puffs on his cigar. Blowing the smoke right at Tony like he knows how sick it makes him feel, he says, “Don’t fuck with me, Tony. If I find out that you helped them…”

“Y’know, I think by this point, I’ve got a pretty good idea of the consequences,” Tony cuts in quickly, thinking of the last time he’d made a mistake to warrant reminding of the fact that his friends’ lives balanced on whether he was a good pet snake or not. “I just fucked with von Doom a bit. Steve and his team took out your crappy suit all by themselves.”

Stane’s face is instantly calculating, and Tony goes over what he’s just said. And…well, damn it. He’s known he was getting in deep, but calling him ‘Steve’ without thinking, while talking to fucking Stane of all people, even if he didn’t really have anyone else to talk to, is just like signing over top secret information. Especially when Stane smiles like that.

He looks down at the computer screen that still shows the news and clips of the Avengers . “You’ve been watching him?” he asks, and Stane has always known who is just this side of too important to Tony. It’s really unfair. At his silence Stane looks up, his eyes glinting ominously as his face falls dramatically into a frown. “You’ve been talking to him.”

All the implications of that simple sentence hit Tony instantly. “No!” he corrects quickly. “He’s been talking to a computer simulation of me.”

Stane doesn’t look impressed with his reassurance. “If he comes snooping,” he threatens in that even voice he always has. “If he comes looking for you…”

Tony grimaces and waves a hand over his exposed skin. “What’s to come looking for, Obi?”

Stane curls his lips subtly as he looks at the visible effects of the palladium. Then his lips thin and he glares at Tony. “If you do anything to sabotage this company, Tony, anything at all, and I will destroy you.”

Tony smiles at the irony. “You act like I’m not already a dead man.”

“Let me put it another way, then,” Stane says, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’ll destroy him too.”

Tony feels a cold chill wash over him, and he moves toward Stane, but Stane is already at the door and shutting it behind him.

Tony glares at the seam of the door for a few minutes with blind fury. Steve literally has to be his last straw, and he has no control over himself as he calls out into the silent room, “JARVIS?”

The AI tone seems just as tense as his is. He must have been listening. “Yes, sir?”

“When I get to the computer, set the loop. I don’t care how shitty it looks. I’m going to be doing some heavy work and I don’t want Stane or any of his goons to see it.” He stands in front of his computer and hits the play button on his music list.

“Of course, sir. May I take this moment to reiterate the facts as to why you should…”

Tony cuts him off with a snarled, “You can take this moment to do what I say. Pull up the repulsor schematics.”

IMCA

He works on the repulsors for four hours before his muscles start cramping and he goes to lie down on his cot. It doesn’t stop the spasms or pain, but it’s better than working. He doesn’t get them often. The shake JARVIS and he had created does a lot to keep the worst symptoms at bay, but he hasn’t had much of the green sludge today. He knows he should make some. It wouldn’t take long, but he has been forcing his body to work well past its point of return and by this time the cramps actually feel like they’re seizing.

He lies in his cot for an hour and a half, trying to breathe through the spasms in his body, but he’s not too proud to admit to this empty room that he does let loose a few whimpers.

The cramps are more violent today it seems, and it could be because of the palladium, the way he pushed his body, or the fact that he’s just stressed. He can’t even calculate equations to stay the pain, which is annoying as fuck as he bites down on his lip to help him focus on something other than the way his body is attacking him.

When they subside to mild aches in his extremities and abdomen, he takes a deep breath and tries to calculate how long he can take standing. He needs to make some more of his medicated smoothie but he doesn’t want to move. He never wants to move again.

He finally does after another half hour or so. He mixes his concoction and forces himself to chug the first glass before making another glass to take back to his cot.

The cramps took a lot out of him, and he’s inordinately tired. He thinks about trying to sleep, but he has so much work to do. The repulsors are only part of his plan. He needs to break into the mainframe again and make sure all the kill switches haven’t been fucked with by someone, and that alone will take a few hours. He’s also decided that he’ll send the video tapes of his captivity to higher authorities. And though he’ll be dead by the time this all plays out, he wonders how long Stane will be ruined by him and if he’ll go to jail.

But he’s tired, and he still hurts, so he forces himself to some semblance of sleep where he dreams of Steve again, water-color imperfect with equations running off the slopes of his muscles as he plays with a harmless green garden snake. He pets it with large, gentle hands and he talks to it, calling out for it as it twists away, content to go back into whatever mythical garden Steve resides in.

“Anthony?” he calls, and Tony feels a fondness roll over him, doesn’t even mind the use of his full name.

“Anthony!?”

Tony jerks out of his sleep and his eyes fly over to the computer, where Steve had called his name from outside his already fading dream. He quietly clears his throat as he grabs his shake and moves over to the screen slowly calling out, “Sorry, guess I didn’t hear you.”

He drags himself up onto a stool, and feels like he becomes part of it as he takes a sip of the green sludge, warm and gritty but still effective. He sees Steve curled onto his old couch. He looks worried, staring up at cameras with wide, blue eyes. “You don’t…You don’t sound too good,” he says after a moment, looking hesitant.

Tony give a brief flicker of a smile at his worry, and for a moment has a flashback to a water-color dream that makes him wish for more. He can’t though and he knows it even before he catches a half reflection of his face in the screen. “It’s just a glitch in the program, Steve,” he lies, like he’s been lying for weeks now. “JARVIS is already working on it.”

Steve is silent and Tony takes the time to watch him, just to look at him and feel close to something that makes him warm. He closes his eyes for a moment, wishing he were there in his old lab with Steve. He wishes he could sit on his old swivel chair and talk with him while he worked on something that wasn’t destruction and chaos. He wishes he could turn around and just see Steve and decide to be closer, decide he needs to sit on the couch with him and share his warmth.

Steve breaks his reverie. “Thanks for the help today. I don’t think we would have managed quite so well if you hadn’t hacked my comm.”

Tony shrugs. “Nothing any super intelligent computer wouldn’t do to keep from talking to itself.”

Steve looks down at his hands, and they’re hands that Tony stupidly wants to hold. He’s never been much for touches outside of carnal pleasure. Shaking hands has always needed a bit of mental preparation. He has only ever been comfortable with touching a handful of people at any given time. His mother, Jarvis, and Aunt Peggy when he was young. Stane when his parents had died. Pepper, Rhodey and Happy, when he grew older. But he wants to touch Steve’s hands and have them enclose his palms.

The silence breaks Tony first, after a minute or two of just staring at looking at Steve’s frame, the way he hangs his head and watches as his hands twist in his lap.

“Seriously, you’re quietness is the most depressing thing my programming has ever had to handle. Did someone die that the press didn’t cover?” he tries to joke. He tries to wake himself up again and be the friend that Steve needs right now. He’ll be Tony again later, but at this one moment, he can be Anthony, the computer program who always answers for Steve.

He doesn’t respond immediately, though he does pick his head up and look around the room.

Tony switches his plan of attack. “Y’know what? Don’t answer that. You wanna play a game?”

That catches Steve’s attention quickly and his eyes jerk to one of the camera as he asks with astonishment, “What?”

That puts a smile on Tony’s face. Interest. It’s better than whatever has been causing the silence on Steve’s end, so he rolls with it. “A game like…Monopoly or Life or…I dunno. I’d play a drinking game with you but as a computer I can’t get drunk and you’re like all super solder or whatever so you couldn’t get drunk. Maybe one of those super silly ‘get to know you games’. Your file says a lot but it’d be more fun to play with you.”

“You read my file,” he asks, looking reprimanding and impressed at the same time.

Tony snorts, at both the question and the look. “I’m a computer program, Steve. That’s all I do.”

There’s a short pause where Steve looks at the exit of the lab and then up at the ceiling like he’s seeing something else for a moment. Then with a minute nod, with a deep breath, he agrees.

They ask silly questions with no order other than what pops into their heads. They ask briefly over each other’s childhood. Steve asks Tony to explain something he had been inventing something on close to two years ago, and surprisingly Tony remembers and explains. Tony asks how Steve managed to get into the Super Soldier program, and then messes with him a little by finding online sites of his collected art and manipulating his photo to go next to the dictionary definition of ‘determined’.

It’s fun, and Tony feels some of the day wash away from him just by talking to Steve and thinks he may be doing the same for him. He at least gets a laugh or two out of Steve, which makes him immensely better. The symptoms of the day slink away from him as Steve tells him about his friends, never making mention of who Tony has always thought he would. No mention of his father, or Aunt Peggy. No mention of James “Bucky” Barnes, or the Howling Commandos, but the team members he has now. The friends he has today, and it gets him thinking.

Steve is from the 1940’s, over a half-century of missed icons, fashion, wars, peace movements. He wonders…

“What's the weirdest thing you can think of in the 21st century?" he asks, because he’s been living this entire time; he seen how the world has been changing and although humans are still a strange concept to him, there’s nothing strange about this world, because he’s seen it as it grew.

Steve takes a moment to himself, which is logical to Tony; because there has to be so much that he has to go over now. Technological advances, human advances, ideology, clothing, music, movies, all of it must be so strange to him. Steve is the original time traveler.

Finally, Steve seems to nod to himself, but still hesitates before saying, "It's going to sound silly."

Tony gives a reassuring smile, though he knows Steve can’t see it through the space and distance between them. "This is a silly game. Just roll with it."

"Alright..." he says as he steels himself, "The strangest thing about the 21st century to me is the way people have changed. Back during the war and my youth, people were... less open. I'm sure they had the same flaws, and the same desires, but no one talked about them. People didn't swear in polite company, people wore different clothing; they never ever talked about what they did behind bedroom doors… The strangest thing for me to get used to is the way opinions have changed about those things. And being called a fuddy duddy for blushing about it."

Tony laughs. He can see how that would be strange, though he hadn’t really been expecting that for an answer. It seems they can both be befuddled by people, even though Steve seems like a duck in water when interacting with people. He can’t say that though, because Tony is just a computer program. So instead he asks, "Are you not a fuddy duddy? Are you secretly into BDSM?"

"No. I..." Steve gives the camera a reproachful glare, and it’s not the first one Tony has seen tonight but it still makes him smile a little. "I'm not as virginal or prudish as people think I am. Sex is more than missionary position and creating a child... I just can't get used to talking about it the same way you'd talk about what you ate for dinner last night.”

"Okay,” Tony acknowledges, feeling something sweet and bone-deep spread through him. He feels affection and respect coursing in his veins. “Yeah. Okay, I can see that. That's, well, that's actually sort of...you know what? You probably don't want to know. Wow."

He perks up immediately, visible even through the camera feeds. "What? Tell me? Consider it my question. It's my turn after all."

Tony huffs a quiet laugh. “Oh, I feel regret curling in my wires.”

He considers telling a lie. He’s good at lying; could practically write a book on it, but the fact unfolds that Tony doesn’t want to. He’s been telling enough lies to make a politician look like an honest man. “Okay, well you asked for it. It’s…really enlightening and honestly a lot sexy. There’s really something about knowing you think like us but have like valor or whatever to keep it to yourself. Being in the bedroom with you must be something special.”

He nods, his eyes catching against Tony’s for just one moment even if he has no idea he’s doing it. It burns away some of Tony’s loneliness, while cementing the rest. But he still listens with rapt attention as Steve admits to him, "Sex is something special to me. It's not something I partake in unless the someone I'm with is special to me."

The way he says it, well, Tony has no illusions that he’s talking about someone specific. "So I take it you have a special someone?"

It doesn’t make sense when Steve grimaces in a semblance of a small, sad smile. "I... No. Not... really.”

"That's, that's surprising,” Tony says, somewhat lightly but mostly serious. “Who wouldn't fall all over themselves to have Captain America?"

Steve scoffs a little."If it were you, would you want one of those people that took videos of your morning jog to be the one you made love to?"

"That would be an absolutely insane idea to entertain. I've never taken morning jogs."

"You know what I mean. That's not who I want."

Tony’s curiosity gets the better of him. Steve is a veritable well of secrets and he wants as many of them as he can get before his life has expired. He wants to hold onto them and believe that he is special enough to have them, because the truth is that he isn’t. Steve isn’t telling Tony anything. He’s telling Anthony, a computer simulation that has no need for secrets and thoughts; has no great risk when he’s told a little known fact. "Is there someone you do want?"

Steve hesitates, and there’s something in the way he looks sadly around the lab before answering, "Yes, there is."

Tony nods, completely to himself because he expects this. He does. He pulls himself together, demands, "Tell me about her?"

"It's not a her. It's... someone I've never met. At least not in person."

His brows rise, not having expected that as an answer. "You have an internet relationship with a not-her. That's...” Well, it’s actually really hot, “Can I say that's hot?"

Steve makes a face. "I... guess? It's... complicated. To me, at least."

"What's complicated? He not want to meet you?"

"He can't."

"He, he can't?” That is probably one of the shittiest things Tony has ever heard. “What kind of sad romance is this?"

"I did say it was complicated."

"Is this like some weird X-men thing? Does he have Rogue-like abilities? He can't? That's just not even right!"

And then Steve says it.

"He's dead."

And something in Tony’s heart cracks for him, because he thinks he knows who it is. Lord knows his father had talked about Captain Rogers as if he were the best thing to ever grace the planet. "Steve..."

Apparently Steve doesn’t take the mention of his name in favor, because he bites out, "If the next thing that comes out of your wires involves the word necrophilia, this conversation is over."

He can roll with that. He’s used to rolling with the punches, and really, it’s sometimes better to play the asshole artificial intelligence than try to be comforting. Tony’s never really been good at comfort anyway. "Okay, scrapping the necrophilia joke. That was in bad taste anyway. Not that jokes about my father are ever in good taste, but you know what I mean."

Steve glances up, confused and hurt. After a moment, he takes a deep breath and corrects Tony. "... It's not Howard. Just so you know."

"Oh right. Internet relationship,” And oh. Yeah, that really fucking hurts, “...with...a dead man. Right."

It’s him. He feels something dark and consuming open up in his chest, worse than anything he’s ever felt before. It literally feels like the arc reactor is shaking apart in his chest because, well shit. What the fuck was he supposed to do with that? He’s been harboring these feelings on Steve with the half-hope that he wouldn’t feel the same, while the other half wished for it. And now he has a half-wish granted and he’s willing to wish it undone.

It hurts more, now; the thought of dying. He’s not just leaving someone he wants anymore, because hell he’s been doing that for two years. No, now he’s leaving someone who wants him back and it’s so unfair.

In a different time, in a place where Tony had been smarter, or Steve had woken up earlier, they maybe could have had each other.

Right now though, all they have is a wrung-out, already-finished love story.

Tony looks over at the computer that has the designs for the AI program of himself, and decides he’ll have it finished, sure, but he’ll never feel like it’s enough. Suddenly nothing will ever be enough for Steve.

Steve fidgets, just a little, just enough. "I... yeah."

"I'm sure I'd feel the same way,” Tony says, soft and reassuring, because even though he knows he does feel the same way, Steve can’t know that. Anthony is only a program.

There’s only a few more minutes of awkwardness, where Tony tries to make this better and he fails. He fails so hard because nothing can make this better. He’s going to leave Steve, and he feels so stupidly guilty about that. He would stay if he could, though.

He would stay for Steve.

Eventually, Cap yawns, and Tony tries to send him away with a soft, affectionate, "You should go to bed, Steve.”

"I know,” he says with a nod, but he doesn’t look like he wants to move.

"I'll be here tomorrow."

"Then I will to." He pulls himself out of his chair, walks to the door slowly.

In that time Tony has enough emotions to call out for him, wanting him to know, even if it is in a roundabout way. "Hey, Steve?” The man stops just before the doorway and turns to look into the lab, like he’ll find Tony sitting in their somewhere. He doesn’t let it linger in his mind. “I have a complicated crush too. I have this crush on this living guy. Think he'll reciprocate?"

He smiles gently. "Yeah. I think he will."

Tony nods, feeling relief. “Night, Cap.”

Steve replies with a quiet, "Good Night, Anthony,” and then takes his leave.

When the door is closed behind him, Tony rests his elbows against the work station and presses his head into his hand. He fells the enormity of everything Steve has become over the last several weeks and allows himself just a few more moments to himself, not caring how his throat is choking up.

Not caring how his chest is aching.

Not caring how his eyes sting or how one fire-hot tear sweeps down his cheek.

Only caring that he’s going to leave Steve, and he’s just selfish enough to want something better for both of them.

It’s the first time he’s cried since Stane’s lackey nearly shot Rhodey, but it leaves him weak and cold on the stool where all of this bullshit seems to have started.

IMCA

The next few times Tony talks to Steve are awkward and hard for him. It’s easy to play a computer program. He can pretend like nothing happened, and that there isn’t a mutual attraction between them. He can flirt with ease and he’s mostly okay with that.

Except for the part where he isn’t.

He wants out now. He wants out so bad. He wants to find a way to replace this stupid battery in his chest, figure out a way to get out with everyone he loves still okay. He wants Stane to suffer and to take over his company like he should have so many years ago.

He wants to live and he won’t.

He has one bag of palladium cores left. Another core is burning away inside the arc reactor. His blood toxicity level is at 76%. He’s not even trying to find a way to fix it, because he’s gone through every element on earth to find something, anything that will keep the arc reactor going. There’s nothing. There’s a whopping nothing that would ever be capable of keeping him going.

He considered a heart transplant, many, many eons ago, when the poison was new to his veins and for a few months after. He knows, and he knew then, that it would never work.

Yinsen had carved muscles and bones out. He replaced it with metal and screws to keep his chest from flying apart. That’s a lot of work to go around and most procedures would likely end in his death. Not to mention for a heart transplant the body has to be healthy. He can only imagine how quickly the replacement heart would fail with the amount of palladium in his blood stream now. And to get rid of it, they’d have to take the reactor out and that would kill him anyway.

He has been so fucked since the day he was taken hostage and it’s only become worse.

He won’t make it. When the last core goes in, his days are numbered, and they’ll be long and most likely very painful.

He’ll drink his green smoothie until the end, so hopefully he won’t have to deal with feeling his organs fail, but when that core fizzles out, he knows that he’ll have a few hours while the arc reactor slows. And when that happens the palpitations will likely start and he’ll feel dizzy and weak. When it finally loses power, Tony will endure cardiac arrest and shrapnel will enter his heart, which, yeah, that probably won’t feel very good either.

He’s ordered JARVIS to set off all the viruses and little explosives that he’s programmed into his creations. He’s ordered him to send all the documents out to higher ups out in the world. With any luck they’ll find his body before it decomposes in this rotten little cell, because he’s just vain enough to want to look nice at his funeral…his second one.

If not, he’s sure someone will have the common sense to do…something. Embalm him quickly or cremate him. Something like that.

He’ll make a lot of people unhappy.

And that’s what runs subconsciously through his mind every time he works on the artificial intelligence or talks to Steve. He’s going to die, and someone will eventually find his corpse and they’ll bring it out and reveal that Anthony Stark has been alive long after the world proclaimed him dead. He thinks people will hate him. He thinks Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy will probably spit on his grave, but then he thinks of Steve.

It breaks his heart even more, which makes talking to Steve harder than he’s ever imagined.

IMCA

Three weeks after they admit to having feelings for each other, the palladium missiles are launched.

That day will forever go down in history as the day Tony’s plans suffered the biggest fail in world history.

He wakes up to JARVIS’s synthesized voice calling to him in that urgent tone that Tony doesn’t remember programming into him. All of his computers have screens pulled up with various news stations. The anchors are calmly panicking, and video reels play some shaky camera has taken only moments ago. A green mist floats over L.A., and then just moments later an anchor from MSNBC breaks in with news and shots of two other bombs exploding over Dallas and Chicago. An anchor from CNN has news of one over Miami bursting and spreading poison over civilians. And then the last one, from Fox News, reporting that a missile exploded over Long Island minutes ago, and that the U.S. Air Force has located another—wait! Another missile just exploded over Brooklyn.

Tony jumps into action as the cacophony of noise hits him. He sends out more emails to the doctors he had spoken with weeks ago. He messages Doctors’ Leonard McCoy and John Watson, and hopes uselessly that they won’t show the messages to their significant others. He breaks into so many communication links and finally breaks into SHIELD’s though it only takes about half a second.

He listens to the noise, as he makes enough of his green sludge to last him three lifetimes. JARVIS runs a report on where his loved ones are. Rhodey is still in Iraq, far away from this mess. Happy and Pepper, however, are in L.A., but then again so is Jim Kirk, whom he went to school with for a while and his partner is the same Leonard McCoy to whom he just sent an email to. He tells JARVIS to do his best to keep tabs on them.

The news reporters go on about The Avengers splitting up to help in New York City and Los Angeles. The Fantastic Four are going to Chicago. The X-men are spoken of briefly, though most of the world doesn’t know their identities. They’re splitting up between Dallas and Miami. Tony sends a quick missive to Professor Xavier and Reed Richards outlining what symptoms they can expect, what will help. Steve has mentioned a few weeks earlier that Dr. Banner had worked out something to help with the poison, and listening to SHIELD, they’re sending out replicates of it to the other teams.

He hears Director Nicholas Fury yelling into the comm. link, telling another agent to get the best doctors to the targeted cities. Another agent, one he’s heard often enough to know as Coulson, hops on a different line and starts listing off doctors, none of which are halfway close to being up to snuff.

Tony wastes no time in intercepting, overtaking the comm. links to say, “No, no. Those won’t work, agent.”

His email pings, and Tony hopes that it’s like Tumblr or Facebook, or something else that he’s acquired to soothe his boredom at random intervals, as he tells SHIELD of the doctors he has on the way to the effected cities. He moves around and pulls up the window with his email, and his heart stops for a fraction of a second to see that sholmes@yahoo.uk has sent him a message.

He pulls it up, and reads what Sherly has sent him, having known him from a brief time in London when Tony was accused of some robbery or something. He sees the words even as he’s typing and he knows he shouldn’t have contacted Dr. Watson and Dr. McCoy, because Sherlock Holmes and Jim Kirk have always been able to figure out his tricks.

Anthony,

I have D.I. Lestrade speaking with foreign police forces to come get you.

S.H.

Tony sends back a quick, Stop him, before moving back, keeping track of everything that is going on in America, and the targeted cities.

He feels a shudder of anxiety go through him, wondering if Sherly will actually listen to him, and if Jim will shortly be—ping! His email goes off—emailing him.

It’s Sherly again, but as he’s getting into a good rant another email pings in his inbox, and this time he knows its Jim who simply asks, Where the fuck are you?

He has always known they would be able to figure out his lack of signature when hacking a computer.

He’s in the process of sending back a short reply that basically tells Jim to leave it the fuck alone when a news reporter says in her frantically calm voice, “Captain America has just been transported away by the superhero, Thor. Sources say that they have just landed at a hospital. No news as of yet what has happened. However, as CNN gets the news so will you. Back to you, Jeff…”

Tony feels like his sad world is crumbling apart and he doesn’t have enough hands or glue to keep it together.

IMCA

He argues with Kirk and Holmes some more throughout the day. He keeps tabs on the news and the workings of the several different companies, directives, and agencies, he’s hacked into. He breaks into Steve’s room to talk to him and nearly dies of shock when he hears the voice of Thor, loud even through speakers, booming into his lab. He quickly backs out of the hospital room after quickly verifying that Steve is okay, his nerves getting the better of him because no one is supposed to know.

After a while he realizes he done everything he could possibly hope to do. He still sends out emails to everyone, attaches helpful articles to some. He tells certain people, i.e. Kirk and Holmes, to fuck off every now and then. When inspiration hits him he’ll work on something, but mostly he rearranges all of the computers and screens to where they face him, his eyes flickering over the images.

No news of Steve, but the infected react well Dr. Banner’s serum, and the other doctors Tony had recommended are miracle workers. They help the other doctors in the area and spread Banners treatment to other hospitals. No one has come down with a terminal case thanks to the quick treatment, but it still doesn’t stop Tony from worrying. He doesn’t want anyone else to get as bad as he is.

He’s chugging the rest of this glass’s green sludge when another thing just adds to his shitty day.

One of the open lines fizzles for a second, and Tony can practically hear someone effectively back-hacking him through his computers. Tony swallows heavily and stares at the computer the noise had come from, hoping against hope that it was only an error, though he knows after the day he’s had that it isn’t. There’s no way it could be. He’s left so many openings, while his brain has been working through so many equations and plans. JARVIS should have accounted for them all, but without that express order, he may not have.

He could block them, computers, machines, and systems are pretty much his thing but he doesn’t. He’ll never be able to tell anyone why.

His answer to whether someone can back-hack him at this particular time comes in the form of a voice, one he’s heard yelling all day come crackling through the speaker. “This is Director Fury of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. I am more than aware that you are still infiltrating our communications systems. At the moment we are unaware of where you are but when we get the location, you will be in very serious trouble.”

Tony rolls his eyes, but can’t resist talking back to the man, because hell, he’s had a shitty day of being smoked out by two other geniuses he knows, and Thor now knows about his ‘program’. Steve’s in the hospital and he’s stuck in this stupid fucking room cursing the day he ever met Stane…goading Fury is the only natural thing he can do to make himself feel better.

“Very serious trouble, huh?” he asks, taking a sip of his smoothie. “Are you gonna put me in the corner? Send me to bed without supper?”

JARVIS does him the kindness of pulling up a file on Fury. It’s mostly blotted out, top secret or some shit. Tony only glances through it, toys with the idea of seeing if he can get into the uncensored version, but decides he doesn’t really care.

“You are playing with fire. You have hacked into and are still invading a goddamn government funded agency,” Fury continues and his words sound like he’s forcing himself to remain any semblance of calm.

Tony wants to just mess with that control. “Don’t worry your super secret boy band’s new album isn’t gonna splash the internet tonight,” he says sarcastically. “But I would consider upgrading your security. Seriously, a teenager’s Facebook would take more time to hack into.”

“That is more than apparent,” Fury growls, literally growls.

“I do have to give you props for actually finding a wormhole back to my station though, but I’ve got this sucker jumping through so many servers, so I’d tell your agents to go back to braiding their hair or whatever it is you do.”

There’s a long pause. A very long pause and Tony is beginning to hate pauses. Pauses are bad things that people do to gather thoughts and when people gather thoughts there’s usually something Tony’s about to hear that he really doesn’t want to.

His suspicion is especially confirmed when Fury says, “Y’know. You kinda remind me of someone.”

Tony is quick to cut him off. “And now I think I’ll hand over the reins to your system again. Look into tightening your security.” Then he backs out and erases all the flags that anyone could follow him on. He makes his connection jump a few continents before he steps back.

His hands are shaking and he swallows a few times before he orders, “JARVIS? Engage security protocol Alpha. Make sure you leave the link to the lab open.”

JARVIS’ “Yes, sir,” is surprisingly long-suffering and more than a little sad.

IMCA

By the end of that night, he’s wishing he had just closed everything and everyone out. He’s wishing that JARVIS knew the word ‘discretion’ because now Steve knows. Steve knows and all the pain that’s been residing in Tony’s heart has evolved into an errant piece of shrapnel digging slowly through the muscles.

JARVIS, though years ago had been given the order never to tell anyone that Tony is still alive, counteracts Tony’s logic with the efficiency of a seven-year-old’s turnabout as he intones, “You did not say that I could not confirm facts when someone else figured it out, sir.”

“Well, consider that part of your fucking orders now, and also consider yourself lucky that you’re useful,” Tony snaps back, before ordering JARVIS to cut out all conversations involving even a hint that he might be alive from the security database at the mansion and running a hand through his hair just so he can pull at it.

His calculations are all askew now. The numbers jumble and collide in his head. He doesn’t know what to do, because no one was ever supposed to find out that he is still alive and in one day, one short twenty-four hour period it’s all been shot to hell. Now three people know he’s alive, another man seems to suspect and he probably should have played his exit from Fury’s system a little smoother now that he thinks about it. Still…

He’s pretty sure someone is going to try some sort of idiotic rescue mission, and he needs to think. He needs to think of a way to fix this but all the numbers careen inside his skull and it’s like explosions as he wanders the small excuse of a lab. He tries to get everything into a semblance of order, because he needs to start planning again. He needs to add in the variables of someone coming after him and what Stane will do when he discovers them.

He should have blocked Steve out, and he knew it earlier when Steve had questioned, softly, urgently, “If I ask you something, will you answer me honestly?”

But he had been trying. Trying to keep his cover intact; keep the only real person in his life now that he had any emotional attachment to away from the fuckery of his life; keep everything simple that he had answered yes. He hadn’t answered honestly of course, but Steve still figured it out. Tony tried to reason with him, to make him leave it alone, but when Steve had begged, begged him to let him save Tony, Tony had cut the connection to the lab, because there wasn’t, and isn’t, anything to save.

He still can’t force himself to close down the visual feed.

An hour later, Steve leaves the mansion’s lab, after spending almost all that time pleading with Tony to come back.

Tony hopes that is the end of it, but knowing Steve the way he does, he knows it’s only the tip of the iceberg and it terrifies him. It’s enough to make his heart beat faster, and his body shake with fine tremors that seem to keep him from doing anything, and god his brain!

He ends up in the shower stall after a long while of just trying to make something make sense again. He doesn’t turn the water on but just sits there, because it’s easy to just sit there and hope that his thoughts die down. Eventually, that is where he falls asleep where he dreams of skittering numbers that twist and break and fall like Tetris pieces until they form a man, just as perfect as his numbers always are.

IMCA

The next day passes in a veritable haze. He works on the artificial intelligence that he’s programming and makes real progress. He’s got it calling him a ‘dick’ by two a.m., as the screen still showing his old lab reveals Steve coming into the darkened room. JARVIS doesn’t turn on the light so Steve wanders his way by fucking memory over to the couch that he’s been sitting on for eons. He calls Tony’s name and Tony doesn’t answer; doesn’t even open the link to reply.

Tony says his own full name. “Tony Stark.”

The artificial intelligence mimics his tone perfectly as it responds, “Dick.”

It’s accurate. He hates doing this to Steve but it’s for his own good. He’ll be hurt less by this and Tony can just continue on with his plan. Steve will forget about him. Hell, maybe he’ll never use Tony’s artificial intelligence. That would be good, if Steve can forget about him like everyone else.

After another half an hour, Steve tries again, calling for him with loneliness in his voice and the darkness of Tony’s old lab. “Anthony?”

The AI picks it up. “Is a dick.”

Perfect.

IMCA

The next night Steve sleeps on the couch, though it looks like he’s about to fall off at any second. Tony watches him through the connection, though it’s dark and he can only see the dim outline of Steve’s form as he works alternately between his AI and his repulsors. He’s not curled around himself, but holds his arm to his chest in a way that could be cold and after having read his file, and how he woke up from a fucking tundra, Tony calls to JARVIS for the first time since he yelled at him about Steve finding out.

“Turn up the heat in the mansion’s lab,” he says softly as though Steve might hear him and awaken.

JARVIS’s voice comes back just as softly. “I have turned the temperature up from seventy degrees Fahrenheit to seventy-six degrees Fahrenheit. Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”

JARVIS’s tones come across a little pleading, like he’s trying to be apologetic. Logically Tony knows that AI’s are just programs and numbers, but Tony’s always felt closer to programs and numbers anyway. He sighs and looks down at his creations, the screens running in front of him with information and calculations that he could do in his head, yet he can’t think of doing them without a computer companion there to do it with him.

He looks at the screen that holds Steve’s sleeping form for him to see and he’s loosened his arms just a little. It makes him feel a little better.

He looks back at his other computer screens with a sigh. “Yeah, JARVIS, come here and work on these logarithms. I think this computer is too slow to handle my genius. You can do that without tattling, right?”

It was a dick thing to say, but JARVIS responds in kind with a snappish, “So long as you order me to, sir.” And the ‘sir’ is almost more sarcastic than some of his other words.

Tony rolls his eyes, but they get down to business after that and by the end of the second night, the AI Tony can say, “Hey Steve. How’d the patriotic showdown go today,” exactly the same way Tony would have.

A bitter taste starts creeping up his throat.

IMCA

The third night Steve comes to the lab, and Tony thinks that maybe he can salvage this. He can explain that there is no reason for Steve, the Avengers, or anyone to come find him.

He can explain that Steve really has only been talking to a simulation of Tony Stark because after two years and some months there’s probably not much left of Tony Stark, and even he knows it.

Two years is a long time, and though most would probably have lost touch with reality by now, Tony never had that. Reality has always been numbers to him, and that is something he quickly realized as a child that doesn’t really belong in anyone else’s reality. But there have always been equations he could master to fit into the norm, and so help him, he doesn’t think he has them anymore.

Silence is a staple. Outside of JARVIS, his rock bands, and Stane, Steve is the first person he’s spoken to. Beyond that he lives in a world of numbers and the numbers have been known to cascade out of control now and then. Without those steady equations, he knows he’s losing the man that people could pretend to relate to in reality. Steve likes him because Anthony is a computer program. Computer programs are supposed to sound awkward.

But as the first, “Anthony?” calls through the connection, and the program of his AI starts to answer, he hits the command for it to be quiet. His resolve dissipates because Steve sounds like there’s nothing Tony could ever say to take that pained affection away from Steve.

He stays silent and so does Steve for a few minutes.

Then slowly, Steve starts talking again and it’s all Tony can do not to grip the table with the hurtful admission. “You know, I was kind of lying when I said I had a crush on you. I’ve…gosh, I’ve kind of been falling in love with you since day one and I’m not even doing that anymore. It’s the most unbelievable and terrifying thing I could ever have imagined. I’m in love with a computer simulation that isn’t really a simulation.”

Tony clenches his teeth for a brief second, because it’s a lie. Steve isn’t in love with Tony. He’s in love with what Tony presented himself as. He can’t love Tony, not the way…he pushes that thought away and says to himself, “No, you aren’t,” because he needs to hear himself say the words. Verbal reassurance can sometimes be better than mental ones.

Steve must have heard him though, because he says in a firm tone that he can sometimes catch him using when he’s Captain America, “I know you’re alive. And I’m going to find you and make you believe me.”

Tony snorts and shakes his head.

They’re cast in silence for a while and Tony works on some schematics Stane had sent him to look over from R&D. He casts looks at the screen of Steve sitting in a dark room, his shadowed form once again on the couch. It looks like he’s fallen asleep sitting up.

Tony shakes his head and quietly says, “Put on a playlist, JARVIS. Something he’ll like.”

“Nothing from AC/DC, sir?”

Tony quirks a hint of a smile. “I don’t know. Does he like Back in Black?”

“He is more appreciative of Thunderstruck, I believe,” JARVIS says playfully.

Tony shakes his head, in soft amusement. “Something he likes, JARVIS.”

The lab fills slowly with music from the 30’s and 40’s soft enough not to startle Steve out of his sleep.

Tony doesn’t recognize many of the songs, but he had he catches a few by Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Clark, and the Mills Brothers, his mother’s favorites are mixed in as well, but most of the others are lost on him. He doesn’t get much work done, he works on the schematics for a new bomb that has a big boom and he doesn’t really care that much about it. He’ll only up the intensity by maybe a half a percent. Nothing more, even though he’s capable of upping it at least seven percent.

He startles a little when Steve shifts to lie down on the couch with the muttered words, “I used to like this song.” He doesn’t seem to be awake and once he’s comfortable he’s instantly deep in sleep.

Tony listens to the words playing over the connection. You Always Hurt The One You Love by the Mills Brothers.

Tony wipes his hands over his eyes, mumbling into his palms, “Subtle, JARVIS.”

JARVIS must decide it’s better not to reply.

IMCA

Over the next week, the news never slows the videos of the missile attacks over the five cities. It is like the tragedy of 9-11 all over again. The first attack on American soil in close to nine years, and it is done by American hands again, the first in over fifteen years since the Oklahoma City bombing. The Avengers do several press conferences, as does Stane, which means his appearances to Tony’s cell are nil. He only sends Tony random emails telling him to fix something one of his scientists, if they can be called that, screwed up.

Steve comes down to the mansion’s lab every night, and Tony will turn on the link with the intention to tell Steve to stop. To explain that it’s no use, but each time Steve calls his name, various shades of pain, affection, and exasperation, he stops. Tony Stark has been stripped of words for the first time in what seems like years. A snake without his silver tongue.

Worse, each night Steve falls asleep with the spoken words, “I do love you.”

A week. Seven days. One-hundred sixty-eight hours.

It starts to get to him. He feels mania grow inside him and it keeps him up for three days straight as he finishes the repulsor and goes further by making it compatible to use with the arc reactor. And in a fit of insomnia gets bored enough to see what it will do to spare bits of metal around the lab. This design had originally been measured for the ability to fly but he knows with the sheer energy these let off, it could do quite a bit of damage as well. It’s proven when the titanium in front of him smolders and shatters like glass.

When that’s done, he tweaks it a little, before going back to the artificial intelligence he’s programming of himself. His mind flying with numbers as it is, he doesn’t really recognize Steve entering his lab on the seventh night. He’s inlaying the AI with codes of his own design, the same he’s programmed JARVIS with. They’ll be compatible in that respect and JARVIS will help fill in the blanks that ANTHONY might have. He’s already been linking them together every now and then.

He’s in the midst of having JARVIS scan over ANTHONY when Steve’s voice filters in and out of his mind, sound wave equations bouncing off his mind mixed in with the phonetic angles of the tongue, lips, and larynx as he says, “I know you’re listening.”

He’s still too wrapped up in the wires to respond properly, though he knows he’s coming out of it slowly. He must say something though, something good. Or maybe it’s just the fact that Tony has answered at all. Tony, in a separate part of his mind, goes over everything it takes to make Steve happy, and usually, it isn’t much.

More numbers and angles as Steve says, "I don't know everything."

Tony hears it, halfway disconnected from the program he’s creating and he can almost feel JARVIS pushing him away, taking over certain controls and working them himself. Still, he feels distant, out of body, as he says angrily, "I don't think many would agree. At this point only religious groups believe there is anyone more all knowing than you."

And whether he’s angry at JARVIS or Steve is a bit of a mystery, still wrapped in the world of engineering as he is.

There’s a silence as Tony fights through numbers and threatens JARVIS quietly through codes and encryptions. He’s probably more pissed at JARVIS at the moment as the AI pushes him out of his numbers, doing his invisible version of Jarvis’s old brow raise at his threat.

Then Steve says, "I don't know where to find you. I don't know why you won’t tell me. I don't know why you want everyone to think you're dead..."

Tony is snatched away from his numbers with startling efficiency. He practically feels the digits slide off his body as he turns to the screen portraying Steve’s deep, blue eyes. Now is time for the truth. Now is time to destroy Steve’s hopeless dreams. Tony’s a dying animal; a snake starved and frozen, halfway catatonic with no relief in sight.

"I am dead,” he tells him, firmly, staring directly into Steve’s eyes as if the man could see him, could look at the mangled ruins of his body: the network of green, the paleness of his skin as his organs strain to keep going, the slight tremor of his hands as poison slowly takes over him. “My body is just two years behind on figuring it out. It's better this way. Would have been better if you had never figured it out, but Artificial Intelligence needs intelligent instructions. I should have known JARVIS would squeal on me."

JARVIS suddenly breaks in, saying in a bland sarcastic tone, “My sincerest apologies, sir.”

Tony sneers at the incorporeal form, about to tell him what he could do with his apologies. However, Steve interrupts. "Hold on. You are dead, but you aren't?” he asks and he looks so confused that Tony opts to ignore his AI in favor cataloguing his thoughts into an argument. It, as is always seems to be with Steve, is all wasted as he pleads with Tony once again.

“Anthony, please let me help you. Let me find you."

"There is nothing to help, Steve,” he says slowly, trying to convey the simple truth, fact, that this is it. There’s going to be nothing left of him after a while. He has one bag of palladium cores left and at the moment he only has about eight. Enough to last him another two months, maybe, but that’s all.

It all pretty much goes downhill from there. Tony says something about hating the name ‘Anthony’ and mentions the program his building for Steve, only for Steve and it is like throwing ice water on him. He freezes for a moment and stares in horror as everything washes over him. He demands that Tony stop what he’s doing.

Steve rises from his customary seat on the couch and begins pacing, yelling at Tony. Tony, strangely can’t help but to follow his lead, and he walks the so small pathways of the hidden cell as they yell at each other, and demand things that are unrealistic from each other. Tony every so often will feel like Steve is with him in this room, following him around, trying to pin him down. It doesn’t feel like Steve is a snake-charmer, just a kind hand to coil around to leech warmth out of.

Stane is brought up by Tony, because Tony, for all of his genius, can be fucking stupid at times—too many times. Steve latches onto that with a vice grip, snapping and snarling at the mere thought of Stane. Tony sits down on his cot for a moment fingers pinching the bridge of his nose as he tries to find a way to backtrack, to erase Stane from Steve’s memories. It’s damn well impossible. Stane has just unleashed chemical warfare on his own city and well, Tony blames Stane for at least forty percent of the shit that happens to him.

When it fails, he tries to just say it again, tries to get Steve to see. This is over for Tony.

But Steve is too stubborn to listen to reason. He’s optimistic and bullheaded, and when Tony attempts to sooth the hurt, Steve just retaliates with a string of whys: Why won’t Stane let him go? Why is Tony dying? And why won’t he let Steve help him?

Tony, in a frustrated pique, manages to keep from yelling as he says, “He's known I was alive for two years and he’s been keeping me! I won't let you help me because it's no damn use! I've tried everything and you may think the world bends to your will, but I'm the genius! I am not going to get better because the thing that's keeping me alive is killing me!"

"How do you know if you won’t let me try?!” Steve hollers. “Damnit, Anthony, I don't... I can't lose you, not when I have the chance to do something, even if it doesn't work!"

"And I can't watch you watch me die!” Tony yells back, his hands in his hair with his elbows on his knees. And then it’s just them, breathing heavily on opposite side of an electrical connection but it almost feels like they could be sitting in the same room glaring at each other. That knowledge is a heavy weight on the arc reactor, dragging down his sternum. “It's not fair to you, alright? It's not fair to anyone. I've been dead for over two years. On the outside, I have two months left. Just fucking let me go! Pretend this was all some shitty dream and forget me!"

Steve groans, devastated. Tony can understand that feeling. He’s felt it a lot over the last two years, especially over the last two months. Hell, he’s been so back and forth since he’s met Steve. A part of him has been begging to just escape, to just touch Steve once and hold him and be held by him, while the other part has been viciously condemning him for being so fucking selfish; asking why he can’t just lay down and die like any good person would.

"I can't."

Tony hears the admission of love in those two words. They may not be the same words, but they’re in that same achingly, honest emotion that Tony wants to believe. He wants to wrap himself in it and die with that pain and comfort smothering out the failure of his heart and organs.

He breathes in deeply, flicks the statement, both spoken and unspoken, away from him. This isn’t about him. This is about Steve. This is about getting that stubborn man who survived seventy years in a glacier to walk away from this self-imposed mission. This is about getting Steve to realize how unimportant Tony Stark is to the world.

He tries flippancy, lining out random ways to help move passed Tony Stark. It doesn’t work. Next, he tries reasoning. He tells Steve that he doesn’t love him, that it’s just the loneliness that makes Steve say those things.

Tony says he’ll scrap the AI program he’s been writing for him, because that had seemed to make Steve very unhappy, and he doesn’t want Steve any sadder than he has to be.

None of it works.

Steve breaks him off with a growls and demands and says, "Don't tell me what I feel! I love you. You're just going to have to get used to the idea. I will not just turn my back and forget, not when there is still time. They have the best doctors in the galaxy working on the fallout from those missiles, they can help you. I'm coming to find you."

Steve is just so sure of himself. Tony has the sinking feeling that this entire conversation has done nothing to dissuade Steve and instead helped solidify his resolve, which is just terrible. It is the worst thing on earth.

Tony doesn’t know what to do at this point. He yanks his hair, this time sitting in his stool in front of his computers again. "And I...okay fine. I love you too,” he snaps, glaring at the screen and hoping, just hoping, Steve can feel it. “There. I said it. Happy? And that's as far as we would ever get, even if you somehow, miraculously could find me."

Steve glares back, as if he really can feel Tony’s eyes through their connection. His lips are set thin, and his jaw is squared. Tony is reminded of Captain America. Warmth and dread rushes through him as Steve demands in a strangely even tone, "Humor me and tell me where to start. Then you can say it to my face."

Tony is so frustrated by now and he just wants to strangle Steve Rogers so bad. He’s not sure his mouth is connected to his brain when he says, "Where to...Shit, your picture really should be next to the definition of 'determined'. Fine. Have it your way. Start under suits."

"... Under suits?"

"Yes. Under suits,” Tony bites out at Steve’s confused voice. He hopes that’ll be confounding enough, but when he glances at Steve’s picture on his screen, he sees the quick slice of a self-assured smirk, one he remembers seeing in the mirror once upon a time.

“I’ll see you soon,” Steve says, before picking himself off the stool he’d sunk down on sometimes during their argument. He leaves the lab without further word.
Tony takes a moment to wonder what the fuck he’s just admitted to that those small words are so important, but the mansion’s lab is still dark and the door to it locks behind Steve with nearly deafening clarity.

A strange feeling starts in his chest, twisting tightly. It hurts in a strange way, both good and bad. He thinks once upon a time this might have been called anticipation.

IMCA

A day later, Stane rips him off of his cot and onto the floor. Tony is already paralyzed so only flops onto the floor like a dead, useless snake and watches as his captor comes into view. His face is red and his eyes shoot hate at Tony. He has the Sonic Tazer in one hand, a pair of wire cutters in the other, and Tony thinks a little listlessly that death will be a little quicker than he’d calculated.

Then he computes all the ways Stane could kill him with fucking wire cutters, of all things.

Then Tony thinks how he really wishes he had been able to at least see Steve in person, just once. He thinks of Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy; wishes he had heard their voices so that he could remember them right now. He thinks that he really wishes that he had been able to keep his promise to Yinsen.

It hits him that he now has a fist full of love. He loves five people, five fingers, enough to hold on to love.

Just not enough to save him when he is lying paralyzed on the floor watching as Stane throws the tazer onto the cot behind him while leaning down to…to…

Something rushes through him when Stane cuts a nick at the top of his tank top, just enough to make it easier to rip the fabric halfway open, exposing the arc reactor. His breathing comes harshly all of a sudden and his eyes stare at Stane. He honestly prefers to be stabbed to death with goddamn wire cutters than this.

“I should have done this years ago!” Stane seethes just before he takes a hold of the arc reactor and rips it out.

The pain is initially just from the jerking motion of the reactor leaving him. There’s the rattling yank of it coming out and then a gaping lightness that just aches. Next comes the cardiac arrest, a sharp pain that emanates from his heart with gruesome slices.

So many things scatter through his mind then as Stane breathes cruelty against him, tells him, “Captain Rogers came to me today.”

Steve…what did Steve do? Did he approach Stane? Did he fucking just walk up to Stane…

A more insistent flare of pain rocks him, but he’s still immobile on the floor and has to take it… silently. He closes his eyes and breathes through it all; trying to come to terms that he was going to die like this. This is all he has left in the next few minutes of his life. He always thought it would be on his own accord, when the last of the seven chips ran out and he let the power run out of the arc reactor. The end result would have been the same, cardiac arrest in all of its macabre glory.

There wouldn’t have been Stane though.

And he would have had time.

“I told you not what would happen if he found out. I told you I’d fucking kill him, you worthless piece of shit!”

He would have had time to properly let go of himself, because all though he’s been prepared to die, there is still the cold finality of it that Tony has been learning to fear. After this there’s nothing. He has no religion to hold as his own. No heaven to meet loved ones in. No reincarnation. Just nothing. There will be no more chances to see Pepper frown at him; no more chances to hear Rhodey yell at him; no more boxing lessons from Happy. There will be no more Steve.

No more Steve.

“I’m going to kill him, too,” Stane flaunts against his ear as a painful palpitation sears through Tony.

A hot tear rolls out of the corner of Tony’s eye.

Then suddenly there’s a hard shove against his chest and a click—the arc reactor is in his chest again.

“But I think you should live to see it,” he says with a vicious frown, still glaring hatred into Tony’s skin.

Stane stands from where he had been leaning over Tony, steps over his prone form easily to take the Sonic Tazer from the cot. He kicks Tony’s hip as he moves away as he moves into the open door jamb, he turns back with a sick smile.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Tony.”

The Sonic Tazer is turned off and Tony takes a deep breath, immediately fighting through the nausea to sit upright. He glares at the door, shut now and glaring white and pristine back at him. Rage slides down his back like tar.

He should have fucking killed Tony when he had the chance.

IMCA

A few hours later, one of his screens opens a video feed while Tony is having JARVIS do a scan on the repulsors again.

He blinks at it for a startled second, before turning to his computers and asking in an irritated tone, “JARVIS?”

JARVIS seems to pick up what he’s talking about, because he answers quickly, “I am unaware as to the source of this feed, sir.”

Tony lets out a distressed sigh. Stane, then. Of course. He turns back to the feed on his computer.

Steve is dressed…or supposedly dressed, in civilian clothing. In the split second it takes him to get righteously pissed off, he does have the clear thought of ‘ oh, sweet Jesus, what the hell is he wearing?!' But then he goes to being ridiculously pissed off, and a just a smidge worried.

The screen is split three ways, much the same way Stane set it up whenever he threatened Rhodey, Pepper, and Happy. Steve currently is only in sights of two of the cameras as he walks easily in the crowd. His facial features are mostly hidden by a baseball cap and sunglasses, but he’s still easily recognizable. If Manhattan had been known for their people looking at other people, Steve would have been instantly identified. As it is, he passes through the throng of people easily.

Tony watches as he comes into the sights of the third camera and as he’s walking a hand reaches into the focus easily nicking a few electronics from Steve’s pockets without him being aware. Once he’s out of sight, the camera begins moving as well, while the other two stay motionless, waiting.

The third cameraman moves steadily until he’s on a roof top when he can see Steve’s head milling through the alleyways, until he moves back out into the main streets.

“He’s leaving the alleyway,” someone mutters.

The other two cameras nod and send back their confirmation before heading through the milling masses of people.

After that, there’s about an hour of following Steve, from the rooftops and through the crowd, but they never lose sight of him. Tony is a nervous wreck and planning all the different ways this could end. The two on the ground cover the gap between them and Steve.

A different voice murmurs, “Closing in.”

The rooftop man quickly stops. Tony watches as he sets up his sniper rifle, quickly and efficiently before getting into position. “Go for it, ladies.”

In the bottom two screens, hands reach seemingly everywhere as they grab onto Steve’s shoulders. A flash of panic goes through Tony as he sees Steve’s handsome features morph rapidly from accommodating, to confused, and then quickly to irritation. It’s a quick progression but in that time, one of the cameras shakes, jerking forward.

After that two of the cameras shake and blur, while the third one fires off a shot.

One camera is suddenly facing the cement sidewalk.

Another shot is heard. Tony can see it’s the second cameraman as the man wielding the handgun stops for a brief second with Steve’s form running towards him. Then that camera is jolted as well with the force of Steve barreling into him. The sniper on the roof fires again, just a moment behind the other shot. Tony doesn’t know if the bullet hits its mark. He does see a green blur as the first cameraman is hauled up. He hears the angry growl; sees strange, flashing images of teeth and one angry glow-green eye. Then the sniper is suddenly howling in pain rolling about so that the camera catches blue, blue skies as well as the black blurred form of a person.

“Oh, stop being such a baby!” a somewhat familiar male voice says, just before the snipers camera is lifted from its perch. “I used a low voltage tazer, whiner. Seriously, who would hire such a—“

That camera suddenly goes blank.

On the second ground-level camera, another black blur can be seen just before the gray of concrete rushes towards its screen, apparently breaking said camera if the white noise and fuzzy picture are anything to go by.

The only camera left is filled with green, a few flashes of silver and red, and the sound of the man whimpering.

Tony smirks, relief and satisfaction racing through his veins now that Steve’s threats are neutralized by what can only be the other four members of his team. He actually laughs a little bit at the fact that Stane thinks three assassins will be enough when the Avengers can take down hundreds of robots, Dr. Doom, Asgaurdian gods, and walk away mostly unharmed.

Tony hears the news an hour later as he’s putting the finishing touches on the repulsors.

“Just moments ago there was an attempted assassination on Captain America. Sources say that firearms were discharged as he was walking down the street in civilian apparel. Thankfully no one was harmed as three men attempted to take down America’s hero. SHIELD operatives have apprehended the men responsible, but are as of yet refusing to comment on who the assassins may be. We’ll have more information for you as it comes to us.”

Tony has already broken into SHIELD’s database after watching the perpetrators attack, checking through records down in the medical bay to make sure Steve hadn’t been seriously injured in the altercation. Steve hasn’t checked in with them which is a good thing.

He turns back to his creation, running last minute tweaks.

Stane has clocked out by now, but Tony knows he’s still in the building. JARVIS had popped in to tell him that he’s in the R&D department with some of the scientists he’s hired. Tony’s not sure what he’s planning, but he knows whatever it is, it isn’t good.

Especially when the entire building’s camera system goes down.

Tony stands still for a moment, looking at the security codes dumbly as he runs through all the possibilities that would cause the surveillance in his tower to suddenly fail, and not liking any of them. “JARVIS, what the hell is going on?”

“The surveillance system has been brought down by an outside source, sir. It doesn’t appear to be a computer, but perhaps a transmitter that scrambles the frequencies.”

Tony can’t decide if this is Stane’s work or SHIELD’s. Decides he doesn’t really give a flying fuck, in the end. Moving quickly, he attaches the repulsors to the arc reactor, letting wires fall between his fingers, and tightly along his arms to keep it in place.

“Hey, JARVIS?”

“Yes, sir?”

Tony scrambles to get everything he might need: a small tool to strip the wires and his small bag of palladium cores. All the while he moves around his small lab, he says, “So, I know this is probably a bad idea considering I’m not really sure what’s going on up there, but unlock the door. And! Purge every single file that contains blue prints for missiles. Set that virus loose on R&D. And y’know what, just because they piss me off, do something creative to accounting. Basically, bring everything down just like we talked about. Sound good, sweetie?”

JARVIS sounds strangely proud as he returns, “Of course, sir. Unlocking the door now. Do be careful.”

“I love it when you worry about me,” Tony says cheekily as he moves to the opening door.

The hall is long and stupidly narrow to fit with his stupidly small space he had been given to work in two years ago. It’s just as brightly lit though, and just as empty, with white walls glaring at him as he moves. The wires connecting the repulsors to his reactor feel strange as he sees the narrow stairwell. The stairs feel like they’re miles away, a tiny pinprick in the distance though he knows it can’t possibly be that far.

As he moves closer, he can see the wall at the top of the stairs open. Tony brings up the repulsor in his left hand, hearing it charge. There’s a lone figure there, though too far away from him to make out. The shadow looks away from the hall; Tony supposes towards whatever’s happening in the lobby.

Then Tony hears the muted clatter of lots of metal things falling. Oh good, JARVIS has successfully ruined all the robots Stane has built. He smiles a little at that, even as he hears the distant, distorted voice of Stane calling out his name.

His grin quickly fades when a giant shadow falls over the other smaller one, a fist-like shadow taking it around the middle. The giant shadow is a form he recognizes. It’s a form he helped create, and that Stane, like his other metal-man, kept on a separate system. The man he’s holding…

His heart does a strange twist in his chest.

Fuck, that has to be Steve.

Tony starts running towards the staircase, closing in on them in what feels like a heartbeat. He takes the steps two at a time, though his legs protest. He’s kept in shape as best he could given his circumstances, but running and taking stairs two at a time is not appreciated. He pays them no mind. The pain is actually easy to cast out as Stane’s loud, filtered voice is heard, taunting Steve… toying with him.

As Tony reaches the top of the stairs, he hears Stane say, “Good bye, Captain America.”

He doesn’t even take stock of whoever else is around him as he emerges from the opening in the wall, aiming his repulsor at the metal man as he shouts, “Stane!”

As the first blast fires hitting the metal suit, Stane lets go of Steve and Tony is quick to make his way over to him. His eyes focus on the monstrosity he helped to create, but he keeps Steve in his peripheral sight as he comes to stand over him. He charges again, quick to let it fire again.

He can almost feel the core burning in his chest, but he doesn’t care. He’s about to charge another blast, when Stane turns.

“Tony, you little prick. Where’ve you been hiding that?” he asks as he swings around to aim at both him and Steve.

Tony runs a quick calculation on what would happen if he were to fire the shot at Stane as the small missile was aimed at him. All the numbers are broken off, however, when a leather encased hand snags his wrist and yanks him to the ground with super-human force. Steve, in all of his patriotic glory, wraps an arm around him and raises his shield just as the small, yet dangerous, projectile careens towards them.

The force of the blast sends them skidding across marble a few feet, but otherwise they’re both unharmed. Steve’s shield can apparently take a hell of a beating.

They both glance around the shield to see Stane aiming another missile at them, and Steve tugs them both behind the shield again, braced for another impact that never comes.

Tony hears two loud yells. The marble cracks beneath them after a loud, thunderous bang. Steve looks up before ducking down again, holding Tony even tighter to him as an explosion rocks through the lobby of Stark Industries. A large hulking figure is thrown back beside them as heated fragments lick around them.

Within the next minute, Steve, dressed as Captain America and looking sinfully delicious for it, raises the shield above their heads, keeping raining slag from burning their scalps. He looks at Tony, and it’s like he doesn’t see a damn thing wrong with him, because he smiles. He fucking smiles like everything will be perfect now.

“I told you I’d see you soon,” he says, proud and happy at the same time.

Tony tries to smile back; knows he fails. “Yeah, yeah, I guess you did, didn’t you?”

The happy light in Steve’s eyes dim a little. Tony has to look away, has to do something. This was never part of the plan, but now he has to make adjustments for it. He has to weigh in variables, and oh fuck! There are so many people around them. All dressed in black and staring at them. Tony has the repulsors on and no one can know about them. No one.

He begins unhooking the wires connecting the repulsors to his arc reactor out, taking the tool out of his pocket so he can strip and break the lines that power the repulsors. Then he breaks the generator, bashing it against the ground as forcefully as he can. After doing all of this, he waves to the mangled bits, gesturing to Steve as he says, “I doubt anyone would be able to replicate these, but just in case, can you, like, I don’t know. Smash this to bits with your shield?”

He’s already reaching for the actual reactor when Steve says, “Anthony,” like he’s going to chastise him for wanting to make sure another of his inventions can’t be used for nefarious plans.

He feels the sizzling of the palladium core, which is probably psychosomatic, but who the fuck cares. It’s not a pleasant feeling whether real or made up in his head. He’s trying to extract it gently, but it hurts a little. It causes him to be a little short with the man who just risked his life to come get him. “Could you just do it, please? I don’t want anyone getting a hold of it and if I’m going with Men in Black over there,” which he’s almost positive he’s going with the MIB also known as SHIELD agents, “I have a feeling they’ll try to confiscate it.”

As he’s telling Steve this, glaring at all the other people in the room, he finally manages to remove the reactor. It hurts more than it would have if Stane hadn’t been ripping it out and shoving it back into his chest like Tony is a fucking game of Operation, but it’s not too terrible. He reaches into his pocket for his bag of cores; inserts on into the arc reactor before throwing the old, nearly melted one into the stairwell he had just escaped from.

“You put that in your body?!” Steve exclaims while staring at the reactor as Tony pulls his tank top back over his stomach.

He grins a little self-deprecatingly. “I’ve put worse things in my body, trust me, Steve.” He looks at the mess on the floor, the ones Steve still hasn’t destroyed for him. “Would you, please?”

Steve finally acquiesces, sighing sadly while he does it. When the repulsors are mangled pieces on the cracked marble; Steve stands, offering Tony his hand to help him up. That’s when the noise starts, shuffles and stomps that move towards the two of them.

Tony tenses, almost wants to grips Steve’s leather-clothed fingers. He hasn’t necessarily ever planned for this. He has never tried to consider what it would be like to be above his cell in a situation like this where there seem to be hundreds of people. Unexpectedly, there’s someone right in front of him and it’s all Tony can do not to shove him away as blue eyes stare at his neck and his jaw line.

“You could design a whole new Pac-Man game outta your face, Stark,” the man says.

Tony only has to go through a few memories before he grimaces at the man. “You have to be Barton.”

The man doesn’t get to say who he is before a beautiful woman is pushing in front of him, soft lines and equations around her eyes and lips, loose spiraling numbers sliding down her hair. She leans into Tony, and Tony fights the urge to lean back. Words start pouring out of his lips as he sees something in her hand and it’s coming towards his neck.

Panic. Yes, he is definitely panicking and it only gets worse when she stabs it against his skin. His heart beats erratically for a few moments. A fine tremor works over his body and he waits for something to happen as the woman stares at him with her beautiful, if deadly, green eyes.

“He’ll need more soon,” she says after what feels like eternity. “But this should help until we get him back to headquarters.”

She glides away without a sound. Tony is a half a second away from turning to Steve and demanding what precisely is going on, when another silent but deadly person is taking up the space in front of him. All humble and non-assuming, he says with a small quirk of his lips and an even voice, “Mister Stark, welcome back.” It’s like he had been expecting it since the time Tony disappeared a little over two years ago…which is both creepy and a little enraging. “We need to escort you to SHIELD headquarters and have you checked out. If you would.”

He holds his hands out toward the entrance of the lobby, still perfect and pristine like nothing happened in the last hour, day, two years.

It’s disconcerting.

He’s been hidden away for two years, and the doors still look the same. They look the same as the doors he’s wanted to walk out of every day before he found out about the poison in his system. He doesn’t know why but he suddenly expects them to have changed. The world changed without him. His friends scattered. A team of goddamn superheroes started fighting megalomaniacs in awful colored tights. Yet, the glass doors and the city outside looks exactly like he left them.

Disconcerting, his mind reiterates as well as adding, terrifying.

They want to take him out of here to a secretive facility, too. He feels a sense of déjà vu in those action. Feels like a snake being caught again. He looks to Steve, trying to keep his breathing under control. He doesn’t want Steve to leave him right now, and he sure as hell won’t be leaving Steve.

“Captain America will be riding with you. He likely needs to have his ribs checked anyway,” the agent says, which makes Tony wonder what the hell happened to his ribs while he wasn’t around.

Steve only rolls his eyes, minutely, but there. He places his hand between Tony’s shoulders and leads them away, out the front door…

And holy fuck, Tony has never realized how much he misses the smell of New York City’s smog-laden air.

IMCA

Tony is very much not pleased with the direction this is heading. The drive the SHIELD headquarters is at the very least tense and at the most nerve-wracking. He sits next to Steve as throughout the entire ride as Coulson and another agent navigate though New York City until they’re scanning cards and vein prints at, Tony doesn’t exaggerate, fifteen checkpoints.

Tony is almost positive the White House doesn’t have this many verification points.

His anxiety only doubles when the SUV actually drives underground where at least ten medical personnel wait to greet them. Every single one of the medical staff looks as if they’ve been trained to drug first and ask questions later, which isn’t honestly one of Tony’s preferred methods. Steve tries to reassure him with a quick hand pressed between his shoulder blades.

To be honest, it almost doesn’t register.

Unfortunately, or maybe thankfully, Steve’s hand stays between his shoulder blades on the walk inside. Left to his own devices, Tony would have turned heel and hijacked the SUV, security checkpoints be damned. They only part as three of the personnel lead Tony into a small room; seriously small, like smaller than the makeshift laboratory Stane he only just escaped from.

It’s only made more obvious by the fact that three people are currently corralling him to the only bed in the room, which may only be a hair’s breadth wider than the cot he’s slept on for the previous two years. It’s absolutely bare other than the bed and a small bedside table. There is no window, no television. Fuck, there isn’t even a telephone that he can see. He’s half terrified there won’t be a bathroom, but as he looks around quickly he spots a little closet door that has to, it had damn well better, lead to a bathroom, because he refuses to have a catheter.

He’s more than aware that every single thought is leaving his mouth, and be damned if he gives one flying fuck. They ignore him with practiced ease though, and despite his best efforts to remain standing, they somehow get him to sit on the side of the bed.

Two of the personnel leave through the main door again. The remaining nurse works on mundane things. She takes his pulse, temperature, blood pressure, all her movements sharp and practiced. She’s still so fucking quiet. She only says a few words between the rants that still pour out of his mouth without his coherent input. He’s pretty sure by now he’s moved on to the depressing interior decorating.

She moves the stethoscope under his shirt without preamble, though it moves over his back, not towards his front. Still, “Okay. One: Could you give a guy some warning? Two: That’s really fucking cold. How is that so fucking cold? You’ve been pressing it to my skin for like the past five minutes. Do you not have a warming agent? I bet I could make you one.”

“Breathe deep,” she inserts quickly, before he can start another sentence.

He glares at her but does as she says, and again when she orders it. Her eyes stay on his face for a moment before they flicker down, and he can see it in her eyes as she catches the light of the arc reactor for probably the hundredth time since she laid eyes on him. Curiosity.

“What is this?” she asks as she removes the stethoscope from beneath his shirt. Her hand flickers toward the top of his shirt.

“Nothing,” he says immediately. “Don’t touch it.” She doesn’t listen. That’s the annoying part of medical people. They don’t listen to him when they really should. “I said don’t touch it!”

“Mr. Stark.” She rolls her eyes with a bit of exasperation.

He covers the reactor immediately with his hand. “No, no. I said…what’s your name? Y’know what? Don’t answer that. It doesn’t matter. You’re not going to touch this. I don’t care what the director wants. It’s just not going to happen.”

One of the nurses from earlier enters the room again and with her, she has a trolley of sterilized equipment. He stares at the cart with distaste. Stane’s ‘doctors’ had often had the same arrangement, and like hell he’s going to let them gather his blood like that. No. Just…

“In fact,” he bites at glaring at the both of them. “Why don’t you take your needles and practice on a more accepting patient, because this fish is so not taking the bait. What the hell are you planning on drugging me with anyway?” when he sees the nurse setting up needles.

She raises her eyebrows at him. “It’s just some…”

He doesn’t want to hear it. He knows whatever medical jargon she gives him, it will likely be a lie. “How about you just stop talking? I’ve heard all of the excuses before. I know that whatever you tell me has the potential not to be what you tell me it is. So just tell me the truth. What the hell are you doing with me?”

The nurse in front of him makes a sharp movement through the air, which has him leaning back wearily from her. Her lips are thinning. “Mr. Stark, you’re not breathing.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course I’m breathing. I’m breathing just fine. Watch…”

The door bursts open and the privacy curtain is ripped back by the gargantuan man Tony recognizes at Thor. His face is thunderous as he stares at the two nurses.

“Why have you detained great Anthony in this room? What is the meaning of this?” he demands with a booming voice and wow! Tony has only ever really seen him through the news feeds, not even in his lab where he could get dimensions. The god is huge! He had to duck just to get into the room. It’s a miracle he didn’t have turn sideways to fit his enormous cloaked shoulders in.

The nurse who had been taking Tony’s vitals quickly goes to Thor’s side, stern and completely unruffled. “Mr. Odinson,” and he never would have guessed Thor has a last name, “please, wait outside until we’ve finished with the preliminary check up.”

Thor takes his arm out of her reach with an indignant glare. “I will be with him while he is in your care! He is in need of a friend to be with him while Captain America receives once above.”

The nurse doesn’t even flinch while she corrects him, “Once over, Mr. Odinson, and Mr. Stark will be fine with you waiting outside.” She begins moving towards him again, trying to usher him out of the room, but he sidesteps her with the grace of a god.

“I have heard these lies before,” Thor grumbles. He takes just one step further into the room and already half of the space between them is gone. Tony is strangely comforted by that, and also a lot overwhelmed. He steels himself to look up at Thor as he crosses his arms over his chest and glares down at the two women, though the nurse who has the trolley hasn’t even paused in her sterilizing and set up.

It really speaks highly of how much insanity this place must be used to.

His head is actually spinning a little. “Hey big guy,” he says, though he’s not sure why. He likes having Thor around if only for the fact that he seems to have the same lack of trust in hospitals as he does and doesn’t seem to want to keep him in this room any longer than Tony does. It doesn’t help the fact that this room is small and Thor is taking up a lot of space.

Thor turns to him with concern in his eyes. “Not that I’m enjoying this much either, but let them finish up their work and then you can sneak me out of here. How ‘bout that?”

The nurse by the cart quirks her brow and the woman who had been trying to escort Thor out of the room thins her lips. Thor, though, looks back to them, his glare coming back as he says, “I will wait outside. If you are in need of aid, great Anthony, bellow and I shall arrive promptly.”

He nods and raises his hand in acknowledgement, watching as the god leaves the room with a swirl of his red cape. When the door closes behind him, Tony is glad to see that he merely turns around, looking in through the small diamond window like a great guard unwilling to let his charge out of his sight. He tries to give him a reassuring smile as he takes a deep breath, but Thor doesn’t look convinced.

He shrugs it off and turns to the lady with the trolley. “I don’t want any shots. I don’t want what’s in the shots.”
She comes over to him in cool confidence that sort of reminds him of Pepper. “Mr. Stark,” she says in a smoky voice. “The shots are just boosters as well as some supplements to help replenish your blood supply.”

He glowers harder at her. “My blood supply? There’s nothing…” He looks at the quart size bags set up on the trolley. “Oh. That is an astronomically huge no. No one is getting any more of my blood.”

“It’s just two quarts. We just need to analyze what’s in your system.”

“Palladium!” he yells. “Palladium is my system. There! Now you don’t need to take my blood. I already know what’s in it.”

The nurse who had been taking his vitals comes further into the room. “Sir, we can’t leave until we complete our tests.”

He wants to tell the nurses what they can do with their tests, when yet again the door opens, this time quietly. His head snaps over to it, expecting Thor to come waltzing in about his yelling again, but who he sees is significantly smaller than the god and wearing five inch stilettos.

“Pepper,” he breathes, as she stops just inside the room. Shit, but she hasn’t aged a day. She still looks like one of his best friends, the same woman he had reduced himself to captivity for. She stares at him with her blue-green eyes and her mouth falls open a little.

He sees the hurt in her face, the disbelief and pain as she takes in his form. He’s never really been self-conscious. He’s had people staring at the network of green tracing over his skin since Steve helped him up from the floor at Stark Industries. Nonetheless, he has to fight the urge to find something to cover the green shooting through his veins.

“Pep,” he tries again.

Her hand goes up immediately, stopping the words he doesn’t even have. He can see her swallow like it’s the most painful thing she’s done. She blinks and suddenly there’s a glassy look in her eyes. “I can’t,” she gasps. “Not now.”

She takes a quiet step back, slipping silently out the door. Tony tries to breathe through the sudden pain in his chest, rubbing at the reactor even if it isn’t the source of the ache. It hurts to breathe and it isn’t until a gloved hand settles on his arm, that he focuses again. The nurses are still in the room with him, and though they both still look frighteningly clinical, the nurse with the trolley rubs at his arm soothingly.

He supposes he hadn’t played that off well at all.

He looks away from her, but gives her his arm with the best vein. “One bag. No more.”

She harrumphs a little, though there’s no real heat behind it. “That’s what I was trying to tell you earlier,” she chides as she reaches over for a sanitizing swatch.

He looks around the small room, and even with the nurses he feels alone all over again.

IMCA

Tony is never so happy to see Steve as he is when Steve finally enters this small room, and he’s been happy to see Steve an awful lot over the past two months. He chases off another vampire who had come in just a few short minutes after the nurse left with a quart of his blood. Of course, the vampire gets the blood he’s after but he promises no one else will be in for the next twelve hours.

With Steve in the room, it seems a little less gloomy. It could be because Steve is still dressed as a giant flag. It brightens the dull room; makes it easier to breathe. He explains about Pepper’s sudden departure from his room as a need to make sure he’ll still be in the living world tomorrow, which Tony doesn’t dare hope is true.

She may have been having dreams about him coming back to life, but he doubts he came back to life as a dying man in any of her nightly visions.

Steve still chases away some of his melancholy. His optimism makes Tony smile, even if it is tinged with doubt. Steve is so sure they’ll find a way to fix this problem. Tony coming out of the underground lab below Stark Industries probably hasn’t helped with such optimism, but what else could he have done? Let Steve die? He’d rather live the remainder of his life without something to ease his failing organs.

Steve stays through the night with him, holds his hand through the night even as nightmares roll over him in the few on and off times he sleeps. It’s so relieving to be able to grasp his palm, to feel his strong fingers between his own squeezing reassuringly as he opens his eyes with the fear that he has only dreamed of escape.

Tony gets an IV set up to help battle the palladium in his system. It hisses in the night like a snake and he almost thinks he understands it.

Pepper comes by at way too early in the morning, but he’s awake with Steve. They aren’t really doing much. They aren’t even talking, which once upon a time would have driven Tony to distraction. Now, however, it’s kind of nice to just breathe in the same room with someone. Pepper’s arrival makes him tense and nervous despite her reassuring words of, “You know it would take a lot more to scare me off, Tony.” She even brings Happy with her and Happy looks like he couldn’t be more thrilled or surprised to see Tony.

They don’t really stay long, and at the same time the time seems to drift by as they talk stiltedly at each other. Tony tries to figure out if there’s an equation out there somewhere that calculates how long it takes for awkwardness to dissipate. There isn’t of course. Humans don’t run on equations like machines do.

When they do leave, Steve still stays and he asks about the arc reactor; reaches to touch it only to pull away when Tony flinches. “Wait, no. No, it’s fine. You can touch it,” he says even though he feels light headed. He grabs firmly, and presses Steve’s fingers against it. He’s the first person who Tony has guided to the reactor’s light. Steve’s hand stays, even as

Tony begins to explain what it is in detail; even when he reveals that the reactor is running off of palladium poisoning. His hand stays warm and comfortably heavy on his chest where green lattices originate until Tony tells him that there’s nothing that can be done for him.

It is at that point, Steve moves both of his hands to rest, determined yet gentle, against Tony’s neck as he says, “We will find something. We will keep looking until something presents itself, Anthony. You can’t have expired all the solutions.” It’s a nice thought, and the fact that Steve is still using that fucking ridiculous name makes a smile attempt across his face.

“I reall—“ he tries to tell Steve that he hates that name, but then Steve’s lips are on his and good fucking god that’s amazing. The angle is a little awkward, but they could be kissing upside down and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to him. It’s Steve and he presses himself up into the kiss, using one hand to brace himself against the bed and the other to just hold onto Steve’s bicep.

As Steve licks his tongue between his lips, some part of Tony’s mind that is still somehow working screeches to a halt. The thought that Steve is allergic to palladium whispers across his mind, although it takes a very convoluted route to get to that conclusion.

“Wait, uh…” he says as he pushes Steve back a little, and then the larger part of his brain that really didn’t want to stop kissing Steve argues with him a little until he remembers the original point of pushing Steve away. “Yeah, wait. Aren’t you, um, allergic to me?”

The look he gets is, well, it’s adorable. Steve is confused and it’s mixed with bright blue eyes and kiss-slick lips. Why did Tony push him away again? “What?”

Tony pulls a little further away from the temptation, though it really doesn’t help. “You’re, uh, you’re allergic to palladium,” he manages to say and he thinks it’s almost coherent and that the statement didn’t turn breathy as he said it.

Steve gives him a small, amused smile tinged with sadness, because, yeah. The reminder of palladium probably doesn’t help the situation. “No. I’m allergic to nickel.”

Tony tosses that to his concerned mind and then presses his lips to Steve’s again. Yeah, the letting go part really was a bad idea. He wraps around the taller man. Trying to make up for time lost with closing spaces. His hands move over Steve’s armored outfit as their tongues meet and dance before Steve rushes forward to map Tony’s mouth. It’s enough to make him moan in delight.

He thinks of all the kisses he’s ever participated in, all the make-out sessions, pre-sex introductions, but none of them are like this. None of them have felt this right and Tony doesn’t want to let go of the feeling. He doesn’t want to let go of Steve, ever.

Unfortunately, oxygen is a staple to living and Tony does have to let go of him if only so they can breathe. Their foreheads still rest together though. Steve’s hand is still in his hair where it tangled earlier and Tony’s hands are slipping over Steve chest as they share the air between them. Tony thinks this is good. It’s really fucking perfect.

“We will find something,” Steve says quietly and determinedly.

Tony nods, finds that he really wants to believe him. He really, really wants to. “Yeah. Of course, we will.”

He’s trying very hard to believe Steve.

IMCA

Steve stays for most of the next three days. There are times Tony actually verbally has to send him home for a few hours to become human again and change out of his uniform and into something that isn’t so patriotic and resoundingly drool-worthy. Tony takes that time to cleanse himself as well. Usually after he’s out of his shower, a doctor or nurse is there. Just as frequently, so is Thor, who will without fail glare at every single medical agent that enters Tony’s room.

The agents are varying levels of accommodating but there are a few times where he can hear them grumble about the Avengers and the lot of them being pains in the posterior. Tony, through basic listening skills and an internal graph, discovers that the night shift is surprisingly tolerant of the Avengers and their antics. The day crew seems to want to break out tranquilizers. He has yet to figure out the basis of this data, but he figures that he will have enough time to at least work that mystery out.

Thor keeps him company while Steve is gone, which Tony doesn’t mind at all. The god is loud, boisterous, which does have the potential to give him a bit of a headache. It also brings a warm feeling in his chest that is similar to the one seeing Steve ignites. It’s like constantly being assured that he’s out of Stane’s clutches and though this room is small and has the same basic motif, Thor is so not thrilled about Tony being here. It makes him feel like his stay at SHIELD’s medbay won’t be a permanent one.

Thor also may have a tiny, eensy-weensy problem with the term ‘personal space’. No, seriously, the first night after Tony nearly has to cattle-prod Steve out of his room, Thor prances in and just plops his rear on the end of the hospital bed and sits cross-legged like they’ve been friends for years, before launching into a story about the ‘beauteous Jane’ and the ‘noble Darcy’. He punctuates his stories with ‘verily’ and his manner of speaking is odd but endearing…even when he refers to Tony as ‘great Anthony’.

It’s nice and Tony listens and adds his own input as he plays with disassembled electronics that random people have given him. He tries to pretend like he has no clear goal in mind. He does though and he knows it. He has a cell phone, a PDA, and a tablet scattered around the bed. He takes random pieces that aren’t so random and he fits them together in the beginning stages of the Sonic Tazer’s scrambler. He doesn’t know if he’ll actually need it here, however, he’ll be damned if he finds out the hard way. But still, he has not clear goal in mind.

Pepper and Happy both come and go. The interaction is still awkward. They ask what he’s making, how he’s doing, where is Steve. That’s one thing they’ve both adjusted to. Steve is somehow, someway a very intricate part of Tony now.

Pepper once tells him that Rhodey is doing his best to get leave, or at least enough time and satellite comm. links to call Tony. Tony doesn’t know how that will work, as his little room doesn’t have a phone, but Pepper always takes care of things like that.

They very specifically don’t talk about other things, small things. Tony doesn’t apologize, and they don’t ask for one even as their eyes trace over the green around his visible skin. They don’t ask why he never tried to let them help. Sometimes, Tony wants to explain. This doesn’t just start with the poison in his veins, despite the fact that they look at his skin and the hissing machine next to him as if the palladium has robbed them. Tony doesn’t ask if they moved on, because there are still some things he just doesn’t want to know.

The second afternoon, just after Steve leaves, somewhat of his own volition but also with Tony promising he’s really not going anywhere, the door opens and Tony doesn’t look up from his monster of Frankenstein creation.

“Hey Thor,” he says, because it’s always Thor who comes in within moments of Steve departure. Tony thinks they may have worked this out. He can’t force himself to really care.

It’s not Thor, though. Not unless Thor has recently become acquainted with the delights of wearing five-inch heels, which, hey, Tony thinks he could totally rock, but SHIELD headquarters would definitely need taller ceilings. He looks up to see the only person he knows who can wear heels that tall all day and not look uncomfortable.

“Pep, what’s up?”

She’s alone. Usually she brings Happy with her if she’s staying for any amount of time. Tony figures it’s kind of like connection to the ‘then’ rather than to the ‘now’ much in the same way Tony likes to have Steve as a connection to the ‘now’ instead of the ‘then’.

Either way, she still smiles. “I brought you your new cell phone,” she says as she makes her way over to him. “Don’t tear this one apart. You should be expecting a phone call soon.”

He stares at her for a long moment, during which time she stares back at him. It’s not like how their other staring contests used to go, way back in the time before Stane. Their staring contests used to hold a thousand other meanings, some of which he thought could have been something else, something more. Those thoughts left after so long in captivity, but the friendship still burned brightly in his mind. Now, now he doesn’t know what they have other than her green eyes meeting his with this feeling that though they still look the same on the outside, they aren’t the same on the inside.

When it becomes too much for Tony, he looks at the cell phone in his hand, asking curiously, “Do I know the person I’m getting a call from? Is it from the president or something? Sweet mother of mercy. Tell me it isn’t Kirk or Holmes. I cannot deal with them right now. There is only room in my head for one genius at the moment and they will attack me with—“

“It will be Rhodey,” she says shortly, her eyes somewhere in the middle distance right in front of him. “He sent me an email earlier. He’ll be able to make a phone call in approximately twenty minutes. I have to go. I have a meeting set up with Director Fury and I have to remind him again that shouting profanities as loud as he can is a poor reflection of personal vernacular.”

Tony still stares at the phone. “Of course. Right. I completely understand,” he responds as if he had actually been listening to her. “Have a good time.”

That right there is probably why that something more never happened.

He vaguely hears her high heels march out of the room in perfect rhythm just before a soft ‘snickt’ sounds as the door shut behind her.

Tony waits. He passes the time by flipping the phone over and over, and over again, in his hand. The phone is light, new. Pepper remembers how he likes his phones, and even if this one is a crappy LG, it’ll do until he can make his own phone.

It only takes ten minutes for the little LG to come to life. Tony doesn’t even glance at the number, but accepts the call with a flick of his finger across the screen that displays no information other than numbers, not even a picture. He knows it’s Rhodey though and he answers promptly, despite his rapidly beating heart.

“Honey-bear,” he says into the phone.

The voice on the other end is immediate, static-ridden, and sand dry, but there and it floods Tony with a sense of relief that the first words out of his friend’s mouth are, “Spring Break, ’87.”

“Never happened according to you,” Tony replies. “But if it did, I would maintain that it was not my fault. You were the one who wanted to go to a bar in Jamaica. I cannot be blamed for your actions.”

There’s a slight pause, and it makes Tony’s palms sweat a little. He can hear the discordant breathing even through the static that buzzes on the line between them. He also hears the hustle and bustle of Rhodey’s outfit in the background. For a moment, he wonders how long his friend has on the phone, and if they should make small talk or if Tony should rant about something. Really, Tony can rant at the drop of a hat. Babbling is practically a Tony Stark patent.

He’s saved the trouble when Rhodey gives a rusty laugh. “Son of a bitch, it really is you.” Perhaps the laugh isn’t so much rusty as it is choked. “God, I don’t know whether to hug you or punch you when I get home, but I swear to god, Tony I’m not letting you out of my sight ever again. How did you…where were you?”

Tony winces. He hasn’t even told the Men in Black what happened, not that they’ve been by to ask. He wonders if Pepper is fielding them away for the moment. He knows it won’t last long, but he’s thankful for the reprieve. As for telling Rhodey, he sidesteps it. “I don’t think you’ve got enough time for the entire story, but short version is Stane. I would really love not to go into details, like…ever, but I’ll explain more when you get—“

Rhodey interrupts, like he’s always been one to do. Tony thinks that may be a prerequisite for the people he hangs out with. He’s not sure if it says something about his willingness to shut up or their willingness to listen, but it has never bothered him. “I’ll be home in three weeks.”

“Wow, that was fast. I didn’t think your tour was over for another month and a half.”

“I pulled some favors, not that you need to know. And we are going to have a long talk about how you know when my tour is supposed to be over,” Rhodey says, and he has that same ‘I’m going to lecture you so hard later’ tone in his voice that used to transfer just as well to his eyes.

It warms Tony even as his nerves start up.

Three weeks. Three weeks and then Rhodey will be here.

He doesn’t know how he’ll be at that point in time. He told Steve that he would probably be able to live off of Dr. Banner’s serum for a while, but no one knew if it would be a permanent thing or how long it would be able to battle the palladium. He could be on dialysis for all he knows. He could be dead.

He guesses he’ll find out though.

“I look forward to it, sugar-britches.”

IMCA

On the third day, Fury comes to visit Tony while Steve is away. It is now his firm belief that people and agents not relegated to the medical bay are waiting for Steve to leave before cornering him on his little bed with his now almost completely constructed Sonic Tazer neutralizer. He’ll work on a catchier title later.

Fury walks in dressed in black from eye-patch to toe. His myopic stare is disconcerting and Tony tries not to look at it, but staring at the eye-patch seems rude even to Tony, so he’s not really sure what to do. Eventually, he stares at the shiny, bald head. Also rude, but it seems less offensive that trying to figure out if he should look into the eye or the eye-patch.

“Mister Stark,” he says as he comes to stand at the end of the hospital bed, military oozing from his frame. It’s a good look with all the black leather. “We haven’t been formally introduced. I’m Director Nicholas Fury.”

The way he says that makes Tony believe that Fury holds him fully responsible for the SHIELD break-in just two, jeez just two, weeks ago. Which Tony is, but since he doesn’t have any sound proof of that it would be really nice if he would leave the interrogation-voice out in the hall like most people do. Or at the very least, tone it down just a notch.

Tony nods at him before returning to his project laid out before him.

“I’d like full disclosure on what happened these last two years,” Fury continues, voice still hard. Commanding comes to mind, but not like Rhodey. It’s more like his father’s, though Howard was never in the military.

Tony hums absent-mindedly. “Isn’t that what the shrinks are for? I know you have them.”

“I have no doubt you are aware of my psych-eval department, Stark,” Fury growls. It’s both a step up and a step down from the tone he was using before. “That notwithstanding, I think you and I both know that there isn’t a therapist in the world that could help you, or that you would want help from.”

Tony glances up, interested. Fury’s position hasn’t changed at all. He still glares down at Tony with his one eye and that alone is enough to make Tony’s gaze return to his machines and wires. His IV hisses and he feels a little of the palladium shrink back from his neck, which is a very strange feeling that he mostly ignores. He can feel Fury’s eye watch the progression.

After a long drawn out silence, he says, “There are ways we could help each other, Stark.”

“I sincerely doubt that,” Tony snorts. Really, how could they help each other? He’s pretty sure Pepper and an entire team of Pepperlings are doing all they can to get his company under his name again, to sort out property, finances, and you know, him being alive again. At least, he hopes that’s what they’re doing. However, right now, all he has is three mangled electronics that could be something to help him if not a few other people, but he needs a soldering iron. He has Steve and he’s pretty sure he has Thor. A quick look towards the door proves that he does indeed have Thor.

Part of his mind begins wondering if he called for help now if Thor would actually take on Fury. He tucks it away though as he continues. “You really don’t have anything that I really want, to be honest. Although, the medicine is nice and the free food is appreciated if not gag-worthy, this place is a dump with way too many flaws for me to actually want to be associated with you. Now if you’re looking for what I can do for you, at the moment that is nothing. I have a disassembled phone, PDA, and tablet. Also a phone that Pepper gave me earlier, but that’s mine and it sucks anyway so you can’t have it.”

Fury is very unappreciative of his diatribe, but just like when they were speaking over the SHIELD comm. link, he keeps it very in check. “You won’t be here forever. God knows, my staff couldn’t keep up with a stubborn ass like you. Ms. Potts is working…”

“Oh, so I’ll be getting out of here today?” Tony cuts him off, because yeah. He wants out of this place. It’s small, and there’s nothing to do, and he is actually losing his mind a little bit. No amount of math, science, not even the horrendous amount of people who waltz into his room can keep him distracted. Fuck, Steve can’t even keep him distracted and Steve is a very distracting person.

That in-check persona Fury has been holding? It’s wavering. His one eye narrows into an even more impressive glare and his arms flex beneath his impressive leather coat. “That is not what I said, Stark. You still need more tests run.”

“I’ll come in for appointments.”

“You’re previous records do nothing to support that statement,” Fury says drolly. “You’ll need to stay here until some of my personal belongings come in. It will help…”

Tony waves his hands emphatically. “I do not want to know about your personal belongings. That’s just…a side of you I don’t want to know about, okay? Keep the whips and chains to yourself. Just…let me go home. I’ll come in for appointment. Scouts honor.”

“You were never a scout.”

“I bought girl scout cookies.”

Apparently that does not count. Fury gives him a droll glare. “You’ll be staying here for the time being, Stark. Now, as for how we can help each other…”

“I don’t know if I want your help. So far all it’s gotten me is a serious case of boredom and a sudden phobia of needles. You know, I had a dream of getting out of that room at SI and getting the date tattooed on me. I’m too terrified to do it now and that’s thanks to you and your staff. You have ruined my dream.”

“Stark, if you will just shut the fuck up and listen to my goddamn proposal…” Fury snaps. Tony has to keep from smiling. He really likes messing up Fury’s supposedly well-kept calm. It makes him feel like he’s a little less out of sorts in this sad excuse of a room.

“I don’t want to listen to your proposal, I want to go. I want to leave. I would like to no longer be in this building. Preferably I would like to be in a house, or a hotel. If I could get windows that would be really nice as well. But the point is I don’t want to, like… stay, because this place…”

Fury growls. Like a lion, he literally growls. “You will be staying here until we as least debrief you.”

Tony’s brows shoot up. “Debrief me? What like I’m one of your agents? No, I don’t think so. You don’t need to know about anything that happened there.”

“I actually think I do need to know what happened there, considering I have a dead CEO on my plate and the whole god damn world is breathing down my neck as to what happened to you!”

“People know I’m alive?” Tony feels something he hadn’t been expecting rise in his chest. People know he’s alive. He hasn’t been expecting that. He thought he was still on the roster as a dead man. A tingling sensation washes over his skin at the sheer delight that gives him.

And then, of course, Fury ruins it. “Goddamn, Stark, way to get with the program. Now I cannot release you until I have the information of what happened while you were held hostage!”

“You want to know if I helped Stane with his evil machinations,” Tony glares, most of his happy feelings gone.

“That would be a good fucking topic to start at.”

“Technically…yeah. I did.” Fury takes a slow measured breath. “I also pretty much tried to foil every plan I could get my hands on, so there’s no need to throw me in the brig…or whatever it is you have around here. Do you have a special jail place where you like torture people or something?”

“I suppose that would be a pressing issue for you, wouldn’t it?”

Tony stiffens. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Fury just stares at him. Tony tries to meet the glare, but memories, oh god, the memories start creeping up, sneaking in through the backdoor of his mind and tiptoeing through the numbers and algorithms. He looks at his hands for a moment, seeing his project that he hadn’t even known was a product of his time in captivity. The room feels too small for him, too angry at him. They don’t glare cruelly with white eyes, but it’s close enough. Tony expects the door to open and see a cruel face staring at him.

His lips thin and he shakes Stane out of his mind. “This place is maddening,” he says as a way to completely banish the thoughts. On some level he can hear the door to his room open, and even though his heart sinks a little, he still hopes it is Steve. Steve will bring some level of comfort to this uncomfortable situation.

He chances a quick look, and sees that it is him, thank fuck, before carrying on with his rant, demanding that he be let out.

Steve actually takes his side, which is so wonderful, but then he admits that Tony has been breaking into SHIELD’s comm. system for a few months…which, they’re going to have to have some words about keeping mouths shut and redirecting questions. Fury eventually demands that he and Steve have a ‘meeting’ and they both move off.

Within two minutes, Thor comes into his room and just like always he plops his godly rear down on the end of Tony’s bed. “Great Anthony!” he proclaims. “It is my duty to make sure you do not escape with any medical equipment.”

Tony smiles drolly at the god and systematically begins trying to break down Thor’s resolve in that matter. It keeps the lingering ghosts at bay, though it still feels like the room is too small for him and definitely much too small for a full-blown deity.

Thor’s smile is open and guileless though. When he laughs it echoes around the walls and it warms Tony marginally, even if it’s not as much as Steve has the ability to do. Thor is welcoming and protective and he’s sure that if Steve hadn’t just told Thor to make sure Tony doesn’t vanish into thin air, he could convince Thor to help him out of here.

Or maybe he’d stay and wait for Steve some more…

Steve springs him anyway, so it really doesn’t matter.

IMCA

Happy drives them back to his old mansion, where Steve, Thor and the rest of the Avengers are staying. He spends his time holding Steve’s hand, having a mindless conversation with Happy, and looking out the window. On the seat across from Steve and Tony, Thor is lounging very comfortably with a wide grin on his face. Tony has a case of condensed serum on the seat next to him, which is nice because running around the mansion with an IV just seems like a hassle, not to mention doing anything else with it.

Every so often, when he can pull his eyes away from the world outside, bright and somewhat cheery as opposed to the nighttime life when he’d been pulled out of Stark Tower, he’ll look at Steve. Steve looks very content, a little smug that Tony can only guess comes from winning an argument against Fury, but very content. His eyes switch back and forth between Tony and Happy and a small smile plays his lips every so often. Halfway through the ride, Steve’s thumb starts stroking the back of his hand.

It’s very soothing considering the bundle of nerves that fly through his head. He doesn’t know what to focus on or how to take everything in. He’s going home, but it’s a home he hasn’t even seen since before he was kidnapped by terrorists. He gets to go outside, but there will be so many people around. He’ll have Steve, but he’ll also have everything else that comes with having Steve. He’ll have to see if there’s something to be done for his poison, because he wants to stay. More than he wants anything else in the world, he wants to stay with Steve…for Steve.

At the mansion, Happy pulls around to the front door and Thor is out of the car before it’s even off, let alone before Happy can come open the door. He looks back inside staring at them impatiently as he booms, “Come now! The car is much too small and the world waits for you!”

Tony has absolutely no fucking clue what that’s supposed to mean, but Steve gives a gentle nudge against his lower back, warm and comforting. The only thing to really do is grab his case of evil, pointy needles, and follow their coaxing. Steve follows him out, shutting the door softly behind him and tapping on the hood for Happy, who hasn’t even exited the car. The automobile takes off again, leaving the three of them in front of the mansion. Steve and Thor are loose and patient, though Thor does make towards the door with a grin on his face.

Tony remains rooted to the spot, letting the breeze against his face and staring at the huge building that holds so many confusing memories that he doesn’t always want. It still looks much the same way as it had years ago, although there are definite signs that five superheroes live here. Three arrows in one of the trees, a few bullet cases glinting around the paved driveway, smashed and mostly dull. He can even make out where a statue at the far corner of the circle drive has been smashed, by super soldier, god, or giant green rage monster…who knows?

Steve rests a hand on his lower back again. His eyes are calm and calming when Tony looks into them, telling him to take his time; that he’ll be okay; that he can see it all now if he wants to. He can take his time to explore the outside, inside, city, et al.

Steve must be the only person that he actually has a read on anymore, maybe the first person he’s ever really had a read on. It surprises him a little bit of a lot. They have this ease that Tony almost doesn’t know what to do with. It was easy to talk to him when Steve believed he was only an AI. They argued really well together after JARVIS tattled on Tony. And in the aftermath of Tony’s escape, their conversations are understandings that even melt into the silences that can stretch between them. It’s probably the only thing that’s gotten him through this far after Stane fell.

“Okay, so I suppose I’ll have plenty of time to see this without me carrying around this stupid case,” he says, waving said object in the air carelessly.

Steve smiles. “All the time in the world,” he agrees. Steve is ridiculously optimistic in a way that Tony tries to match, despite the fact that he’s been ingrained with cynicism, realism, and maybe a dash of pessimism since he was like…five seconds old or something like that.

They meet Thor at the door and he looks at them happily before throwing the door open grandly. Tony has a moment where he dreads they’ve set up some surprise party, but it’s just his foyer; his empty, scuffed up foyer that has weird things Tony doesn’t remember but halfway likes already.

“I never thought I’d miss this place so much,” he breathes, Steve’s presence still tangible beside him.

He’s not sure if it was the two years in captivity, the new signs of life, actual life not just a parody of it, but he suddenly feels a rush of nostalgia run through him. It’s not for the life he had when he was a young boy, or for the few times he stayed here growing up. It’s more for the life that has been here for the previous few months. He sees signs of a strange sort of family and almost feels like he could have been part of it. He almost feels like he’s part of it already.

Right up until he hears nails scraping across the floor and catches sight of a huge puppy bounding towards them.

From Tony’s other side, Thor steps forward and scoops the fuzzy, drool-y and really quite ugly thing up into his arms. Tony’s immediate inclination is to step away from it and spin his head around so fast to glare at Steve.

Steve at least has the good graces to look abashed. Before Tony can comment though, Barton is following the trail of the dog, and Banner comes from the stairs. And wow, people. People who have no concept of personal space.

For some reason he hasn’t really thought up this part of the getting free plan.

IMCA

Dinner isn’t usually a normal thing the Avengers do together. Steve says usually they eat when they want to, when they can, or when they’re awake. Natasha, who seems to and quite possibly does appear out of thin air, tells him that breakfast is normally a group thing, and Pepper comes by to tell him as long as it’s not too early in the morning or there isn’t a press conference.

Tony hasn’t the foggiest fucking clue why the hell it matters, but the team actually seems adamant in talking about their eating habits as they sit down at the table for a dinner Banner has just whipped together. Thor’s dog is bouncing around under the table, and Tony is glad to see that he’s not the only who seems displeased with the puppy. Bruce, Natasha, and Pepper look varying inches away from dragging the mutt into a different room and locking it there. Thor doesn’t help the matter at all as he feeds the pooch pieces of the Brazilian dish. Barton looks like he’s trying to inconspicuously scrape his dish onto Bruce’s plate.

It’s loud and messy, and the damn dog nearly knocks the table over. It’s definitely a little overwhelming. Tony keeps on a believable face though and tries to appear like this isn’t a form of sensory overload. He’s used to watching his computers. He’s used to getting lost in codes and wires. It’s been a while since he’s had more than three people around him; since he’s had to talk to more than three people at a time.

He’s pretty sure he plays it off fairly well, but Pepper keeps glancing at him and his plate. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with his plate, but when she had measured him for more clothes earlier in the afternoon before he was officially released from SHIELD’s clutches, she had said he had lost some weight.

Beside him, Steve continuously glances at his team like they’re about to start something he’s not going to like. Barton winces several times and glares at Natasha, so there’s probably some silent communication going on there. It’s probably the best part of dinner, watching to see how long this elephant in the room will be able to sit on the table.

Barton receives another kick under the table and apparently ten is the magic number for him because suddenly he breaks the mundane conversation that’s been droning on at the table by shouting, “Jesus fuck, Natasha! I just want to ask him if he needs sleep pants tonight! He doesn’t have any damn clothes of his own right now and we both know sleeping in SHIELD issued clothing ends in hives more often than not! Goddamn, that last kick is going to leave a bruise.”

Natasha levels a glare on him as the rest of them, except Tony, look on in shock and apprehension. “Okay. I’ll give you that may have been your thought for the last two kicks. What were my other eight kicks aimed for?”

Tony feels ridiculously proud that he’s been accurately counting the number of kicks Barton received since the first one.

Barton glares back at her, his face blank as they enter into a battle of wills. Tony knows Natasha is going to win. There’s something about that woman that would scare ninety percent of the population down to its core.

Pepper breaks up the staring contest with a firm, “Clint.”

All who do not fear Natasha Romanov know instinctually to fear Pepper Potts.

Barton glances around Natasha to see Pepper’s patented disapproving glare. Tony smirks.

He’s not entirely sure why but this actually feels really good. Their awkwardness around him, especially Pepper’s, seems less sharp when they’re all floundering together, when he sees how much they’re trying not to push at him, make him feel comfortable. It’s a grand gesture and one he does appreciate, even if he’s internally laughing at them.

Although the fact that he is internally cackling at them could be a sign that he did actually kind of crack beneath the foundation of Stark Industries.

He waves it out of his mind though. He’s got Steve on his left and Thor on his right and he thinks between the two, he feels safe enough to watch this awkwardness. Safe enough to add to it.

Twirling his fork around lazily in the other end of the table’s general direction, he says, “I wouldn’t be averse to knowing what the other eight kicks were for.” Then just to show he’s game he grins a little and it’s snake-like and rusty. He can feel the muscles on his face straining to remember what to do.

Pepper and Steve both shoot him a look that says his muscles are failing to remember properly, or that perhaps they know what he’s trying to do.

Barton though gives him a calculating look, like he isn’t quite sure what to do with the fact that he can ask questions. Tony thinks he can understand why. When Rhodey first joined the military he’d been sent on missions that to…well, two years ago, he didn’t talk to anyone about. Barton looks like he’s been in SHIELD’s web for a while now. He probably has his own stories he doesn’t talk about. He may want to ask, but Tony’s pretty sure he just sent up mental flags.

Banner looks like he’s at least paying attention now, instead of glaring at the ugly fluffy thing Thor calls a puppy.

Tony keeps his affected smirk, waiting to see the next move.

No one seems willing to offer it up and Tony eventually just rolls his eyes. “I’ll take that as an admission by omission that you weren’t actually having thoughts and Natasha just likes to kick…” he pauses and then adds, “and stab people. I’ll take the clothes though. These things are super uncomfortable and poorly tailored. I don’t see how anyone can wear these. Banner!” the man looks at him. “Thanks for the foreign cuisine. Next time go a little lighter on the coconut juice. I’ll be heading back to my room now.”

No one stops him as he leaves and it’s only once he’s behind the bedroom door that Steve had shown him too earlier that he realizes safety had nothing to do with what happened at the table. It was just him being a dick.

Again.

IMCA

Steve comes in some fifteen minutes later with a pair of pajama bottoms and a t-shirt held in his large hand. The ugly puppy follows behind him and he sits at the side of the bed with a goofy grin that makes Tony want to ignore this entire situation more.

Tony is staring at the ceiling while the computer in the room plays something mindless from the cable wired throughout the house. He thinks it could be Friends, but it might be the upgraded version of the show, How I Met Your Mother. Either way he’s never watched either of them and he isn’t watching it now.

He’s actually trying to figure out why he just tried to alienate the people who rescued him plus one of his best friends that he’s been doing his damnedest to protect for the last two years. Sure, after a while he hadn’t expected to live outside of the cell-like lab. Okay, it’s been two years since he’s had face-to-face interaction with people other than Stane or his sleazy doctors. And yes, he hasn’t ever been good with people, but…

“I’m sorry if we made you uncomfortable,” Steve eventually says as he sits at the desk chair.

Tony furrows his brows and tilts his head over to the side so he can better see the other man. He looks sheepish and repentant. As if this was somehow his fault, or anyone else’s fault for that matter. Tony scoffs, but gives Steve a tight smile. “No one did anything. That was all me just doing what I’m good at.”

The puppy hops onto the bed, which if Tony cared more, he would be pretty impressed by because this thing isn’t all that big and the bed is. As it is, he shoots it a glare and contemplates tossing it off the bed. He doesn’t want to be around it and it looks like it might be heading for a good cuddle. He decides to ignore it instead. He’s earned enough douche points without throwing a puppy off his bed.

Steve shakes his head. “Tony, you’ve been away from people for two years. It’s bound to be a little overwhelming for a while.”

“I would think that the thirty-some-odd years of human interaction would trump two measly years in that room. However, knowing myself, that really wasn’t anything new. That was me being a jackass because I saw the opportunity to do so.” Tony sits up on the bed and rubs his hands over his pants. If one thing Barton was right out, these clothes are going to make him break out in a rash.

Behind him the puppy follows and sits, not against him, but close enough that he can feel the fine hairs of its fur against his arm. He moves away from it a little, trying not to look like he’s avoiding a fifteen pound mutt that’s shedding all over his bed.

Steve doesn’t look overly convinced by Tony’s words or actions. He does cringe a bit though, which makes Tony think that he’s seen a few videos of life before the cell. It doesn’t seem to make any difference on his stance in the matter. He looks at Tony with understanding eyes and says, “I think you’re being unfair to yourself. When I came out of the ice, I was…not at my best either.”

Tony chuffs a skeptical breath of air. “Steve, when you came out of the ice it was seventy years later and every one you knew was suddenly not there anymore. I’d be concerned if you weren’t a little bit…unpleasant. That’s the word we’ll use. Unpleasant. I just…came out of a cell. A very small cell in which I could keep up with the times and make sure my friends were okay and Stane couldn’t get at them, but…” He waves his hand around. “If you want to do comparisons, I have no reason to be unpleasant. I just am because that’s apparently how my programming works.”

When his hand falls down again he surprised to have it land in a puddle of multi-colored fur. The puppy is now almost sitting against his leg, his head lying on his huge, disproportional paws. As if he can feel Tony’s eyes on him, he rolls his large eyes upward and stares.

He looks over to Steve just as he stands up. He crosses the room slowly and sits to Tony’s other side taking his hand and being careful of the tape still on the back where the IV had gone. “I think you might be a little bit hard on yourself, Tony.” Because Tony had earlier convinced him that Anthony is off the table. “You were still deprived of human interaction for a long time. We probably should have known inundating you with so many people—“

Tony cuts in with a quick, “There were six of you.”

Steve continues like Tony hasn’t spoken, “—would make you uncomfortable and…unpleasant, as you’ve decided we’re calling it. Just give it some time and stop making it seem like being held captive for two years is a cakewalk.”

Tony doesn’t say anything to that. He just looks into the middle distance in front of him and holds Steve’s hand. Friends or How I Met Your Mother or maybe something completely different plays on the computer for background noise. After a while Tony realizes that he’s petting the ugly little puppy. It all kind of feels nice, which is at odds with the thoughts and numerals flashing big arrows towards the fact that he is a major asshole.

Steve is the one who breaks the silence again with an amused, “I think he likes you.”

When Tony looks up at him, he gestures at the dog cuddled up against his leg now and sleeping happily. Tony grimaces at it, but surprisingly doesn’t stop petting it. It’s soft and feels nice against his calloused palm. “This thing is a menace. Where did you find a dog this ugly? Did you look for it specifically or was it a chance that you could find a creature unfortunate enough to be this hideous?”

“Thor found him about three weeks back.”

Tony gives him an annoyed look. “You could have told me you had the world’s ugliest dog living in the mansion.”

He’s met with his own look from Steve, but it’s not quite as annoyed so much as it is exasperated. “We were kind of busy with other things at the time. Sorry that Thor’s puppy never came up while we were doing our best to foil each other’s plans.”

Tony chuckles. Leaning into Steve a little, he brushes their shoulders together. “You make it sound like we’re arch nemeses.”

“That’d be an interesting dynamic. We’d be like some of those newer comics that Hawkeye reads.”

Tony smirks. “I don’t know which is worse: The fact that Barton reads comics or the fact that you know the plotline to one of them.”

Steve shrugs half-heartedly but doesn’t answer. Instead, he raises Tony’s hand to his lips and presses a kiss there.

It warms Tony all the way through and makes him feel just a little better about the dinner fiasco.

IMCA

Tony wakes the next morning and has a moment of confusion. Through the sleep haze and disorientation, he almost feels as if he’s still in a dream. He’s warm, warmer than he’s been in days, years. He’s on his back and his right side feels weighted down to the bed. Hot breath puffs across his neck and collarbone and an arm is wrapped around his waist.

He brings his hand up, keeping his eyes close incase he’s right, and this really is only an illusion in made from the dusty cobwebs of his mind. It’s awkward, because he’s moving the arm trapped by the warm weight on his chest. His hand skims along smooth skin first, broad and muscled, until he finds the soft slope that leads to the knobs of a spine.

His wandering hand is met with readjusting from the body on top of him. The hand resting against his side slides up lazily over his ribs, and it tickles. The haze of slumber washes away finally, though he’s still somewhat confused. He pries his eyes open and turns his head to meet a mop of blond hair that he recognizes instantly as Steve’s.

It takes him a moment or two before he remembers last night. How he had crept into the hall because the bedroom was so lonely and empty. He recalls sitting outside Steve’s bedroom door and listening to the sounds of Barton snoring like a chainsaw and Thor downstairs with the evil pooch, playing a game by the sounds of it, but he isn’t sure if it was on one of Barton’s game stations or a made up game. He remembers Steve came into the hallway and pulled him back into the room, injecting him with the condensed serum while pressing kisses into his hairline.

This really isn’t a dream then.

He looks around Steve’s room looking for traces of him as his hand continues to stroke across Steve’s shoulders lazily. There are hints of Steve in this room, not many and they aren’t ostentatious unless you count his shield over on the wall by his closet. Other than that, there’re some pads of paper and a set of pencils and charcoal on the computer desk, an old fashion bell alarm on the bedside table closest to Tony.

Tony reaches for it with one hand and checks to see if it’s on and if it is, what time it’s set for. It’s not thankfully, but a glance at the face tells him that it’s usually set for five in the morning…which is absolutely disgusting. No one should be awake that early unless they’re going to sleep. He sets it back down on the side table in front of his case of stabby things that he really doesn’t want to deal with right now but knows he should.

He turns toward Steve deciding to put it off just a few more minutes, not long just…

He tilts his head down as best he can to look at Steve’s face. It’s a little difficult because Steve is literally pressed his face into the juncture of his neck and shoulder, breathing hot air over his skin. The most he can see is Steve’s hair, the swell of his strong shoulders and muscles that define the arm over his chest.

Tony moves his free arm to trace over Steve’s, his fingers playing over the dips and grooves of his muscles. He smiles when Steve moves again, his hand gliding over his t-shirt back down over his ribs before he curls his arm back in. His palm slides over Tony’s nipple, coming to rest curled on the edge of the arc reactor. Both actions make Tony flinch a little for different reasons, but Steve is still deep in sleep.

Tony presses a kiss to the crown of Steve’s head. His heart thumps a little in his chest when Steve wiggles in closer. He has never expected Steve to be this heavy of a sleeper or this much of a cuddler, but it feels nice. He presses his cheek into Steve’s hair and breathes in the peaceful moments of the morning.

He’s almost asleep when the soft, whirring sound of JARVIS sounds in Steve’s room, calling quietly, “Sir, I have been monitoring your serum intake and my sensors indicate it is overdue for you next dose.”

Tony blinks his eyes open and sighs. “Alright, nanny. I’ll take my medicine.”

“How good of you to listen to me,” JARVIS replies just as quietly as before but with a definite hint of sarcasm.

It takes some time to extract himself from Steve and for a moment he thinks that he’ll wake up, but he slits his eyes open long enough for Tony to say he’s coming back and then shuffles a little further away so that Tony can get up. He takes his case into the bathroom adjoined to the room and sets it down, getting everything ready before he jabs the injector into his neck.

After that, he chances a look at himself in the mirror. SHIELD gave him some supplies. Enough to wash and generally look like he wasn’t a hobo fresh off the streets, but he still isn’t satisfied with how he looks. It doesn’t help that he hadn’t had the tools to cut his hair, or even make a decent goatee. His face is clean shaven, and it seems like it makes the green lines beneath his skin even more noticeable. He’s pale and sickly looking.

Not a good look for him he decides not for the first time and probably not for the last.

He reaches for his blood tester and pricks his finger. The answer is better than the ones he received down in his cell towards the end but still sixty-two percent isn’t something to be happy about. He won’t need another chip for a while which is a good thing. Pulling out the plastic bag he had stored in a little pocket of his case, he sees that he only has three left.
He can make more. He will make more until there’s not possible reason for him to continue. Still, it doesn’t help to know that he went through twenty-two of them in a little over two months.

He shakes the thought away and heads back into the bedroom after quickly finishing his wake-up ritual. He sets the case on the table, behind Steve’s alarm clock and lies back down on the bed. Steve isn’t as close anymore, but when he’s comfortable, Steve reaches across the space between them blindly, like he knows Tony is there.

Tony brushes his fingers over his hand, which garners a twitch in response but nothing more. Tony relaxes onto the bed and pulls up the cores, regarding them like they hold the map of his life and the reasons as to why it seems to change suddenly, not that he’s complaining about this latest standard of his life. Even with the poison in his body, this is ten million times better than being in Afghanistan or the little cell from hell.

He must be contemplating this more deeply than he thinks he is because the next thing he hears is Steve’s voice, sleep rough and curious, “Can you make more of those?

His knee-jerk reaction is to get them out of sight, though he’s not sure why it would matter. Steve has already seen them, and Tony actually trusts him enough to not take the cores and do despicable things with them. He takes a moment to mentally berate himself, before answering, “Of course, I can. I can make anything. Hell, I could probably make ten before the end of the day with what’s in the lab.”

He swallows and looks down at his hip where the bag is still clenched between his fingers. It’s startling when Steve hesitantly leans over him to take in the sight as well.

Something about the action, something that goes beyond curiosity and almost into protective, and it makes Tony start talking. “This was supposed to be my last batch,” he admits. “I was going to stop making them. He couldn’t hold anyone hostage against me if I died of seemingly natural causes. Pepper, Happy, and Rhodey would have been okay. I was…I was okay with going. Wasn’t too pleased at the prospect, but I figured there was no reason to come back from death only to die again.”

Steve lays his head down on Tony’s stomach and his hand moves under his t-shirt. Tony smiles a little to himself, running his hand through Steve’s hair. It feels good like this even if what he’s talking about isn’t the best subject.

He carries on with it though, because this is the good part. This is the part that changed Tony’s life all over again. “Of course then about a week after I decided that JARVIS decides to let some guy stumble into my lab who just happens to be the best guy I’ve ever met and he says he loves me and I’m so desperately in love with him. It completely opened a flaw in my plan. Absolutely ruined everything.”

He tries to sound put out about it, but he knows he fails.

Steve smiles against his stomach and jokes, “Sounds like a hell of a guy.”

Tony nods, looking down at the back of Steve’s head, picking at some of the longer strands of his ridiculously cute and out of date hair cut. “He is. Very interesting. Very old. He’s totally robbing the cradle.” He pauses and smirks to himself. “And he gropes in his sleep.”

Steve whips his head up to give him a scandalized look. “I do not!”

Tony smiles gleefully with a nod. “Yeah, you really do. Completely handsy, and I was the only one awake to enjoy it,” he says putting as much dejection in his voice as he can manage with the grin that still on his face.

“That’s too bad,” Steve says, his face red and blushing as his hand moves further up his shirt.

Oh.

IMCA

Later they’re in the shower, washing away sweat and other fluids from earlier. The shower is huge. Of course, everything in the mansion is huge. That’s why it’s a mansion, but it’s so different from the shower in the cell of at SHIELD’s medbay. And he breathes easy, the water misting against his skin as Steve rinses off the soap from his body.

Tony has already washed, but they still linger in the shower. The hot water heater will work for hours, even if every single person in the house decides to shower at once.

He hasn’t stayed in a shower for more than five minutes since Afghanistan, not unless he was sleeping in it with the water off. It feels odd to have water hit him for so long, but he doesn’t feel much more than that. Especially not with Steve pushing his water-bronze hair away from his face the way he does. Tony smiles and reaches out, running his hand over hot skin made even hotter by the water.

Steve brings him in when he catches his eyes. He smiles contentedly, running his large hand over Tony’s neck, his shoulder, and down his arm. His eyes don’t catch on green latticework, focusing on Tony’s own eyes like they’re all the matters. He supposes he can understand. Right now, Steve’s blue eyes are a tether. He is right here, right now, and the future and whatever it brings is in a different part of the universe that can’t touch them in this shower.

Steve runs a hand through Tony’s atrociously long hair and Tony leans into the touch, responds by resting his hands on Steve’s bare hips. The spray of the water is still blocked by Steve’s shoulders and back, so only the drifting pieces of water hit him. It’s nice and light. It is a good change from earlier, where it was still a little awkward and Tony almost drifted away in the sea of ‘What if I don’t pull through this? What if Steve’s optimism runs out? What if there really is no cure and all of this is for nothing?’

Steve had shaken him out of it. Steve seems really adept at shaking him out of many things.

Captain America may be everyone’s hero, but Steve Rogers is Tony Stark’s savior.

After a few minutes of just standing together, Tony finally asks, “Are you doing anything today? Secret missions? Evil vermin? Kittens in trees?”

Steve gives a small laugh. “There may be a kitten in a tree, but other than that no. I’ve done all the reports. The only thing I might have to do is go through some laps with the team. That won’t be ‘til later tonight though.” His hand slides over Tony’s back, not too low before skimming up his side. Tony does his best not to flinch, because that still tickles dammit. “You’ve got me all day if you want me.”

“I suppose that doesn’t sound like too bad of a plan. I might need to clear my own schedule. I had some pretty exciting meetings with the rest of the mansion. Maybe a stroll to the pool, who knows. But since you’re going to be here, I suppose I can push those off for a day or two.” He gives Steve a benevolent smile that only makes him roll his eyes, like he always does when Tony is being a brat, even when he believed that he was only speaking to an AI.

“How is this so simple?” he asks suddenly. “This really shouldn’t be this simple. We met in person less than a week ago. I used to run background checks that took longer than the amount of time we’ve known each other. Not to mention, I’m just not really good at being this type of person and you’re from the 40’s. How are we good at this? This makes no sense.”

“It makes perfect sense, Tony,” Steve assures pressing a kiss to the side of his lips.

Tony waits for him to say something more, to maybe elaborate, but he doesn’t. He asks JARVIS to switch off the shower and herds Tony out, while mentioning something about breakfast.

Tony, not quite ready to meet the others just yet, dresses in his pajamas again and flops onto the bed, with the proclamation, “I shall not be moved until it is noon!”

The other man smiles from his place by the door. “And why is that?”

Tony raises his eyebrow. “Uh…because it’s before noon. My general consensus on being awake is that it shouldn’t happen before noon if you can get away with it!”

Steve scoffs. “You were up before me, Tony,” he points out, but he slides into bed beside him so Tony counts it as a win.

“That was actually JARVIS’s fault. I had a brief streak of coherency and he jumped down my throat about medication. I was perfectly content to fall asleep to your gropings.”

He blushes, which is quickly becoming Tony’s favorite thing to witness in person. “I still think you made that up,” he grumbles, scooting himself up to rest against the pillows and headboard.

Tony snickers at him. “I didn’t. We can get JARVIS to look it up. Do you have a tablet around here? We can just use the computer if you want. It up to you though. You know what? Let’s just use the computer. JARVIS!”

“Tony! No! That’s fine. I’ll take your word on it,” Steve says quickly, but his eyes are dancing with mirth.

His smile grows. “Of course you will, because I was awake and you were asleep. You weren’t coherent enough to know how handsy you were getting while cuddled up in dream land.” He pauses as another thought comes to him. “Although, you are pretty handsy while you’re awake too, so really you’re just a handsy guy. Whoever would have guessed?”

“I didn’t see you complaining,” Steve retorts with a crooked smile, rolling over to hover above him. “In fact, you really seemed to enjoy it.”

“Oh, I wasn’t complaining. Far from complaining, actually. I was merely stating the facts I gathered this morning,” Tony says smugly as he wraps one arm around Steve’s neck and brings them close, lifting his head up to initiate a kiss, teasing and content.

Steve sinks further into him, his hand running over Tony’s arm, rubbing it gently and it’s one of the most sensual things Tony can think of at this moment, to kiss with no real intent of carrying on any further while Steve caresses his arm like he’s comforting and assuring himself at the same time. Tony hums into this kiss just as the other man pulls away.

Steve stares into his eyes, small smile pulling gentle lines into his face. “I suppose one morning in bed can’t be that bad.”

He blinks. “You know it’s very sad that you make it sound like a chore. Like doing the dishes by hand can’t be that bad.”

“It’s not,” Steve interjects, righting himself to his original position of leaning against the headboard.

Tony shakes his head but sits up against the headboard as well, scooting until their shoulders brush as he says, “No one should ever ask you your definition of fun.”

“Well, what’s your definition of fun?”

“Engineering in all of its manifestations: computers, machines, robots.”

“Aren’t robots machines?” Steve asks and he sounds generally confused which is adorable in Tony’s opinion.

Tony shrugs. “If you’re Doom or Hammer or my late subjugator, sure. I wouldn’t advise saying that to Dummy or his little brother, You.”

“Dummy and his little brother, You?”

Tony nods, as in his mind this makes perfect sense. He has JARVIS, Dummy, and You; his sentient AI nanny, and two robotic children-like things. “They’re in L.A. right now, but as soon as everything is straightened out I’ll probably bring them here. God knows the amount of upgrades I’m going to have to put them through. They’ve probably been offline for a while but who knows what those two are capable of even when they’re sleeping.”

It springs a question and a line of panic in his mind even as he says it and he calls out, “Hey, JARVIS? Dummy and You are offline right?”

“Of course, sir. I took the liberty of putting them to bed just shortly after your trip to Afghanistan. If you would like I can send their programming as they are now to you?”

Relief washes through him. He couldn’t imagine what Dummy and You would be like if they had been awake for too long while he was away. A.) they would have completely destroyed his lab and possibly brought down half of L.A. B.) he would seriously have to suck up to them for it. It’s not like he won’t have to suck up to them anyway, but this way makes it a little better.

He turns to Steve. “Do you have a tablet I can use? I’d use the computer but I refuse to leave the bed.”

Steve smirks again at that but reaches for the tablet on his side of the bed, handing it to Tony like it’s nothing. He calls for JARVIS to send him the specs for his robots and gets to work on checking them over. It doesn’t take long, most of the upgrades are simple with a few that are a little more complicated, but still simple. He’ll do them in person though, because it’s the least he can do for them.

After he’s finished he pulls up Steve’s main screen, because he’s nosy and he’s not ashamed to admit it. Steve doesn’t seem to mind and since he’s been looking over Tony’s shoulder the entire time he takes it as an unspoken permission and pokes though all the applications, which admittedly there aren’t many. He has a Google maps installation, which Tony is going to have to change because Google maps is pretty crappy and a few games, all of which are boring!

Really? Angry birds and Fruit Ninja? He beat those within the first week of finding out about them.

That is about the time that Thor throws the door to the room open and steps in like he owns the place. He’s smiling ear to ear, an ugly ass puppy under his arm and…Tony glances over to the wall to double check. No, Thor has Steve’s shield and his hoisting it above his head like a great tray of food.

“Friends!” he proclaims in his outrageously loud voice. “You have missed our morning breaking of the fast! I thought it only wise to bring you such delectables!”

Tony…is still majorly interested in how Thor got the shield without them noticing. Of course, then the god just plops his evil fuzz-ball on the bed and shimmies in next to Tony, who is slowly but surely moving away from the dog. He plops Steve’s shield on their laps, looking eight different kinds of pleased with himself as Steve asks hesitantly, “Did you sneak in and take my shield?”

“I required no use of stealth, my good Steve! You were in the shower with great Anthony. Your shield made a perfect implement with which to carry your sustenance to you,” Thor corrects as he snatches up the puppy, tossing it around like it’s no more than a hacky sack. Sadly, the poor thing already has Stockholm Syndrome or something of the like and seems to actually enjoy it.

Tony decides to ignore it in favor of what is in the shield. “Are these all Pop-Tarts?”

“They are the most invigorating of Midgard cuisine!” Thor declares and Tony snorts.

He really shouldn’t be so surprised. Steve had told him how much Thor likes Pop-Tarts. Now, though, now it’s up front and visual. Thor has almost every kind of Pop-Tart known to mankind in the shield. He actually starts counting the flavors in his head and is up to eight when Steve asks, “Have you named it yet?”

Tony glances up and sees the puppy now nosing at the shield and glares at it. He may have petted the pooch last night but that in no way means he likes it. “Does it actually have to have a name?” he grouses. “Does it even have to stay? I mean really, look at it. It’s…” His words are muffled by Steve’s hand.

Thor grabs his dog again and tosses it once more, earning a yip for the thing. Tony is so not impressed. He shrugs Steve’s hand away from his face and grumbles darkly, “I think we should name it Target.” Internally he adds, like target practice.

Thor does not cotton on to his train of thought, which is probably a good thing because Thor could break him with his pinky alone. Instead, he hoists the thing up into the air one final time and exclaims, “Target! Yes! This is a wonderful name for a canine that will no doubt always be glorious on the hunt and surely never miss his mark!”

Tony mutters a few choice words before deciding to ignore Thor and his particular brand of crazy that is…well, Target, apparently. He latches onto the shield to drag it closer and feels it under his hands. He pauses, brows furrowing. He does it again, gently dragging his thumb over the edge, smooth and damn near velvet for metal.

That’s not really anything he’s ever felt before.

He upends the Pop-Tarts onto the bed to get a better feel, murmuring to himself as he does so.

He must be speaking aloud because Steve’s voice filters in through his mental processes. “It’s vibranium.” Tony sinks his mental claws into that word, running it through all his mental databanks, as Steve continues with his explanation. “You’re dad made it…back in the forties.”

His mind automatically pulls up pictures of his father, ones that almost seem relevant to the word vibranium. Most the times it’s used in passing. Howard never really talked about it more than to state the fact that he had made Captain America’s shield back in the good ol’ days, but one time…He was sneaking into his father’s study while he was shooting a video…the model that he had been leaning over for the Stark Expo of ’74.

“Welcome to the Future,” he mutters to himself the very same words his father had used, before scrambling over Thor and off the bed. “Pepper!”

He grabs the closes shirt he finds off the floor and drags it on over his head, already stumbling out the door and hollering for his friend again. “Pepper!”

He stumbles down the hall checking random rooms as he runs by them and finally crashing down the stairs at top speed. He sees her come out of a room, dressed prim as ever and her hair already done up. He skids to a halt in front of her, his brain whirling with possibilities and equations and he’s already doing an internal cheer at the prospect that this could be it.

This could fix the problem with the arc reactor. All he needs is…

He grabs onto her in delight and partially to slow his momentum twirling them both around as he asks, “You know that crappy model we had in the Los Angeles branch of SI for so long? The one my father made?”

She has to know. He only used to…

“The one you always covered with the most expensive rugs you could find?” she asks with a completely unenthused look on her face, but whatever. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that Pepper is awesome and she has always been able to read his mind and he loves her for it right now.

“Yes! Yes! That one! Is it still at Stark Industries west?” His mind is already trying to factor in how quickly he can get it to the mansion so he and JARVIS can have a look at it.

“No, Stane sold it…” Tony lets out a loud expletive, before Pepper continues on with her sentence. “…to me.”

Tony’s numbers are put on back burner as he focuses on her with more of his attention than previously. He hadn’t expected that. He thought… He thought that they had all moved on.

She rolls her eyes like she knows what he’s thinking, which is entirely possible. “It meant something to you, Tony. I wanted to keep something like that. He sold it at an auction and I bought it under an assumed name.”

Tony’s a little choked up about that to be honest. He swallows a forming lump in his throat and asks, “You…donned an assumed name? That’s…” he shakes the sentimental words out of his head. He doesn’t have time for it. “Nevermind. You’re girlfriend will hurt me and more importantly, I need it, like pronto. Is it in the Malibu house?”

He thinks it’s a valid question since he left all of his property to her, but she still gives him this stricken look like he just slapped her. “No, I…I never went back there. It’s in a storage unit in Manhattan.”

He could have kissed her right then, but that would be a bad idea because on some level he can feel the presence of others around them and a kiss will not look like the delighted ‘thank god’ kiss that Tony intends it to be. Instead, he says, “Bring it here! Have it down in the lab!”

Then he’s dashing towards his old lab, leaving everybody in the dust so he can get everything prepared for that model.

This might be the break he’s needed all along.

IMCA

He has the model within two hours, in which time Tony straightens out his old lab, or rearranges it more to the point. The main floor space is what he needs, and he sorts that out first, but there’s so much space. Tony had almost forgotten just how huge his labs are in the time he was stowed away beneath Stark Industries. Here and now, however, he runs around and generally just touches everything. His shelving space is even larger than that cell and it’s blissful to flit down each row, to familiarize himself with everything once more.

Despite the dust around the place, it is still a fairly clean work habitat. Furthermore, Tony finally feels like he’s free. Being in the mansion is nice. Sleeping in the same bed with Steve last night was probably closer to a dream come true than Tony actually wants to admit. This, though…this finally feels like he’s home, that he’s out for good; he can finally start living again. It may have something to do with the added chance of fixing the arc reactor; may have something to do with space that is all his and no one can hold him tightly like a writhing snake. Mostly Tony thinks that it could be all of those with the added bonus that this is also Steve’s place now.

This is where they met. This lab is where they spoke, and watched shows, and played games; argued and pleaded. Their entire relationship has been based in this lab, even when Tony was a hostage in his own building.

When the model arrives, carried in by Happy and Thor as directed by Pepper, Tony and Steve immediately start setting it up. Pepper stays around for a bit, telling Tony that by the end of the week, she’ll call a press conference for him. The lawyers should have mostly everything settled by that time, so the company will be back under his name. The board of directors won’t be pleased, but he and Pepper share a look that says almost exactly how much they don’t care.

She leaves after explaining the boring details of a man coming back to life. She says she’ll have Happy bring some clothes by later for him to mess up, and then when she’s finished at SHIELD she’ll go pick up a few of his new suits. He acknowledges with a grunt but mostly he’s already lost in the blue-white shine of the scanner going over the model, where he stays for god only knows how long.

In the back of his mind, he’s vaguely aware that Steve is still there, but he gets so caught up in the patterns, numerals, and graphs that it gets jumbled in with other non-mathematical things. He picks the three-dimensional scan apart; orders JARVIS to take away the inconsequential bullshit that his father only put there to make it look more like the city of the future.

Suddenly there it is.

What he has always known to be hidden in plain sight is right in front of him.

He’s looking at a vibranium atom.

Tony expands it with a giddy smile on his face, a small, disbelieving giggle stumbling over his lips because, holy fuck! This is really it. This is going to power the arc reactor, nullifying the need for palladium cores, and thereby saving his sorry ass. All of which means, he really can live. He can live for Rhodey, Pepper and Happy, and most importantly, Steve.

His disbelief abruptly turns into a joyous bark of laughter as he snaps his fingers to enlarge the holographic structure before him. Falling back onto his old swivel chair, he spins around within the lights. Relief is washing over him in waves. For the first time in months, maybe even since he got it, Tony breathes easily with the weight of the reactor settled in his ribs.

Tony is still staring up at the enlarged atom when Steve comes into the lab. Where he had wandered off to, Tony doesn’t actually quite know, but he has food and Tony’s case of medicine, so that’s a pretty good clue. He slides close to Tony’s side, staring at the lights all around them.

“What is this?” Steve asks as he takes in all the lights around them. His hand unerringly falls between Tony’s shoulder blades and it makes everything seem that much better.

“This is what your shield looks like at a microscopic level and what JARVIS has just proven will run the arc reactor,” Tony replies with a silly smile still on his face as he thinks of all he’ll do with his life now.

There’s so much and there seems to be just enough time to get it right, to make things better. He thinks of his company and where he’s going to take it. He thinks of Yinsen, and how he’ll finally, fucking finally be able to keep his promise to him. He thinks of his friends. He thinks of the time it will take to get back to being okay, because he won’t deny that he is far from okay. He thinks of Steve, and how he’s going to hold onto this relationship with teeth and nails, because this saved him first.

Steve saved him first. Saved him from himself…

He stands from his stool and turns into Steve’s body. At this point he doesn’t think this smile is ever going to leave. It just seems so permanent. He presses his face into Steve’s shoulder, interlacing their fingers together as dizzying laughter rises in his chest. He’s not sure if he’s coming off crazy but he doesn’t care, and Steve doesn’t seem to mind either. In fact, Steve turns his head into Tony’s, his lips caressing his too long hair as he gives Tony’s hands a reassuring squeeze.

…The rest is practically a cakewalk.

IMCA

Two weeks slip by easily after the arc reactor is fixed and whirring harmlessly in his chest. He still has appointments to SHIELD’s medical facility and no matter how well he manages to hide, Pepper or Steve always manage to smoke him out. The poisoning in his system will take about a month to flush out fully and he’s on so many medicines now he can hardly count them all or keep them straight. Once the palladium in his organs is down to manageable levels, those will go away, but still…

There are meetings with the board that he does over teleconference until Stark Industries east is up and running again. He has a few press conferences scattered throughout the week. And unfortunately, there are also appointments with a shrink. Joy. Fury stops by to speak with him a few times about his time as a hostage and really, he just doesn’t even want to talk to Steve about what happened, he’s not about to tell Fury. They can arrest him if they want.

He tells them enough about the weapons he was forced to build, the traps he programmed into all of them, and the ways he helped out when he could. It should be enough. He’ll talk about the rest when he is damn good and ready, which likely will be about two Sundays from never.

There are also two missions that the Avengers are needed for. One being against a mega Doom-bot, thanks Vic. And the other…well…

“Uh, I don’t know about you, Hawkeye, but self-preservation says you avoid the giant tentacle monster, not let it eat you,” Tony snaps over the comm. link.

The Avengers are currently fighting what looks to be a kraken, no joke. Villains these days are either seriously lacking in innovation or watch way too many movies to be taken seriously.

However, kraken-monster-thingy is a very lively, very destructive creature and seems to think Avengers is synonymous with appetizer. Just as the team had arrived, the tentacles had wasted no time in rearranging it’s priorities from demolishing the docks to doing its damnedest to snatching one of the team.

Clint fires back, “I’d like to see you in here, Stark. This thing ain’t exactly your every day calamari!”

“We’ll talk about that later, bird brain. Black Widow, it appears to be moving further up on land and a definite head-like thing is making an appearance. Can you work out a way to get one of your cute little bombs on its head?” he asks as he watches the feeds from the news, security cameras, and one of his satellites.

Currently, this is the only way he can help, and really he shouldn’t even be doing this. Fury had looked ten different sorts of pissed off after the last mission where Tony helped the Avengers. He hadn’t said anything but his eye had just burned into Tony’s skin like it was a flame-thrower. He’ll probably be completely pissed off in a month or two if everything goes according to plan. Tony’s has this idea…an old idea, but one he hopes will help the team and Steve and the world in general.

Black Widow shoots across the head of the monster, using ninja skills and pure adrenaline alone it looks like while Thor, Hulk, and Captain America draw as many tentacles away from her as they can on ground level and Hawkeye fires three or four arrows at a time from one of the cargo bays. She plants nearly all of her bombs it looks like and perhaps a nuclear weapon from the size of it, before shooting back towards the team, jumping from a flailing limb just as a huge gooey explosion of orange, white, and gray hits the bay.

Thor seems to catch her and he tucks her under his great red cape as the slime rains down on them all.

Tony, for the first time since the Avengers were called to duty and left him alone in the mansion, is glad to be in the lab and away from that gunk. He looks back over his shoulder, where the bare bones of his third suit are shaping behind him and thinks about trying to get that goop out of hinges and wires. He’ll have to calculate for that.

Over the comm. link, he hears Clint. “That is disgusting. I don’t ever want to fight seafood again. I’m won’t be able to eat crab cakes for months. I love crab cakes!”

“There’s an upside, at least,” Steve says, ever his optimistic self.

“What’s that?”

“Least it wasn’t robots again.”

Tony laughs as Clint begins a very expressive montage of curses and oaths.

The camera feeds show that the kraken-monster is sliding back into the ocean. SHIELD cars are showing up to start the awesome job of clean up and probably getting creepy people who like diving into water to take pictures and samples of the local overgrown entrée. He sees the Avengers trying to shake off the multi-colored goo from their person. Even Natasha in all of her professional glory is shaking her boots.

Steve sighs, and the video on Tony’s monitor shows him jarring his shield to help the slime fall off of it. “Any idea where this thing came from?”

“My guess would be from the ocean,” Tony snarks. He’s already done everything he could from this end, and that had included snooping to see what might control a giant tentacle monster. He’s got nothing.

“Tony,” Steve admonishes through the link, just as someone behind him calls his name.

Tony whirls around, his hand going to grab the first thing it touched. It proves to be a needless endeavor when he sees that it’s Rhodey.

He’s just inside the lab, still in his battle dress uniform with his hands lax at his side. He’s standing tall, just as tall as Tony remembers, but there’s something underneath his stance. It’s like someone shot wire throughout his body to help keep him upright. It probably doesn’t help that the effects of the palladium poisoning still aren’t completely washed from his body, the green latticework receding but nowhere close to being gone.

Tony is once again at a loss for a moment. It’s been a feeling he has on and off. He has it less with the Avengers, Pepper, and the nanny, Coulson. He can whip himself into shape for press conferences and teleconferenced board meetings, but every so often he still feels a tremor down his spine, especially since he shut down weapons manufacturing for good. It’s just worse when he’s one on one with someone who isn’t, well, Steve and sometimes Thor.

He briefly speaks to the team, asking, “You guys got it under control there? I’ve, uh, I’ve got a visitor.”

Poor choice of words. Steve shouts, “We’ll be there in twenty,” while the rest of the team demands more information about who’s in Avenger’s mansion.

Tony backtracks. “Friendly! Friendly! It’s okay. Christ, guys. You need some chill-pills or something.” He shakes his head fondly. “Do what you need to do there. There’s no rush. It’s an old friend.”

Steve responds singularly this time. “We’ll return after we give our reports to Director Fury. He’ll probably want a word with you later as well over your end.”

Tony smiles. “He’ll want more than a word, Cap. I’m pretty sure he’s still gunning for my head. He’ll probably remove his eye-patch to do some weird brain-melty thing.”

“Tony,” Steve admonishes again.

“Seriously! I bet if we took off that eye patch, his eye would shoot flames!”

Steve sighs and Tony can just see him shaking his head in repressed amusement. “We’ll be home soon.”

“See ya then.” Tony releases the communications link and turns fully towards Rhodey, who has brought himself closer, but seems no more relaxed than he had been just a moment ago. He looks relaxed in that military way he has, but the stress is all in his face. Rhodey looks like he really is torn on what he wants to do to Tony, whether it be starting a beat-down or hugging the stuffing out of him.

Tony tries to negate the beating option by saying, “First off, I would like to state the fact that it was not entirely my fault. There are a lot of factors that go into being missing and perceived dead for two years. Second, I could see no way around it, which for me is saying a lot. Third…” his heart stutters around the new arc reactor as he waves an arm over himself. “This isn’t as bad as it looks.”

Rhodey somehow brings himself up taller just before he rushes towards Tony with three long steps. He grabs Tony’s shoulder, making Tony stiffen but he relaxes just as quickly when Rhodey does actually try to hug the stuffing out of him. His arms are solid around his arms and chest and it makes it difficult for Tony to even try to return the hug, but Rhodey doesn’t seem to need returned affection. Apparently, he only needs to hold on to Tony as tightly as possible as some sort of physical reassurance that after two years Tony really is still alive, flesh and bones, and only a little worse for wear.

“You’ve got a lot of explaining to do, man,” Rhodey says and if it sounds choked Tony won’t mention a damn thing about it because he isn’t fairing so well either.

Tony somehow manages a smile. “Okay, Ricky.”

When Rhodey finally lets him go, Tony drags his swivel chair up to the couch where Rhodey takes a seat and he relays as much information as he feels comfortable with. He tells him more than he tells the shrink for damn sure, but he also tells him more than he’s been able to tell Steve so far. Tony starts in Afghanistan and just keeps going. He tells Rhodey that Stane had hits out on Pepper, Happy, and him, and that Stane was not above actually attempting it. He glosses over physical attacks and the two times he just dragged the arc reactor out of his chest.

Tony tells him about the palladium poisoning; tries to skip over the fact that he was giving up until about a month ago. He admits that Steve was what kept him going in those last two months of his captivity, but doesn’t mention how Steve actually brought him back to life or how he had just been waiting for his death to happen. He thinks Rhodey gets it anyway.

“So…you fixed the, what’d you say it was? Arc reactor?” Rhodey asks slowly with a small gesture towards Tony’s chest. His hands shake a little but Tony’s stretched tighter than a piano wire, so he has no room to talk.

“Yeah, on both accounts. The rest of this,” he says with another wave over his general form, “is just residual. I’ll be gone in two weeks or so. Steve and Pepper trap me like a rabbit and take me to the vet to make sure there aren’t complications every Monday or Tuesday. Dr. Banner pokes me every now and then to see if there’s something he can improve about his serum, but other than that…I’m okay.”

Rhodey nods. He looks older than Tony has ever seen him look and Tony has seen him look really fucking old, especially when Rhodey is dealing with him. He opens his mouth a few times like there are more questions, and why wouldn’t there be? This is a lot to take in. Tony gets that. He does. He just doesn’t really want to hear them.

He’s about to start a diatribe on board meetings and having no useful military liaisons when Rhodey says, “I looked for you, Tony.” He’s suitably sideswiped by that admission so he winds down his internal tirade. Instead he just looks at his friend in wide-eyed shock. Rhodey rubs his hands over his face before dropping them to his lap, giving the far side of the lab a far off look. “I didn’t know what the hell I would find, or if I would ever find anything. I just…I couldn’t let it go. I think it drove Pep a little crazy sometimes. She was trying to move on. Happy was fine either way, but I think after the year mark he just…he accepted that I wasn’t going to find anything. I kept looking though.”

Tony is still in shock. “How long did you look for me?”

“Right up until about three weeks ago,” Rhodey says with a wry grin. “If anyone was smart enough to stay alive for two years after being captured, I knew it would be you. You have always been one stubborn SOB, and until I found a body or a skeleton, I wasn’t going to accept what some DNA on the inside of a mask was supposed to be telling me.”

Tony nods, unsure of what to say. He’s got about a million smartass remarks he could make but right now, right now it just doesn’t feel like he should.

Rhodey just pulls Tony down next to him on the couch, slinging his arm around his shoulder in a side-hug. Tony elbows him good-naturedly but in the end, leans some of his weight against him.

When Steve comes down three minutes later with Thor and Target not far behind, that’s how they’re sitting.

Steve decides he likes Rhodey for being such a great friend.

Thor decides he doesn’t like Rhodey, because apparently Rhodey is encroaching on Steve’s territory.

Target decides sleeping under Tony’s workstation is his favorite thing to do.

Tony takes a deep breath and feels like everything is going to be okay.

He feels human for the first time in what may well be his entire life. He is not a snake, nor a snake charmer; he is not a hostage, a weapon, or a ghost. He’s human and he has friends, and Steve…and apparently an ugly-ass dog that is getting cozy with Dummy.

His life is just about perfect.

18 months later

The crisis against a new sect of HYDRA is only just ended. It’s the middle of the night in August and the team is in Time Square. It’s mostly a lot of broken things now, broken lights, roads, signs and walls. Tony is going to pay for that later, because this will all come down on the Avengers, nevermind the fact that, y’know, bad guys were trying to use this place as a nuclear center that probably would have blown NYC and a few hundred miles around it right off the face of the planet. That’s not the important part. No.

Tony has to take the suit off, some of the components having been compromised due to a lovely to weapon HYDRA created and that Tony is going to enjoy taking apart and learning the workings of. Steve stands close to him, surveying the damage done, while Tony orders JARVIS to take the suit home. He’ll work on it later, but if he’s going to help out with some of the debris and then debrief Fury about just what didn’t necessarily go wrong, but also didn’t go right, he’s not going to be stuck in a heavy suit and he’s not going to leave it here.

When the suit is flying itself back to the mansion; Tony steps over some rubble to stand next to Steve. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “I’ll get it cleaned up and rebuilt as quickly as possible.”

The other man doesn’t quite look pacified. In fact, he pushes the cowl off his head, revealing to the world that Captain America is too capable of hat hair, and glares at the damage. He exhales a quiet sigh and grumbles, “Y’know, we were actually supposed to come here in two weeks?”

Tony very much tries to hide the fact that he’s trying to figure out what the hell they could be doing in Time Square two weeks from now, and if he knew or should have known. It must show on his face though because Steve waves a patient hand at him. “It was going to be a surprise, Tony.” He shakes his head and looks around again. “Think I’ll get my money back?”

The idea of Steve worrying about money can still throw Tony for a loop at times. As such, he can’t be blamed for the amused laughter that comes tumbling out of his mouth. He pats Steve’s arm, causing Steve to turn towards him, interest etching his face. “I think you’re covered, Steve. I’ll pay you back personally if you want me too.”

Steve looks honest-to-god confused. “That…seems a bit counterproductive since I got the tickets to surprise you with.”

Tony shakes his head, smile still on his face. He cases Steve’s neck with his hands. When they breathe, their chests brush against each other and their breath comingles. It’s very déjà vu and it gives Tony a small fluttering in his stomach.

“I love you, Steve. Never change,” Tony says quietly so only they can hear.

SHIELD operatives are beginning to form a perimeter, keeping the press from coming to close. A crowd of onlookers are trickling in, despite the fact that it’s way too late or way too early for anybody to be milling around a destroyed area of New York City. The Big Apple may be a never endingly awake place, but wow. There are way too many people crowding.

Tony ignores it though as Steve leans down and presses a subtle kiss to his lips. “I love you too.”

They’ve said it to each other several times now, but each time sends a subtle new thrill down Tony’s spine. Tony doesn’t like to think about being old and gray, mostly because he already has enough gray hair and he’s pushing mid-forties, but if there is ever anyone he can think of being old with, it’s Steve.

In the middle of a battlefield, with destroyed buildings, and a hovering crowd and press, Tony pulls Steve down for another kiss, proper this time with lingering lips and quick swipes of tongues. They don’t pay attention to the flashing bulbs or the wolf-whistles and cat-calls. They don’t pay attention to whatever disparaging comments might be filtering throughout the crowd.

Steve breaks the kiss first; gives him a beatific smile before steering them towards Coulson, where Clint and Natasha are already waiting with bland expressions. Bruce seems to be in one of SHIELD’s vehicles, holding onto his ripped pants as another agent gives him some scratchy replacements. Thor joins them on their way over to Coulson, his great booming voice delighting in another victory over their enemies.

Tony doesn’t know how this all became common place, but it’s become home to him.

Steve was right.

You can always go home.